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!