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. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Moving to Italy: A Day in the Life

Journal Entry: Sat. Aug 21,  Gabi
            Thursday the sun was bright and strong in the sky, and we adults spent the day seeking a shade or breeze to ease the hot humid weight that seemed to rest on us. The electricians worked all day on the wiring so that I couldn't finish a wash until late evening. On Friday we awoke to a grey gloomy sky, but I bravely strung out the wash on the pulley line over the courtyard.  Dario the stonemason arrived and filled the few remaining holes from the wiring then took his bucket of cement downstairs to repair the trench in the walk left by the plumbers. I cleared away the breakfast dishes then leaned over the balcony listening to the jovial flow of Italian run back and forth between Dario, George and his father.  George and Dario were mixing a huge pile of cement with large shovels while Paul and his grandpa sloshed the water into the dry parts. On his way back with more water Paul called out "Mama, piove!" ("It's raining!") The clouds were darker now and vaguely in the distance we could hear a rumble of thunder. “Oh don't take the wash in,” they told me, “it's just a few drops.” I shrugged uncertainly then went to finish the dishes. I hopefully put another load in the washing machine, before attacking with my broom the piles of rubble under each newly-filled cavity in the wall. The rock here is powdery when scraped, and the hours of carving away strips for the pipes and wires for the radiators had left all of our rooms swathed in dust. As I swept, clouds of it rose and hung in the air so that as I moved on, another layer settled behind me. At least I managed to get all the rocks and electrician's wrappings cleared away and onto the front balcony.  From there it would be tossed over the side to help build up our driveway which is being slowly eroded downhill by the heavy rains, the cars and the tractor. 
The laundry, strung high enough so it would not interfere with the tractor.
I heard George calling to the twins, "Get in, you'll get wet." I ran to the back balcony and pulled in the two squealing toddlers. Large drops of rain pat-patted on the ground below as I closed the shutters and doors of the kitchen. I stood for a few seconds wondering if I should bring in the clothes, but the rain was pounding the ground by then and they hung on the line in dripping streaks.  It was very quiet in the kitchen behind me, and I realized the washing machine had stopped and the refrigerator wasn't humming. The electricity was off again, this time caused by the electric storm I could hear rolling closer.

Paul ran over to Simona’s house in his bright yellow raincoat, but George and Dario continued to work, now with jackets on. They measured a line for the fence to help keep the twins contained a little and stood and discussed the matter for a while. I could hear wicked laughter and ran to see Margaret and Matthew splashing in the puddles on the balcony, having exited by my bedroom door. I pulled them in again and dried them off, then started sweeping the bedroom floor. James came in with another broom to "help." I placed him on a patch that I'd already finished and he pushed the still-settling dust around. I wondered how much harm all this dust would do to the children's lungs. George came up then to help with cleanup. Dario had driven home, while the gravel road down the hill was still passable. The rain was pelting down outside but the electricity had returned. We turned on the lights to ease the eye-strain of the gloom. The window onto the balcony was open in the vain hope that some of the dust would settle outside, and through it we could smell and feel the cool dampness outside. Every now and then the lights flickered, the lightening streaked, and thunder cracked above us.

            Through it all we heard the growl of the motorcycle as the mailman rounded the corner of the house. George and James went down to collect the mail from him, and James was the proud bearer of the letter to me. It felt damp to my fingertips but not a drop of rain was on it. I sat on the bed and read it to George while he continued to sweep. Halfway through the lights went off, so I gave up and left to put the finishing touches to lunch, while George ran through the light rain to get Paul.
(The letter would wait until I could savor it later that night—as long as the power held!) The four children then sat to eat around the kitchen table. Because it was so dark, Paul and James wondered if this were lunch or dinner. When I said lunch James wanted to know when the sun was coming up. By the time we finished, the rain had slowed to a drizzle and the electricity had come back.

            After lunch the babies went to sleep in their cribs, and George took the boys on our bed and read to them from a book on mammals. While the water for the dishes was heating up on the stove, I sat with them. The boys listened and understood some things but they related better to the pictures, trying to pronounce the names of the ancient animals. They wanted to know why some animals had become extinct, and I explained to them that some had died off naturally, but others had been hunted and killed by men, and that now we had laws to protect endangered species. Paul understood more than I thought he would and responded with questions. James listened but didn't say too much except to point out the different pictures and ask "Are there any of these left?" While George explained to him a little about evolution, I left to finish the dishes.

            Afterwards, I pulled out the large bag of pears we had collected a few days ago, then put on water to boil and made syrup. I can only can one jar at a time because the larger pots aren't available here. I selected and cleaned the large pears and ate some of the smaller ones, then sighed and wondered when I would ever get the will power to lose weight. All was quiet in the bedroom so I crossed over the stairs and peeked in. George was lying with Paul and James on either side and all three were fast asleep. I crept back to the kitchen and enjoyed the peace of working quietly without interruption. Outside the clouds were breaking up but the sun was still hidden somewhere.

            Around four George came out, then Paul, and then the twins came running and giggling from their room. They were all a little chilled and gravitated to the warm and steamy kitchen where my second jar was immersed in bubbling water and the first was cooling on the side. I cleaned off the pear peelings and brought out the huge bags of peanuts and began shelling those for peanut butter. The twins bit open a couple of shells but gave up quickly. Paul sat with me shelling while George put on the babies' shoes, then the three of them went downstairs with their papa.
A little later James came crying from the bedroom. In his heavy sleep he had wet his pants. (When will they ever all be dry consistently?) Still sleepy, he let me help him get dressed but didn't want to go downstairs, so he sat and shelled peanuts with me. He ate most of the ones he did. (It's protein, he needs it.) He watched me place the nuts in the blender and grind them with the oil and salt until the mixture was as smooth as it would get, but still a little grainy. I poured it into a jar and put it in the refrigerator while James licked the spoon. At six o'clock the sunlight came streaming through the clouds as I was leaning out the window watching George trim the hazelnut tree. Paul was darting around behind him picking the nuts off the fallen branches.

            I called the children for dinner, then let Paul and James back out to play while we bathed the twins. Then the boys had their baths and lullabies and prayers. Once more it was quiet on the farm, except for the whine of the radio as George tried to tune in American Forces Network in Frankfurt for the latest news.

            This morning we rose to a light fog covering but not obscuring the valley below. The day was bright and the sun, when it burned through the fog, was warm. The air smelled damp and clean, with a little chill. I strung out my clothes confidently and prepared another load, while George took all four children down early to fill in some of the holes in the driveway carved out by the rain.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Moving to Italy: Birth--Part 2

While my mother-in-law and George watched the unfolding drama in the barn, I ran across the courtyard, into the house, and up the stairs, to check on the children. I briefly considered waking them to watch the birth of the calf, but it was nearly midnight and I had no idea how long the labor would last. I peeked into their room. Sprawled out in their beds, they looked peaceful, and I couldn’t help but remember the experience of labor with each of their births. I closed the door quietly, grabbed a thicker sweater and a light jacket for George, and ran back down to the barn. 

When I got there, my father-in-law was outside. He told us that the men had decided to try and pull the calf out. It could be dangerous for both animals, but Silvio felt the labor had gone on long enough, and it was time to help out. We took turns watching as they struggled for a while then the waters broke in a huge splash as the men jumped back, laughing. They reached inside the cow’s body to tie a long rope around the calf’s legs. From our shared doorway view, we could see only the rope and the backs of the men as they worked. As contractions shook the cow’s body, the men, including Marino, stood together along the rope and pulled hard. Soon, they called in George to help

As the five men pulled on the rope, the sweat poured off them, man and animal alike, and the heat radiating through the slot of the doorway felt like that from an oven. They watched for the cow to spasm into a contraction then everyone pulled hard again. It took much longer than I would have thought, and I could only pity the poor cow suffering through it all. Finally, they gave a hearty pull and the calf slid out. For a moment we gasped in awe at the new life lying wet and still in the hay. Then it bleated and kicked, and we all cheered. 

Zio Silvio dragged and pushed the calf close enough so the mother cow could lick it. She raised her head and struggled weakly to get up while the calf wobbled beside her. My sympathies were with the mother as I remembered my own overwhelming exhaustion after giving birth.

The excitement over, we waved congratulations to Zio Silvio, said goodbye to the neighbors, and climbed the stairs to bed, still exhilarated. It is very strange how a birth generates joy amongst even the most indifferent of people. That transition from the inside womb to the outside world is a wonderful but stressful moment. Anything can happen. The watchful tension around the newborn, human or animal, is palpable until it begins to breathe and cry on its own. And then relief and joy are stupendous.

The next morning the children peeked into the barn to see the new calf. They weren't allowed to enter as the mother was very nervous. Marino reported that the cow was doing well and that the calf was a male. That meant it would be kept for about a year and then sold, perhaps for our Christmas roast. I tried to ignore that last bit. It was easier not to consider the reality of the animal’s short life and my part in its demise.
The barn at Gabi

Friday, August 25, 2017

Moving to Italy: Birth--Part 1

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

The whole time we were at Gabi, Zio Silvio owned two or three cows that never left the barn. They were tied to their stalls, and he fed them morning and evening. He also cleaned out the stalls regularly. At first it seemed strange and cruel that he kept them penned up and didn’t let them loose to graze. But in time I realized that wasn’t practical. Since the fields he owned, and the ones that he rented from my father-in-law, were not located next to our barn, he would have had to transport the cows daily to let them out to pasture. That was further complicated because the fields he used were not always next to each other. They were scattered across the hillside and many had no fences. Everyone just knew whose field was whose and where to stop plowing. Cows let loose could easily wander into a neighbor’s field and graze all of their grass, or corn, or sunflowers, or, heaven forbid, gobble up all the grapes! Under those conditions, the sensible way to raise livestock was to keep them in a barn. 

Matthew was the only one Zio Silvio took into the barn to see the cows. I never asked to see them up close. I suppose I could have, but I followed my in-laws’ lead of never interacting with them. They said the cows weren’t used to strangers and would get nervous with too many new people. I think also that I didn’t want to know the animal I might have to eat one day. We'd look in from time to time, but all we could see was their large, brown rumps. 

One evening we had a more interesting experience. The children were fast asleep, and we had already changed for bed, when my mother-in-law knocked on our bedroom door and whispered for us to come down quickly. A calf was being born.  

George and I threw on clothes and shoes and hurried across to the barn where Rina stood outside. A shaft of light slid across the courtyard as Marino opened the barn door slightly and came out. He said that the calf was a breech birth, and they were trying to decide what to do. We couldn’t go in because we might be in the way, and we might upset the animals, so we peeked through the small opening between the doors. The images were constricted but riveting.  

Like the other buildings at Gabi, the barn was built of cement. Only one half of it was used for animals, and the other side was piled with hay. The huge cavernous interior was illuminated by a single, overhead light bulb. Against the wall opposite the door, one cow was standing, chained to a ring on the wall. It turned its head, eyes wide, to watch the activity to its left and then swung back, occasionally stamping its foot and rattling the chain as it shook its head. Beside it, a huge, brown and white cow lay on her straw, while Zio Silvio walked back and forth between her lower end and her head. He murmured to her in low, soothing tones. His range of usual expressions was small, but the one he wore that night was definitely tension. Two neighbors from Bertola, alternately stood and squatted at the cow’s back legs. Then all three men gathered at the cow’s middle, talking and pointing, and Marino joined them. Because of the arthritis in his knees, he couldn’t help physically, but he was there for moral support, and he could drive into town to fetch the vet if it became necessary. (Reminder: no phones at Gabi.)

Since the calf was coming feet first, the men tried to turn it in the womb. George, Rina, and I alternated watching through the slit between the doors as they worked over the cow’s body, pushing and heaving the enormous creature. While they pushed at her, the poor cow was having labor pains. I could see her huge body shudder and hear her occasional moo of protest, and every now and then she raised her head from the hay to look at them. All of them were sweating, and we could feel the heat from their efforts bulge at the doorway. The stakes were high. Those cows were Zio Silvio’s main livelihood, and he only got one shot a year at increasing his profits. If something were to happen to either the mother cow or the calf, the financial hit to him could be devastating.