Monday, August 27, 2007

Pricey Post

We’ve recently been the grateful recipients of a couple of packages from home, thoughtful family and friends wanting to give us reading material and DVDs to watch. It’s always appreciated since English language books, magazines and movies are hard to come by around here. When I do find a book in my madre lingua it costs at least double the usual paperback rate, if not more. Besides, receiving mail is always fun!

Until la dogana comes a’calling, that is. We learned the hard way that in Italy sometimes mail is held for ransom. While it’s not perpetrated by thugs demanding bundles of unmarked bills, the Customs officials do sometimes request hefty sums before they’ll hand over the goods. Payment must be made on delivery, so while we rummage through the purse, scour the house, and check the sofa cushions for enough money to pay them off, the oh-so-friendly delivery person waits downstairs pushing the door buzzer every 20 seconds to remind us that they are waiting. It makes the gift-receiving just a little frustrating.

One large envelope containing two magazines cost €14.00. Another small box bearing used DVDS and a couple of books set us back a whopping €56.14. I could have ordered new ones from Amazon for about the same amount.

Why they arbitrarily pick some packages rather than others to extract money from us is a mystery. How they arrive at the required fee is another imponderable. But we have learned a few lessons along the way that can ease some of the wallet pain of your loved ones if you’re shipping things overseas.

How To Mail Stuff to Italy:

*Write the Right Stuff
On the customs form when it asks you to disclose the contents of the package, be as vague as possible. Rather than itemizing each and every gift, write “personal care items” or “used goods”. Never state that it contains media objects; it seems that books, movies and magazines are more likely to draw the attention of the customs folks.

*How Low Can You Go
I know it is tough for Americans to do this, but seriously undervalue the contents. Well-intentioned friends think they are being helpful by stating a higher than realistic value in case the package goes missing. In actuality, Customs calculates the charges based on the stated value…the higher the number, the more they’ll ding us. It costs us more to get the box out of hock than worry about replacing the stuff if it gets lost. The Customs Declaration you form you fill out is used to assess - you guessed it, Customs Duty value. Never, ever (never!) give a value higher than $30. $20 or under is better still.

*Stuff it In
If it can fit in a large envelope instead of a box, shove it in there! Boxes draw inquisitive eyes that want to know what’s inside. Envelopes are less beguiling. They also tend to be delivered faster or often don’t require a “pick me up at the main post office” slip, as well.

*Pack It Right
If you do use a box, it’s always well-appreciated if you use the local newspaper as packing cushion. Bryan especially enjoys smoothing them out to read the news from home. Sure, some of the news can be found online, but sometimes you just want to see it in print. Besides, how else are you going to see the marriage announcements, the grain report, and who showed up for the K of C dinner? Okay, maybe that’s just in our home-spun, home-town papers.

*Send it Out
Normal airmail is usually the best route. I can tell you from experience that sending gifts the cheapest rate puts it on a slow boat that takes a couple of months to traverse the ocean. Our immigrant relatives had a faster trip from their remote villages. Airmail arrives within about 10 days on average. It may also help to have it blessed by your parish priest or to say a little pray as you drop it into the hands of the postal service. Sooner or later it will (normally) arrive.

And preferably it won’t arrive in the hands of a customs agent demanding cash on delivery.

c. 2007 Valerie Schneider

Friday, August 24, 2007

Is There Anybody Home?

You’ve probably already heard about the infamous August shut-down, where everybody the length and breadth of the peninsula vacates to go on vacation. Bryan mentioned this phenomenon about a week ago (as well as last year). While Ascoli remains open during the first half the month, (why go away when there are the festivities of La Quintana and the Feast of Sant’Emidio to keep everyone busy and merry, and act as a precursor to the holiday time) when Ferragosto rolled around on August 15, it was like someone flipped a switch activating the Star Trek beam mechanism, transporting everyone away from the city. Everyone, that is, except for *our* very noisy neighbors. We couldn't have that kind of luck. Sigh. All our normal coffee bars, our neighborhood food shops, including the family-run grocery store, hung out the dreaded signs informing us “we’re in ferie so too bad for you”. You may have noticed that several Italy-based bloggers have locked the doors and left, too.

Fine. We’ve learned this is just one of the things about Italian life that one must adapt to. While it may be inconvenient, it also signals to us that traditions are stronger and more important here, something we like.

But I laughed out loud when I came across this “on holiday” sign. Even the priest gets to split town and take a break!

("The 11:00 Holy Mass in this church has been suspended from the middle of July until the end of August.")

Hope you’re enjoying the last few precious days of summer.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Day at the Farm

I’m no stranger to farms. Growing up in rural northern Ohio, I hail from a place where FFA was the biggest club in my high school. That’s Future Farmers of America, for you city folks. My grandfather –and his father before him-have always had horses that they trained and raced (harness racing). My maternal grandparents both grew up on farms and had a slew of relatives maintaining their family spreads. We paid many visits to see baby piglets, pick elderberries, and shuck mountains of sweet corn. In New Mexico, we lived in Corrales, a village that maintains its rural character with small-scale farming. Finding myself behind an ancient tractor on the main road was a common occurrence. Friends there nurture a vineyard, and orchards are common. There is always something calming and reassuring to me about being among fruit-bearing trees and productive gardens.

So when Giorgio Tomassetti said his family was issuing an invitation for us to go to his grandparents’ country place, we were excited. I love being in the country and seeing the bounty coming from the land. You already know Giorgio from his blog, Un Anno a Stelle e Strisce (Stars and Stripes for a Year). No? You haven’t checked out his blog? The link has been residing in my Neighbors in Italy section for some time. Even if you don’t know Italian it’s worth a look; his photos and videos are clear enough to understand the things about American life that captured his attention during his year as an exchange student.

Giorgio’s parents were curious about the Americani living in Ascoli Piceno. We drove the short ten minutes from town to find ourselves in the hills, in a semi-arid landscape that reminded us a lot of New Mexico. You know, except for the olive groves and centuries-old stone buildings. The views were breathtaking, encompassing Mt. Ascensione and Monte Vettore, the highest peak in the Sibilline mountain range. The grandparents keep a nearly self-sufficient place: chickens for eggs and meat, rabbits, and a gigantic pig, ugly as can be but destined to become delicious delicacies like prosciutto, salami and sausages. The animals, in historic fashion, are kept in the stalls and rooms fashioned below the stone house. They reside in the house next-door, and use the rooms above the animals’ pens for the wood-burning pizza oven and larger-scale cooking space for making jams and sauces.

Besides the large plot of olive trees and the vineyards for homemade wines, they have fruit trees (we tasted tiny and sweet-tart plums which were recently harvested), potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables growing in the orto. I was awed by how much they produce. In fact, except for the flour used to make the pizzas, I think pretty much the remainder of the food presented to us by the Nonna was home-grown. I love those kinds of lunches! Afterwards, the Nonno went down to the cantina to decant a bottle of his vino cotto, cooked wine, a strong, delicious dessert wine unique to this area.

Giorgio’s mom, Cinzia, is bubbly and sweet. We hit it off right away, and I hope to meet up with her again soon. We all chatted about life in the US, their travels there, and Giorgio’s experiences. (I must say that I’m still appalled by the less than fabulous Thanksgiving dinner his host family prepared for him…I mean, who consumes a Thanksgiving feast in less than 15 minutes?! Mamma mia!) We’ve promised to make them a proper festa come November.

We answered their questions about our experiences in Italy, why we chose Ascoli Piceno, about our tour company, and told them how much we want to stay here. We recently had other friends comment that they think we’re nuts to live here; the whole world wants to go to America, they told us, and you two choose to come to this little corner of Italy? Well, yes. It’s exactly this kind of experience and hospitality that continually nurtures our love of Italy and the Italian people. A day in the country is all it takes to remind me that this is a wonderful place, indeed.

2007 valerie schneider

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Could You Keep It Down?

Could You Keep It Down?

I’m in desperate need of some sleep. I am now questioning our decision to live in the centro storico instead of an isolated farmhouse surrounded by vineyards. Grapes, after all, are quiet. Our neighbors are not. I’ll write more about the one-woman wrecking crew who is the next-door signora another time. For now I’ll stick with the frenzy of activity we’ve had going on that has kept me away from the blog.

You’ve been reading about La Quintana. It finished up last weekend with the mother of all pageants the Sfilata, in which 1500 participants in costume paraded through town sestiere by sestiere. It’s an epic event proudly carrying medieval overtones, with people representing old-world themes, such as archers, falconers, mountaineers, and more. Fascinating to watch, we stood in the sun for two hours as they marched elegantly past us.

But the end of La Quintana coincided with the Feast of Sant’Emidio, the patron saint of the city who not only protects the town from destructive earthquakes but warrants a major party in his honor which mixes the sacred and profane, as so many things in Italy do…religious processions preceded punk rock concerts; a special mass before the church-sponsored lottery drawing, with everything culminating in a gigantic fireworks display the likes of which we’ve rarely seen even on the Fourth of July. Thundering booms so loud they shook the earth beneath our feet punctuated the sky-filling explosions of elaborate, dancing light.

Did I mention the fireworks didn’t start until 1:00 a.m.? Now you know why I’m so tired. The concerts are in the nearby piazzas and we hear them whether we exit or not. Ditto with the fireworks, so we figure if we’re not going to sleep because of the noise, we may as well join the crowd outside. All week we weren’t getting to bed until well after 2:00 a.m. Those of you who know us well know we’re normally in bed by midnight - max.

So when we left Monday for the sleepy hamlet in Basilicata that is my ancestral town we were excited about the prospect not only of hanging out with my cousin but getting some decent shut-eye. Despite having a patron festival going on, we knew that the place had only 2000 inhabitants, so how rowdy could it get?

Quite a lot, it turns out. The population swelled to 5000, what with the returning Lucani who live in other parts of the country, students home for the summer, and people from neighboring villages…all of whom wait all year for this grand party. Who knew? Our rustic cabin (read, *rustic*) was set in the woods and quiet, so that wasn’t the issue. The partying family who wouldn’t relinquish us to bed was the problem. What do you mean you want to leave? It’s only 1:30! exclaimed Michele. Only? We’re exhausted, we whined! But what could we do? We were the guests and didn’t want to offend them so we soldiered on, returning to the cabin after 2:00 a.m. every night, dropping like the dead into bed and then waking with the sun when it glinted through the wooden slats.

Their hospitality was overwhelming, though. We were welcomed into their circle and accepted immediately by their friends. The notion of southern hospitality is alive and well in Basilicata. They shared their wine, their food and their hearts and we will be ever grateful and ever touched by their kindness to the foreigners. We sat down for lunch and spent 3 ½ hours dining among them, learning dialect words for the dishes and learning that here we are considered family. One dinner ended at midnight and was capped with fireworks at the top of the mountain, which in turn set the hillside ablaze. The dry grasses ignited easily but quickly flamed out on the rocky terrain, but gave us a dose of adrenaline that (of course) had to be tempered with a digestivo. Michele and the crowd remained at the bar at 2:15 when we gave it up and went home with their cries of protest and laughs at our wimpy-ness echoing in our ringing ears.

They wanted us to stay longer. The festa would continue another two weeks, after all, why should we leave now? For some sleep, we said. We need some sleep. We’ve discovered that Italians like to part-ty. Everyone is on vacation in August, so why not live it up? Even in a sleepy village on the side of a mountain in remote Basilicata.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my pillow is calling my name. While the Ascolani are eating lunch it may be the only quiet time I get for a nap. I need to take advantage of every precious hour I can.