Some Italy, some Texas, some Ohio. Some of my favorite places, small oils on board and some large ones on canvas.
Some Italy, some Texas, some Ohio. Some of my favorite places, small oils on board and some large ones on canvas.
It is summer again; a particularly rough one this year. No rain, and then no rain, and heat that is epic and relentless. Poplars, plane trees, loquats and willows and almonds; all are losing their leaves to the wind and scorching sun, and the smoke from the fires that are never far away adds a red filter to the landscape. But trees are intelligent, and by throwing their leaves to the ground they conserve their diminishing reserves by transpiring less moisture to the air, and at the same time create their own mulch as dropped leaves carpet their personal patch of soil. It is sad to see, and their humans can be seen on watering days dragging rubber hoses around like ships’ anchors, sweating and swearing in consternation at the lack of moderation that nature sometimes exhibits.
And yet there is a tree here in Italy (where it was introduced and thrived just as it has in any temperate climate where ships and currents have brought its seeds the world over) which seems to luxuriate in this weather. Not drought, not floods, not cold (not too cold!) not even fire or the ax can deter them from occupying their position as conquering barbarian horticultural horde. They persist, gritting their woody teeth and snickering at their vegetable cousins’ frail designer foliage.
With this in mind, I would like to post my favorite description of Eucalyptus trees, written by a fabulous author who traveled in this area over a hundred years ago. He was a character, and I highly recommend my favorite book by him, “Old Calabria.” His name was Norman Douglas and he was an undisciplined, embibing Scottish wanderer with pedophile tendencies, a world traveler with no fear, and a tough old coot who could really write.
From “Old Calabria,” * the author describes his distaste for these trees as he makes his way from the station of Policoro up toward Rossano Calabro, localities which are about fifteen miles from our house:
“You walk…from the station along an avenue of eucalypti planted some forty years ago.” (circa 1875) “Detesting, as I do, the whole tribe of gum trees, I never lose an opportunity of saying exactly what I think about this particularly odious representative of the brood, this eyesore, this grey-haired scarecrow, this reptile of a growth with which a pack of misguided enthusiasts have disfigured the entire Mediterranean basin. They have now realized that it is useless as a protection against malaria. Soon enough they will learn that instead of preventing the disease, it actually fosters it, by harboring clouds of mosquitoes under its scraggy so-called foliage. These abominations may look better on their native heath: I sincerely hope they do. Judging by the “Dead Heart of Australia”–a book which gave me a nightmare from which I shall never recover– I should say that a varnished hop-pole would be an artistic godsend out there.
But from here the intruder should be expelled without mercy. A single eucalyptus will ruin the fairest landscape. No plant on earth rustles in such a horribly metallic fashion when the wind blows through those everlastingly withered branches; the noise chills one to the marrow; it is like the sibilant chattering of ghosts. Its oil is called “medicinal” only because it happens to smell rather nasty; it is worthless as timber, objectionable in form and hue–objectionable, above all things, in its perverse, anti-human habits. What other tree would have the effrontery to turn the sharp edges of its leaves–as if these were not narrow enough already!–towards the sun, so as to be sure of giving at all hours of the day the minimum of shade and maximum of discomfort to mankind?
But I confess that this avenue of Policoro almost reconciled me to the existence of the anaemic Antipodeans. Almost; since for some reason or other (perhaps on account of the insufferably foul nature of the soil) their foliage is here thickly tufted; it glows like burnished bronze in the sunshine, like enameled scales of green and gold. These eucalypti are unique in Italy. Gazing upon them, my heart softened and I almost forgave the gums their manifold iniquities, their diabolical thirst, their demoralizing aspect of precocious senility and vice, their peeling bark suggestive of unmentionable skin diseases, and that system of radication which is nothing short of a scandal on this side of the globe…”
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…
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.”**
*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.
I have been away from writing for a while, some might say I had been “busy,” and I have been, but mostly I have been distracted by the daily to-and-fro-ing of life. My life especially, half here, half where? And there is too much entry-level information swarming around; in two languages it is very distracting.
Has anyone else practically given up reading books as I have? We should all shed a tear for what we are missing, even with our Kindles and our constant connection to the cacophony of Nothing-really-important-but-all-very-interesting-indeed!” The equation “more info=less knowledge” is terrifying.
There are a lot of people in Italy who don’t read much, if at all. It is not coincidental that the most extensive initial market saturation of cell phones was in Italy, or am I drawing an unscientific conclusion? In the area where I live, finding a reader is rare, and even these few have lamented that their electronic connections have all but extinguished the activity of reading for them, too. You can leave your spare books on the curb, but nobody will take them.
I titled this collection of small paintings the “Fugue” series, because the scientific definition of the word seems to describe our current predicament poetically. Not in the musical sense, but in psychiatry, it means “a period during which a person suffers from loss of memory, often begins a new life, and, upon recovery, remembers nothing of the preceding amnesia.” Or “
I heard a song on the radio tonight, a woman singing about “America,” lamenting its propensity to become ever more unsatisfactory. I cannot disagree with her criticism, yet maybe she is just too close to be able to appreciate its positive nuances. Or maybe there is another song which sings the praises, I don’t know. It made me think about what it means to love a country, an abstract ideal of a place contained within corporeal geographical boundaries.
You might think that I, having abandoned my country, would be less than patriotic. It seemed almost effortless to go elsewhere. Actually I was born in Canada but was thoroughly absorbed into the United States by the age of about eight, whether by indoctrination or simple distraction I don’t know. I do know that when I was born my mother was gnashing her teeth at the snow and darkness, waiting for the day when she could return to a place as close to Oklahoma as her husband’s professional life would allow. I know this necessity was critical because we lived in a motel in Austin for a couple of months until my father could maneuver his way into a job at the University. He arrived confident that he would be indispensable here, and his wife’s urgent need for her “America”, as soon as possible, lit a fire under him.
I think it killed my mother’s soul that I decamped as I did, allowing myself to be absorbed in the form of duffel bags and boxes into the Italian miasma. Surely at first she couldn’t foresee the months stretching into years and decades. She and I had never liked Italy, briefly visited twice in my childhood. There was nothing of value I could see here; just shabby truckloads of tiresome paintings and architecture, broken statuary and annoying men who stared for too long. She was forever a rural Oklahoma girl, who, in her own time, could not wait to get as far away from home as possible. She was always much too diplomatic to tell me how my choices had hurt her. I wonder how her mother, in her time, had thought of her daughter’s own wanderlust and rejection of life on the farm. I am betting that she understood.
“Home Sweet Home,” mixed media on paper
It is a terrible thing to try and express provincial metaphors which no one shares. Or crack a lame joke which is met with blank stares. Or endeavor to recount a wonderful experience which becomes tedious in the telling, as every nuance must be explained in plodding precision, patiently tolerated by the listeners as long as it does not go on too long. A shared culture is a wonderful thing, do not underestimate its charms!
Imagine telling a story without being allowed to use certain ideographical expressions, or word forms such as pronouns or adjectives. Who was this Jackie Gleason fellow? What do you mean, the five second rule? Why would a person be a potato on a sofa? Why do you insist on using those bucket-sized drinking glasses? A friend once provoked me by saying that I could never really understand a certain Italian singer/songwriter because I lacked the baggage, the cultural knowledge, the historical background. So right he was. Intellectually I can understand the meaning, certainly the musical sounds, but what I hear is unavoidably different, somehow skewed and hollower than the artist intended.
I think that living in a different place, a culture where much cannot be taken for granted until it is internalized, creates a unique appreciation of provenance. Imagine a woman who finds the presence of children irritating up until the day she finds herself unable to contemplate life without her own. Suddenly she understands that her offspring have given her a stable and sustaining anchor, and she is able to love all those other children as well. She knows what they are, is able to empathise with them. Being away from my home has allowed me, as I came to absorb the Italian culture, to appreciate my American-ness. My country has become so much more important to me in its absence because I have been able to distill my ideas of it through a foreign filter. It is almost intoxicating.
So this is how I have come to be a fiercely patriotic person, and while I am forever attached to Italy with many roots, it is the United States of America that I love. Can one really love a country? No, probably not, but I carry around inside me a solid and comforting load of shapes, smells, stories, and conventions that are uniquely my own and are dearer to me than most things. My hope is that my children will also absorb this love and weave a truly wonderful tapestry out of their double load of culture. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if they married members of yet other cultures? I am prepared to travel.
“The Choice” pencil on paper, 28 x 40 inches
I ran upon this article, which is a guide for Italian drivers visiting the U.S.A. I find it says more about our differences than many things I have seen. You can see the original at http://www.vivinewyork.com/consigli-di-viaggio/guidare-negli-stati-uniti-regole-e-curiosita.html
“Un grande paese si riconosce soprattutto dalla civiltà delle persone che lo abitano e nelle strade USA ho avuto modo di apprezzare quanto sia importante un popolo che rispetta le regole.”
(A great country is recognized above all by the civility of the people who live there, and in the streets of the USA I have had the chance to appreciate how important a populace which respects the rules can be.)
“No Roads Here” Oil on canvas
Here is a partial rundown of the article, paraphrased in italics, with my comments, of course:
Forget all the moral infractions that are committed regularly in Italy. Here are some things you will never see in the US:
Cutting and zig-zagging through traffic to get past everyone
Cars cutting into the line at a traffic light
Using the horn intensively
Super-high speeds on the highway or worse, in town
Disrespect or total dismissal of the STOP sign
More rules of the road which are different in the States:
You must actually stop at the STOP sign. You cannot just slow a little as we do in Italy.
It is permitted to turn right on red in many cases. (I turned right on red in Italy for about 20 years until I realized it was not allowed, never did anybody even look at me sideways…)
American police are quite rigid, (and you cannot expect to talk them out of a ticket.)
You are required to wear your seatbelt. Well, yes, you are.
You can use your cellphone while driving, even without an earpiece. (This is funny, considering that Italy was one of the first places to prohibit driving and talking on the cellphone; just imagine one hand to hold the phone, and one hand to gesticulate, which leaves you driving with some other appendage. I have always said that most men drive with that other appendage anyway!)
You cannot pass a schoolbus which is stopped, and you cannot drive with open containers of alcohol in the car, even if you are not drinking.
Here are some other curious facts about the USA:
Traffic lights may be at the center of the intersection, or on the other side. (I have always been astounded that the first in line at an Italian intersection often cannot see the light because it is almost always invisible and behind or above the line of sight.)
Another sign of great civility is the 4-way STOP. Instead of giving the person on the right precedence, it is the person who arrives first who has it. In Italy something of this nature would have the inevitable consequence of immediate chaos. Idem.
Carpool lanes are to be used only by cars with more than one passenger, in order to free up space: (In Italy I believe this was attempted in the Napoli area and led to a huge increase in the sale of inflatable half-dummies. Or maybe I am thinking of the seatbelt law, which led to the sale of T-shirts with the belt design stamped diagonally across the front…)
Beware of road blocks caused by people driving with cruise control who refuse to speed up in the passing lane. (Hear hear!!)
Beware of slamming on the brake with your left foot, thinking that the brake in the automatic transmission is the clutch. The resulting screeching halt will be perilous indeed! (My husband once brought us to a head-banging stop on the highway trying to “change gears to slow down” for an accident ahead.)
In case you are stopped by the police, slow down, pull over, and keep your hands on the wheel. Fines are paid by mail and never on site (so don’t offer any money to the officer to forget the infraction, one presumes!)
The cost of gasoline is quite low which explains why there are so many huge automobiles on the roads. (I would say so, my last fill-up in Italy cost me 140 Euros, about 188 dollars.)
Here are a few they forgot to add, possibly the most important ones:
Warning signs often actually correspond to road conditions. Not as in Italy, where warnings are so greatly exaggerated that no one pays the slightest attention to them. It is a practical demonstration of why someone Crying Wolf can eventually get you killed, because once in a great while the warning sign is accurate!
Traffic flow in the US is mostly an “Each Man For Himself” proposition. Not as in Italy where the entire formation will work as one organism, flowing organically together in poetic motion, while seemingly in chaos. Watch out for US drivers who, as long as they believe they are not at fault, will totally ignore other drivers. I prefer the Italian way.
Helmets in some states are not required on motorcycles, but are required on bicycles, (and recently have been proposed for soccer as well!!) Go figure.
White lines and yellow lines are actually intended to be heeded. (Not as in Italy where straddling the line is expected of most drivers, especially when passing another vehicle. After all, if I pass you I need to rub it in, no? So I will be moving over into your lane at about the level of your front door latch.)
Roadside conferences for smoking, snacking, and urinating are not allowed in the US. There are actually designated areas for these activities along most state and interstate highways! Remember that while in Italy you can stop anywhere, (after all there are two lanes for traffic on most roads, which leaves one lane empty) to chat or smoke or conference, this is severely prohibited in the US. People will likely protest loudly or threaten you in the US for stopping your vehicle in the middle of any road for no apparent reason.
Prostitutes are much more difficult to locate in the US, if this is a potential problem for you. ( You will not see them sitting on buckets by the side of the roads or standing under red fabric swatches, smoking or playing cards as they eye drivers intensely, hoping for a customer. You will not have to explain to your kids, in the US, what these dark-skinned “ladies” are doing congregating at the edges of town. Interesting to note, in a country which seems to be somewhat bigoted towards blacks and gays, that the first choice in prostitutes are black women and transvestites. Ah, but this is for another post…)
In America throwing your garbage out the windows of your car is highly frowned-upon. Roadsides do not reveal, in the autumn after catching fire, a foot-deep treasure trove of plastic and glass. There are even places where highways are maintained by private individuals! (This is a fantastic and unbelievable concept to most Italians, I know. I have often suggested that this, if a plaque could be put up to designate the parties responsible for the clean-up, might actually work in Italy. Deaf ears.)
And finally, if you must relieve your bladder, or your bowels, it is highly recommended that you stop at a gas station, roadside park, or restaurant to do it. You will rarely see a vehicle’s driver casually relieving himself, family jewels in hand and in full sight to passing traffic. You probably will not have to use a flashlight when, after dark, you stop to change drivers and are in danger of stepping in a fresh sidewalk muffin. After all, there are some things that you have to give up when traveling to a foreign country!
“Behind Every Man” pencil on paper
*”A guide for drivers”
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.
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.
* Mamma made pasta casserole!
Summer sweet and sour Oil, 6 x 6 inches