Wednesday, December 31, 2014

From ‘The Reluctant Tuscan. How I discovered my inner Italian’ by Phil Doran

…..Nancy….an interior designer ….. When she sees a house she wants to redo, she gets a look on her face like a fifteen-year-old boy on a topless beach…. she never met a room she didn’t think she could improve.

Our plane landed and taxied to a stop. We then had the pleasure of sitting on the hot tarmac for 45 minutes while the Alitalia ground crew figured out how to open our door.

Buon giorno, signora, Piacere,’ I said, using up ten per cent of my Italian vocabulary

…..a small two-storey affair that had fallen into such disrepair……. I studied the thick accretion of inky residue and pondered the dramas that had played out inside these four walls.
The births, the deaths, the quarrels, the passions. And that was just the goats.

Dino broke down and wept, sobbing through his nose with big theatrical gasps like a clown in a Verdi opera. I was constantly unnerved by the penchant Italian men have for spontaneously bursting into tears.

‘…I still cant figure out why every store and office in this country closes up for a four-hour lunch break in the middle of the afternoon. ………..Why two Italians’ll block traffic by sitting in their cars in the middle of the road having a conversation. Why their houses have three different-sized electrical sockets and yet whenever I go to plug something in it, it doesn’t it in any of them. Why every restaurant but McDonald’s cant be open for dinner before eight o’clock at night. Why its impossible to make an appointment with anybody, and when you finally get one, they’re always late. And finally, how come when you question an Italian about any of these things they look at you like you’re crazy?’

He welcomed us in and as he helped Nancy off with her coat, he asked her about her fungus. I thought this was a rather intimate line of questioning but I soon realized that he was referring to a disease that was attacking our olive trees up at the piccolo rustico.

…why the citizens of these two cities [Florence and Ravenna] despise each other, you have to go back to AD 1309, when Italy’s most renowned poet, Dante Alighieri, was exiled from Florence for political reasons. For years, he wandered Tuscany, venting his fury by writing the Inferno and peopling hell with all the Florentines who had done him wrong. He finally wound up in Ravenna, where he died and was buried. Centuries later, the Florentines realized their mistake and demanded the return of their favourite son’s remains. The Ravennese refused, and to this day there is bad blood.
I have a lot of problems with Italy. Its chaotic, confusing, and oftentimes incomprehensible. But I must confess that I find unabashed delight living in a society where people still get furioso over the bones of a poet who’s been dead for seven hundred years.

Unlike the French, who tend to sink into reverential silence when the food arrives, the act of eating merely increases the Italians need for volume and drama.

Italy leads the world in young men with funny beards.

‘How can he get away with this?’ I demanded.
Rudolfo shrugged. ‘We’re Italian. We live with a million laws and no rules.’

…..thats how things get done around here. They’ll do anything for the mamma.

…it would certainly be good to get back to Los Angeles, where everybody speaks the same language. Korean.

As soon as I stepped off the plane and into a terminal full of my countrymen, I began to notice seismic differences. Americans looked heavier, more serious, more racially mixed, and not nearly as happy as a random crowd of Italians.

… I just plunged on. ‘Prendere mangiamo ….uh, uh, suoi polli
She flashed me a look of horrified indignation, quickly huddled her brood together, and ushered them away with such alacrity, I knew I had said something wrong…. I… discovered  that instead of asking if she were taking her chickens out to eat, I had asked if I could eat her chickens.
And we wonder why nations have such a hard time hammering out peace treaties.

During the course of rebuilding our house, we got calls from our ingegnere, the geometra, the carpenter, and so on asking us to come to their office or workshop. Invariably, we’d discover that whatever they wanted to discuss could have been dealt with over the phone. But that’s not the Italian way. They need to see your face, look in your eyes and use their vast array of hand gestures. So dependent are they on hand gestures that an Italian with a missing finger is thought to have a speech impediment.

The bronze plaque that displayed the name of our bank also announced that this particular institution had been founded twenty years before Columbus sailed for the New World, and every time I walked in, I felt like there were still customers from the fifteenth century waiting for a teller. The bank had computers, but they seemed to be mostly used for sending e-mails and playing video games…..
….Italian lines, by the way are not straight, but round. They tend to coalesce into a loose mob, where everyone seems to be able to follow the threads of many simultaneous conversations at once while never losing track of who goes next.
The wait was endless, but Italians can endure anything as long as they can talk. And their preferred way is everybody at the same time and at a volume we usually reserve for telling somebody the building’s on fire. It got so deafening in there that the tellers had trouble understanding their clients.

A word about Italian chequebooks and that word is drab. Unlike America, where you can order your cheques in lots of twenty thousand and get them printed with everything from Sunset Over the Mojave to a field of Happy Faces, Italian cheques come in only one colour: a faded, plain institutional brown….In a country recognized for style and design, the very birthpace of the Ranaissance, this is an appalling lack of sprezzatura, or what the Italians themselves call ‘the art of living’.

A common feature of every government office in Italy is a constantly ringing phone that nobody ever bothers to answer.

I have no trouble lying to the Italians, because they’re a highly imaginative people who have an ethereal relationship with the truth. They are a nation of natural-born storytellers who love to wrap you up in their yarns. Interestingly, they tend to label such a narrative as una storia, which implies that what they are telling you can be true, made up or a combination of the two. Often these anecdotes are long and quite intricate, carefully crafted to elicit your sympathies, or, failing that, exhaust tyou so you’ll go away.

Italians drive with a ferocity usually connected to a blood sport – horns blasting, brakes screeching, gears grinding – and that’s just getting out of the driveway….

Things happen in Italy that happen no where else on earth. A magical friendliness is spread all over the place like pixie dust. Sure, the salesman in America who greets you when you walk into Circuit City is as affable as a sheepdog, but isn’t that well-practised camaraderie all part of their corporate policy? In Italy, especially in the small family-run shops, the don’t just go for friendly, they actually seek to engage you as a person.
And this can take so many forms, like the local shoemaker who examines your heels and tells you that you don’t need new ones yet. Just walk around on your old ones for quaranta giorni (forty days), and then come back. Or your favourite fruttivendolo who stops you from selecting the shiny red applies and steers you to the ugly brown pugs that wind up tasting more delicious than any apple you’ve ever eaten. When you tell him you want four, he puts five in your bag because four is an unlucky number in Italy, while thirteen is not.

There never was any discernible pattern to the work. Some days nobody showed up. Then suddenly the whole crew would be there with more heavy equipment than Hitler had when he invaded Poland.

…..I realized that I was becoming so Italian, I looked to celebrate at the slightest provocation

….I never cease to marvel at how Italian men will ogle a woman with a blatancy that would get you hauled into court on sexual harassment charges in America.

If I live here forever I’ll never get used to how Italians will come over to your house at any time of the day or night. In L.A. the last person to drop in on anybody unannounced was the Hillside Strangler….One of the more enduring axioms in literature is the idea that life in an American suburb is sterile and emotionally desolate.

For a country that seems to be organized along chaotic lines by a people with a deep-seated sense of anarchy in their souls, Italians dance in a highly structured way.

….in this heavily agricultural area, where the locals are fond of saying that if a man has a woman he’s happy for a day, if he has a cow he’s happy for a week, but if he has a garden he’s happy for a lifetime.

….Fabiola was canonized at a time when it was a lot harder for a woman, alluding to the existence of a glass ceiling even in the saint business.

Being the sons of Italian families, it never occurred to Rudolfo or Stefano to prepare their own meals, wash out a dish, or even pick up the clothes they seemed to drop wherever they were standing.

The two Italian words most firmly embedded in the English language are graffiti and paparazzi. Interestingly, both involve a public display. This tells us much about their national psyche, for the average Italian is motivated by two powerful forces: fare una bella figura (looking good to his friends and neighbours) and non fare una brutta figura (not looking bad to his friends and neighbours)

I think no country on earth benefits from the sunshine more than Italy. When its overcast and dreary, the grey seems to accentuate how everything is slightly threadbare and the villages have an almost shabby, Eastern European feel. But when the sun shines, the ordinary becomes remarkable and the remarkable becomes transcendent.

Italians like to come early and stay late, so a social gathering tends to become a marathonlike test of a hosts endurance.

The party lasted all evening and well into the night. Our neighbours could scarcely complain about the noise, since they were the ones making it. Italians may never sweep all the gold medals at the Olympics or establish a permanent colony on the moon, but when it comes to having a good time, no people on earth can touch them.

It would be difficult to imagine a land where one could eat so well from just the bounty of the nearby forests, fields and sea.

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