Garbage (this grass is not greener)

 

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Bella l’Italia!   Shiny square pavement stones in antique piazzas, ornate iron balconies, yellow plastic buckets; street market with colorful produce, green plastic buckets, brown plastic buckets, yellow plastic buckets; strollers out for the passeggiata, cool evening breeze, blue plastic buckets, green plastic buckets, gray plastic buckets; shop windows glowing (yellow plastic bucket, gray plastic bucket, blue plastic bucket) with interesting merchandise;  people at the cafe drinking (blue plastic, yellow plastic, green plastic, gray plastic) Campari and having appetizers; narrow (gray plastic bucket)streets  (yellow plastic bucket) lined  (blue plastic bucket) with….yellow plastic buckets, blue plastic buckets, gray plastic buckets, brown plastic buckets…what is that horrible smell?.. green plastic buckets, another row of  plastic buckets and more plastic buckets after those.  A conga line of plastic  covering every few feet of sidewalk;  a colorful and crowded PVC parking lot.

 

Hoorah, we have solved the garbage problem!   Here in Bernalda the local movers and shakers have decided, thanks to some obscure European directive and an excess of optimistic organizing zeal, (and remember that Hell itself has Italians as the organizers, while its  chefs are all British)  that modern society’s embarrassing effluvium must be sorted.   Ah!  What green thoughts!   Let us by all means sort.   Let us follow the Progressive operational thought pattern  which places all emphasis on hopes,  dreams, and injudicious optimism, and none on final outcome.   It is the thought that counts!

We have been issued buckets.   Each household will have a green one, a yellow one, a blue one, a gray one, a brown one.   One for glass and metal which must be clean (washing out the dogfood cans is one of my favorite tasks, and do not forget to remove the paper label!) or it will never be picked up.   One for clean plastic.   (I said clean, so get out the soapy water again to wash out that juice bottle!)   If the plastic is deemed unclean, it will never be picked up.  One for paper, and yes, dare I say it must be clean paper, no used paper here.  No oil spots, no soap residue, no pizza stains.   The bucket will be shaken, and if the music isn’t right it will not be emptied.  It will be opened for inspection, and if failed, it will not be collected.   One for organic detritus, which accounts for the smell factor.   And lastly, one for “indifferentiated” items.  This describes all other refuse which is either stained, greasy, of mixed materials, or otherwise not identified items (I will let your immagination run wild here, but remember babies don’t wear diapers for fashion).

We have all been hired for a new job!   It takes a chunk out of the day, sorting through the garbage in order to place it in the appropriate cannisters.   And here is the most diabolically clever  part of the plan:  Each cannister is to be picked up on a different day!   So if, like us, you live at the end of a long country road, there is the obligation to carry UP the correct bucket for that day, and carry BACK  yesterday’s color to fill again.   Of course, while the wait ensues for the “waste managers” to arrive you will need yet another bucket as a temporary receptacle.  This system is particularly noxious when the summer temperatures are high and the organic refuse becomes a petri dish producing alarming odors. *   Where there are wild dogs and hogs and cats…some extra clean-up will also be required by the homeowner.

Need I add that the “waste managers” are not punctual?

If we understand our own human natures,  might the outcome  (in a country where garbage collection has been problematical even back when it involved tossing a full plastic bag into a dumpster) be predictable?   Yes.   The roads, the back streets, the countryside is filling with garbage.   People are lazy, people do  not have the time, some people are jerks, people have lives which don’t allow for hours a week to sort through malodorous collections of  s**t.   The irony is that while a brand new dump (it helps if there is a sign which declares dumping illegal) can generate spontaneously  in a flash, the New System does not allow the “Waste Managers” to pick up any garbage that is not pre-sorted!  It is a Goal! for the rats.

If a bag or cannister is deemed unworthy because of an ominous tinkling on “Paper Day” then imagine what a new roadside amalgamation’s destiny will be?   Yes.   To grow, to decay, to spontaneously (or not) combust,   to join hands eventually with another pile and create a hellish landscape for the enjoyment of locals and tourists alike.   La Bella Vita indeed.   So far I have seen general amnesia on the part of manufacturers, who continue to package otherwise insignificant items in multiple wrappings; aluminum packets around tin cans in “economical” bundles enclosed in cardboard…which somehow (since we have convinced ourselves that “Now we can just recycle it!”)  have multiplied and diversified.   I remember when bottles were reused and a big bag of aluminum or steel could be traded for cash.  This arrangement also magically contributed to roadside cleanliness and the development of a work ethic in youngsters.  But I digress into logic…

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Italy is a country that thrives on its tourism.   Of course I have thought this through, as have others,  and we have our ideas, any of which would be superior to this new  “solution.”  I am amazed, disillusioned, and embarrassed.   I try not to think about the first impression that streets lined with ugly plastic bins and piles of garbage in between has on tourism.  Or it could be that tourists here, having heard about Naples and its garbage debacle for years, just take it in stride.   Do they expect things to be this way?   This is more depressing than imagining their reactions as shocked and appalled!

I could go on, but I have some toothpaste tubes to dismantle and my cannellini cans should have been soaking long enough now to remove the labels before I wash them out with soap…and I forgot to burn the pizza boxes in our fireplace.  And today is “green.”**

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*Of course, living in the country with dogs, chickens, and a compost pile, this isn’t our particular problem. But most live in apartments and houses in town.

**By “green” I mean the color of the bucket.

 

 

A death here, a death there…(part one)

We shift our eyes away  and sidle toward  another subject if we can. But I believe most of us are curious about our inevitable demise, (of course we are curious about our own, but who can we ask?)  and it is particularly enlightening to observe how other cultures deal with IT, when the time comes. Our customs, naturally,  say a lot about us.

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“Rusty Gate”  oil on canvas, 40 x 38 inches

My mother passed away recently, and my father followed her by only a few months. We lost my husband’s parents, my brother-in-law, a couple of friends, all  in the past few years.   So I have had occasion to experience the contrasts in how we treat our dead, those mysterious  and terrifying leftovers of the people we once loved.

My mother was efficient in her passing, not one to needlessly draw out her time in the spotlight.  After all, she wasn’t discussing politics.  We called the “funeral home,”  that most uncomfortable term,  and a soulful duo appeared, he tall and she short, demure and helpful ravens in swooping black coats.  Disguised in a black zippered bag, she was rolled away, negotiating the doorways on her last exit from her home.     Since my mother’s specific request was not to have any viewings, a practice she considered crass and an  indulgence of base human curiosities, we never saw her again.   Our dealings with the funeral folks were short and sweet, just a subdued shuffle around the casket car lot, the exchange of documents and signing of checks, and off she went on her final flight to her  resting place in Oklahoma.  She  told me that the term “at rest” would soon mean much more to us as we put on years.  She was tired.    As to the preparations carried out in the facility, the less known the better.  I think we all understand that the ultimate, “prepared” version of our deceased relatives is nothing if not husk-like.   When my father followed her, the mechanics were the same, although his hospital death  allowed for even less family participation, making the “undertakings”  even more obscure.  He would have appreciated the pun.

Here in Basilicata things are different.   There is no “funeral home.”  Among the first  to know will be the local printers shop, who will prepare the black and white  manifesti*  which will go up around town before the deceased begins his or her preparations for departure.   Provisions for the body’s burial are entirely the responsibility of the closest relatives, and  home is where the funeral starts.   Those preparations usually involve  washing and dressing, maybe shaving, combing the hair and placing the hands upon some treasured item.  There is no embalming.   The household where the deceased lived prepares for visitors by placing the body in a central position, usually on the dining room table, and chairs are circled around the periphery of the room  in anticipation of a day of visitations by friends and relatives.  We arrive, are greeted, a hug or  a nod, a few words, and we find a chair and sit down.   Sometimes a daughter, a brother will be carrying on a long conversation with the deceased, softly  murmuring, chuckling, or more rarely, tearfully grasping at  clothing or swaying from side to side.     There is hushed conversation between visitors, mostly remembrances of episodes in the life of the  departed, but sometimes wholly unrelated to the matter at hand.  “Remember when he fell out of that tree stealing figs?”   “What did you buy to cook for lunch today?”  “Did you hear about Pinuccio who is still in jail?”    Each visitor is free to stay as long as he needs to, or wants to, or, in my case, as long as I can stand it.  It is distressing for a “sanitized” American to participate somehow.   I admire the customs immensely, but intellectually.  I am uncomfortable.  Until recently, there were  places where a family could hire one or more women, the “prefiche,” who would carry on  lamentations for a fee.  These “chiangenn”**  have often made their appearance  in  literature, understandably: they are  equally fascinating and horrifying.

In a small municipality, the funeral procession is on foot from the home to the camposanto.***    Visitors to Italy may note that the most attractive area of a little town is often the cemetery, clipped and polished and centrally-planned.   Family chapels are complete, and the larger areas of communal use are tastefully decorated  with flowers on saints days and birthdays.    What a contrast to the rusty  rebar and cement which  festoon the town’s buildings, adding subtle anguish to  our streets, unpainted stucco revealing that a dwelling for the living  is of secondary importance after all.    Larger cities often have towering cement cell blocks of tombs, accessible from indoors, the crusty concrete bleeding white lime deposits, fading  pictures of loved ones.  Anemic electric candles flicker in the gloom.   These are not peaceful places for contemplation, and I am reminded of our “self storage” lockers for our overflows of junk…  “Self-storage” indeed!

We are used to saying our final goodbyes and leaving our loved ones to their final rest, in peace.   Things are different in Italy, but more on that in part two.

*posters

**  lamenters, (in local dialect)

***cemetery

The Rush of Time

Mamma ha fatto la pasta al forno!*

All hail the leftover!   Especially that huge pan of Pasta Al Forno lurking in the fridge.   An anecdote which exemplifies its temptations:           Four friends, youngsters on a road trip, depart Bernalda with a lovingly-prepared (Grazie Mamma!)  mega-pan, ( at least eighteen inches diameter) container of pasta al forno for lunch.  They leave at at five in the morning, and after ten minutes the  foil was already being peeled off.  Hunks were being scooped out by hand  by the time they had reached the main road,  and by Ferrandina all that was left was a greasy pan.

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                                                    Casetta A.N.A.S.,  Matera                                                       Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches, 2013

Its summer,  its hot, and who wants to cook?   But you have to eat, and the best way to get around spending regular hours in the kitchen is to create a dish that will carry a family through a number of meals.     Here is a summertime standby which, though it is a little time-consuming to create, will feed folks for a few days at home or at the beach.   It is good cold or heated, and it only gets better with time!   This is my recipe, tweaked over many summers.

Ingredients for about six hungry people:

4-6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and roughly chopped, (not diced)

Thinly-sliced hot Calabrian salame, or equivalent:  the best is a genuine sopressata piccante.  If you can’t find it, then get the reddest and hottest dry salame you can find.   You will need about a half pound.  Slice each thin slice into half-inch strips.

One can of drained pitted black olives, nothing fancy, just the good-old California kind.

Fresh mozzarella, at least  three cups chopped and tightly-packed.  Lacking the real thing, use some chopped American “mozzarella” which is actually more like Scamorza, as it is low-moisture.    Use the whole pound block, why not?

One cup plus one cup of freshly grated Grana Padano, or Parmigiano,

A freshly-made tomato sauce, about three cups.   This can be made using ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced, cooked in a half cup of  extra virgin olive oil over a lively flame, until broken down.  Add about 4 cloves of chopped garlic to the simmering tomatoes.  Add about a teaspoon of salt, and no,  I repeat, NO,   spices!   ( Here I am making the ancient sign against evil pointing my index and little finger  at the ground.)   Why would you take a perfectly good tomato sauce and add some dusty old shelf-scrapings to it?

One 500 gram (call it a pound)  bag of rigatoni pasta, or other medium pasta, cooked al dente in generously-salted water, and drained.  Don’t skimp on the salt!  (See previous post about pasta.)   Rinse and leave in cool water to  keep it from sticking.

Get yourself a great bowl and dump the mozzarella, salame, eggs, olives, and sauce  together with the drained cool pasta.   Mix in one cup of the grated Grana Padano cheese.   Make sure the sauce isn’t boiling hot or it will cause the mozzarella to melt and become stringy and incorrigible.  Mix everything well, and pour into whatever baking dish is large enough to hold the mixture.  Make sure to oil the pan (or pans) well before hand, or everything will stick.    Cover the top with the remaining Grana Padano.

Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake at about 350 degrees  until it is bubbling and begins to brown on top.  Place the pan where the bottom will not burn, in the oven center usually.   About an hour should do it.   ( Be careful not to allow the aluminum foil to touch the tomato sauce, or you will be adding some unwanted elements to your diet when the acid melts the foil!)

Cool a little, or not, or reheat in the microwave tomorrow,  and serve.

Enjoy!

* Mamma made pasta casserole!

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Summer sweet and sour     Oil, 6 x 6 inches

Letter from the orphanage

It has been a while, a long while for me, since I have written anything here.  I hope you will forgive my inconsistency.  I haven’t felt like writing, or painting, occupied with coming to grips with the changing horizons of my life.

In a way, the construct I have been inhabiting for so long has come down around me, crumbling into itself as the new one goes up simultaneously.  Everything is a little different, a little skewed, but in many ways there is more elbow room.   I can’t really touch the walls yet, as I reach out and twiddle my fingertips, and it is scary, but full of intriguing  possibilities.   I will grow into it and learn to inhabit the space, even make a cup of tea here eventually, snuggling up with my own autobiography.  I hope it is a satisfying read.

I am an orphan, as is my sister.  I am now “the old folks.”   I am the oldest  generation in the family, having reluctantly clambered to the highest rung on the responsibility ladder.  I have lost both of my parents in a whirlwind few months, both to cancer.  My mother succumbed to a quick and relatively painless but inescapable pancreatic beast, and my father lost  the last skirmish in a long war with skin cancer,  an insistent mass of flesh termites which  niggled away at him until he couldn’t hold it off any longer.

People say, “We understand how devastating it is to lose both your parents together like this.”  And it is, but it is also a blessing.  Better to choke down the poison in a concentrated draught, all in a gulp, and avoid having to savor it.   My sister and I are still spitting often, but  preparing to enjoy some  light and fruity wine as well.  After.

My mother always said, “Oh Lord, I feel sorry for you all having to deal with all my stuff!”   She did have hundreds of  books, closets full  of clothes, empty flower vases, and endless  tablecloths.   But the biggest job, one that we possibly will never finish, is looking through the papers, personal notes and letters, many of which  she inherited from her parents and grandparents.  My father, too, had boxes of memorabilia,  scraps of the 1920’s and 30’s, and clippings from magazines.  He saved the newspaper front pages for major events from Pearl Harbor to Nixon’s resignation!   It is a sparkling treasure trove of knowledge, invaluable and irreplaceable.    At the same time its presence is enormously annoying,  hulking sullenly in closets, boxes perched accusingly on shelves, food for the silverfish.   And what of my own offspring, and theirs;  will the family be so hindered by its written history that it will eventually disappear, suffocated  in a papery pit?   Would the touchdown of a tornado be a blessing in disguise?  And yet…and yet I wish that they had written more, told us more.  The things we might never hear about are now official:  we will never know.

My father left quite a library of information and scholarly studies behind, in the physical sense as well as metaphorically.  He was so much more productive than I ever realized, and the recognition of his colleagues continues unabated.  I am  mourning  the loss of contact with all things paleontological, the dusty-shelved and boney  foundation of my life-view.  It is still there, but muted.  I know instinctively to grasp it gently, as too strong a grip on  it will weaken its hold on me.   It is science to scientists, but alchemy and poetry to me.  I am ignorant of  the study of dinosaurs,  but eternally captivated by the smell of them.

My mother was considerate about her legacy, and she left us a handwritten biography which speaks for itself.  It was a full-circle  life, and it was a good one.  Every woman dreads becoming too much like her mother, doesn’t she?   I am used to moments of revelation, realizing that I am so much like my mother, becoming more like her, like it or not!     These moments  are sweeter now;  I am pleased that this is so.   I am not apt to become so much like my father, but I am made of bits and pieces of him, and they pop and fizzle  and glow at the oddest moments.   I am myself thanks to my parents;  the most earthshaking banality anyone ever came up with.   They live on, I live on, and my kids will live on, taking the crowd of yammering DNA with us through time.

And so I know now, after the funerals, the memorials, the thoughtful notes in the mail, that my parents were even more appreciated in the community than I thought.   They were well-loved, they were complicated, they were the most intelligent, exasperating, considerate  and  responsible  people, and they are gone.    I never imagined that I would miss them so fiercely.

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Mama and me, 1957  (family photo)

Il Cantastoria (part two)

Every few  months or so I am awoken at dawn by huge booming cannons  and barking dogs which signal that today is special;  a day of  celebration.  There are festivals based on Saints, commemorations,  historical remembrances, and even  strikes.  A day not designated exceptional is a sad day indeed.   When my father visited me he always said, “So today is a holiday?  It must be Tuesday!”

The basic form of celebrations has remained the same, although certain activities seem to have disappeared forever now.  One of these was the “Palo della Cuccagna“* which gave the young bloods of the town a chance to show off their climbing prowess.  A telephone-like pole was erected in the piazza with a bounty of cheeses, prosciutto, salami and such, tied  to a bicycle wheel perched at the top.  As if a smooth, 40-foot  telephone pole might not be insurmountable enough, it was then greased with lard.    Squads of four young men, jockeying impatiently  for the challenge,  armed themselves with a circular  strip of fabric to wrap around themselves and the pole.  They would scale it in sequence, each man on the bottom climbing up and over the next three.  Slipping down the pole and each other,  bruises and bumps and uncontrollable laughter would ensue.   The first squad to reach the top  would triumph and take home the prize.   Hilarity for all was insured.

"Off Her Pedestal"mixed media, 30 x 22 inches
“Off Her Pedestal”
mixed media, 30 x 22 inches

A traditional parade through the town center will take place during the festa.  Fixtures in this parade, in the phalanx of the powerful, are the mayor, the town council, and the clergy.   Having grown up with the Miss American pageants on TV, I always find it amusing when I see them all sporting wide banners from shoulder to hip, even though I know that this was the origin of the regalia  used in those spectacles.  Each V.I.P.  is quite proud to wear his banner, and I expect to eventually see, in these days of hyperbole, more and more of these in each parade.  Will there be a second and third brigade of silk sashes stating “schoolteacher,”  “baker,”  “or “dedicated housewife?”  I imagine a bannered “group of Shame,”  with “pedophile” or “litterer” scrawled on the sashes…

Picture Romeo and Juliet and their famous balcony.   It used to be that there were small musical bands which could be hired by an “innamorato“** to woo his beloved.  (One assumes that  women were not traditionally the protagonists here but one could be wrong!)  If the wedding date had been established, the young man would enlist the help of this band to serenade his future wife from the street below her balcony.  It was a joyous occasion  for the “vicini“*** when they heard a quavering voice in crescendo  out in the street, and I imagine the bride-to-be and her family endured the event with a mix of emotional embarrassment and merriment as he sang his song to her.   Too bad they didn’t have movie cameras to make videos back then; these scenes could have been the highlight of the wedding  film!

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“Waiting on the Cake”
mixed media, 30 x 22 inches

Every town has its religious processions, pagan and Catholic, quirky or boringly traditional.  These processions are still around, although they happen less often now.   Every few months people will gather for the purpose of escorting some important relic or statue of a local saint, getting it “out for air” and at the same time reminding the people where their loyalties should lie.  I will never forget my first experience with a procession, when, living along the main street, I heard a growing low buzz of human voices murmuring something, (a prayer?)  over and over again, a shuffling swarm of  sedated bees.   People living along the route where the slowly trudging crowd will pass should prepare.  Owners of houses will hang their nicest bed coverings from the railings, or adorn their clotheslines with ornate fabrics to honor the occasion. Some families possess a complicated  banner with the local  saint and symbols embroidered in traditional colors which makes its  appearance often and proudly.   Behold (and beware!)  the balcony which is festooned with a line of grungy underwear instead of a nice bedspread, thus shirking its unwritten civic duty…

*”The Pole of Plenty”

** enamored one

***neighbors

La Sanita’: A cautionary tale

As I follow  the developments  in  the new  healthcare plans for the U. S.,   I feel it might be time to digress from whimsical cultural observances to things more serious.   I wouldn’t pretend to understand every nuance, but I can tell you all a bit about what the future of   “Doctoring,”  (a more precise term  I believe  than “Healthcare”)   might look like in America.

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I have been living here since 1982, and for much of this time  I have been part of the  churning,  corroded  and unpredictable  machine which is Italian national “healthcare.”   I pay into the program, which is a single-payer one for the most part, and I partake of it (sometimes) as needed.  But what I “get out of  the system”  is   limited, and only partially  indicative of the general breakdown for most Italians.

Probably the most important detail when describing the Italian system is that no one in Italy has health insurance.  Insurance is mostly purchased on automobiles, as required by law, but hardly anyone has insurance on their possessions.   I know of only a few people who have their farm implements insured, and no one whose house is insured.  Not one person I have ever heard of has private health insurance.   But those who have a full-time  job are provided for by their employers, and the sheer size of the payments that are required for legal employees leads to a)  high unemployment, and b)  low profit margins.  As might be expected, there is a huge “under the table” market for workers.    The math is clear.

This said, it would widely follow that the government provides for its citizens who are required to contribute to the system for the good of all.  There is only one glitch in the set-up:  there isn’t ever enough money contributed by an under-employed and aging population, and the smooth functioning of the mechanism is skewed by the propensity of the culture to allow for corruption on all levels.   This is changing, slowly,  but the Italian bureaucracy is an old dog indeed.

When I go to the doctor, my assigned doctor, I make an appearance any morning of the working week and sit down on one of the chairs arranged in the outer office area.   I wait, as appointments are not deemed appropriate.   The clock here  is traditionally interpreted subjectively, and the time can be used to chat with ones’ neighbors as we wait.   There are many “ifs.”   If there are two people ahead of me  it is my lucky day.    If there are fifteen, I can cross my other errands off my list.   If a representative carrying a black briefcase of pharmaceutical samples arrives, he is given precedence over all.  (After all, his time is important!)    If, after a cursory examination and chat, my doctor deems that I need anything other than a quick prescription,  I am referred to the appropriate specialist.  There are given times during the week when the specialists will be on call, some in my town, some elsewhere.   If I can get an appointment with one of them in a reasonable amount of time, and I agree to drive the distance within eighty miles or so of home, I will do so.   If these things cannot be accomplished, I will be advised of  the alternatives.

The alternatives are consultations with  experts in all fields who work in private clinics, and where  appointments are always available  to paying customers.  They may also work in the government system, but they reserve their “special” time for their clinics where they are assured a large fee for their expertise.   Every city has it private clinics where folks who have the means flock for their procedures.  Some facilities are quite chic, others less so.  (I once had an MRI in a converted garage.)    Here you will get  your results quickly, because sometimes waiting two weeks to eight months  is too inconvenient, or even an unbearable prospect.   Health tourism  is thriving in the ex-communist countries to the East, where  procedures  are done on-demand, and competitively priced.

What  wears down the citizenry ultimately is the lack of consistency.  You MAY receive excellent care, as my son did when he broke his leg in two places a few years back.  He was put in a private room, had traction and surgery, wore a cast for two months and is in perfect form today.  All this for a total of less than 100 dollars.  Even though my husband had to sleep on the floor next to his son for a week, it was miraculous!   You may not receive excellent care, however.  My mother-in-law  was the victim of an accelerating downward spiral of errors, a  dire house of cards which ultimately ended in her death.  The only thing which might have saved her would  have been if her relatives were all knowledgeable doctors.   We weren’t.

My brother-in-law  died of cancer due to  many years of managing workers in a  “state-of-the-art” government chemical plant, where every single one of the hundreds of ex-employees and management have died from the same disease.  He started his via crucis in a huge hospital with no air conditioning and eight people to a room,  and progressed inevitably  toward a hospice facility that was a nightmare.  Yet when his family became an insufferable squeaky wheel, he was transferred to a wonderful hospice care facility with a large private room and all the amenities anyone could ask for.  Both of these places were about forty miles from his home, over small, curvy mountain roads.  The commute, for us and for him, was hard.

A close  friend of mine was severely injured in an automobile accident many years ago, and the things I saw and had to do in that hospital still haunt me.  And yet she is hale and healthy today thanks to one excellent emergency surgeon who  happened to be on-call that day.    Thank god she was able to avoid complications caused by infections, heat stroke, and the  wrong  intravenous fluids supplied to her  by bewildered  interns.

A  hospital stay means that family members must camp out, often on folding chairs or on the floor next to the bed.  Nurses are too harried to provide basic care, and toileting, bathing, bed changes and clothing are usually  the responsibility of the family.  And bring your own toilet paper and bottled water!  I have been in Italy long enough to even  begin to  appreciate the constant milling about of other families in the communal rooms.   There is always someone to chat with nearby…And one must never forget that a well-placed wad of Euro notes will probably get you what you need much faster.

But if you need a prescription, the system offers you pretty much anything the doctor orders for very low prices.  Patients must pay a “ticket”   (a token amount according to income level and category, either preventative or curative) for  prescriptions, but generally the cost is  low.   Many will say that it is a positive thing that these medicines are “free.”   Unfortunately the cost can be measured not in Euros saved, but in lack of services.   Garbage not collected for weeks, unpaved roads, schools which are crumbling, antiquities falling to pieces;   the notoriously disintegrating infrastructure of Italy is the price paid by citizens for their “free” healthcare.   We pay, we pay.  And every so often, too often, we lose someone dear to us.

In the end, what the Italian system does is provide a baseline availability of services, in varying forms, for people who don’t have extra funds to spend.  Those who do have money can pay for excellent care and usually receive it. Those who don’t must rely on what is available, and sometimes that means waiting too long for a hospital bed, or suffering the ministrations of incompetent personnel.  Some problems, such as ADHD, are simply deemed “nonexistent.”   Older patients are often overlooked, and their suffering is seen as inevitable and therefore not treatable.  Up until recently pain has been seen as a necessary part of illnesses and childbirth.  (Another post…)    And of course you are on your own for dental needs entirely.

I vowed that I would not give obvious advice in this post, but I can’t resist saying that we would be prudent if we observed places like Italy closely.  If our reason for demanding government-provided healthcare is to render services equally to everyone, then we should proceed with caution.   As with so many things, the distance between our good intentions to the ultimate outcome  is paved with unexpected, and  sometimes appalling, consequences.

Casale in Umbriapastel on paper
Casale in Umbria
pastel on paper

Il Cantastoria (part one)

My husband, who was born just four months before me, grew up in a different century.

Bernalda, or Vernall’  in dialect, in the  late 1960s.   The post-war economic boom is roaring in the north of Italy, and while  this small Lucanian town is seeing the arrival of new technologies,  new products and ideas,  its main participation in the “boom” consists of packing family members off to work in the factories of Torino and Milano, Bergamo  and Verona.  In previous generations families gave up their most intrepid to the Americas.   So while a  trickle of  letters containing  wages earned up north has begun to change the outlook slightly, traditions still  persist, resolutely, and the town is unaware of the changes to come.

The Amazing Flying Millers, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, 2012

The streets of the town are unpaved, with the notable exception of the main Corso, newly asphalted and a focal point of town pride.  Most secondary streets are covered with embedded round river stones, or gravel, or a muddy mix of these.  Most people get around on foot, for after all the town is not large, with a population of about ten thousand.    An occasional small car can be seen, and bicycles, or  small  carts drawn by a mule or a horse.

My future husband, as a boy,  may have  the pleasure of  drinking something cold,  not from the refrigerator, but thanks to ice which has been purchased  fresh daily for the “ice box.”  ( My own father, in the late twenties,  followed the ice wagon and carried a chunk of ice home in a cloth bag, and so did my husband.)     His mother utilizes  a tin wash bucket filled with rags, and cuddles some bottles and jars around the ice.  There will be  cool wine with lunch, slices of watermelon, or fresh milk to drink for breakfast the next day.  Refrigerators will come later, in the seventies.

Milk arrives on wheels as well.  A bicyclist will pass each day with a couple of tin jugs balanced across the handlebars, and housewives hurry down with glass jars to buy a few ladles of fresh milk to replenish their supply.  No pasteurisation here, and the milk is often still warm when it arrives, as you can be sure the cows are not very far away.

Farmers breaking in a new field, builders excavating for the foundations of a house, will invariably find antiquities.  These are everywhere, and the cause of much consternation, as the authorities “must be informed” and work is immediately halted indefinitely.  Practicality advises one to keep it to oneself.   There are children in Bernalda, today’s adults, who pass their time after school at target practice, lining up small votive cups and vases to be knocked to pieces with slingshots.   Cups and vases from 2500 years ago!

People still live with their precious animals, and some still literally “live with” their mule in the second room, the one which houses the huge bed where often an entire family sleeps.  Chickens will come and go, and cats.  (Even today houses in the older sections of towns have a tiny, low door which served to allow the hens in or out of their nesting area.  I laugh when I think of  urban hipsters in US cities, discovering the pleasure of keeping a few chickens for eggs, and think how these “trendsetters” are  only now beginning to catch up!  Will they soon be keeping their chickens under the bed as well?)   These houses will be restructured in later decades, and the mule in the bedroom will disappear, although many will still keep a mule or horse in a converted stall, a few doors away.  Later still the “stalls”  (ex-family dwellings)  will be used for the family automobile, and organizations will be formed to “save” mules and donkeys typical of the region, once plentiful.

Near my husband’s house, in the town center, one homeowner is the proud keeper of serial pigs.  And as such, every so often he needs to make room for the new “pet.”  (That good sausage and prosciutto doesn’t just magically appear, after all.)  The spectacle of a murder victim screaming and then being dismembered is a recurring neighborhood trauma which the children won’t soon forget.  Salzizz!*

“Chorus Line” oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches, 2002

Most families have washing machines.  But soap is not often purchased at the store.  Another passing truck offers a bartered exchange;   used household oil, such as from frying, or old oil no longer suitable for consumption.  He gives these customers the bars of soap he makes with this oil.  Of course not everyone has old oil to offer, and he makes a good living this way from selling his homemade soap.  (You can still buy soap here which has the same appearance as the old bars, although of course it is industrially-produced.  Many women swear by it.)

Every so often, a visitor will appear in town driving a small truck sporting a collapsible set of panels.  The vehicle chooses a strategic point where  a crowd can gather, and set up shop.  The panels, usually four or six, are mounted on top of the truck so that everyone can see them.  They appear  almost as giant tarot cards, colorful and filled with dynamic figures in various exaggerated poses.  This is  the “cantastoria.”**  When a suitable number of folks have gathered, he starts  to tell a story in song.  Indicating the pertinent panel, he weaves an intricate tale involving (inevitably) love and hope, tragedy and  betrayal.  Cuckoldry and murder are ever-popular subjects, and the helper working the crowd  will  find his basket filling faster in accordance with the passionality of the tale.    All of this sung loudly over about half an hour, acapella.  It is a distillation of  Opera down to its essential elements.  Kids and adults anticipate  the arrival of the cantastoria, and when he arrives it is always a treat.

(end of part one)

“Time Line” oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2009

*salzizz‘,  meaning literally salsicca, or sausage, “known as “sal-cheech” in dialect.  When pronounced “Sal-zeets!”  it can also be used as a snide greeting.  It can be substituted for the acceptable “Salve!” and is invariably muttered under one’s breath.  It is obviously a reference to the  body part it resembles.

** Literally, the “Story-Singer.”