Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Superstitions of a Sicilian Mother

My Sicilian mother has passed onto me many superstitions and myths that she learned from her native country. One superstition that I truly believe in is il malocchio, the evil eye, but during this time that I am spending in Milan with my relatives, I realize that I have forgotten some of the traditions surrounding il malocchio.

My mother taught me from a young age that people sometimes curse others, purposely asking evil spirits to harm them or sometimes putting a hex on strangers without even knowing it.

I am more susceptible in getting the curse compared to others my mother told me. When I was little I would be nervous, pensive and sometimes depressed for no reason, which lead her to believe that I had the curse.

She believed that in my case I was primarily affected by evil spirits from people, mostly strangers, unintentionally passing on jealous thoughts through a striking glance. Other times, I would notice envious relatives chewing the inside of their check intently gazing at me while I tried to eat in peace during a holiday dinner.

Whenever my mother noticed that I was not acting like myself she would perform a little ceremony to expel il malocchio. On a Saturday, she would turn off the T.V., hush my bother and sister, and command silence. The tick-tock of a quartz clock that hung on our kitchen wall was all that I could hear. I tried to stay as still as possible while she balanced bowls and glasses holding water and olive oil over the crown of my head. She would say a secret prayer simultaneously dropping oil into water, trying to determine if I was cursed and if so, how bad was it.

When I was older I would ask her questions about the ceremony. She could only tell me the sacred rites during midnight mass on Christmas Eve. One Christmas Eve, just she and I attended midnight mass, and I was initiated into a group that nowadays barely exists.

In recent years people that I have never seen before in my life, stop by my parents house asking my mother to remove il malocchio. Some of them are suffering from poor health; some of them are experiencing hardships in their life. One thing the ceremony cannot do is make good fortune, my mother taught me.

Being in Milan with my cousin Nuccia, we somehow got on the subject of il malocchio. I confessed to her that I no longer remember the prayer, and am sad because I do not know when my mother and I will be together again on Christmas Eve.

The woman who taught my mother passed away many years ago. So when I ask my mother deeper questions about the act, she regrets she cannot answer them, because she just does not know, and those who did are no longer living.

Nuccia, who grew up in the next town over from my mother, knew enough to answer my questions.

“Only when a woman tells a woman it must be during midnight mass. A man can tell a woman or a woman can tell a man anytime;” she said.

The day the tradition was passed onto me I wrote down the words to the prayer and hid them in a secret place. I asked Nuccia if I could only read them on Christmas Eve.

“You can read them to yourself anytime you want,” she said

Some people may read this with doubt that evil spirits lurk or that people can throw a curse on others. And that is fine; everyone is entitled to their own opinion. When I was little I sometimes questioned the belief, but my father told me about the ceremony to remove il malocchio in his village. It changed my opinion.

“My aunt used a belt and wisps of my hair. If I had the malocchio the belt would grow. If it is not true, how did she make the belt grow,” he said

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Homemade Surprise

I have been spending the holidays with my cousins in Milan. Each day I wake up around 10 or 11 a.m. I sit by the fire to drink my morning cappuccino that my cousin Nuccia has prepared for me, think about taking a shower and after an hour I eventually follow through on my thought. Today things were different. She and her daughter Veronica were gathered in the kitchen when I woke up. As I approached the kitchen door, Veronica shut it and politely told me to stay out.

I figured something was up. So I went to take a shower. They were still toiling in the kitchen when I returned. I sat again by the warm fireplace. The glowing flames of the fire shrank and rose in a tempo that almost always puts me in a trance. I stared at it while I waited to be summoned. After about an hour they called me into the kitchen.

I walked in and found a homemade birthday cake iced with Nutella and decorated with my name and a birthday greeting written in English. Nuccia had made the cake from scratch while I was eating dinner at a relative’s home the night before. Veronica frosted and piped the chocolate greeting on the vanilla cake this morning.

I thought back, and the last time someone baked me a cake was too long ago for me to remember. I was touched that my cousin’s took the time to make me a cake and remembered my birthday.

Growing up, my birthday was lost among the Christmas and New Year celebrations. Usually most of my friends were out of town or busy with visitors. This year was different. I was shocked to receive so many phone calls from my Italian relatives. Not only because my birthday is usually forgotten but because I have only met some of them two or three times in my life.

Nuccia reminded me that in Milan there were a number of people who cared for me. She told me the ingredients she used to make the cake. The most important ingredient she placed in the batter was amore.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Natale e Tutti i Giorni

After dinner, while my cousins and I waited for midnight and Christmas my cousin Gino recounted the traditions of la vigilia di Natale when he and my mother were children living Sicily.

Not even considered a town yet, Maniace, a feud in the Dukedom of Duke Nelson had several fractions including il Boschetto, that was made of several small stone dwellings grouped along a common path, along with a community forno a legna (wooden oven), a horse stable and chicken coop. That is where my mother’s and Gino’s families first lived.

At the time, the inhabitants worked much and earned little. Gino and his brothers and sisters waited in anticipation for Christmas day, not because they were eager to unwrap gifts, but because they looked forward to eat a good meal.

They did not ask for toys like I did when I was a child. Rather they expressed their affection for their mother and father. They would write a letter to their parents promising to be a better person and telling them how much they cared for them.

“We wrote a letter to our father that said I am sorry for what I did . . . I promise to be a better boy . . . Ti voglio bene pappa,” said Gino.

They would place the letter under their father’s plate. When they finished dinner and his mother took their father’s plate away he would find the note. After he finished reading his children’s letters, their mother would bring out the Christmas gifts.

“Dry figs, almonds, walnuts and biscotti were placed on the table for us to eat. That was our Christmas gift,” he said. “Your mother and the other women, would make biscotti days before, using the wooden oven that was shared by everyone. They would give biscotti as a Christmas gifts to their relatives. Then we would kill the pig all together so it was ready to eat on Christmas day.”

As a little boy he was excited to have the fruits, nuts and biscotti that were eaten only during that certain time of year.

“Now Christmas is everyday,” said my cousin Nuccia.

“Back then we had nothing. Biscotti were just for Easter and Christmas. Now people have pork, biscotti and roasted nuts anytime they want,” said Gino.

Everyone cooked together, prepared the meals together, and after dinner was finished they celebrated the birth of Christ together. The children would go around and visit all the elders and kiss their hands as a sign of respect, he told me.

He described a Christmas like the ones people long for, the ones that make up the scenes in Macy’s windows, the ones that Andy Williams sings about, the ones that make the romanticized scenes on a Thomas Kinkade Christmas card.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Man is A Man is A Man

This week I have met two men who have straight up admitted to being unfaithful.

Maybe “admit” is the wrong word. In order for one to admit an act, they must first feel shame, guilt or embarrassment. There is some type of acknowledgement that what they have done is wrong and may reflect badly on them and as such they try to cover the truth or go to some length to defend their behavior.

In each separate encounter with both of these men, neither of them showed any signs of remorse about their act, and although it was each one’s first time meeting me, neither of them hesitated when answering my curious questions about their infidelity.

Both men are Sicilian — one from Palermo, the other from Messina; one young, the other old; one single, the other a widower.

It takes a lot to leave me speechless. This guy accomplished that in one second with one word.

“Do you have a girlfriend,” I asked him.


I did not even know what to say. Just like that, “yes” no doubt, no problem, with out blinking, normale. How do you respond when someone tells the truth, even if the truth is a bit ugly?

Apprezzarmi,” he said.

The rest of the conversation consisted of him trying to convince me that I should appreciate him for telling the truth. As if he just performed an act of nobility that deserves respect and admiration.

The other man, even though wrinkles gathered around his light blue eyes, which at times reflected his deep sorrow over the loss of his wife, had a commanding presence and a sex appeal that left no doubt in my mind he had his share of women during his 70+ years of life, yet those adventures did not change his deep affection for his wife.

He advised me not to get married because in the end, once the person dies, you are alone and in awful pain missing them. He met his wife when he was 18.

“She lived across the street from me. We would see each other from the window. But you know, I had other girls,” he said.

He recounted his younger years with pride and content.

“But then, after you got married . . .” I interjected hoping he would finish the sentence.

“Also, when I was married. This is how I was made,” he said.

I have no doubt that he truly loved his wife and enjoyed his life with her. At the same time, I am trying to understand how this is possible, that a man can be capable of loving only one woman while sharing himself with other women.

The only answer I am left with is the one that both men indirectly told me: “I am a man and this is how God made me.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

Stopping to See the Lights

Today was one of those days, where I had time to do nothing, and in the end had no time at all, which presented the opportunity to stop and see the Christmas lights in Piazza della Signoria.

I only had three appointments, pick up money from a client, stop at the Feste della Legalità, Festival for Legality, at 6:30 p.m. and eat dinner with a friend.

I was convinced that I had enough time during the late morning and early afternoon to do nothing but pamper myself. So I moved the appointment with the client to pomerrigio; however when 6 p.m. rolled around, I was not ready to leave my apartment.

I mentally canceled the appointment with the client. I figured that she would have gone home by now. I decided to be late to the Feste della Legalità since I had just wanted to check it out and assumed my friend could meet me in the center or the place where we would be eating dinner.

I climbed on the bus that goes into the city around 6:30 p.m. Once on the bus, I realized it passed by my client’s office. In a last minute decision, I hopped off the bus and rang my client.

Ci sei ancora,” I asked her if she was still in the office.

She was. I told her I would be there in one minute. Once inside the office my friend rang and told me he was making me dinner; an unexpected and nice surprise.

In my head it was only 7 p.m. I told him I would arrive at his apartment in about an hour and a half, around 8:30 p.m. after I stopped at the Feste. He sounded a bit confused. He told me he lived near Ponte alla Vittoria and said it was not far from the city center.

When I hung up I saw the time on my phone’s display. It was 7:30 p.m. No wonder he was confused. I had overbooked myself.

I asked my client if she knew where Ponte alla Vittoria was. She did not. I took out my portable map. We both stood next to her desk, hovered over the map, intently studying it for the bridge. We finally found it. It was one of the last bridges west of Ponte Vecchio.

“You will have to find a bus that goes there. Did you bring your bike,” she asked

I explained to her that for many reasons my bike annoys me, so often I choose to walk or ride the bus instead. In this case we both agreed that by time I found and waited for the bus that goes in the direction of Ponte alla Vittoria, it would be 8 p.m., so it would be better if I walked. Either way, the Feste della Legalità did not fit into my schedule.

I briskly walked through the center choosing the streets that connect with Lungarno. December evenings in Florence are tranquil and the streets were unusually void this night compared to the bustling crowds of people that occupy the roads during the summer nights. For that reason I had a clear view of Piazza della Signoria when I looked to my right at the Via dei Neri crossing.

The piazza was lit up. I squinted to get a better look. I stood there for a minute debating if I should continue on or if I should turn right and walk through the piazza.

That is when it hit me. I had spent all of these weeks walking about the city, without taking a moment to see the festive lights that shine over some of Florence’s most famous monuments.

I decided to stop and admire the lights. Once closer I saw that a great silver blue light illuminated the arches and platform of the Loggia della Signoria, where the dramatic marble statues stand, such as the Rape of the Sabine Women.

What fascinated me was the exaggerated shadow cast by the statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa on the back wall of the Loggia. The best part was that I did not have to fight through crowds to reach the piazza nor did I have to politely wait for a tour group to pass in order to get a pleasant view. Tonight the piazza had a few visitors scattered about, allowing me to imagine for one minute that it was all mine.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rushing River

It has been raining in Florence for what seems like weeks. The sky is gray. The city has a tinge of brown. The air smells muddy. My bike, attached to the same pole I locked it to days ago, remains untouched. My polka-dot umbrella accompanies me to the center instead. When possible I ride in a packed bus, with fogged windows.

This day I was sick of waiting for the overcrowded, unusually delayed pullman, so I braved it. I walked along the Arno into the city.

The river, normally unassuming, usually a prod for romantic rendezvous and social gatherings, was attracting local residents, such as myself, to stop and stare at its increasing rapids and speeding current.

A stroll past Ponte San Niccolò, I joined other observers on a landing that is used as a spot for an outdoor bar during the summer. What attracted me was not the scene of the river flowing, but the constant loud crash made when the river collided into itself. I peered into the river just at the point where the level drops; the river flows over, landing in the riverbed below with fervor.

It was strange to see the river so alive and vocal, practically swallowing the trees on its banks. It called to mind the flood of 1966. In town, in places that I cannot remember specifically, I have passed black and white photos showing Florentines navigating the streets by boat and lines on buildings marking the highest point the water reached.

A couple of weeks ago, I came upon several lines on a wall with years scribbled next to them. I don’t remember where this was exactly. Someone stood beside me as I tried to figure out what the lines represented. They explained to me that these lines recorded all the times the Arno overflowed. They assured me that the floods have a rhythm and the river would one-day flood again.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two Helpings of Thanks

Fourteen heads turned in my direction. I felt a flush of embarrassment. My host and the only other American at the dinner table stared at my plate with astonishment.

She had just outed me with a loud "No way," that caused everyone to stop eating and stare. She was shocked to see my plate filled with corn bread stuffing; the same stuffing that the other guests had asked her for a second helping of only minutes before and to which she politely said, "no, there is no more."

I, being the curious and cynical type, did not take her word for it. Although she believed there was none left, I believed there was still some to be scraped out of the fantastic bird. It's not my fault I was brought up to always check the inside of the turkey at least twice for extra stuffing.

The rest of the dinner guests were Italian and I think it is safe to assume they were not aware of the holiday practice – stealing the stuffing. My brother and I usually fought over it, so my mother has learned to make a bowl of extra stuffing on the side.

But at this dinner, my friend could not know that the stuffing would be such a hit, since the guests were not accustomed to the beauty of Thanksgiving – predictability.

Yes, Thanksgiving is about Pilgrims and Indians putting aside their differences to give thanks for the abundant harvest they reaped after a long difficult winter. But the excitement that surrounds Thanksgiving dinner, is knowing that what graces your plate this year, will grace it the next and the one after that. There is comfort in eating your Mother's stuffing, drizzled with gravy and all the sides she prepares in a special way just for Thanksgiving Day.

Before I snuck into the kitchen to excavate the internals of the cooked beast that fed 18 people, I was thinking of how lucky I was to have been invited to two Thanksgiving dinners for my first time celebrating the holiday away from home.

Each dinner I was one of only two Americans. It made me happy to see people from Italy, Wales and Germany, excitedly partake in the traditional dinner that is shared by every person living in the United States.

For this dinner, I actually helped my friend prepare the intricate menu she had planned weeks prior. Just before the guests arrived, her husband and mother-in-law set up the dinning room table and called us downstairs to get a look at it. It was decorated just like autumn. China plates, candles and a warm fire added to the perfection of the meal. But what made both Thanksgiving dinners memorable was the chance to spend it with friends.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I Am What I Am

I have often struggled with my identity, being brought up by two Sicilian parents, in America; however this past week, I was reminded twice that I am American, and I am happy for this.

I was blatantly told that I am American, when I took two paper cups to hold my coffee at Mama's Bakery. When the owner confronted me about it, I explained that the coffee was seeping through their cups, so naturally the thing to do is to take two.

I thought that an owner would want to know about a problem with their service, but I was wrong. It turned into a heated argument that ended when he yelled at me in Italian "this is what's wrong with you Americans."

My immediate reaction was to remind him that he is also American.

“You’re American,” I screamed back.

I took that label as an insult and left the coffee on the counter, cursing him under my breath and vowing never to go back.

"He is acting like the Florentine owners, where they think you should consider it a privilege to be dinning in their restaurant, instead of vice versa," said my Tuscan friend.

A couple days before that, my Tuscan friend gave me unsolicited advice about dating. She said I should let someone call me and not respond to a message I received from a Tuscan man, for the risk of being thought of as "a woman dying to go out."

It is natural for me to respond to a message, even if it is a guy who I have a slight interest in. I do not think of how to entice a man into falling in love with me or conjure up some mind game in order to have him chase me. Nor do I think of how he will perceive my behavior.

"Florence has always been filled with foreigners, so for the girls to differentiate themselves, they have to act the opposite of the American girls," said one of my American friends who is married to an Italian.

The Florentine women have to invoke this feeling of being unattainable, like a luxury car or label, in order to attract the Florentine guy, she explained.

I do not think about how much money a proprietor makes or loses on my business and use of tableware or if a guy considers me pushy instead of polite when I respond to his message.

I can only do what comes natural to me. If people are insulted or find it desperate, then I cannot frequent their bar or restaurant nor would we be a match for friendship or love. I can only be my American self.

Friday, November 14, 2008


This month I canceled two people from my life. Many of my friends keep in contact with their past loves or people they have dated, but I cannot. I get so disgusted that I just need to delete them completely from my life. It is all or nothing.

I was casually seeing someone who was good looking, sweet and very available. But each time I saw him, I was thinking of someone else. So I had to end it. And that someone else made it clear to me that we would never be again.

I saw him twice in the past two months because he had contacted me while I was in Sicily and I needed to know if the door was open or closed. Each time we met, the conversation was unbearably superficial. He should have just said “blah, blah, blah” that would have had more meaning. I was holding out hope, but since our last meeting I have become sick of crying and trying to figure out what went wrong.

It is upsetting to me because I rarely meet someone who captivates me, emotionally, mentally and physically. Why is it that one person can change you, yet another who should spark something, does not even make you wonder? Chemistry is complicated, yet the outcome is so simple. He made me smile. But if it happened once it can happen again.

For some reason, autumn seems to be when most break-ups happen; or maybe it is the end of summer. Several of my girlfriends are experiencing heartbreak. I am trying to be patient with them because it was just a year ago that I was in the same situation. Although I am upset now, I feel lucky that I am not suffering as I once did.

My friend and I were discussing our disappointment in the search for men who are true. During our conversation I thought, “where are the real men.”

Thankfully drinks were present.

“At least we have something to talk about, and we are dating,” I said trying to find the silver lining in our situations.

She agreed and we toasted to our future and to our fortune for having prospects.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Exotic Brew: American Coffee at Mama's Bakery

“I am going to walk through the streets with my cup of coffee and I don’t care if any Italian judges me,” I said to a fellow expat who was also looking forward to drinking a freshly brewed cup of American coffee at the new bagel and bakery shop, Mama's Bakery.

I had heard that a pastry shop serving real American treats such as muffins, chocolate chip cookies and brownies had recently opened in Oltrarno, but thought it only sold sweets.

My friend Emily has continuously raved to me about the lunch she had eaten at a new bagel shop today. She gave me the red and white blocked card with the address. That is when I realized that the new bakery and the new bagel shop are one in the same.

I took her advice and grabbed a bagel to go for lunch. Once inside the modern and inviting locale, which she describes as a café one would find in San Francisco, I was delightfully surprised to I discover that they also serve American coffee.

I was hesitant to believe the label at first, since many Italian bars call espresso with additional hot water caffè Americano.

“How is it brewed? I mean is it really American or is it just espresso with water,” I asked Cristina who owns the shop with her husband Matt Reinecke.

She is originally from Milan and he grew up in the San Francisco Bay area.

She showed me the coffee maker. It looked American. “But does the coffee taste American,” I wondered as she prepared a new pot. It did.

Italians do not eat or drink on the go. I once dragged two friends for a meal at McDonald’s during my stay in Florence last year. I finished my meal, but still had some Coke left. Naturally, I took my drink with me when we left.

I am not exaggerating when I say that they died of embarrassment and scolded me for bringing food outside the restaurant.

Today, I am no longer ashamed to practice my American habits in Italy. I carried my warm cup through the streets of Oltrarno thinking of the winter days when I fashionably sipped Gingerbread Lattes while rushing through the crowded streets of NYC.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

La Raccolta delle Olive

If God created the world in a week, he must have spent the first day perfecting the hills of Tuscany.

Francesca drove us through the town of Casaglia, in the province of Siena, to help her family with this year's olive harvest.

Cypress trees stood with a firm stance on the edge of the roads, marking the division between earth and pavement, like guards protecting the kingdom of the fertile olive groves and the grapevines which were bare and exposed from the latest vendemmia (grape harvest).

As we passed estates that sat on a patchwork of fields atop gently rolling colline (hills), I could not help but wonder what it must have been like to grow up here. Now I know why Tuscans have an inate knowledge for food and wine. The land breathes appreciation for the finest that nature has to offer. One cannot live here without assimilating the aura.

Picking olives in the heart of the Tuscan countryside, with San Gimignano serving as the vista, is indescribable. The view is breathless.

Although the raccolta (harvest) was draining, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Because each tree was planted on a slope, we had to balance ourselves on the slippery slanted ground. Agility was required to reach in between branches and leaves, when trying to reach that one plump black olive, without breaking a precious branch.

When we returned to her town Poggibonsi, there was a festival being held in the square in celebration of the first wines and olive oils of the season. Sommeliers served me Vino Novello while her brother filled my head with information about how to distinguish a quality wine.

Sometimes I get angry with Italy for not providing me with all my requests at a snap, but a day like this does not exist on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fall in Fi

Friday, November 7, 2008

Rice Pudding and Grandma's Cake

There is something about your local barista or owner of the coffee shop that you frequent, recognizing and greeting you, that makes you feel like you finally belong in Italy.

Last summer I sat in the bright wood panel dinning room dipping fruit filled pastries into gently steamed cappuccinos at La Loggia degli Albizi, a coffee and bakery shop that also serves lunch located on Borgo degli Albizi. At that time I was hesitant to greet Walter Penna (pronounced Valter), one of the owners, who skillfully made me drinks from cappuccinos to frothy café shakerato.

Positioned on a street that gets a good amount of foot traffic, customers are a mix of locals, American students and others who are passing a definite time in Florence. I was in the last category. So I did not feel comfortable joining in the conversations that took place at the counter among the patrons and owners.

It was not until the end of my stay, that I finally broke the ice. Normally I ordered from the selection of dough-based pastries and would ignore the case displaying gorgeous cookies and cakes. One day I decided to switch it up.

I ordered a slice of torta (cake) with fig mixed between the layers. When I tried to say fig, I mispronounced fico, vulgarly asking for a piece of cake flavored with a part of the female body.

The person with me unnecessarily died of shame and left me at the counter to deal with the mishap. I did. I made him smile. Since then I have felt like Norm entering Cheers, except no one shouts out my name.

I knew they made everything on site, but did not imagine the elaborate operation that I saw when Penna took me into the laboratorio. I followed him through a door into a small hall that was the gateway to the bakery. Machines were mixing; dough was rolling and wafts of sweet scents swirled in the room.

Penna’s mysterious, never seen before by me, mentor was happily preparing the days sweets. An artisan, Franco Iandelli learned the craft of baking from his father who in turn was taught by his father. Three generations and possibly more are behind the sfoglia (puff pastry) filled with ricotta, cornetto con albiccoca (croissant with apricot) and custom favorites such as, Torta della Nonna (grandma’s cake) and Budini di Riso (rice pudding).

Torta della Nonna begins with pasta frollo (shortcrust pastry). The dough that serves as the base is rolled flat, stamped out by a round cookie cutter, and pierced to prevent swelling.

Once baked and cooled, crema (custard) is spread and smoothed over it to resemble schienna d’asino (donkey’s back), or a mound. The filling is covered with another piece of circular dough — making no difference if it is pierced. That is impressed with the bottom of a pastry bag tip, sealing the contents and making a unique design.

The torta is glazed with egg for color; a handful of almonds are placed on top and it is ready to bake.

The cake is placed in an extremely high hot oven, between 210-220 degrees, to only bake the top. When the cake cools it is dusted with powdered sugar.

The Italian version of rice pudding, Budino di Riso is also prepared with pasta frollo. The pasta is pressed into oblong molds to create the shell.

In a separate bowl, prepared rice — cooked in milk with just a pinch of salt — is mixed with egg, sugar, butter and heaps of crema. After those ingredients are evenly stirred, they are piped into the molds and placed into the oven at 190-200 degrees Celsius for 20-30 minutes.

When cooking the rice, it is important to continuously stir the mixture so that it does not stick to the pan. Although no flavoring is used in the milk, lemon zest or liquore could be added if one prefers, Penne said. La crema, which is made with lemon zest, contributes the smooth texture and sweet taste to both desserts. The recipe could also be followed to make, Torta di Riso, by following the steps described in Torta della Nonna.

Originally from Rome, Penne’s family has been serving Florence dolci for 25 years. When their baker retired in 1988, Penne was required to fill the position.

“I had to do this . . . because of life circumstances. Not like Franco who comes from three generations of bakers,” he said.

Although he was formally trained he credits Iandelli for what he knows.

“He has been my teacher,” he said.

Making confections since he was 10, Iandelli shared the vitals of the profession.

“There are four basics one must master,” he said. “Crema, lievito (dough made with yeast or sourdough), bigne (the cream puff shell) and sfoglia; if one can make all of those they have learned the art of baking.”

Experimental Electronics

Francesca, her friend and myself attended a concert at EXFILA connessioni metropolitane (EXFILA urban connections) before she and I drove to Poggibonsi to help her family with la raccolta delle olive (olive harvest) Friday night.

I met the both of them and several other friends for a drink in Piazza San Ambriogio earlier in the evening. Even though it was chilly outside, there were people drinking and socializing in the square rather than inside the bar that faces it.

We left the piazza around 12 a.m. and headed to the concert. I did not know where we were going. The only information I had was that there would be electronica music.

We drove out of the city center, past Sachshall and made a left, somewhere. Out of the darkness appeared a large Essalunga supermarket. The buildings on the bordering streets looked abandoned.

We could not find the concert at first. Francesca drove around the perimeter streets a couple of times. She noticed a couple of people straying into an unassuming building. I did not think anything of it, but her parking near there was the signal that it was the spot.

A bar and a spin table were set up in two separate adjoining rooms inside. I was fascinated by the small decorations of orange and purple plastic bones piled in a reverse pyramid over the lights that casted an orange shade over the bar.

Once upstairs we walked through a couple empty rooms to the end of the hall. I pushed aside a black curtain and entered the concert. It was held in an average room draped in black curtains with folding chairs facing a large screen.

The artist, Anna Bolena, sat behind a computer, adjusted the tones, sounds and beats as music and a black and white fuzzy film played in the background.

Scenes of women being gunned down, sexed, used and abused by a conspicuous top-hat-wearing male, were accompanied by distinguishable sequence of sounds and underlying rhythms.
Although the characters of the film wore clothes from the ‘40s and ‘50s, the position of camera shots and their vivid expressions suggested otherwise.

The concert turned out not to be what I had expected, but it was interesting to watch and listen.

Later downstairs around 2 a.m. the dj started spinning. Just as others were catching his vibe, Fra decided it was time to head towards Siena.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama's Night

My American friend and I attended election night hosted by the Tuscan American Association at Saschall today. I was surprised to see more Italians walking around the concert hall than Americans. Tables that served up Barack pins and banners as well as wine and McDonald's were set up along the parameter walls and a band played average rock music till about 4 a.m. the next day.

I did not come across any McCain propaganda, but that was expected. Every Italian I have met in Florence has voiced that they want Obama for the next American president. Often times, that vocalization is said with a touch of Tuscan snobbery. It frustrates me to continuously hear people, that have admittedly never been to America, express with arrogance and entitlement who should be the next president of the United States.

It is one thing to have an opinion, but it is another when someone believes they know more about a country than a citizen of that country. I have had the ability to vote in Italy for several years now, but do not. I do not know the ins and outs of the country and thus could not possibly determine who should lead it or what is best for its people. It is not my place to vote yet. I feel Italians should reciprocate that gesture.

I have experienced this superiority when discussing other topics and stereotypes besides American presidential candidates; such as what Americans eat, all Americans are fat, Americans cannot cook, Americans are superficial, Washington D.C. is a state and has a star on the flag, America and Canada share the same government, people in Texas are called rednecks . . .

I spent about 20 minutes speaking to a local that founded a network of Italians that support Barack on Facebook. He was explaining to me why Italians are obsessed with American politics rather than their own. I thought he was well informed and impressive until I heard this. "Any American who votes for McCain is anti-American, because they do not want change," he said.

I quickly stopped him and informed him that all Americans, no matter who they vote for and no matter if they are Democrat or Republican or Independent, love and want the best for their country. After that conversation, I decided not to speak about American politics with random Italians.

I am not convinced which was the better choice, Obama or McCain, but I am convinced that both want America to prosper and maintain its lead in the world. I am proud that a president was chosen by democratic means and that people that affected to impact the government exercised their freedom of choice and voted.

It is amazing that nations all over the globe intently watched the United States tonight. I do not know if Americans realize how much the world considers America. And I do not know if the world realizes how comparatively less Americans consider it.

Tonight Italy celebrated Obama and his promise for future. I hope he is greatness.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Gelmini's Decree

When I started my blog I decided to avoid politics, but I cannot ignore the demonstrations, against il decreto put forth by il ministro della pubblica, that are taking place in city centers throughout Italy.

In the past couple of days, La Repubblica, a reputable Italian newspaper that I characterize as being slanted far left, has reported on confrontations in Rome between communist and fascist students over a decree that will cut public school budgets, and essentially privatize the Italy’s national public school system.

Article 77 of the Italian Constitution permits the government to circumvent the Parliament and issue a decree in extraordinary urgent and necessary cases. Maristella Gelmini issued il decreto that, according to La Reppublica, will impose financial cuts on schools, reduce teachers per class in elementary schools from three to one, and decrease universities’ budgets by €1.5 billion over the next three years.

“First they said that three teachers per classroom was the best way to educate. Now they are saying that having only one teacher for all the subjects is the best way,” said my friend Barbara who is a mother of three and also the director of Europass, an Italian language school and cultural center.

She told me that as I was reading the bylines of pictures that clearly captured physical clashes between generally left wing protestors and the right wing supporters of Gelmini’s law in Rome the day before. Students and Italian citizens are holding demonstrations and marches to revolt against the decree in cities such as Florence, Milan and Catania.

The gatherings in Rome seem to be more passionate probably because the city is the seat of the Italian government. Also, many have tried to personally confront Gelmini about the decision, resulting in Berlusconi calling the State Police to control the crowds.

Attending university in Italy is in my opinion free. Because the government foots most of the bill, students pay a low rate based on how much money their family makes. Italians have told me that college costs approximately €500 - €3,000 year, correlating to ones economic status.

If university budgets are cut, it will force administrators to look elsewhere for financial support of research and instructors. With Italians earning lower wages compared to their European Union counterparts and the United States, this could put a large financial burden on families who have children attending university.

Several Italians have expressed to me their disappointment in the legislation. They are against the reform and believe it is contradicts democratic ideals because it was not discussed in Parliament among the varying political parties. Moreover they feel that the decree has not been created for the better of the country, but instead because of politics.

"Italy has large debts. So when the government is in desperate need of money there are three choices it can make; It can raise taxes, lay off the work force, or change the school system from public to private,” said my cousin Veronica.

She gave me a small lesson on the political system so I could understand how this legislation was enacted:

Parliament’s two sections, la Camera dei deputati and la Camera dei senatori, have the power to propose legislation. There are six steps for an idea to become law:

1. Proposta di Legge - Parliament propose a law.

2. Discussione - the law is discussed among the members in Parliament.

3. Approvazione - members of Parliament review the law and make changes as necessary; a final version is submitted for ratification.

4. Promulgazione – Parliament’s approved law is submitted to the Presidente della Repubblica for his signature. If he feels the law needs revisions, it is sent back to Parliament and begins again at step 1; it can only be sent back once.

5. Pubblicazione – La Gazzetta Ufficiale, an official record of the government’s activities, publishes the new law.

6. Entrata in Vigore – After the law has been published, a 15 day grace period follows before it is fully enacted. One can violate the law with impunity during that period.

Gelmini’s decreto avoided those steps. The decree did eventually go through the process explained above, but from what I gather and have heard from the other Italians, it was only as a formality. I say that with caution because I do not completely understand the Italian political arena and that is the vibe I receive when I speak to others.

Within the allotted 61 days that are given for Parliament to decide if the decree will be canceled, the governing bodies submitted it to the Italian president for his signature, making it official. I told my friends that maybe once Berlusconi is out of office they will change things back to the way they were.

“No. In Italy things are always done because of politics, the Mafia and the Camorra are behind this,” said a Milanese youth.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The View from the Back

Today my friend Antonio picked me up on his moto to go to the Festival Della Creatività. I hopped on and placed my feet on those little peddles on the side and held him tight as we zoomed through Fi. I always feel a bit funny riding on the back of a moto or Vespa because you have to put on a helmet. As a pedestrian I watch the Italian girls maintain the bella figura and admire thier abilty to look sexy even though their hair is being crushed.

Instead of worrying about my appearance, I enjoyed the sceneray behind me instead of ahead as the wind blew my scarf and hair back. It was a bright afternoon and everyone seemed to be out riding their own vehicles, whether it be a BMW convertable or a bike. The tree lined streets blurred past and occasionally a person would wave to me, as Antonio weaved in between cars and lanes.

The festival was held in the Fortezza da Basso. It was filled with several different types of exhibits, from computer generated T-shirt designs to body art. They also had a special section dedicated to design and technology in Brazil.

One display of digital art did disturb me. Several peices protested the United States, George Bush and the countries economic system and corporations, specifically the pharmaceutical companies. There are alot of Tuscans who are constantly questioning me about Bush and the countries belief in capitalism. It gets old after a while, because Italy has just as many problems as the U.S., yet that is never a topic of conversation.

Whether I agree with the artwork or not, I do appreciate a persons voice and the festival for giving them a venue to proclaim it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Procrastination's Revenge

I have put off updating my blog way too long, specifically the months of August and September. In between looking for a job, drinking cappuccino's, spending one full week in bed because of the flu, and another week touring Fi because of a friend's visit, I have become accustomed to procrastinating. And now, my computer has shared in my past time. Just when the writing bug re-birthed itself on my fingertips, my computer decided to take a vacation.

I spent all day talking to some girl in far off India about the "blue screen." Damn that screen. I have heard of it, often thought I would die if I ever saw it, but never dreamed it would appear on my computer.

When my computer would not allow me past the error message, I frantically called everyone I knew in Fi to see if they knew a technician. I found one, and as soon as he found out that my computer was a pc instead of an Apple, he cut off the conversation. He was nice enough to tell me the closest Hp certified technician is in Prato, the next town over.

Now that I think about it, I have never seen an Hp or Apple store in Florence.

I am happy I renewed my warrenty. I am not happy that I did not put all my fabulous pics on a disk. The words, I can always write again, maybe not in the same way, but words are not completely lost. The pictures are irreplaceable. Those moments will never happen again.

Because I lost a day trying to fix my computer, I decided against attending a concert tonight at the Festival della Creativitá. I was supposed to see Tricky perform live with my roommate Francesca. I am dissappointed to miss it because, one I love music and also I assume the festival is a contemporery forum that celebrates vision in the fields of thought, art, music, food and design. As a writer, it is good to keep up to date on what is coming around the corner.

Ironically last night I was trying to explain to Francesca the meaning of the phrase "freaked out." I did not know how to describe the meaning to her. Today gave me the perfect opportunity to clue her in on what it means. I called to tell her I would not be attending the festival tonight because my computer is broke. Then I switched to English and said "Francesca, I am freaking out!" she got it.

I will try to attend the festival tomorrow even though I am upset with my computer for keeping my journalistic material hostage and myself for indulging in the bitter-sweet sin of procrastination.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Bit of Grease

I would kill someone right now if I knew it would result in a greasy, hot, juicy piece of ground beef with crispy oil drenched fries on the side. Yes I said "kill." I am a woman with PMS and I am not afraid to use it.

I just got home and fried myself a tuna sandwich, but it just was not the same. I love Italian food and I love the fact that it is healthier than American, but sometimes you just need a big bowl of nachos smothered in chunks of meat from various unknown and possibly repulsive origins, topped with onions, fake aged moldy milk that in the States is known as cheese, a whopping dab of sour cream, all stuck together by dripping grease.

About a month ago when I had this same undying yearning, I went to a Danny Rock for a hamburger. It was good, it was healthy. But it was too good, too perfect. The beef did not have the fat that makes a burger stick together and ooze juice when you cut into it. Don’t get me wrong, I frequent that place all the time, but you cannot get proper American food in Italy. You just can’t. Maybe I am wrong and it exists, an American burger in Florence. Maybe that will be a future article — THE HUNT FOR RED BEEF!!!

But until then I am left with watching episodes of The Hills, drooling while toothpick blonds, whose every and only emotion results in a sunny California blinding white-tooth smile, nosh at the hottest restaurants in L.A., with their big fat glasses of water decorated by a lemon hanging on the side (I only watch it because MTV is one of the only Web site that allows people outside the U.S. to access episodes).

Of course there is an occasional person who asks me “what do you miss about the States?” It is then that I make the burger confession and it is then that they suggest McDonalds.

I had a date two days ago with a southern Italian and upon hearing that I missed hamburgers, he insisted on bringing me to the yellow-arches. In the States I would dump a man for this and thinking of that made me laugh while we were eating. He asked me why I thought it was funny to be brought to McDonalds on a date. I tried to explain but the answer got lost in translation.

No, Mickey D’s did not satisfy my craving. For one, it tastes different here; they may change the recipes for Italian tastes. Secondly, when I asked the cashier for a cheeseburger, she said that they did not have any made. Are you kidding? This is the difference in countries, Italians do not share the moto “customer first” with the States. I used to work at McDonalds and I would never, never, never tell someone “no.” I would rush the people working the grill to fill an order ASAP.

Lastly, McDonalds is much more expensive.
Customers have to pay for mayonnaise and ketchup. Unbelievable. So here I am writing in my bed, wondering when. When will I be able to afford a ticket to return to the States and gorge myself on fast food?

Lead Photo: My last meal before boarding the plane to Italy.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Seven Times is not a Charm

I have been to the Comune di Maniace seven times in order to receive Italian residency.

The first time I visited the comune, the person behind the desk could not help because in three days a festival was going to take place in the town.

The second time I visited, I was basically refused service. The person who handles residency requests could not begin the process because he "did not know my history."

Research had to be done in order to understand who I am and what took place before, he said. I told him that the comune has all the necessary documents. In fact, it was them and the Comune di Tortoricci, my fathers birthplace, that confirmed my Italian citizenship.

Several years ago the Italian Consulate of Detroit sent all the necessary documents to both communes in order to verify my genealogy and issue me a passport. At that time, my sister personally visited the comune to investigate why it took them over two years to respond to the consulate.

The third and fourth time I visited was due to them arguing about how to register me in the system. Since I was, or probably still am, written as an Italian citizen through the Comune di Tortoricci, because I claimed citizenship through my father, the Comune di Maniace insisted that I go there in order to claim residency in the town of Maniace.

"Why would I go to Tortoricci to claim residency in Maniace," I asked.

No one had any answers. Instead, both times, they sent me off telling me to return in two days while they would speak to the Comune di Tortoricci.

A detailed discussion about how to process my papers took place the fifth time I visited the comune. In the end they assured me that they figured it out.

"Can I still get domicile in Firenze," I asked.

"Natalie don't confuse things. Don't ask any questions. Tutto a posto," said my friend Pippo, who works in the office, and thankfully took it upon himself to smooth things along even though it was not his responsibility.

"Tutto a posto? You are sure, because if I have to come here one more time . . ."

He responded to me with "tutto a posto." That phrase means that everything is in its place or taken care of.

Several days later my aunt told me that she ran into Pippo and he said I had to claim my Italian residency through the embassy in Rome.

My response to her and them when I went to the comune for the sixth time was, "that does not make sense. Italy does not have an embassy in their own country. And the United States Embassy has nothing to do with my citizenship here in Italy."

Another long argument ensued. First they told me to claim residency in Tortoricci and then transfer it to them. Then they told me that on my way back to Florence, to stop off in Rome and visit the American Embassy. As if I have all the time and money in the world to just change my train ticket, get a hotel and spend a couple of days in Rome.

I told them that this could all be resolved in five mintues. If they would make one phone call to the American Embassy they would discover that the United States has nothing to do with my residency in Italy.

A half an hour later, I made the phone call. In one minute the kind woman on the other end of the line assured me that my American residency is seperate from Italy and they do not have the authority to grant me residency in Italy.

That is when my friend said he would personally visit Tortoricci the next day to see how to grant residency to an Italian who was formerly living abroad. It was obvious that they created non-existent problems because they did not know the procudure to change a person's status from an Italian living abroad — specifically outside of Europe — to an Italian living in Italy. I think the most confusing concept for them was how to transfer the city of my citizenship from Tortoricci to Maniace. Confused yet???

The last time I went to the Comune di Maniace Pippo told me everything was taken care of and I would recieve my residency certificate in a couple of days. It could not be printed at that moment due to the computer sytem being down. Translation: they do not know how to register me in the system and so I will need to visit the comune when I return to Sicily in December.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Run Away Love

When I arrived in Sicily, my cousin Francesca filled me in on chi si ni fuiru, who has ran off together.

“Giampiero ran off. His wife is cute, she is 16. And so did Antonia, she is four months pregnant,” she quickly explained the details of the latest fuitina while she down shifted gears as the car climbed the steep and winding hills that lead home.

In my head I counted, Antonia was born the year that I was . . . and she ran off with a 23-year-old guy in November . . . so that makes her about . . . 15!

I could not believe it. When I first came to Maniace I was 7 and that time I had met girls who were 13 or 14 years old, “married” and pregnant. I could not believe that in the 21st century this was still going on, couples running off together in secret to a different town or a relative’s home and when they returned to Maniace they were considered husband and wife.

That cultural phenomenon seems contrary to the dominating Catholic culture in a town draped in religious mementos. Every bar (café), pub or club displays an honorable photo of the revered saint, Padre Pio; there is a festival that commemorate a saint about every other week and crosses or crucifixes are hung above at least one doorway in each home.

At a family dinner months before, my cousin Pina, herself a fuitina, said that way back when, a man would kidnap a woman and force intimacy or bring her to a house and when she exited the other men, upon seeing her, knew that she was “deflowered”.

“The other men would not want her if they knew she was no longer a virgin. But they do not kidnap women anymore,” she said.

Considering those and the drama that ensued when I went out with x., I could not believe that families passively accept a false marriage created under the premise that since the couple has had sex they are now physically, mentally and spiritually tied to one another.

In the States, a person 18 or older having relations with a 14 or 15-year-old is considered borderline pedophilia and a crime I told Francesca.

“It is the same here, but if the mother and father accept it . . . eh,” she said turning her palms up as if to ask me “what do you want.”

Well there must be someone who can explain why this practice still takes place today. That is when I sought the only priest in Maniace — the man who married my mother and father and looks unbelievably younger than them both — Father Nunzio Galati Giordano.

I interviewed Father Galati twice and each time there was someone calling him away or some ceremony he had to perform. Understandable since he heads the parish. Those interruptions prevented the interview to flow into a deep conversation. Nonetheless, I did get his perspective on how the church deals with la fuitina and why his town is one of the few that practices it.

From his clear and calm demeanor I could tell that Father Galati was a well educated and compassionate person. He emigrated from Tortorici to Maniace, like most of the inhabitants, with his parents and grandparents in 1967. It was then that he discovered this situation— half of the town was married in the church and the other half were fuitina.

He compared the relationship to convivenza, a couple living together without a church or public act formalizing the relationship, which is quite common in Italy. Today, the convivenza is made in accordance with the family. In 1967 however, families often interfered with their children’s relationships, and restricted their child from dating if they disliked their choice for fidanzato/a.

At that time that was one of the two main reasons why a couple ran off together. The other was financial. Sicilian families are expected to have elaborate and large weddings, but many families could not afford a proper ceremony and reception, so couples avoided marrying in the church.

While that may still may be the case today, he said most young couples make the decision to run off because it has become a custom or because the “wife” is pregnant. In the old days, that situation was unlikely due to the shame attached to premarital sex.

“Today there is more liberation. People have sexual experiences before marriage. Before, if the other men knew a woman had rapport with another man, the other men would not want her for a wife and usually the first time la fuitina had sex was when they ran off,” he said.

He noted that society is experiencing a scristianizzazione, becoming less Christian. The sacraments are no longer considered sacred. Back then, the Christian culture was instilled by the family — mother, father, grandparents and relatives — would continuously pressure the couple to recognize their commitment to each other in the church. Couples would visit him and he would perform a private ceremony normally days or weeks after they “eloped.”

There is not so much less respect for God, but an indifference towards the religious observances of the Catholic Church. The family no longer encourages the couple to marry. The couple may wait, one, two, three years before they stand on the altar and sometimes they never make it to the church.

He does not entirely dismiss la fuitina from the Church, but will only baptize the couple’s first child and does not accept confetti from them nor will he perform any blessings for the family. When he addresses the town at public gatherings he reminds the residents of the church’s disapproval of the act.

With breakups and divorces increasing in Italy, one may question the importance of two people being joined by holy union.

“God helps a couple stay together. This is the doctrine of marriage. A wife and husband cannot stay together with love only, because love is limited,” he said.

He explained that love is natural, but love is also weak. With the grace of God two people in love can overcome their weaknesses and troubles that life brings. With God’s help, the relationship evolves into more than a physical emotion, but one that has the potential to rise above human inadequacies.

“There are so many divorces because not everyone understands that marriage is more than love. There are 50 percent more divorces among couples who get married in the commune compared to those who marry in the church,” he said.

He recognized that the institution of marriage is in crisis, that the family has changed values.

"They do not speak the same language as they did a time ago. For example, here in Maniace more women ask for a divorce, then men. The economic situation has allowed them a voice and in some cases the man is the victim of infidelity or abuse," he said.

Father Galati recognized that many men in the town go out at night without their wives.

“This is not right, marriage does not mean you are only together when you are alone in the home,” he said. “If a man is married, why does he find the need to go to the festival or piazza alone?”