I Say Tomato…You Say Wrong Tomato

We have started calling it “Saturday Lunch” because we eat it every Saturday. It consists of a crispy rotisserie chicken smelling of rosemary and roasted meat, shiny with oil, and a robust bruschetta – a bowl of bright, chopped tomatoes and aggressive hunks of garlic. Saturday is market day in Barga and tents are set up all over the main drag. You can buy shoes, jeans, toys, fish, chicken, fruits, vegetables, soaps and flowers. You can stand there and ogle the huge wheels of fresh cheese. Last weekend Amelia even bought a tiara. The boy at the toy tent sees me coming each week and assures me a “special price” every time.

On market day, Italian women of a certain age can be found lingering over the produce, discussing the color of the peaches and clucking about the price of strawberries. They’ll spend all day there, maybe not even buying anything, and no one will think it’s odd.

I love to cook and I love to eat, but after a couple months in Italy, it’s obvious I know nothing about food. Most of us Americans are doing it wrong – all of it.

The first time I tried to buy tomatoes, I told the grandmotherly-looking woman with the puff of white hair that I was planning to make bruschetta.

“Brava,” she said encouragingly, and then she took the tomatoes I was holding out of my hands, shaking her head and muttering something while she smiled at me. She filled a bag with San Marzano tomatoes instead – a different vegetable (fruit?) altogether, and I haven’t made the same mistake since.

Antonio, at the fruit and vegetable shop closest to my house, always follows me around his store, waiting to correct me. I almost bought a not-quite-ripe melon and he said “no, no, no,” showing me how to smell it and what color skin to look for. He won’t let me buy garlic that doesn’t have a reddish/purple hue on the papery skin. It’s a power struggle I’m happy to lose.

I have been scolded for eating bread with my pasta (too much starch in one course) and shamed into never, ever ordering a cappuccino past  noon. After a dinner out with a good friend, I said a polite “no thank you” to the coffee that was offered and he looked at me like I was completely insane. He ordered me one anyway, and after I slurped down the bitter, sugary espresso, I was glad he did.

I appreciate the Italian willingness to save me from myself. And I’m learning to cook – really cook. I have perfected an outstanding sausage and peppers that would impress even my father, who has been making the dish for decades:

peppers          sausage

I have also learned to stir chicken and onions into vinegar and which pastas are right with which sauces. Tip: don’t do a large pork-filled ravioli with pesto. One day I’ll figure out what to do with the irresistible spread of salted cod I saw at the market just this morning.

Eat well, friends.


Live Music (and the art of showing up early)

I was invited to listen to some live music last week, and the invitation said that it began at 8:00 p.m.

Like an idiot, I showed up at 8:10 p.m. I thought this was rather fashionable of me, to be 10 minutes late. I’m normally a compulsively early person.

But silly me.  This is Italy, so when they said 8:00 p.m., what the event organizers really meant was 10:00 p.m.

And if the music starts at 10:00 p.m., that means the musicians will start wandering towards the venue at around 10:20 p.m., sipping beers and lighting cigars. They’ll look at their instruments and equipment as if they’re surprised to see such things.

Ah  – since they are here, they might as well play.

It’s fantastic. It didn’t even matter that I was so early because by the time they started tuning their instruments, I was a plate of pasta and half a bottle of red wine into my evening, and Amelia was dizzy with excitement that I was letting her drink a regular Coke when she should be in bed.

This is Live in Barga – 10 days of music in various piazzas around town. I’m amazed at the ability of my neighbors to stay up so late. I’m normally in my pajama pants at 10:00 p.m., but when in Rome…

We have heard blues, jazz, a bit of reggae, some great rock and acoustic. The Aristodemo’s, a legendary local band, were especially fabulous to watch last Friday night. When they did Tu vuò fà l’americano (You Want to Be American), the well-known Neapolitan swing song, I felt like I was in a club with Matt Damon and Jude Law in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

It’s not just the music. There are stands selling crepes with nutella. There’s cotton candy, vendors selling jewelry, cocktails. Mini-bars have been set up all over the place, where you can get a beer, a prosecco, maybe a shot of grappa, or – bizarrely – a mojito. Everyone is in a good mood and you find yourself running into people you know. Finally, we aren’t just those odd American tourists. We’re part of this.

The music still echoes through the village when we drag ourselves home. We sleep with the windows open and things rarely get quiet before 3:00 a.m.

Summer was made for late nights and good music and stars within an arm’s reach of the mountaintops.

Tonight, we’re heading out to hear a swing quintet and you’ll be happy to know I don’t plan on leaving the house until 9:30.

Waiting for the Bus

Any time you get on a local bus in a small Italian town, there is no telling where you’ll wind up. The articles you read in Rick Steves books and online travel sites will claim otherwise. They will assure you that the bus and the train in Italy run precisely and reliably. I have written some of those articles myself and I’m beginning to think we lied.

Well, we don’t always lie. Trains are superb. In places like Rome and Florence and even smaller cities like Perugia and Lucca, there are standing bus stations and printed schedules that are predictable and trustworthy.

In Barga, there are three or four bus stops with times and destinations listed that mean nothing. Sometimes the bus won’t come at all. Sometimes the one that’s allegedly going to Lucca goes in the opposite direction. Sometimes you change buses mid-route for no apparent reason.

But I deeply love every single bus driver I have ever sat behind. I do, I love them.

They are always pissed off. They are liberal with their cartoonish horns. They gesture like psychotics at other drivers. They complain to passengers who try to buy a ticket on board. Of course there is a sign posted in several languages on the bus that tells you it’s acceptable to buy a ticket from the driver. Don’t do it. The driver will lose his shit and annihilate you in front of everyone else on the bus and we will all watch with great interest. If you don’t have a ticket, best to take a seat and pretend that you do.

I love the drivers not for their ability to be open and in touch with their emotions. It’s not even their impeccable grooming or their fondness for wearing crop pants and tennis shoes while they drive. I love them for their surgeon-like precision and skill. What they do is amazing.

The mountains in Barga are reason enough to live here. They’re magnificent. You do not get in or out of town without ascending or descending astonishing hills. The roads are hilariously narrow and the mountain happens to be falling down around those roads. Rocks, branches, dirt and debris – it’s all cascading down the hillside and threatening anyone driving by. The way bus drivers navigate the huge Mercedes buses is nothing short of artistry. I usually require a five-point turn just to park a car. Our bus drivers seem not to notice they are on a roller coaster and that our lives are in their hands.

I’m not that good, and their work inspires me never, ever to drive around here. I’m perfectly happy trying to decipher bus schedules that must have some kind of special code I’m not reading correctly. Instead of getting behind the wheel of anything, I’ll stand around at the bus stop all day long.

Here’s a little poetry I found scrawled across the window of a bus I took last week:

bus sign

It means: “It’s hard to love someone who loves another.” I wonder if the scribbler was talking about a bus driver.




Etiquette and Adjustment

We really freak people out when we carry our own cappuccino cups and water glasses from the table to the bar. The baristas and bartenders rush to take them from us, smiling in forced gratitude and telling us it’s not necessary. The other patrons frown at us, not afraid to stare. They are never afraid to stare at these bizarre Americans.

This is Italy. You do not bus your own table in a bar even if it seems like the polite thing to do.

Nor do you take a shower without flooding your entire bathroom. The slippers I never leave home without went floating across the floor like lost ships in distress after my first shower here. My sister has managed to create some kind of barrier with the shower curtain and my collection of shower gels and hair products to minimize the flooding. Not that it matters. The shower isn’t producing hot water any longer, so I’m now bathing in the tub in the other bathroom like I’m five years old.

This is the adjustment period, and it will probably last for another week or two. I’ve lived in Italy before; you don’t just unpack and settle in. You have to suffer a little bit and you have to curse all things Italian before you can appreciate where you are and what you’re doing. It’s easy to agree to the trade-offs. The mountain views I wake up to every morning are astonishing. The coffee I drink is strong and served by locals who won’t let me practice my Italian because they want to practice their English. The gorgeous, gorgeous people are kind and accommodating, even when they are chastising me for doing things the wrong way. The Napoli pizza with capers and anchovies is my best friend.

Our town is Barga: a geological miracle of a village tucked into the Apennine mountains. We’ve been here for a couple of weeks now and Amelia, my nine-year-old, knows more people than me. We walked into a bar earlier this week to watch the World Cup and two of her tennis coaches greeted her warmly, introducing her to their friends and making a fuss. Since she has started camp, Amelia is plugged into the social circuit, unlike her strange mother who lurks in bars and piazzas, wanting to be both noticed and avoided at the same time.

But I am working on improving my social graces. I introduced myself to Matteo, the guy behind the bar who makes my cappuccino and selects the perfect pastry for my breakfast. He seems friendly and happy to chat.

Until I clean up my own mess from the table.