Monday, December 13, 2010

Meet the Micio

He arrived by surprise...a furry, orange, stripey ball of fur with a purr-motor that wouldn't turn off.  We have seen plenty of cute kitties around the streets of Lucanella, but hadn't expected to have a kitten of our own; however, a friend decided otherwise.  On Thanskgiving, Antonio was bursting with excitement and I couldn't figure out why.  Surely the turkey couldn't elicit such child-like glee, but with 27 other guests and cooking and serving to do, I didn't ask him.

Finally, he couldn't stand it anymore and, like a kid who can't keep a Christmas secret, he motioned me over in the Italian way of flipping his hand downward to signal come here, I want to tell you somethingVa bene, che c'e?  "We have a surprise for you.  My sister brought it from Napoli.  Wanna guess?" He and his two kids were glowing.  The sister had already presented me with a gorgeous, enormous baba', a decadent liquor-soaked sponge cake, so it couldn't be that.  "It's a kitten!" he exclaimed.  "The brother of Gino."  They had seen us go ga-ga for Gino, their kitten, procured from his sister's garden, and asked her to bring Gino's brother.  He was the runt of the litter; a little on the skinny side and shyer than the others.

Maria, upon seeing him burst the secret wide open, rolled her eyes in exasperation and chided them, "You told her?  What do you think sorpresa means?  Mamma mia!"  No problem, Bryan doesn't know yet.  We'll keep it a secret from him. 

The next day we found an excuse to find ourselves at Antonio's house so he could present the purry present.  Bryan was definitely surprised, and while he cuddled the kitty, wasn't sure if we could take him.  The house is piccolina; we'll be traveling over the holidays; other little excuses that Antonio immediately disputed one by one: Cats don't have to be always in the house; you live in the most cat-friendly part of town with no cars to worry about him getting hit.  I'll take him for the holidays.  He can sleep in your cantina. 

A few days later we brought him home and he's become a very grateful (and spoiled!) little boy every since.  He went from a garden in Napoli to a garden and garage at Antonio's, to a couch-and-cantina trade-off here.  He developed a rather nasty cold so he spent more time inside the house than initially planned on, and got rather comfy with the living arrangements.  He doesn't venture too far from the door or the cantina (which he can enter and leave freely through a special hole built in the stone just for cats!) and now that he has recovered from the cold, he's rambuctious and playful.

We learned that Lucanella has a traveling vet; he comes to town about once a week or so.  Imagine...a vet that makes house calls!  And while he came to check on Lucano (or Luca for short), gave him an inoculation and did a generaly once-over on him, Mr. Traveling Vet didn't charge us anything.  "Pay me next time, or when we neuter him.  Whenever."  That was more of a surprise than the kitten's arrival!

He has a pretty collar so people don't think he's a street cat.  Our local supermercato owner procured it just for Lucano.  In fact, he  bought it himself while in Potenza, and brought three colors because he wasn't sure which I'd prefer.  (Spoiled kitten, indeed!)

Lucano is on my lap sleeping while I type this.  He still purrs up a blue streak and all the neighbor say he is "molto bello".  He has made himself very much at home here in Lucanella...and in our hearts.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

America Feasting Comes to Basilicata

Happy Thanksgiving Day everyone!  First, let me say how thankful I am to have such wonderful friends as you, who come along for the ride and read about our everyday adventures here in the mother land.  Grazie a voi!

Remember a few years ago when I gave you my top ten reasons for not celebrating Thanksgiving in Italy that year?  Go ahead; give it another look.  I'll wait.

So anyway, that was then.  This is now.  We're paesani.  We're part of the village.  We're throwing a Thanksgiving feast.  For a tribe. 

It all started innocently.  A friend inquired why Americans go pazzi for tacchino.  We talked turkey and discussed the fact that, unlike Italy where every holiday and saint's day has a special meal attached to it, Thanksgiving is the only American holiday that really centers on food.  Well, why don't we show you?  We'll cook up a turkey, it will be fun, said we.  Just a few friends and the cousins who live nearby.  Va bene.  Then more friends needed to be included; don't want them to feel slighted.  Then we thought, why not send out a general invite and see who wants to come?  All told, we will have 27 guests.  At least, I think we're holding at 27 and not edging up any further.  Some friends are even making the drive down from Ascoli Piceno.  We're thrilled. 

And tired.  I've been making rounds of stores in Potenza to procure all the necessary provisions.  But the preparations have been made a bit easier, thanks to our friends.  One has a brother who is a butcher and he has procured a big ol' turkey for us (not an easy feat in much of Italy, lemme tell you).  Another friend's dad gave us a big pumpkin, which I cut, cooked, and crushed into pie filling.  Our neighbors are giving us fresh fennel and lettuce from their garden.  Another wants to give me the apples for the pie and the potatoes for mashing.  Our friends who own an agriturismo are letting us hold the party there and use their commercial kitchen to cook it all up.  Maybe the adage that "it takes a village" is true; they all want to contribute something to the meal, so when it's all said and done, this will be an American holiday but a very local feast.

While you're eating your turkey and fixings, I'll be baking pies.  We're holding our holiday on Saturday to accommodate everyone's work and school schedules.  But I wish you all a very happy day, and hope you have much to be thankful for.

Tante belle cose, my friends.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

To Be a Paesana

What does it take to be considered a paesana in a small Italian town?  I've been a formal resident of Lucanella for two months now and have learned through various whisperings and conversations that I am considered a Lucanellese, una vera paesana.  My neighbor recently told me that she was thrilled to hear others say what she had already noticed, that I've "inserted" myself into village life in a very short time and become a "local".

The fact of my residency status was confirmed about a week ago when we attended a festa in a nearby village.  As we pressed through the crowded streets to see the various vendors and displays, we were joyously surprised to run into about ten people we knew- from Lucanella as well as from my ancestral village.  Our names were called out from across the piazza...'Eh!  Valerie....Bryan!  Ciao!'  We were invited to join one group as they made their way through the food stalls.  We stopped for aperitivi with a friend and her husband.  We chatted with a local carabiniero of our acquaintance.

After we had sampled many delicacies, sipped some good local vino, and enjoyed a performance in the piazza, we made our way to the car.  We looked up and saw the outline of the Milky Way painted across the sky.  A shooting star dipped toward Lucanella, across the valley.  We smiled all the way home, elated at the cameraderie we had enjoyed after such a short period of residency.  We felt that we had been truly accepted and a part of the local landscape.

So how did I do it? 

My Five Tips For Becoming a Paesana

1) Smile and greet everyone you pass.  Even the curmudgeons will start to return your buongiornos.

2) Never decline a caffe'.  I've been terribly overcaffeinated, but if someone asks me to prendere un caffe', I don't say no.  The short chat while we drink them in compagnia has let them get to know me.

3) Shop locally.  I buy as much as possible at the local stores.  They see I'm dedicated to the village and its well-being.  Instead of automatically heading to the big grocery stores in Potenza, I buy my provisions, my fruits and veggies, my bread and hardware right here in Lucanella.  (Besides, our baker is one of the best in the province.)

4) Take time to talk.  It can sometimes be hard when I have things I need to get done, but when neighbors stop me and want to chat, I give them my time.  Sometimes they're lonely and want someone to talk to; other times, they just want to get to know me better or discuss the weather and the bad grape harvest.  Either way, a few minutes goes a long way to becoming a paesana.

5) Get involved.  I jumped at the opportunity to organize English lessons.  The notices posted around town told people not only that I was an intelligent human being (contrary to my accent and stumbling for Italian words that they may have noticed), but that I want to be a part of the community.  I don't know how many people have told me how happy they were to see that I was participating in village life.  We also drove to another town nearby to hear the local choir perform (three of my students sing).  They were thrilled to see me, and news of our attendence was passed around town the next day.

Now that I think about it, these are things I've always done...they're just more noticed in a small village setting, and they've given me the benefit of acceptance.  It's nice to be a paesana.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Cycle of Life

The bells sounded out two tones, a solemn bong which faded before a higher-toned clang followed.  They tolled mournfully like that for about fifteen minutes, telling everyone in the village and the surrounding countryside that a funeral would be held shortly.  We've heard the funerary bells before, but it's somewhat chilling when you know the person they're tolling for.  It gave me goosebumps.

Our upstairs neighbor passed away last week.  He had been in the hospital for several days in a coma after fluid had built up in his brain.  He died on Thursday and the funeral was held Friday, a very fast transition compared to our American rites.  When my grandparents died, the funerals were held three or four days later.

Signore Fabrizio was unwell since I first met him in January.  He was mostly solo, alone; his kids didn't come to visit him though his brother, also elderly and not in great health, did stop by a few times a week.  The barista would dole out his medication to him in the morning, and another lady brought him lunch every day.  He scuffled along slowly, but when we were heading toward the piazza at the same time, I'd slow down and walk with him, chatting along the way.

He was, according to most of our acquaintances, a bit of a curmudgeon, but he warmed up to me and would smile broadly when I waved or greeted him.  He even offered me a caffe one morning, which made the barista stop in her tracks and look at me in surprise.  "Ma, Fabrizio doesn't pay for anybody's coffee," she exclaimed.

Sometimes I'd find him on a sunny bench in the piazza and he would wave an American-style wave back at me, even when sitting with other elderly gents.  They've since picked up the habit and it makes me smile when I see them waving their arms at me and wishing me a buongiorno.

I didn't know him well, but I did become fond of the old guy, and I hope that in some way I was able to brighten his last days a bit.  After the funeral we were introduced to the parish priest.  He greeted us warmly and said how happy he was that our village had two new residents.  A villager had passed away but two people had recently arrived...the cycle of life.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What Day Is It?

What month is it, for that matter!  Mamma mia, I can't believe how much time has past since my last post.  I've never left the nest empty for so long before.  It's not that I haven't wanted to write; it's just that I haven't had more than a few minutes to sit down and blog.  My Facebook page has been neglected as well, so please don't feel bad.

So what have I been doing?  Well...I found a job and was working late afternoons/evenings in Potenza, which I passed off to Bryan upon his arrival because in the meantime I'd picked up new freelance work.  I have made upteen trips to the hardware store, the ipermercato, and various home furnishing stores, while also making upteen trips to our bank to straighten out a glitch about transferring our account from Ascoli Piceno to Potenza.  You wouldn't think it would be so hard to transfer an account within the same nation-wide bank chain, but four visits, numerous emails and several phone calls finally got it done. 

And then there's the burocrazia.  Despite many trips to the immigration offices of the questura and the prefettura things were still hazy about how we were supposed to renew our paperwork, the very important documents that allow us to reside here legally.  Finally, with the assistance of a labor organization, we printed the paperwork and mailed it off with all the necessary photocopies that tell them we are upstanding citizens who own property here.

Our local community center asked me to organize and teach a weekly English class, so I spent a lot of time planning and initiating it, which has turned out to be a fantastic thing because I've met so many people in the process and have a great group of eager students. 

And, now that it's finally grape harvest time up here in the high hills, we spent the weekend helping friends with their vendemmia.  We spent hours in the beautiful, pastoral countryside enjoying the chatter of birds (and the chatter of our fellow harvesters), with the click-click of the clippers while tasting grapes, playing in the mud, and getting some good, honest excerise.  For our efforts, we were rewarded with three fabulous, abundant meals that left me wanting to a day of fasting today.

I'm taking notes and have stories to tell; I just need to find time.  Who knew life in a hamlet of 600 people would be so busy?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Vivo Ancora!

Yes boys and girls, I'm still alive!  I arrived in the Motherland sana e salva and am living in my piccola casa.  I apologize or the lengthy absence from the blog; it has been a busy coupla weeks.

I found that my house had been happily inhabited in my absence by a whole load of spiders who had apparently decided to take advantage of Italy's squatters' rights law and make the place their own.  They didn't like my intrusion and have been reticent to leave.  I've been insistent and their numbers are finally dwindling.

My temporary kitchen set-up is working pretty well and I was greeted with a jar of fig jam, a jar of honey, and two bottles of wine - all homemade by friends, who had also taken it upon themselves to provide milk, eggs, coffee and tomatoes from their garden.  A much warmer welcome than I could have imagined!

We will eventually move the kitchen to the other side of the room and make it an old-world rustic type of cucina, but for now I can boil up the pasta and offer my neighbors a caffe without too much trouble.

Internet has been hooked up and I bought a router to give myself some wireless freedom.  It took me the better part of two days to get that functioning properly; why technology hates me is still a mystery, but in the end I conquered the sucker and am surprised that the signal carries through the thick stone walls.

The stone mason returned to finish some plaster work in my bathroom and I've acquired another cantina, a long story I'll recount another time, but for those of you keeping count, we now own four (count 'em!) cantinas.

When not battling spiders and trying to organize the casa into some semblance of orderliness, I've been making countless trips to Potenza to hunt down things I need, hit the bancomat, fill the gas tank, and look for work.  I've had a few writing projects I've been working on, and have made a couple trips to the other side of the hillside to visit la you see why I've not been around the Pinon Tree for a while!

Things are taking shape and I hope to post more regularly.  Thanks for hanging around. 

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Getting out of Dodge

You know how much I hate packing.  I love to travel but I don't like the getting there part, and I definitely don't like the packing part.  I fret about taking too much, taking too little, the possible weather fluctuations, the dressy-enough factor, the comfort factor - just don't like it! 

This time around, I'm still fretting but I'm not minding it so much, because packing means...I'm getting the Dodge out of Hell and heading for home!  That's right, next week at this time I'll be tucking myself into my own bed, in my own house in Lucanella.  Can't. Wait.  Non vedo l'ora!

No offense to you northern Viriginia readers, but this has not been the life for me.  We went from traffic jams that were caused by sheep in the road to the Capital Beltway, and the adjustment just wasn't pretty.  In fact, the adjustment just didn't happen.  Too much culture shock for a small-town girl who wants to live in her village of 600 souls.

Besides, our bureaucrats beckon; our Italian paperwork needs to be renewed.  The process is simple enough, just time consuming, so we'll be spending the remainder of the year in Basilicata.  Bryan will be coming in a few weeks.  I'll go get the house put together and start job hunting (because while it's nice to stay through the end of the year, it would be even better to just...stay!)

The pinon tree will be empty for a week or so while I'm in transition.  This little baci bird is flying home to nest in Italy!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Five List for Foodies

Now that you know my favorite towns in Italy, I may as well spill the fagioli and tell you where I like to eat when I'm there.  As you know, I'm all about the food; I promise you these ristoranti will do you proud and feed you well.

Ascoli Piceno 
Cantina dell'Arte
This is a tough one.  Having lived there for a few years we had several places that captured our hearts (and our stomachs), so it's hard to narrow it down to just one.  But when forced to think about it and recommend only one place to eat in Ascoli, I'd say head to Cantina dell'Arte.  It's warm, rustic-chic interior is inviting, the service is good, the menu is varied and reasonably-priced, and the food is not only excellent, it's nicely-presented.  Must Eat:  the Olive all'Ascolana.

Osteria il Falco Grillaio
I have half a mind to keep this one to myself.  I've reviewed other Matera restaurants that I could pawn off on you, but you know I just can't lie to you guys.  My favorite hands-down dining in Matera is the Osteria il Falco Grillaio.  No, they don't serve falcon, despite the name.  They do serve terrific traditional fare with a bit of flare in a rustic setting.  It's right across from the Archeological Museum, making it easy to find.  Must Eat:  the home-made pasta with cardoncelli mushrooms.  Or the cavatelli with mollica di pane.  Can't decide which is my favorite.

Osteria dell'Arco
Rome is awash with trattorie and ristoranti; the trouble is finding one that isn't also loaded with turisti.  Our little haven away from the crowds is Osteria dell'Arco, just outside the Aurelian wall near Piazza Fiume.  We happened into it on our first trip to Rome and have consistently enjoyed the meals there ever since.  The tiny dining room is cozy and the chef is somewhat creative using mostly Lazio products.  Must Eat:  Pernicelli pasta with guanciale.

Hostaria dell'Arco
A little ironic that this great eatery bears the same name as our Roman fave.  The food is completely different.  Abruzzese cuisine is hill country eating:  hearty, bold, distinct.  The Hostaria fills with locals who appreciate the antipasto buffet, the hot frittelle, and the home-made pasta.  Around here "hostaria" means hospitable.  Must eat:  the antipasto buffet with super-fresh cheeses and an array of local delicacies.

Citta della Pieve
Trattoria da Bruno. 
Despite its location in the centro storico of Citta della Pieve, da Bruno has a strangely modern and sterile interior.  That does't carry over to the food, however, which adheres strictly to the credo of local and traditional.  Daily specials are recited and particularly worth paying attention to.  Service can be a little slow, but that's because the joint fills with exuberant, hungry pievesi.  Must eat:  the homemade ravioli if it's offered that day.

photo credit: The Girl Who Ate Everything

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Travel Italy - At Least Vicariously

Traveling to Italy is always a good idea, but if even if you can't hop a plane right now, you can still enjoy a tour of the boot over at Bleeding Espresso.  My friend Michelle Fabio has put together a wonderful feature that lets you experience beautiful spots all over the peninsula, at least in a virtual sense, written by the people who live there. 

Take a spin on her blog and her travel feature, Gita Italiana. Today's trip takes you to my mother land of Basilicata.

by Valerie Fortney Schneider


Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Five List

I like to make lists. I don’t know why; it’s just one of those quirks. I like the memes like Five Favorite Words, or Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Me (which I keep meaning to get around to and somehow haven’t quite done it yet).

Today I’m giving a Five List – my five favorite towns in Italy. I’ve done a lot of informal email consulting since I started my blog and this is a question that comes up a lot. Of course, taste is subjective; the places I adore may not suit your ideal, but here are my picks, in no particular order.

Ascoli Piceno (Le Marche)
Oh come on, you knew this one would be on the list! I lived there for three years and it still feels like home to me. This is an appealing place: it offers amazing architecture, pretty piazzas, and friendly folks. And if that’s not enough for you the food is fantastic and the wine is wonderful. (So why haven’t you been there yet?)  There's plenty to read about Ascoli here at the Pinon Tree; just do a search and you'll have reading material to keep you busy for a while.

Matera (Basilicata)
This is another obvious choice, at least one that habitual readers would have expected. Matera is almost indescribable; it is unique, complex, beautiful, haunting. Wandering the silent Sassi gives me an almost spiritual feeling, while the lively, hip centro up above buzzes with life. Some of the best meals I’ve ever enjoyed in Italy came from simple Materana kitchens.  (More about Matera.)

Rome (needs no introduction)
It’s a true contrast that I bought a house in a remote, mountain-top village of 600 people yet I love, love, love Rome. I pledged my undying affection for Italy after about twenty minutes in the Eternal City. It is stylish, vibrant, noisy, beautiful, gritty, distinctive and chaotic all at the same time. I love the feeling of being embraced by millennia of history when I am there. And I feel at home among our famiglia” there. I echo the sentiments of Princess Anne in Roman Holiday when she said, “Rome, by all means, Rome.”

Sulmona (Abruzzo)
If you’ve never heard of Sulmona before, you’re about to. George Clooney’s newest movie, The American, was filmed there. This lovely small city is one of Abruzzo’s real gems. Sulmona is famous for its confetti, the sugary almonds that are given out at weddings, but it is also surprisingly upscale, with trendy shops, pretty palazzi and coffee bars aplenty. The evening passeggiata brings out most of the town, with an endless parade of stylishly-dressed residents laughing and walking, eating gelato, meeting and greeting.  (More about Sulmona.)

Citta’ della Pieve (Umbria)
This town is almost too perfect. It’s a picture-postcard type of golden-hued hill town that gleams in the gauzy light and embodies everyone’s image of Italy. As the birthplace of Perugino, it contains some fabulous artwork inside its charming churches. It is surrounded by olive groves, sunflower fields and vineyards.  It is at the edge of Tuscany, making it a great home-base from which to see central Italy.

What are your favorite towns in Italia?

Check out my Five List for Foodies to learn where to eat well in these towns!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Waitress Duty

It's been years since I worked in a restaurant.  I did a brief stint in college, but was in constant fear that my clumsiness would result in serious wine spillage or a plate of something messy in somebody's lap.  During my sojourn in Lucanella I was called out of waitress retirement to aid my friends.

Peppe and Giovanna, the owners of the agriturismo, had been booked up for weeks with First Communion parties.  They were expecting two groups on the one Sunday afternoon, with a total of about 80 guests. Now, I have few memories of my own First Communion; I know I wore a white dress, and my nana gave me a rosary with crystal beads that looked like diamonds to my six-or seven-year old eyes.  We went to lunch at my uncle's restaurant - my parents, siblings and grandparents- but that was about it.  In Italy, it is just a little bit more of a Big-Deal event.  We're talking six antipasti, two different pasta courses, a meat course and several vegetables, to be rounded off with several desserts and then a gigantic, decorated First Communion cake.  We're talking sit-down-and-stay-down for four hours kind of meal.  For about 80 guests in a small rural, family-owned restaurant.

They had it all carefully planned and ready to go, had called in the ragazzi that they normally hire for this type of special meal, and began setting up the tables the evening before.  Then Peppe wrenched his back and went into painful spasms.  Unable to move without serious pain, I jumped in and helped finish the set-up and decorating.  The following morning he was no better; he was clearly unable to perform his normal functions and fretting about what to do, but declined my offers of help while Giovanna chirped adamantly that he would be fine.

He wouldn't be fine, that was evident, so I marched to my room, changed into "waitress attire" and showed up when the ragazzi did, and starting carrying out wine bottles, bread baskets and antipasti plates, without giving my friends a chance to object.  Fortunately it was a set menu so no order-taking was involved and things hummed along sort of like clock-work.  I ran miles between the kitchen and the dining room, rekindling those dim memories of previous waitress duty and how fatiguing it was.

Peppe, ever clever, played the excellent host, but took on a whale of a joke and told the party in my dining room that I was a famous American giornalista who was writing an article about Italian culinary habits.  He had them completely convinced that I was studying their table manners and interactions and was analyzing what and how they ate.  Every time I entered the room the whole party would turn and smile at me self-consciously.  If I was scanning the table-top to see if wine bottles needed refreshing, they would look around them to see what I might be sizing up about their gluttony.  Meanwhile, Peppe dead-panned his joke to the very end, and one of the patrons even asked if I would like him to send me the photos he had taken throughout the meal!  The joke served to cover Peppe's fears that I would be a less-than-stellar waitress, and explained the two knives that I accidently dropped to clank heavily on the stone floors, "Mah, she's not bad for a giornalista who is not a real cameriera (waitress)" they said as they excused my clumsiness.

At the end of the meal they were very sweet, but more importantly I was able to pitch in and help my friends.  They were grateful.  The next morning in the village a woman came up to talk to me, saying, "Sei Valerie?  I'm Rocco's mamma, he told me about your hard work with them yesterday!"  Word spread from there and suddenly people were questioning, "She's a cameriera?  But I thought she was a giornalista!"  For a day at least, I was both.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Me and Tonino and the Four Ferramente

We have been fortunate to find fabulous friends in Lucanella. One such gem is Tonino, without whom none of the work on the house would have been completed. He set up the quotes, called to confirm (and re-confirm!) their work dates, and helped make sure everything went smoothly.

He drops things to come help me, and he has a smile that makes his eyes dance. Now that I know him better he has opened up and I have discovered that he has a great sense of humor and a lilting laugh. His wife invited me to lunch in famiglia, and I love them all. The daughter is pretty and whispers questions to her babbo for him to ask of me. The son is precocious and cute, much as I imagine Tonino was at his age. Antonia is a doll, who improvised a last-minute lunch better than most so-called Italian restaurants in the US could serve with a week’s worth of planning.

One afternoon we were all at my casa, Tonino, the falegname and the muratore and his son to get final measurements. Tonino had to translate between me and the thick, heavy accent of the falegname, and to tell him that I needed a new door lock. They sized it up, take measurements, discussed the type of lock I needed…because of course in Italy one size does not fit all when it comes to locks- or anything else for that matter. Tonino also tromped off in the rain looking for the destination of the kitchen drain, accompanied by the stone mason and his son, all three curious about the mistero of the invisible drain pipe. They have not yet figured it out, despite their soggy efforts. They think it might dump into the neighbor’s garden, in which case we are all to keep mum.

At twenty minutes to seven the stone mason reminds him that we still need to procure the necessary door lock for the woodworker install in the morning. “Porca miseria! Chiudono alle sette! Andiamo!” We race for his car, and then the southern Italian version of the Indy 500 along narrow, pitted, winding roads commences. We bump over hills and thud into potholes enroute for Potenza. We hit the autostrada at full speed, commendable given the short onramp, and screech around curves. Meanwhile, Tonino’s demeanor is that of a man on a country jaunt – “ So, Vah-leriee…did you enjoy lunch? Antonia is excited about the barbecue tomorrow night.” Other sundry conversation pieces were lightly discussed whilst he zoomed at Mach speed and missed his exit. Porca vaca, but no problem…we’ll still make it in time, he says merrily.

He morphs from Indy racer to Neapolitan city driver like a Jekyll-and-Hyde. He passes the line of traffic that is waiting patiently to turn (so un-Italian), blasts by them to the intersection, interjects the station wagon so swiftly and smoothly through the traffic that the other drivers don’t even have time to react. Not a single horn blared and he grinned. “Ha, alla Napolitana!” Pedal to the floor, we cruise into the parking lot of the ferramenta (hardware store) to find it open. Alleluia, says my friend.

Alas, the ferramenta has only one lock that will fit the dimensions stated, and it is a very down-market low quality one, says Tonino. Checks his watch. Andiamo, sbrigati. We can make it. Back into the family-sized rocket-ship to the Brico-fer, where the lock department has a line. Tonino smiles slightly, taps his fingers on the counter, tries to catch the clerk’s eye. Finally he interjects, “Solo una domanda…” and asks about the lock. The clerk doesn’t look up, just responds that they don’t carry the type of lock he wants. Tonino grabs my arm and hustles me to the door.

We nearly get sideswiped as he backs onto the road, then a cop car swings widely around us without a side-ward glance. Uphill through neighborhoods I’ve never seen before, he continues his Neapolitan personality as we arrive at Ferramenta Number Three. Surprised that they still open, Tonino double parks and leaves his door open as he rushes inside to make sure they don’t slam down their shutters before he can get through the door. I catch up just as the owner is bringing out a lock. It is a fancy one, it requires additional parts, it is the top of the line. It costs a fortune. I gasp at the price audibly. Tonino tells the guy, thanks but no thanks while hoping we won’t have to return to eat crow.

One more place, he mumbles. I just remembered it, should have thought of it first, they’re probably closed by now, the guy is persnickety…he’s talking to himself about the best streets to bypass the traffic as he weaves through the cars, nearly grazes a pedestrian, and jokes with me all at the same time. “Sembra aperta! Sembra…” The lights are ablaze. There are people inside. We enter. We are sized up and told to take a number. Nevermind that there are only two people in the store, the owner and a crony who is not buying anything, just shooting the breeze. Persnickety, indeed.

Yes, I have that type of lock, he says. He climbs a ladder to retrieve the box and sets it on the counter. Then he leaves to find something else for another guy who has come in. Tonino tries to cut through the tape with his fingernail, unsuccessfully. We look at each other and stifle laughs. This guy is in no hurry. It is already after 8:00 pm. “His wife must be a terrible cook. Why else wouldn’t he want to hurry up and go home and eat like everyone else?” Tonino whispers. Three others arrive. We have become giddy after the rush and adrenaline. Ferramenta Man ambles to and fro, while wise-cracking with people. “You may not be the dumbest guy in Potenza,” he tells the crony, “but you’re surely the ugliest.” Other things are said in dialect that garner great laughs from everyone except me.

Finally he comes back to us with the parts needed to change the lock opening from a right side door to a left side door. Who knew? Well, Tonino did, thank goodness. The man ceremoniously slices through the strip of tape and opens the box. He painstakingly, slowly removes the screws, piano piano. He is ready to place the mechanism into the metal lock casing and something distracts him. Tonino grabs the piece and starts to insert it, which is not to be tolerated, bringing the man’s attention back to the task at hand. Just as he is about to twist the little screws back in to secure the whole contraption, a customer knocks over a display and nearly clobbers me with a tumbling box. The owner goes to set things right, and Tonino grabs the screws and quickly turns them into place. He tries miserably to put the whole thing back into the Styrofoam packaging to stuff back in the box. Tsk, tsk from the owner who has returned and slaps Tonino’s hand away. We are now busting out laughing, which only slows the owner down even more. Finally, I am allowed to pay, which brings some rather unflattering-like dialect comments onto Tonino’s head from what I could gather, and we run to the car. We look at each other and cannot stop laughing. We start saying the same thing at the same time, right in succession: Aho! Mamma mia! Che avventura! Che un personaggio!” This makes us laugh even harder.

Finally we start back toward Lucanella, slightly less speedily but not much. He drops me off at my car and I call out, Ciao bello, which makes him blush.  He and his wife have become dear friends very quickly; we’re the same age, so they’re as happy to have new friends in the village as we are.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Guest Blogger: Laura Thayer

All this talk of house, friends and famiglia has made me a little homesick.  Since I can't run back to Lucanella as I long to do, I decided to take the week off for a trip to Ohio.  I'll be hanging out with my sister and visiting my grandfatherIn my absence, I asked my friend Laura of Ciao Amalfi to share one of her secret spots on Italy's most famous coastline.  She proves there is real life among the tourist towns!

Authentic Italy on the Amalfi Coast

Tourists flock to the Amalfi Coast during these warm summer months in search of the paradise and refreshing cool of the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, living in a place always brings a different perspective, and these are the months that I retreat into my own oasis – everyday life on the Amalfi Coast.

I write often on my blog about the places you can experience the feel of real life on the Amalfi Coast. Places where you can get away from the tour buses and knickknacks covered in lemon designs. One of my favorite spots for escaping from the sea of tourism is Scala, a small village located in the mountains above Amalfi. Most people visiting the area head to Amalfi and Scala’s glitzier neighbor, Ravello, and those are two spots you won’t want to miss.

But, when you’re ready to get away from the crowds, just head to Scala. The village is only a short bus ride from Amalfi or Ravello, and buses run frequently throughout the year. A walk through the quiet streets transports you to another world – back to the simple life on the Amalfi Coast before life was changed by the impact of tourism.

In the Middle Ages, Scala was closely tied to the city of Amalfi and played an important strategic role in the defense of the Republic of Amalfi. Scala’s Medieval watchtower and ruins of its castle fortress are reminders that long ago the seas were filled with dangers instead of the pretty white sails and cruise boats you see today.

Stepping into the cool quiet of Scala’s Duomo, much larger than any of Ravello’s churches, it is a striking experience to see the wealth and grandeur that the now-sleepy Scala once enjoyed. The sound of your footsteps echo through the vast interior, and it’s easy to get lost in thought about 12th-century life, when this church and the piazza would have been the central focus of a busy town. Look in the main aisle for a beautiful Baroque period ceramic tile design on the floor showing a decorative shield surrounded by four cherubs carrying a floral garland. In the center of the shield is the emblem of Scala, a lion climbing up a ladder. This emblem reflects the origin of the town’s name from the word “scala” meaning stairs or ladder.

While the panoramic views from nearby Ravello get all the press, one of the little secrets of Scala is that the views are even better. From high above in Scala you can see all of Ravello stretched out on its rocky plateau as well as incredible views of the Amalfi Coast and Bay of Salerno.

Scala is also an ideal base for walking and hiking on the Amalfi Coast. Between Scala and Amalfi you can explore the Valle delle Ferriere with beautiful scenery and waterfalls and the Valle dei Mulini with ruins of paper mills, the remains of Amalfi’s once lucrative paper industry. Around Scala, you can walk to the town’s many frazioni, or hamlets, including Minuta, which has fabulous views down the mountainside to Atrani and Amalfi. An easy hike down the mountain is the small hamlet of Pontone, with a peaceful piazza that makes an excellent resting point for a longer walk down the ancient steps to Amalfi.

Living on the Amalfi Coast—through the blustery, sleepy winters and the steamy, crowded summers—I can tell you that the authentic Italy is still alive and well here. It goes on despite the motor coaches and crowds, and is so much more than what you see zipping through in one day on a tour. In Scala, you’ll still find trains of mules carrying their heavy loads up and down the steps; daily life still centers around the family. Life is quiet and slow and seemingly unaware of the tourist hullabaloo far below.

Laura Thayer is an art historian and freelance writer living on the Amalfi Coast in Campania, Italy. She writes about travel for MNUI travel insurance and blogs about life on the Amalfi Coast at her own site Ciao Amalfi.
Photos © Laura Thayer, Ciao Amalfi!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rock Science

It seemed like such a simple proposition - replace two sets of rotting, broken-down French doors and a small kitchen window.  In my New World mind I envisioned them simply removing the old and installing the new.  I had met with the falegname, or woodworker, while I was in Lucanella in January, who gave me work quotes and material options.  We chose the color we wanted and gave the go-ahead to have the doors and shutters fabricated. 

The muratore (stone mason) was brought into the mix because it turns out that removing old doors also means adjusting old walls.  The three-feet thick openings are constructed of ancient stones, and peeling off the wood jams and frames revealed rubble and rotted lintels that would need to be redone.  Fortunately for us, our friend Tonino, a building contractor, knew the right person to call. 

Maestro Vito and his son showed up with the tools of their trade and shy smiles.  They broke into the stone and pulled out bits and pieces of "filler" that had, at some point in the ensuing centuries, been stuffed into the walls, creating a lot of rubble on my floor.  My first impression was, "What have you done to my house?!" but their constant calls of "calma, tranquilla" - and the fact that they were ever-so-patiently fitting stones just so into the cavities- calmed my nerves.  They pulled out an enormous, blackened, rotting lintel.  When I commented, "Gee, that thing looks like it's 200 years old," Maestro Vito responded, "I'd add another hundred to that number."  So, you're saying you yanked out a hunk of building material that is older than my country?  They were very amused by that thought.

They arrived early, worked hard, labored skillfully, and left sweaty.  They respected my desire to leave the great thick depth of wall that led to the door openings distorted and uneven even though they thought me a bit loopy for that.  It's a three-hundred-or-so old casa, I don't want it to be all perfect and even and new-looking.  I won them over on the first day with a snack of mortadella sandwiches and beer.  They won me over with their shy smiles and their amazing clean-up job.  Seriously, men who create a mess and then clean up after themselves?!  They even scrubbed the bathroom sink where they had been drawing water for making mortar! 

Then the falegname returned to take final measurements of the openings and finished the fabrication process.  He and his son came to install them, which, again, would seem simple, but was an operation that would consume twelve hours of their time.  He had a heavy accent and a soft heart, and at the end of the day he changed my front door lock, helped me unload some heavy items from my car, and gave me a little discount  on the price.  He brought a new iron railing to place between my living room doors and shutters, "the old one was all rusted and ugly," he stated matter-of-factly.  And he didn't charge me for it.

I was so impressed with these guys, all of them craftsmen of the old school who pride themselves on their work and their traditions, and who only reluctantly, shyly accept praise and thanks for their efforts.  I have a habitable house...and thanks to their careful labors it feels ever more like home.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Scenes From a Bar

I had barely disentangled myself from the seatbelt when I saw Anna's face in the bar doorway.  She had spotted me and was waiting, a smile spread broad across her face, arms raising to wave.  "Bentornata!"  Welcome back!  She pulled me into a hug while scurrying me into the bar.  In a flash she was behind the counter, her face beaming while she started preparing a cappuccino, and peppered me with questions about my flight and my plans, reaching across the bar to pat my hand every few minutes.

I spend a lot of time here.  This coffee bar, like countless others across Italy, is the main meeting spot and central diffusion point for all gossip in town.  It is in the main piazza, so all comings and goings are clearly seen...and discussed.  Everything starts here; when the stone masons arrived, we met up at the bar and had to have a coffee before proceeding, a preliminary courtesy.  At the end of the day, it is customary to offer them a beer or aperitivo to cap off their hard work. 

Bar owners of Lucanella

Old men always occupy a table inside, whiling away the time with cards and caffe corretti.  Their own conversations stop to listen to my comments, no matter how banal they may be.  At one point, a cappuccino-drinking patron asked me a casual question and a man from the table responded to her with my answer before I could!    

One fine morning a man initiated a conversation and we chatted for about ten minutes about all manner of things, after which another guy entered and bobbed his head in my direction asking his friend if I was a foreigner.  "No, la signora e' una paesana nostra," (she is one of our villagers) he answered, which told me clearly that I was accepted as an official resident.  Since my family heritage lies in a village nearby, I have been accepted as a local despite my far-away accent and my inability to maneuver my car into tight spaces in full view of everyone.

Another day while enjoying a cappuccino and cornetto, a man was passing through the piazza, glanced over and saw me in the bar, and made a bee-line for me.  "Mah!  You're Michele's cousin?  I saw you yesterday with Michele and asked around...I was told you're cousins!  E' vero?  Wow, Michele was the greatest soccer player in the region!  He's a legend.  Benvenuta...welcome.  If you need anything, you come to me.  I'd do anything for a family member of Michele's!"  Hmmm, interesting, since my cousin had never told me of these glorious victories of his. 

Throughout my three weeks, little by little, I met the majority of the townspeople while standing at the bar sipping my coffee.  And little by little, they got to know me and shed their initial wariness or curiosity about me.  After all, I'm just an ordinary villager like them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rest in Peace

I must be getting old.  Jetlag seems to hit me harder with each trip I take.  Four a.m. awakenings are just not something I enjoy, folks!  The three weeks passed so quickly and were so full of activity...and I have so much to tell!  I have been looking through my notes and debating about where to start.  Rather than begin at the beginning - which would seem so logical, no? - I'll start at the end and deliver the sad news.

There has been a a death in the family. Guido is no more. Or at least we think he is all dead and not mostly dead (to borrow the line from The Princess Bride). It happened on the evening before my departure from Basilicata. He died valiently after transporting me safely to Potenza and not leaving me stranded on the roadside. He managed to limp along until we cruised into an Agip station where he gasped his last breath. He suffered a rupture and resulting hemorrage that bled the engine dry of vital fluids, thus overtaxing and burning his elderly ticker.  All in all, it was quite a scary ordeal.

When I left Lucanella everything was normal. Birds were chirping, the sun was shining, all was right with the world.  I meandered my way to the highway...niente problema. Suddenly I heard a thud and thought I'd hit something in the road. Alas, I saw nothing. Strano, methinks, but whatever. Then a few minutes later the engine starts pinging. Hmmm...bad benzina perhaps? I make a mental note to get premium gasoline while I'm in Potenza.  I had planned on getting my oil and tire pressure checked anyway.

Then it gets worse and we start losing power. I notice the engine temperature gauge starting to rise.  Sharply.  There is nowhere to exit. The exits that do exist have nothing of service until you climb uphill to the nested towns. Must get myself to the first Potenza exit, so as not to be stuck with nada. Come on, can do it, I whisper.  We hit the exit, and cruise into the parking lot; Guido stopped.  Despite resuscitation measures, he could not be revived.

It all happened so quickly.  The water tube ruptured, which was the thudding noise. The engine was quickly drained of water, which was the pinging. The engine then burned..."E' bruciato" said the semi-mechanic who was on duty, while watching smoke rippling upward., devo guidare a Roma domani mattina, says me. I have to drive to Rome tomorrow!  "Not in this car, you're not," says he, as he pulls down the shutters and prepares to go home. Umm...but...crap! Wait!

Out comes the telefonino. Tonino? Auito! I pass the phone to the whatever-he-is who explains the situation to my friend. Gives the phone back to me and says arrivederci. "Valerie...e' molto grave. Vengo subito." Which he does, hero that he is, with his 11-year old daughter in tow who wanted to see just what the americana had gotten herself into this time. But while I am waiting I go into the bar and suck down a brewski. I'm not normally much of a beer drinker but I was shaking at the thought of being stranded along the road; of what if the engine had actually caught fire; of what would I have done if it happened the following day while I was driving to Rome.

Tonino arrives. He looks. "E' bruciato. Beh. Niente da fare a quest'ora....can't get a mechanic over here now, it's after 6:30 pm.  Thankfully it didn't happen along the autostrada somewhere between here and Rome, where you would not have had friends to call," he says.  "Allora, let's go grill!"  He and his wife had been planning a barbecue for my send-off.

Back at the ranch -or the agriturismo as the case may be- Tonino and Peppe go into salvatore mode discussing various options of getting me to Roma. Mannaggia, I have to be in the Tribunale in the morning or else I would drive you there myself, says Tonino. That is the last comment directed to me, as they put their heads together and talk amongst themselves as to what should be done. An hour later, they decide that at this point in the game it is best to get a rental car, as I can't possibly get a bus reservation at this late hour and the train would require a connection in Napoli then Roma Termini to get to Fiumicino...too much hassle with luggage and not much cheaper. Peppe knows a guy, will call him in the morning. Fatto. Now let's grill!  At this point, I am allowed back into the conversation.

I ate too much, drank too much (thanks to the never-empty glass they keep pouring), and couldn't sleep well from the excess adrenaline, but they give me a valiant send-off nonetheless.  Rest in peace, dear Guido.  You were brave and trustworthy right to the end.

Bryan and Guido in happier days

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Back in the Nest

Hey y'all, I'm back in the nest.  I have an inbox full of ignored messages, a head full of fog, a camera full of pictures, and a heart full of beautiful experiences.  I'll be posting about some of them soon, once the dreaded jetlag subsides.  I have to say that the flight crews on both the outbound and return flights were awesome.  Really, the best I've seen in years.  Kudos to United!  Now if they would just refund half my fare for losing half of my seat to the enormous man next to me...

Meanwhile, thanks to those who commented about your favorite -or least favorite- Italian words.  The winner of the random drawing is MaryBeth, who has garnered herself a sampling of Pocket Espresso, the liquid version of Pocket Coffee candies.  Congrats!  (Send me an email with your address and I'll get that right to you, MaryBeth.)

A presto!

Basilicata's version of Beltway traffic

Monday, May 17, 2010

Five More Words (and a surprise inside!)

Last time, I played along with the Five Favorite Italian Words meme.  Well today I'm twisting it around to list my Five Least Favorite Italian Words.  Despite the beauty of the language and its musical qualities, there are a few words I dread to hear.

Zanzara  (zahn-ZAH-rah).  Mosquito.
Le odio perche' mi amano.  I hate them because they love me.  Mosquitoes looove me and will travel great distances to find me.  I'm allergic to the bites, so this word sounds like the buzzing that will cover me with enormous, hard, intensely-itchy welts.  For me, zanzara means miseria.

Sciopero (SHOW-pay-roh).  Strike.
It strikes fear (pun intended) in everyone's heart to hear sciopero because it means every man, woman and child, in one way or another, will be affected.  Be it bus drivers, airport traffic controllers, cabbies, rail employees, or pasta manufacturers, a strike in Italy is a right royal pain in the rear.  They often seem to be 'mysteriously' scheduled for Fridays and Mondays to form a weekend ponte.  While they're kind enough to announce them in advance, the sciopero is a fairly frequent inconvenience.

Chiuso (CUE-zoh).  Closed.
This is an equal-opportunity dread word and one that locals and tourists alike will encounter.  We've found government offices shuttered despite a plaque listing the opening hours, restaurants chiuso because they felt like the day off, and even the Museo Borghese closed despite our advance reservations.  If you travel to Italy in July or August be prepared to see this word plastered outside a wide array of establishments as they are chiuso per ferie (closed for vacation).

Correre.  (CORE-rare-ray).  To run.
Okay, this is not a negative word or an insult, it's just incredibly difficult for me to say no matter how hard I try.  I can't get my tongue to twirl those r's properly and they end up thudding against my teeth and spilling off my lips like unattractive dribble.  I will walk around the proverbial linguistic block to avoid using this word, finding some other way to express the notion when need be.

Stranieri.  (Stran-YAY-ree).  Foreigners.
I hear this a lot because, well, I am one.  While I can't help being a foreigner, I don't like feeling like a stranger, which is what this word sounds like.  When I hear someone say, 'sono stranieri' it makes me feel like that they're saying, 'they're weirdos'.  Which they aren't.  Or at least I don't think they are.

Now it's your turn!  I'm departing for Italy tomorrow, so I'm going to leave you to 'talk amongst yerselves' here with your favorite (and least favorite) parole.  It's fun for everyone to learn new words, and I always enjoy hearing which ones tickle your fancy or make you cringe.  Plus, I'll have a random drawing to give an Italian sweet treat to a lucky commenter, so keep the (linguistic) ball rolling!
A presto!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Talking Lessons

My Five Favorite Italian Words

When I was growing up I had a very funny uncle.  He had a quip and a come-back for everything.  We enjoyed long-running jokes that lasted for decades.  He had a famous line that he would deadpan if we tripped over words or jumbled up our sentences:  "We give talking lessons on Thursdays".  Bryan and I uttered that line a lot during our first few months in Italy when we were struggling for words or mispronouncing things. 

Well, today is Thursday and we're giving a talking lesson because I was tagged by Carol of Our Year in Italy to list my five favorite Italian words.  The idea started with Jessica of WhyGo Italy (who, you will remember, stopped by the Pinon Tree a few months ago), then was turned into a full-fledged meme by Italofile

Here we go...

Allora (ah-LO-rah) 
This is one of those all-purpose words that they don't teach you in class but you hear sprinkled liberally in all conversations.  It is almost as ubiquitous as the "like" and "youknow" that teenage and 20-something American girls say constantly (but  is not nearly as grating and annoying).  It has several meanings: then, now then, so, thus.  It is very musical.  "A-lllo-raaaaa" starts a new topic or gets a conversation back on track.  A blunt allora in the middle of a story is a segue to the next act in the drama being told.  An allora uttered after ah or eh means the speaker is trying to find the right word or think through her train of thought.  Then there's E allora?  So what?  Allora rolls nicely off the tongue and makes you feel like you're speaking more naturally conversational when you throw it around.

Pimpante  (Peem-PAHN-tay)
Lively, exuberant, chirpy.  It's just plain fun to say this word.  Go ahead, give it a try.  Pim-pan-te.  See what I mean?  Sono cosi' pimpante.  I'm so excited!  It's as chirpy as its definition.  Throughout our trip to Basilicata, Maria was pimpante, bubbly about the experience and the people she met.  I leave next Tuesday for a three-week adventure and am pimpante at the thought.  One definition says it means "full of beans," I guess like jumping beans, or maybe like the old Rolling Stones line, "it's a gas, gas, gas."  As they say in Italian eh-eh-eh (ha ha).

Spiritosa (Spee-ree-TO-zah)
Not to be confused with spirituale, spiritosa has nothing to do with religion but everything to do with spirited fun.  "Sei spiritosa," Francesca once told me.  It means you're witty, playful, funny.  It can also be used sarcastically: "Ah, spiritoso, eh?"  You're a real wise guy.   

Dimmi!  (DEEM-mee)
Drag out those double m's and you've got yourself a keeper.  Dimmmi!  Tell me!  Say it, speak, tell me what you want.  Dimmi tutto, tell me everything, is used among friends.  Kids beg, Dimmi di si' mamma, Mommy please say yes.  Plain ol' dimmi might be called out by a familiar barista for you to state your order.  And you'll sometimes hear people on the street answering their telefonini (cell phones) by barking it into the receiver.  Dimmi te can be used to express "tell me about it" or "who would've thought".

Il Solito (eel SO-lee-to)
Al solito means 'as always' or 'as usual'.  Di solito means usually, ordinarily, normally.  But IL solito...ah, that is a nice one.  Il solito means 'the usual'.  My barista friend Giuliano would greet me each morning with this gem as he placed a nice frothy, hot cappuccino and almond-studded cornetto in front of me.  Il solito is a such a beautiful thing, not only because it means I'm going to get my needed caffeine fix, but it indicates that I am known, a part of the morning tribe, accepted there as a regular. 

Anyone can play along, but I'm tagging Eleonora of Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino because I think she might fling out some good foodie terminology at you, and Bryan, because, 1) he never does memes and I think it's high time he tried one, and 2) it will give him something to do while I'm traveling.  Besides, he knows all about talking lessons.

Related Links:

For more wordy fun head over to Dianne Hales' fabulous site, Learning Italian Word by Word.

Read the list of my five least favorite Italian words:  Five More Words, and a Surprise Inside

Monday, May 10, 2010

La Cucina Rustica

Vorrei una cucina rustica.  Articulating exactly what "rustic" means can be a challenge, even in my native language.  As I told you last time, I've had a hard time finding a good point of reference as we plan out what to do to create the kind of kitchen we have envisioned.  I leave next week and I am looking forward to scurrying around the countryside in search of antique and once-upon-a-time pieces that we think would fit the age and simplicity of the apartment.  We'll wrap those pieces around new appliances.  I'm into "old" and "traditional" but even I draw the line at stoking a wood stove for cooking.

I know what I don't want.  I don't fake new-spun "old style".  I don't want gleaming white wood.  I don't want a crowded wall of closed-up cupboards.  And I don't want perfect, factory-fabricated, chemical-laden cabinetry. 

After some time cruising the webwaves for authentic rustico inspiration, I found a few photos that sort of fit in with my visions.

This one I love - all old-time charm (but no oven, which I need).  I would be so happy if I could find a stone sink like that one, though.

This one is a more "sanitized" version of the antica style above.  I like the yellow walls, which is weird because I'm normally not a fan of yellow in general.  This is way bigger than my kitchen space, though.

This one is fancier, in a manner of speaking, but I like the brick cabinet base and wood doors, which may be more practical than the curtains shown in the two previous photos.  Alas, no wood beams or ceiling brick in our casa.  There used to be, but the previous owner ripped them out!  

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I (Don't) Want My HGTV!

I’m ditching the remote. I’m pulling the plug on HGTV and breaking away from browsing the magazine racks. I have tossed too much money to publishers of home improvement “guides” that charge ridiculous cover prices for useless fluff. I’ve wasted too many hours in front of the tube in search of inspiration for our renovations only to find myself frustrated and hapless, so I’m calling it quits on consumer design theory.

I’m tired of seeing cavernous kitchens that are termed “small space,” and I cannot watch one minute more of would-be home buyers traipsing around far-flung locales flinging around $700,000 budgets for vacation homes they’ll visit for a few weeks a year. So-called “Tuscany style” books, *so* aren’t.

Magazines show lovely before-and-after photos, but when you’re dealing with a house that is mere decades old and giving it a makeover, and you have a super-sized home improvement store down the street, it’s fairly easy to be a do-it-yourselfer. This Old House? HA!

Shows that promise design solutions make me laugh. Sure! Anyone can remodel when you’re pulling out wafer-thin drywall, slapping up a coat of latex, and scattering advertiser-sponsored accessories about liberally. I say, try taking a 300-year old stone building cantilevered onto a mountain with walls that are three feet thick and an electrical system that is roughly one generation removed from Edison…then find me and we’ll talk.

We’re discovering why big home-improvement stores aren’t…uh, big in Italy. Any small undertaking has the potential to become a major ordeal. This is a bit tough for Bryan, an avowed putterer and competent DIYer.

I carried home some Italian magazines which had fabulous photos and ideas, and were well qualified to offer suggestions on ancient structures and their unique qualities, but they suffered unfortunate bloody deaths in my suitcase. The sole survivor was the one I purchased for the cantina restoration, a project we won’t be tackling for quite some time.

To make the place habitable, at least to a camping level, we need a kitchen. Houses in Italy, if you don’t already know, come bare. We’re talking no fixtures, no kitchen cupboards, no sink, buck nekkid bare. One dusty bulb hangs from a wire in the living area as a lone light source. We are luckier than some: we have functional bathroom fixtures and a roof. Many homes we looked at contained neither.

Lovely Old-World Kitchen...would love to find one of these!

I wasn’t thrilled with the previous owner’s placement of the kitchen and gray-tiled walls. I have been weighing the idea of moving it to the other side of the large living space. I explained my thought to our engineer-slash-contractor friend who assured me it was doable. All I’d have to do would be to jackhammer up the floor the entire length of the room and plumb in piping, then jackhammer some more to create a drainage system, make a trench through the stone wall to transfer electrical wires, and then wrap a gas line around the outside of the building to that part of the house. Then, of course, find tiles that match the flooring to fix the jack-hammered parts or else tear out all the tiles and redo the entire pavement for the room. No problem.

I think now the kitchen may remain where it currently rests. But the odd-sized space, the fireplace, the uneven walls, and weird window placements present challenges. I’ve sought solutions, but so far they’ve eluded me. All the kitchen designs here are for enormous rooms with an acre of countertop and a six-burner pro-style stove. In short, they’re bigger than my entire allotted living-dining-kitchen space.

Italian design kitchen sites are fabulously geared toward small spaces, but are also frequently, fabulously modern. I briefly toyed with going sleek and gleamy as a contrast to the antique character of the place, but then decided that I’d prefer to keep it rustic. Finding the items and figuring out how to make them fit in the limited space is another matter. The visions pirouette in my head but whether they’ll work in real life is anyone’s guess.

But first things first. Doors. Our first simple project is to replace the two sets of decayed French doors that lead to balconies from the living room and bedroom. Alas, “simple” is such a relative word. The project is going to involve stone masons and wood workers. A door cannot simply be purchased and installed. There are no standard, pre-fab sizes ready and waiting at Lowe’s. It has to be specially made to fit the opening. Rotted lintels and jambs must be removed. The stone must be repaired after their removal. New lintels and jambs must be installed. Then the doors that have been made just for our piccola casa can be hung. Except. The thresholds need work, too. More stone masonry.

It probably would all be fairly simple and straight-forward if we were there, but communicating back and forth by email and phone calls is slow and tedious. I’ll be traveling there shortly but we needed to the get the ball rolling: the woodworker needed to order the materials so he can make the doors. The stone mason had to meet with him in case the stone work would change the dimensions of the openings. Photos, emails, and misunderstandings have abounded. It’s a clumsy ballet played out in work boots and cyberspace.

If HGTV wants some compelling restoration viewing, this would do nicely, I think. Much more challenging than most of the “reality” shows I’ve turned off. But alas, they have no programs like “Design on a Euro-Dime” or “Rustic Old World Kitchens in the Old World” or “Generation Renovation: The Medieval Edition”, so I’ll be tuning out.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Happy Birthday Roma!

Tanti auguri a Roma, the Eternal City is celebrating its 2763rd birthday.  For an old gal, she is still full of vigor, vitality and verve.  The city that was started by orphaned demigods has never forgotten its semi-supernatural birth, somehow pinpointing its fateful founding moment to April 21 and parlaying it into a party celebrating its past.

The mythical origins of Rome come from the legendary pairing of pagan god Mars with a vestal virgin, who gave birth to twins, Romulus and Remus.  Modern Romans are ever aware of their partial deity origins as well as her place in world history, which is why they consider their city the center of the universe- or at least the center of Italian culture, history and politics.  A couple of Roman friends weren't too amused by the title of a play that was performed in Ascoli Piceno last year, "Ascoli era Ascoli quando Roma era pascoli" - rough translation: Ascoli was already a city when Rome was still a pasture.  While they conceded the historical truth, they also pointed out that Rome subsequently conquered and destroyed Ascoli, then rebuilt it as a Roman city, whose street pattern and ruins remain.

The birthday bash will go on all week with elaborately costumed re-enactments, parades and concerts, lavish banquets, long-winded speeches, chariot races, and eye-popping fireworks.  Admission to the city's museums will be free.

If you can't be in Rome to celebrate, don't fret, you can still fete at home:

*Tie on a toga and do dinner like the ancients with this rundown of Roman recipes

Prefer to eat something from this millenium?  Kyle Phillips offers a lot of classic dishes from the Rome region.  Or order a more modern specialty, Pesto alla Romana, developed by my friend Giorgio, utilizing the flavors of the countryside - mint, hazelnuts and pecorino romano.

*Learn your Roman name.  (Mine would Gaia Valeria Fortuna...has a nice ring, don't you think?)

*See the scenery of the bella citta' through a slew of web camsSecret Rome's photos capture candid shots and spectacular spots all over town.  Roma Every Day gives you a daily photo fix.

*Light some torches and sing a rousing rendition of Tanti auguri a te, while eating a Nutella birthday cake.

Happy Birthday, Roma!  Still bella after all these years!

Graphic credit: Ancient

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Friends and Famiglia

While looking through some photos recently -old family treasures as well as newer shots- I realized just how many pictures I have (and how many I still need to label, categorize, and edit, but that's another story!)  Both sides of my family have boxloads and hard drives full of photos, so I think it must be a genetic trait to hold on to them instead of weeding them out.  While I really not a pack-rat, photos rarely get pitched. 

My grandmother was notorious for sneaking snapshots when you least expected it, although to her dismay a high proportion of her pictures decapitated someone or caught a corner of her thumb in the process.  It didn't matter, she kept them all and rolled them out at every family gathering.  I admit I always loved looking at them, laughing at the clothes and hairstyles, and reliving funny family moments.

While looking through and labeling some of my more recent shots, I realized that not only do we have wonderful familial ties with family members who are also friends, but I have treasured friends who have become a part of my family, too.  Glancing at the photos, it also struck me that some of these friends even look like family!

Can you tell which ones are related and which ones aren't?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A Day of Remembrance

This morning at 3:32 a.m. the bells of L'Aquila tolled resonantly, pealing 308 times for each victim of the earthquake that ravaged this city one year ago.  More than 20,000 people braved the high-altitude night chill and threatening rain to gather and commemorate the moment that changed their lives and their city forever. 

They snaked through the rubble-strewn centro storico in a solemn torch and candle-lit procession, making their way to the Piazza Duomo.  At 4:00 a.m. a mass was held inside the severely damaged Basilica, with big screens set up in the piazza to bring the message of hope and perseverance to the overflowing crowd.

While the tendopoli have been dismantled and prefabricated houses have been set up, they are temporary shelters far removed from the city, in "non places" that lack public transit connections, grocery stores, restaurants and gathering spots.  The residents are housed but they are not at home.  They are in a sort of limbo in a hinterland; the heart of their community has been destroyed and they do not yet have a place to regain that sense of being and belonging that they need and crave.  The centro is still overflowing with 4 1/2 million tons of rubble and the residents are not allowed to enter their old neighborhoods, their piazzas, their homes.

The earth-jarring, life-shattering quake took place one year ago.  The aftershocks have ceased, the victims have been buried, the survivors have carried on, but tremors of displacement, disillusion and devastation continue to rock their world.

Today I bow my head and pause to remember; I stand with the Aquilani to tell them that they are not forgotten.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Related Links:
Dear Davide:  A touching letter from 12-year old Sofia to a classmate who died in the earthquake.

3:32 a.m.:  Eleonora's experience during the earthquake and her time in Abruzzo.

Then and Now:  A photographic slideshow of scenes comparing them from a year ago to today.

Abruzzo: Un Anno Dopo il Terremoto - a report on the state of the area one year later (in Italian)

Adopt a Student from Abruzzo.  NIAF continues their support of Abruzzo students to help them continue their studies.

The Eagle is Slowly Rising.  My previous blog entries about L'Aquila.

** Post Edited 4/7/10 to add photos of the MAPs (Moduli Abitativi Provvisori, modular provisional housing units).  They are clumped together and located in rural areas or villages outside of L'Aquila.  A list of those locales is posted on the Protezione Civile website.   As the photos show, these are rapidly-constructed temporary dwellings, resembling glorified Tuff-sheds on concrete slabs.  They are certainly better than tents, but they do not embody or encourage the sense of "home" and place that make a community.