Friday, October 9, 2009

The doctor's house call

I'm home sick today after getting a flu shot yesterday. I'm here alone in bed, slightly feverish. Zuppa rustica (rustic soup), a variety of dried beans and grains, is simmering on my stove. I have a nice pantry full of Italian products. Leo always brings me a full suitcase of food to supplement the items I've brought back. Leo is back in the hospital for tests. They did a spinal tap today. I'll have no more information until he's able to write to me. I'm worried, as usual.

Zuppa Rustica

Serves one sick person for several days

200 grams of mixed beans, legumes and grains
1 liter water
olive oil
1 clove garlic, halved
1 shallot, minced
1/2 carrot, chopped
1 sprig fresh rosemary
3 small dried hot peppers
1 Tablespoon tomato paste (from a tube)
Freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

Saute vegetables briefly. Add water and bean mixture. Cook on low heat for 3-4 hours.

Ladle into bowl and drizzle with good olive oil. Top with freshly grated cheese.

I've been sick three times in Italy. The first time, I was sick in bed for four days, at home. I never knew that Rosa had given up her bed for me each time I came to visit. She shared the room with her sister Marta. In Italy, there are no build-in closets. In Primo's home, all clothes, shoes, purses and undergarments are stored in a room containing huge armoires, which line every wall. There's also a sturdy chair and a small round table to hold the day's choices.

For this reason, the bedroom where I slept away my flu was peacefully quiet with little foot traffic.

Before my arrival, Rosa had relocated to the spare bedroom in Nonna's half of the house. Primo and his brothers were born here in this house. At that time it was big enough for a family of three boys. Later, when Primo brought his bride Marina home, it was divided into two equal parts.

Nonna occupied the original half. Her heavy rosewood furniture is still there, as always, sparkling and shining without a speck of dust. Upon entering Nonna's kitchen, I feel like I’ve stepped back into time. Its sturdy oak cupboards, now painted a pale mint green, remind me of a more simple time when things were built to last.

Primo has shown me a miniature electrical schema, hidden behind a large painting. When he was a boy, this schema was connected to the main electrical wiring. Tiny electric lights indicated where electricity was in use in the house. Primo's father was an engineer, as is Primo. I am fascinated by this electrical wiring.

The frosted glass door into the bathroom has a small knob above the door handle. One dark night I inadvertently brushed up against that knob and all the hall lights came on. When I discovered no one else was awake, I retraced my steps and located the knob. Of course, when I touched it, the lights turned off. The next day I asked Primo to tell me more about his childhood home. I think he likes my scientific queries.

The second time I was ill with bronchitis. I had been attending Scuola Leonardo da Vinci School in Firenze. That winter for two weeks I had my own room in Signora Rusticini's home. The school arranges accomodations in private residences. The cost is nominal. I have stayed with a variety of hosts and they were generally an older woman. The school requires that the student's room have a bed, desk, chair and lock on the door. A portion of the refrigerator is set aside for the student. Laundry facilities are not provided. One shares the bathroom with the family. The homes were always extremely clean but it was obvious the student room provided extra funds for the household.

Sig. Rusticini is a widow who raised five children by herself. Now, she supplements her pension by taking in female students. She has two rooms for this purpose. Often, there has been a second student in the home, but I've never socialized.

Sig. R and I became friends over the years. One evening I came home at 9 pm, after having been gone since 7 am, and she was very distraught. "Madonna Francesca!! Where have you been? I was ready to call the police. I'm responsible for you, if you disappear. Why do students just come and go without talking to me?? "

I clearly realized my mistake. She was lonely for company. The money was a necessity but in addition, she had hoped to bring some young life back into her home. Instead, we students treated our accommodations as though they were hotel rooms.

I had never paid the supplement for nighttime meals with my host, because I wanted to have the freedom of spending evenings as I pleased. I could not afford restaurants, but I enjoyed shopping in the local COOP supermercato, neighborhood rosticceria (shop selling roasted meats and vegetables), bakery or salumeria (selling prosciutto or salami products). I purchased just enough for an evening meal, which I ate privately in my room. Often, I gathered this meal and dessert from different parts of the city. In my room, I would eat and then complete an hour or two of homework. Yes, I am a bit of a loner.

After that night, I made it a habit to spend one hour an evening with this sweet elderly woman. She spoke no English and this is how I became known as Francesca, my middle name. She could not pronounce my first name. Once or twice a visit we prepared cakes in her kitchen. When I visited Rome one day, I brought back two large baba, a sweet yeast muffin, drenched in honey and rum. She was thrilled as we sat together late that night eating baba. She was a night owl, which made it convenient to share the bathroom with her two students. We students always left the house before 7 am. Classes were held from 8 am to 1 pm, Monday through Friday, with special outings each weekend.

She was painfully poor. She had retained her lovely furniture from her married life but often I saw her cut up small pieces of fruit, carefully cutting out spoilage. She was proud so I tried to bring her treats she would enjoy, like flowers or herbs for her window. Once I took her a quilt I had made and she cried. It was so cold in her apartment. I needed to layer double clothes when I was inside. She used the lap quilt to stay warm during her evenings watching TV in her kitchen, the warmest room during the winter.

I returned home one day to discover she had ironed my clothes, which I had brought home from the lavandaria (laundromat) and had carelessly left on the bed that morning. She cleaned my room daily and would shake her head at the books and food I had purchased. “Madonna Francesca, it will be impossible for you to get this all stuff in your suitcase when you go home.” “Madonna Francesca, why are you buying so much pasta? Don't they make pasta in America?”

I love to cook and in Italy I always search out and try new types of food. Whenever I bought fresh milk and left it in Sig. R's refrigerator, she suggested I purchase the much cheaper irradiated milk. I explained Italian fresh milk was so delicious. I never told her I was afraid to drink her boxed milk. Yes, I know it’s not radioactive, but I could never force myself to swallow a drop. I would carry her trash down the long flight of outdoor stairs whenever I found a bag placed near the front door. I was always careful to take away the remnants of my meals. I never wanted to show off the exotic foods I was purchasing.

Once I bought her some nice freshly pressed olive oil from an exhibition which I attended in the piazza of Chiesa Santa Croce. I was secretly so proud of myself. Nothing is as important as good olive oil for cooking. Opps!! She was not impressed. One look at its color and then one taste and “…ahhh...the green is not quite right Cara Mia. Let me taste it. Ohhh...this oil is not as good as from my home town of Siena...but thank you for thinking of me Francesca.” By that time, my tender feelings had already toughened up in Italy. It was just her Italian ways. My cultural education was progressing. She was a dear person, talking to me as one Italian to another.

It was so cold the week I had bronchitis while staying her home. I hated missing school. When I only continued to get worse, I knew I needed antibiotics. I called Leo for help.

He drove right away into Firenze. He'd met Signora Rusticini before. In her entry hall, they seriously discussed my situation and decided a doctor needed to see me right away. I think Leo made the call to the doctor. They both came into my room to tell me the doctor would arrive within the hour. Leo left to do some errands. Sig. Rusticini told me I must prepare to see il medico. First, she needed to change the sheets of my bed and air out the room. I was to change into a clean night gown and freshen up. She moves quickly for someone in their mid-eighties!

She situated me in the bed like a princess and we waited for the doctor. I was surprised to discover doctors make house calls in Italy. I was glad I had cash on hand. I calculated what I thought he might charge me. I wanted to be ready with my money. I placed my purse on the bed, the money already counted out inside, so I would not need to fumble for it.

What a nice professional doctor! He did not speak English but my Italian had improved enough that I could understand abbastanza bene, well enough. I did have bronchitis.

He wrote out a prescription for two medicines and told me I needed to take the antibiotics and drink a potion daily, to loosen up the congestion. It was then necessary to get outdoors and take some fresh air. He said it would be ok to return to school within a day.

I asked him how much I owed him. He said...something.... Excuse me? Could you repeat? He again told me there was no charge. Impossible I thought. It was Sunday afternoon and I was not even a citizen. I already had calculated that fifty lira would equal about 75 dollars. I thought it would be fair fee. The walk-in clinic in the US would have cost 65 dollars. I rolled the money so he couldn't see how much I was paying and handed it to him. He put the money into his jacket pocket without looking at it, spoke briefly with Signora R and then he was gone.

"Well she said, that went well. Leo will get the prescription filled for us and bring it by later." I thanked her for her help and said I hope I paid him enough. “You paid him?” Yes, I replied, cinquanta (50). “Cinque (5), good good. That was a nice thing to do Francesca.” Oh no I replied cinquanta..fifty not five. She looked horrified. “Madonna are you crazy? You paid 50? Francesca, even five would have been over the limit. The government pays him. Mamma Mia!”

She left me, shaking her head. I think she let it go because surely I was a bit delirious, not in my right mind with illness...or perhaps a little more eccentric than she already thought.

I never have regretted paying that nice doctor. With the medicine and fresh air, I recovered quickly and was able to return to school.

The third time I was sick, it was again with bronchitis. At school, I wrote down the name and address of a British doctor. His flyer directions were easy: Come to the clinic on Porta Rossa during specific hours and wait your turn. I visited that doctor, filled my own prescription at the pharmacy and did not miss a day of school. I felt more confident taking care of myself in Italy.

I continued to stay with Sigorna Rusticini each time I returned for a school session. I have not attended school for a few years. Recently, I have gone to visit her, but no one answers the house buzzer. Now I think she stays in the countryside with a son. The outside stairs may have become too difficult after she began to have back problems. I'm sorry she probably thinks I have forgotten her.

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