Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Moving to Italy: Another Birthday

In late October as Margaret Ann and Matthew’s birthday neared, I wanted to make them a cake like those we were used to. When I jokingly asked James whether I should make a vanilla or a chocolate cake, he insisted that only chocolate would do. Luckily I had packed in the steamer trunks my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, and so I had plenty of recipes for cake. All I had to do was find the ingredients, so we made the forty minute trek to Casale. Baking powder and flour were no problem, and neither were icing sugar and chocolate. However we could not find food coloring.  

On the morning of their birthday, I whipped up the batter and baked it in the 9x12 inch glass baking pan I had also brought with me from California. When the cake had cooled, I cut it in half width-wise so that we had two equally sized squares. That way each twin would have their own special cake. Without food coloring, decorating them was a challenge. I opted for icing Margaret Ann’s with vanilla frosting and Matthew’s with chocolate frosting. Since I had not found icing tips either, I snipped the end of an envelope, filled it with vanilla icing and traced a 2 on Matthew’s cake, squiggled a line around the perimeter and made one blob of icing each side of the 2 into which we could place candles. For Margaret Ann’s cake, I filled another envelope with chocolate frosting and traced the same number and two blobs for the candles, so each decoration contrasted with the icing underneath. The cakes were simple and the decoration amateurish, but the children were content as we lit the candles and sang happy birthday.

Margaret Ann and Matthew's 2nd birthday celebration with James (l) and Paul (r)


I cooked roast beef downstairs in my in-law’s oven for the birthday dinner, and we invited the uncles to come over afterwards for coffee and cake. Zio Remo arrived and actually came inside--the first time he had entered the house in the five months we had lived there. He murmured the polite “Permesso” as he entered, head slightly bowed and looking quite uncomfortable. He was not the usual jovial person who was happy to chat through my in-law’s open kitchen window or outside in the courtyard. Zio Silvio declined our invitation and was not to actually enter our house until we entertained a group of relatives on New Year’s Day. It seemed visitors in that area would not readily enter each other's homes unless it was really cold outside. Zio Remo loosened up a bit after a slug of brandy in his coffee, but he never did seem comfortable as a guest inside our house.

At first the twins seemed a little bewildered about how to open the wrapped gifts from us and those that had been sent by my sister, but they soon got the hang of pulling off the paper and opening the cards sent by various relatives in England and America. Matthew enjoyed it so much that for weeks afterwards whenever the mailman arrived, he eagerly hovered around asking, "F'me? F'me?" while one of us collected the mail. He was delighted when a week after the party a package arrived for them from Margaret Ann’s godmother, my good friend Rita. They couldn’t wait to rip open the paper and try on their new American outfits.

Matthew and Margaret Ann on the kitchen balcony in their American outfits.

They were two years old, and they seemed to have suddenly left babyhood behind. With my encouragement they were beginning to chatter away in English, gradually dropping their “twin-speak”. They were quite comfortable being spoken to in Italian and could follow simple Italian commands but had not yet tried to speak it. Paul and James had adjusted to the asilo, and each day their Italian skills had advanced so much that by late October they spoke English with an Italian accent! Always quicker than adults to adapt, our children, like many immigrant children the world over, were settling well into our new home.

But George still hadn't found a way to make a living.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Moving to Italy: Peanut Butter

On one of our rare trips to the city of Casale Monferrato, we finally found two food links to our life in California: a bag of peanuts at the open market, and breakfast cereal in a high-end grocery store. Even though the children had been enjoying Nutella, I had missed giving them peanut butter—guaranteed protein without all that sugar. Since the doctor had recently pulled the children off chocolate, we found the peanuts in Casale at just the right time. While we were there, we went to the appliance store and bought a blender from our limited funds so we could make peanut butter. 

The day after our trip to Casale, the sun was bright and strong in the sky, and we adults spent the day seeking shade or a breeze to ease the hot humid weight that seemed to rest on us.  The electricians had worked all morning on the wiring for the central heating, so the power had been intermittent, but when they left for their two-hour lunch, I decided to try out the new blender. 

Before this, I had never needed to make peanut butter. Why bother when it was available at our local grocery store? When we found the bag of peanuts, I figured all we had to do was to shell them, throw them in the blender, and grind. 

Paul and James and the twins gathered around the kitchen table to join the grand experiment. I placed a handful of peanuts in front of each child then showed them how to crack the shells and place the nuts into a bowl. At first they were very helpful, cracking and popping them into the bowl, and cracking and sneaking them into their mouths. Later, the twins became bored and climbed down from the table—Matthew to ride his tractor, and Margaret Ann to play with her dolls. After a while, Paul wandered off outside to play with Simona. Only James persisted.

When we had a good pile of peanuts in the bowl, James helped me pour them into the new blender. I assumed that with few minutes of grinding: Voila! Peanut butter. The theory was sound, but the result was thick and sticky. I added vegetable oil to thin it out and salt for flavor. James and I added and tasted, then added and tasted some more. I had to add a great deal of both oil and salt to make it spread easily and taste good. With their use of super blenders to grind the nuts into a fine paste, I doubted that commercial peanut butter was made with so much oil, but it was the only way I could approximate the texture. Even after all that blending, it never did get smooth enough to be called “creamy,” so I accepted that it would be “crunchy”. Despite warnings of the choking hazards of nuts in my copy of Dr. Spock’s baby book, we accepted the chunks. It wasn’t as good as the jar my sister eventually sent from the States, but it was good enough.

The next day we awoke to a gray, gloomy sky, but everything was cheerful inside as I poured a bowl of breakfast cereal for Paul and James—the first since our arrival in Italy. Then Margaret Ann and Matthew clamored for the same thing. Because it was imported, and expensive, we could get it only in a larger city like Casale. The locals would not pay out that kind of money for breakfast, but to us it tasted like the grandest treat, even though we had only been able to find Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies. In California the boys had long ago turned up their noses at such blandness, but in Italy both cereals seemed exotic and appealing, much more so than the Italian breakfast: a small hard roll with milky coffee. We still gravitated to familiar tastes.

Most of the odd problems we encountered in Italy were minor, but they reminded us we were not in our own environment. Adapting became a struggle when even minor problems meant we had to start from scratch, figuring out how to proceed. Old habits, old customs, and old assumptions had to be discarded and new ones constructed. For George and me, the inconveniences would have been next to nothing, but the children complicated everything exponentially. Like most parents, as our lives settled into a rhythm in our new home, the children’s well-being remained our primary focus.

The story of our move to Italy starts with "Arrival" on the June 26, 2017 blog post.