May 6, 2015
So I’m at the fruttivendolo, greengrocer’s, a charming hole-in-the wall.
I’m cooling my heels waiting my turn while the vendor and a customer with a nest of snow-white hair lament Italy’s problemi. Every so often the snow-white customer points to a cucumber or a pile of chicory, which the vendor oh-so-carefully picks up and weighs. Ten minutes pass. The two men are pretty riled up–hands flail all over the place–about the fact that Prime Minister Renzi got his electoral reform law (Italicum) passed. Will the right to strike be affected, they fret? Because Italy is a striking culture: teachers & pilots & baggage handlers & bus drivers & train operators & truck drivers & museum workers & taxi drivers walk off the job on a regular basis. You cannot take that away from the Italian 99%-ers, can you???
Anyway, the snow-white man finally shouts a hearty parting to one and all (Buona giornata e buon pranzo! Good day and good lunch!) and steps out the door, trailing a bag chock-full of chicory.I’m up next. Lemons, please! We engage in an animated conversation about how the mayor is spoiling the village with his vulgar signage. The vendor pulls me onto the street and points out an ugly sign that has gone up on the corner, right next to an ancient stone fountain. Back inside I point out some big bright oranges. And then we’re onto the next topic: the vendor’s recent malady. This is how a transaction goes in small Sicilian markets.
I’m still being served when in waltz two americani. They do not say buongiorno. No greeting at all! Strike 1. Then they head for the tomatoes, and–horror of horrors!!–fondle the juicy red orbs with their own filthy fingers, scooping up the ones they want themselves! I suppress a gasp. Strike 2. And, yes, it gets worse: they march up to the cash register, pull out their euro bills and push them at the vendor. AND I’M STILL IN THE MIDDLE OF MY TURN!!!! Strike 3. The vendor is gracious, as am I. But the episode makes me see how easy it is for innocents abroad to commit faux pas, and in these innocents, I see myself. And yes, there is a strike 4. They waltz out the door with nary a word, wishing us neither a good day nor a good lunch.
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May 1, 2015
May Day. National holiday.
Andiamo alla campagna! One and all to the countryside!
Heading for the hills on May Day is one of those unwritten Sicilian rules, like the one that requires you, when hanging out your wash, to clip each sock at the toe and hang it neatly next to its mate.
So off we go.
And there we find: bygone lanes, farmhouses with braying dogs, fields of ripe artichokes.
But why we’ve really come is to forage for wild food. We rummage in meadows, like old-time peasants. Look! There’s asparagus, lassini and malva!
This goes on for hours.
Lassini–you have to pick these stems before they flower. It’s already too late to eat this particular plant but we find lassini plants in the shade that have not yet flowered.
Malva–you eat the leaves, not the flowers. It’s such an ancient food that Horace mentions it: Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea levesque malvae (As for me, olives, chickory and malva provide sustenance.)
When hunger hits, we pull down green almonds and pop the whole fuzzy thing in our mouths. I make a sour face and am admonished for my timidity.
Twenty minutes after arriving home, the meadow is on my plate.
It’s getting cold, so I will bid you buon appetito and arrivederci.
April 27, 2015
Poppies spring from the old stone steps.A wind blows as I clatter down all 100 of them to the village “drawing room.” But in the piazza there’s warmth: we’re cocooned by the cathedral and buttery palazzi all around. The sun keeps my foamy coffee warm.
An old car gleams with nostalgia out on the street.
Two carabinieri saunter by in suits with a bright red stripe. They always travel in pairs. Brioches bake just inside the door. Bells roar. Umbrellas and birds flutter about. Even my hair is clean and smells good as it blows over my face. I scrawl in my notebook. Could there be a more perfect moment?
The piano teacher shuffles by and asks where is il marito, the husband? A constant concern of his.
Now all that remains in my cup is foam. I take the tiny spoon and scrape and scrape. I cannot bear for this moment to end.
Along comes Salvatore, 96.
He tells me stories, this time about how he helped to plant the towering palm trees on the piazza as a kid. I love(d) these palms with a mad passion; four of the six have just been chopped down. (Big brown bugs.) My happiness quotient drops to 90%, fretting about it (again).
There’s the clanking of glass as the barista with rock-like biceps plunks an ashtray on every single table. A pigeon swoops by, too close.
Three tourists labor up the hill toward the cathedral. “No! Go away!” I don’t actually yell this, though I want to. Out come the purple iPads, raised high overhead like golf trophies. My happiness quotient drops to 85%.
Here comes long-lost chain-smoking Giorgio, with his long grey ponytail. He helped plaster my old wine cantina. We kiss hello; talk 15 seconds; kiss goodbye–lots of kissing with a few cliches thrown in for good measure. Happiness quotient bounces back up.
Do I have a right to be happy? People are dying in earthquakes, sinking in rickety boats in the Mediterranean. Joy brings guilt. I get up to visit Suleiman, a refugee from Ghana being housed in the village. For five months he’s been lost in the Italian legal system. Will he ever find happiness?
April 13, 2015
OK, so the earth can sometimes be a dark and baleful place. But let us sweeten it in any way we can.
“Hello, Signora,” the roving vendor croaks. What do you need?”
This is what we’re eating now:
Take heart in the earth’s bounty!
Love to one and all.
March 27, 2015
Sicily, Sunny Sicily, was underwater most of March. I wasn’t here til three days ago, but i knew the moment I set foot in the house; water washed down walls, the floor was ponding.
But there’s a bright new sky today. Lizards slither. Underwear waves on balconies. Palm and olive branches abound.
Sicilians are still swaddled in winter gear.
Though tourists are convinced it’s summer.
Carmelo, my favorite barista in the whole world, is once again serving outdoors. He hasn’t set eyes on Kim for almost a year, and yet he remembered his drink: a doppio, double espresso.
Hope you’re having a great weekend!
Tanti baci della Sicilia,