Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Moving to Italy: School-Part 1

As September arrived I was getting increasingly worried. If Paul were in California he would be starting kindergarten. It was time to get serious about school.
The town of Cerrina, whose municipality encompassed Gabi, had one preschool (asilo).  Most of the people in our area had sent their children there, so we drove over to see it with the boys. It consisted of two rooms with a playground outside, attached to a home for elderly Italians who had no children to take care of them. One old nun watched the many children in her care without help. Like most of the people in that area, she didn't speak any English, so I couldn't ask her about her philosophy of teaching little ones, nor find out if she was right for our boys. George tried, but he hadn’t read the same books as I had, and he didn’t know all the right questions to ask. Once more I felt frustrated at my lack of Italian, but I could still observe the facilities. 
One room had a piano and books, the other a table with blocks and pegs, and outside was a small yard with some play equipment. Because it was the local asilo, and we wanted to do what the locals did, we signed them up. George and I told the boys that they were going to preschool and they seemed to understand and offered no objections. The next day, we walked in with them and said goodbye. Paul was fine, but James began to cry as we walked towards the door. The nun told us this was normal, and to Go! Go!  James was howling as we pulled out of sight, and I felt awful. He rarely cried, but he could be very shy, so I knew this was hard on him. I wanted to go back to get him, but we decided I was being silly and that he was safe, for a day anyway. He was playing nicely when we returned at four, but Paul looked bored.
At home, they told us their day was blocks and pegs and singing at the piano, then lunch. They had no writing, no painting, not even crayoning, and after lunch they had to take a nap. Since Paul had given up naps at age three, he objected to that. But I could understand. The nun was alone, she probably needed the break, and it was easier if everyone napped at the same time. In the afternoon, they played outside until we arrived.  James said he had cried for us loudly at lunch, and the sister yelled at him. 
"What did she say?" I asked.
"I don't know, she was speaking Italian," James replied.
Hmmmm. He spoke Italian better than I did, but perhaps I expected too much, so I gave him advice: "When you don't understand, you must say 'Non capisco.'" 
He looked up at me, frowned a bit, then replied, "No. When I don't understand, I say 'Non ho capito niente.'" (I haven’t understood anything.)
I realized that was probably better than what I had told him. It certainly sounded better. He was only three years and nine months but he was catching on to the language far quicker than me, and his accent sounded perfect. "Is that what you told the teacher?" I asked him. 
"Then what did she say?" 
"I don't know; she was speaking Italian."  
How could he correct my Italian and then claim not to understand the teacher? I couldn’t be sure, but I thought maybe he was resisting. Or she was speaking dialect. He cried the next morning and said he didn’t want to go, but we made him anyway. His grandfather drove them, thinking maybe I was the problem. He said James cried a little bit but was fine when he picked him up. The old nun said James had refused to eat his lunch, but at four o’clock when he saw his grandfather’s car, he ran to his lunch box and gobbled his sandwich. When he got home, he announced that he wouldn’t go the next day. With minor variations, this went on for three more days, but more importantly, Paul was still bored and I worried that he wasn't learning anything. So we pulled them out. 
This was not a wise move for people trying to fit in. That asilo was where the local people sent their children. Because we pulled them out we were making a statement that their preschool wasn’t good enough for us. Because this was mostly my decision based on my readings about early childhood education, I felt a little guilty. I felt it even more when my in-laws questioned what we were doing, then frowned. They wanted the best for the children too, but I think they considered me a bit too fussy. The community was tight and we were "the Americans."  Uncles and cousins, and grandfathers—Marcas galore—made no difference to them. We were still "the Americans." We were indeed acting like Americans. When one service didn't suit us, we weren’t afraid to reject it. Our children meant more to us than community solidarity. 
We had heard about another asilo, in a town much further away, where Cousin Luigi had sent his boys. We decided to check it out.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Moving to Italy: Hay Ride

By late summer, Paul and James had become good friends with Simona. The three of them played together almost every day in the surrounding fields and orchards, when they weren't cruising back and forth between our house, the uncles' houses, and Simona's house. Simona, who was six that summer, had played at Gabi since she was a baby, so she was able to lead the way. We told them not to hike up to the next village, but if they wanted to play on the slopes beneath the courtyard, or walk down to the orchard where apple, plum, and apricot trees dropped fruit, they were free to do so. Hunger brought them home at lunchtime and long before the sun slipped below the horizon.
One day I heard the usual sound of the tractor coming up the hill pulling a trailer loaded down with hay. Matthew clamored to see, so I put down the book I had been reading to him and Margaret Ann and positioned chairs so they could look through the open window.  Zio Remo, who had been helping with the harvest, was sitting on top of the hay as they drove up the hill. He waved at Simona, Paul, and James walking up the road from the orchard. 
Paul’s wavy, fair hair had grown long, and even from that distance, I could see the blonde streaks. He had stretched out after his fifth birthday, and his legs and arms had bronzed in the summer sun. James’ light brown hair was also crowned with blonde highlights and long strands dropped frequently over his eyes. I knew that sooner or later I would have to attempt to trim his and Paul’s hair. James at three and half, was also thinner and more tanned than when we arrived.  It seems strange for them to have tanned more in Northern Italy than Southern California, but they were outside more often at Gabi, playing and exploring.
As the tractor passed the children on the road, we heard the faint sound of Zio Remo’s voice as he called out to Zio Silvio to stop. They invited the children to ride. Silvio stood astride the trailer hitch and hefted up the children one by one on top of the hay, where Remo nestled them securely into the middle then stretched his arm out behind them. The tractor started up towards us.  I grabbed my still camera and called to George to get the movie camera. The children looked so content.
The late afternoon sun was warm as they settled into the hay, and the slow rhythm of the moving tractor lulled them to stillness. As I watched them I could imagine the sweat from Zio Remo's hard day's work mingled with the sweet, dusty smell of freshly mown hay, and the prickle of the stiff stalks pushed at the skin on the back of their legs as they saw the windows of our house appear and disappear between the tree branches above them. When they turned into our road they saw us on the bedroom balcony where we had moved with the babies to watch, and they pointed, laughed, and waved up at us. The twins laughed back and squealed as they ran up and down the balcony trying to get a better look when the tractor passed slowly beneath us. Zio Remo smiled and waved to them. As the tractor rounded the corner, Zio Remo idly reached up to pull twigs off the overhanging hazelnut tree.
We crossed to the other side of the house, to the courtyard balcony, and waited for a few minutes until the tractor came to a stop in front of the barn. In the main courtyard Marino walked over to watch as Zio Remo helped the children off the hay, onto the trailer hitch, then to the ground. We still have an 8mm movie that shows Simona wave off Zio Remo then jump daringly the last two feet. As we watched, Matthew and Margaret’s babbling echoed noisily around the courtyard, and the cows in the barn mooed and clanked their chains at the laughter and loud noises. Then Zio Silvio drove the tractor and trailer under the portico. The hay would stay on the trailer until the next morning when the two men would spend another couple of hours forking it onto the conveyor and up into the hayloft.
It was suppertime for the children. Simona ran back to her grandmother's house, and Paul and James came upstairs. As they burst into the kitchen I ruffled their hair and bent my head to inhale the smell of hay from their warm heads. I marveled at how different their summer had been from those that had gone before. Their world in California had been bounded by the block-wall fence that surrounded our back yard, by the car which transported them to the park and to various relatives' houses for visits, and by the impatience with which many adult strangers had greeted them. I could never let them roam freely on the street where we had lived in California, because the zooming cars were too dangerous.  At Gabi cars were a rarity. If we hadn't noticed them as moving dark rectangles on the road far below, they announced themselves with whining gears as they strained up the steep road. The children stood still to see who was arriving, so we never worried about their darting out unawares. They ran and jumped and climbed, and even learned to ride around the ruts in the courtyard on the two-wheeled bikes their grandpa had bought them. 
All I could see, all I wanted to see, was that our children were thriving, nestled in the warmth of a healthy and accepting environment. Not only were they learning what it took to put food on the table, but they were learning a second language, and they had connected with relatives they wouldn't have known otherwise. They were healthy and strong, and the ready acceptance from kindly adults in their lives meant that they were learning to trust the world about them. And so, as the warm summer sun set for the day, I felt content that our decision to move to Italy had been the right one.
What we didn’t know until years later was that as the tractor bearing the children rounded the corner of the house out of our sight, Paul grabbed at the branch of the tree to snap off a twig as he had seen Zio Remo do. Instead of breaking off into his hand, the twig held. Paul had tugged at the branch and held on to it as the tractor moved out from beneath him. For a few moments he hung suspended twenty feet above the ground while Zio Remo yelled at Zio Silvio to stop and back up.  Zio Silvio maneuvered until the trailer was positioned under Paul’s swinging legs. At first Paul was so scared he didn't want to let go. Finally, he was persuaded to release his grip as Zio Remo reached up, grabbed his legs, and guided him back down. 
While we were basking in the glory of the simple life, our first-born was in danger of breaking a limb, or worse. The simple life at Gabi meant no phone, no paramedics to summon, and the nearest hospital was 40 minutes away. It was a good thing we didn’t know!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Moving to Italy: Corn!

Late in August, my father-in-law told us to bring a basket as he was taking us for a ride to one of Zio Silvio’s fields, but he wouldn’t tell us why. In the crowded car we bounced up and down and sideways as he drove slowly along the rutted lanes between the cultivated fields. We couldn’t see much on either side as high green grass or other crops came up past the windows. It was a relief when Marino stopped the car and we all piled out. 

As we straightened up and looked around, we saw upon row after row of tall, green stalks. George and I recognized them but pretended we didn’t to intrigue the children. Excited, we walking them over to one of the stalks and carefully peeled back the fronds to expose familiar yellow corncobs inside. “Corn, Mama!” Paul exclaimed as he and James peered at the familiar cobs. The twins jumped up and down clapping their hands and yelling “Corn, corn!” even though they probably had no memory of what they were seeing. 

With my father-in-law’s encouragement we retrieved our baskets and began to pick the corn. Zio Silvio waved then walked over from the other side of the field where he had been working. He laughed at us as we filled a basket with enough corn for our dinner. He thought we were crazy. Marino laughed with him and explained to me that on the farms of that area the corn was usually left on the stalks until it was hard, because it was grown to sell as feed for livestock. Silvio wouldn’t dream of eating it himself; he considered it fit only for animals. When we cooked it later that day, we offered some to him, but he said no thank you, giving us a good-natured look that said “Crazy Americans!” On our way back to Gabi, I asked Marino to stop by the butcher’s in Gaminella. To complete the meal, I wanted to cook hamburgers. 

As I worked on dinner that evening, I felt relieved that instead of struggling to make do with what was available, I could cook and serve the foodstuffs with which we were all familiar. This brought a momentary relaxation of the knot of anxiety inside me. That knot was built of trying to adapt what I had learned about nutrition and cooking to ingredients that were strange to us. When I found familiar ingredients, I could relax and just cook. The corn wasn’t as crisp or as tasty as what we bought in the supermarket in California, but its distinct flavor brought a flood of memories. We placed the hamburgers in small rolls and stacked them with lettuce and tomatoes from our garden. For once I knew that the children would willingly eat the food that I cooked, and I was confident that it was nourishing.   

My in-laws joined us in our dining room upstairs as we cheerfully tucked into our “American” dinner. I was surprised to recognize our warm feelings as nostalgia. That was confusing. When we left California, I thought we had rejected everything American. How could I feel nostalgia for a country that we had fled so willingly?
James with corn

Mary and Paul with corn field

George helping James and Paul harvest corn

Friday, September 1, 2017

Moving to Italy: Furniture--Plus

The vast echoing emptiness of the rooms disturbed me. I knew that curtains would help absorb sound and provide a decorative accent. I had sewn clothes for the children and had made simple curtains for our smaller windows in California, so when my sewing machine arrived with our trunks, I decided I would start with curtains for the children’s bedroom and the bathroom. If they looked all right, I would tackle the windows of our main living space. On one of our trips to Casale, I noticed some lengths of fabric at a stall in the open-air market. It was not cheap, no surprise there, but I splurged on a length of material covered in blue and green animal prints. It took a lot. The bedroom windows started at hip height and extended almost to the ceilings, which were at least ten feet. But after we got over the pain of spending the money from our savings, I was excited to think of it as another step in creating a home at Gabi. Sewing those curtains would also help fill the long evenings.

While in town, we found an electronics store and went in “just to browse.” We saw a small, portable radio/tape recorder. It was a luxury we could have done without, but buying the fabric seemed to have loosened our monetary resolve. We looked at each other, ignored the probable disapproval of my in-laws, and bought it. When we got home it was a thrill to hear music fill our living/dining room. The acoustics were great because of the high ceilings and hard surfaces—all concrete and tile. For better reception, we set it on a windowsill and placed our chairs nearby. 

The Italian radio stations were useless to me because without visual cues I found it extremely difficult to understand the rapid-fire speech. But George and I played with the tuner until we found Radio Luxembourg that broadcast clearly from a ship in the English Channel. It was in English, and it played up-to-date popular music, like the latest Rolling Stones and Beatles’ releases. We also listened to the American Armed Forces Network from Germany, where we could catch up on the news headlines from the States. We heard about the continuing Vietnam War and the escalating protests, and we wondered about the bias of news from the American Forces. We were very glad to be out of the controversy, but saddened that Americans were still dying. 

Besides the news, the Armed Forces station would broadcast plays or the audio track from old T.V. series, like Gunsmoke, Our Miss Brooks, or Mystery Theater. That was exciting for us. It seems so tame now, but we were media-deprived, so a radio play like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds on Halloween night was the highlight of our week. Sometimes the station would fade out and we might miss the end of a play, but at other times, especially late at night, it was really clear. The voices, and the whine of the tuner, echoed around the room, but the noise meant we were getting closer to the environment that we were used to in California.  

 However, it was not close enough. We were still sitting on hard, wooden chairs, or lying propped up in bed for our leisure activities. More and more our determination to fit in with the local culture gave way to our need to recreate our own home-like atmosphere. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Moving to Italy: Furniture

In considering the simple furniture of my in-laws and the uncles—a kitchen table and a few chairs—I can only suppose that the hard life of a farmer left little time for leisure, so there was no need for a soft couch to sit on. The workdays were long, especially in summer, and the animals had to be fed after the fieldwork was done. After the evening meal, there was barely time for a game of cards at the table, and then off to bed. On Saturday night Zio Silvio, and sometimes Zio Remo, would visit the bar at the bottom of the road to socialize with others from the area, but they never stayed late because they had to rise early to feed the animals. My in-laws were also early risers, so they retired early.  Their only excursions at night were occasional forays next door to play cards with the uncles. None of us on the farm owned a television, so there was no need to provide a comfortable place, like a couch or easy chair, to sit and watch it. I never saw either of my in-laws read books, but if my mother-in-law wanted to read a magazine, she either did it at the kitchen table or in bed. 

But such a Spartan life was hard on us.  In California, after the children were in bed, we liked to watch television or read, while sitting in a comfortable chair. In Italy, we had no television, few English-language books, and no comfortable chairs. We floundered at first, trying to find a way to fit into our evenings. If either of us spoke, our voices bounced off the hard surfaces of the concrete walls and tile floors, echoing up to the ten-foot ceilings and back down. There were no carpets or soft surfaces to cushion the sounds, and we felt self-conscious about what we said, knowing that George’s parents downstairs could probably hear every syllable sent into the silence around us. I sat at the dining room table in the stillness and studied Italian on some evenings, and wrote long letters home to our family and friends on others. George sometimes visited with his parents or rifled through their Italian newspapers and magazines as he sat next to me at the table. In the early days, while he was adjusting to the hard physical labor, he often fell into bed early, utterly exhausted, leaving me to finish my letters. 

Each evening, after the sun went down, we closed the shutters to help contain the warmth within the house. After George went to bed, I sat by myself, the windows around me dark. There was no lamp, so I wrote from the light of the overhead fixture. It was an eerie experience. Without George to talk to, the silence clicked and ticked around me, interrupted by an occasional mumble from the children’s room or a snore from George.  The sound of my ballpoint pen sliding across the surface of the paper hissed around the room, and every shuffle of the page was an explosion of sound. Occasionally, I’d hum a tune, just to fill the silence. I’m sure if anyone heard me, like my in-laws, they must have thought me mad. The good thing was the amount of letter writing I did, especially to my sister. In more than forty long letters to her, I detailed much of the everyday comings and goings of our life on the farm, and when we returned to California, she gave most of them back to me. They became a journal of our life there, a realistic portrayal that punctured our mythic memories. But soon I had written to everyone on our list, and I stopped to wait for replies. It was at that point that I missed my books, or television. I was glad when George became fit enough to stay awake in the evenings.  

Card-playing was a popular evening past-time in the farm community, usually Pinochle. George had refined his Pinochle skills during his days at San Fernando Valley State College, where he and his friends often skipped classes to finish a game. In the evenings, when George’s stamina improved and he could stay up longer, he would occasionally venture out to play with his father and uncles. George and I also played cards, usually Gin Rummy, a better game for two people. We became quite competitive, watching for inattentiveness so we could leap in and trounce a sleepy partner. Sometimes, for a change, we’d play cutthroat, competitive double solitaire. But after a while, cards in general became boring, and the chairs were hard on our backs. We needed more. I envisioned a “proper” living room, with a couch and an easy chair or two, with the dining-room furniture set off to one side—just like the arrangement we were used to in California and in other places I had lived.