Thursday, January 20, 2011

Of plague and panini

Dear Readers,

Today is the feast day of San Sebastiano, and around Florence all the Misericordias have garlanded their portals and are handing out free little dinner rolls to all comers, in honor of the occasion.

For those of you who don't know, the Misericordia is the centuries-old Catholic-affiliated confraternity that now mostly serves as the Italian ambulance corps and provides supplementary healthcare at supposedly Christian-friendly prices--and San Sebastiano is their patron saint. This being Italy, everybody who's anybody has a patron saint (for example, even Berlusconi has a patron saint: the little-known Saint Pustule, protector of despicable cretins and Viagra-fed pig-fodder). Saint Sebastian, like so many of his zealous colleagues, met a gruesome death: he was martyred by being tied to a post and riddled with imperial arrows, then left for the buzzards to feast upon. He was rescued and healed by a groupie, and then--in a surprising lack of judgement--mouthed-off to the emperor, after which he was summarily, and understandably, clubbed to death. (If you ask me, most of these saints were as tenacious as pit bulls and as dumb as peat moss). Considered the protector against bubonic plague (though I guess he was on sabbatical around 1348-1350) and sundry other epidemics, it's easy to see why the Misericordia adopted him as their mascot.

When I rode past their outpost on my street this morning and saw the sign advertising pane benedetto I thought, "Here we go again--no room in the communal freezer until Easter." You see, dear Readers, my mother-in-law--that serial hoarder and über-Catholic--also loves to stockpile the panini of San Sebastiano. And the reason is obvious: they have been blessed, and by the proper authorities, too (priests are her rock stars). For her, caressing the Eucharist with her tongue, or stuffing two-dozen of these blessed rolls into her freezer (to savor in her private moments) is like leaving a concert with Mick Jaggers' sweaty t-shirt clutched to her delirious breast. To put it bluntly, she gets off on renegade men who know how to whip their audience into a frenzy of adoration. Of course, she also believes that if she crams enough of the pane benedetto down her gullet she'll make it to the promised land that much quicker, perhaps even ahead of everybody else (we all know how much Italians love to jump lines).

So, religiously, every January 20th, she slaps her platypus feet against the asphalt and crosses the street to the Misericordia, where they welcome her with open arms and two large sacks of celestial panini. They know a fanatical groupie when they see one.

Here it is, my mother-in-law's holy Happy Meal

Each little paper bag holds a plastic-wrapped roll akin to something you might scorn at Denny's, and a bonus santino depicting Sebastian in his signature pose, about to be perforated with the arrows of destiny, his rock-stardom assured for all eternity.

Call me irascible, petulant, bilious, choleric and snarky (and I am all of those things, and more)--but I have a question for Sebastiano's roadies: why oh why in the heavenly realm of bread that is Italy are these little flour-and-water benedictions as hard and brittle as a martyr's toenails?

Can somebody please answer that?



Tuesday, January 18, 2011

E.T. phon home

Dear Readers,

Don't expect much from this post. I shan't dazzle you with brilliant word play, I certainly won't entertain you with witty observations, and in fact I just may bore you to distraction. For I have begun 2011 in a colossal fugue.

So much so that this post is actually about my hair. Yep, that's right, my hair. Isn't it enchanting? Aren't you titillated? At the very least I'm sure you're all glued to your screens, mouths agape in horror, as if witnessing the derailment of a train that goes careening off haplessly into the night--metal twisting and sparks flying--and wondering, "No! Is she really going to write about her hair?"

Just watch me.

While all writers have moments of self-doubt, I've spent recent nights writhing under my duvet, my gut smoldering with the sensation of futility, while the hobgoblins of mediocrity wreak havoc on my psyche, certain that I'm some kind of latter-day Bartleby the Scrivener--a tragicomic figure doomed to ignominy and blogging in obscurity. E.T.--in case you were about to make the wrong assumption--does not in this instance refer to the shriveled little gnome from outer space with a penchant for beer (and who is incidentally probably a much better writer than me in his native...whatever he speaks). It stands for Elizabeth the Trite. For that's how I feel lately--like a talentless hack. A talentless hack with bad, bad hair. The worst kind.

Let me first assert that I never begin the new year with resolutions. Resolutions are for suckers. Well, once I did make a new years' resolution, with my best friend Juliann--the only one I ever stuck to. (Or, to which I ever stuck. See? That was a sentence worthy of a talentless hack). The resolution, brilliant in its simplicity, was to learn to drink martinis with both style and aplomb. But I suppose that was less a resolution and more a kind of inebriate, fledgling-boozehound suicide pact a twenty-something Dean Martin might have made with Frank Sinatra--the kind of pact made to kick off New Years' Evening circa 1991 at a teeming bar in the South End of Boston, and merely the first rung on the ladder up to the slide of life-long dissolution. I digress. What I meant to say was that this year began much like every other of late--which is to say, in blinking disbelief. Nevertheless, I was humming along more or less happily in the burgeoning days of 2011, until last Thursday, when the postman rang twice.*

The devilishly good-looking, ever-tanned Giovanni, in his dapper blue and yellow postal uniform, brought me a small Christmas package from a friend in the States that was mailed over a month ago, and I went down to the gate to retrieve it. (The holidays, of course, being long gone--stuffed away like our tree in its cardboard sarcophagus in the dank depths of the ripostiglio. As an added insult, I had to pay the Dogana its customary customs pizzo, or extortion fee, which of course I did because it's useless to fight these things--they're as inevitable as death though far less pleasant).

Only until I went back inside and happened to glimpse myself in the mirror did I realize that I had forgotten to comb my hair--and being a nervous hair-twirler, I had, over the course of the morning spent doing housework and generally antagonizing my computer, worked my locks into feral cave-woman proportions. How could I have committed such an atrocity in front of the handsome Giovanni??!!

Perhaps it was high time I resolved to do something, after all.

I briefly and dementedly considered procuring an always-perfect, easy-to-care-for wig--but knew that it would become the abused plaything of my nefarious offspring, and quite possibly be used as a Swiffer in my own moments of domestic dereliction. Instead, the very next day I stormed into the beauty salon for a desperately overdue tune-up. I go so infrequently (putting it off until I begin to resemble my long-dead grandmother) that I must always endure a serious confab among the staff over how best to handle my hair--with its unruly cowlicks, various layers of grown-out color, and insidious gray stealth-hairs--as if they are attempting to deactivate a bomb or remove a brain tumor.

Unlike most women, I do not take pleasure in a trip to the salon. It's something I feel I must do, like going to the dentist, in order to ensure against one day becoming a toothless, snaggle-haired crone. Anyway, I get through the worst of the color-job and the cut and then I'm in the final stretch--the piega. How did I want my spiffy new hair styled? Lisci or riccioli? The answer was easy, and I gave it without thinking--it's the one I always give: blow it out straight. All my life I've struggled uphill against my natural wave like Sisyphus hauling rock, or Oprah trying to say no to the fried cheese sticks. I've always longed for thick, raven-black, Indian-straight hair--the kind of hair over which wars are fought and empires won and kings enthralled. Cher hair.

On the way home, my sleek new 'do tucked under a jaunty red helmet, I cycled past an electronics store and suddenly screeched the brakes, skidded, and left a black tire-mark of utter decisiveness on the blood red of the bike lane. Why am I forever dissatisfied with what God or Brahma gave me? Why do I force my undisciplined mane to contort into the straight and narrow? Damned if I wasn't going to invest in my locks and shell out €49 for a highfalutin' hairdryer with an attachment that looks like some sort of Henry Ford-era turbine, guaranteed to pump up luscious curls.

So, yes, I bought a phon--that's the annoying way Italians have of saying hairdryer, instead of asciugacapelli. Pronounced like a cross between "phone" and "fawn", it's one of my all-time linguistic pet peeves. According to my Garzanti it's supposed to be fon, from the German Föhn--which means hairdryer (or large, unwieldy sausage)--but for some reason the common way of spelling it is phon, though this is from the Greek phone which means "sound." Which is just dumb. (There are a host of ill-conceived words which have been warped into Italian, the mere hearing of which gives my hackles rise and makes me long to clobber the offending speaker with a Louisville Slugger. Among the worst are water for "toilet," pronounced "VA-tair" as if by some sadistic, imperious, chainsmoking Russian ballet teacher and ex-KGB operative; hamburger [self-explanatory], pronounced "ahm-BOOR-ghair," which sounds just like bile sluicing through a duct; and computer [ibid.], pronounced "kohm--POO--tair" in the manner of a French idiot. Sheesh. If you're gonna hijack our words at least make a semblance of pronouncing them right). Again I digress.

I therefore declare 2011 the Year of My Hair--in which those devil-may-care, insouciant locks shall have their druthers. I promise to nurture them (most of the time) and bask in their curliness. I may be a talentless hack, but I don't have to look like one. Cher, beware.

And maybe, just maybe, I'll ease up on the self-flagellation a bit this year too, and stuff a sock into the maw of my inner critic (who, coincidentally, also has the voice of a sadistic, imperious, chainsmoking Russian ballet teacher and ex-KGB operative). But until I gather the strength, all you big-name writers with your fancy book contracts--well--you've probably got nothing to worry about.

Yours in--hopefully--fugacious fugueness,


*A reader and friend--hi there, Alexandra!--was privy to this story via email, poor thing.