Monday, July 31, 2017

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Moving to Italy: Birthday Celebration

In a town near us across the hills, Montaldo, lived George’s friend Renzo. (When George spent a year in Italy during his teens, he and Renzo had attended high school together and had shared other “good times” along with an older teen, Pierangelo, who had become the owner of the local furniture store.Besides owning and operating a vineyard, Renzo and his wife ran a restaurant that was open only on weekends. 

Just a week after his arrival, George’s father, Marino, arranged for us to eat at Renzo’s restaurant to celebrate Paul’s 5th birthday, as well as to celebrate the beginning of our new life in Italy. We all squeezed into Marino's car and drove across the hillside for a midday meal. I don’t remember much about the restaurant except that it was in a very large upstairs room of their house, and that Renzo’s wife, Mariuccia, cooked for us a wonderful multi-course meal. George explained that she cooked traditional dishes with only the best local ingredients, most grown on their property, and she used traditional techniques. Later, she became one of the early adopters of the “slow-food” movement that began in Italy.

We started our meal with warm salami cotto, sliced at the table and served with handmade cheese. Naturally, the wine flowed during and between courses, but I had learned to sip it slowly while serving the chattering children. Margaret Ann and Matthew knelt on the chairs provided, and they were pretty proficient at feeding themselves, but I made sure they had a variety of food on their plates, and that they didn't spill too much. Paul and James served themselves while I watched what they ate. After a suitable interval we were served homemade ravioli rich with pork, veal, and spinach. The children loved it! Again we talked and waited for the food to settle before the next course. At least the others talked, as Renzo came often to our table to get reacquainted with George and my in-laws. I listened while monitoring the children.

The main course consisted of a variety of meats including beef cutlets, lamb chops, and frito misto (a local specialty), served alongside chard with garlic, roasted potatoes, and broccoli soufflĂ©. Later, the mixed green salad was a nice end to a rich meal. Fully satisfied, I was ready to go home. But then came the desserts. They brought out pears filled with gorgonzola and cream cheese, homemade fruit torte, and strawberry cheesecake. I was so full I could not even attempt a taste of the sweets. 
My memory of that day is a table of delicious food that never seemed to run out. I smiled, thanked, and congratulated Mariuccia and Renzo, but still only three weeks in the country, I could not converse with them any more than that. Unfortunately, Paul’s fifth birthday was the only time we ate there. As our money dwindled, we didn’t dare spend it at restaurants.   

In California we had always celebrated the children’s birthdays with lots of relatives and, of course, birthday cakes. My in-laws told me that in Italy at that time, the name day was celebrated more than the birthday. In order to provide some kind of stability for the children, indeed for all of us, I felt it was important to try to maintain our traditions as much as we could. We couldn’t find a regular American-style birthday cake, but we did find a sponge cake with filling and some candles. 

After our return from the birthday dinner and the afternoon nap, we sang “Happy Birthday” to Paul, and he blew out the candles, and opened his presents, just as he would have in California. 

Our thoughtful relatives had send cards from England and California that Paul opened excitedly along with a few gifts that had also been sent. Always generous, George's parents had bought him a red, two-wheeled bike with training wheels, and while they shopped, they had bought another one for James, and two plastic, 3-wheeled tractors for Margaret Ann and Matthew. Everyone got gifts on Paul’s birthday, so everyone was happy.

Paul w/cake, his grandmother Rina, Matthew and Margaret Ann. Upstairs in our living room.

Margaret Ann on her tractor with Matthew. On the living room balcony. Zio Remo's portico behind. She wears a hat brought back by Marino from Somalia.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Moving to Italy: In-laws' Arrival

There were some minor catches to “living the dream”: we weren’t rich, the house wasn’t that big, and it needed many repairs and buckets of paint. And after two weeks George’s parents arrived to live downstairs. 

In my girlhood dreams, I hadn’t envisioned my in-laws living right below us, offering their words of wisdom almost every day, and getting irked when we didn’t take them. For instance, one day my mother-in-law, Rina, suggested I wash out my plastic bags so that I could re-use them. I said no thank you, I didn’t think that was sanitary. Several days later I noticed her hauling my discarded bags from our trash with an expression that clearly registered her annoyance. When I saw them drying in her kitchen downstairs, I was indignant. How dare she pick at my trash! How dare she tell me what to do!  I couldn’t imagine anyone being so cheap that they would wash, dry, and re-use thin plastic bags. I couldn’t argue with her. We were living in their house! So I had to stifle my annoyance and that was not comfortable. 

Many years later, I understood that she was an early recycler. At that time in Italy we couldn’t buy plastic bags, packaged and folded in little boxes, so it was logical to recycle the ones that came from the store. Even though I had been married for almost six years and had given birth to four children, I was just twenty-four and still so insecure that I resented all advice that came from George’s parents, no matter how logical.

With my in-laws arrival at Gabi, our life changed again. Instead of us struggling to figure out how to do what we needed to do, they took over and told us how to live. This was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was a relief to be able to ask someone where to find a shovel or axe, or where to buy flour. On the other hand, George and I lost the closeness that we had felt as we met each obstacle and reasoned a way around it, together. With his parents to tell us what to do, we also lost our autonomy. It bothered me, but George was much more easy-going than me, so he was not bothered. One of the first things his father did when they arrived was to devise a plan of action for George to clean up around the farm. The first job, clearing brush around the driveway, started at 7 am the following day. George was up and out the door on time. 
Within a week of their arrival, my in-laws bought a car and then, much to my relief, they ordered and paid for a washing machine. I loved that washing machine! After three weeks of hand-washing mounds of children’s dirty clothes, I sighed with relief as the appliance truck drove up. The delivery men puffed and panted the washer up the steep stairs into my kitchen.  Since it came with a built-in heater we didn’t need to tap into the hot water line, so we placed it next to the kitchen sink for cold water access. It fit neatly between the well’s pump switch and the balcony doors. It was a front-loader that could spin-dry our clothes super-fast.  

For a longer clothesline, my father-in-law directed George and Zio Silvio to string a line around a pulley from the second story balcony of the house, across the courtyard, and around another pulley on the second story of the barn.  I pegged an item of clothing, then pushed on the rope to move that item out over the courtyard then hung the next.  I continued this way until the line of laundry stretched from my kitchen balcony to the barn.  It was high enough that the tractor, even with full a load of hay, could pass underneath without touching.  When the clothes were dry, I pulled on the rope to gather a clean, sweet-smelling pile.  It was an ingenious solution, because the clothes were strung high on the hillside catching the breeze, as well as the sun, for most of the day.  

A month or two later, one of the villagers remarked to George that she mistook my colorful laundry, visible from the valley below, for signal flags. I wonder now, what she must have thought of us, moving in and installing “signal flags” on the hill. Even though Marino was well-known to the residents, they must have considered his American family a strange lot. Since the “flags” changed several times daily, I wonder to whom they thought we were signaling, and what kind of messages we could possibly be sending.  Or perhaps they thought it was a decorative thing.  Her statement was a signal to me of the cultural misconceptions that existed on each side.

Laundry strung over the courtyard

Monday, July 24, 2017

Moving to Italy: The View

Although we had to adjust to a more rudimentary way of life at Gabi, one thing that was richer than anything I had experienced was the view of the land around us. While the babies napped in the afternoon, I often sat with a cup of tea in our living room on the second floor next to the window that overlooked the road and its surroundings. I never tired of watching the changes in the weather and the way they affected the landscape. From the sheets of rain across the horizon that greeted our arrival, to the fog that often crept over the fields in all seasons, to the bright sunshine that illuminated the distant snow-covered Alps in winter, the view held me entranced.
In the center of this landscape a vital element stood out: the one and only road that wound up the hill to Gabi. This ribbon of gravel and mud that emerged from between two houses in the village below meandered diagonally for a few hundred feet before it passed over a bridge at the river (Torrente Stura). From the window, I couldn’t see the actual bridge, just the stand of trees that grew around it. In fact the bridge was so small that the first time George and I drove up to Gabi I almost missed it. Only the sudden transition from gravel to smooth concrete beneath our tires made me look up and note this dividing line between us and the outside world. A tributary of the mighty Po, the river in summer was a mere trickle of water, but in winter it widened and swelled with rain and melting snow, and violent currents swirled dangerously as they passed close to the underside of the old bridge.   
After it crossed the river, the road curved left, away from the village, and climbed slowly towards Gabi. About halfway up, it paralleled a rise in the land that signaled the beginning of the Marca fields. On the far side, one of those fields rose sharply from the road in a tall green bank, and on the near side Zio Remo’s vineyard dipped with the land in neat, striped rows. During that first year, I watched the grape leaves in the vineyard bud, then broaden and darken to a rich shade of green. As the grapes fattened, the green of the leaves gave way to gold and red that shaded the side of the road as it curved around the top of the vineyard, passed by the orchard, then climbed towards the house.
In the first few weeks I couldn’t believe my luck. As a little girl I had often fantasized about retiring as a rich old woman to a large house on a hill, and I was living my fantasy while still in my twenties. Even though George’s two uncles were the only other people living year-round at Gabi, and the other seven houses were empty most of the time, I didn’t mind the isolation. We had sought a refuge from the stress of modern life, and we had found it. We wanted to reconnect with the natural world, and in many ways we had. In the short time that we had lived in Italy, much had changed from our former life. Instead of relying on packages of frozen produce, we bought fresh and had planted vegetables in the garden; instead of cardboard-boxed and paper-wrapped yellow cubes of butter, I made my own butter with the cream skimmed from the milk that Zio Silvio delivered each morning; instead of the thrum of large trucks rushing by our front door, we could hear wind rustle the leaves of ancient trees. Asphalt and concrete had been replaced with gravel and dirt, and television gave way to the view from our window. In those early days, I felt smug in my belief that we were more enlightened than George's Italian cousins, who had rejected farm life to live with their families in small apartments in the crowded, noisy city of Torino. I was sure that they would envy us when they saw how successful and happy we would be at Gabi. We would work hard, but our lungs would be clean and our bodies healthy. We had chosen a far better life for our children than they had for theirs. 

However, there were some minor catches to “living the dream.”

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Moving to Italy: Visiting Luigi—C

At Luigi’s house his wife and her aunt fed us well: salami, soup, cheese, cutlets, potatoes, vegetables, pasta, and salad—a feast for us which the children devoured. We all felt full for the first time since our arrival. 

After lunch, Luigi showed us around his property while Margaret Ann and Matthew played with his little girl, Anna, under the watchful eye of her great-aunt. Paul and James explored their fields with Luigi’s two sons, Carlo and Mario, and then played soccer in the courtyard. We were "child free" and in the company of someone just a few years older than us. Our life in Italy thus far had been focused on adapting to our new environment, with few other distractions, so it was a relief to relax for a few hours in good company.

Luigi had an intensity and drive that was lacking in the much older Marca uncles. He had run a successful restaurant in a nearby city with a good income, but he had given it up to become a wine merchant. Not only did he harvest his own grapes and make wine in the large converted barns, he also bought wine from smaller wine-makers in the region and sold it in the cities, using his contacts from the restaurant business. As he spoke, I saw in him the same energy as many young American entrepreneurs. He never stopped speaking or smoking as he proudly showed us tanks and pipes and barrels, and bottles lined up ready for market. Then he took us to see their vineyards and their extensive vegetable garden.  

As we toured his holdings, Luigi not only spoke to George, but he spoke slowly and directly to me. That was new. Most of the people I had met so far, had smiled, nodded politely, shaken my hand, and then, if they spoke to me at all, it was through George. Although I was learning more and more Italian words each day, I still couldn’t recall quickly enough the ones I needed to reply. I listened carefully to understand as much as I could, but soon became invisible in the rush and rhythm of conversation. Not so with Luigi. As we walked, he frequently looked my way to include me in the dialogue, tried to understand my broken Italian, and only when we didn’t understand each other, did George translate. It would have been easier for him to let George do the talking, but he never gave up.  

That day with Luigi, I felt an enormous surge of self-respect as his eyes made contact with mine and he tried to communicate. For once I was truly present in the company, and for the first time I found myself trying to translate on the fly, so motivated was I to communicate with him. Luigi was also very funny. He told jokes that I could understand, and didn’t seem bothered that my laughter came a little late as I translated the punch line. 

Luigi visited us several times at Gabi, delivering wine to my father-in-law, and each time he made an effort to include me in the conversation. I was always happy to see him. Not only did I come alive in his presence, but I felt as if I began to know him, his ideas and his humor, expressed through words I could comprehend. This made me eager to learn more Italian so that I could begin to connect with others.

 After a tour of his property, Luigi took us all for a walk along the streets of the town.  He stopped at a Gelateria and bought all of the children ice cream, something they hadn’t had since our departure from California. I delighted in their big smiles. They had been adapting, as much as we had, and they welcomed the taste of something that was not only familiar, but a treat.  

Before we returned to Gabi, Luigi and his wife insisted on giving us a package of disposable diapers—very welcome—and they packed up a basket of food for us. During that visit I communicated with Luigi in a way that I did not with his wife or his parents.  They were just as friendly as he was, and they treated us very kindly, but because we didn’t speak directly to each other, there was no real communication and we made no connection.  As I look back, I can remember his family’s presence in the room, but I can remember Luigi’s personality in my life. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Moving to Italy: Visiting Luigi—B

After the tractor passed Luigi’s car, we continued down to Gaminella, crossed the highway, and entered another uphill road. In contrast to ours, the road to Pozzengo was wide, well-graded, and best of all, it was paved! No skidding and spinning and swallowing screams. Except for the lack of elbowroom, the ride was pleasant, and I looked forward to seeing another family with children.  
Unlike Gabi, Pozzengo was a real town with many large and small houses, multiple streets, and shops. The children and I took in all the sights while George chatted with Luigi. When we arrived at a set of tall wooden gates, George got out to open them and Luigi drove through. Their courtyard was the same size as ours, but instead of gravel, muddy ruts, and chicken poop, theirs was a huge swath of clean concrete. I was impressed and excited to see what could be done; the only thing we lacked was the money to do it. As we exited the car Luigi, a wine merchant, pointed out their barns, which had been converted to a wine-making operation as well as a storage area for the wine he purchased from local vineyards. More on this later.
Luigi’s parents, and his wife and her aunt, came out to meet us. (Luigi's mother, Zia Dina, was the sister of George’s mother.) His two boys wandered in from a side yard. They were a bit older than Paul, and Luigi's baby daughter, carried in the arms of her great-aunt, was just a bit younger than Margaret Ann and Matthew. I experienced the usual blur of Italian words and double-cheek kisses as everyone was introduced, hugged and exclaimed over. It was impossible for me to understand anything  except "Ciao" when everyone spoke at the same time in excited, loud Italian, so I smiled and nodded and hugged and felt the warmth of their welcome. We were ushered into the house, and their tiny living room quickly filled as we crowded in. Even this very large two-story house had a small living room. This didn't seem out of the ordinary, and I wondered what had led to this custom of small common areas but huge bedrooms. Was it just in farm country or were the city houses like this too?
Theirs was an interesting household arrangement that George said was not unusual for those parts. Along with Luigi's parents, his wife's aunt also lived with them. We were introduced to them all, but while we sat and talked with Luigi, his wife, and his parents, the aunt kept busy in the kitchen cooking the meal we ate, and she cleared the dishes afterwards. At a pause in her work, she scooped up Luigi’s baby to change her diaper. I found it very interesting that the aunt acted like household help, so later I asked George about it. He explained that just as it was normal in Italy for elderly parents to live with their children, it was also quite common for an unmarried woman with no education, and no other prospects, to live with a young family. I thought it humiliating to be taken in like a stray dog, but George said it wasn't like that. The aunt was not a charity case. She enabled Luigi's wife to work with him in their business by taking over the burden of housework and childcare, and they had the comfort of knowing that the children were close at hand and well-looked-after. Not only was she fed and housed, but the aunt played a valuable role in Luigi’s household while enjoying the comfort of family life. It sounded reasonable. The aunt had a defined role that she seemed to fit quite well. (I asked if she was paid for her services, but George didn't know and wouldn't ask.) Although I couldn’t speak her language, I watched her carefully to see if I could sense any resentment, but she smiled often and seemed genuinely happy. One more puzzle on my quest to understand the differences between our cultures.