Maria’s story

Maria   (as I will call her here )   is one of my oldest acquaintances and one of my dearest friends.  She has been coming to help me clean my floors, keep things dust-free and tidy, and save me hours of housework  for as long as I have  been here.  She saw my children born and watched them grow up as we all matured together.  She struck me from the start  with her easy and genuine smile, her positive outlook and caring demeanor.   This is a rare commodity in these hill towns where diffidence,  legitimately-earned  owing to centuries  of foreign invasions, is the rule.  She is scrupulously honest with her friends, and can be diabolical with her enemies.   If there is anything you want to know, any information about anyone that isn’t official, she will know about it.  Her version may turn out to be larger than the truth, but I can count on getting any gossipy tidbits from her, before they  go to press.  She often says that she would love to be alone, free from constant scrutiny, and yet she could never live without her small town.  She is an integral part of it.  I am very fond of her.

“Family  Landscape”   mixed media

Maria’s life has not been an easy one.  She lives in community housing with her mother and father, an although she would like to have a place of her own, she is aware that her parents depend on her for support, both economic and emotional.   Ours is a small town, and modest  unsavory deeds  shine brightly in  this overcast atmosphere of shared knowledge.  Families provide one’s identity, and if one member has committed a sin, all will be tainted by association.  Once committed to communal memory, an unfortunate incident is rarely, if ever,  forgotten.

Her parents are an interesting couple, her mother an intelligent  foul-mouthed  and  iron-fisted  busybody who still applies heavy make-up and peroxide at sixty-five.  She is one of those women who understands that her control of the situation depends upon her playing her cards close to her chest.  I like her!   Her father is mouse-like, a reserved and hesitant cultivator of a small plot of land, an ex-drinker.  Maria confided to me that as a child, after each episode of  drunkenness and predictably despicable behavior, her father would wake them all up to require that they  eat the compensatory ice cream he brought home to them.    She told me that recently she tried, yet again,  to eat some ice cream. She was not surprised to be overwhelmed by nausea, just like the times before.

She was one of five siblings, now four.  One beloved brother was lost to a drug overdose.   Working in Germany, trying to make some money to send home, he died  in isolation and was discovered  after many days.  They brought him back for his funeral service, where the presiding priest chose to lecture the congregation on the evils of drug use.  This  provided Maria with her final reason to cut herself loose from the overweening and proprietarial hypocrisy of the local church.  Judgments given  so easily require the addition of a smidgen of empathy before they are applied to a family, one already reeling under the weight of  tragedy.

Her oldest  brother is known as one of those people who cannot be trusted, and many a finger has been wagged in his direction when something of value disappears.  He is an opportunist, someone who is up and about in the wee hours.  He is  a gatherer of available merchandise, some of it already the property of others.  He supplies firewood, and therefore he  is a wood-chopper, a cross-cultural category which implies unsavory traits.  Opportunities  present themselves in special ways for him.   He sued a friend of mine who ran a small gas station, because his teenage daughter (walking along looking at her phone) stepped into the open manhole where my friend was refilling his tanks.   She was only slightly injured, but thanks to her father’s adept legal  maneuvers, her sore ankle supplied the family with extra funds for a year. My friend, who had four small children, was given only the opportunity to worry.

Maria’s sister has many children, a hard-working husband with serious heart trouble, and a house which  she imagines is running hard in an  imaginary “Joneses”  derby.    Her character  does not shine for its altruism.   If given a gift, it will be immediately rated  according to brand and selling  value.  Home-made gifts or donations of time and effort are rarely appreciated.  She often begs for  free babysitting from her sister when Maria has time off from her work.  She always has a favorite child, chosen serially on her good days,  and the others jockey for position as her “pet” in order to profit from the associated perks.

Another brother is a collector of metal scrap, and he possesses an honest heart, even if he may be persuaded to behave to  the contrary on occasion.  He has a garage  in the Centro Storico which is stacked to the ceiling with interesting antiques,  and a wife from Naples who has just given birth to their first son.  They live over their small store which stocks  a few paper flower arrangements, souvenir postcards,  lightbulbs and assorted sundries.  They do a brisk business at Christmas in artificial trees and figurines for  presepi.* 

 Maria is tainted by a reputation which is not of her own making.   It doesn’t matter really what she does, as she is part of a clan which is known for its less-than-exemplary behavior.  This, I imagine, has been her lifelong motivation to behave as she does;  she is scrupulously honest, excellent at her job,  and demonstrates a punctuality which is almost scandalous in this part of the world.   She has had to deal with people who would not pay her for her work, a recurring theme which , each time it occurs, causes me to cringe.  Humanity, empathy, recognition of   merit;  all seem to be lacking in regard to those who aren’t high in the pecking order.    Money, for many, occupies the highest rung on the motivational ladder,  just  above  familial love  and the Pope.

She is  assumed to be an “easy” woman, an ignorant woman, a person of little moral integrity.  All these things are not true, and yet  these things will define her as long as she remains in the same small town where her family is known.   I believe that Maria is an uncomfortable presence for many, a kind of moral thermometer which measures the extent of their  mediocrity.  Most people prefer to stand next to someone who doesn’t illuminate their flaws so clearly.  And yet she shines on brightly,  and it is clear for all to see.

I wish her a long and happy life;  she deserves it.

“Morning”  pencil on paper

*presepi:  traditional  Christmas creches

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An architectural interlude

My sister has been  trying to find one of those fly-blocker door screens made of long plastic ropes, so far with no results.  It has brought my mind around to some of the subtle and strange differences  regarding doors and windows in our houses.

When we built our house, my joy at having small balconies on every upstairs room from which to admire the countryside was vexed by the fact that a glass door, or porta-finestra, cannot be had with any type of closure from the outside.  In other words, if you step out on the balcony you cannot close the door behind you!  If it should be closed by someone on the inside, you will remain there indefinitely, lacking a rope,   because there are no door handles on the outside.  After many years I managed to procure one  balcony door which actually locks with a key on both the inside and outside, but still with only an interior handle.   God forbid I should ever forget to have that key in hand when outside.  It is not my plan to be closed out on a balcony  in the  country,  with no hope of escape other than a very loud yell.

This represents to me an interesting insight into the differences in psychology between the cultures.   Maybe Italians don’t enjoy spending time on the balcony?   Yet clearly they do.  Hanging and gathering the laundry is carried out daily, and rooms are expensive to heat.   On a day with a chilly wind,  leaving the door wide open must seem counter intuitive.  Maybe Italians do not care about flying insects coming inside?   The plastic rope fly screens would belie that theory.  Or maybe the concept of having another door handle with a necessary locking device would just complicate things in the dolce vita…  What I can say is that I have devised all manner of ways to keep the darn door almost, but not fully, closed when I am out on the balcony.  Bricks, rope cords, elastic bungee cords and wooden wedges; trying to keep the door shut never fails to frustrate me.

Windows, constructed in similar fashion with interior-only handles, can never be  blocked in such a way that they don’t slam shut in the wind.  I use American rubber doorstops (another item that simply does not exist in Italy) to keep them open.  The panes  invariably open into the room and create a hazard to the heads of shorter people and children.  Oh to have some sliding windows which don’t have to be propped open!  Screens are a new addition to windows, and thank goodness.  Ours are mounted on rollers, and at the end of the summer are the dwelling place of wasps and tiny adorable bats.  We have to be careful when pulling them down not to squish them in the roller mechanism.

On the positive side, I can’t say enough about the wonderful rolling shades which serve to black out any room, any time, all or partially.  These are on the outside of the glass windows in any house.   There can be nothing more relaxing than to take a siesta, drifting off on a warm afternoon with the shades closed only enough to leave small spaces between the interlocking strips, small checkerboard snippets of light and a nice breeze blowing through the room.  When I am in the US I find that having only a curtain between my rooms and the street never lets me completely relax at night.  I feel exposed.   In Italy my rooms become  essentially windowless with the shades down, a silent and private space.  They are also marvelous when jet lag sets in, and a totally black night-during-the-day room is required.

As children we  all marveled at bank vaults, their cylinders aligning to form a solid unbreakable wall of steel between ourselves and the shiny stuff.  In Italy, every house has a front door which is a porta blindata, which means it locks with a series of steel cylinders just like the bank vault.   A large key can be rolled over and over in the lock to insert the cylinders ever more deeply into the receiving end of the iron door frame.  The doors themselves are also made of reinforced steel, with a thin veneer of wood.  But as any workman will tell you, it is fine to have one of these doors, but anyone with a hammer can knock a hole in the masonry walls of any house faster than you can remember that maybe a big dog would have been a better idea.   I have known people who will leave a little dish of money on the kitchen table to discourage burglars from doing gratuitous damage to the house, after they have taken everything else of value.

When I suggested that we should fence our plot of land, my husband dismissed the idea by explaining that we might antagonize our neighbors by creating a physical, and therefore psychological, barrier between us.   In going with the flow I did not insist.  However each small yard in the suburbs is clearly delineated by a  fence, and each driveway boasts a large and imposing automatic gate, which opens with a remote control device.  Even the humblest houses have these gates, and it would seem everyone has a need, even if they won’t admit it, to keep “me” from “you.”  So now, out in the country, everyone is in the process of fencing their property, if they can afford to.  If it is true that good fences make good neighbors, we can hope that this trend will make for fewer skirmishes among property owners.  But I worry about the goats, who depend on their  free-roaming grazing each day in order to supply that good milk for our cacciocavallo and  ricotta.

Of course it is true that architectural peculiarities can determine the feel of a neighborhood.  I think of air-conditioning and how it has caused the total demise of porch-sitting and interacting with neighbors in Texas.  Air-conditioning in Bernalda is beginning to cause the disappearance of those folks who, in order to keep cool, sit outside their doors in the afternoon and chat with passersby.  I don’t know if I would choose sociability over superior comfort, myself.  However I can recommend a plastic fly screen, those lines of hanging spirals which hang in the doorways of houses and bars during the summer. They do work, and are the best hands-free method for creating a barrier I have seen.   People are welcome, flies not so much.

“Openings”  oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches