Downtown Orlando On A Balmy Day

Where do I come up with these titles? Who do I think I am, Bulwer-Lytton?

The sun, a roundness whose color could not adequately be described as merely yellow, stared hotly down on us as we traversed the green mile around the city park. Leashed pit bulls snapped and snarled at our ankles, and fat fireflies fizzed through the waning air. The earth inhaled, and then exhaled as, somewhere, a swan squawked.

Kirk heading resolutely to the Aloma Publix.

I owed Kirk a walk down around Lake Eola, something he does a few times each month with friends; I put in an occasional guest appearance– a cameo, as it were, on the mucky lapel of that sinkhole in disguise.

Don’t forget to click on the pictures; they’ll get bigger, and you’ll be able to see all of the captions. I think. (Though some don’t have captions.)

First we had to stop at Publix for groceries which we would bring home AFTER the walk– coming home, Publix would be on the opposite side of the road, and who wants to deal with all that after such strenuous exercise? Central Florida, sadly, often concentrates more on installing limited-access roads than creating actual human convenience.

Lake Eola Park is actually officially known as Summerlin Park, but I’ve never heard anyone call it that. When I landed here in 1978, it was a messy-looking greensward that wrapped itself in embarrassment around the lake, which wasn’t anything to write home about at the time. Hustlers of all colors and stripes patrolled the streets surrounding the park, and more than a few multi-roomed flophouses lined the nearby streets. There wasn’t much reason to go downtown in search of leisure activities, but in a few years everything was beautifully transformed. The park is really nice, and the path around it winds for almost a mile– a good way to gauge your walks. Some days we do three turns, others four, rarely five. On other days I whine from the heat, or the cold, or the goose droppings, or the people walking four abreast while yapping on their cell phones.

Glossy new buildings have sprouted along its perimeter, giving the area a new cosmopolitan air.

Along the south side of the park.

In the shot below, the aqua-colored space ship at left is actually our famous fountain, and the deco-looking structure at right is the Disney Amphitheatre. They hold shows there, and chorales perform, and sometimes regular people get up there and do little tap dances– unscheduled, of course.

A camellia in one of the park's south side gardens.

Kirk, surrounded by pigeons. Doesn't he look like the bird lady from Mary Poppins?

The day we walked, the Traveling Vietnam memorial was making an appearance in the park. There were lots of veterans in attendance– homeless veterans. Think what you want about that, but I think the phrase “homeless veteran” is just plain wrong.

There are swans nesting and living all around the park– black ones and white ones, fairly tame. When cousin Nicola was visiting here from Italy, he felt like he was walking through a wildlife preserve. They expect to be fed and aren’t shy about coming up to you, mouths open expectantly. (Swans, not Italians.)

Here’s some planting they do on the west side of the park. Years ago there used to be an incredible wall covered with sweet peas here, and they would scent the air.

Here’s the fountain doing its thing. Tourists love this– and you’d be amazed at the various languages you hear spoken around the lake, not all of them spoken by people who live here. Buses regularly drop people off downtown so that they can realize that there is something more to the area than the theme parks. Downtown Orlando has its ups and downs; in the 1980s it was very popular due to attractions like Church Street Station and all the restaurants and shops thereabouts, but then the theme parks decided to install their own downtowns and line them with name-brand stores. Strange.

Here are the famous swan boats. You can rent these and then spend some time crossing the lake. The one time I did this, years ago with a friend, we pedaled too close to the fountain and I pictured us somehow being sucked into the machinery– sort of like that lady in the 1940s who was eaten by a faulty department store escalator. In any event, on the day I lose my mind (it happens to all of us) I hope they find me in one of the swan boats, giggling happily in the sun.

Artistic.

It was such a nice day; I think we did three turns on the path. Sometimes you encounter people you know, determined to make their quota of turns. You smile the first time and maybe say a short greeting;  you nod when you see them again; and then you politely look away on the third pass. People used to do that when their carriages passed one another in the olden days while driving through a park– there was a whole etiquette thing about it.

And here’s how we ended the walk, staring at this violently red hibiscus on Central Boulevard.

Cousin Nico in Paradise– Key West 2010

Can you hear that sound of stampeding feet? Welcome Lufthansa Flight 464 from Frankfurt am Main to Orlando International Airport!

As scheduled, and after looking forward to it for many months, Nicola– my 19-year-old Italian second cousin once removed– arrived for two weeks of relaxation before starting his sophomore year at the University of Pisa. Though he did bring his geography text to study for a September 20th. exam, I only saw it brought out on a couple of occasions. Good for him! He’s going to ace it anyway– he’s riding a 100% average after his first year. [He did.]

“Where do you want to go in Florida?” I asked him prior to his visit. The theme parks didn’t figure into his equation; he wanted nature, and giant bridges spanning endless expanses of ocean, and alligators; but no sharks and– of course– a visit to Miami. But not necessarily Miami Beach. And he wanted to see some American Protestant churches– not that he’s shopping for a new religion but, after living in Catholic-saturated Italy, he wanted to see how the other half worshiped. And if we could have gotten into the Mormon temple in Orlando, I’m sure it would have been on his list as well.

Once we had a travel agenda in place, I was able to start worrying about what to feed him. I knew what Italians generally ate after spending time there in the past, but I naturally worried about what he might find unappetizing. We did well, however; corn stayed untouched on his plate, either cobbed or loose, but most vegetables and poultry and meat were duly appreciated. Corn, it seems, is fed to livestock. Polenta? Don’t get me started; that’s what peasants ate if there was any corn left over after throwing it to the pigs. And one night I hand-made pappardelle noodles and a wonderful pesto, which was actually a bonus because the women in his family don’t make pasta by hand anymore. (“The ones that do are all dead.”) And he enjoyed the Mexican fare we had in South Florida, as well as a Chinese meal here at Jum Bo in Winter Park. But Italian fare in Key West was not entirely authentic, he decided. Sorry! And they mispronounced bruschetta.  It’s broo-SKET-ta, not broo-SHET-ta. (Note to self: load car with prosciutto e melone prior to any long drives involving Italian relatives. And keep a ready baked ziti warming on the manifold, just in case. A translating dictionary, too.)

Nico got to meet my mother and sisters and brother-in-law for the first time, immersing himself in a saturation dose of my family. When together, we’re loud… and he loved it. Here we are– yours truly, Nico, and Kirk, posing dutifully by Lois and Mike’s pool in Port St. Lucie, a small fishing village wedged between the Atlantic and the Everglades.

Nico was VERY taken by how wide and far everything is here in America. We drove down through the center of the state along US-27 when we headed to Key West; I love that route because it’s wide and empty and scenic. By the time we got to the Everglades entrance in Homestead, which is about 209 miles from my house here in Winter Park, we could have driven from his house in Lucca all the way to Rome– a whole other region and a whole other dialect. And we STILL had hours to go until we reached Key West.

I’d never been to the Everglades, and we were both impressed. An alligator showed up, as anticipated, and we posed my cousin next to a sign fraught with warnings:

 

A primeval killer.

We drove further into the park after spending some time at this hammock, but the road grew grungier and the sky blacker, convincing us to head back to town and some Mexican food. There’s such a sense of vastness in the Everglades. The sky and the flatness stretch out before you, and when you’re the only ones on the road like we were it feels like Earth has been evacuated. Where are the souvenir stands, your mind cries out!  There’s nothing but swamp! “It’s all very green,” Nico said. “From Orlando to here has been nothing but green.” “We are one of the nation’s vegetable baskets,” I replied, sounding like my third grade nun. “See all those plants that look like corn? That’s sugar cane! This is where we get the sugar for all those Snickers bars we ate on the way down here.”

 

The next morning we headed for Key West along U.S. Highway 1, which is the only road into the Keys. There are some stretches where you just don’t drive faster than ten miles above the posted speed limit, yet there is always one bozo behind you who wants to go even faster. “Bozo,” I explained to Nicola, “was a television clown here in America.”  “I hate clowns… I am afraid of them!”  “Me too.”

He was very taken with the palette of blues and greens which color the water on the way down through the island chain. And even though it was six thousand degrees outside the car, he gamely posed in the sun while wearing his mosquito suit. (Jeans and long sleeves.)

“I think I’ll sleep,” he said at one point while I drove us through the endless miles of azure and teal. “Please do,” I replied, which he interpreted ironically, a Tuscan trait which, incidentally, had the both of us raising amused eyebrows for the two weeks he was in Florida. As when I attempted to tell him, in Italian, something about bringing along a duffel bag:  “Don’t even try,” he replied. Had there been a dueling oak in Winter Park, I’m sure we would have met beneath it one fine morning– linguistically, of course.  Neapolitans or Sicilians would simply throw knives at one another and be done with it but, being Tuscans, we duel with eyebrows. (Admittedly, I am half Neapolitan, and Nico and I are both descended from a Sicilian woman. But that’s a state secret) And I had the pleasure of explaining to him the subtle differences among underneathunder, and below.  Being a scholar of languages, his fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek allows him to grasp the subtleties of our barbaric language in a trice; it was like driving with Homer.

We stopped at this church on Key Largo just to prowl around inside and visit the Sacrament. Nico was impressed by how modern and suburban most Florida churches are.

After a few hours, we arrived in Key West. To me, it always feels like I’ve come home. To Nico, it was his first slice of urban paradise, and he loved it immediately. We drove in via the southern entrance, past the forts along the Atlantic, and he could not get over the fact that here was this vast, spreading ocean nestled against this charming little city. And the air is always so fresh… it was a pleasure to see the look on his face: another convert!

Here’s Nico on Elizabeth Street, which we decided was named for Jack’s male secretary on Will & Grace. Remember?  “Elizabeth!!!”  He loves that show, and we watched a lot of episodes in Italian on my computer. They are just as crazy, Karen even more so.

One of my favorite spots in Key West is atop La Concha Hotel, where you have views of the entire town. Here’s my cousin backed by St. Paul’s Episcopal, which he was very impressed with. I am too– the figural stained glass alone is worth the trip. And it’s one of those Episcopal sanctuaries that is just a hair’s breadth away from being entirely Roman Catholic; sometimes they’ll tell you “we have everything but the Pope,” which doesn’t seem like such a bad idea these days.

And, of course, here’s Bonnie Albury’s house, which I’ve written about recently. I am ready to move in here. Where’s the contract?

We stayed at Oasis, one of those guest houses for men, which was a first for him. I felt like the old geezer trailing his young companion along with him: “This is my Italian cousin,” I felt compelled to tell the desk clerk and any guests we spoke with. And then I would get the gay male version of the raised eyebrows look. So what! Believe what you want.

We swam in the pool and were able to splash around at will, because the joint was deserted. “It’s the slow time of year,” everyone kept telling us, which was fine with me. We did notice a lot of lesbian couples strolling through town, holding hands, and then we realized it was Women’s Week, or close to it. Nico was amazed at the freedom, and stunned at the look of a housewife– there could be no other word– who shot THE filthiest look at a female couple as she passed by them on the sidewalk. Why even bother dragging your husband and kids to Key West if you’re going to come with THAT attitude? Honestly.

We stopped in at the 801 one night so Nico could get his first look at a gay club. Filled with carousing locals, it was a pleasant introduction. I had a beer, he had a soda, and we found ourselves seated next to a couple who happened to be staying at our guest house. When my cousin got up to find the facilities, I got the eyebrows from one of them, but then I entered into a conversation with the bartender and told him about Nico visiting from Italy. “He’s my cousin,” I said in their direction. “My second cousin once removed.” It turns out the bartender’s  people are from Italy as well, and so he and Nico had a chat about the old country when my cousin found his way back to his bar stool.

The gay community center on Truman Avenue was enlightening for him– there’s just nothing like it in rural Italy. Here was an entire structure devoted to tolerance, with a great display about Tennessee Williams. (Hi Susan!)

We stayed two days and then drove back to downtown Miami, where my second cousin Steven on my father’s side owns an Italian restaurant named Perricone’s. What a meal! We arrived halfway between lunch and dinner, and so had everyone’s attention. The place is amazing, and Steven was on the premises and able to hang out for a while. And Nico loved the food.

He had a great time here, and I truly miss his company. Now he’s back in Italy, totally immersed in his sophomore year at the University, and dying to come back to America. I’m dying to go back to Italy, so it’s been decided that Kirk and I will be visiting there next year, because Nico’s entire family wants to meet us as a couple. And that’s a whole other story. There were plenty of issues when my cousin came out to his people, and lots of eMails back and forth between him and Cousin Jimmy, beseeching advice and help during what turned out to be a rather emotional and trying time, but eventually everybody saw reason. I feel like I’ve accomplished something good and lasting in my life regarding HIS life, but I’m mostly thankful for his family’s understanding and support. It was a stretch for a gang of rural Italians to come to grips with such a concept as a gay son / grandson / nephew.

Now summer’s over, and we can all start looking forward to the next.

 

 

 

Christmas In New York– 2009

What can I say about Christmas in New York? It looks like a winter carnival, smells like lasagna, and usually feels pretty cold. If it’s NOT too cold, New Yorkers complain. “It’s too hot! It doesn’t feel like Christmas!” they bleat, yet if it IS too cold and snowy, by February they are dreaming of throwing their Blackberries onto the subway tracks and heading to Hawaii.

I myself rarely travel to New York for the Christmas holidays– specifically, Brooklyn and Staten Island– because anything below sixty degrees is too cold for me, my blood having thinned after thirty-one years in balmy, sun-kissed Florida. This year I decided at the very last minute– sorry, Jeff– to go and surprise them all because my sister Lois and her husband Mike were driving up from Port St. Lucie on Interstate 95– yes, DRIVING through all those states which, let’s face it, form nothing but one big factory outlet from northern Florida to Washington, DC.

I landed in Newark on the 23rd. and met my friend Stephen at Volare, an Italian restaurant on West 4th. Street in Manhattan. What an excellent place! He had discovered it recently and remarked on the excellence of their Manhattans, and so we each had two along with a plate of appetizers. We commented on the fact that we had known one another for forty years, having started high school together in 1969. (That was before disco, Madonna, rap, and Lady Ga Ga.) He looks better than I do, having retained all his hair and much of his sense.  It was nice to sit in that warm and red and gold glowing place and reminisce. Here’s to another forty years, Stephen! (Jeff– next year, I promise! Or you’ll just have to come to Florida. After all, I’ve been here for thirty-one years.)

I surprised Mom at home later that evening– the phone call at the front door, the subsequent ringing of the bell, the look of sheer delight and surprise on her face when she saw that her eldest, her favorite, her prince had come home for Christmas. Lois and Mike and Montana (their Yorkie) were in the upstairs apartment, sound asleep, and soon I plopped onto the living room sleeper sofa. It seemed like I only slept a few minutes before I awoke to my brother-in-law Mike, finger to his lips, whispering that I should walk into the kitchen where Lois and Mom were having coffee. The look on her face was priceless… the words from her mouth not so priceless– “I thought it was Peter Boyle comin’ down the hallway!” Peace and good will to you, too, dear sister.

My brother Tony was suitably surprised when he showed up later that day, presents in hand, looking good and happy and recovering nicely from shoulder surgery– so no tight hugs, please.

That evening we met at our sister Gina’s in Staten Island, to have our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of seven fishes. Or nine. Or eleven. Who could say? Everyone leapt onto various electronic devices to Google the details of that tradition, which basically is just another reason for Italian families to get together and eat. When Gina saw me she gasped, trembled, and burst into tears. Very emotional! It was only later that Mom and I realized that the surprise and shock were probably not a good idea for Gina, having only last year been implanted with a defibrillator.

We sat– well, first we had cocktails– the five of us in from Brooklyn; Gina and husband and two kids; and the husband’s sister Annie and her husband George and their daughter Caitlin. (George is Irish.) There was food enough for a Roman legion, but we managed to eat through most of it, like locusts with lots of vowels in our names. There’s a point when somebody produces a box of Italian pastries, which always elicits detailed discussion:  “Annie, where did you get these?”  “Right?!? I know !! From that place on Hylan near the store that used to be next door to the pizzeria.”  “Romano’s? That’s where we got those candied almond favors for Maria Scaccialotti’s wedding that she had to get married right outta high school.”  “No, not Romano’s, the other place past the dump.”  “OH, Tuttocarbo’s Bakery!”  “Yeah, except they don’t own it no more, the Spinzanas from New Dorp bought it but decided to keep the sign.”  Of course the pastries are always perfect with coffee, and you somehow find room atop the spaghetti with clam sauce, lobster tails, stuffed calamari, fried shrimp, and scungilli salad, all sauced and tossed and amazing and plentiful. And you talk and laugh and yell, even if the person you are talking two is six inches away. It’s all so lively and exhausting and you wish you could remember forever all the funny things everyone says and does…

Christmas Day everyone came to our house, and Mom made a huge lasagna, stuffed escarole, sweet potatoes,  and a ham. It’s like we hadn’t eaten for months… I distinctly recalled saying to Gina the night before that I would never eat again, but I guess I must have slept off all that seafood. It was so good being there with everyone; Mom always puts out the old decorations that we made as kids, and things our father made, so it’s like going back in time for the few days that I visit. The baby Jesus is wrapped in a little piece of paper towel, which is removed on Christmas morning, and I feel like I’m twelve years old again, listening to Mom, doing what I’m told, and making everyone laugh as much as I can.

Saturday Lois and Mike and Mom and I went to a diner out in Bay Ridge, even though the house was still stuffed with food. It was cold and rainy, and everyone wanted to escape from the four walls, so we went to one of Mom’s favorite places. She didn’t exactly know where it was– “we don’t go by streets, we go by landmarks!”– so Mike almost drove the wrong way into a one-way street when Mom told him to make a left. Mom and Lois and I started waving our arms in the air, all trying to alert him to that fact, but only strange, garbled confusion came out of our mouths; it was like he was driving three excitable Kreplachian people to lunch.

Sunday was sunny and beautiful, and I had no trouble flying home to Florida except for an hour delay on my Detroit to Orlando leg. And that wasn’t bad, because I had never been to Michigan so I suppose one of these days I will have to by a Michigan magnet for my refrigerator door. (Does it mean you’ve been in a state when you are just in an airport?)

Kirk elected not to travel north this year, so we had Christmas with our new floor when I got back to Florida. Maybe we’ll go up next year together, for longer, because there are so many people to see and so many meals to indulge in. And I want to shop in the Italian stores on Eighteenth Avenue so I can bring some REAL prosciutto back to Florida. And maybe one of those giant cheeses like what Lucy snuck onto the plane.

Christmas– it’s all about calories!

Naked Jackie O, Andy Warhol’s Boxes, and MY Stuff

This week, a team of researchers, documenticians, and– I assume– forensics experts are sifting though hundreds of boxes of STUFF and THINGS that artist Andy Warhol collected over the span of his life. He started out making piles and messes in his apartment until there were no clear surfaces anywhere, until a friend suggested that he decant the contents of his daily gleanings into boxes and then seal everything up for posterity.

As we all know, posterity came early for poor Andy– him with the shock of white hair and eternally-bemused expression. Well, maybe not so much bemused as afraid. It’s like, very early on, he took a long look outside and then decided to become an Indoor Person, choosing instead to import those parts of the outside world that he could actually deal with, like Jackie O (a naked picture of whom surfaced in his stuff). Have you read his diaries? It’s like rooting around inside somebody’s underwear drawer after they’ve asked you to cat sit for a week. (I deny ever having taken part in something like that, and I’m sticking to my story.)

Reading about Andy’s boxes, and the tens of thousands of things he had salted away– including, but hardly limited to, leaky soup cans– I wondered what the world would do if, upon MY death, it was invited to sift through my stuff. Would my things end up on the Internet for legions of twentysomethings to remark upon ironically? Would they endlessly text one another regarding the contents of Box 43-B because the items spoke of a time and place that, for them, seemed like amusing bits of ancient history? Who can say? And I’m not really interested in the answers; I’m not interested in anything that people will say about me after I’m gone, because it won’t be colored by my perception of it all. Hopefully I’ll be somewhere looking at everything and then laughing uproariously at what I had to put up with for a few decades.

To save a little time, here is a sampling of what you can expect to find in MY boxes.

Joan Crawford 

BOOK: Joan Crawford, My Way of Life. Simon and Schuster hardcover, 1971. First Edition. 224 pages.  Dear Joan… she was her own best publicity agent, and this book attests to that fact. In it, Joan gives the details on how to achieve the near-perfect life- a life, I might stress, not unlike her own! It’s full of gems on subjects such as the nurturing of the manly ego:  “Make your husband talk about his work. Drag  it out of him, if you have to. But, you’re saying, my husband’s a cashier. How can I take an interest in that? Well, for openers, you might say, “Any holdups today?”     Color: “A red vegetable next to a yellow one looks unappetizing. Two white ones, like celery and cauliflower, look awful.”     Meat loaf: “I use two pounds of ground sirloin, a pound of ground veal, and a pound of sausage meat…thoroughly mixed with three eggs, a bottle of A-1, a good lacing of Worcestershire, a lot of seasoned salt, and finely chopped purple onion and green peppers. I hide four hard-boiled eggs inside the loaf  and before it goes into the oven I dribble over more A-1 and Worcestershire and seasoned salt so that a crust will form.”     And that is why Joan’s book is in one of my boxes.

Gestest FrogFIGURINE: Metal frog, stamped “Gestest.” Size about 2″ x 2″. Manufacture date unknown.  I acquired this frog during one of many childhood visits to the doctor for any number of ailments. Long story short: I was not a well child. At one point I must have decided that I deserved rewards for spending so much time in Dr. Gennarelli’s office– sort of a toddler’s version of Sky Miles.  This frog was given to me by Nurse Isabelle, who was tough and had lots of dark, curly hair under her starched white cap. (We loved one another.) I carried this frog with me everywhere, and one day Laraine Elder, her name should be preserved throughout eternity, took it and threw it into the depths of her garage. We found it months later, wedged inside a folded beach chair. And I just looked up “Gestest” online:  “A synthetic progestational hormone with actions similar to those of progesterone but functioning as a more potent inhibitor of ovulation. It has weak estrogenic and androgenic properties. The hormone has been used in treating amenorrhea, functional uterine bleeding, endometriosis, and for contraception.” Who knew?

Georgia Mud

 MUD from Georgia, dried; March 1974, Acquired on-site.  My friend Eugene is one of my best friends in all the world; I know him since high school, having been close to him since 1971. I learned many things at his house: how to drink coffee and stay up until 3 AM with him and his sisters while discussing the finer points of the Shangri-Las’ Greatest Hits LP; how to appreciate Newport cigarettes; and how to look at people through a lens that wasn’t necessarily rose-colored. I tended to trust everyone; they basically made fun of everyone. When his father Joe was en route to Georgia for a business trip, I asked him to bring me back a bottle of red Georgia mud. (I was VERY into Gone with the Wind  in those days.) And he did.

Tara

 Tara, the O’Hara Plantation in Georgia. Premiere issue in the Hawthorne Collectible Gone with the Wind  Collection. 5.5 x 4.5 inches. December 1994. The book and the movie REALLY influenced me, irrationally so, and I’ve written about how I threw a GWTW  party in college and made my sister Gina dress up as Prissy and serve my guests. When this little model appeared in an ad in Parade magazine fifteen years ago, I HAD to have it. Imagine… a model of Tara! There it would proudly sit, perched atop my television set for years to come. And while I was still basking in its glow, I received a mail offer for another  offering: a model of Twelve Oaks, Ashley Wilkes’ neighboring plantation house. (For the unschooled: Scarlett O’Hara nurtured a lustful crush on Ashley for many years, much to the detriment of her own happiness. Was it love? Probably not.) How could I own a model of Tara and NOT Twelve Oaks? Case closed. Little did I know that there were a dozen other little models in the series, all of which I felt compelled to buy. Oy! Things like Aunt Pittypat’s house… the saloon where Rhett Butler cavorted with Belle Watling and the prostitutes… Melanie and Ashley’s cottage… the train station … the newspaper office… the restaurant in New Orleans where Scarlett gorged herself after marrying Rhett… it went on and on. At that point in time I would have been loath to nip a series of anything in the bud; now I know better. Other than Martha Stewart Living magazine, I don’t horde anything. But thank God the series stopped, finally.

Shark's Teeth

 Bottle of sharks’ teeth. 1970-1995. The bottle I got at an antiques shop in Connecticut during one of those family trips to the New England coast; let’s just say that we saw a lot of women in Colonial garb dipping candles and working at looms, and a lot of blond young men in tight-fitting breeches brandishing their muskets. During that same vacation I found a 45 RPM copy of the Cookies’  “I Want A Boy for My Birthday,” which I played and pined over all that summer: ‘It doesn’t matter if he’s short or tall /  Just as long as he gives his all.’  Please. How ridiculous was that? Sweet, but ridiculous. Years and years later, when I started going to Venice beach with Kirk, the sharks’ teeth we collected went into this bottle. All you do is root around in the surf line, and you find plenty of teeth. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you find really big teeth, specimens as large as two inches. They wouldn’t fit into this little bottle, of course; I’d probably have to put those in Tupperware.

 

Italian Rock 

Some sort of Italian rock, millions of years old. Acquired 1984 along the Lima River in Tuscany.  Which is a lie. When my sister Gina and I were in Italy that year, our cousins took us down a vertical incline so that we could find rocks like the one you see pictured. Now, when your Italian cousins tell you “we’re going hiking down a vertical incline,” you don’t quite understand what they’re saying, so your sister puts on a dress and strap-on heels, thinking that she is going to spend a day eating lunch at the old family homestead perched safely atop  the vertical incline. WRONG. Down we went, me in my big saddle shoes and tight, stylish  jeans, but we managed to find a rock large enough to carry back up with us. Which I did, and promptly dropped back DOWN the vertical incline because the slim tree trunk I was holding onto decided to uproot itself from Mother Earth. My cousins felt so bad that they gifted me with the rock you see pictured. It has sat on a bookshelf for twenty-five years, occasionally giving off dust and often mocking me with the fact that my agility leaves much to be desired.

There are many, many other things in my boxes which the public might find fascinating, but I’ll have the luxury of not knowing. I’ll be in a place far, far away. To me, Heaven will be a big arena where we all sit, entranced, as the secrets to the mysteries of the ages are unfolded on giant screens: how the pyramids were built; how and why a few narrow parameters composed of just a few years suddenly exploded with discovery and thought; whether or not visitors from distant space landed in Africa and mated with the existing races to form modern man; and why Eleanor Parker  decided to take the role of Constance in Return to Peyton Place  when it seemed like it should have been played by Lana Turner, who originated the role of Constance in Peyton Place.

And those unforgettable movies will be in one of my boxes, too.

PhotoBike Tour 2: Italy

 

Pisa, Looking East Along the Arno

Pisa, Looking East Along the Arno

 

DAY ONE

Norma Shearer, playing Elizabeth Barrett, gets all excited when Robert Browning nudges her to come to Italy with him. ” Italy… ah, Italy!” she gushes, and rightly so. That’s what I felt like doing after a cramped nine hour flight from JFK to Pisa. Don’t even get me started about that! Everyone knows that flights from JFK to Orlando are supposed to be cramped, but to Pisa? Who goes to Pisa besides me and Galileo Galilei? The flight was long and tiring, and at one point I almost asked the flight attendant for fresh-squeezed water. But still… I was going to Italy !

Personally, I think airplane seating should be handled like dinner party seating: the flight attendants should make sure that people sitting together will be able to engage in stimulating conversation. My seatmate was an attractive older student who didn’t have much to say until about an hour before landing, and then he kept getting interrupted by A Woman Of A Certain Age who insisted on telling him how handsome he was. SHE should have been seated next to HIM, and I should have been seated next to nuns. I’m just saying.

Pisa, that town of towers and universities, was my entry point into fabled Italy; its airport reminded me of the dusty Orlando airfield circa 1978, but it’s where a lot of people fly into  when they’re entering Tuscany. My people live outside of Lucca, a small city situated a fifth of the way from Pisa to Florence. Here’s a little map; if it’s legible enough, Lucca is in a box, and just a bit northeast of it is Marlia, where I stayed with cousins. It’s country, with farms and gardens and even some factories.

 

Lucca and Environs

Lucca and Environs

 

It’d been twenty-five years since I’d been to Italy, which means that, if I continue this pattern, the next time I go I’ll probably be in a box. My mother’s cousin Giuseppina is now seventy years old, which I why I didn’t recognize her at the airport (though she recognized me), but her son Adriano (in his late forties) and grandson Nicola (18) didn’t recognize me. Nicola I’d never met, and those family photos that my mother sends them over the years must be dated! It was like a bunch of strangers piling into the car, but we all laughed when I told them that my giant new American Tourister suitcase from Sears meant that I was planning on staying with them for two months. HA! I wish.

At the house in Marlia I met Nicola’s mother Simona, and Adriano’s brother Massimo, and was shown to my aerie– a shady and spacious second-floor bedroom that overlooked fields that used to be planted with fruit trees and vegetables when Giuseppina’s Mother and Father were still living. It was nice and cool, though there was no air conditioning anywhere, as the shutters are kept closed against the Summer heat. In the distance loomed Le Pizzorne, a series of steep hills sprinkled with tiny, stone villages. What a view! Lunch was a cold rice dish studded with various flora, including pearl onions, which I’ve never eaten because I hate them. It was accompanied by a heaping pile of radicchio, which we flavored with oil and vinegar. Then we had polpete– little meat pockets– and delicious red plums from Simona’s grandfather’s farm. Not to be rude, I crunched my way through it all! When in Rome…

 

 

The houses where my cousins live in Marlia

The houses where my cousins live in Marlia

 

That evening Nicola and I sped on bicycles to the vigil Mass in Marlia center. I tell you, these Italian country churches are amazing– you have your rather stern, plain exterior in most cases, but when you go inside it’s like stepping into a mini St. Peter’s Basilica: art, statues, candles, soaring ceilings and gilded columns all give witness to the fact that you are in Catholic Italy. Though increasingly secular, no Italian will deny the facts of his country’s artistic treasures. And even if I was as wet as a holy water font after that bike ride along heart-tuggingly beautiful country lanes, I managed to fan myself dry so that I could bask comfortably.

Bed by 9:30 that night– there’s a six hour difference in time, and so I put myself to sleep trying to figure out if I was in the past or the future, punchily giggling into the freshly-ironed sheets that Giuseppina had placed on my bed.

DAY TWO

I set the alarm for eight Sunday morning, but was numb when it went off, and only managed to limp out of bed when Giuseppina reminded me– with knocking and imprecations– that I was going to have to get up and start enjoying my holiday. I’d actually been awakened at half past five by the rising sun and a lot of birds, but fell back to sleep until the damned alarm went off; it had been brought to my bedroom the night before by Massimo after a long, complex discussion involving two tiny, plastic alarm clocks and how they worked, which I made even more complicated by stating that I preferred the RED clock over the WHITE one. Here I was trying to make jokes in Italian with people who did not yet “get” me.

On to Lucca after a coffee and biscotti breakfast! Simona drove Nicola and me to a piazza filled with cafes and bicycle renters, and soon we were racing around the medieval walls of the city. They’re tall and very wide, and the town fathers over the centuries had managed to create parks  up there, complete now with benches and bike paths accompanying the occasional ancient ruin. It’s incredibly beautiful cycling through this bucolic setting: down on our left was the town itself, all red tile and ocher and pastels, filled with churches and shops and people enjoying a day in town, and out to the right were the hills that ring the Luccan plain. It’s stunning… even the light is different!

We walked through town after the bicycle ride, stopping in at a few churches and shops, and I had my first experience using Euros when I bought us chilled yogurt.

 

San Michele, in Lucca

San Michele, in Lucca

 

The path atop the walls

The path atop the walls

 

Back at the house for dinner, Giuseppina’s sister Maria Pia brought over a stack of pizzas– one for each of us. I began to finally get the impression that these people loved to eat, though everyone looks great, especially the two sisters: both in their seventies, they each look a dozen years younger.

DAY THREE

Pisa! Nicola and I went by train and visited the Cathedral, but not the Tower. What??!! He’d been to it a few months before, and I’d been there in 1984, and it cost twenty dollars to climb. Besides, it was desecrated by a ring of scaffolding. That, along with the long line of tourists, coaxed us into the coolness of the immense Cathedral. A visiting choir was performing Panis Angelicus, among other selections, and it was all so ethereal…

 

 

The Cathedral at Pisa

The Cathedral at Pisa

 

After a pizza lunch we scampered through town for a few hours, investigating the University that Nicola’s going to attend in the Fall, and browsed through bookshops looking for items on his reading list that he wanted to get a jump on. Then we spent some time searching for an ancient synagogue, which we eventually found, but it was closed that day. “Maybe we should come back Friday night !” I suggested. Dinner that evening was a classic: spaghetti! And bread and salad and wine and water and fruit and coffee…

DAY FOUR

The birds woke me again at five in the morning, and then after a light breakfast (breakfast is not big here) I went shopping with Giuseppina and her son Massimo. First we went to a local shop, where Giuseppina bought even more food, and I got myself a red-and-white checkered tablecloth in case I ever open up an Italian restaurant in Winter Park. I almost bought a tube of fish paste, thinking it was toothpaste! Then we went to a larger supermarket, which is just like Publix here in Florida except that everything is in Italian– and the cleaning fluids and shampoos are all strange. You’d better know what you’re going to put in your hair! After lunch Massimo and I biked along the Serchio River towards Lucca, and he showed me where he fished and caught eels. Eels! Would I be having eels to eat soon?

 

 

Massimo biking along the Serchio.

Massimo biking along the Serchio.

 

That afternoon we visited the Villa Reale, one of many old country houses that ring Marlia. We weren’t there in time for a tour, which we didn’t want anyway, but a young guide offered to accompany us through the beautiful grounds. Giuseppina loves the place. Here’s the house where the servants lived… I tell you, I wouldn’t mind being a servant in Marlia.

 

 

Villa Reale-- the servants' quarters

Villa Reale-- the servants' quarters

 

In the evening Simona drove Nicola and me to the top of the hills east of Marlia so that we could find the Cross, a tall structure that overlooks the plain. You know in all those old movies when people go up a winding hairpin road around a mountain? It was exactly like that, only real life. The road is not wide, and is uneven and rutted dirt for most of the way, and there are no guard rails. You hope that nobody comes at you from the other direction, as there are very few places to back up in order to let somebody pass. The mountain is covered with dense forest, and all you see are ancient houses in tiny settlements, and a set of stations of the Cross which lead presumably to the top. This being Italy, the way is confusing; one very old lady staring at us from  her yard as we drove carefully by seemed able to point the way at the crossroads past her house had we decided to ask, but Nicola said that “she would be only able to tell us the news of 1860.” We eventually reached the top– I was leaning toward the wall of earth at our right so that our car wouldn’t fall off the cliff– and discovered a breathtaking view of the entire plain. The Cross is modern and sixty feet tall and looks oddly normal standing in that remote place. It’s very peaceful up there, and you can hear the wind.

 

 

The Luccan plain seen from the Cross

The Luccan plain seen from the Cross

 

That evening I was brought to meet Simona’s parents who, after an evening of dinner and dancing, would be going to Rimini the next day to start their vacation. Is this the life, or what? Gelato for everybody, and a lot of daffy mis-translations from yours truly who, by now, was a very sleepy boy. These people love to entertain, and they constantly offer to drive you to the ends of the Earth for photo opportunities. Does this mean that I’ll have to treat them all to Disney when they come to visit here?!!

 

 

Nicola and me atop the mountain

Nicola and me atop the mountain

 

DAY FIVE

Siena! My cousin and I reached Siena the Magnificent after a leisurely train ride through the countryside, which turned not so leisurely after we disembarked. According to my map, Siena center was across a busy highway– but how did we cross the highway? Apparently we had to wind our way through a sort of mall, where we found an elevator that took us to an underground parking garage. Where next? I had no idea, and neither did my cousin. “I’m not good at these situations,” he said as we found ourselves surrounded by shoppers heading merrily to their cars. But somebody noticed our slack-mouthed expressions and pointed the way, and we found an area where you were supposed to board a bus for the center of town. We stood in line and then somebody– an American woman who I could tell was from Flatbush– told us that we needed to buy tickets from a little machine attached to a wall some yards away. “THEY’RE NINETY-FIVE CENTS!!!” she yelled, thinking that we were illiterate rubes from the country, which of course we were. Oy! We couldn’t figure out how to match the rapidly-blinking bus schedule’s lines and numbers to the lines and numbers on the little machine, because you were supposed to make a decision, but how did we know from all the different parts of Siena center? And the line of people was backing up behind us; two of them started asking us, in German, what to do. If we had been refugees fleeing ahead of Cossacks, we would all have been doomed! Then my Brooklyn Boy kicked into high gear– I opened the map and explained to Nicola that we were going to walk rather than figure out the bus system, and so we did. We dodged traffic and did a lot of clambering,  and it’s a good thing that he’s a wiry eighteen-year-old, and that I’m a healthy fifty-three-year-old, because it was quite a hike up some steep hills and past crumbling, ancient city walls– walls, I have to report, which are not quite as graceful as Le mura of Lucca.

Siena, as you know, was named for the Crayola color called Burnt Sienna. And it IS that color, everywhere you look!

 

 

Siena

Siena, baking in the sun

 

We visited the house and Church of St. Catherine, all peaceful and spiritual and totally silent– they don’t let you talk– and were in awe inside the giant Cathedral. Some sort of haunting opera was being played inside– maybe it was the one about the Carmelites? We walked around a lot;  Siena is very hilly, which is why the natives look so trim.

 

 

Siena-- the Cathedral

Siena-- the Cathedral

 

Siena-- another cathedral

Siena-- another cathedral

 

Me in Siena, calves considerably thicker

Me in Siena, calves considerably thicker

 

We lingered over a pizza lunch, walked around some more, and then had to RUN most of the way back to the train station the way we came, which I estimate to have been about a mile… how much is that in kilometers?

DAX SIX

A VERY hot day, so what did Giusepppina cook for us in her steaming kitchen? Polenta! I thought that would be it, but it was soon followed by rabbit in a nice tomato and olive sauce. Amazing! I’d last had rabbit in 1984 at Maria Pia’s house; I’d thought at first that I was eating a cornish hen until a visit to the Pinocchio Park at Collodi revealed to me that “coniglio” was Italian for RABBIT. And then cheese and fruit and bread and biscuits and coffee…

In the afternoon Nicola’s father drove us and Massimo up the hills of the Garfagnana to San Cassiano di Controne, where my grandmother was born. It’s a collection of little villages strewn along the hills and valleys–Livizzano, La Chiesa, Cembroni, Cocciglia, Campiglia– and incredibly peaceful. “Population–three” is how Adriano put it. When I was there in 1984 we found the Church locked tight, and this time it was the same: disappointment all around! Central Casting had placed an old woman sweeping in front of a shuttered house next door to where my grandmother was born in 1899, but she couldn’t tell us anything about how to get into the church. Then we drove down the hill a bit until we got to a local cafe, where Adriano bought us drinks. It was so hot that day and water never tasted that good… Maybe it was the heat, but I heard myself asking, loudly, “is there anyone here who has a key to the church?” (I’d read once in a guidebook that that’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re a pushy American.) Tables filled with retirees and laborers on break regarded me as if I had designs on stealing the Tabernacle, but we met with success: the priest lived in a house behind the church, and he was probably there that minute! We hurried back and, sure enough, he happily brought us inside. Finally! It’s shadowy and ancient– twelfth century– and we had to put half a Euro into a little box to turn on the lights for nine minutes. (Why nine and not ten?) Ancient art, stone walls and Romanesque arches… statues… it was nice and cool and beautifully simple. Nicola and I each settled onto a kneeler for some private devotions, and that’s when the organ music started.

The priest, no doubt pleased at our interest, had found the organist and asked him to serenade us while we prayed silently. All I needed was a mantilla, some black orthopedic shoes, and a set of rosary beads and the scene would have been complete. This was very dramatic music, and Nicola and I dared not look over at one another. I was in danger of collapsing in hysteria, and not the religiously-fueled kind! The music went on and on… I expected Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida, and Sophia Loren to come bursting in through the doors, all searching frantically for errant husbands to shoot. Then the lights snapped off, and we felt obligated to put another coin into the box because it seemed the polite thing to do– after all, the organist was still up there, playing away! When his piece ended, he began another; we knelt and prayed some more, wondering if the lighting system and the length of his musical selections would ever synchronize.  When the lights snapped off again we stole out of there, the organ still pumping away, but we were happy that we’d been treated so nicely. And his playing was actually very good!

 

 

San Cassiano-- the Church

San Cassiano-- the Church

 

A View from San Cassiano

A View from San Cassiano

 

When we got back I went on a bike ride of my own, tooling along the little roads into tiny villages like Lammari. I found a church from the ninth century, considerably older than anything I’ve ever been inside of. It makes you feel very, very young.

 

 

At the cafe in Lammari

At the cafe in Lammari

 

That evening’s supper: spaghetti carbonara as made by Simona, and barbecue courtesy of Adriano– steak, chicken, pork, and sausage– and plenty of it!  It’s a good thing I’d been bike riding so much ! Nicola and I lingered outside in the cool night air, talking for hours, and finally got to bed at two a.m. I was loving these long, leisurely days in the country; everything you’ve heard about the slow pace is true, and so much time is devoted to family and eating and just enjoying the time together. Sure, there are aches and pains and problems, just like in anyone’s lives, but they are always “P.S.” You get the impression from these Tuscans that life is to be lived, not labored over.

DAY SEVEN

I couldn’t believe that I’d been here a week already… a happy blur! I was awake and bathed by nine; my bathroom had no stand-up shower, just a big tub with a hand shower whose pressure was questionable, but I managed. I got out on the bike again and went back to Marlia center and Lammari, happily pulling Euros from a bank machine.

In the late afternoon Adriano took us to Nozzano, where there is a castle and a church. The castle was closed until September– who knew?– but the church was open; another of those old Italian women that seemed to be everywhere ushered us in so that we could marvel and pay our respects. Very silent, with no organ music. A funeral was scheduled in fifteen minutes, so the mourners coming in were very quiet. Again, Nicola and I chose kneelers, and we settled into the cool stillness, peaceful in our companionship. “HOW DO YOU LIKE THE CHURCH?” the old woman suddenly yelled at me from across the aisle. “IT’S BEAUTIFUL, NO?”  Oh my God, the yelling! I whispered back, “yes, very beautiful.” “IT’S TRUE, ISN”T IT? IT’S A VERY BEAUTIFUL CHURCH!!! DON’T YOU AGREE?? SO BEAUTIFUL !!!” she screamed. Nicola had to get up and leave because he was starting to laugh.

 

 

Nicola in Nozzano

Nicola in Nozzano

 

DAY EIGHT

I can’t remember what day it was, but I had eel for lunch this week. Massimo catches them in the river and Giuseppina breads and bakes them. I thought I’d be repulsed, or electrocuted, but they’re actually very good prepared in their light batter. And it’s not like there’s this long eel sitting on your plate covered with bread crumbs; it’s actually served in two-inch long pieces. Excellent! My mother would have been proud, seeing me eat all these strange foods.

More biking! And today, a Saturday, we had ravioli for lunch– store bought, and filled with mozzarella and spinach. “All the people in the family who used to make these by hand are dead,” Nicola warned me, but I wasn’t disappointed– these were still hand-made, just not by my cousins. They were accompanied by sliced smoked ham from the Dolomites, sliced bacon meat, fruit salad, bread, biscuits, whole fruit, cheese, and coffee. And wine– always red table wine, made locally. It’s of a lower alcohol content than what we’re used to here in America, so you can have a lot of it and end up feeling happy, but not really buzzed. Giuseppina doesn’t think I eat much– she keeps telling everyone I’m not hungry– but I eat plenty here in Italy, more than I do at home!

In the late afternoon we biked to Mass in Marlia again; more sweat, more fanning with the hands and mopping with the handkerchief… I think I’m the only one who was sweating in that entire packed church!

In the evening my mother in America, via my Amex card, treated everyone – thirteen people– to dinner at La Mora, a good restaurant in nearby Ponte a Moriano. We all arrived in five separate cars– my mother’s two cousins; their four children; two spouses; four next-generation children; and me.  I noticed that everyone waits outside a restaurant until the entire group is assembled, not like here where we arrive separately and start eating all the bread. In Italy, three generations  all talking at once surge through the restaurant door like an amoeba with twenty-six tentacles, all laughing with and greeting the owner and his staff. We were shown to a giant table and decided on a prix fixe affair which took two and a half hours to consume. I can’t even begin to tell you what we ate but if it grew or lived, we ate it. And drank it! What a meal… and all for only 538 Euros, including a gratuity! (Note to Mom– please send check ASAP.) Incidentally, thirteen at table is lucky in Italy– the unlucky number is 17.

Up late again talking and digesting… I didn’t want these days and nights to end, because by now I was in the rhythm of Tuscany. My Italian was improving– Nicola patiently reviewed the verb tenses with me– and I could understand them all a lot better. I was even making jokes in Italian, occasionally tossing some Neapolitan dialect at them– which they all though was HIGHLY amusing! Oh, these Tuscans… they’re very proud of their language and way of life!

 DAY NINE

Sunday– a totally lazy day. Giuseppina fried something for lunch– veal cutlets, I think. In Italian they’re called cotoletti di vitello, which doesn’t sound so politically incorrect. Afterward I decided to bike ride a few miles to Lucca, as everyone was in the mood for siesta. (Nicola was in his room translating ancient Greek into Italian.) I kept thinking: don’t let this day end, because I fly back tomorrow. Who ever wants to leave Italy? I took some pictures and negotiated the crowds along Via Fillungo, which is the town’s good shopping street. If you’re looking for a really good pocketbook, this is where you go; it’s also where you find cheap Kodak cameras when you discover that the memory chip in your digital camera is booked solid.

In the evening, another pizza festival courtesy of Maria Pia. A happy cacophony… I love knowing the various titles for all these people: first cousins once removed; second cousins; and second cousins once removed. It gives me a sense of family solidity and cohesiveness, even though we’re all talking at once and going in several different directions. That’s what families do, but at the end of the day after you drive off in different cars, there are still those bonds that keep everyone connected.

 

 

La famiglia ! From the top left: Nicola, Simona, Adriano, Giuseppina, Massimo, Maria Pia, her grandson Gian Luca, his mother Cristina, and her daughter Martina. WHEW!

La famiglia ! From the top left: Nicola, Simona, Adriano, Giuseppina, Massimo, Maria Pia, her grandson Gian Luca, his mother Cristina, and her daughter Martina. WHEW!

 

 

More la famiglia! Maria Pia's son Roberto, his wife Giuly, and their son Emmanuelle.

More la famiglia! Maria Pia's son Roberto, his wife Giuly, and their son Emmanuelle.

 

DAY TEN

Parting IS such sweet sorrow– that cliche is so apt, especially at an airport that’s going to take you away from a beautiful place, albeit to a place where you’re also loved and missed very much. Nicola tells me after he and Roberto drop me off, “even though this is sadness, there will be happiness at the other end.” Very wise! And very true. I’d packed the night before, fitting into my suitcase a beautiful crocheted bedspread for my mother that Giuseppina had said was made by one of the old ladies who are no longer with us. There’s a good chance that it had been made by Zia Antonia, my grandmother’s aunt who had lived up in San Cassiano… it is decades old, and still snowy white.

In the suspended time warp of the plane, I thought: thi shadn’t been just a vacation– this trip was a strengthening of family ties and talking for hours and just enjoying the company of these generous people; it wasn’t about long lines filled with tourists, or traffic jams, or anonymous hotels and strange beds… this was perfect. Hopefully it won’t be another twenty-five years until I visit again. And hopefully it won’t be in a box!


 

 

 

 

 

 

A Prelude to Italy– Mama Drama

Mom in Italy with cousins, 1950. Age 18.

Mom in Italy with cousins, 1950. Age 18.

Okay; I’ve gone on and on and ON about getting ready for this trip, both here and here.  And there was talk of my mother possibly coming along with me for this looming Italian trip– talk which, in a Northern Italian woman, is spoken silently but nevertheless reverberates along the horsehair-and-plaster walls of her 1912 semi-detached house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. We’d always spoken about making the crossing together, a trip I know she’d love. After all, Mom hasn’t been to see her cousins since 1950.

That trip was captured on film, all stored in yellow Kodak boxes and annotated by my family in various handwriting and spelling: “Porto Gallo” my grandfather wrote on the box that featured the ship’s stop in Portugal; “Le fabbriche” notes the Italian town he grew up in (“The Factories”); and another box is labeled “Marlia,” the small village on the plain below the Apuan Alps, which shares a box with “San Cassiano,” both done in my mother’s handwriting in which the dots above the letter “I” are really tiny circles. Even though I long ago transferred these 8mm films to VHS tapes, and then over to DVD, I can’t part with these old cardboard boxes with the postage stamps still attached.

My mother in 1950 is eighteen years old, and she wears voluminous New Look skirts and a short haircut. She’s clearly having a great time in these movies, and you wonder: did she vow to return every year like we all do when we visit someplace special? She had no way of knowing it would have been her last visit to Italy; and now, at almost 78, she claims she won’t be going back.

I can believe it, and I don’t push beyond a brave “oh come on, why don’t you come along?” when we decide to talk out loud about a possible return. But she won’t fly. “Why don’t we take the boat?” I suggest, but what boats ply the Atlantic like the old greyhounds? She wouldn’t want to cross on one of the cruise ships that ply the Mediterranean coast: “Who wants to eat with a bunch of strangers five times a day?” I had a taste of this when we all piled aboard a gambling ship for my sister Lois’ 40th birthday. It left from Palm Beach and anchored in choppy waters a few miles offshore; we pitched and bounced amongst the waves while we played the slots and consumed Manhattans by the pitcherful– we were fine, but an above-decks walk for some fresh air presented us with the spectacle of 90% of the boat’s revelers groaning and heaving in the dark dampness. “Oh my God,” Mom said. “Look at them… it looks like a hospital ship full of cholera victims!” The buffet line was a gymnastics event which had us all slamming intometal railings as we tried in vain to reach for our dinner and desserts. By the time we sat down we were bruised and exhausted. So no boats for Mom. I’m sure she’d have no trouble on the Berengaria or the Mauretania or even the Andrea Doria, as they all featured private cabins, showers, and endless cups of bouillon soup served on deck. Now that’s a crossing, and chances are you might even have run into Barbara Stanwyck or Princess Grace.

Even though she’s terribly afraid to fly, this mother of mine is basically fearless. The past winter in Brooklyn had her worrying about who would shovel the snow from the steps and sidewalks in front of her house, now that her older brother had died, so she hired itinerant “foreigners” with shovels for $20 after they offered their services. After they were done and walked off, the man across the street called Mom. “Vel, take a look outside: those guys didn’t do the sidewalk in front of your garden. Go catch them, they’re at Sylvia’s now.” I can just picture her dressing hurriedly, yet warmly, with the heavy coat and the wool hat and the gloves and scarf and boots– and she went after them with that shrill voice that she used to use on me when she asked me to take out the garbage for the fiftieth time. “You guys… you guys, you didn’t finish!”   “Oh, we finished,” they said.  “You call this finished?! You didn’t even touch this sidewalk and I want my money back!!”  “Oh no, no money back!”  “You’d better finish this sidewalk like I paid you for! Is this why you came to this country, so you can cheat everyone?!?”  So she’s yelling at these guys– and they have big shovels– and she doesn’t budge. And they finally relent, and she forces them to finish shoveling her sidewalk without them sticking an ice pick under her ribs. But she won’t fly.

And yet simple things she hesitates doing, things that would naturally provide endless entertainment for the rest of the family in their re-telling. Her friend Grace, who is a native of Croatia, has been haranguing Mom to start going with her to pre-wedding reception cocktail hours, uninvited. Grace figures they would eat the appetizers and have a few drinks while pretending to be friends or family of the bride and /or  groom. Sounds daring enough, but Mom questioned this chicanery: “You mean I gotta buy a new dress?”

She wasn’t afraid to scoop up Frank Sinatra’s discarded cigarette butt at the Copa one night when she was there with my father– fearless Mom said to Dad “dance me over to the floor by the piano where Frank just put out his cigarette.”  And Dad did.  “Now dip me.”  And Dad dipped her and she snapped up Frank’s cigarette butt, “that I carried in my purse for years!” She loved Frank. But she won’t fly.

So maybe someday we’ll go over to Italy together. I think it would be great; she cracks me up most of the time and doesn’t embarrass me in public, and you know? She’d probably slow dance with me in the ship’s nightclub, even without Frank crooning and smoking  in the room.

A Prelude to Italy– The Shopping

Do you like to shop? I don’t. I like to go and buy the things I need, checking them off a list as I go along from store to store, not doing any comparison shopping or wielding coupons. I mean, it’s not because I’m rich or anything, but I’ve felt that time is more valuable than anything else– time is the one thing you can’t see, and so I’m loath to squander it.

So, to make this as streamlined as possible, I’ve made a list of all the things I will need to bring to Italy in mid-July, which is cross-referenced to the things I’ll need to bring to North Dakota when we go there in early July for Kirk’s family reunion. (A lot of people running around with pudding.) Since I will have only two days between trips, with one day devoted to work, I will have only one day to do laundry and then transfer items from the North Dakota list to the Italy list. The laundry day– a Wednesday– will also serve as my shopping day, to replenish the things that I will have used up while in Bismarck listening to Sigurd Henriksen tell about the time the chickens danced in a circle under a full moon.

And my lists are exhaustive; there’s not a place on my body that doesn’t need some sort of attention and something to shop for: ears, eyes, nose, teeth, fingernails… with all the rigmarole, you would think that I was somehow going to conjure a replica of myself and then send him on vacation. Maybe I should! This way the REAL me can sit in the back yard here in Winter Park while the FAKE me deals with customs and Helen Olsen telling about the time she used bad eggs in her meringue and ended up poisoning the entire Lutheran choir.

I do need some clothes, but not many. I tend to dress simply and preppily, which means that everything sort of looks the same. You bring a handful of solid color Lacostes with you, they can last three weeks…  Still, just to be sure, I suggested to my second cousin once removed, Nicola, what clothes I should bring for an Italian July: shorts, a set of dress clothes for Mass, tee shirts, and jeans?  “Perfect,” he said, and then checked with his grandmother (my first cousin once removed). Giuseppina also suggested a “swimming costume,” and I immediately pictured myself dressed as a mermaid, or Popeye– you know, something nautical. I certainly am not going to be able to get into the candy-striped number I cavorted around in circa 1984 at Lido di Camiore, so perhaps I should bring along the notorious red shorts featured a few blogs previous. Just what are stylish middle-aged men wearing to the Italian shore these days? Maybe we won’t even get to the beach; who can say? Maybe it should be a surprise. If it turns out that men are wearing fishnet bikinis, however, I’m staying at the house!

So I’ll soon be in Target with my lists, looking for tiny bottles of shampoo and toothpaste and roll-on, and miniature packages of Q-tips. And isn’t it amazing how expensive those miniatures are? And I need things like batteries and contact lens solution, which is something you need a LOT of, but the airlines only allow you a thimbleful. Then I need my allergy medicines, and some sort of preventative against germs and colds because we all know that it’s everyone ELSE on the plane wheezing and sniffing and sneezing and spreading toxins. Think about that for a minute– there’s no new air coming into a plane, so you breathe recirculated air. At least in the days of smoking, the nicotine killed everyone’s germs!

In the final analysis, knowing myself as well as I do, there’s a good chance that my adult-onset ADHD will kick in and I will grow bored of my lists and needs, leaving everything to do the night before the trip. You’ll probably find me in Wal-Mart at three a.m., wrestling the last miniature tube of Pepsodent from the hands of someone who desperately needs that toothpaste more than I do. And that’s probably all I’ll end up traveling with– but at least customs will be a breeze!

Read more about my upcoming trip here and here.

Lido di Camiore, 1984: My sister Gina; and me in the bathing suit that's NOT returning to Italy.

Lido di Camiore, 1984: My sister Gina; and me in the bathing suit that's NOT returning to Italy.

A Prelude to Italy– Planning

The Walled City of Lucca

The Walled City of Lucca

I finally decided to do it– after 25 years, ritorno in Italia ! That’s not bad, this going to Italy every 25 years. At this rate my next trip will occur when I’m 78 years old, and who knows? It may be in a box! (Just kidding; I plan on living past 100 because I want to see if the Democrats achieve a 100% majority in both the House and Senate.)

My friend Eugene and I were talking one time about the town of Cazzolungo, in Sicily. In the 1960s the town found itself, thanks to emigration, with a large cemetery that wasn’t being used. They decided to extend a hand to all the families of the Cazzolungans who’d left the town over the years and settled in America, offering to re-inter their deceased in a free burial plot in Il Cimitero della Vergine Piangente. (The Cemetery of the Weeping Virgin.) Well, being Italians and hearing the word “free,” hundreds of families responded to the offer; they had to rent a destroyer to ship all the expired thousands over to Cazzolungo. It was a momentous day when the ship arrived, its decks covered with coffins draped in Italian tri-colored flags. Today, the population of Cazzolungo is 17 living and 6,776 deceased.

I had an opportunity to go to Italy with my high school class back in the 1970s, but I didn’t even bother asking at home because I thought we were poor. When my grandmother found out, she yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have paid!” She used to go back and forth to Tuscany every few years, by boat. I remember all of us seeing her off on the Constitution, which my father referred to as the Constipation because of all the old people who were aboard. And even though was just one person from our family going to Italy– my grandmother– nine thousand people had to see her off, all ooohing and ahhhing at the amenities of her tiny stateroom. She brought me back a faux marble model of the leaning tower of Pisa, priced on the bottom 600 lire– a dollar ! I still have it of course; this house is like a museum.

I’ll be traveling to the north of Italy, to stay with our family in Marlia, a country town between Pisa and Florence. It’s close to the town of Lucca, which is one of those Italian jewels that tourists miss because they’re so busy running around in Pisa and Florence. Lucca is surrounded by very wide medieval walls, which are now covered with trees and parks where people walk and bicycle and relax. It’s also got these great churches filled with astounding works of art, which I saw on my last visit in 1984. My sister Gina didn’t get to see inside any churches in Lucca because she was wearing short shorts, a halter top, platform shoes, and a pocketbook slung over her shoulder. With each church we entered, an ancient priest would rush at us from the gloom: “Va via!” “Get out!” they yelled at Gina, thanks to the fact that she had decided to dress like a puttana while visiting these churches. So while I was inside marvelling at stained glass and marble altarpieces, Gina would wait outside on the churches’ steps, smoking cigarettes while the promenading Luccans stared.

I hope to also venture up into the high hills above Marlia, where my grandmother Giorgia was born. She came from a tiny group of villages called San Cassiano di Controne; she was from La Chiesa, the hamlet that centers around the church that was built in the 1200s. Postcards of La Chiesa show the house she was born in. Close by, in the hamlet of Cocolaio, her aunt had a house which we visited in 1984 as well. It was hundreds of years old, and we used to tell everyone that “our family has a villa in Tuscany.” We had lunch there, and Gina wore a dress and nice shoes, not realizing that we would be hiking in the quiet hills that afternoon. That’s my sister Gina– to visit the exquisite churches of Lucca, she dresses like Charo; to go hiking, she dresses like Princess Di.

The church at San Cassiano di Controne

The church at San Cassiano di Controne

I will be staying with my mother’s cousin Giuseppina, who shares the house with her son Massimo. Next door lives her son Adriano, with his wife Simona and their son Nicola, who is eighteen. (He is my second cousin once removed.) Giuseppina has a sister who lives nearby, and she has two children, and three grand-children. There are relatives galore to catch up with. I asked Nicola if the women still gathered in the kitchen every Sunday to make pasta by hand, and he said “nah. The people who knew how to do that are all dead.” I guess they buy Ronzoni at the local market. Maybe I will treat them all to hand-made pasta, but the measurements in Italy are metric so I’ll have to be careful.

When Roots was hot, I asked my grandmother’s sister-in-law Nella to tell me some things about the family up there in the hills. (She grew up in a town not far from San Cassiano.)  “Don’t ask too many questions about who what where,” she replied. “Let me just say that you have more cousins than you think !!”

So I’m very excited about this trip. I’m sure I’ll have many interesting circumstances to report, probably starting with my first foray through customs. Imagine bringing only three ounces of shampoo for ten days in Italy? I’ll have to shop for some at the market in Marlia. And I guess I’ve got to remember to bring my electric plug adapters; I don’t need any exploding personal devices.

Enjoyed this post? Read more about my trip to Italy here and here.

And here is the  blog about the actual trip:  here



My Italian Grandmother– A Key to Me

  

If you assign alpha-numeric values to each letter in the word “blog,” you come up with the number 36… add 3 and 6 and you get 9…  and “I” is the ninth letter of the alphabet. And blogs are about “me,” aren’t they? 

 In our house, we’re obsessed with genetics and patterning and how and why we do things; “that’s so Norwegian of you” I’ll tell Kirk when the dishwasher overflows and he assesses the situation impassively while I holler and blame the world and all its ills. “That’s so Italian of YOU,” he’ll respond after I’ve pointed out his Nordicness. While we’re both aware that we’re regarding our reactions stereotypically, we both know that stereotypes are based in fact. 

Giorgia in 1914 (age 15); and at the 1939-1940 NY World's Fair.

Giorgia in 1914 (age 15); and at the 1939-1940 NY World's Fair.

 

I personally am aware that much of my behavior has been copied / patterned / inherited from my maternal grandmother, Giorgia. There are some things I do that have doubtlessly come to be part of me because I saw her doing them, and liked what I saw; other things were either genetic or behaviorally imprinted… who can say? I’d have to stay in a clinic long enough for scientists to poke and prod and examine me, but who has that kind of time these days? I’ll just have to come to my own conclusions, and so here are the things she passed down to me… 

Gardening– She would take cuttings from rose bushes, stick them in the ground, and soon we would have more rose bushes than ever. So many times I’d come home from school to see her rear end facing the street as she knelt in the soil, her knees wrapped in old rags. The shame! In the front yard was an arbor that stretched over the garden gate and all Summer and Fall it was covered with dark pink blooms. My bedroom window overlooked this paradise and, if I had had any imagination back then, I would have pretended that I was someone in a Bronte novel surveying my domain before settling into my carriage, heading to The High Street, and causing Anglo mayhem. Did this impress me? I think so; as an adult, I do have a way with orchids, group-2-02-04-09and can keep the yards here at the house looking swell so long as I have the time and energy. (Kirk has a deep knowledge of tropicals and palms, which helps, and he is able to grow just about anything from seed.) And here are some orchids, blooming as of February 7th. 

 

 

needling

Two projects, 95 years apart.

 

Giorgia's Bedspread, c.1913

Giorgia's bedspread, crocheted c.1913

 

String-- She could do amazing things with string; I’d watch her flash metal rods and twist colorful balls of yarn and thread into intricate patterns that ended up as bedspreads, blankets, dolls’ dresses, doilies, and cunning toilet paper covers. I’d make her slow down so that I could see exactly what was going on, and until she was compelled to show me how it was done. Days that I was home sick from school with asthma– there were many– found me in bed wrestling with her hooks and yarn as she patiently taught me what she had learned. One day she told me that the crocheted bedspread she used was something she’d made when she was about 14 years old– and that would have been in around 1913, because she was born in 1899. I have it now, as well as a recently-discovered affinity for needlework. The pictures show my grandmother’s crocheted 1913 bedspread, and my latest piece of “string art;” it’s 20 x 13 inches, and the bedspread is 8 x 7 feet– 56 square feet of tiny, crocheted string. The  second picture shows part of the bedspread alone; amazing. She slept with that for probably eighty-three years, almost up to the day she died. 

Elitism. I can be a snob, albeit theatrically and for effect, but never really to put anybody down. If tradesmen appear at the front door, I gently but firmly direct them to the back , where a little plaque that says “Servants’ Entrance” directs them to wait with their eggs and bread and milk. Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s easy for me to indulge in these flights of superior fancy, and I blame my grandmother. When I was very little, I pretended that I had a pair of butlers standing by my bed, making sure I fell safely to sleep; their names were Jonathan and Sebastian. My grandmother never had butlers, but manufactured her own little snobbish rite of passage. She and her husband married in 1920 in Italy, and came over here on the Dante Alighieri. I once asked her to describe their immigrant experience: the thousands of souls coopped up in steerage… the watery soup… the rolling hull… the endless vomiting… the humiliation of Ellis Island!  “What do you think?” she chastised. “We came over Second Class, and we took the boat to Boston, not Ellis Island with all those people. I had a fur coat!” I believed every word, until just a few years ago when I looked up her passage on the manifest for that ship– it’s all online, and there they were– Second Class, yes, but they went through Ellis Island just like everybody else. She may have been wearing a fur coat, but the health officials probably chalked a big “L” on it to signify “Liar.” And her brand of spoken Italian, as she reminded me many times, was the best. She was from Tuscany, born in a tiny village in the hills above Lucca, and so she spoke a particularly beautiful Italian– just like they teach in college courses, but with a slightly softer accent. “We speak Italian like Dante wrote,” she’d say. “No dialect.”  She basically looked down on people who came from Southern Italy– Neapolitans and Sicilians– because their Italian wasn’t “up to par.” And that included my father’s family, who were Neapolitans and spoke a dialect. How she listened askance to them! “Those people” was how she she would refer to them, though she was always very nice when she had them over the house and put on the dog.  It reminds me how my dear friend John and I refer to certain people as DNOC… “definitely not our class.” 

ravioli1

 

From gourmetmeatman.com

 

 Ravioli. This dish is something that every Italian woman, at birth, was contracted to learn how to make– all except for my mother, who could never compete with the Tuscan Presence upstairs. My grandmother’s ravioli recipe was incredible, especially to a child– me– who would never eat anything that might contain hidden tastes, colors, and textures. It was all hand-made: everything from the dough to the filling was created right there on her red formica kitchen table with the silvery deco trim. I watched her do it all– I was amazed at the little hill of flour and eggs that became sticky pasta which magically turned into floury, pizza-sized circles. The ingredients for filling were fed into a grinder: meats and vegetables and spices, all measured by hand and feel, were transformed into a wonderful spinachy paste that would be placed at intervals on the sheets of dough. Another sheet was placed on top, and then she used the rim of a drinking glass to press the dough over the dollops of filling. Those circular ravioli would then be sealed by “forking” them shut around the edges. Hundreds would be made; so they could dry before cooking, she covered all the beds with linen sheets, sprinked them heavily with flour, and then lined up the ravioli in rows. By the time we got home from Mass, they were firm enough to be placed in boiling water. Her tomato sauce was unmatched– not for her the thick pastes that come out of jars, that Protestants then add sugar to. Scandalosa! Her sauce was light and herbal, with little meat and lots of olive oil– it clung to the ravioli without smothering it. I have a recipe that she got my mother to write down. It begins, in her Italian hand,  “finally your mother has managed to write down the recipe for you from me.” I haven’t yet tried to make them, but I’m growing the herbs that go into the mix. Thanks to the recent lousy cold weather here in Florida– don’t get me started!!– I need to plant some restarts; though the tomatoes survived well, the spinach is gone, and this morning a squirrel tore up my borage. But I’ll get there… 

manhattan-cocktail Manhattans. No matter what the occasion– a Christening, an anniversary, a post-funeral lunch– Giorgia would disappear into her apartment and then reappear with a cocktail shaker filled with Manhattans. It was very old, that shaker; the screw-on stopper had been lost for years, so she substituted a wad of aluminum foil which also turned into an heirloom. Like a life raft, that shaker saved many a Christmas morning… down she would come from upstairs, her slippers clopping on the squeaking stairs. The youngest of us at the time would take the Baby Jesus from its hiding place under the sink and place Him in the tiny manger, and then the Manhattans would be poured. Well-oiled, we would then be able to watch The March of the Wooden Soldiers before sitting down to an enormous meal. Giorgia used a less-strong recipe in making what they call a Perfect Manhattan: equal parts whiskey, sweet vermouth, and dry vermouth. When I was set loose and started ordeing Manhattans in bars and restaurants, they provided the most common standard recipe– two parts whisky to one part sweet vermouth, which is what I tell inexperienced bartenders when they ask me how to make them. (Yes, it happens.) One of my most treasured Manhattan memories has Giorgia visiting us in Florida when she was close to ninety. A bunch of our friends came to meet her, and she mixed Manhattans for everyone, rendering us cross-eyed and hopelessly looped. “I’m gonna go inside and watch Falcona Cresta,” she then said as we sat there chortling helplessly. Those Manhattans appeared everywhere, even at the base of the Statue of Liberty when a batallion of grandchildren, two mothers, and two grandmothers paid a visit to the park. While Giorgia and her paisana Maria remained at sea level, we all trooped up to the Lady’s head; we came back down to find them laughing happily in the sun, a flask of cocktails sitting in full view on the picnic table in front of them.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. She loved nothing better than to cook for her friends and family; she never mentioned her ills (she had a bad heart); and she treated her grandchildren like gold. As a babysitter, she was matchless: while she watched black and white Italian movies on the television, we were free to explore and snoop. Everyone thought she was perfect and, if she wasn’t, we didn’t know it. This woman dragged her charges to the New York World’s Fair numerous times (she loved the Mormon pavillion), to Coney Island after a bus trip that seemed to involve fifteen transfers, and on Christmas week shopping trips to downtown Brooklyn. (“Look,” she said once on the bus. “That Puerto Rican lady doesn’t shave her legs but she’s wearing stockings.”) As an adult, I was able to take her to Sea World here in Orlando; after a very long day, I asked her “so what did you think?”  “Ehh… it’s all fish,” she replied.  And she was always there for me, with her advice and warnings: “If I hear you’re taking drugs when you go to high school, I’ll kill you.”  I hope I learn to handle life with her generosity and Tuscan equanimity as I age, though I seem to favor my emotional Neapolitan grandmother in that respect. We’ll see; I’ve still got thirty or forty years left to figure it all out.  

 

Leu Gardens, 1979. Giorgia is 79; I'm 23.

Leu Gardens, 1979. Giorgia is 79; I'm 23.