31 January 2010

LIFE: Ten Things Plus Two - Renting in Italy

When I first moved to Italy my number one priority was to find an apartment of my own. Little did I know what was in store for me as I bravely, and blindly, stepped into the wonderful world of Italian real estate. Here’s what I found:

1. Watch Your Language: They use local dialect in real estate ads. What was confusing was that I never saw the word “rooms” as in “number of rooms.” Why? Because in Genoa the word for rooms is “vani”. Here in Milan it’s “locale”.

2. Please Sit – Oh Never Mind. Some apartments don’t have living rooms. My first furnished (arredato) apartment in Italy was in the tiny borgo of Santa Maria Quezzi, up in the hills behind Genoa. I was told it was a two bedroom apartment, but there were only three rooms. Hmmmm.

One room was definitely the bedroom; the second room had a bookcase/storage unit on one wall and a sofa. The third room was a dining room with a round table and four chairs, an easy chair and a TV stand. Since the easy chair matched the sofa in the other room, I moved it in there and made that the living room. But then I began to notice something odd. Visitors were always very uncomfortable when I took them into my “living room”. After a while it dawned on me that I was actually entertaining my guests in a bedroom but they were just too polite to say anything.

3. What is This? If you are renting a standard unfurnished apartment it won’t have a kitchen – what I mean is you will not find a stove, a refrigerator, a sink, cupboards or countertop. What you will find is an empty room with water and gas pipes sticking out from one wall. The rest is up to you. Why? Beats me.

4. I’ll Just Lean Here. If an apartment is listed as semi-furnished it will have a kitchen with a stove, sink, refrigerator, cupboards and countertop. But no actual furniture like tables and chairs.

5. Let the Séance Begin. Do not expect to find light fixtures – anywhere. Just wires sticking out of holes, color coded ghosts of illuminations past.

6. Can’t Hold Your Water? Double service (doppio servizi) means two bathrooms.

7. Drip Dry. No towel racks or toothbrush holders but lots and lots of holes where previous tenants hung theirs.

8. Just Put Your Bottle of Aspirin, ahhh ….Maybe There? Your Italian bathroom will not have a medicine cabinet, or a mirror, or a cabinet under the sink or a linen closet either. But it will have a bidet.

9. Walk In? Not Exactly. You will marvel at the amount of space needed to put up an armoire that will give you 1/5 of the closet space you could have if they would just hang a rod and put a door in front of it. You will need a handyman/carpenter to assemble and disassemble your closets when you move in and move out.

10. Roll On. Apartment in dire need of a paint job? It’s on you. Your local paint store is the best place to get names of painters. If you are doing this in August, save your breath, you won’t see a soul until mid September.

11. Put a Lid On It. Garages are called boxes. Some apartments may have a dispensa, which is a pantry, a ripostiglio, a broom closet and/or a tinello, which is an ante-camera between the kitchen and the living room for informal entertaining.

12. Four Plus Four. A normal rental contract is four years plus four more years for a total of eight. Your contract must be registered with the Comune (City Hall) in order for it to be legal – and for you to have any rights as a tenant. If you want to cancel the contract you must send your landlord a registered letter 6 months prior to the expiration date.

What your Italian apartment will most likely have are marble floors, very high ceilings, a huge bathtub, unlimited hot water, at least one balcony but usually two or three, a sense of history if you are lucky, and the best of all - when you step out the door - you are in Italy.

28 January 2010

Auntie Pasta - Rice is Nice

SARONNO, Italy –There is an advertisement for an exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions playing on the message board down at the Saronno train station. The exhibit is being held at the Castle in Vigevano and will be there until 5 April 2010. What are on display are the things he invented in the late 1400’s when he was working for Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan.

Some of the things he invented were truly fantastic: flying machines, tanks, submarines, cranes, tanks and even robots. So what does this have to do with food? Actually a lot. One of the things that Leonardo designed was a hinged watertight gate, a flood gate that became part of the canal system he designed to irrigate the flat fields of northern Italy which belonged to the Duke of Milan. And then they planted rice.

Today, more than 500 years later, they still grow rice in Lombardy. There are more than a dozen varieties of rice produced here, and frankly it can be a bit overwhelming for an ex-Uncle Ben-er like me. But I ask, and the Italian Mamma’s are always ready to help out. They seem to know a lot about rice.

In a publicity photos for the 1949 Italian movie Bitter Rice, the story of a young woman who works in the rice paddies of Lombardy, a buxom Silvana Mangano is shown standing in a flooded rice field wearing tight shorts and torn black stockings, her hair falling over smoldering dark eyes. She looks sexy and you might get the impression that picking rice was a romantic thing to do.

In reality, the women who worked in the rice fields didn’t have much time to think about looking sexy as they were constantly being assaulted - both above and below the water line. From above, the hot summer sun beat down on their heads while swarms of mosquitoes buzzed around them in a feeding frenzy. From below, snakes of all sizes, lizards and slippery green frogs slithered through their legs.

In the film and in real life, the women were migrant workers traveling by bus from one rice cooperative to another. They slept in specially built dormitories, spending months planting, weeding and harvesting rice. They worked in rows, moving backwards, controlled by an overseer who sat high on a chair like a tennis umpire. When the women got close to the end of a field, the overseer would call out and some of them would move in order to leave a space for the little critters (which had been driven back as the women progressed down the field) to escape. They said the water churned like it was boiling as the frogs and snakes desperately scrambled to find a way out.

On days like today, when it’s foggy and gray and I’m in my cozy kitchen stirring up a fragrant saffron gold risotto Milanese for lunch, I think about Leonardo. I hope he knows the systems he created and the canals he laid out to irrigate those rice paddies are still in use. And I think about those women who traveled from rice paddy to rice paddy and made Italy what it is today, the largest rice producer in Europe.

It wasn’t until after World War II that they mechanized the rice fields and the women went home, got married and became respectable Signoras. Actually it wouldn’t surprise me if they were the same women I run into in the grocery store, the very same ones who seem to know an awful lot about rice.

Photo: Risotto alla Milanese; Silvano Mangano
And thanks to the reader who sent this link to the exhibit: www.leoanardoevigevano.it

24 January 2010

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves – and Zingari

SARONNO, Italy - “My father called me last night. He told me not to leave my key in the inside keyhole of the door at night anymore because the Zingari have this new thing that they put in the lock that can turn your key and open your door,” says Sara, a young Italian friend of mine. “They buy them on the internet.” She also warns me to pull down the heavy wooden blinds to cover my windows and balcony doors as well because they, the Zingari, can climb right up the sides of buildings and get into your apartment. “They train like circus people,” she says.

Later that day I see Andrea, a particularly savvy Saronnese businessman  and ask him about it. “It is true,” he says. “I know they can climb up the buildings because I saw that for myself. Once there was a boy climbing up the side of the building across the street from us, my father called the police.”

“So, what did the police do?”

“Nothing,” he says. “They never do anything. A while back two Zingari girls walked into my friend’s office over near Cesano Maderno and stole his wife’s purse. She took the surveillance tapes down to the Carabineri office and they recognized the girls who did it. They know who they are.”

“What did the Carabineri do?”

“They went to the Zingari camp and told the girls to bring back the purse and everything that was in it.”

“Did they?” I ask.

“Not yet,” he says. “It’s been more than a month so I doubt they have any intention of returning anything. They probably sold everything the first day.”

"So what is going to happen,” I ask.

“Nothing. Nothing ever happens. The Zingari are protected by the European Union, we just have to put up with it.”

When I moved to Milan and started riding the subways, Rom (which is what they like to be called) would often board the trains to beg for money. After a few months I began to recognize the various Rom families that worked the Red Metro Line. There was one family in particular that interested me; a man, whom I assumed was the father, and two young children, a boy and a girl. The father would play a few tunes on his accordion and the children would walk up and down the subway car holding out paper cups in the hope that someone would make a donation.

As the years passed the children grew and one day the young boy, who was then about 14 years old, and his younger sister got on the subway alone. This time he had an accordion and she worked the crowd. They worked together for a couple of years, and then one day he was alone. I wondered what had happened to his sister, but I was afraid to ask. Then a few months later I saw her on the street. She was pregnant. She recognized me and held out her cup knowing I would give her money as I always had in the past.

Watching her that day I wondered about her life. She wasn’t born in a “travelin’ show, and her mama didn’t dance for the money they’d throw,” no matter how sweetly Cher sang it. And there was certainly nothing romantic or exciting about standing on a street corner shaking an old paper cup and looking pitiful. I couldn’t help but think if I were her I would fight with everything I had to leave the clan rather than subject my child to a life of certain poverty, but that may be because I’m not part of it.

Photo: Cover of Bury Me Standing, an insightful book on the Rom by Isabel Fonseca.

18 January 2010

Auntie Pasta - Sunday Chicken

There is a recipe in an Italian cooking magazines for a whole chicken baked in a salt crust that I have been looking at for months. It’s pretty straightforward: take a whole chicken, put a garlic clove and some thyme in the cavity, put it in a heavy baking dish, bury it under 6 lbs of kosher salt and bake it in a hot oven.

So on Sunday I decided to try it. But since I already know I don’t have that extra cucina X gene the Italians have, I decided to look the recipe up on the internet just to make sure there were no other instructions for the recipe that had inadvertently been somehow passed over. Who was it that said, “trust but verify?”

The recipes I found on the internet were not the same as the Italian recipe. Some called for the addition of flour and water to the salt, which I think is the recipe to make paper mache’. Others called for flour, water and eggs to be added to the salt, which I think is a recipe to make a big mess. So I decided to go with the Italian version. Just salt.

After washing and drying the chicken I put a couple of peeled garlic cloves and about a teaspoon of fennel seeds in the cavity. The recipe calls for fresh thyme, not fennel, but it’s January and I don’t have any fresh thyme, so I went with what I had. Then I opened all the boxes of salt.

The first pan I used was too small and every time I tried to heap the salt around and on top of the chicken the salt would spill out of the pan. So I got a bigger pan. That worked a little better but the salt wasn’t doing what I thought it was suppose to do, so I decided to add a little water.

With the salt now the consistency of mushy snow, I could mold it around the chicken. It actually worked pretty well. So I piled it up, put it in a very hot oven, (200° C/400°F) poured myself a glass of wine and went in the other room to watch the news on CNN. Cooking time: 1 hour, 15 minutes for a 2lb chicken.

I bought my chicken at Valter’s Pollame, Saronno’s specialty poultry store. It’s just a tiny little hole in the wall shop and Valter, the owner, keeps busy selling chickens, turkey, game hens, Guina hens, ducks, rabbits, eggs. Chickens come in different categories: a pollo novella is a spring chicken, a pollastrella is a young chicken that hasn’t started to lay eggs, a gallina is an egg-laying chicken, a galletto is a young rooster and a pollo ruspante is a free-range chicken. During the holidays he also sells capons, which are to Christmas Day in Italy what turkeys are to Thanksgiving in the States.

You can buy your poultry whole, or in pieces, except for turkeys, they are sold cut up. If you want a whole turkey, although the Italians can’t imagine why anyone would want something that big, you have to special order it. Valter is very accommodating. Everything is sold fresh and if you buy your bird whole, it will still have its head and feet so there is no doubt as to what it is.

What you don’t get are livers, gizzards or hearts. They are sold separately, even in the supermarket. But you can buy one chicken liver if you want, or two hearts and one gizzard. No questions asked. And many of the Italian mammas do buy just one to use in different recipes.

When the chicken was cooked, I took it out of the oven and let it sit while I cooked some carrots and potatoes. I had new potatoes so I boiled them up and I steamed a few carrots. So far so good.

Then I tried to break the crust. Hmmmmm. That turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I pounded it with a wooden spoon a few times and didn’t make a dent, so I got a sharp knife and jabbed a hole in it. I have to say the most delicious odor came floating out from under that crust, the garlic and fennel worked really well. After peeling away the crust I transferred the chicken to a serving plate, wiped off last few bits of salt and sliced it up.


Photo: (1) A poultry market in Europe; (2) a Bresse chicken; (3) a proud poultry farmer

17 January 2010

On The Road - Vigevano

This post is the beginning of a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a recent New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. Most of the towns are small, all are rich in history and art and for the most part they are off the beaten track which, for me, makes them all the more interesting.

VIGEVANO, Italy - Call me a romantic fool but you gotta love a guy who builds (or rebuilds) himself a castle for his 40th birthday. It just goes to show what money and power can do. In this case the money and the power was in the hands of the 15th century Duke of Milan, Ludovico Maria Sforza, known as il Moro, the Moor.

The birthday castle is in Vigevano, a half hour train ride from Milan. The town is usually quiet but today the main piazza is buzzing with activity having been taken over by an Italian film crew.

“They’re filming a television commercial for a new Italian travel magazine,” says the woman standing next to me. “It’s about Vigevano,” she says pointing to an old man dressed in a Renaissance costume.

Ten minutes later nothing much is happening so I walk across the black and white stone piazza and go up the stairs that are under a tall clock tower designed by Donato Bramante. At the top there is a wide expanse of grass and across the way is the brick castle, solid and massive and more fort like than fanciful. The Duke hired Bramante, who had just finished St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, to bring the 12th century Vigevano castle up to 15th century standards. What you see today is the result of Bramante's genius.

Part of the renovation included a separate residence wing behind the main section of the castle for the Duke’s bride-to-be, Beatrice d’Este of Ferrara. Separate quarters were normal as there was no concept of romantic love between husband and wife during the Renaissance. Beatrice, like most wealthy young women of her time, was no more than a marriageable pawn used to create alliances between powerful families.

She was only five years old when the Duke made the deal to marry her, and her dowry of four hundred thousand gold ducats, (valued at close to $1 million in pre-World War I dollars when the ducat was still a viable currency) no doubt sweetened the pot. Beatrice and the Duke were married in January of 1491. The bride was sixteen, the groom, thirty-nine.

Walking around the main part of the castle I go through a tall arched door and find myself on a wide covered road. Above my head, mammoth wooden beams criss-cross the vaulted dome, and the only light comes from the narrow windows placed close to the ceiling.

During World War II when the Germans commandeered the castle to use as their headquarters, they used this road to drive their trucks and tanks right into the castle compound. Pretty amazing when you consider the road was built by hand in 1345. It is still used daily by locals as a shortcut through town.

Across the grassy courtyard from the castle sits a long, low building that once housed the horses for the Duke’s army of 1000 mercenaries. It was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Inside, there are two long rows of evenly spaced marble columns that mark the edge of the stalls and flank a center foot path.

To this day no one has been able to figure out how Leonardo managed to raise those massive columns all in one piece. It had never been done before. The only clue is the three round indentations, each about the size of a quarter, near the base of the columns. Some experts think they were made by a machine Leonardo invented specifically for the task. But it’s only speculation.

With the Duke in residence Vigevano became a thriving commercial center. Twice a week a general market was held in the main piazza. Local farmers sold fruits and vegetables, poultry and pigs and merchants sold the wool and silk produced in and around Vigevano. Public executions were held there as well.

If you were condemned for sodomy, the most serious crime of the day, you were burned at the stake. The wood for the fire was carried in from the nearby woods by harlots who were then publicly charged with the lesser crime of prostitution, and hanged. And while they waited for the executions to begin the locals shopped, visited with neighbors and caught up on the latest gossip. Locals still shop at the weekly market, the hangings however, have been discontinued.

The Duke considered Vigevano an example of Leonard’s “ideal” city and there are many similarities between the sketches found in Leonardo’s Atlantic Codex and the Vigevano castle and piazza. Apart from the visual perfection of the piazza, two things that stand out are the oddly shaped chimneys, which are merely decorative, and the black and white stones under your feet, which are a local industry.

The stones come from the nearby Ticino River where stone collectors, wearing thigh high rubber boots, wade into the water and scan the bottom for stones of a certain size and color. They put the best ones into a small boat they pull along behind them as they work.

The stones were once carried in hand woven straw baskets tied to the backs of mules through the mountains and valleys of northern Italy to decorate piazzas in towns as close Genoa and as far away as Venice. In the 14th century, a Venetian craftsman discovered that by adding ground up white pebbles from the Ticino River to a soda ash solution he was able to filter out the impurities in Venetian glass. The glassmakers of Murano rejoiced for that breakthrough launched the Venetian glassmaking industry.

An afternoon visit to the castle, a leisurely aperitif under the porticos that ring the piazza, will put you in the company of generations of Vigevanesi. It’s a different kind of Italian experience not found in any guide book. It’s the quiet discovery of the Italy Italians enjoy.

Photos: (1) A corner of Vigevano's Main Piazza; (2) Bramante’s Tower; (3)Leonardo da Vinci's Stable; (4) Collecting Stones One by One

p.s. At the Vigevano Castle: Leonardo da Vinci's output during his time in Lombardy; 'virtual codex' on flying, botany, mathematics, weaponry, astronomy, engineering and architecture; until April 5.

13 January 2010

Auntie Pasta - The Joy of Cooking Italian

It’s taken me a while to get the hang of Italian recipes even though I’ve been cooking for – I don’t even want to tell you how many years. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that Italians must have an extra gene, a special cucina gene that I am missing. The recipes call for a lot of food knowledge and in typical Italian fashion they can be extremely detailed and deliberately vague at the same time.

I’m finally comfortable buying by the etto, gram and kilo, but there are other measurements based on things like wine glasses and desert spoons that I still don’t get. When a recipe calls for a wine glass of heavy cream do they mean a wine glass like my cousin Jimmy uses which is about the size of a Slurpy cup, or a wine glass like my Aunt Louise uses, which is more like a thimble?

Just as I sat mesmerized by Julia Childs back in the 70’s, watching her fumble through dishes I still can’t pronounce, I now sit mesmerized by a group of young Italian chefs on cable TV. Like Julia Childs, they tend to stick to traditional recipes, and make them pretty much the same way their mothers and grandmothers do.

My current favorite is Mario Bacherini. The thing I like about him is that he always gives you a little background on the origin of the recipe. And he explains things. For example I’ve learned that a pizzico of salt is the amount you can pick up with two fingers. But if a recipe calls for una presa of salt, that is the amount you can pick up with four fingers.

The abbreviations are another story. My personal favorite is q.b. quanto basta, or to taste. Lots of ingredients are q.b. but don’t fall into the trap of thinking Italians are lackadaisical about these things because that kind of thinking will get you into trouble.

I have given sets of American measuring cups to some of my Italian friends who love American cookies, especially Brownies, and want to make them at home. They think the cups are cute but totally useless. They translate my recipes into grams and liters and all the rest and make whatever changes they think are necessary. Then they bake them in an oven heated to 175 degrees Celsius and yum, real American cookies. They want my recipe for pie crust too but there is nothing here that even comes close to Crisco and I’m not parting with even one pizzico of my coveted supply.

I once made the mistake of buying an Italian cookbook that had been translated into British English. Some of the ingredients called for in the recipes were: caster sugar, bunches of aromas, lacetto and matured cottage cheese. I finally figured out that caster sugar is just British English for regular white sugar and bunches of aromas are bouquet garni, but I confess I still don’t have a clue what lacetto or matured cottage cheese is.

One recipe in the book called for 400 grams of cuttlefish and a few ink sacks. I guess they sell ink sacks at some fish stores but not at my fish store. Maybe it’s a special order. And then there was the recipe that started with: pluck and clean the pheasant. Remove the head, feet and giblets and singe the bird. Then cut it into four parts. This is scary stuff to me. We may speak the same language but we were starting from two completely different points of view.

But in the end, thanks to Mario, I’ve learned that even the most complicated dishes are really not difficult, they just sound that way. And as for the measurements, well you know what they say: when in Rome do as the Romans do, or in my case, I do whatever Mario does.

Photos:(1) Mario Bacherini:(2,3,)Learning to cook step by step: (4)Chef Mariangela Susigan, Michelin star chef of Gardenia Restaurant, Caluso (TO).

10 January 2010

The Wonderful World of Language

 Saronno, Italy
SARONNO, Italy - Just the other day I was cleaning out my desk when I came across an interview Madonna gave to the Hungarian newspaper Blikk when she was in Budapest filming Evita. The questions were asked in Hungarian and then translated into English. Madonna answered in English and her answers were translated first into Hungarian and then retranslated from Hungarian back into English. Here’s a sample.

Blikk: Madonna, Budapest says hello with arms that are spread-eagled. Did you have a visit here that was agreeable? Are you in good odor? You are the biggest fan of our young people who hear your musical productions and like to move their bodies in response.

Madonna: Thank you for saying these compliments. Please stop with taking sensationalist photographs until I have removed my garments for all to see. This is a joke I have made.

Blikk: Madonna, let’s cut toward the hunt. Are you a bold hussy-woman that feasts on men who are tops?

Madonna: Yes, yes this is certainly something that brings to the surface my longings. In America it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discothèque setting with hardy cocktails present. And there is a more normal attitude toward leather play toys that also makes my day.

Blikk: Is this how you met Carlos, your love servant who is reputed? Did you know he was heaven-sent right off the stick? Or were you dating many other people in your bed at the same time?

Those of us who struggle with a foreign language on a daily basis can well appreciate the obvious difficulties the translator had with English, especially the idioms. But it works both ways. One of the persistent problems I have with Italian is trying to decipher the sex of things. For example, la tazza, the cup, is feminine, but il piatto, a plate is masculine, and why?

Italians are not very sympathetic to my problem as they have their own issues with English. While it is natural for them to assign a sex to a shoe (feminine) or a book (masculine), and to have a special word for everything (fuoco = fire, but incendio = on fire) they want to know why English uses the same words over and over again to mean different things? Maybe the answer is for the opposite reason Italians say perchè, poichè, che, giachhè or sicome when all they really want to say is because.

And the contradictions, they lament. Why do you Americans say ‘wish you were here’ when you are talking about the present? And if Sam asks you if you are hungry while you are talking to your mother and you tell her what Sam said, why do you have to say ‘Sam asked me if I was hungry,’ when Sam is asking you now and you are answering now and yes, you are hungry now?

And why do you insist on talking about the present in the past, they want to know. No wonder we Italians get confused. And if that were not bad enough, you also have the nasty habit of talking about the future in the present. The train leaves tomorrow morning at 7 AM. Don’t you really want to say the train is going to leave?

Wait just a second I say. Italian is not so clear either. The ino, etto, otto business is enough to drive anyone to drink. A gatto is a cat, but a gattino is a kitten. A giovane is a young man, but a giovanotto is a younger young man than a giovane. Sometimes you can put two endings together, like otto and ino as in giovanottino. Then you have a really young man who is younger than a young man, or do you?

Then there is one, which conveys a sense of largeness, as in the word bacione, a big kiss, as opposed to bacio, which is just a regular size kiss. However, when you add one to some words they go through a sex change. Take the feminine noun, la donna, the woman. To say a big woman it becomes il donnone. Does that mean that the big woman is no longer female? Beats me.

It’s the same with la palla, the ball. If you add one to la palla (feminine) it becomes il pallone (masculine) but if there is more than one ball, then it’s le palle, (feminine) which, as you probably know becomes the basis of that Italianisma saying, ma, che palle, that only has a little bit to do with playing ball and absolutely nothing to do with being feminine.

My Italian friends tell me I am obsessed with terrorists, but surely this is a terrorist plot to keep me from understanding what is going on. I don’t even want to get into what I like and what is pleasing to me and what you like and what is pleasing to you, although if you want to talk about it a little later it just might be pleasing to both of us.

04 January 2010

The Befana

I was in the grocery store the other day when a little kid, about 5 years old, said to me, “what are those?” He was pointing to a display of rather ugly Befana witches hanging in a prominent point of sale position near the checkout counter.

“Witches,” I said. His eyed widened and I could see that he was afraid of them, so I quickly added, “but they are good witches.”

I thought it an odd question but when he backed up against his mother I realized they were not Italian but South American. And from the look on his face I’m sure his mother is going to have to do a lot of explaining over the next few days.

The litttle boy probably knows the Epiphany as el Dia de los Tres Reyes, or la Fiesta de Reyes. It isn't surprising that he never heard of the Befana as the Befana is a uniquely Italian creation. She was originally a pagan Goddess, I'm guessing Strenia since the word for gifts in Italian is strega, and like many other Roman Gods and Goddesses this pagan Goddess was gradually incorporated into Christianity.

The Christian story is that the Befana gave shelter to the three Wise Men who were on their way to see the Baby Jesus. They wanted her to go with them but she refused. Then she changed her mind, but by then it was too late. So to make up for it she began bringing sweets and gifts to children which she puts in the stockings they hang up the night of January 5. The next day, January 6 is the Epiphany, the end of the Christmas season, the last of the 12 days of Christmas we all sing about.

I remember my father telling me how thrilled he used to be to find an orange among the goodies in his stocking on the morning of the Epiphany. That was in the pre iPod, Gameboy Italy of the early 1900’s. An orange may not be as special now as it was a hundred years ago but other things never change. For the past few weeks I’ve passed many a mother and grandmother sing songing this rhyme to their little ones:

la Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte, con un sacco pien di doni da portare ai bimbi buoni.”

Loosely translated it says, the Befana comes at night with broken shoes and a bag full of presents to give to good children. What it doesn’t say is that if they are not good all they will find in their stocking is a lump of coal. And the kids know this is true because lumps of the stuff are on sale everywhere. And who knows how the Befana spends her time between Epiphanies, maybe she makes all that sugar coal herself, or ….

There are a lot of things we don’t know. For example, sometimes she flies in on a broom and comes down the chimney, but then again she may come on a donkey and get in through the keyhole. You never know so you might want to leave a few carrots on the windowsill just in case. After all, she is a witch.

Photos: The Befana and her stash of coal, Filling a Epiphany stocking; A more gentle Befana

03 January 2010

It's a New Day, It's a New Year

It’s New Year’s Day 2010. The morning talk show hosts are all reminiscing about the year that was, the stars that died and celebrating the fact that Spumante, Italy’s favorite sparkling wine, outsold French champagne in the U.S.A. in 2009.

The other thing they are talking about are horoscopes. According to the star gazers I’m going to have a very good, very profitable and interesting year. I think they always say that, but it makes me hopeful and I think that is the whole idea.

What they never talk about are New Year’s Resolutions. The Italians don’t know what they are, although they do talk about New Year’s Wishes. It’s almost the same thing, but not exactly. They wish for things and we work toward things, but it is close enough.

My New Year’s Resolutions for 2010 are few and fairly simple.

Resolution No. 1.
I want to travel more this year, do a bit more exploring. There are quite a few places in Italy that I have never visited like the town of Aosta in the mountainous northwestern corner of Italy, near the French border. Aosta fascinates me but I’m not sure why. It’s an old Roman town, founded 25 years before Christ was born, but there are many towns in Italy that have Roman roots including Saronno. For some reason I’ve had this Aosta itch for a number of few years now and 2010 definitely seems like the year to scratch it.

Resolution No. 2.
I want to write a book with my daughter. Maybe we will travel together this year and write an “On the Road” book. She is infinitely curious about people and place and things and wonderfully attuned to the world around her. And apart from the fact that she is such good company and always up for an adventure ….. she likes to drive.

Resolution No. 3.
I would like this baby blog to grow into a full blown web site and take on a life of its own. I want to see it all grown up with podcasts and video clips and all the bells and whistles this technology offers.

If I can accomplish those three things it really will be a very good year, maybe not profitable but definitely interesting.

Photos: (1)The bell tower of Sant’ Orso in Aosta (2) The Roman theatre in Aosta