30 December 2012

LIFE: 2012 Out With a Bang

SARONNO, Italy –It wasn’t my intent to revisit the issue of gun control as we head into 2013, but the recent massacre in Newtown, Connecticut is far too tragic to pass without comment. As I wrote back in July in a post on gun control in Italy,
http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2012/07/life-gun-control-italian-style.html  my heart weeps for the victims, their families and the shooter as well, for he’s a victim too, a victim of his own sick mind aided and abetted by gun laws unlike any found in other civilized societies. 

Have You Ever Seen Anything So Sad?

You would think that the shooting of 6 and 7 year olds would make our lawmakers stop and seriously consider the consequences of their actions as they stubbornly defend American gun laws. But it is quite the contrary. After the Newtown incident State Senator Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg) introduced a bill that would allow students as young as first grade to carry handguns at school. 

I don’t get it. Anyone who can sit and watch the aftermath of the senseless killing of 6 and 7 year olds and not realize that more stringent gun laws are desperately needed in America must have a heart of stone and a brain to match.

And it’s not just the kids and teachers in Newtown. Let us not forget the two firemen who were gunned down by the guy who set fire to his house in order to lure the first responders into his trap and then hid behind a bush with a semi-automatic rifle and shot them when they arrived to do their very dangerous job on his behalf. Or any of the dozens of other shooting tragedies that take place on the streets of America every single day.

How can we live with such anxiety? Such uncertainty? Why must we send our children off to school with our hearts in our mouths, or go to a movie with a sense of dread? Why is this allowed?  Whose freedom is really being compromised, and why? Will public safety and security become so rare that soon the only place you will see it is in a Disney movie? You have to wonder just what it is going to take for people to write to their representatives and say enough is enough. Are they waiting until it happens to someone in their own family?   

While it may be a constitutional right of Americans to bear arms, where are our rights to move freely within a society without fear of another mentally deranged person popping up from behind a tree as happened in the killing of two first responders to a massive fire, or through the door of a movie theater, or someone forcing their way into another elementary school wielding an automatic weapon and letting loose?

Italy is a country that knows war first hand, its scars are still visible, the orphans the last war left behind are still alive. I used to tell people that in Italy you can’t even own bullets let alone a gun, but that isn’t exactly true. In this duly elected democratic country of Italy guns and bullets are not totally outlawed, but they are strictly controlled. The Italian Constitution does not recognize a citizen’s right to keep and bear arms.

Instead there are strict rules about who can own a gun and for what purpose. Private ownership of military style weapons (e.g. semi-automatic guns) is strictly forbidden and military ammunition is also forbidden. Guns are also limited to a certain capacity (e.g. maximum 15 rounds in handguns), and there are also restrictions on the total amount of ammunition which can be owned and how and where guns must be stored (e.g. in a locked cabinet).

To obtain a gun license applicants must be 18 or older, prove they can handle and use a firearm safely (new gun owners are required to attend a  firearms course at a registered shooting range and earn a certificate of completion), certify that they have a clean criminal record (which is verified by the Police) and must not be mentally ill or be a known abuser of, or addicted to, alcohol or illegal drugs.

I know I’ve said this before, but it is still true.  I realize I’m just another blogger in an ocean of bloggers who is truly horrified by these tragedies. And it’s not just the recent incidents that horrify me, it’s all the drive-bys and gang war shoot outs and the mentally maladjusted who think they can lean out of their second story windows with a loaded rifle and use the neighborhood kids for target practice – as actually happened on a street I lived on once. I’m just a person trying to understand why such horrible things are still allowed to happen to innocent people. The reasonable control of firearms is not a loss of personal freedom as touted by the National Rifle Association, but the contrary.

As we mourn the victims of America’s most recent tragedy, let us remember past victims as well.

1. August 1, 1966 Austin, Texas, University of Texas massacre 16 killed

2. May 4, 1970 Kent State University, Kent State massacre  4 killed

3. Jan. 1/7 1973, Essex, Mark James Robert, age 23 New Orleans, LA 9 killed

4. March 30 1975, Ruppert James Urban, age 40  Hamilton, OH, 11  killed

5. Sep. 25 1982 Banks, George Emil, age 40 Wilkes-Barre, PA 13 killed

6. July 18, 1984 San Diego, California, San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre 21 killed

7. Dec. 22-28 1987,  Simmons, Ronald Gene, age 47 Russellville, AR 16 killed

8. June 17/18 1990,  Pough James, Edward, age 42 Jacksonville, FL 11 killed

9. October 16, 1991 Killeen, Texas, Luby’s massacre  22 killed

10. January 8, 1993 Palatine, Illinois, Brown’s Chicken massacre 7 killed

11. April 20, 1999 Littleton, Colorado, Columbine High School massacre 15 killed

12. March 21 2005, Weise, Jeffrey James, age 16 Red Lake, MN  9 killed

13. March 25, 2006 Seattle, Washington, Capitol Hill massacre  6 killed

14. April 16, 2007 Blacksburg, Virginia, Virginia Tech Massacre  32 killed

15. April 3 2009, Wong, Jiverly Antares, age 41 Binghamton, NY, 13 killed

16. March 10 2009, McLendon Michael Kenneth, age 28 Kinston, Samson & Geneva, AL, 10 killed

17. November 5, 2009 Ft. Hood, Texas, Fort Hood Massacre 13 killed

18. January 8, 2011 Tucson, Arizona, Tucson supermarket massacre 6 killed

19. May 30, 2012, Seattle, WA, Café Racer Massacre, 6 killed

20. July 20, 2012 Aurora, Colorado, Colorado Movie Theater Massacre 12 killed

21. August 5, 2012 Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh Temple of Wisconsin,  7 killed

21, December 12, 1212 Newtown, Connecticut, 26 killed, 20 children, 6 adults  

You can agree with me or not, but think at least just about this: the number of people who died from mass shootings in Italy during the past 50 years is zero. Zero. 

27 December 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Sweet Holiday Treats

SARONNO, Italy - In Italy it’s hard to tell who looks forward to the holidays more, the kids or their grandparents. For different reasons of course.  Maybe the grandparents aren’t quite as enthusiastic as the kids are about what Babbo Natale is going to bring, probably because they know that Babbo Natale is the new guy in town and it’s really La Befana who fills those empty stockings.
Lazio, The Longest Christmas Stocking in the World
The grandparents also know that back in the day, before electronic gadgets and video games, the real Christmas treats were the dolce, the sweet cakes and pastries and goodies that made the holiday special. I remember my father waxing poetically about the orange he found in his Christmas stocking the year before the family emigrated to America, his joy at finding that special treat lasted his lifetime. Who knows how far and how long that orange had traveled before reaching that hilltop village of Piansano in northern Lazio.

It’s the time of year when the gifts, now shiny and new, will soon be forgotten, but the memory of those sweets will stay with us forever. In every town, big and small, from the mountains of Trentino Alto Adige to sunny Sicily, you will find local Christmas specialties that bring a smile and a nod, and a warm remembrance of Christmases past. Here are a few of them.

Starting in the northern region of Trentino Alto Adige you’ll find zelten, a dried fruit and candied fruit cake that gets its name from the German word selten, (rarely), which gives you an idea of how special it is. From Milan we get panettone, probably the most popular Chistmas cake in Italy today. A close second in popularity is pandoro, a specialty of Verona. It’s a tall yellow Christmas cake with the texture of pound cake.

As far back as the 15th century the bakers of Cremona, in Lombardy, were busy making torrone, a nougat candy made of honey, sugar, egg whites and hazelnuts. Torrone is actually older than that though, as it was listed as being served at a banquet in Milan hosted by Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1395. You find torrone all through Italy these days. In some regions they make it with hazelnuts, in others they use pistachios or almonds, it all depends on what is available locally.

In Siena you’ll find panforte,  an ancient sweet bread of raisins, nuts, white pepper and candied fruit. It’s called panforte – strong bread – because the dough is very stiff and difficult to work with. Siena is also known for ricciarelli, almond shaped cookies that are traditionally served on the feast day of the Annunciation, although they make them for Christmas as well.

In Genoa you’ll find pandolce, a  dome shaped fruit cake similar to panettone, but more dense. It is made with pine nuts, fruits and spices, most of which came through the port of Genoa before making the journey to waiting pastry chefs throughout Italy. Pandolce also contains Zibibbo, a local wine which gives the cake a slightly different flavor than other similar breads. Traditionally, the first cut is made by the youngest member of the family.

Panpepato, or pepper bread, is a specialty that comes down to us from the cloistered nuns of Ferrara, who developed the recipe sometime around the 15th century. On the Mediterranean side of Italy, in Lucania, it isn’t Christmas until the trays of cuscinetti,  small, fried pillows filled with chocolate or a sweetened chickpea cream are in the shop windows.

Heading south to Abruzzo you’ll find parrozzo, a dome shaped almond cake covered with chocolate icing. It gets its name from pan rozzo, or rough cake. At Christmas, the most famous creation in Naples is struffoli, a confectionary wonder of tiny balls of fried pastry dough covered in honey and sprinkled with tiny colored confetti called ‘diavolilli’. 

 Neapolitan Strufoli
In Puglia you start to see the Arab influence on the cuisine of the south starting with the heavy use of almonds and almond paste. Puglia’s mandorlaccio  a almond and honey cake dates back to pre-Roman times. It fell out of favor a few years ago but a few years ago it was brought back by a local baker, and now it has won several major awards. Mandorlaccio is now considered an important product typical of Puglia.

Another typical Pugliese treat are those crispy fried delights known as carteddate or cartellate. They are probably the oldest pastry around, having been found depicted in cave paintings from the sixth century BC. They were linked to the pagan cult of Demeter, the Roman goddess of the earth. The name comes from the Greek word for basket as pastry strips are cut and tied to form a type of basket and fried and then basted with vincotto. Vincotto is a southern specialty wine made from the must of the grapes and flavored with cinnamon, dried orange peel, cloves, grated lemon rind and bay leaves.

Like many Italian pastries, the origin of Sicily’s buccellato is unclear. What is certain is that the Sicilian version of buccellato is a cornucopia of the island’s bounty,  a combination of figs, raisins, dates, nuts (usually almonds) and candied citrus like fruits. The filling is wrapped in a large round pastry shell or made into small pastry wrapped cookies.

There was a time when the richness of the buccellato represented good fortune and prosperity, and it was used to celebrate special family occasions such as baptisms and weddings. Today buccellato is most often seen at Christmas, but unlike its northern neighbors who crank out their Christmas panettone by the thousands, buccellato is still made by hand, one at a time, and that’s nice, don’t you think?  Happy holidays.

23 December 2012

LIFE: Is For the Living

SARONNO, Italy - There are times when I am overwhelmed by where I am. There are times when I am rushing through the alleys and back streets of one small Italian town or another and I find myself suddenly caught up in an illuminated pinpoint of time that grabs my imagination. My mind flashes back a thousand years and I can see other women rushing down the very same street in a hurry to get to wherever they are going, just like me.   


The sense of past is very strong here, even in my apartment. Sitting where I am sitting at this moment is like sitting in a crowded room. And now that my plans to move back to the Riviera are finally finalized, that feeling is only going to get stronger as I go back to an area so rich in history that at times it even overwhelms and confounds the most celebrated historians.

I fell in love with Liguria many years ago, a good ten years before I moved to Italy, and it was all because of a chance encounter with the town of Lerici. I don’t even remember why I was in Italy, if it was for work or if it was a vacation, all I know is my at-the-time significant other and I decided to spend a few days at the seaside and somehow Lerici is where we landed. 

Lerici is just a snippet of a place, part of the Italian Riviera and a stone’s throw from the Cinque Terre and Portovenere. The town is so old even historians don’t know when it  was founded. They do know that at one time it was called ‘portus Eliycis,’  a name that may have come from the Greek ‘Iliakos’ (of Ilium, Trojan), leading some to believe that Lerici was founded by a group of refugees fleeing the Trojan war.

But what happened in Lerici, what made me decide at that moment in time to definitely move to Italy instead of just thinking about it, more precisely to move to the Riviera, is still a mystery even to me. I cannot, however, deny the attraction I had, and still have, not just for Lerici, but for the entire region. 
 Port of Lerici
I would never say moving to Italy was easy, not the decision nor the execution, but there was an irresistible force that Lerici triggered and there was no turning back. So now I can once again thank Lerici for the next phase of my life as I return to Liguria and the Italian Riviera. My destination is Chiavari, a gorgeous little city on the sea, my estimated time of arrival is mid-January. 

Is my new apartment perfect? No. Is my building an historic landmark? No, most definitely not. But it doesn’t matter, not at this point.  What does matter, at least to me, is following my heart and knowing that at the end of my life I will have no regrets. 

So on this Sunday before Christmas I thank all of you who follow this blog, your support is very much appreciated as are your comments and suggestions, and I wish you all the courage in the world to follow your own hearts, and while you are at it, have the very best holiday season ever.  Buon Natale.