Sunday, May 8, 2011

To be continued . . .

Saturday, May 7
Sadly, our three months plus a week comes to an end today. We have been in Padova this week, catching up on rest and re-living memories of the year we spent here when I taught at the English International School of Padua. I have also used the time to catch up on my blogging. I wish I had kept a blog in 2001-02, because we had some great adventures then that we still remember and I will someday put into writing, but I’m sure I have forgotten some of the best details. I have about twenty pages of notes, but I was too busy teaching fifth grade for the first time to keep up the way I have during this trip.

We fly back to Seattle Sunday, and then I have to get back to work in Gig Harbor. We exceeded our budget for this adventure about two weeks ago and have had to borrow for the first time, but we certainly have no regrets. The story has not ended, but it is on pause until late January 2012, with perhaps a few updates in between on the Italian passport issue. Thanks for reading and encouraging me to continue writing. Arrivederci a tutti!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Language blunders embarrassing but, from distance of time, amusing

Wednesday, May 4
For the most part, I have given up being shy or hesitant about my stilted Italian. I know I make lots of mistakes, but then so do some Italians when they speak English, and that doesn’t bother me. In fact, some of the mistakes that Italians make are downright endearing. When Suzye and Lindsey’s friend from their Italian school days would call our home on the phone, she would say, “I am Erika. Is there Suzye?” This was an exact translation of what is perfectly acceptable to say in Italian, and it actually taught me how to phrase these statements when I speak Italian. I thought about telling her that it is more appropriate to say, “This is Erika. Is Suzye there?” but I loved to hear her say it this way, so I kept quiet. Someone has clued her in now, and she doesn’t say it in the Italian way any more, but we still keep the memory.

I am probably still clueless about many of my own misstatements, though I do remember a couple fairly vividly. In 2001, I was carrying three large suitcases and a smaller carry-on, riding a train from Rome to Padova, where I was about to spend ten months teaching at a British school. Getting the suitcases aboard took a major struggle, because I had to leave two on the platform while I put the other two onboard, and then go back for the others. After I took my seat, I had a short conversation with an Italian seat-mate. Very short, because my Italian was extremely limited then. As the train neared Bologna, where I had to switch trains, I decided to ask him for help getting my luggage off the train. So after telling him I had “quattro valigie,” I asked, “Posso auitarmi con le valigie?” He paused for a second and then said, “Certo.” I sat for a minute, pleased that I would have some assistance, and then I reviewed the conversation in my head. That’s when I realized that I had said, “Can I help myself?” instead of “Can you help me?” I tried to correct myself, but he said something like, “Don’t worry about it. I understood what you meant anyway.”

Riding a bus in Padova during the school year, I embarrassed myself again. A lady got on the bus and sat in the empty seat next to me. Then she said something with “posto” at the end of the sentence. One of the lines in my Italian textbook had the phrase, “É occupato, questo posto?” which means, “Is this seat occupied?” Thinking that must be what she said, I said, “No.” She gave me a funny look and then spoke to a man standing next to her, saying essentially the same thing. He said yes, and she got up and went to talk to friend a few seats ahead of us. Then she came back and sat in the empty seat next to me, and by this time I realized that she had said, “Puo salvare questo posto?” I had rudely but unintentionally refused to save her seat for her. I was able to apologize and showed her the vocabulary flash cards that at that moment I had in my hands because I was “imparando Italiano,” learning Italian. We were both able to smile at my blunder, and I was grateful for the chance to explain myself.

Australian Chris Harrison, in his entertaining book Head over Heel, tells how he wanted to rent a paddleboat, but instead of asking may we rent a pedalò , he asked to rent a pedofilo. Just two little extra letters made a boat into a pedophile and him into a laughingstock among his new Italian friends.

My friends Steve and Patti tell me a couple of stories about friends of theirs who made similar mistakes. One lady was asked at a restaurant if she wanted bottled water, and she said no, she would just like water from the rubinetto, the water faucet in the sink. Well, that’s what she thought she said, but the waiter seemed shocked. What she had actually said was that she wanted water from the gabinetto. That would be from the toilet.

My all-time favorite language blunder was made by their friend Terry, a fellow missionary who was with them in Rome, taking Italian lessons at the time. Before I can explain his mistake, I need to give a mini-lesson. To say that you like something in Italian, you should say, “Mi piace” or “Mi piacciono.” Piacere means “to please,” so saying “mi piace” really means “it pleases me,” and “mi piacciono” means “they please me.” To say you are sorry for something, you simply change piace to dispiace, meaning “it displeases me.” Please note that “mi piace” and “mi dispiace” sound very similar. As Steve tells the story, Terry was riding on a very crowded bus, which made a sudden lurch, causing him to stumble headfirst in the chest of a very buxom Italian woman. And you can probably guess what the poor flustered American missionary said: “Mi piace, mi piace!” Well, of course that’s not what he meant to say. Or maybe it was, but if you were really paying attention during the Italian lesson, you should realize that in that case he should have said, “Mi piacciono.”

Leaving a home, returning to another

Monday & Tuesday, May 2 & 3
It is taking us a good part of Monday to pack. Since we have decided to come back to the same place for another three months next year, we are leaving all our household items here at the agriturismo. Luca has told us to just pile the boxes into his van and he will take them to store in their warehouse. We had considered looking for a less expensive place to stay next year, but less expensive could mean we might be without wireless Internet, without adequate heat, without warm and strong showers and without the convenience of having absolutely no worries or extra bills for maintenance or utilities. We also love the fact that right outside our kitchen is a patio with a large umbrella that we can put up or down so we can eat in the shade or sun, whichever is preferable at the moment.

Perhaps even more importantly, we feel at home in this place and in this neighborhood. We have started to develop some relationships that we hope will grow stronger in 2012, and in years to come, if we continue coming here, which appears likely at this point.

By midnight, we have not finished packing, but we go to bed to catch a few hours of sleep before we have to take Randy, Lela and Micah to the airport in Pisa. I take them in the rental car at 4:15 a.m. while Lucy gets up to finish the packing. I find the airport with no problems, but I miss a turn on the way back and find myself in the little town of Cascine, wherever that is. I find a sign to Lucca at one intersection, and then there is nothing about Lucca at the next four intersections. If I had a map, I would be fine, but I thought I would just be going from one autostrada to another. I missed the first turn because there was no proper advance warning, just a sign right at the exit, actually about 20 feet after the exit. I am sure of this, because, to my utter frustration, I pass the same exit for a second time a little later.

Once back on track, I am soon in San Salvatore, where we finish loading the car and head to Padova. Suzye has taken the train to Padova the day before, and after we unload our suitcases at Steve and Patti’s house, we meet Suzye and continue on to Venezia to return the rental car and have lunch together. Venezia, as always, is fascinating, intriguing, mysterious, not to mention expensive and full of tourists. The restaurant where we dine charges both a coperta and a service charge, adding 10.31 euros, or $15. Two bottles of water contribute another $3.62 to the bill. Luckily my ancestors came from the Tuscan countryside, not Venezia. Otherwise, we would have been out of money in a month.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Passeggiatas, panoramas and prizes

Saturday, April 30
In the winter of 2002, Lucy, Lindsey and I participated in a memorable half marathon/passeggiata near Asiago in the Veneto with the Bertrand Russell language school that Lucy and Lindsey were attending. While some people actually ran, most of us just walked through the rolling scenic hills and admired the beauty of the vineyards and olive groves.

Shortly after we hit the trail, we reached a fork where we had to choose the six-kilometer route or the nine-kilometer trail. Lindsey had been walking slightly ahead of us and came upon it first, and she harkened unto the famous words of Yogi Berra, who advised: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Actually, she didn’t even look up and notice there was a fork. She just followed the people walking ahead of her and ended up taking the long route. The rest of our group came to the fork and reached an agreement to take the shorter route, and we could only hope that Lindsey had chosen it as well and would eventually stop to wait for us. She did stop later to wait for us, but of course we never came, leaving her wondering if we had somehow passed her without her noticing. Then she spent the rest of the time trying to catch up to us. We didn’t see her again until a good half hour after we had finished the course, and naturally we tease her about her solo passeggiata every time the opportunity presents itself.

Everyone paid something like 10 euros to enter, but we also received prizes at the end that were more than worth the entry fee. I can’t remember everything we won, but Lucy says we were given some high quality beach towels that we are still using, and I remember getting a bottle of wine or vin santo, along with a lunch and assorted snacks. As we walked down the hill into the city, our group decided to stop for gelato. I was given the job of watching prizes while everyone else went inside the gelateria. There were about a dozen prize bundles around my feet when a group of Italian men walked by and started picking them up and walking off with about half the prizes. They said something about that being too many prizes for one person, and they would help me out by taking some off my hands. They were smiling and looking back over their shoulders, waiting for me to make some clever reply or plea, but I couldn’t even think of something clever to say in English. So I just stood there with a foolish grin on my face, trying to look tolerant yet a little bit impatient for them to finish their amusing game. What if they take my smile for acceptance and they keep on walking? I can’t leave the other half of the prizes on the street to follow these thieves, and I have no idea what to say, so I remain standing and smiling, trying to look confident in the knowledge that this is just a joke and they will return the prizes any second now. Luckily for me, they did return the prizes, though to this day I still feel foolish for not being able to say anything more than “Grazie.”

In spite of this incident, we came back with great memories and some of the best scenic photos of our ten months in the Veneto, and now we want to reprise some of those memories by entering a non-competitive mezzo maratona in Montemagno, a small town in the Versilia hills near the Tuscan coast. The entry fee is only 2.50 euro, and rewards are promised for the largest groups to enter. We are a group of six, with Micah included, so we have little hope of prizes, but we have come for the experience of joining a truly Italian outing through six kilometers (yes, we took the short course again) of hillside chestnut forests, vineyards and olive groves.

Once again, Micah is a big hit with the Italians, who stop to admire his beautiful eyes or say a few words of Italian or baby talk. Randy takes him in the baby carrier for most of the trip, but he occasionally gets to walk with some strong-armed support. When we reach the finish line, we each get a coffee mug and package of cookies to take home, and drinks and snacks await us. We also find that we have the 35th largest group and are eligible for a prize, a stuffed bear, which we give to our youngest team member. Nobody tries to take it from him.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lucchio: Another random treasure

Friday, April 29
We visit another random hillside village, this one Randy’s choice—Lucchio, near Bagni di Lucca. According to online research, Luccio once was a city with 800 inhabitants; now it has only 50, so it is somewhat of a  ghost town. Isolated hill towns typically lose their young people, who leave for schooling and job pursuits. Once a town starts losing people, the trend continues, because stores close, causing further job losses and more people moving away.

But because Italy’s houses are built of stone instead of wood, empty towns here do not look as run down as they do in the United States. In fact, Lucchio is very appealing, with flowers blooming everywhere, even coming out of the stone walls. This would be a lovely place for a vacation home, with spectacular views and enough elevation to avoid the sweltering summer heat of the lowlands. Many of the buildings are for sale, and the prices are extremely affordable, as one might imagine in a city in decline.

The most interesting feature is a ruined castle on the top of the mountain, just a ten-minute walk up a trail from the town limits. We have a 360-degree view of the surrounding hills and valleys, and the top is flat and grassy, with wild flowers all around. It would be a ideal place to bring a blanket, a book and a picnic lunch. Lucy says she would love to take a sleeping bag and lie on her back at night (next to her husband, of course) and look at the stars, with no light pollution from nearby cities. Photos are not multi-dimensional enough to do justice to hilltop views, so you’ll just have come some see for yourself!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Our family connection to Italian food

Thursday, April 28
My mom was not Italian, but she lived with my dad’s family for about eight years after she and my dad married, so I think she could have fooled a lot of people into thinking she was. She learned to cook my dad’s favorite family foods. Pasta asciutta, fried zucchini, biscotti and Easter cake come quickly to mind. I truly believe that I caught a significant part of my interest in Italy from her. I can't remember any specific things she said about being or not being Italian, but I have the impression that she considered herself at least half Italian by adoption. So that would make me three-quarters Italian instead of half, or at least it would explain why I grew up with a pride in all things Italian.

Since I began coming to Italy fairly regularly in 1996, I have discovered that biscotti is a more general word that covers many types of Italian cookies, and the recipe my nonna taught to my aunts and mom was actually a specific type of biscotti made in Toscana called cantucci, or cantuccini. A dry and hard cookie made with almonds and anise seeds, it has since become popular throughout Italy as well as America. Italians like to dip their cantuccini into a sweet wine called vin santo.

The pasta asciutta recipe passed on from my Tuscan nonna is a meat sauce that is not as moist as most pasta sauces, hence the name asciutta, which means dry. My mom taught me the recipe, and though I am very fond of it, I have not made it for many years. It includes chunks of either rabbit or chicken meat mixed in, usually chicken, since rabbit is hard to come by in the states. Lucy does not share my fondness, probably because the sauce includes ground chicken livers, and so I do not ask her to make it for me.

Easter cake in Italy is called colomba, the Italian word for dove, and it is a dry cake sometimes made in the shape of a dove. It has almonds and sugar on top and raisins inside.The cake my mom learned to make was very different, and we knew it was not actually called Easter cake, but we gave it that name because of the season in which it was traditionally served in our family. I have made this for my family at Easter, as have my sister and brother for their families, and it is the traditional food that I think all of our children most recognize as part of the family culinary heritage. Yet it is the one food on the Spadoni family list that I have not seen in Italy--until today. We are walking together in Camaiore and stop in the Pasticceria Del Dotto to buy gelato, and there they are, behind the glass--cakes that look almost exactly like my the ones my mom made.

We ask the nonna who is obviously the head chef here what it is called. Her grandson helps with the translation. Zuccotto, she says, and it is a special recipe she has been making since 1948, which does not qualify it to be the same as my own nonna’s cake. In fact, it is not the same inside, as zuccotto has a semi-freddo filling. The cake should be kept frozen until an hour or less before serving, she says. I tell her that my nonna made a cake that looked like hers, but it was not semi-freddo inside. Ah, she explains, that would probably be buccellato di Lucca, which is made with bread, candied grapes, anisetta and crema, a custard filling. The bread is soaked in liquor and colored, she says, but she cautions that there are many varieties because each cook likes to add a personal touch.

Even though the zuccotto is not buccellato, because it looks the same as our Easter cake, we buy one and take it home to try out. The outside layer of thin strips of bread or cake has been dipped in a sweet liquor. Inside it seems kind of like whipped and chilled chocolate and vanilla pudding, very rich and filling. Everyone has two helpings, and we agree it is delicious. Then I look up buccellato di Lucca on the Internet and find recipes for a cake that is baked in the oven, and it does not look at all like my mom’s Easter cake. However, as I read on, I find that the pieces of buccellato can be used to make a "Lucchese style soup" composed of cut up pieces of buccellato soaked in vin santo and then put together in alternating layers with cream, sugar and strawberries. That sounds very much like the cake my mom made, though she substituted lemonade for the vin santo, did not add strawberries and used a custard pudding mix for the cream filling. So my nonna’s cake is not really buccellato di Lucca, though it was probably first made using buccellato, but I don’t really know what its proper Italian name is. I will continue to call it Easter cake, I think, and just be thankful to my nonna and mom for passing along this wonderful traditional treat with their own special variations.

Rinfresco, refreshments, reflections

Wednesday, April 27
Our rinfresco, or open house, is tonight, and we started mixing and baking yesterday and continue today, making some truly amazing American dolci. Lucy makes gingerbread, pineapple upside down cake, magic cookie bars, chocolate chip cookies, apple salad and brownies, Randy makes two apple pies and I make two cherry cream cheese pies. We are pretty confident the food will be well received, because as good as Italian food is in general, American dolci is better than some of the gorgeous but dry Italian dessert pastries found in pasticcerias. Of course tiramisú and panna cotta are exceptionally good Italian desserts, as is gelato, but the array of rich sweets we have put together can more than hold its own against the best of Italy.

However, we are not holding a contest but instead hoping to thank people for helping make our time here special, and also to give them a chance to meet more of our family and to say good-bye, as we will be leaving San Salvatore in less than a week. We are a little nervous about how the event will go over, as most of the potential attendees speak either Italian or English, but not both. Now as the guests arrive, we find that it is going about as we expected. Everyone is meeting everyone,and doing the best they can to communicate.

Ivo is one of the first to arrive, smartly dressed and neatly groomed. We have only seen him before in his work clothes—after a mushroom hunt, feeding his chickens, working on his vinyards. He brings a bottle of wine. His wife Ilina speaks both Italian and Russian, and she has a nice conversation in Russian with Lela. Ivo’s sister-in-law Antonella also comes a little later. Luigi the macellaio and his wife and grandson are present, but their son Matteo is in Viareggio with friends, they say. Lucy’s hairdresser Gabbriella is also here, as is Ari, who helped me get my certificate of citizenship and codice fiscale; he is accompanied by his wife. From the Spadoni side of the family, we greet Enrico, Enza, Loriano, Gabbriella, Marta, Gianfranco, Grazie and Claudio. Enrico is carrying his nipote Matteo, Alessandra’s son. Also Raffaello Lazzaroni, son of the late Maria Spadoni, has come. I have only met him once, on my first trip to Italy in 1996. Sergio Seghieri and his wife Silvana and nipote Flavia have come, and of course all the people from the agriturismo are here: Enzo, Gilda, Luca, Claudia, Roberta, Paolo and Giada. Marco, our teacher from San Salvatore, has come with his wife Paola, and it turns out that Marco knows Grazia, Marta and Gianfranco. Francesca Seghieri from the bike shop and her mom, Dosolina Bianucci, make a short appearance. Unfortunately, Francesca’s uncle Mario Seghieri from next door can’t come; he has still not recovered from a leg injury he suffered this spring, and Mario’s sons Fausto and Ivano have to be at work. Our French friend in the apartment next door, Emeline, also joins us.

I decide to make a short speech and ask Ari to translate for me. It is a shortened version of the blog entry I wrote earlier about the value of a good name. I explain how being a Spadoni in Gig Harbor helps me connect when I meet people, and then I add that the same is true here in Italy. All I have to do is mention that my grandparents were Spadoni and Seghieri and I am accepted, sometimes even warmly welcomed.  Raffaello jokes that I am fortunate to have a noble surname while he instead is stuck with Lazzaroni, a name that in the south is associated with beggars and street people.

We receive many compliments on the food, and eleven-month-old Micah makes a great impression. Italians and Americans are able to make baby talk, so at least we all have one language in common.

As we clean up, Lucy and I reflect that we have accomplished most of our goals during our three months here. We have reconnected with the Spadoni relatives and we have discovered our connection with the Seghieri side. I have dug deeply into the family tree on both sides. We have acquaintances in the community and we feel comfortable shopping like Italians in the neighborhood stores. We have explored the Tuscan countryside and found delightful cities, valleys, bridges, trails and streams, and we know that there are many more waiting to be found.

Lucy and I agree that the area in which we have fallen short of our aspirations is language learning. When we started, we understood about 25 percent of what we heard. Now we are up to perhaps 50 percent, but that’s still far from what we want. I recently sat outside the bar at San Salvatore and could hear the men talking among themselves, but I could hardly understand a single sentence. It’s not going to be much use for us to have friends and acquaintances if we can’t discuss anything beyond the basics of family, work and places we live. This summer we will be too busy with work to study, but we will need to learn more Italian next fall and then continue to take lessons here next winter. We would rather have our days free from study and lessons, but it appears to be unavoidable if we want to improve. More than one person has jokingly suggested to us that the best way to learn is to have an Italian amante, but we both are very happy with the lovers we already have, so we’ll just have to continue our studies the slow and painful way.

Claudio and Suzye, third cousins, meet for the first time.

Dosolina and Francesca