And here are a few new pieces I have been working on, nothing has really changed in this artist’s studio quarantine, which is how I normally work anyway! The studio is my refuge, and my ball and chain, depending on the mood. But I am so thankful for it. Wasn’t it Virginia Woolf who wrote about one’s room….
What have you all been doing, other than trying to stay cheerful?
“Corona Queen” – oil and pencil on canvas, 27 x 20 inches.
“Lady with Cape” – oil and pencil on canvas, 41 x 31 inches
“Fichi D’india” – oil on board, 5 x 5 inches.
“Mixed Signals” – oil on canvas, 26 x 20 inches.
“Snow melt, Arizona” – oil on canvas, 34 x 76 inches.
“Fichi D’india” (many) oil on board, 6 x 6 inches.
“The Wait” – oil and pencil on canvas, 36 x 32 inches.
“Feeding Time” – oil on board, 5 x 5 inches.
“The Path Less Traveled” – oil on canvas, 40 x 38 inches.
“Blue Yonder” – oil and pencil on paper, 58 x 44 inches.
“Fosso Bufalara” – oil on board, 5 x 5 inches.
“Big Barn, Tiny House” – oil on canvas, 18 x 28 inches.
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…”
Norman Douglas. Old Calabria, forward by Jon Manchip White, 1993 edition, The Marlboro Press, original publication 1915. page 95-96
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.
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 “adreamlikealteredstateofconsciousness,lastingfrom afewhourstoseveraldays,duringwhichapersonloseshisorher memoryforhisorherpreviouslifeandoftenwandersawayfrom home.”
How will we know what we are missing? Is what we know inevitably less important than what we don’t know? The Italian verb for “to escape” is fuggire. Tempus fugit! And since it does, why do we suddenly feel that our lives are as full or fuller than they have ever been, simply for the presence of exponentially-increasing electronic pleasantries? And Italians are feeling the effects more acutely, I imagine, as their entire incredible history evaporates before their eyes, a mirage of fading greatness which, like water, is leveling out into a flat, expansive, colorless sea of…nothing much. It is finding its lowest point, for sure.
I had intended to write about archaeology, and the dig which shaped my early years here. But in remembering the thrill of digging down through history, I began to wonder if people in the future will repeat it, as the famous saying goes? If we are too distracted to read through a written account, a book, a few pages, one article…how will we arm ourselves in order to avoid repeating our blunders? What will we miss?
Will the harpies come and carry us off because we wandered away from home, not caring anymore about what was happening outside of our tiny corn-fed cosmos?
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.
“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.(Move over, you sluggards!!) 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!
Meandering into town you might see new posters up on walls and corners, intensely colorful and often kitschy, announcing the arrival of the circus. Moira Orfei, bless her soul, has occupied acres of Italian wall space with her huge black beehive of a hair-do, and she is easily the most recognizable circus personality. But her grand show was not typical of the tiny traveling groups of performers who make up the itinerant circuses in Italy. These aren’t like the American circus, a huge tent and multi-ringed affair, clangorous and booby-trapped with wires, an indecipherable illuminated spider’s nest. These are comprised of one truck, maybe three, with a reticent and energy-deprived group of workers who wrestle up a dingy tent, put on a couple of shows in an afternoon, and then disappear into the night.
The European Union, in its ineffable wisdom, decided in the 1990’s that small circuses were destined for extinction and therefore worthy of subsidies for their protection as cultural treasures. Some are worthy of the term “treasure,” others occupy the other end of that spectrum. The availability of funding, as it always does, tends to generate proliferating definitions, and so now there are low-hanging resources for anyone who can scrape together a truck, a tent, and a couple of animals.
Of course to children even a couple of animals legitimizes the cost of a ticket, and parents will oblige. Highlights may include a clinically depressed camel, or a tiger trapped in a small pen and yearning for the only glimpse of freedom it will ever have: the weekly cage-cleaning. There may be an overfed boa constrictor who will suffer the indignity of being manhandled during each show, an effort which will inevitably interfere with its digestion. Bears will suffer with dignity, becoming autistic to protect their delicate souls. If water is the theme, there will be terrible sharks on display, usually nurse-sharks, toothless and docile, to be bothered at intervals by the wet-suited handler who risks his life in the tank. No amount of splashing water and lighting effects can conjure a life-threatening event out of these sad components.
But there are always clowns. Clowns are not always the stuff of nightmares, and they can be quite funny and charming when the audience is easily-pleased and mostly younger than ten. I fondly remember enjoying my children’s reactions to the clowning at these smallest and most humble of circuses. And the crowd is so small that individual spectator participation is assured: You won’t leave the show without being wet, spattered with foam, covered with confetti dandruff, or grasping the string of a new balloon.
Sometimes there is an elephant! Elephants are always grand, in any context, and nothing can beat the mental hiccup caused by coming around the corner and seeing an elephant grazing in the school courtyard. Traffic will stop and heads will snap sideways for the elephant out of context, while finding it a disappointment once inside the tent. Other living odds and ends, small ponies and irritated dogs with dermatitis, human and simian jugglers. How strange to see a raccoon proudly displayed as a rare and exotic mammal species, paraded around on its diamond leash. Camels and dromedaries are always interchangeable, and never are they happy. It isn’t the greatest show on earth, but it is a show. The crowd, such as it is, will wander off afterwards, a little perplexed but ready to have another go when the posters go up next time around.
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.
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.
Pasta e ceci, or past-uh-cheech-u-ruh as it is known here, is probably our favorite pasta dish. But it is not everyone’s, and there might be a bit of a taste “learning curve” for many. Cooked chick peas have a complicated flavor, and while they absorb some of this from their cooking liquid, they maintain that leguminous “soil” taste which you either love or hate. We love it.
I always appreciate a good hummus , and falafel is also really good, but as they say here in the south, “La morte sua”* is in the form of this recipe which we all love.
—–Ingredients for four:
1/2 cup of minced celery, carrot, and onion
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
two cans cooked chickpeas
one medium ripe tomato
two garlic cloves
about 3/4 pound (not quite a whole package) of dry tagliatelle, or any flat and thin pasta
salt and pepper, Q.B.**
If you are a dedicated cook, someone who plans ahead (bless you!) you can start a day or two early with dry chickpeas and get them soaking. Change the water often. It may take from 24 to 36 hours of soaking to get them softened enough for cooking, depending on their age. But I am a short-attention-span type, so I buy the canned ones that are already cooked and soft in their own liquid. Make sure there is no added flavoring. I think it is detestable that tomato sauces and other canned veggies are often degraded with added flavorings in the U.S…What, is it too difficult to add roasted garlic or salt yourself?
Start with a soffritto of finely minced celery*** onion and carrot, about a half of a cup, maybe a little more. Saute these in a third cup of olive oil until softened. I know that seems like a lot of oil, but remember, the olive oil in Italian cooking is an integral part of the flavor and mouth-feel of the dish, not just a lubricant to keep it from sticking to the pan! Cook the soffritto gently, until translucent. Don’t let it burn!
At this point, add one large chopped and peeled tomato to the pot. If you want to be a stickler and pick the seeds out then be my guest, but I have never been quite so dedicated to perfection. Tomatoes are often used in small quantities in Italian cooking, to add acidity as much as flavor. They are not necessarily the star ingredient of the dish. A couple of minced garlic cloves, generous pepper, a bay leaf, and the two cans of chickpeas with their water then are added. Add two more cans of water. Get it simmering and taste for saltiness. It needs to be well-salted because the pasta that will be added will need to absorb plenty of salt.
This is a mixture that will burn, so don’t toddle off to another room and start working on your taxes! Few things are nastier in a dish than burned legumes. This “soup” will begin to break down into a nice velvety mix in about half an hour. At this point I give it a little nudge by whacking it with my “Mini Pimer” (stick blender) just enough to break up about half of the chickpeas.
Taste again for salt, and take your flat pasta (tagliatelle or nested noodles made with hard wheat, no egg please, although…****) and break it up with your hands before dumping it directly into the pot. Now you will have to stand over it and stir, there is no escape, otherwise it will stick and burn. After about five minutes you can turn off the heat and cover the pot. Check the liquid level frequently, because the pasta will drink up an incredible amount in no time. When the pasta has soaked up most of the liquid and when it is “aldente” it is ready to serve. The consistency should be about the same as gooey mac and cheese.
As always, I admit to nonconformist behavior at the Italian table: I love to add grated Grano Padano to this dish. My husband sneers as he adds (I kid you not) about a cup of freshly-ground pepper to his, so we each have our personal preferences, as any married couple should! I also like to add a generous dribbling of homemade jalapeno chap-your-ass hot sauce to mine!
“Strada sul fiume” pastel, 5×5 inches
*(“Its ideal death,” meaning roughly, ” The best way for it to go.”)
**”Quanto Basta” which means “as much as it takes.”
***I am frustrated that the part of the celery that I need for my recipes is often amputated before it even gets to the market. As much of this mixture should be made of the leaves of the celery stalk as is humanly possible.
****However we have found that pasta all’ uovo doesn’t ruin the recipe, and actually it is quite good made with egg pasta. Try it!