Festa Della Donna

Festa Della Donna

            It is early spring in Liguria. Staying at a farmhouse on a hill above the town of Santo Stefano, the street noise from below makes its way up the hill.  Every afternoon that I sit in the midday sun I am tempted to shed my outer layer of clothing, exposing my skin to the heat. The buds on the plum trees in the yard have now swelled almost to their fullest size.  Straddling a long wooden bench nestled comfortably next to a table that daily is covered with a clean crisp tablecloth and helpings of cheese, pasta, and wine, I look above my head and study a Wisteria vine. Thick and gnarled with age, it snakes under and around a lattice roof.

            Glicine. Other Italian words have come and gone from my memory, but this one for some reason, is there forever. Wisteria. Glicine. In Italy there are single Wisteria vines more than two hundred years old. But on this day the Wisteria is far from blooming, and remains a mass of twisted determined vines sprawling towards anything they can cling to.  In time it will drip with clusters of delicate purple flowers, but not today. Today there is only one blossom visible to all.

The Mimosa tree. The weight of the season hangs on its fern-like yellow canopy. It shoulders the anticipation of rebirth as its presence acknowledges all that early spring brings to the surface.  Outward it glows, in bright yellow, flinging forth the purest quality of the season.

In the early 1900’s the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Washington Square, New York employed hundreds of Italian women.  Day after day, locked into a room that prevented union workers from entering, they worked for meager wages.  In early March 1911 tragedy fell upon the factory.  On a Saturday, near quitting time a fire broke out in the building. The young women tried unsuccessfully to escape through the locked doors, and instead began hurling themselves out of the windows.  One by one, and sometimes in pairs holding hands, they fell nine floors to the cold pavement of Greene Street, and to their death.  One hundred and forty six Italian women, some as young as fourteen, died that day.  Their bodies lay lifeless below a burning building. The anniversary of this day is marked by a holiday across Italy. March 8, Festa Della Dona.  It is a day that remembers the tragedy of the past, and equally celebrates the women of today.  The vehicle for celebration is the blooming Mimosa tree.

From up the hill behind me Mariana comes bounding down in my direction. She is singing to herself.  Her small arms are loaded with sprigs of blooming Mimosa that with the help of her mother, aunt, and grandfather, she has diligently collected. Behind Mariana stroll the rest, baskets slung over their arms overflowing with more yellow blossoms.  Mariana reaches me first.

“Guarda questi mimosi!”

Belli!” I say and smile at my newest Italian companion.

The others join us and we spread the flowers across the table. Selecting one delicate clipping at a time, we finish our morning’s work by bunching together fifty bouquets of Mimosa, tying each one with a white ribbon and cutting the bottoms so that they are equal in length.  Men and women across the country are doing the same, and for the rest of the day and the weekend to follow the flowers will be handed out to women young and old in remembrance of those who were lost, and with respect for those who live today.  By the end of the day the slender streets of cities and hill towns will be splattered with yellow as Mimosa are held between the fingers, and cradled in the arms of women.

After lunch Mariana and I decide to walk into town for gelato.  On a path through fields of olive trees that eventually brings us to a street and winds us into town, she laughs and talks endlessly about futbol, and her love for Evita. “Don’t cry for me Argentina!” she belts, giving it her best American accent. I listen and react from time to time, as one does to child content to say in her own world.  We each hold a few sprigs of Mimosa eager to hand them over to women when we reach town.

On a normally quiet hour of the day the town piazza is crowded.  The sun is shining bright, significantly stronger today than it has and the townspeople seem to have brought their siesta outside to exchange greetings with their neighbors.  Mariana and I slither our way through the chairs and people that are scattered in front of the gelato bar.  I order my favorite flavor, straccatella, a vanilla based flavor with flakes of chocolate.  It is very similar to chocolate chip I suppose, but the name straccatella suggests a certain seriousness that chocolate chip never will.

With cones in hand we return outside and join the rest to watch the afternoon take hold.  As Mariana flits around the piazza I watch two older men walking side by side towards the sound of church bells.  They walk slowly, as old European men do, with their hands clasped behind their back.  They are dressed sharply for an afternoon stroll in brown suits and leather shoes.  Even in the most remote village, or on the craggiest hilltop, Italians look their very best when they’re in town.  This I have learned and grown to appreciate. The two men walk together as if nothing is more important, and behind their backs, between their clasped hands, they each hold a short-stemmed Mimosa. Working away at my straccetella, I continue watching as they approach two young women walking in the opposite direction.  The four of them stop and exchange greetings which I cannot hear, but the important part I can see.  The old men offer with no expectation, flowers to the young women, presumably strangers.  The women thank them and keep walking. A moment of gratitude, a moment of acknowledgment, a moment that says nothing more than I recognize you for being a woman.

Mariana’s voice streams across the piazza from where she has found some friends to play with.  Still holding my gelato and Mimosa I saunter over to meet her.  An old woman dressed in all black, sitting on a bench at the edge of the piazza catches my eye. Her tired arm extends towards me.  Her fingers clench a long Mimosa branch and the arching yellow flowers brush up gently against my arm.  She thrusts if forward once indicating that she would like me to have it. “Grazie,” I say softly as I take hold of another Mimosa.  As I continue to walk the blossoms bounce in the air and a couple seeds drop to the ground.  I watch them silently spin downward and land near my feet. When I reach Mariana I hand the same sprig to one of her young friends.  She thanks me and adds it to her collection.

And this is the way it goes for the rest of the day weekend.  Blooming Mimosa are passed from hand to hand, almost in silence, across the country.  Through the hands of friends, acquaintances and strangers they travel.  Women of all ages are given a gift that for one moment they hold onto, and the next they give effortlessly away to another woman.  A sprig of mimosa given to you on this day is yours for only that moment.  It does not belong to you; it belongs to all women throughout time. What does belong to women in Italy is a tradition that celebrates what they’ve gained, lost, and what they are.  Although in remembrance of that day there is little talk, if any about New York City in 1911.

Year after year the Mimosa is the first sign of what is come. The early blooming trees hold hope that the season will change.  After a full celebration of Festa Della Donna the streets are littered with lingering yellow.  On cobblestones and in storefronts branches have snapped, flowers have wilted, and bouquets have fallen apart.  Women have been rewarded with the flowers of trees that claim their strength and shout rebirth. The evidence remains.  As the next week begins the color of the Mimosa is a shade slightly duller.  At the farmhouse I notice that the plum tree buds have opened slightly, and those on the Wisteria vine are visible.  I look towards the full opening of spring.  Every year after the Italians celebrate their women, it inevitably does.  And so, simultaneously we look back and move forward, always returning to a day that gives power to looking in both directions.

 

 

 

 

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A break in Morocco

Sitting in a wine bar in Valencia, Spain within a half hour I had the chef making me special tapas, the bartender pouring me free glasses of wine and the Spanairds next to me toasting me as they ordered another round. It was easy and in moments I’d found my local. Ahhh I remember this feeling. The next day I went back and was treated with equal kindness and as if I had achieved “regular” status. I departed on the way to Morocco with hugs and well wishes. Morocco reminded me that laughter really is the sweetest medicine. And that the deep gut tearing laughter can only come in the company of dear old friends. Really, if you think back to those times that you have laughed and couldn’t stop…..who were you with? Your family and closest friends most likely. With Kay and Suzi we laughed and laughed about the pooffy pants that we simply had to buy and, about lengthy and somewhat inappropriate photo shoots and about the hilarity of it all. And for these moments, and this week with my friends, I felt like myself in a way I haven’t felt lately. I felt funny, I felt beautiful, light, confident and myself. And so then returning to Puglia I ask myself, it is the language barrier that makes me not feel this way here? Partially yes, it is. I cannot rip quick wit and sarcasm like I can with native speakers. Is it having people around me that I play off of with the same background and the same friends? People that have known my experiences and I have known theirs. Yup, it’s definitely that too. But this comes with the territory when you move, no matter where you move. However, there’s something more that is missing. Something that makes me close up and not feel these things. And I’m not sure what it is. While for a time it flowed, right now my energy feels blocked here. Perhaps its that my day to day revolves so heavily around work and not much else. For a while that was fine; Its no longer fine. Perhaps it’s that lately my thoughts are so wrought with money woes, logistical details and life errands that I don’t have space for much else. Honestly, I am tired. Whooped really. I have been trying so hard to make so many things happen lately….and it’s working…. but it feel like I’m slugging through mud. So I’m just going to stop trying so hard and see if that makes a difference. I just want to be here and enjoy it. There is so much to enjoy.

Pleasure Priority

There are reasons why I chose to live in Italy. Most of the reasons have to do with food and lifestyle. For one reason or another I find both of these things more manageable here, more civil, more humane. But at the same time when it comes to food I also find myself defending the culture of quality and that is quickly growing and gaining importance in America. Italians are quick to assume that there is no good food in the United States. That we do not no know the value of a local market or a quality cut of meat. And to this I just say, not so. You must come see what’s happening where I’m from. Things have changed. But will they change enough to create a lifestyle of good eating?

An Italian who spends a significant part of time in the States told me that it’s not impossible to find good food in the US, it’s just more difficult. This is partly true but more that it being more difficult, it is more expensive.

Here in Italy it is not a privilege to eat well and to drink a fine bottle of wine. And it’s not expensive. It is the way it’s done. This is the major difference. There is not such a gap between have and have not’s in this country and so the playing field on the dinner table is level. Across the board the quality of the food is high and discussions, regardless of age, center around food. If you eaves drop on phone conversations and discussion on the street in almost always turns to food. What was eaten, what will be eaten, how it was prepared and how everyone liked it. High quality food is a priority and you learn this at a young age. At the same time no one really makes a ton a money, people live with their parents in small homes and just get by. For me this is preferred but it doesn’t match with what it typically American.

So despite everything good that  happening in with food the US, everything that I feel so proud of, is it ever possible then to level the playing field in a country like America when it comes to food? I suppose I don’t think so. Improving our diet is becoming a large bullet on our to do list for health reasons but we are still missing, as an entire nation, an identity that makes the pleasure of eating a priority.

Southern Visions and Monopoli

I returned last night on a flight from Bari to Pisa (first experience on Ryanair) after spending 3 days with Anontello and team in Monopoli. The days were a blend of meeting and planning sessions, getting to know the (many) projects of the company and of course eating and drinking.

Basically it breaks down like this……Antonello owns Southern Visions Travel (google it) which started as a bike touring company throughout Puglia and is now growing to incorporate more “cultural” travel which includes food and wine. My job with the company is to basically do their marketing, but not only for the company but for life in Puglia–an emerging destination for Americans. You can check this out too on the Google–true story. So I’ve been outfitted with a camera and telecamera (video) and will facebook, twitter and blog my head off about my life as an American living in Puglia. Look out for my NEW blog, Southern Visions Puglia, daily life on the heel of the boot. The two might eventually merge in some cases. The other part of the job is doing a little PR….story pitching, press releases and the like. Can’t seem to get away from this but it’s part of the game I suppose. And then some work on the culinary end of things like connecting with US chefs and the whole localvore thing stateside.

So in two weeks I pack up and move down there–hopefully into what feels like the Puglese version of my Marblehead apartment…..just add two huge decks with a sea view. No joke.

I didn’t have my camera, for fear of exceeding the strict Ryanair weight limits so I just have a few snapshots from the cellulare.

Permesso Pronto and South to Bari

Now, let’s be honest…..I’ve had it easy. The whole being here legally thing has been, for the most part a walk in the park for me, compared to others. Horror stories exist. With my application for Italian citizenship I was able to simultaneously apply for a permesso di soggiorno, a permit to stay. I won’t need this once I have an Italian passport in hand but I still have no real idea when that’s actually going to happen. Although I was never told this when I applied for the permesso (at the post office) this little receipt saying that the application is in process grants me the ability to work legally in Italy however as I’ve learned, does not grant me the ability to leave the country and return senza problema. While it’s done with some frequency, it is in fact illegal until I have the official document in hand. And so I am left wondering if three days in the Canary Islands is worth the risk. Some say dai! don’t don’t worry, some say things have gotten lot tighter in the last three years and best to not mess with it. Good news is though that the actual permesso is ready to be picked up! In Campobasso. So as soon as I get to the questura in person I am officially legal in Italy.

Sunday I fly to Bari to spend 3 days with Antonello and the “team” from Southern Visions. If all goes well I will be moving there come the end of the first week of March. Yup, packing up and heading south. By train, by plane….still not sure but south to the heel until the end of October is the idea. From there…..chi lo sa.

That leaves me basically two weeks to wrap things up in Florence, do all the things I’ve been meaning to do here and visit all my favorite spots. No doubt there are things….and people that I will miss in this city.

Apperitivo

I just would like to say a few words about the apperitivo. Traditionally it means to have a drink and some small snacks before dinner. Maybe a prosecco or campari and some olives or something simple like this. However, in modern day Italy it has come to mean something entirely different. It is the event you base your entire evening around in many cases. I believe it started in Milan and has moved its way south to the larger cities—I’m not sure how far south, likely not further than Rome. The concept is that a bar or cafe will offer an apperitivo from the hours of about 7-9. This will include a drink and a sampling of food of their choice that they put out buffet style. The cost is somewhere between 5 and 10 euro for food and drink. The display of food can be from large overflowing tables to a very small section of a very small bar. You could have your normal crostini and cured meats or full platters of pasta, roasted potatoes and entire panini. Now you can imagine in a city full of students and people who otherwise don’t have lots of money the apperitivo is a great way to socialize and have a nosh. Meet me for an apperitivo?  But what ends up happening is that it becomes a feeding frenzy for mediocre food (sometimes mini pizzas and french fries) and sitting down and eating a proper dinner never seems to happen. So while I like the concept of the apperitivo, and I go with some regularity with my friends, I’m not entirely for it. Sometimes lively atmosphere and cocktail it’s exactly what you need but it shouldn’t be confused with sitting down to eat dinner. That’s what I think.

Cibo Tales

This is really not meant to be a food blog since well….there are a few of those out there. But it’s difficult to write about my experience in Italy without mentioning food.

Last night at a dinner party for a friend’s birthday I learned a few interesting Tuscan food tales. The first is that one should never leave a loaf of bread upside down after you’ve cut a piece from it. This is not good. Just don’t do it….out of respect for the bread. The second is that one should never pour a glass of wine for yourself or someone else from the side. This is bad luck and it has something to do with Jesus and the last supper. Someone got killed after such a move. There are thousands of little do’s and don’ts like this, city to city, region to region.

DO eat the pecorino cheese though…with walnuts and honey, whenever possible.
And do have some of this too.

 

Not so straight line

The days of late have moved up and down from highs to lows and a few notches in between. There have been job offers that haven’t come through, promised phone calls that never happened, a few nights sleep of exceptional sleep, a quick trip to the gynocologist, job prospects that entice me, random encounters with interesting people, and more predictable encounters with those that are growing on me. I do believe that I have finally had the chance to catch up with myself and come to terms with what I’ve done here. What better a place to let it all come to the surface than at an Irish pub with a friend. We all need these moments and I am thankful for the friend, the neighborhood pub and all the experiences that got me there sitting on a bar stool wiping away the tears. The healthy pour of prosecco helped too.

Just returned from yoga I am on the more even side of that night. I have an actual job offer and an actual meeting with a one Gianluca next week to discuss the details. This feels good. The rest is beginning to crystalize in my mind and I am slowly formulating a plan to be able to spend the time I want in Puglia. I am marking dates on my calendar for the end of April and while that seems like just the beginning of spring it is actually three months from now…..a longer period of time than I have actually been here already. It leaves a lot of space for things to happen…..to unfold…. and feel like I have a place in this life here.

Life in Italy could be changing my concept of what kind of lifestyle is livable, acceptable. Nobody has money here but still the days roll on contently. A beat up motorino for long distance winter transport, no problem. A full-time job making photocopies, bring it. Dinner out at a cheap hole in the wall, yes please. An apartment that’s not always warm, getting used to it. And yeah sure, smoke inside if you want….just open the window.

From Natale to Bufana

January 11 and the Italian holidays are finally over. With la Bufana on the 6th of January and the majority of people taking the long weekend, the party rolls right on through from the 23rd of December to the 10th of January. That’s 18 days of non-stop celebrating…….eating, drinking, staying out late. And during that time my flatmate has had three guests, Americans here on vacation….. and to party. I’ve been roped into several celebrations including a few late nights (early mornings) of Italian discotech dancing…..which is really not that cool.

New Year’s Eve

Surprisingly the Italians don’t seem exhausted. I am. BUT working on my third day of catching up while the sun shines in Tuscany. I was able to get out into the country for a day to meander through a few villages, enjoy a long lunch and taste some wine at a vineyard. All on a unusually warm afternoon.

La Campanga

Goals for January….get back in shape and get a job. The in shape thing I can do…..with a little dicipline I should be fine. The job thing is more challenging. It’s clear that I need to make my own work. But in order to do that I need to commit to being somewhere.  The sea feel too far away right now. This city has a way of closing you in. Physically and mentally. Not a bad thing if it’s where you want to be but I haven’t made that commitment yet.