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



A Day Off– and An Off Day

red shorts

From 1935 to 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a newspaper column called “My Day.” Six times a week she wrote this! She never missed except for when Franklin died, and then it was only for four days that Eleanor was away from her typewriter. In her writing, she covered many, many issues: the war, race relations, the rights of women, outer space…she had an opinion about everything. It was amazing what she could come up with each day– a one-woman, world-saving dynamo!

Let me tell you about my day, a day off which should have had me doing nothing more strenuous than looking at the ringing telephone while laughing crazily because I didn’t have to answer it.

It began after I’d had my first cup of coffee, which involved boiling water in the kettle; mixing a batch of creamer from powdered milk because we never seem to have any ready-made on hand; wrestling the lid off the jar of Folger’s De-Caf Crystals because it had apparently welded itself shut overnight; and hacking the last mummified micrograins of sugar from the sugar bowl because I am too lazy to walk three steps and refill the thing. This first cup was easy, and so I decided to have another, with vague thoughts of maybe going on a nice, long bike ride. I refilled the kettle again, and wandered off to the computer because I like to play on Windows Live Maps. Have you ever tried that? It’s fascinating– you can zoom in on your friends’ properties and see how messy their yards were the day that the aerial shots were taken by the Russians and then sold to Microsoft; you can climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower or investigate rocky little hill towns in Tuscany; you can navigate the fjords of Norway and you don’t even have to wear a sweater! I get so involved with this program that I forget about the real world and things like tea kettles that are whistling away atop the kitchen stove. Whistling tea kettles are fine, but I must remember to install my ear devices in the mornings, or there’s going to be a fire one day.

Not minding the lack of a second cup of decaf, I decided I would forgo the bike ride. It hadn’t rained for seventeen months hence, but the day I decide to go get some fresh air, it threatened rain. One thing I do not like being is far from home as the sky blackens above me. Instead, I decided to go to Palmer’s Garden Center for some ground cover because there are bald patches in my yard that are beginning to annoy me, though they are pleasing to the pigeons who like to dig up my flower seeds.

After perfunctory ablutions– I had been mildly toiling out back– I dressed in a tee, flip-flops, and a longish pair of red shorts with the pull string, gathered my things and headed for the car: wallet, phone, sunglasses, ball cap, little note book, and… KEYS, I remembered as the door slammed behind me. Isn’t it amazing how that gung-ho feeling immediately evaporates into helplessness when you lock yourself out? I called Kirk, a good 20 minutes away, and he started on his rescue mission. With all that time to kill, what do you do? I chased some squirrels out of the rose bush… I recited the Alma redemptoris mater… I moved some potted coleus… I recited the Ave Regina caelorum… I watered the coleus on the sly, because it was past my legal watering time… I recited the Salve Regina. I paced– I noticed that something felt unusual as I walked, but couldn’t quite place it. Maybe it was the heat and all that Latin. Soon Kirk drove up and, after listening to many clever comments about my adorable silliness, I was finally on my way. My Day was finally beginning.

I had to buy Lotto tickets, which means I had to go into a convenience store. I hadn’t really had THE shower of the day, so I felt right at home. I always feel like such a snob in those places; just what are those whitish things floating in that glass jar– eggs?! You’re kidding me! No no, no pig’s knuckles for me. And how old is that cheese in the cooler– it looks like it’s grown a beard. THAT’S your wine selection?!– who knew that vinegar could come in so many nice colors!

I filled out my Lotto cards, taking care to stay within the tiny lines which I could barely see, and I brought them to the counter. Everything went fine until I felt my longish red shorts sort of loosen in back and, thanking God that I was wearing my Calvins, discreetly tried to tug on the pull string– but there was no pull string. I looked down, and saw that both pockets were turned out and facing front, and that’s when I realized that my longish red shorts were on backwards; the pull string was obviously tucked in back. Nice, right? This being a convenience store with things like chewing tobacco and suppositories on the counter, nobody noticed, but I nevertheless slipped into the men’s room in order to right things. It was quite acrobatic trying to right things while not letting anything except the soles of my flip flops touch that floor! But I managed. And you know3 something else about those longish red shorts? In another time and place, and on another sex, they would be called “culottes.”

Back in the car, I realized I’d forgotten to cash in a Powerball ticket that I’d won a few weeks ago. Don’t get excited! Don’t get excited, everybody; it was only four dollars, but still. I brought it back inside and gave it to the lady behind the counter, who fed it into her machine for verification. Well, it kept spitting back out; she punched numbers, she fed, she punched some more, all the while giving me a running explanation of the entire Lotto system since its inception. And still the machine wouldn’t work. Of course, since I hadn’t put in my ears, I didn’t hear a thing that she said. There was something about Tallahassee, and writing and sending things, but who can say? Better to pass on the four dollars and use the ticket as a bookmark.

Off to the nursery I went, where I loaded up my trunk with purslane in various shades, and I paid without any mishaps– the debit card went through; there was a big, flat box for the plants that fit nicely into my trunk; all was well– I should have known.

I next stopped at the house of some friends so I could see about their cat while they were away. My compensation for this week of cat-sitting was a HUGE bag of pistachios, and an almost-full box of Godiva chocolates. But you never see this cat– you fill the bowl with treats, and the water bowl with fresh water with a little gin in it, and place a dollop of fishy-smelling paste on a plate… you call out the cat’s name, you make tapping sounds on the can like in the commercials, but no cat ever appears. Whatever. I thought I saw it one day in the shadows, but it turned out to be a dust bunny.

As I entered their house, I stopped to gather the day’s mail from the floor in front of the slot, and brought it to the table. I began stacking the mail in size order, and was suddenly assailed by the sound of the house alarm shrieking through the peacefulness– even with my ears out, I could hear every WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP as the neighborhood was alerted to the fact that the castle walls had been breached by Huns. Calmly, I approached the control panel, whose graphics suddenly looked as if they were written in Cyrillic. Calmly, I tried disarming it as usual, and it worked. Then the phone rang, and some woman asked me all sorts of questions as to my identity. Apparently she believed me, because a visit from the police was diverted. Can you imagine? There I would have been in the paddy wagon, my longish red shorts down around my knees, smelling of cat food, accused of petty theft. And they would have used my high school graduation photo in the newspaper story.

I drove home in a downpour, my trunk filled with flowering purslane, my pants resting sensibly around my hips. At home, the rain stopped and the plants went in the ground with not a squirrel to be seen. Nothing unusual happened the rest of that day, but I couldn’t help wondering if Eleanor Roosevelt, in between resigning from the DAR and fighting for feminist issues, had ever put her pants on backward. One can only hope!

Fiestaware– An Obsession

The Original Six Colors, Introduced By 1937

The Original Six Colors, Introduced By 1937

When I moved to Florida in July 1978, I stayed at a friend’s house in Winter Park because my apartment was not yet ready. Well, it was clean and vacuumed and painted and empty, but it did not yet have furniture. That’s how we did things in the 70s– we up and moved someplace new, figuring that things would work themselves out, and they always did. Rent was $175 a month for a large one bedroom in Winter Park, and plastic milk crates borrowed from Publix served as bookshelves and record album holders. Soon I would buy a sleeper couch, and a table and four chairs and I would finally be able to sit down or sleep in my new place.

While staying with Richard’s family, I noticed they were eating off brightly-colored dishes that immediately caught my eye. The family was from West Virginia, and these dishes were manufactured by the Homer Laughlin China Company, in a town called Newell. The line of dishes was called Fiestaware, they explained, and the lady of the house was happy to show me what she had: a lot of dishes, some cups and saucers and bowls, a gravy boat… the colors were mostly Forest Green, Rose, and Chartreuse, though there were some brighter colors that had been manufactured earlier in time– Yellow, Red, Ivory, Turquoise… I was fascinated: they had a “deco” look about them, and there was something happy about eating from these dishes designed with concentric, graduated circles incised on their surfaces.

The Colors Introduced in the 1950s

The Colors Introduced in the 1950s

I bought my first piece a few years later at the Maitland Flea Market, a 7-inch plate in Turquoise. I kept it on a bedside table in our new condominium for many years as a place to hold a coffee cup. And, as I prospered, the collection grew a little here and there, but by no means in a big way- Fiesta had become a highly-desired collectible, and it was getting expensive. Still, I managed– a Light Green pitcher, some plates and bowls, teacups… I’d always dream of coming across “the mother lode” in some forgotten little rummage shop out in the country, but by then it was all priced very high.

Sometimes magic happened– Susan, a friend of a friend, was told of my growing collection, and called me when it was time to sell her grandmother’s estate. Apparently there was some Fiesta in the kitchen cupboards;  and when I arrived at the house and was ushered inside ahead of the line of very curious and suspicious antiques dealers, Susan showed me a set of ten perfect Fiesta water tumblers, all produced in the 1930s-1940s. Beautiful! I showed her the latest price guide, made an offer, and she sold them to me for even less. We boxed them carefully and then I went out the back door, though I still had to pass by the even longer line of earlybirds, who were all watching me and my box with intense curiosity.

Some Relatively Unloved Late-1960s Fiesta

Some Relatively Unloved Late-1960s Fiesta

Fiestaware was manufactured from 1936 through 1972, and then production ceased due to a number of factors. However, it resurfaced again in 1986, with a palette of six new colors, and the world of Fiesta collectors was revitalized. New colors soon appeared regularly, as well as companion items made by licensed companies. Limited edition shades were introduced, like Lilac and Sapphire and Chartreuse, and intense competition and scrambling arose whenever the factory announced a limited number of, say, Chartreuse sugar packet holders. The rise of online auction houses and messages boards gave rise to closely-knit collectors’ communities who vied with one another for rare pieces, and spread the news about new colors and shapes.

Richard, my West Virginia friend, got heavily involved with the new line of colors and, being a self-admitted practitioner of OCD, decided that he had to have EVERY piece in EVERY color; you can imagine what his house looked like after awhile. It was amazing to go in there– someone aware of the craze would stand openmouthed at the racks and racks of rare Lilac and Sapphire pieces from the 1990s, which had gotten very costly. He had lamps… drawer pulls… licensed enamel casseroles… decals. Candles… cheese knives… tidbit trays… he had it all! Everyone told him that he could have opened his own shop, but I knew he was doing it because he liked to accomplish having complete lists of things.

When he died in 2003, I inherited it. It was like being willed an entire wing of Macy’s. Did I have room for the more than 3,000 items? Of course not! For years, my house was stacked with boxes which, by 2009, had dwindled to around 150 pieces. It took almost six years of yard sales, eBay, and shipments to friends and family to move it all. I loved having it at first, but after awhile I had to ask myself– do I need fifteen handled serving trays in every color of the rainbow? Or eighteen Lilac platters, six each in the three sizes they made? Or eight teapots? And wouldn’t it be nice to have the guest room shower stall free of boxes?

A Few of the Colors Introduced Since 1986

A Few of the Colors Introduced Since 1986

Fiestaware is still manufactured. They just announced their latest color, a light chartreuse called Lemongrass, and they finally introduced a true red– beautiful bright Scarlet. The palette is gorgeous, and you can become engrossed coming up with color combinations for dinner every night, as some very dedicated people do: check out their postings at http://mediumgreen.proboards61.com/

Once Fiesta gets in your blood, it never quite leaves. While I don’t have 3,000 pieces anymore, we do have a very manageable collection of old and new colors, all put to good use when the occasion calls for it.

As Mom says, “you can only eat from one plate at a time!”