Friday, January 13, 2012

A Tale of Two Kitchens

 This is my kitchen in Cincinnati just before we moved-in:

Cincinnati Kitchen

In the part of the kitchen you can't see, there's a great, big (I mean giant-big) double-door pantry and at the other end of the counter along the wall, there's a great, big (but not giant-big) refrigerator with additional storage above it.  There are also drawers and more cabinet space in the island. 

Here's the kitchen in the apartment where I have been staying for the better part of a month in Albisola:

Albisola Kitchen
Please note that this is the ONLY storage space: plates and glasses on the bottom shelf, all my food in the upper right quadrant.

No dishwasher.
No dryer.  (that's the washing machine between the stove and sink)
No garbage disposal.
And you have to light the burners and oven on the gas stove with a clicker thing.
No mixer, blender, food processor or fancy equipment of any kind.

The point is this:

I don't miss my kitchen at home at all because it turns out I have everything I need in that one little cabinet.  I hang the laundry out to dry on the balcony.  I stop by the supermarket down the street to get whatever I need that day, and I go every day so everything is fresh.  I eat less meat (too expensive) and more fruit.  I mash potatoes with a fork.  I squeeze lemons with a fork. And I whisk eggs with - you guessed it - a fork. 

I've seen a LOT of simple, tiny kitchens like the one in the apartment my friend inherited from his grandmother (and seldom uses).  But I feel compelled to admit that this is a bit austere even by Italian standards.  Today's double income households are pretty snazzy and have room to store lots of the kinds of stuff we stuff our kitchens with at home in the United States.

The real surprise is how quickly I've adjusted to the minimalist approach in the kitchen - and the meals have been great, almost all of which I eat at home.  Of course with prosciutto crudo, perfectly sliced, some fresh mozzarella and focaccia still warm from the panificio around the corner - well, a great meal in Italy doesn't require a lot of fancy equipment, does it?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Come Walk With Me

Michele left to go back home on Wednesday, which means my three months in Italy are almost over.  Soon I'll have to live "American" again.  So I've parked myself in front of the computer for the last few days thinking American things like balance sheets and business plans and what kind of events School Amici students might enjoy in 2012, trying to get myself ready.

Albisola, the town where I'm staying in Liguria, is a beach town, so quiet at this time of year that a lot of the shops and restaurants are closed for long "giorni di ferie," little hand-printed notices with the dates taped to the locked and shuttered entrances.

Today is even worse than usual.  It's the Epifania, a national holiday and the official end of the season, the day that the ugly witch brings the children their best presents.  But it's almost four o'clock by now.  Dinners are finished, gifts unwrapped, and in the predictable rhythm that is Italian life, I can set my watch by what they will do next, the same thing the Italians do after every Sunday dinner and holiday at grandma's house.

Homes in other countries are tiny compared to the United States.  So the best part of life happens outside in the public spaces and it happens all year round.  After the tables are cleared, all the ladies apply a fresh coat of lipstick and pin a sparkly broach to their lapels.  They wear their favorite high-heeled, leather boots.  For the teenage girls with the long, shiny hair that swings gently back and forth as they walk, maybe it's their best pair of skin-tight jeans, the ones with the fancy embroidery on the back pockets.

Arm in arm, they'll slowly appear, mothers and daughters, old married couples holding hands, friends who have been friends for as long as they can remember, old men on canes shuffling next to their sons behind the baby-strollers, every other one walking a funny, little dog dressed in a fancy little dog coat.  And, of course, the young lovers.  (There are always young lovers in Italy.)  They will all head out to the piazzas and promenades, wherever it is that they go to walk in their particular town to see and be seen, to wish each other a never-ending stream of sincere and heartfelt goodness:  Buone Feste. Buon Natale.  Buon Anno.  Buon Inizio.  Buona Befana.  Auguri.  Auguri.  Auguri.

In Albisola that place is "lungomare," an almost two kilometer stretch of playful tile sidewalk next to the sea.  It was designed and installed in the 1960s by the local ceramic artisans when real estate developers built a series of practical apartment buildings just behind the medieval alleys, homes where regular, working people might also enjoy proximity to the pretty beaches. By the time I get there the sun is almost down and the only real color that is left shimmers off the deep emerald-blue water, a few puffy pink clouds scattered across the creamy, dreamy horizon.
A picture I took on another Sunday stroll

At first, I walk like I'm trying to go somewhere.  Like I have an appointment.  "Permesso," I say quietly as I squeeze around and between the clumps of family who have stopped to chat.

Apple.  Orange.  Broccoli.  Peach.  After a few minutes it's hard not to notice that I am doing it wrong.  Where am I going?  What's the rush?  Is there a gelato with my name on it somewhere up ahead, one that is already starting to melt?  After a few minutes I slow down and match my pace to the place where I am.  I breathe.  I notice a toddler who has obviously learned to walk somewhat recently as she pitches herself ahead of her parents going full tilt and then panics that she might have lost them.  The mother runs to the baby and folds her in her arms, laughing.  I smile.

At times it is as though we have all stopped walking and are waiting in a line for something.  But that's OK.  That's just fine.  I catch snippets of conversations as people pass in the other direction.  "Cinquecentosessanta Euro," one man says to another, although I have no idea about what.  "Mi piaceva," a woman tells her companion and I make note to remember how to say I liked something in the past.  "Che fai?" "Ascoltami." "Vieni qui." all the parents say to all their children over and over.  These are my favorite language lessons.

By the time I get to the tunnel that marks the passageway out of town, I feel like I'm drunk.  Not fall-down drunk, but that tipsy kind of drunk after a glass or two of nice wine where you feel so good that you just don't care about anything anymore. It must be the air.  It must be the light.  It must be particles of energy that bind these special people to each other and this lovely, lovely place.  I notice that they are noticing me, wondering where I'm from and why I'm walking by myself.  But it's hard to feel alone in Italy where it's bad manners to enter a restaurant without saying "Buongiorno" to the other tables.  I wish I'd put on some lipstick before I left the house.

The business plans.  The balance sheets.  They don't matter anymore.  They never did.  What matters is this special moment, the perfect beauty of this day and time, time, time to walk along the sea, to look at it the same way you've looked at it everyday of your life and still be pulled to it, fascinated.  That's enough.  The same walk every week, every holiday, yet different every time, children growing and old people dying and married people still walking side by side.  That's enough.  Good food, good friends, and time to enjoy them.

* * *

Wait.  Hold everything.

Look what I've done, will you? I made an essay out of my passeggiata, a blog post so I wouldn't waste it.  I had to have a goal, you see.  How "American" of me.

 * * *
In a few weeks I'll roll my 50 lb. suitcase to the plane and go home, back to the compulsive doing of big important things that is the amazing culture that produced me. Do we return from our travels and leave them all behind, thinking, eating, sleeping, like the same American that left?  No.  Luckily, that's impossible.  Because the real souvenirs, the precious ones, the ones we're always looking for even if we don't know it, are the ones that get inside us.  In the middle of a normal American day with all its normal American preconceptions those are the ones that whisper to us about what's really important in life so insistently that we can almost smell the hint of salt in the breeze from the sea. . . .

Buon Anno, my fellow travelers!!!  Auguri.  Auguri. Auguri.