Reason #197,759,063 why Italy is good for my soul and bad for my waistline:
This cornetto al cioccolato (chocolate croissant) cost €0.90 and my cappuccino was another €0.90. Breakfast of Champions. I don’t think I need to write anything more on this topic, the photo speaks for itself. mmmmmmmmmmmm.
This morning the kids, Tonja, & I left somewhat early to accomplish some errands in town. Tonja had the idea to stop off at Nonna Piera’s (Grandma) house for lunch. She gave Piera about 90 minutes notice of our arrival. If I were Piera, I would have been stressed to the max – her lunch plans just went from a party of 1 to a party of 7. We asked if she needed anything from the store. Just some bread, if we wanted it; Piera had everything she needed already. Keep in mind that this is an elderly woman who lives alone; I am still amazed that this impromptu visit is not considered to be a burden (we do this regularly).
We arrived a little later than expected (per usual), and I was immediately intoxicated by the aroma. The table was set and everything was ready for us, Piera started filling the plates with the first course. Yes, we were to eat multiple courses for lunch. She proudly announced, “Un mezz’ora fa, questi pomodori erano nel mio giardino” – A half hour ago, these tomatoes were still in my garden.
This sauce, complete with fresh basil & onions (also from the garden), was so simple – and yet, it was absolutely exquisite. I am not sure exactly how Italian women do it, but they all seem to possess some magical ability to whip up copious amount of pasta with sauce made from scratch – all in a minimal amount of time. I pray this ability is contagious and that I am able to absorb some of it before I leave Tuscany.
Oh Lea. Her mother calls her Leona because she has the spirit of a lion. Strong willed and intense, she is the most stubborn child I have ever known. Any battle will be lost if she digs in her heels, so you best avoid battles at all cost.
One day, in an effort to get her out the door against her will, we tried to play the “Bye Lea, see you later” game…the one where you pretend to leave and after a few seconds the child comes running to you in fear of being left behind. Our whole family left the house, said “Ciao Lea, a dopo” and climbed into the car. We made a big production out of starting the car and even drove down the street a little way. Most 5-year olds at this point would be in hysteria. Not Lea. We had to turn the car around, drive back up the hill, and when we arrived back at the house, she was right where we left her. Sitting on a stair, calm and strong. I must admit that I am relieved I will not living here when she enters adolescence, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Lea had a nasty broken shin and was in week 5 of the 3-month recovery when I arrived. But you better believe that cast doesn’t slow her down. She still hops, skips, runs, and jumps with her sisters. She climbs to the top of any jungle gym at a park.
She runs through sprinklers, frolics in the sea, and swims in her cousin’s swimming pool, with her cast carefully wrapped in a garbage bag and tape to prevent the moisture from entering. We have no other option – once the other kids have their swimsuits on, Lea is going in too…regardless of the doctor’s orders. I see a lot of my sister, Madeleine, in her. Weird, they are both third in a 4-child family. Note to family planners: beware of the spirit of the third child.
The thing that is most incredible about this little one is that when she is not in some form of battle, she is the softest, sweetest, most gentle little girl. Lea loves to cuddle, always shares her gelato and makes me feel like the most beautiful woman on earth any time I wear something she hasn’t seen before. “Wow Mamma, guarda Kadreen. E’ bellissima.” (wow mommy, look at Katherine, she is so beautiful)…simply because today I put on earrings or a new skirt. Seriously, the innocent compliment of a child can boost self-confidence ten fold.
I know I am not supposed to have favorites, but Lea is mine.
Regarding an unborn child, parents usually say something to the effect of: “No preference on boy or girl, we just want the baby to be healthy.” Somehow I doubt this was the case for Simone and his 4th child.
With three healthy, happy, strong, independent, stubborn daughters, I can only imagine how much Simone longed for a son. Just one more Being to bring a slight balance to the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio. As my father can attest, the 5 female-to-1 male family ratio is just plain cruel. (In the words of Phil Wax, “Four daughters is my punishment for being sexist.”)
Two years later, I can see the pride in Simone’s eyes when he looks at his son, Folco. The name is unique in Italy, but it is an Italian version of the word “folk,” meaning “of the people.” And Simone has communicated to me, on numerous occasions, that little Folco is “il prossimo Che” – the next Che (yes, as in Che Guevara) – fighting for the people against capitalism and economic inequality. How’s that for high parental expectations?
Folco is entering the Terrible Two’s, and it has been incredible watching him explore his world and test its limits. His personality is truly starting to shine, especially in his facial expressions. He is learning new words at an alarming rate and now, with my help, he’s also picking up the English equivalent. He is the only one in the family who says “Katherine” instead of “Kadreen,” but his favorite Italian words are:
“VIVA!!!” said when he is thoroughly enjoying something new.
“Sta zitto!” – a command meaning “Be Quiet” – usually said when he hears the dog, Toast, barking.
“Ciccia” – a word for kids meaning “meat.” This child is a carnivore.
Folco is a master artist and proudly decorates any surface or wall. He adores his “bee-chee” (tricycle) and has no fear going down the hill by himself at a gut-wrenching speed. He will always let you know he is finished eating by helpfully clearing his plate, aka throwing whatever is left on the floor.
He is truly a charming toddler, this Prossimo Che, and bacini (little kisses) from him simply melt your heart.
Last night after dinner, I went upstairs to help the older girls with their summer workbooks. Vera was working on Math (multiplication & division) and Anna was working on Italian Grammar. Sidenote: if you ever feel up for a challenge, try to assist with homework in a foreign language. I gave myself a pat on the back just for simply understanding the instructions.
Anyway, around 10pm I heard Simone (father) yell from downstairs:
Simone: Katherine, lo vuoi il caffe’?
Simone: Sei sicura?
Me: Come Sempre!
Simone: Sei sicura come sempre? O lo vuoi il caffe come sempre?
Me: Tutte le due!
Simone (muttering): Madonna, che faccio con questa ragazza?!?
Simone: Katherine, do you want an espresso?
Simone: Are you sure?
Me: As always!
Simone: You are always sure? Or you always want espresso?
Simone: Holy Mary, what am I supposed to do with this girl?!?
There are many stages in language learning, and I am by no means fluent. But if I am able to be a smart-ass and if parts of my personality are starting to shine through, then clearly my Italian is improving. One month down, one more to go!
Italian families usually have a few 5-liter glass jugs that they take to a cantina to fill with wine for the week. It basically cuts out the middleman, so the wine goes straight from the barrel to the table. It is local, it’s cheap (8 euro for 5 liters), and it’s damn good.
Chianti, Brunello, Barbaresco, Barolo…these aren’t names of Roman Emporers, but given the importance of wine to Italians, they might as well be. L’aqua fa male, il vino fa cantare – Water makes one sick, wine makes one sing. Buon vino fa buon sangue – Good wine makes good blood. The Italian proverbs on the topic of wine are endless. And last night, I had the opportunity to witness first hand the intensity of this dedication to wine for the average Italian family.
Tonja had taken the kids to a Start-of-Summer party and I had opted out, choosing instead to spend some time on my own in Lucca. I met Simone (father) at the train station and we drove back to Castelvecchio, stopping briefly for an aperitivo (pre-dinner drink) and a chat before heading home to the madness.
It was just after 19:45 when we left the bar and as we neared the bottom of the hill to Castelvecchio, Simone received a phone call from Tonja…after a cheery “Pronto” to answer the call, Simone received the worst news possible. Everyone was safe, and dinner was almost ready, but we were out of wine. I smiled to myself in amusement as I listened to the conversation, and I prepared myself for a fun car ride.
Italians are crazy drivers, but I have never seen anything like this. We whipped around turns, Simone cranking the wheel with all his might right and then left…he floored it as we passed slow-moving vehicles around blind corners. This was no laughing matter, we were about to have una cena senza vino – a dinner without wine.
Stop #1 – “Dio Madonna, e’ gia chiuso.” The nearest mom & pop store that sells wine had already closed for the evening. After a brief pause for cussing and a U-Turn, we were back on the road in a race against time. The clock read 19:58, and the nearest large grocery store was a few kilometers down the road. The next option was Euro Spar – a large grocery store by European standards, but Simone was virtually positive it closes promptly at 20:00. Insert more cussing, this time in Lucchese dialect, but I didn’t need to know the words to understand their meaning. We were approaching a situation of catastrophic proportion.
Stop #2 –The lights in the Euro Spar were already dimmed and the entrance was locked. “Dio Maiale, e’ chiuso!” Closed. Weather forecast: cloudy with a chance of sobriety.
But what was this? A customer exiting the store? A glimmer of hope? Simone sprang out of the car and raced to the exit before the automatic doors could shut him out. Two minutes later, Simone came out like a champion holding his prized trophy – a 1.5 liter bottle of Tuscan house red. We were saved!!! Hallelujah!
When I asked Simone what the employee said to him when he entered through the exit he said, “Lei era Italiana, quindi ha capito.” She was Italian, so she understood.
Do you remember eating Eggos as a child and how it was of the utmost importance that each tiny square received syrup? I remember being quite certain that the world would end if even the triangular parts around the edge were left out. My sisters were the same – they would tip poor Mrs. Buttersworth upside down and sway her back & forth for what seemed like an eternity, all in the name of total sugar saturation. The fact that the syrup ran onto the plate once the waffle was cut didn’t ever enter into the logic.
Today, during lunch, I found the equivalent for Italian children: grated parmesan on pasta.
Let me interject with a brief statement that up until now, I have feared cooking for these kids. Vera (9) has already lectured me on the proper way to make espresso (so as not to give it a burnt flavor), as well as the appropriate order to eat your courses (pasta always before salad and/or meat). Italian kids are raised in Italian kitchens on food cooked by Italian mammas and nonnas (grandmas). Combine that with the pickiness of children in general and o mio dio, you have one tough crowd. My first attempt was something simple: Rotini pasta in a tomato sauce with onion, garlic, and zucchini.
I observed the Italian equivalent of the Eggo-Syrup phenomenon when we all sat at the table. I started grating fresh parmesan for Anna (7), but I made the mistake of grating the cheese just over the center of the plate. She quickly informed me that I missed a spot and she would not eat a bite until there was cheese “Qui e Qui e Qui e Qui” – here and here and here and here. Every noodle had to have a morsel of cheese on it before it was ready for consumption. And just as I added the last bit of cheese to the last noodle, what did Anna do? Mix it all together, of course. So apparently the illogical obsession with the meticulous placement of a topping is a worldwide trend. Who knew?
I do have to brag a little bit. All parties were very satisfied with the pasta. Apparently I can cook for Italian children. Phew!