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.

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