The Little Things
We’re a year into our nuova storia in Italy. By now, you have the broad strokes. We left our home, jobs, friends and family to live full time in Italy. At the same time, we started exporting our own extra virgin olive oil along with olive oil from neighboring farmers to the U.S. I’ve written about our business, our day-to-day experiences and our delight in rediscovering the less complicated way of life we had pushed aside for so many years. But I haven’t spent much time chronicling the little things—the most wonderful, almost extraordinary moments that elevate our lives along with the tiny irritants and unfathomably strange practices that sometimes make us wonder what we’re doing here.
So here they are, from the divine to the ridiculous, the little things that define our new lives.
First, the pleasures . . .
Every fruit and vegetable seller in town adds parsley, celery and a carrot or two at no additional charge when we buy our produce. Every single time. In a place where it is unthinkable to skip the ubiquitous Sunday lunch ragù that requires the addition of these materie prime (basic ingredients), it naturally follows that I’ll need just these exact quantities for my weekly sauce.
When asked, our friends and neighbors are incapable of just giving us directions and going about their business. At a minimum, they escort us to the unknown destination and
make an introduction on our behalf when we get there. And if the unknown destination isn’t within walking distance, getting there becomes a collective road trip—we’re all going, including some other friends and relatives who happen to want to come along for the ride. All group activities that involve transportation to another location require a group meet up, usually at a gas station somewhere, followed by a group discussion about the best way to go. Then everyone hops in his or her car and heads out, caravan style. Getting lost is not an option and you’ve got the whole carload to share the misery when things go wrong. Comforting.
There is no tipping in restaurants. Enough said.
Wine is so culturally ingrained as a beverage that accompanies food that it is often included in the overall meal price at restaurants. Local wine is as ubiquitous as espresso and far cheaper, too. How does $1.50 for a liter of genuine, preservative-free local primitivo sound? Nothing precious about it.
Garbage is picked up every single day in our town. We place it outside our door and the three-wheeled ape-driving garbage team arrives not once, but three different times throughout the morning. Cardboard and other recyclables are collected on specific days of the week, but our little assortment of regular garbage packed neatly into one of those little plastic bags they give you at the market has three daily opportunities to be whisked away from our doorstep. Brilliant.
Market merchandise is cleverly displayed at the exact moment when we realize we need it. Heavy, woolen long underwear appears with the first frost, bathing suits are piled in huge mounds when the temperature reaches 70 degrees and tomato-canning paraphernalia is routinely displayed in mid-July. There’s no wading through seasonally inappropriate gear to get to what you need, but if you happen to be planning a trip to the southern hemisphere and need to stock up, you are truly out of luck.
Where else would a conversation like this take place? Overheard just before lunchtime (the main meal of the day) from an impeccably dressed man in a business suit carrying a briefcase while talking on his cell phone walking hurriedly through our town: “Mamma, I’m almost home. You can throw the pasta in the water now.” Food, its preparation and enjoyment, are sacrosanct. From the tiniest child to the elderly, food is a topic that inspires great passion and endless conversation.
Now for the irritants . . .
Here it is normal to talk ceaselessly about the sore throat, head cold, stuffy nose, stiff neck or backache one has suffered because, yes, a current of air wafted through the room while the sufferer had recently sweated. In Italy, it seems that there is a direct, inevitably negative health outcome that results from rogue air currents in the summer. All ills can be traced to such encounters. This belief is unshakeable, much like the profound certainty that anyone who attempts to bathe—or just stand in water up to their knees—will sink like a stone and drown if they haven’t waited a minimum of two hours after eating before having a swim.
Italians, perhaps especially southern Italians, really do prefer the company of other Italians in all things. This means that on summer holidays, everyone will go, en masse, to the nearest body of water. They’ll go at the same time, to the same place and set up camp next to one another. I mean right next to one another. Yet their conversations will be conducted at a volume that suggests they are sitting at opposite ends of the beach.
This one is a blessing and a curse. Appropriate foods are only available at the Italian-determined appropriate time and not when you might feel like eating them. Do you want pizza at lunch? You are generally out of luck because everyone knows that pizza is eaten in the evening, not at lunchtime. Cappuccino and breakfast pastry in the afternoon? Assuming a barista will even give them to you, you will endure a
scornful raised eyebrow at best or a deeply disapproving fish eye at worst. While this practice keeps random eating somewhat in check, it wreaks havoc with anyone who attempts to pursue an alternative lifestyle. Not surprisingly, alternative lifestyles are not especially supported in the culture, particularly alternative food-related practices.
Random parking “for just a minute” is endemic, blocking tiny streets that are difficult to navigate anyway without a vehicle stopped in the middle of them. The shortest amount of measurable time in the universe? The time it takes for one of our fellow Martina Franca residents to lay on the horn when his or her path is obstructed by another car.
The absolute certitude that the Pugliese way is the one, true path can tend to wear a little thin over time. Expressed most frequently in matters of cuisine, there is little variety among local dining options. We have quickly suppressed any latent craving for Mexican, Thai or Indian food since both restaurants and ingredients are simply not available. Is it because it’s difficult to source these ingredients from so far away? Absolutely not! The Pugliese we know are not interested in them in the least; the cucina della mamma trumps all comers. This video from Jamie Oliver captures the concept perfectly. And perhaps they’re right; traditional Pugliese cuisine is about as flavorful, genuine and healthy as it gets. Still, there are moments when we long to savor a Thai panang curry, but now we know that isn’t going to happen.
Information for stranieri (foreigners) like us isn’t always easy to access. We expected this and have adapted accordingly—a good facility with the Italian language goes a long way. I continue to be stunned, though, that information directed specifically to foreigners is often as undecipherable as everything else. When summertime events and tourist-oriented activities are publicized, they’re often missing key details like the starting time, whether or not parking is available, the cost to attend and a more general sense of what will happen during the course of the activity. And that’s just in Italian! The English translation, if there is one, provides more comic relief for its creative use of language than useful information. Maybe it’s because everyone here already knows when annual events start and stop, where they’re located, whether or not you can park there and what happens when. But if the goal is to attract more tourist engagement—and tourist economic stimulus—it might be helpful for the regional and local tourist offices and event organizers to consult with actual tourists about what they might like to know and how they access information.
Since we have established that Italians prefer all activities that can best be enjoyed in a group, is it surprising that Italian teen courting rituals are conducted right underneath our balcony window? Italian teenagers hang out in groups, groups that are probably composed of one’s entire class from preschool days. In the first five years of Italian elementary school, the class stays together and the teacher changes with the years, fostering enduring friendships, which morph into teenage groups that roam the streets together. It seems that our little piazzetta in the centro storico has become ground zero for these groups to gather and flirt, Italian style. This means that everyone is talking at once, punctuated by laughter, shrieks (girls), yells (boys) and intermittent music from someone’s telephone. At 2:00 a.m.
That’s it . . . just some of the little things that shape our lives here. Perhaps we’re more aware of these day-to-day moments because everything about our lives now is new. At the same time, I can hardly remember the small moments that delighted me or the vexing episodes that provoked frequent hand wringing in the U.S. But when a neighbor drops by with a bowl of cherries or we join our olive miller and his extended family for wood-fired oven pizza at his farm in the country, the little things—both good and bad—become insignificant. It’s the enveloping warmth, generosity and kindness we experience every day that trumps everything.