(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Category: People

Thrifting and memory

Some of the items Nancy and I remembered. A couple, like the coat (which my grandmother would have worn) and the little stove, were not exact matches, but they were so close that they stirred memory nonetheless. The roaster (middle), however, I just threw in for fun! 

For the whole past month I’ve been visiting family in the US, but during the last week of our trip my mom and I visited a cousin and her family in Louisiana, which is an entirely new state for me.

My cousin Nancy used to live across the street from me and for a while we went to the same school. So she and her friends were the first teenagers I knew. I admired them to the extent that, as we were looking at her old high school cheerleading photos, my mom said, “Who is this on the end?” and I answered immediately with the girl’s first and last name.  My mom, rightly startled because I can’t remember people she told me about five minutes ago, said, “How do you know that?!”

“I memorized the yearbook in first grade,” I replied

Nancy now has a grandson, whom we all love to dote on, but when he left to go back home with Nancy’s daughter, she and I decided to go on some adventures.

First we went to a catfish and crawdad shop in a converted gas station. The only thing converted about it, though, was that the gas pumps didn’t work anymore. It wasn’t gentrified. Deer corn was piled up in the corner next to the camouflage hats. The bubble gum machine sold gun and brass knuckle-shaped plastic trinkets. Workmen were lined up in their blue coveralls to order lunch. I was wearing a sleeveless housedress and pearls. I had thought we were going to a tearoom! I decided to ignore myself and hope everyone else would too.

After our lunch, Nancy and I drove to a nearby town to look at antique shops we had read about in a tourist article. After walking up and down the only downtown street, we decided that the chamber of commerce had written the article in an attempt to create a destination by psyching out local residents, but just as we were leaving, we walked into a shop with a vintage 50s Westinghouse roaster out front. This is where the fun began.

The downtown being half vacant, the antique/junk shop occupied the entire building: three floors worth of small back offices. The displays ranged from the bizarre (gaudily re-decorated objects and paintings) to the delightful (which is what this post is about).

Nancy and I had just started walking through the rooms when we started recognizing things. “Who does this hat remind you of?” Nancy asked, as she tried on a pillbox hat with a short net veil.

“Grandmother!” My grandmother sewed, so we were always dressed well.

Then came the treadle sewing machine, the 60s dress patterns, the Tupperware cake caddy and grocery store dish sets, the wooden purses decoupaged with mushrooms, the maxi dress with blous-y sleeves–the memories went on and on.  “Who had this, your mom or mine?” and one of us or the other would remember. Most startling were the items which I had utterly forgotten until I saw them lying on a table, for example a set of plastic thermal bowls I used to eat Cream of Wheat out of at my grandmother’s house before I was old enough to go to preschool. I may have been as young as two. Sometimes Grandmother would put ice cream in the Cream of Wheat to cool it down.

Nothing that we looked at in the store was valuable. Most of it probably came from other people’s grandmothers’ houses. But running across totally forgotten items which formed a part of one’s earliest childhood memories was disconcertingly intimate. Each time one of us confirmed the other’s hunch, it was as if we had opened a hidden door in the attic of memory, with its stories attached. This game held the same kind of intrigue as the first mystery novel I ever read, in second grade. Which, by the way, I inherited from Nancy.

Once Nancy was almost like the older sister I never had. Until our children grew up, we still saw one another at least every Christmas, but now that we have spread out into the next generation it’s very hard to visit. I only wish my younger sister had been there was well. Nancy was very kind to drive me all over her city and show me where she and her family live their lives, for context. I got to see my 89-year-old aunt, Nancy’s mom. For a little while, past and present felt as if they were finally together in the same room.

Cavoretto

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There is an particular couple in my building who have been very friendly to me. Both speak fluent German–the wife is a translator and the husband is a professor of German literature–but neither speaks a lot of English. So this is one situation in which I get a lot of Italian practice! We’ve had coffee and dinner together, taken walks, and recently we’ve started a language exchange.* They’ve even been to one of Sarie’s concerts.  Given that my neighborhood is a bit reserved, I appreciate all the efforts they’ve made to be hospitable, especially towards someone who can’t always come up with the right words in Italian.

Twice now they’ve taken me on a walk in the park above the tiny town of Cavoretto, on the Collina (hill) just across the Po. Though it’s not a mountain like one of the Alps, it’s high enough to have a good view of the Alps.  My Benvenuto! photo at the top of the page was taken from the Collina.

So far as I can tell, Cavoretto consists of a couple of small piazzas, a few streets with a school and a couple of churches, and the park, which is almost as big as the town.  Its streets are so narrow and steep that it’s hard to get a good idea of the layout of the whole town, but that’s part of its charm. There are unusual details at every angle.

Since I was with my friends, I didn’t stop to take that many photos, nor do the ones I took quite capture the serendipitous quality of an Italian hill town in all three dimensions, but hopefully these photos at least get something of the idea across. I always think these towns would be a great place to play hide-and-seek, and in fact Sarie has done just that, in Barga, with some friends!

And lastly, please pardon my recent obsession with the Instagram bokeh button.  I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually.

Below: 1) The town parish church, which sits with its adjacent buildings in its own piazza 2) One of many household gates along the city streets 3) Capers. Yes, capers come from a tiny bush that grows wild on city walls–who knew? 4) Street approaching the parish church in 1. above. 5) Another tiny church, dedicated to S. Rocco. 5) An old wall which has had a modern gate added to it–tastefully, I might add.

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*Note to my family, who may be confused: This is the second family with whom I’ve been doing language exchange. The other one lives across the alleyway and we got to know one another because their enthusiastic 11-year-old daughter kept waving to us from the kitchen window.

The Little World of Don Camillo

 

Today I was eating lunch by myself and somehow got started watching Don Camillo excerpts on You Tube. I have just finished watching the entire DVD series of Don Camillo films, based on the books by Giovannino Guareschi. They are among my favorite films ever.

The plots are mostly based on the relationship of “frien-emies” Don Camillo, the local priest, and Giuseppe Bottazzi (nicknamed Peppone), the Communist mayor of the town of Brescello in Emilia Romagna during the years after WWII. It helps to know that after Fascism, a lot of Italians had had enough of not only Il Duce, but also the monarchy and priests. Thus they saw Communism as the new hope. I don’t know enough Italian history to comment on all this in detail, but in this series old-fashioned Italian sense of community and decency triumph over politics and revenge.

Why do I like Don Camillo? It’s hard to put it into words. To some American Christians the series might seem insurmountably foreign, even irreverent. Don Camillo is no saint. Like a small boy on the playground, his temper and sense of justice get him into almost daily fisticuffs (but he usually repents). A middle-aged-sounding Jesus talks to him, reprimands him, and at times jokes with him from a large wooden crucifix at the altar of the town church. At one point, Don Camillo loses his temper over a soccer game while talking to Jesus and kicks his hat straight into the confessional. “Goal!” shouts Jesus gleefully.

It might help Americans to see the series as the Italian version of Mayberry (or perhaps as the British think of Herriot’s All Creatures). It has a lot of the same appeal to Italians that Andy Griffith does to Americans. Despite serious ideological differences and even threats of violence, community and brotherly love (however imperfect) emerge as even stronger forces. Don Camillo, despite his cassock, is a man’s man, a former partisan who fought beside Peppone during the War (the real-life Don Camillo survived a concentration camp). He is brave, funny and even lovable under his pugnacious exterior. And finally, the series is very well made, with comedy and more serious elements blended seamlessly and un-self-consciously, often in the same scene.

The clip above, probably one of the more serious scenes of the entire series, is a good example of this blending of humor with courage, and of brotherhood overcoming partisanship.  I also posted it because it seemed appropriate for Good Friday, the river to be blessed is our own Po, and because it’s one of the few YouTube clips I could find with English subtitles.

Buon film!

Haarlem

I visited the picturesque town of Haarlem (for which Harlem in New York City is named) twice; once by myself and once with Sarie and Alberto. Unfortunately Sarie didn’t feel well when she went, but she and Alberto did get to visit my favorite thing about Haarlem, the Corrie Ten Boom house. The tour group was crowded that day and I had already been, so I decided to stay outside and allow others to go in. I went to an archeology museum instead.

On the previous trip, when I took the Corrie Ten Boom tour, the docent was a lively and trim woman who was a good bit shorter than the average Dutch person. She had been a little girl during the war and remembered the last, hard winter in which the townspeople ate sugar beets and tulip bulbs because there were no rations left. People starved in the streets. And of course, those were the people who hadn’t been rounded up and shipped off to prison or concentration camps.

She told Corrie’s story with conviction and faith. She was clearly a believer. When she told about Corrie’s analogy of our lives being the back of a tapestry, the front of which is only known to God, I teared up.

And yes, I got to step into the Hiding Place!

It wasn’t just a museum tour. It was really a pilgrimage. Now I can now imagine really well how things must have looked as the story unfolded at the little house on Baarteljestraat. In the museum, they only allowed photos in Corrie’s bedroom, and mine didn’t come out so well, so I’m going to link to the museum’s website instead.

On my first visit to Haarlem, I also went to the Frans Hals Museum.  Frans Hals is the 17th C. Dutch Old Master famous for his quick knife-like paint strokes and his ability to catch a spontaneous smile or gesture in oils (quite a feat before photography, and truly, still a feat).

Below I’ve posted some photos of the characteristic brick buildings of Haarlem (starting with the Corrie Ten Boom house), the Frans Hals Museum, and finally St. Bavo’s, the town church.  I can’t find our copy of Meindert DeJong’s Shadrach at the moment (though it was one of Sarie’s favorite books and the first chapter book she ever read), but I seem to recall that the young protagonist, Davy, talked about St. Bavo’s, and I’m wondering if the book is set near Haarlem.  If anyone remembers or can check, I’d love to know!

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Above: Typical brick side streets of houses and other buildings with stained glass, lace curtains, transoms above the windows, and usually a bit of decorative white trim.  The streets are graced with flowers, and entire families go out for errands on their bicycles. In the second photo down, you can see the exterior of St. Bavo’s Church on the left.

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Above: Scenes from the Frans Hals Museum.  The leather wall covering in the second photo is typical of 17th C. Holland.  The three photos at the bottom are a mock up of the meal painted in Hals’s Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard.  All wax, I suppose! Or at least, the food isn’t real!

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Above: St. Bavo’s and its famous organ, on which Mendelssohn, and Handel, and the ten-year-old Mozart played.  Like many Dutch churches, it started out as a Catholic church and then was converted during the Reformation. The white interior with columns is very typical, too. (I think Sarie took these photos.)

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And finally–oh, why not!  Medieval shoes from the archeology museum.  How did they find all these, I wonder?

Bronx Botanical Gardens

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During one of my days in New York City, I had the pleasure of going to the Bronx Botanical Garden with my friend Barbara (above).  Despite  living in the city for fourteen years, I had never been there.  But once there, I thought, “Why have I never been?”

One of the things we saw was the Native Plant Garden, where Barbara’s husband Kirk and their sons had helped Kirk’s brother install the steel undergirding for the wooden walkways (below). So they look lovely, and they’re strong, too!*

The last photo below is of the little red door to a church just outside the gardens.  Cute, don’t you think?  It reminded me of something in Europe.

The trip to the Bronx Botanical Gardens happened before Bob and I went to Hunter (upstate in the Catskills) for a week, but when we got back, Sarie, Lara (our friend from Italy) and I met Barbara and her two youngest kids for pizza at Numero 28 again.  Then we went for coffee.  Even before coffee, we were a talkative group of people who hadn’t seen each other in a while and we had a lot of catching up to do.  And then we started using all our least favorite nouns-turned-to-verbs, like “impact,” and making plays on words.  I’m afraid Lara probably got a little lost during this rapid conversation, but it was so nice to be making jokes in one’s native language again!

Anyway, it’s always nice to see Barbara’s family, and it’s nice to keep up old friendships.  Let’s hope that Pizzeria 28 becomes a new tradition!

*Kirk also helped to install the new iron railing around Central Park’s Reservoir, which is ever so much better than that old chain-link fence).

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Medieval Museum-ing

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Cuxa Cloister, the garden at Ft. Tryon Park, and the medieval kitchen garden at the Cloisters

Now that the girls are at camp, I’ve been spending a lot of my time at the Metropolitan Museum, both the main building on Fifth Avenue and the Cloisters uptown in Inwood.  For anyone who isn’t familiar with the Metropolitan, the Cloisters is a medieval collection combining various architectural elements from churches, monasteries, and other buildings in Europe.  Of course, as it’s a museum, the building is not of one unified style or purpose. But the architecture and artwork are well-integrated enough to give the feeling of being in Europe, perhaps even Italy.

The museum is also in a lovely setting. As I approached the building through Ft. Tryon Park, I could smell dirt, greenery, and lavender coming from several acres of well-tended gardens. The landscape style in the garden is informal–lots of groundcover and a pleasing chaos that is supposed to suggest a wild landscape but isn’t. I was pleased to spot a Nuthatch on one of the trees. On my left was the broad Hudson River (complete with a sailboat) and the Palisades. It gave me a nice feeling of nostalgia, this being one of the three regions in which I feel at home.

Once inside the museum, there are two gardens, Cuxa Cloister (which, being a cloister, is well-integrated with the surrounded indoor space) and the medieval kitchen garden, which is on a terrace downstairs. The kitchen garden is particularly instructive because it contains a lot of medieval plants referred to in literature (and elsewhere) that most people haven’t seen, like rose madder pigment, wormwood, arum (for magic potions), and hops.  And it’s also a pleasant place to rest and watch sparrows fly in and out of the Italian-syle terra cotta roof tiles.

Inside, I have been making sketches.  I seem to be drawn to 13th C. French statues of the Virgin Mary.  I know that sounds specific, but I keep coming back to them again and again.  But also, I’ve been drawing the knight Jean d’Alluye, who went off to the Crusades and came back in 1244 with an Asian sword, which is memorialized in his tomb effigy.  I read somewhere on the museum’s website that at one time the effigy had been turned over and used to bridge a creek. In fact, the number of tombs and sacred objects in these museum can make you wonder if anything in medieval Europe stayed where it was and is still used for its intended purpose, but I can attest that some of it did.

Shown below are some of the statues I like best, and my sketches of them.  I don’t include the sketches because I think they’re particularly good, but because knowing that I plan to post them might make encourage me to keep at it.

I’ll keep going to the museum as long as we’re in the city, so perhaps I’ll post more sketches later.  But since I don’t have a scanner for now, please pardon my sometimes-blurry photos. My connection is slow here, so I don’t always have the patience to keep reloading them.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to meet some friends while I’m here, too, like Julia, Monica and Barbara, who sometimes comment on the blog.  It’s great to catch up with you and thanks for making time for me!

There are captions below the photos:

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1. Gothic chapel in the Cloisters, setting for the tomb effigy of Jean d’Alluye. 2. Close of up the tomb effigy. 3. Quick sketch of the same. 4. 13th C. Virgin statue from Strasbourg, in modern-day Alsace, France.  5. One sketch of the statue, without facial detail since for now it’s giving me fits. 6. & 7. Two favorite statuettes (photo credits Metropolitan Museum, click for details of works) from the main building on Fifth Ave., which also has an excellent collection of medieval statues, reliquaries, and other artifacts.

Tourists in our (former) hometown

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Lower Manhattan with the new World Trade Center, which is taller than it looks here

This week our family (and our Italian guest Lara) have been staying in New York City.  It’s Sarie’s and my second trip back to NYC since we moved from here to Italy, but the first in which we have stayed in our old neighborhood on the Upper West Side.  Last year we stayed in a friend’s apartment in the West Village.

This week we’ve mostly been showing Lara around the city, since it’s the first time she’s ever been to the US and she’s excited about seeing New York.  So we’ve done a lot of touristy things that I usually wouldn’t do–like walking around on Fifth Avenue and going into famous stores–and some things that I would do anyway–like going to the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library.

On Saturday we toured Lower Manhattan. It has been very hot, so we mostly thought about how we could be comfortable and see a lot at the same time. We decided to get a good view of the Lower Manhattan, the newly finished Freedom Tower (or One World Trade Center), the Statue of Liberty, and the neighboring boroughs by riding the Staten Island Ferry. Lara had a great time taking photos to send to her family.  But I couldn’t help but notice that even after twelve years, the World Trade Center makes me sad. I chide myself about this, thinking I’m being maudlin, but the feeling doesn’t go away.

After spending the morning in Lower Manhattan, we went to the West Village for lunch.  Lara was feeling homesick for pizza, and the Village has a good pizzeria.  The minute we entered the restaurant we heard people speaking Italian, and the television was tuned to RAI.  The pizza proved to be quite close to what you’d get in Italy.  It had the desired effect.

At the table next to us, the waitress was chatting with a man who was obviously Italian.  He was wearing a white linen shirt and hat, and next to him sat a little white lap dog.  I took the dog as an indication of how Italian the restaurant was, because New York City has an ordinance against dogs in stores and restaurants, but most Italian establishments have their own dogs. (And it would be very Italian to ignore the ordinance.) We may have spoken a few words with the man early in the meal, but towards the end he realized that Lara was Italian and we ended up having a thirty-minute conversation about all sorts of things, from his life in New York to the prospects of young Italians. Lara noted later that most of the time, Italians from one city don’t feel that much kinship with those from another city (the man was from Rome). But when they meet somewhere else, they’re all Italians.

Meanwhile, Sarie made friends with the dog, who ended up licking her in the face.

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Lara speaks Italian mostly, so she, Sarie and I spend whole days speaking almost nothing else.  As a result, I have had a tendency to turn to whomever we’re speaking to in whatever shop, restaurant or museum I’m in, and not make the language switch. I’m sure this is because I’ve gotten used to speaking Italian to all strangers. But it’s still embarrassing, especially since I’m in my own country. I have a new admiration for the many New Yorkers I know who are completely fluent in two languages and can also switch.

During the week, we’ve had some conversations about what it would be like if we could combine the best of New York and Italy.  I like New Yorkers’ sharp wit, talent, and the “you never know what will happen next” wackiness of living in Manhattan. But I like Italian warmth, elegance and hospitality.  If you could have both in one place, it would be ideal. But we finally concluded that these traits may be mutually exclusive.

Meanwhile, a couple of nights ago, I asked Sarie what she thought of New York now that she has been away for almost two years.

“I never realized before how weird the people were,” she replied immediately. “Of course, I knew it, but I was so used to it that I didn’t think about it.”

I burst out laughing.  I had just written in my journal: “There are a lot of truly eccentric people in this city.  I did know that already, but that’s what strikes me after being gone for two years.”

Conversation over Sunday lunch

For the past couple of Sunday afternoons, Sarie has gone somewhere with friends after church, so Bob and I have eaten lunch out. Last Sunday we wandered around the northern part of town, which we like for its narrow streets and city feel, until we found an Italian version of a vintage diner. There we ate lunch–caponatina siciliana, polpette (Bob, because he always orders the same thing at least twice), and carne crudo or bucatini (me, because I rarely order the same thing twice).

The restaurant’s name (Pastis, meaning anisette) and menu were vaguely French, but not really. The chairs were 1960s-style laminate in fiesta ware  colors, and in the back room there was a glass-covered inset in the floor with a brightly colored piece of cement displayed underneath. It looked similar to something I’d seen in New York.

“What is that under the glass in the floor?” I asked the cashier as we paid.

“A piece of the Berlin wall,” he said lackadaisically. I’d guessed correctly. That was because I’d seen another piece of the wall at the Intrepid Museum.

The other employees were more enthusiastic. The first Sunday, we ordered a creme brûlée and were trying to figure out what gave it a slightly different taste. Nutmeg, perhaps? When we asked, the very young waitress brought out…a box. We laughed to ourselves that she had admitted the cream came from a powder, but the box did have all the ingredients on it. No nutmeg.

This Sunday we sat in the front room of the restaurant. There was no Berlin wall, but we could see more customers. Shortly afterwards another couple came in with their eight-year-old son. He was an only child and obviously much beloved, though he would occasionally get a bit carried away. At one point we heard him rather loudly sing-song, “Na-na-na-na boo-boo!” and I whispered, “They do that here, too?” Bob responded, “That was a very American-sounding ‘a.’ Do you supposed he’s been watching movies in English?” We looked at him amusedly, at which his parents gently quieted him.

About halfway through our meal, while a waitress was standing at their table, we heard him say, “Bye-bye!” in English. The waitress said something back to him, and we heard him say in Italian, “If you can’t at least say ‘good-bye’ and ‘hello’ in English, you are poorly-educated.” At which Bob muttered into his plate, “Sono maleducato in italiano.”

This week our young waitress was wearing a neck brace. A run in between her motorcycle and a car, she explained. Thankfully nothing broken. We ordered bonet, a Piemontese chocolate pudding cake, for dessert instead of the creme brûlée. The homemade bonet Bob had tried at his office was better, he decided.

About the time we were finishing our coffee (coffee is always after dessert), the little boy got up and walked by our table.  As he passed, he suddenly did a double-take. Then he kept walking slowly, but his eyes were glued to Bob, and his mouth slightly open. Bob slowed down his speech and started using simpler words, to see if he could understand. Suddenly the boy ran back to his parents, crying: “Parlano inglese!!”

We had become a living field trip.

We purposely went up and paid at the same time they did. As both families left the restaurant, Bob turned to the boy and said, “Buona giornata,” and then repeated in English, “Have a nice day.”  The little boy suddenly looked shy.

Il tuo italiano è molto meglio del mio,” I offered. (Your Italian is way better than mine.)

“See you later,” said the mom, in English, smiling, and we went our separate ways.

I really want to speak Italian now. I want to expand our ability to make friends. I’m reading books, looking up extra words, and trying to have more extensive conversations with people. I still butcher the grammar every which way.  But I’m learning.

My grandma flies over the ocean…

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Sarie and her grandmother backstage during intermission at the Vercelli performance.

We had a guest for Sarie’s performance week–Bob’s mother!  This was Marie’s first trip to a non-English-speaking European country, and she would address Italians in English.  Sometimes we found out this way that people spoke more English than we thought!  But by the end of the week, she had mastered Ciao! and Grazie! and was working on some other short phrases. I think she has started to appreciate our new home.

The two photos below are from Vercelli. Marie really liked Vercelli, even in the dark. I took the photos of the pastries just for Bob’s dad, so he won’t be afraid to visit Italy.  See, they do have donuts!  And many other yummy things besides.

And Mom and Dad, you are invited back any time you want to come!  But to provide a strong motivation, Sarie will work on getting another solo ASAP–maybe even Sibelius.

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Last day of the year

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We went to visit some old friends yesterday.  We had tea, skipped BBs across the river, walked through an old Confederate graveyard in the woods, and talked.  It was a nice way to spend the last day of 2012

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