Monday, July 4, 2011

Calabrian days and cold cold nights - 2006

I just got back from a sunny November week in Calabria. After some recent rain, everything was green and beautiful. Unlike the north of Italy, the air was pure and the sky was such a dark blue that it didn’t seem real. Due to far too much confusion with the cousins, I stayed in an agriturismo ambitiously named “Borgo Erto Grande Agriturismo Schirripa.” Loosely translated, it means the bed and breakfast by the superb big garden of Schirripa. Since I was not furnished with an address, a kind gentleman from the same town sent me a photograph of the place via email. Without that photo, there’s no way that I would have ever found it!



Normally, I travel with my husband, who loves to drive and has an innate sense of direction. This time I was alone, so everything was very different and driving for me is not a pleasure but a necessity. I arrived at the Lamezia Terme airport at dusk, so by the time I had navigated through Catanzaro and up most of the mountain road to Sersale, it was completely dark and quite cold too. I drove along with my trusty photo at my side, wondering how it would help me in the pitch black darkness. Amazingly enough, when I got close, there was just enough light in the sky to outline the landmarks in the photo.

I drove up to a big gate beyond which was total darkness, and called the phone number I had for the agriturismo. I was informed that they would be right there! I sat there, tired, hungry, thirsty and in need of a bathroom, until a car with three people (Felice, Maria Teresa and their ten year old daughter Noella) drove up and led me to the entrance of the agriturismo. All talking at once, and accompanied by four baying dogs and two meowing cats, they turned the lights on, but the circuit breakers slammed shut 6 times before they figured out how to turn on just the emergency lights.

In the cold and semi darkness, I was served a fantastic dinner while Felice explained several times about the problems he was having getting the contractors to finish their work on the building which included installing a front door. My dinner that night included homemade ‘mparrattati pasta with funghi, which had been gathered in the woods nearby. Maria Teresa also served polpetti, but they were shaped like footballs instead of golf balls, cheeses, olives, salamis and great bread. Then they hustled me off to Felice’s mother’s home in Cropani, a town nearby, where there was electricity and heat and I had a chance of surviving the night. In Cropani, I walked into a little apartment, and this lovely white haired lady greeted me at the door. She grabbed my hand and lamented how cold my hands were, “come sit by the fire”, she said, “and warm up!” As we talked, I learned little by little that she knew most of my relatives. And did I know that my cousin Pino Mercuri was burned recently and stayed in the hospital for 8 days? She knew everyone and everything. I sat at her fire with her and we exchanged chocolates. She gave me a piece of hers, and I gave her one of the Halloween Kitkat bars I had taken along with me for that very purpose. I slept in a big bed by myself, in a coolish room, but there were enough blankets that I slept comfortably.


Morning came and I began the typical routine of trying to explain why I could not eat everything in sight. In Calabria, you can be sure you will be full when you leave the table. In daylight, I felt ready to enter Sersale, with its “strette strade” (narrow streets) with many curves. I found a fairly safe looking parking space and headed for the home of the one cousin “Cicciu figlio di Saverio” whose house I could remember the best, which was down a steep path too small for cars. Of course, his wife Annina was home and greeted me warmly. I was welcomed in, and before I could say pasta with broccoli, I was eating again. Have more, this is good! Here, have some of this; take another piece of meat. The fight continued until I had eaten a lot more than I had planned on, and poor Annina still felt like she had lost the battle, I hadn’t eaten near enough. Annina called more cousins, who came over immediately. They had me follow them in their car so I could find their house the next day. They lived “in campagna” which was less than a mile from the center of town, but on a very steep and twisty well paved road. This is not a place you want to drive in the snow. Everyone wanted to know why I came in November. I told them, I wanted to see the Sagra della Castagna, the chestnut festival. So everywhere I went, I was fed castagne. They are very good raw, they almost taste like apples. And they are cooked in the huge bread ovens, for 24 hours and then stored. To eat the cold previously baked chestnuts, you must re-heat them. I was given sacks of chestnuts and was already dreading going through customs with all this produce. (note: all chestnuts arrived in Seattle safely) That night I returned to the agriturismo with the sky lit up by the full moon, and it was colder than ever. They had fixed the electricity, but the building was still freezing cold, and they still didn’t have a front door. I had dinner there again that night, but it was just too cold in the dining room. Above Maria Teresa’s protestations, I insisted; I would not eat in the dining room, I would eat in the kitchen. After that, I ate breakfast every morning in the relatively cozy kitchen. After my dinner of pasta e fagioli, I went up to my painfully cold room. The heater, mounted at ceiling level, was going full blast but cold seemed to seep in from the corners of the room and radiated through the floor. So I jumped into my capilene underwear and then crawled under the covers and stayed there until morning. At last the next day they covered the building entrance with plastic since the door had not yet appeared. Sunday afternoon, I was expected for lunch at Pino and Santina’s house, where life was looking good. They had recently finished building a beautiful house right next to their large garden, about an acre of trees and vegetables. Pino had been burnt by an explosive combustion of alcohol that he was using to start a fire less than 2 weeks before, so he was holding court, and everyone in town was making rounds to come see him. Fortunately he had healed very nicely and was really enjoying all the attention. So each time I came to their house, an endless stream of relatives appeared to pay their respects, making it easier for me to make connections. Every meal with every cousin and friend contained delicious surprises, including homemade pastas, grilled zucca, roast capretto, tender chicken and various fried vegetables. Every meal was different, with the exception of pasta e fagiole, which I had twice, but the recipes were different. I ate chestnuts at every meal, and on my walks, I picked freshly fallen chestnuts off the ground and stuck them into my pockets. After every meal I was offered fruits and nuts. I ate salads fresh picked out of the garden. And thanks to all the studying, I enjoyed real conversations with my family. Finally I had enough grasp of the language to understand what was being said about me, and to be able to ask real questions. A cousin showed me how to make the ’mparrattati pasta, and asked me questions about Genealogy. Another cousin cut me some fig tree starts. This was the first time I’d ever gone to Sersale by myself, so with pleasure, I walked the streets and steps and found everything on my own. Tiny elderly ladies in black eyed me suspiciously until I told them who I was, and then they’d burst out in huge grins with claims that they had known my grandfather, who had left Italy one hundred years before. My last morning arrived much too fast. With the car packed up, I made rounds to all the cousins who were at home and said goodbye. I drove the 25 kilometers back down the hill where I counted 40 switchbacks before I forgot and lost count. At almost the end of the road where it connects to the highway, I saw two women in black. It was Santina and Annina. I pulled over and jumped out of the car. They were next to an olive field. I asked them, “Are those your olives?” No, they weren’t. “What are you doing here?” Santina pulled a small wad of cicoria out of her pocket. “We were looking for greens, but there’s almost nothing here. Now we’re waiting for my daughter to return from work to take us home.” These two women with large gorgeous gardens full of fruit and vegetables were out foraging for greens, go figure. Old habits die hard I guess. I could only imagine that they started gathering cicoria as children so they would have vegetables to eat. I gave them both hugs and bade them farewell, and drove off to the airport, marveling about my adventures. Calabria… It fills me with joy and sadness. There’s no place like it in the world.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Taralli in the family




Like many fortunate Italian Americans, I had two Italian grandmothers who were great cooks. One of them made taralli, a spicy kind of Italian pretzel.
When I was only 18, I left New Jersey and moved to Boise, Idaho to go to college. I loved the mountains, the wide open spaces, the horses, the goats and the chickens, but after growing up in Northern New Jersey, I found myself in a kind of cultural vacuum. I could not find semolina pasta at my local supermarket, and the only pizza place in the whole state was a chain that sold something akin to saltine crackers glazed with tomato and oregano topped with yellow cheese. So I was always grateful when my grandmother Lucy Fressola sent me care packages filled with biscotti and taralli that she lovingly made by hand.

I suppose taralli are an acquired taste, if you set them out at a non-Italian potluck, chances are that they will be passed over for the richer double fudge brownies and the super chocolate chip cookies and the beautifully decorated designer biscotti that you can buy in stores here. But they don’t last long at my house.

The details of my grandmother’s taralli changed from time to time, but the way I liked them best was when she added both ground black pepper and fennel seeds. They are not sweet like so many other confections.

Over the years, my mother, my cousins and I requested the recipe from her several times, and upon each request, she dutifully sent it to us. We rarely even tried to make them because it is a complicated recipe. To make taralli, you must knead and raise dough, make about a mile of dough snakes, shape them, boil them and then finally bake them until they are just right. This is not a recipe for busy or timid cooks.

Some years ago, after we noticed that every one of the recipes for taralli that my grandmother had given us were different, we convinced her to show us how to make them at a family gathering. My sister, my mother, my husband and I sat and watched as she tried to measure the ingredients; she doesn’t REALLY measure, she was only doing it for us. Then she kneaded the dough, quickly, efficiently and we all realized she wasn’t going to slow down to show us that process. After the dough sat in a warm place for 1.5 hours, we all sat around the table with our own pieces of dough and rolled out snakes, worms, pencils and eventually braids and various other knotted shapes. My sister made the most fanciful designs, I labored to imitate what my grandmother was doing. No matter what, hers were nicer, faster, and more consistent. My mother was intimidated with the boiling water procedure and the slippery wet unfinished taralli but she and my husband managed to get them all in the oven under my grandmother’s watchful eye.

I made her biscotti recipe a couple of times for her before she died, faithfully reproducing her recipe of simple ingredients, but I’d never ventured to make those taralli. When my grandmother died in 2003 she left quite a hole in the family fabric.

That autumn, my family went to her home town of Sant’Agata di Puglia, where her cousin made sure that we went home with the RIGHT kind of taralli. But they were different. I knew I’d never have my grandmother’s recipe again unless I learned to make them myself.

In the kitchen, I generally lean on my husband, who learned to bake bread as a boy while living on a farm. He finds Italian baking very frustrating because to him her basic method is “backwards.” He was taught to make a dough by starting with the water, the yeast, and the oil, gradually adding the dry ingredients until you get a good dough. All our Italian recipes start with; “make a well in a hill of flour” to which you add wet ingredients until the dough is right. Each time I made another disastrous attempt at some sort of bread dough recipe, I would call him in, he would sputter and protest, and I’d watch as he changed that bumpy fractious lump of crumbs and grease into a perfect, soft, glistening ball of dough. It was still a mystery to me, frustrating, just beyond reach.

In the autumn of 2006, my husband spent most of his time in New Orleans on catastrophe duty. This gave me plenty of time alone in the kitchen, lots of time to think. I wanted to learn to make Taralli - by myself.

I planned my attack carefully, I figured I’d make my first attempt while my husband was still at home, and then I’d keep trying until I got it right. I cut her recipe in half, 8 cups of flour was way too intimidating. On my first try the dough came out awful. It was tough and cobbled with lumps. My husband wrassled it like it was a recalcitrant hog, pronounced several choice words, but before my eyes transformed it into something that looked pretty good. It was a very hard dough, but at least they tasted like taralli.

I tried again a couple days later, but this time the yeast didn’t rise. The poor thing just sat there in a lump. I left it out overnight in a warm place. In the morning after observing that the only change was that it was now a darker color, I threw it away.

My husband went back to New Orleans and I still hadn’t gotten it right. I was now ready to solo. If I really tried, I could have some ready for the holiday gathering. I tried four more times before I was satisfied. Five times is a charm? The last batch were salty enough, crunchy enough, they rolled out nicely, they browned perfectly. I finally feel like I own the recipe.

Upon reflection, sometimes my grandmother seemed to be sad because she was the only one that knew how to make these things. I’ll bet she’s smiling now, I’m sure she’d say, “you didn’t roll those out thinly enough.” and “Next time, don’t use so much pepper.” Sharing my grandmother’s taralli is kind of like sharing her. Now the younger generation is assured of getting a taste for her recipe, and perhaps the longing for more. Finally, I was able to preserve another family tradition. Her recipe is safely knit into our family fabric for at least another generation.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Milanese little shop of horrors


There was just one day for me to walk the streets of Milan, check out the little shops, and hang out in the piazzas so I was very happy when a native Milanese who worked with Elena drew me a map. “Go here, there’s lots of things to see.” Armed with that little map, I was off. The streets was narrow, there was no parking and it was very difficult to see how cars managed to get through. I saw many bicyclists, some talking on cell phones or smoking negotiating the cobblestones and the cars. The sidewalk was less than two feet across, so if someone came from the opposite direction, you might end up in the street trying to get around them.. where those cars and cyclists were.

One of the little shops drew my attention. There were miniature skulls in the window. Now that’s odd. I looked inside and saw all kinds of skulls; big animals, small animals, animals with horns, as well as some skeletons. I had to go in there! There were tiny skulls carved from semiprecious stones, and even paintings of bones and things, but there were real bones too. It was just a tiny place, the size of a small living room, cluttered and full of wonders, many clearly ancient. And there was a guard dog. He met me outside of the shop, but by the time I got to the back, he was relaxing on this overstuffed dark red leather sofa. I drew close to the displays of the tiniest carved skulls and creatures to see if I could find a price. I had enough class not to gasp and drew away from the tantalizing display. Fortunately the proprietor permitted me to take a photo of his dog..

This painting is cross-posted in my art blog

Monday, October 18, 2010

Catania 2004

People write about their different kinds of trips, but "slow travel" was truly what my last trip to Catania was about.
This isn't a trip just anyone can do. There are a few requirements:
1. You need to know the language where you are going. You are going somewhere that English is not a given.
2. You need to know somebody willing to take you in for a week, in my case, a relative, a very distant relative who was
more than happy to receive me at her home and share her hospitality.
3. You need to be prepared to go where they go, do what they do. You are entirely at their mercy. Again, this IS
total immersion.

So accepting the above tenets, I booked myself a trip to Catania, one of the two largest cities in Sicily, for the last week of March, 2004.
Catania is not featured with glowing reviews by any travel guides, it is often mentioned for this duomo or that, but in fact, their famous sons are people most of us have never heard of. The city was demolished by a series of earthquakes, and once, by
Etna itself, so there is not a lot of really old stuff there. Or so I thought.
Actually, Catania is dotted with historic sites, old villas, fancy old buildings, and churches. But without exception, every single one was "in restauro"
being restored, hidden, (in some cases only partially) by scaffolding and tarps.
Fortunately, the famous elephant was there in the open for everyone to see.

My last trip had been to Calabria with other cousins where there was a tremendous language barrier, not because I couldn't speak Italian, but because my cousins didn't speak Italian. They spoke in their own very special dialect; it might as well have been Spanish, or Latin. I relied on people in their teens and twenties to translate for me. They knew Italian, having recently been in school. But after a few telephone conversations with my cousin in Catania, I was confident that she spoke proper Italian without an accent. This was not actually true, but close enough.

I wrote to them about my dietary preferences, (I don't drink alcohol, coffee, or pop), and the kinds of food I liked (everything, yes, meat, yes, fish, yes, pasta, yes, vegetables, yes) and so they prepared for me. My cousin Antonietta, and 3 of her children, who lived in other homes, planned out how they would swap me around and entertain me.

I arrived in Catania at around noon. I had promised to wear "un fazzoletto rosso" and so had Antonietta. I'd already seen lots of photos of her and her family, so I kind of knew what she looked like, but I happily complied. The Catania airport has two doors. A big one that hundreds of passengers come out from after they pick up their bags, and a little one with the sign "Dogana" where international travelers -exit after going through the customs search. (In my case, they x-rayed my suitcase). I exited that door, and looked over to my right, where a small crowd of very short people were clustered around the main passenger exit. Right center front was Antonietta, who is about 75 years old, resplendent with her red silk scarf. I walked up behind the little group (about a dozen people) and called her. They were all so amazed that I was behind them, instead of in front of them.

I am a towering 5' 3" and a fraction, just to make sure you all understand. But except for the two male son-in-laws, I was taller than all the rest of the men and women in this family. We got into the house and it became apparent that I needed house slippers, they all had them. I looked at all the feet in attendance, and had to turn them down. No one had feet as big as mine either!

The previous year, I had spent a week in Cefalu'. (read about my adventures in Cefalu' here: )
I took a language class at Solemar-Sicilia and chose the "homestay" with an "Italian family" Boy, that sounded so wonderful, I imagined a family, delicious smells in the kitchen, kids, chatter; but what I got was a sad woman about my age (Sandra) who sat around smoking and watching TV all day. She did not have a warm blanket for my bed, and did not heat my room. I was very very miserable there at night.
She also hated to cook (so I didn't pay for any meals) and the way she was able to ruin tea has forever endeared her to me.
So after my experiences with Sandra, I was very afraid of being too cold. From phone conversations with Antonietta, I was not afraid of starvation, but of cold. I didn't know how to ask if I would be too cold without insulting someone. So I had packed silk, wool, and Capilene underwear.
So upon my arrival, the entire family assembled at Antonietta's house for a wonderful dinner. The flavors were totally different from Calabria,
the tomato sauce, the salad, the polpetti (meatballs). Then I was sent to bed (having missed an entire nights's sleep). I unpacked my warm undergarments, but to my surprise, the bed was WARM!!
One of my cousins had thoughtfully plugged in the electric blanket for me. And she did this EVERY night I was there!

I never wore any of that warm underwear. There was absolutely no need. This is not to say that I had nice weather while I was there, in fact, the weather was so bad, that I never ever saw Mount Etna. And I sat and listened to my cousins describe how they could watch the fireworks display (the 2002 eruption) from their kitchen windows, while I couldn't even see the mountain which was pretty frustrating.

When I first got there, they asked me what the weather was like in Seattle. Was it true that it rained all the time?
of course not, I explained that Seattle wasn't really wet, it was just grey.
As the grey days continued, I could see that in Catania, a drop of rain or a cloudy day is a major interference with the normal state of affairs. Many of our expeditions were canceled because of the "rain" (light drizzle) and in fact, people did not come to see us because of this "weather" - people that lived 3 blocks away.
However, Antonietta, the family hero, was not deterred by weather. Every morning we were up at 7:30 and had a lovely breakfast set for me every morning. The tea, the bread, the cookies, the fruit. She actually found good green tea for me somewhere, and to my horror, CORNFLAKES!
"But," she said, "This is American food! I bought this just for you." I never ate any cornflakes. I never could as a child I certainly wasn't going to start in Italy, when I could eat their fantastic bread and fresh picked citrus fruits every single morning.
After breakfast, we dressed for Mount Everest, armed ourselves with giant umbrellas and went to the Mercato. This was about 4 blocks from their house. I had brought my wonderful Seattle raincoat, just in case, but this was discarded, it wasn't warm enough. I was given a ridiculous jacket that was too small for me (in the style of the 70's super stuffed down jackets) and I had to wear it every day. They didn't want me to freeze. Mercato was just as wonderful as it could be, and it abutted a famous pescheria. We went there every day, whether we had to or not.

My Catanese cousins were very different from my Calabrian ones. They were city people, college educated, and professionals. The down side of this was no one could tell me what this flower was or that tree was; my Calabrian cousins are country folk and know all about the flora and fauna.
I was introduced to the Great Bellini, a composer at least as important as Mozart or Bach. I didn't have the heart to tell them I had never heard of the guy, and it was with great relief that I determined that I HAD at least heard of one of his Operas, La Sonnambula.
Another famous name, who I fortunately knew, was Giovanni Verga. However, my cousins were not impressed that I had read one of his novels and several of his short stories. (Hasn't everyone?) We visited the museums situated in the homes of both of these gentlemen.

It became apparent that my cousins, even though, yes, they were true Sicilians, Island people, were not really from the coast. As mountain people, their knowledge of Sicilian fish dishes wasn't much better than mine. Antonietta told me that it took so long for fish to arrive in Agira, where she was born and raised, that people just didn't eat much of it.
I discovered that they didn't normally eat fish, but prepared it twice for me. When we had the sword fish the first day, it was obviously
the special dish for a guest, but the second time, when we had two different types of fish that we bought fresh from the Pescheria, one of the cousins asked "WHAT THE HECK IS THIS??" and Antonietta said, smooth as glass "Oh Mimi picked this out." Yeah, right. I had merely asked what it was, and then she bought it. but it was delicious. One was called blue fish, and I'm sorry, I don't remember the name of the other.

They promised me that they would take me to Etna, and Agira, the birthplace of our common ancestors. I never got to Etna because of the weather, nor Agira because of family conflict. We did see Siracusa and some of its ruins, and right next to Siracusa was an island town, a tiny little island called Ortigia, a really nice little place to visit.

Taormina was also a beautiful place, filled with touristy shops. Apparently, during the tourist season, the shops and restaurants are open all night. After gazing at a lot of the same offerings that I saw in Catania, I did not buy a single gift in Taormina. The prices were almost
double.

In the evenings I sat with my cousins in front of the television. The shows all seemed to blend into one. Gorgeous tall babes with offensive hairstyles and ridiculous (i.e. lots of skin showing) outfits everywhere, and a couple of men leading the show. Whether it was about what to do for PMS, politics or an actual fashion show, it was pretty much the same.
Often, my cousins would say, "Look, she's American! this is what Americans are like" Once we watched an old Gina Lolobrigida movie. That was pretty neat.

I learned some family history, and some family mysteries. I always thought my grandmother's small stature was due to malnutrition as a child, but here I looked at the grandchildren of her sister, well fed healthy modern and SHORT.

I brought gifts of course, and received gifts in return. Since I live in the state of Washington, I brought Aplets and Cotlets which they loved because they were soft. Teeth problems? I didn't ask! For my cousin Antonietta, partially because it was also her birthday, I had an 18k Cameo brooch that I bought in Firenze a few years before. She loved it, but was concerned because I gave her something pointy "like a knife"
So after consulting with her oldest daughter, She gave me 20 centesimi "in exchange" for the brooch so the ill effects of this gift would be nullified for changing it from an outright gift to a trade.

Antonietta lives in an old house built in the 1850's. She lives there with 3 adult developmentally disabled children I had no idea that this was the case. Particularly endearing was Riccardo, my appointed body guard and heavy parcel bearer. Every time we went out, he went with us.

The day before we left (just to see if I could) I decided to go around the block to take photos of the Odeon, Greek ruins that actually abut Antonietta's house. Wait! says Antonietta, Riccardo, get your coat on! I convinced her that I would not get lost going around the block. They let me.

Riccardo never said much to me, and he really wasn't very affectionate. The smaller cousins all loved him, he was always getting hugged and tweaked, and he stoically endured it. He did like playing with the little kids. He was fairly street smart, as if that might be necessary. It was not. Everywhere we went, Riccardo was grabbed, hugged, and loved by neighbors, store clerks, and teenagers. (Riccardo is almost 50 and about 4'11" he's perfectly proportioned, just small) I have never seen anything like it. In our country, the developmentally disabled are loved and cared for by their families, certainly, but teenagers in the market? In public? It was pretty cool.

On the second morning, I brought out my Easter egg dye kit. It was 2 weeks before Easter, and hard boiled eggs keep, right? No one had ever done this, so everyone was invited, but most did not come because it was... raining, you guessed it. Those of us that were there had a great time. I had not thought of the logistics, and had asked EVERYONE if they had measuring cups or spoons NO!! they did not. (why would anyone need such a thing?) I managed with the measuring cup because I had an 8 ounce water bottle from my flight, and I just guessed with the spoon and lucked out.
We all sat there for hours, happily coloring brown eggs. When we were done, Antonietta made a lovely display on a silver vassoio (tray) and when the others came, she brought it out and showed it to them all. We made 1 egg for everyone, and each person, child and adult, had to see their own personal egg.

On the 4th morning, we needed to get up "early" because we needed to get the mercato done in time because Filippo and his wife were going to take me out. I checked my watch and planned to get up in another 30 minutes when someone banged on the door. My watch had stopped. We were now late. Nonplussed, directly after breakfast, Antonietta took us to a strange little shop (I have no idea what they sold in there) to buy a battery for my Timex. The guy took my watch apart, looked at the battery, and said "Sorry, it's not the kind we have" and he directed
us to another shop, 3 blocks away. This little shop full of clutter, and a desk with an adding machine, had a nice woman sitting there. (I later found out that she was the wife of the first guy) She was able, with difficulty, to open the watch, found the correct battery, but could not close the case again. She taped it shut, and gave it to Riccardo! who then ran back to the other shop, and in minutes, returned beaming with my watch, set to the right time, and happily ticking. I paid the woman my 2 euro and left the shop.
Riccardo continually performed feats of heroism, like running back to the store for something 10 minutes before closing, and reading my mind a time or two. He almost never said a word to me, until he saw me eat some raw finocchio. He said "mi fa schifo!" I guess he didn't like raw vegetables.


The last morning arrived. After starving on my Delta flight, Antonietta decided that she would furnish me with enough food to feed the entire airplane. Since I was already overloaded with heavy goods (a case of Latte di Mandorla, 3 kilos of cheese) I really didn't want 3 kilos of mandorini and a pound of soft cheese. She bought several loaves of bread for me, and 4 bulbs of finocchio (oh, it was SO Cheap!!) and we then had to fight over how much I can REALLY eat and how much I can REALLY carry. (I wish I did carry more home, as my carry-on items were not searched.)

While the other passengers were munching on their pathetic mixed cracker mix, I had the best casoreccio bread and fresh Tirocchi (Blood oranges).

Life can be so good.

It's all in a name

It’s all in a name (written in 2004)
One of my favorite stories is about my name, why I’m called Mimi, and what my name really is.
My mother was 20 years old when I was born. My father, was a mamma’s boy, and my mother had a difficult relationship with her mother in law, my grandmother, Maddalena.
My mother was a romantic 20 year old who loved poetry - particularly the works of Edgar Allen Poe and she wanted to name me Lenore – you know, from the poem. Before I was born, my grandmother Maddalena asked my mother if she would name the baby after her if it was a girl. My grandmother threatened, “If you no putta my name-a, I no come-a see the baby”
My mother defiantly did not concede.
Soon after I was born, my mother found herself surrounded by loving family. The scene was this, my sheepish father, unable to make eye contact, my rapturous grandmother, overjoyed that she now had a granddaughter with her name. “Thank you for putta my name,” she exclaimed.
My poor little mother did cave in that time, but defiant to the end, my name was Mimi from that day forward, no one ever called me Madelaine, except for the religious sisters at parochial school, or my mother when she was angry at me..
Chapter two – the rest of the story
I just got back from Sicily, where I met the family of Maddalena’s sister Filippa. I am the first family member to go back to Italy to find this side of the family in almost 100 years. My great aunt Filippa, had two sons that lived long enough to produce children. Antonietta, my hostess for my stay in Sicily, was the widow of the first born son. Like my mother, Antonietta had been a very young bride and lived in fear of her mother in law. She had to get Filippa’s permission to do anything, to buy a pair of shoes, to eat a snack in her own house. So when Antonietta's first daughter was born, coincidentally 20 days before I was born, Filippa decided that her first grandchild would be named Filippa. Antonietta was broken hearted, she had wanted to name the baby Concetta, but her mother in law promised her, if you don’t name the baby after me, I’ll never speak to you again. So Filippa it was.
She was then required to give her second child, Concetta, the middle name of Filippa. Finally, she bore a son, and what did she name him? You guessed it, Filippo!

Chapter 3. My mother was pregnant again.. Since she’d had an ovary removed before I was born, and since I was a girl, my grandmother Maddalena was quite certain that any subsequent children that my mother had would be naturally be girls. Maddalena tried the same stunt again. This time she wanted the baby to be named Provvidenza, after HER mother. The Italian tradition, is that the second daughter would be named after her mother’s mother, in our case, Lucy. When my sister was born, my mother called her bluff, my sister is named Marguerite. And amazingly, Maddalena did come to see the baby!

When I told Antonietta in Catania this story, she was so relieved and happy to hear that SOMEONE in the family had finally stood up to their mother in law.

Two years ago, I finally named someone Provvidenza. We adopted a little feral cat, who we found providentially! We finally have one in the family. I call her Enza.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Zio Matteo - Sersale





I am of Italian heritage and I still have a lot of ties with the small town in Southern Italy, Sersale, where my grandfather was born. Last summer I read a blogger’s tale about an old man who lives in Sersale, named Matteo Torchia, who celebrated his 100th birthday last April. Link: http://emiliogrimaldi.blogspot.com/2009/04/zio-matteo-fa-centanni.html The town threw him a big party and there was a fuzzy blurry little video of him in this huge hall full of people dancing. To see the video, you can follow the link above.


I decided I was going to find this man, who if still alive, would be 101 years old. After all, not only is he the oldest guy in Sersale, but he is probably the oldest Torchia alive in the world as well, and that happens to be my surname. I never met a centenarian before and it seemed rather poetic that the first one I would ever meet was a guy with my own last name.


Among my ties to Sersale are the teenaged grandchildren of my cousins; I keep in contact with the whole family through them on Facebook. I asked one of them to introduce me to him, but she said she couldn’t, she would be too embarrassed. ok, big deal, I'll find someone else.

So when I got there, I started asking around. I asked my cousin Santina, about him; she had never heard of the guy. Zio Matteo? But she liked the idea and started asking others as they arrived to greet me, did you ever hear about this guy who is 101? One of the younger cousins spoke up, “My little boy saw him in school, I’ll ask him if he knows where Zio Matteo lives.” The next day, I was given more information; truly, all the cousins liked the idea that I wanted to look for him and I was informed that he hung out up in the piazza near Bruno Carristo's pharmacy, so I headed up to that neighborhood as soon as I could.

Sersale is a small hill town, the only places to be found that are flat are the piazzas. All the streets are very steep and curvy, and most of them are too narrow for me to drive a car in, so all of this coming and going is on foot.
There was a bit of confusion about him; I knew him as Zio Matteo, (Uncle Matteo) but even though his name is actually Matteo, in dialect he is called Mattia di Paola. So when I originally asked about Zio Matteo no one except the young people knew who I was talking about because everyone else in this town speaks only dialect.

Anyway, the first day I went up to that piazza looking for him, there was really noisy street scraping equipment working on the road, and there were no old men out at all, so I gave up (I hate loud noises). The next day I returned and asked some people if Zio Matteo had been there today, and no one had seen him (did that mean they understood who I was looking for?).

On the third day, someone pointed out the exact spot where Zio Matteo and his friends usually sat; and I could see three old guys were up there so I hustled over to this bench overlooking a cliff with a tree shading it and asked them if they knew where Mattia di Paola was. One old guy told another that he must take me to Zio Matteo's house. This very strange man who walked like a chicken with his head thrust forward led me into a part of Sersale that I had never seen before called La Colla, the oldest part of the town. It had streets that were extremely steep and narrow, where in parts you can touch the walls of houses on both sides of the street at the same time. Finally after a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs, we were there. #30 was the street number above the door. This tiny little blue eyed old man walks out, perky and bright, and the weird guy that led me there disappeared into the maze of streets. “Yes,” he says, “I am Matteo Torchia,” and I told him “I am a Torchia too!”

I told him our family’s nickname (Cristariella) and his eyes lit up and and he started reciting the names of my grandfather's siblings - he knew them all. He even knew that my grandfather never returned from from America to visit. He told me how he survived the Spanish Flu in 1918 but that his mother died. He told me a good deal of his life history, he has been interviewed a lot recently, so he was prepared. Finally, he stood and looked at me as if to say;”I’m one hundred and one years old, I don’t have a lot of time to waste, what was it you would like to know?”
So I asked him what did he eat that enabled him to live so long. he responded with gusto; “EVERYTHING!

“I eat meat, pasta, beans, vegetables, coffee, wine, everything, everything!” The only thing he doesn’t do is smoke. I asked him if I could take his picture, and he said, “Ok, just one.” I shook his hands and said farewell and spent the next 20 minutes trying to get back down to some place I was familiar with because I was completely lost.

All I could say after I left him was "Che Carino!" (how cute!)

Sersale trip - 2010 - a few stories



There once was a woman named Carmela Borelli who was out in the hills with her kids and two donkeys laiden with goods when it started to snow unexpectedly.
She ran back to safety, but it was so cold that one of the donkeys stopped and gave up. So she continued with just the one donkey, dragging it and eventually carrying her children, but they were starting to suffer from frostbite so she took off almost all of her clothes and put them on her kids to protect them. she finally abandoned the last donkey and when she got to a church on a hill below Sersale, she covered her kids with her body
and died. Both of the children survived thanks to her.
There is a monument in Sersale honoring her. I always wondered if it really happened or if it was just a fable. Well on this visit I met one of her descendants, Graziella Talarico. One of Giuseppe Mercuri's sons is married to her. She pulled out a photo and said "this is my grandmother Costanza" Costanza was the little girl whose life was saved by Carmela Borelli's last act. Here is a link to the whole story.