Sunday, September 27, 2009


The morning of the meeting I dressed business formal, American style and I arrived almost an hour early at the pick-up point, carrying my small travel bag with me. I patiently waited one full hour, because right to the minute of the designated time, Leo arrived. His sports car seemed to fly right toward me. Luckily, I had already become accustomed to the Italian driving style during our family outings, with Primo at the wheel of his BMW. Primo likes to drive fast but I've never been scared.

The drive to Siena is a blur in my memory now. I was only a little nervous being in a car with Leo. He laid out the purpose of the meeting and told me I would accompany him into the mayor's office.

We parked and walked across the Piazza del Campo. The office of the Sindaco is located in the La Sala di Palazzo Patrizi which fronts right onto the piazza. I longed to linger in this magnficient place, but this was not a tourist trip. We made a quick stop in a nearby bar, where Leo and his business associate discussed strategy over a cappuccino. I understood absolutely nothing.

A lack of language skills does cause a strange sense of disconnection. Even today when I am in Italy, I still miss "clues" of imminent events, such as departures. I'm very often in a state of "not ready."

The office of the mayor was impressive. Gorgeous high ceilings with frescos, gold trim, huge paintings and antique furniture. Nothing at all like an American bureaucrat's office. I sat as an outsider at the meeting table trying my hardest to look attentive and respectful. In truth I was fishing for words and had my dictionary in my lap. I learned later that the officials were under the impression that I was an American journalist. I do not believe I actually met the mayor.

Leo was disappointed. The meeting had not produced the results he had wanted. He asked if I'd like to play tourist for a few hours to release some of the morning stress. He checked my train ticket and assured me I would be back at the train station in plenty of time to get home. We left the city immediately. The walk across the Piazza del Campo was the extent of my sight-seeing in Siena.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Invitation to the mayor's office

After the train ride home, Marta and Rosa questioned me about everything which had taken place during my few hours with Leo. Did he pay for the lunch? Yes. Did he try to kiss me. No. Was he sleazy. No. Was he dressed well? Yes. Was he inappropriate in any way? No. Did I feel any fear? No.

In the end, it was decided that certainly he had been a gentleman and we could find no fault with his behavior. He was a shining example of a good Italian man.

A few days later, I was astonished to receive an email invitation from Leo. He and a business partner had a meeting with the major of Siena. Would I care to drive to Siena and attend the meeting? The only problem was transportation. If I could meet him at a certain point, he would drive by and pick me up. If I were late, he would have to go without me. The appointment was scheduled early in the day.

We had a family meeting. If I wanted to make this early morning meeting at the pickup point, I had two choices: take a late night train and arrive in the pre-dawn morning darkness or travel to Firenze a day early, then get up before sunrise and make the necessary connections. I would need to travel with a light bag, carrying business attire suitable for meeting the mayor (il sindaco).

It was decided it would be best if Marta called Leo. During this phone conversation she would evaluate his voice, determine more about his character and get details about the meeting.

The call was made as we all hovered around Marta. She sounded professional and older than her years. After the call, we all felt sure that the day would be a nice adventure for me. Leo assured her that she was free to call his phone again, should any other inquiries need to be made. The meeting was only two days away...

The Great Jubilee in 2000 was a major event in the Roman Catholic Church. Every hotel within a few hours travel distance from Rome was booked for an event taking place at the Vatican, with Pope John Paul II in attendence. Primo and Rosa worked together to find a vacancy for me. Primo made phone calls to one hotel after another, as Rosa searched the Internet for suitable hotels. I sat by listening and it didn't sound promising.

And then, I heard Primo's voice change. A possibility! I would have to pay for a double room. The bathroom was shared, down the hall. Did I have a credit card to save it? A big bonus, they speak English! I needed to make my decision fast. I ran for my purse and credit card. The transaction was quickly completed. I had one night reserved in Firenze for double the price I had expected to pay, but I was happy. I emailed Leo I would love to accompany him to the meeting and promised to not be late. He responded that he would see me at 8:30 am at the corner of two specific cross streets.

The morning of my departure I left the house with my small travel bag and a note Marina had written for me. I made my way to the train station clutching her note, which contained the words, Andato e Ritorno...round trip. It was the first time I bought my own ticket without help.

An Italian pen-pal

Leo is still sick. Now he has pneumonia. I know he would be getting better faster if I were there. He's been in the hospital for such a long time. I often think about how we came to meet. It was really an impossible meeting. In truth, I am much too shy to ever meet an Italian man.

When my trips to Italy began, the people around me were sure I had a secret romance in progress. I tried to explain, that the glow in my eyes was brought on by Italy and they nodded knowingly. The true love I found in Italy was family love I had never experienced.

Several years into my Italian studies, I was invited by a work supervisor to attend a software demonstration and luncheon. I was to take the seat of a last minute cancellation. My company was introducing a new program to our executives. Since I was to be their trainer, I eagerly took the opportunity to learn as much as I could.

That afternoon, I returned to the office and began to devise a training tool that our executives could not resist. During my research on the Internet I came across an Italian website. It was lovely! I was unable to use this for training, but each morning, I re-visited the site. I devoured the site, looking for information about Italy. One day, to express my thanks, I clicked on the tiny information button and wrote a short letter, using my limited Italian. I thanked "them" for the site which brought me so much joy each morning. I never expected a reply.

To my amazement, a very nice person named Leo Leone responded to my letter. He told me he had very little time, but if I wanted to practice my Italian, he would find a little time to briefly answer, when he could. I had had pen-pals as I child so I was thrilled to have an adult pen-pal. I had no personal information on him. In fact, I recall he once questioned if I was a man or a woman.

My Italian family was very leery of this pen-pal relationship. Leo and I corresponded for more than a year and I continued to glean his website and the Internet for clues to confirm the things he wrote about himself. I was not interested in any romantic relationship. Then, he wrote to say he was married and I felt a vast sense of relief. I was safe with the knowledge there was absolutely no chance of romance. I'm a bit naive sometimes...

One spring, Leo learned I was in Italy, visiting my family. He wrote that it was possible to meet face to face in his city. Marta and Rosa decided it was best if they accompany me to the meeting place. This man was not to be TRUSTED because he was...Italian. They would come and be my chaperons for the 3 hour meeting. Because of my extensive detective work I felt absolutely no fear in meeting in a public train station and strolling in an area packed with tourists. I promised the girls I would under no circumstances get into a car with him, nor would I let myself be cornered in a dark alley. He was a well-known person in his city.

I bought my round trip day train ticket and set off alone to meet my Internet friend, Leo. I tied some purple ribbons on my purse to identify myself. I asked him to wear a baseball hat, not realizing that Leo would never embarrass himself by wearing this headgear in Italy. The train pulled into the station and I climbed off, walking and looking for Leo. Of course, I never did see anyone with a baseball cap...but he saw me coming toward him. I just kept walking and looking and then there he was, casually standing near a post. His eyes were happy and sparkling.

Most of the day is a blur. I became so nervous and dry-mouthed I was unable to relax or think. It was a hot hot day and we stopped to get something to drink. The very sweet waiter asked if I would prefer a nice cool lemonade over the hot chocolate I had ordered.

The afternoon came to an end and Leo helped me return to the train station. It had been an extremely stressful day for me, because of my painful shyness. I usually avoid strangers and very rarely do I feel comfortable speaking with men. But Leo was exactly as he had presented himself to be through our emails. He had been the perfect gentleman. He was highly educated and also artistic. I noticed people greeted him as we strolled. He was a very nice man and I was glad I had taken the chance to meet him in person.

I called my family from the station to let them know I was still alive and returning home. I never thought I would see Leo in person again.

Monday, September 14, 2009

An Italian Education

Malpensa! It’s a word that still sounds magical to me. In reality, it’s an airport near Milano. It’s frequently fogged in and a long drive from the city which I now call home part of the year. But for two years, it was my gateway to Italy. At the time, I was blissfully unaware of the long round trip drives my Italian family had to make for me. The sights, the smells, the language all blinded me to any inconveniences. I had arrived in Paradise.

I have since learned that this blindness, caused by cultural unawareness, was a healing gift. I was a fish gliding through mystical waters, unaware of danger or of the unknown cultural gaffes I was making. I’m sure I made them often, but my loving family nurtured me like a newborn baby.

In the beginning I was taught how to properly eat spaghetti, say gnocchi, turn on the apartment's corridor lights, and how to operate the door latches to get outside the building. Each morning, I struggled with pulling on the heavy canvas strap to pull open the metal outside shutters of my bedroom window. One must do this pulling without letting go, else the shutters loudly crash back to the closed position. I learned that the shutters must be put down at night to discourage burglars from entering. I never have mastered the art of sleeping with the windows closed….I continue to be eaten alive by mosquitoes, no matter what season I visit. They love my blood as much as I love fresh air.

I learned to have a good pair of Dr. Scholl's clogs to wear only in the house. My job after dinner has always been to shake out the dining room tablecloth, and to take care to never let go of it and watch it flutter down to the street level. I learned the hard way that we never hang our delicates (underwear) at eye level on the laundry line. There is a lower cord used especially for this purpose. One must always walk on the street with an ear to traffic…be sure to jump to the side at the necessary moment. Unfortunately I have not yet mastered the art of riding a bicycle into town, but I long to. Someday, I want to try this in an area without traffic.

During Vendemmia (Grape Harvest), one must use the clippers very very wisely to avoid cutting off a finger of the person who is gathering grape clusters across the vine from you. Never take a whole piece of bread and place it on your plate at the family dining table else you appear stingy. Use all stale bread to make crumbs for wonderful goodies like Milanese Veal Cutlets.

Right from the start, I was taken to elegant dinner parties. It took only one occasion for me to understand the necessity of noting the number of forks and spoons. Eat small portions, no matter how yummy, because more delicious courses are to follow. I always had three items in my lap: Dictionary, pad of paper and pen, and napkin. I made copious notes of these delicious meals. At each party, I sat to the right of Primo and he would lean to me and translate. During these first dinners, I only heard one long continuous noise and Primo understood that. Eventually, I could hear the spaces between the words. It was a breakthrough when individual words started to make their appearance. Primo called this "fishing for words."

Toilets were also an education for me. First, one needs to know the secret of finding good, clean toilets out in public. Secondly, one needs to know how to operate the various models. Once I was visiting a university and mistakenly pulled on the “chain” which was not for the toilet, but instead for the emergency assistance alarm. It was so very embarrassing! In the house I was dismayed to always find the bathroom doors closed. I love Primo so much. He is always available to answer my questions, such as: "Why are the bathroom doors always closed?" Answer: "Because it’s not a room we want to show-off."

The water in Italy is delicious. Tourists label themselves by toting quart sized bottles of water everywhere. Instead, Italians take time to stop in at a bar for a glass of water, hot chocolate or coffee and enjoy a short pause.

I've made ravioli, pizza, crepes, pasta and more with Marina. I'm comfortable in a Catholic church now and can even speak to our neighborhood priest in Italian. I'm still envious of Marina's tiny plastic bag of daily household trash. She wastes so little and the family consumes minimal amounts of material things. Primo keeps the house cold during the winter, which in turn keeps the family healthier. Primo is a scientist. He is thoughtful and kind. He hates crowds but will suffer this for us when we venture out to the discount shopping mall. He is a man surrounded by women and it shows. He is a strong man who loves and protects the women of his family.

I was fortunate to also inherit two grandmothers and one grandfather. Sadly, we have lost one Nonna to sudden illness and Primo's mother has retreated silently into the memories of her mind. My sweet cheerful "grandfather" continues to smile and make us laugh. Thankfully I can now understand the things Nonno says to me.

Marta and Rosa have become my very own too. I love these girls and the men they have chosen to spend their lives with. Marta and Rosa taught me how to ride the train and how to read a train schedule. We've run for subways in Milano together and floated peacefully down the Grand Canal in Venezia in a gondola. They help me with my Italian and share their favorite recipes with me. We talk about anything and everything with honesty. We share secrets.

This is the family my heart was born into.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Italian dreams

I believe Italian was my first native language, along with English. As a young child, our neighbors were the D’Angelos. Grandma and Grandpa D’Angelo, who lived in the next house over, were from the old country and only spoke Italian…probably dialect. I remember being fascinated by their home which was “different” than my home. It also represented my “boundary.” I could ride my tricycle to their house. Grandma was always cooking and called me bambina. We moved away when I was six years old, but my memories of her are still clear.

As a teenager I was attracted to students of other cultures.  I had for many years maintained contact with several Pen Pals overseas in Trinidad, India, Sweden and Scotland.  I dreamed of being a foreign exchange student. That dream was never full-filled...until many many years later.

I graduated from college, married, experienced the joy of raising two children and then had an exciting job working for a government agency. My x-husband worked there too. We seemed to live the American dream for many years, until he suffered a nervous breakdown. His medical records were sealed and our family endured a contentious divorce. We all suffered. The nightmare continued for years and years. But this Blog is not about that.

During those dark painful times, a woman at our church approached me and suggested I make a list of 10 things I had always wanted to do. I made the list and worked my way through it: learn to swim, take Spanish lessons, work at a local art festival. I recall I went through at least two lists of ten items. I felt myself re-awakening.

Then, one spring about 12 years ago, my cousin’s daughter announced she was to be a foreign exchange student for six summer weeks.

I enviously watched her prepare for the adventure. When she worried about leaving her friends for the summer, I was afraid she would miss a wonderful opportunity. I had hoped to vicariously enjoy her trip from a distance. I read her paperwork and saw the name of her assigned Italian family and watched all the preparations with envy. When she wavered at the last moment about actually leaving, I tried to dissuade her from from changing her mind. She was 16 years old and a little scared to travel by herself to unknown parts. I told her I would go in her place, only half joking. And then finally, she departed! She was on her way to Italy.

In August she happily returned to the USA and her mother discovered that the host family had secretly placed in her suitcase, video cassettes which documented her entire Italian adventure. While she slept off her jet-lag I watched every minute of the movies, wishing it had been my very own experience.

It was the ultimate dream for me when that real Italian family arrived two days later in Los Angeles. After watching hours of videos, it seemed as if I had already met them when they climbed out of her SUV that afternoon in Newport Beach. I knew their voices and faces. I of course, was a total stranger to them.

I don't recall how it came about, but I spent the entire day in my cousin’s kitchen cooking with Marina while her husband Primo translated. When necessary their daughter Marta did heavy duty translating, while her older sister Rosa was too shy to try out her English. (I have changed their names to protect their privacy.) I made notes for all the recipes. I was so thrilled!

We cooked delicious things: chocolate pudding, hand made pesto, grilled peppers with anchovy sauce. My cousin did not particularly like the foreign tastes and encouraged me to take it all home that evening. I ate every morsel. I was enchanted by the whole family, the food, the language, the culture. They had booked a tour of the southwest and left us the next day.

After their tour ended, we met them for lunch, the day before their departure. That afternoon, they invited me to come and visit them later in the year. When I was absolutely positive they were serious in extending this offer to me, I accepted and my life changed.

I immediately began to attend Italian lessons with Alberto, native of Venice, at Francoli Restaurant in Newport Beach. I was a faithful student, every Tuesday night. I remember writing the word “mercoledi’” (meaning Wednesday) on my hand and looking at it over and over again, for an entire day, as I struggled to memorize it. (I continued to study with Alberto for three years, until Alberto needed to give up our night classes.)

Later that year when I arrived in Italy for my first visit, two things struck me immediately: the earthy smell of the countryside and noise of a language I did not understand. Shorn of cultural pressures, I enjoyed a freedom I had never previously felt. I discovered that it was possible to start fresh and live as the person I always had wanted to be. I also fell madly in love with the Family of My Heart: Marina, Primo, Marta and Rosa.

Marina's Chocolate Pudding
100 g flour
100 g sugar
50 g cocoa amaro (bitter)
50 g cocoa dolce (sweet)
1 liter milk

Cook for 10 minutes, whipping very very often with a wire whisk. Watch the heat as it will burn easily.
Makes 6 dessert cups.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Non proprio italiana

I started writing this blog several months ago but off-line. Today after speaking on Skype with the love of my life, I have decided it's time to begin. We spoke this morning of cultural differences. For this blog, I've decided to name him Leo Leone to protect his identity. Leo and I have been a couple for 10 years now. He is Italian and I am Not Quite Italian. Leo has a wife of almost 40 years. Culturally for him it is acceptable to love another as long as he maintains the family facade. As an American I am the scorned "other woman" or "home breaker." I have not broken up any homes but I accept the fact now that I am the other woman. I had a friend once who was a "home breaker" and her true love gave up his past life for her. I was always hoping for a compromise. I prayed Signora Leone would find the love of HER life and we would all live happily ever after. A few months ago, all of our lives changed permanently. My sweet Leo has cancer and is trapped in a hospital bed.

Leo hopes to go home soon. He also hopes he can change the atmosphere at home. For their sakes I pray this can happen, because for the months ahead he will be semi-bedridden.

During our phone conversation today, I spoke of reference to the unspoken things which happen or do not happen in relationships. In our lives, if we let the personal "dust" accumulate for too long, it piles up. The dust soon becomes thick and eventually it settles into dirt or "terra." After years and years of avoiding issues this terra becomes terracotta or "cooked earth." We're all familiar with terracotta pots. They're hard and durable yet shatter instantly if dropped. I worry about Leo and Mrs. Leone. The dust they ignored for years is now a hard shell around their marriage. He is vulnerable now. He needs to be well-cared for at home. Does she know about me? I suspect yes, but like the other dust which has accumulated, it's not really that important to her. did I come to be Not Quite Italian?