Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kung Fu Christmas

Dear Readers,

"A real warrior never quits, and... I WILL NEVER QUIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Thus spake Po in Kung Fu Panda (surely one of the greatest animated films ever made), a present from Babbo Natale to my children this year. It occured to me that this is probably the unspoken battle-cry of most people when the holiday season rises up menacingly on the horizon, a tinsel-covered, raisin-studded juggernaut whose blows we must endure--and strive to subdue with every fiber of our being--or be crushed by the sheer soul-sapping force of its pernicious yuletide power.

Ever notice how the Christmas season is described in increasingly apocalyptic terms? Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Stores lure us to their doors at inhuman hours to suffer the tortures of the damned, with the prospect of saving twenty-five percent dangled in front of us like plenary indulgences. Thankfully, many of the crueler punishments of the season are absent or at least milder in Italy, but we do make up for it by packing in more actual holidays, and therefore more opportunities for agony. The beast rears its head here on December 8th--the Feast of the Immaculate Conception--and finishes by crunching the last of our weary bones on January 6th, the Epiphany. Christmas is technically a two-day siege (or two-and-a-half if you count Christmas Eve feasting), with the 26th being Santo Stefano. In Italy it is common to spend both the main holiday meal of lunch as well as dinner together with family (do the math--that's five family meals in three days!) which--if you factor in dysfunction, ignorance, bigotry, bad hygiene, endless hillbilly barzellette, and oafish table manners--makes for a hair-tearing, eyeball-gouging, fingernail-ripping experience. It truly takes a warrior spirit to tackle this most formidable of foes. 

If you're curious as to what the End Days will be like, then go to an Italian supermarket on the weekend before Christmas, where you will witness a roiling, writhing sea of frenzied humanity who wield shopping carts like bumper cars, frantically grabbing at shelves and filling their carts as if WW3 was about to break out, and where a thin-lipped, beshriveled old lady in an enormous fur coat will unceremoniously knock you to the ground and pry the very last tub of mascarpone from your twitching hands. (I can think of nowhere better suited to the execution of a few well-placed kung fu moves--if not an all-out Jackie Chan fight scene--than an Italian supermarket on the eve of a major holiday). This insanity is, unfortunately, as much a part of Italian culture and history as the Renaissance--though it's a little-known fact, Dante, in his original version of the Inferno (before the final edit), made suffering perpetual Christmases the tenth circle of Hell.

To further illustrate my point, I'll share with you this electronic missive--and clear cry for help--which I received from a friend on Christmas Day (I imagined him gasping for breath, his trembling hands clawing the keyboard): " killing being chained on my back to a rock while vultures tear out my entrails...." We all have an image of how we want Christmas to be, don't we? Something very Norman Rockwell--a snowbound cottage with a crackling log fire and stockings hung by the chimney with care, carolers, the scent of pine, a rustic table set with a glistening roast and rounded by family members whose joined hands give thanks, children whose faces are aglow with pleasure over their new Flexible Flyers. THIS is the Christmas we desperately strive for, the one we fight for--but it's not the Christmas we usually get. Instead, family holiday get-togethers are more akin to getting boils lanced, or having leeches applied--or having your entrails tinker-toyed with by scavengers.

A woman came into the shop a couple days after the holiday, one of our regular customers, a Brit with a clear eye and sassy haircut, and as conversation inevitably turned to Christmas coping strategies, she said matter-of-factly, "I don't think anybody really likes Christmas--it's just something you have to get through." Like amoebic dysentery or stomach flu or tax season. So why do we keep torturing ourselves? Flinging ourselves into the breach, year after year?

A wise warrior chooses his battles, dear Readers. And Christmas, with all its swagger and glittery trappings, is an invading army which I prefer to let march right past me, unmolested. Serenity is what I crave this time of year. I strive to be as still as a lotus on a blue pond, as resolute as a stalk of bamboo, and as free as a smooth-feathered crane in flight. It's the time for us four to hole up like moles, share some good food and wine, enjoy the fire glowing warmly in the hearth--while the holiday maelstrom rages outside our door. As kung fu master Oogway sagely observes, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called 'the present.'"

Christmas present, indeed.



Sunday, December 19, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

Dear Readers,

As many of you may know, Florence was hit with a Michigan-worthy blizzard the other day, and the city is still reeling from both the incomparable beauty of it all and the utter chaos caused by city bureaucrats being woefully--if not adamantly--unprepared. Without getting into the irony of the fact that apparently Tuscans don't believe in salting their roads as well as their bread, I wanted to describe to you a scene I observed on the evening of the snowstorm, after the worst of it was over and an otherworldly hush had settled over the land. It seemed innocent enough.

I returned home to find my nephew Giulio happily making a snowman in the garden. He smiled broadly and shyly and waved hello, his shaggy mop of dark hair framing his impish face, completely simpatico. A short while later when I went out to get some more wood for the fire, I saw he was still there, the darkening, snow-perfumed sky enfolding him and his Tuscan version of Frosty. Then a shadowy figure emerged from behind the snow-dusted hedge, which was partially screening my view--it was my sister-in-law, Giulio's mother, in the craziest get-up I'd yet seen during this bout of freak weather (thick legwarmers pulled up over sweatpants, a man's parka with a few sweaters oozing out of it at odd angles, a fishermen's hat that was three sizes too big, and bright yellow rubber clogs). After surveying her son's handiwork, she admonished, "Don't stay out too much longer, Giulio, you'll catch cold--besides, it's getting dark." "Sì, mamma," came the obedient reply.

Did I mention that Giulio is twenty-five years old?

Anglo-Saxon mothers of a certain smothersome and anxious stripe are sometimes called "helicopter moms." Well, then--comparatively speaking--Italian mothers are Sherman tanks. Nothing bulldozes a testosterone-laced Italian male and tramples his independence quite so effectively and absolutely as the crippling, hyper-concerned treads of la mamma italiana.

Don't get me wrong--naturally there's nothing askew about an adult having a little fun building a snowman (I might have gladly made one myself, but being a Michigan girl, I've probably surpassed the Wolverine State quota of 2,500 snowmen per life span). But the next day, while Giulio spent the afternoon proudly putting the finishing touches on his opera d'arte, enjoying the sun and the crisp, rarefied air, another scene was playing itself out....

My 85-year-old father-in-law was shoveling snow--huffing and heaving like an early steam locomotive--alongside Giulio's dad, Luca (who, quite honestly, was faring little better).

The family compound being situated on a large plot of land, we were practically buried by snow--there were no clear walkways, the driveway was inundated, and all the cars were blocked in. Thus there was a certain urgency over the driveway being cleared because Matteo--Giulio's brother, age 23--needed desperately to get out with the car (apparently he wanted to meet up with friends--perhaps to build snowmen of their own). You see, dear Readers, my nephews don't work and both live at home with their parents, like so very many Italians, and seem content to do so for years and years--and years--to come. And while they're the two sweetest guys you'd ever hope to meet, they remain utterly naive and as if frozen in some kind of perpetual childhood, like Peter Pan or Michael Jackson. Of course, the pathetic*, rather clownish figure of the Italian mammone is known the world over and is, I think, as indigenous to this sunny peninsula as wild boar and corrupt politicians with bad hair plugs. I have never seen my nephews take out the trash, help clear the table after meals (let alone assist--gasp!--with actual meal preparation or washing dishes), do laundry, do yardwork--do anything, really, that might be construed as chores or taking the bull by the horns.

My name is Giorgio.
I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.
So--let us consider for a moment the picture I have drawn for you, dear Readers, and then let us contemplate in whose hands lies the future of this funny, ungovernable, boot-shaped outcrop of civilized Europe. Soft and immutable--spending their parents' hard-earned money with alacrity, revving their motorini with careless abandon, gobbling meals with the heedlessness of lactating babes, buttoning up their Diesel jeans and lacing their Converse shoes--are these hands capable of scrabbling out a place for Italy in the world that clamors and groans with endeavor outside its very doorstep? To me, these butter-fat, enfeebled, mother-fed hands which prefer to dally with ephemeral pleasures--like snow in Florence--seem far more suited to Neverland than the reality the rest of us mere mortals inhabit.

Yours from the front lines,


*An admittedly--an unabashedly--Anglo-Saxon term of judgment for which I offer no apology. To most Italians, of course, there is absolutely nothing conceivably wrong in having your mother either buy or launder your underwear (at age 40 and beyond).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Search Words to live by

Dear Readers,

As you may know, most bloggers employ a nifty spy-like tool to see who's visiting their site--this involves a tracker that not only gives the readers' location, but any referring sites as well as any search words used to lead folks to the blog itself.  Here are a few of the searches that have recently led some intrepid souls to my blog:

"horny midwestern women"  This from someone (presumably also horny) in Illinois. I must say I took wicked pleasure in knowing that a lascivious corn-fed lothario seeking to satisfy his rampant lust with some sex-starved daughter of the Grain Belt was led to my PG-13 musings on Florence. That is, until I remembered that I, too, happen to be a, well--er--midwestern woman. Hmm. Maybe I ought to be flattered.

"brazen bm" (that's b.m. for bowel movement, by the way!). This from--who else?--a New Yorker. Now, I ask you, what kind of person needs this sort of information? Was he or she trying to establish the criteria for some kind of defecation Richter scale, presumably progressing from timid, tentative and meek b.m.'s to the boisterous, bold and brazen kind? And more importantly--why? Was this person seeking knowledge, advice, photos, or--god forbid--a YouTube video? At any rate, I'm sure my good, clean blog failed to provide the sought-after answers or relief; in fact, it probably caused the anonymous googler not a little constipation--I mean, consternation.

"renaissance toilet"  My favorite, from someone in Washington, D.C. A Lavatory Historian researching his dissertation on toilets through the ages perhaps? Someone trying to channel his inner Michelangelo after some bad burritos? Or maybe one of our illustrious politicians was looking to install an antique fixture in his Georgetown colonial, or--dare I conjecture?--the White House. It suddenly strikes me that the renaissance toilet is probably an altogether fitting place in which to deposit one's brazen b.m.'s, don't you think?

Let me just say how very touched I am that in matters scatological or pertaining to midwestern lechery, Google sees fit to lead the little lost lambs of the internet to my virtual doorstep.

Your humble scrivener,


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Medea with a touch of schadenfreude

Dear Readers,

To look at her, you wouldn't think my mother-in-law capable of murdering her children. Or poisoning her husband. Or lopping the head off the neighbors' dog with a scythe.

She's a diminutive, demure, hunch-backed, dwarfen old woman who has never worn a pair of trousers in her life. She sports sensible woolen skirts and thick, putty-colored hosiery--and, when around the house, always a long, chintz smock to keep her clothes in respectable condition. When she toddles through the neighborhood in her men's black clodhoppers, head bowed, a benign expression on her face, her hands--with shopping totes dangling from one arm like ganglia--are clasped together tentatively, as if in prayer.

But this is a woman who feeds on the cronaca nera--the sensational journalistic recountings of murder, mayhem and misfortune--like a leech on Jabba the Hutt. For years I have watched her riveted to every grisly news story of infants and fetuses abandoned in dumpsters, toddlers left alone to fall off balconies, and of mothers strangling, stabbing or drowning their own offspring. (Surprisingly, there are thousands of these stories in Italy--clearly, the land where la Mamma reigns supreme has its dark side). The frisson of excitement she experiences over such horrible events is as obvious as the potato-shaped nose on her face. She discusses them endlessly--never failing to interject a devout "O, Signore pietà!" (Lord have mercy!)--and describes all the gruesome details with novelistic brushstrokes worthy of Stephen King. Though my testimony wouldn't hold up in a court of law, I'd swear that at some point her grim narrative begins to sound like wishful thinking.

She's also partial to stories of dogs sinking their teeth into innocent passersby or chewing the arms off babies. She has always harbored the conviction that canines represent malign, satanic forces, and as such should be shunned--like Protestants or feminists--and preferably exterminated from the face of the earth. Even beribboned toy poodles and quivering, hairless chihuahuas send her into paroxysms of fear. When the neighbors' sweet, playful, little black terrier comes prancing and sniffing around, she flees into her house and locks the door as if he were Cerberus incarnate, bent on taking a bite out of her precious pious rump and propelling her into the dank chambers of Hell.

Understand, dear Readers, that my mother-in-law is the most repressed, self-effacing soul there is--she has swallowed her own desires and opinions so long they've metastasized. The notion of free will is as alien to her as, well, wearing pants or ordering in Chinese food. Fanatically serving others in the hope of some Eternal Reward, forever thirsting after a sip from the elusive cup of Life, she's a cross between a heavenly handmaiden with stars in her eyes and a wretched Miss Havisham in a rotting wedding dress.

She didn't choose her life--it was doled out to her like a losing poker hand. And though she endeavors to be a good Catholic, and perform her duties like the good little Christian soldier she is, resentment seeps from her like steam from the lid of a pot kept on a slow, steady boil. She has made innumerable sacrifices for her children and husband--even neighbors and fellow parishoners know her to be easy prey when it comes to their voracious needs. She has told me of the great difficulty she endured in giving birth to four children in under four years, while working part-time as cooks' help and taking care of impossibly demanding invalid relatives, with no help from her paleolithic husband whose only concern was that his meals be on time. Her teeth fell out, her hair thinned, she suffered fainting spells. The midwife told her to stop having children--or get measured for a casket. Her loathing of her husband (the man largely responsible for her servitude) is undisguised, yet she slavishly dispatches her Christian wifely duties--all but one, mind you--as if frantically trying to garner celestial brownie points.

But as the Bard says, "fair is foul, and foul is fair": a while back the doctor told her to slip some liquid valium into her husbands' minestra to calm him down and render him more manageable or some such nonsense, and my mother-in-law asked, "What happens if I give him too much?" with an unmistakable gleam in her eye. Whenever family squabbles arise, she makes sure to fan the flames by playing the "he said, she said" game, pitting one sibling against another with Machiavellian precision, while wringing her hands in feigned concern. If you dare cross her, she lowers her eyes innocently in seeming deference to your opinions--then mounts a campaign of passive-aggressiveness the likes of which would have made even Alexander the Great drop arms and surrender his troops.

And so it happens that Our Lady of Infinite Sacrifice (or Lady Macbeth--take your pick) relishes being the bearer of ill-tidings. You name it, everyone's ailments--including degrees of fever, cataracts, gout, kidney stones, depression, dyspepsia, etc.--along with their financial setbacks, unwanted pregnancies, and myriad other human dramas, is the stuff of conversation. She lays in wait for us to come home from work and accosts us in the courtyard with the latest tales of woe regarding neighbors or family-members. And while it is true that Italians love to discuss illness as much as the English like to talk of the weather, her capacity for ill-omen is unparalleled.

I tell you all this, dear Readers, because this past Sunday morning as soon as we opened our shutters (thus signifying that we were awake, up, and about) she appeared at our door, like a raven, her hands clamped together in what was either meekness or glee, with an air of wistful sadness, and informed us that our 94 year-old neighbor, Ottavino, had died during the night. She proceeded to recount verbatim his wife Lisetta's mournful ululations, and speculated about whether or not she'd now be put into a casa di cura by her daughter, or given over to the care of one those immigrant slave-girls called badanti.  She lingered at our doorstep, eyes downcast, shoulders shrugged at the inevitability of death, nursing homes, and thankless children--savoring her words and the moment.

The ancient Greeks coined the term catharsis--meaning (theatrically speaking) that in order to fully experience their tragedies on the stage, one necessarily entered into the unfolding drama, as it were, and emerged emotionally cleansed. Perhaps my mother-in-law--through her obsession with the calamities and misfortunes of others--is merely purging herself of her own latent fears and frustrations. Perhaps her behavior is harmless enough--however morbid--and I'm a wicked, wicked woman to suspect her of ulterior sentiments.

But be assured of one thing, dear Readers--I watch my back around that little gray-haired, chintz-covered goblin. Because how she really feels about having a wilful, outspoken, independent-minded American daughter-in-law is anybody's guess.

My best regards,


(*photo credit: above, Maria Callas as Medea in the film by Pier Paolo Pasolini)