Buon Natale


My Dad used to say it that way. My Grampa did, too. And my PapaNonni said, “Buon Natale”. In our house we didn’t say it in English when the whole family was around.

Buon Natale.

For my whole life, those two words have meant the sharing of good food, of laughter, of presents, of long stories told it two languages.

Buon Natale meant the meal of seven fishes, with shrimp and calamari and especially with octopus cooked by my Sicilian Grampa who pronounced it “boopie.”

The magic of the celebration meant gathering with cousins we saw only two or three times a year. It meant catching up with each other’s news, introducing new boyfriends, new fiances, new babies.

Buon Natale. Every year the location of our family party would rotate between the houses of my mother’s siblings. Some things would change, as people moved and families grew, but many many things stayed the same. The boopie, the calamari, the red Santa hats, the bottles of good Scotch under the tree.

Years have passed for me. Decades have passed now.

So many of those we loved have left us. Grampa, the original boopie chef, has been gone for more than thirty years. Our Nana left us more than ten years ago. We’ve lost my Dad, my sweet, funny brother-in-law, and my hilarious and brilliant Uncle.

But you know what?

We gathered again today. We hugged, and kissed and wished each other Buon Natale. There was wine and good Scotch. There was boopie and shrimp and calamari and calzone. We had ricotta pie and wonderful desserts.

Mostly, though, we had a new generation of little cousins who play together and laugh together only once or twice a year. We had laughs and memories and a few quiet tears.

We had each other. We had tradition and repetition and time to look back and remember that the joy of the season is really about celebrating how lucky we’ve been to have known and loved each other.

I don’t know what the future will bring, or how long traditions should hold.

But I know that my daughter will be hosting her brothers and us on Christmas. And I know that she’ll be cooking boopie.

Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo a tutti.

Well, I don’t have a picture of boopie.

I’ll Cook My Way Back to Sanity


We are living in horrible times. We are witnessing the destruction of all that two generations of women have worked to achieve.

As far as I am concerned, we are seeing the complete collapse of the two party system in the US. I’m pretty sure that 90% of us would vote of “None of the above” if they were on any ballot.

So.

What’s a sad, angry, anxious old Italian lady to do?

Yup.

I’ll cook my way to relative sanity. l have bone broth on the stove. There’s a nice sourdough starter on my counter. I have canned tomatoes for sauce and locally sourced ground beef and pork for the meatballs.

I can’t make Mitch McConnell go up in a puff of smoke for his hypocritical bullshit. I can’t save the Supreme Court of the US from becoming infected with a total and complete lack of impartiality.

I can’t make Mueller hurry the freak up and get that awful, ugly, ignorant, hateful, nasty egomaniac out of office.

I can make ravioli and roasted peppers and maybe a nice ricotta pie.

If there is a Heaven, I will still be at least relatively sane when this insanity comes to its inevitable end.

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“Il Mondo è Una Famiglia”


Before I begin this last post about our trip to Europe, I have to preface it by saying that in a million years I could never have been as warm and kind as the people I’m about to describe.

I know myself. I love having guests, but I need to know they’re coming first. Also, I like it better if I have a clue about who they are.

With that, let me tell you the miraculous and wonderful story of our day in Roccabascerana, province of Avellino, Italy.

My paternal grandparents came to the United States around a hundred years ago. Growing up in our big family, I knew that they had married in the little village of Roccabascerana. I knew that my grandfather’s brothers married my grandmother’s sisters, and that all of them came to the Boston area.

I have always wanted to go there, to see the place where our family has its roots. At last, a few weeks ago, that wish came true.

Now, I have to tell you that I had reached out on Facebook to try to find relatives still in the area, and I had connected with one man who thought it possible that we might be related. But he didn’t speak much English, and I definitely didn’t speak much Italian. We exchanged a few messages, then lost each other.

So when I got to the village with my husband, my sons and their girlfriends, I didn’t plan to try to find any actual living relatives. I was content to see the streets, the church, the piazza where my family had once walked. I took pictures of the war memorial where the family names were inscribed.

Avellino

I was happily crying my eyes out as I thought about my Dad and his parents, and all of my family who have gone. I hugged my boys and listened to the church bells in the peaceful air of the town. The only living thing other than us in the whole village, it seemed, was a sweet little street dog who came to greet us.

As I was thinking of heading back to Pompeii to process my experience, the kids noticed a building that seemed to be the local Town Hall. “Let’s go in!” they said, “We can ask about the family.”

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want the embarrassment of my bad Italian or the bad manners of showing up on someone’s doorstep unannounced. But as I was trying to back out, the kids and my husband kept pointing out how much I’d regret being so close to my family and not meeting them.

We were in a little tug-o-war when a car drove up and parked. A well dressed, dark haired woman got out and looked at us. There I stood, sweaty and tearful, surrounded by my kids.

“Prego?” she called, opening the door to the building. She gestured me inside. So I stepped in.

When the woman turned to me and raised her perfect dark brows over her brown eyes, I stammered out the fact that my family had originally come from this town. I told her my last name.

“Si,” she answered easily. “Antonio.” She named the possible relative I’d found on Facebook so many months ago. She lead us all into another room, where she explained to another woman that “This woman from the US is a cousin of Antonio.”

“Ah, si!” said the second kind woman. “His family lives in the village of Squillani.” I had heard this name my whole life, too. It was where my grandmother’s family had lived, I thought. “His mother was Maria Domenica. Who was your grandfather?”

Then she picked up the phone and dialed without even looking up a number. My kids were delighted, as was Paul, but I was still internally thinking, “Wait!!!!!”

Antonio didn’t answer his phone, so the kind woman (who kept speaking rapid fire Italian as if I might learn it if she just tried hard enough) indicated that we should all get in our cars and follow the two young men who worked with her and who were sitting wide eyed over the whole thing.

So off we went. The boys didn’t speak English, either, so we weren’t exactly sure where we were headed. I was hoping that we were going to the village of Squillani, where we could look around, have lunch and take photos. I was both thrilled and afraid that we were actually headed to Antonio’s house.

And you guessed it, I bet.

After ten minutes of hairpin turns over beautiful, tiny, mountain roads, we stopped in front of a lovely big house and the boys hopped out. As I cautiously got out of my car, I saw them knock, and heard them tell the young woman who opened the door, “The American cousins of Antonio are here.”

Yikes!!

I was really embarrassed to be banging on the door of a total stranger! There were six of us, none of us fluent in Italian, and all of us nervous and excited.

With a show of grace that I could only dream about, the woman smiled at us all, thanked the boys, and invited us in. She called to her husband, who came in with a puzzled look on his face. We stumbled through introductions, apologies and welcomes.

The next three hours were an amazing, life changing and really fabulous affirmation of every stereotype you’ve ever heard about Italians. It was proof of the power of family, of food, of shared laughter.

I could never, ever, ever have pulled off what this family did for a group of strangers on their doorstep.  Antonio and his wife, and his brother Mimo and his, took us in as if we had known each other all of our lives.

They sat us down, gave us cold drinks, offered coffee. We looked at pictures, finding similarities in our faces and in shared stories. We got to know a bit about each other.

At some point I realized that the women had disappeared, and being Italian myself, I suspected that there was a meal being prepared (in spite of our attempts to assure them that were not here to disturb them or to drop in for a meal.)

I was right. As predicted, after about a half hour a door opened, and Antonio’s beautiful wife, Angela invited us upstairs to eat.

And we shared one of those meals that you know you’ll dream about for years. Without any plan or preparation, these amazing women put out a “lunch” of spaghetti with homemade sauce, sausages, zucchini frittata, olives from their property, a bowl of bread the size of a bathtub, cheese, salami, wine, fresh figs, watermelon, home made lemon ice and delicious sweet esspresso that will haunt my dreams forever.

We met Antonio’s daughters, who are charming, funny, interesting and who speak English! My sons played with his young son. We all laughed, we shared jokes somehow.

We all friended each other on Facebook.

It was amazing. Amazing and humbling.

We found out, Antonio and I, that we share the same great-grandfather. We are indeed cousins.

But before we knew that fact, this family welcomed us in just because we were there. At one point, when I was once again trying to explain that I hadn’t intended to bother them, Antonio asked in a gruff, no-nonsense voice, “Why? What are you sorry?”

“I didn’t mean to bother you….”

He gestured around the table to where our families were eating, laughing and drinking together.

“Do we look bothered?” I think he said.

He raised one finger, and both of his slightly pointed eye brows. Exactly the gesture that my Dad used to make. Exactly the same expression on his face.

“Il mondo è piccolo.”  Yes, I agreed, the world is small.

“Tutti una famiglia.”  We are all one family.

I can never express how profound and moving it was for me to see my sons laughing with some of the cousins who never left our home place. My deepest wish now would be for some of them to come here to visit us, so that I could cook for them, and tell them how my connection to them and to that beautiful place has shaped me for my whole life.

 

 

 

What I Think of Italy


Wow.

I have waited 62 years to finally set my feet on the soil of my ancestral home. Finally. I have breathed the air of Rome, walked the streets of Naples, toured the history of Pompeii. I have bathed in the waters off of Sicily, eaten octopus and giant shrimp grilled in small local cafes. I’ve had the wine, ridden the trains, busses, subways and boats.

I think I’ve finally gotten a sense of where my family was born.

And it was nothing like I expected, while it was just what I had hoped.

I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m going to try. Because, you know, blogger, writer….that’s what we do.

Italy has a lot of delicious fruits. One of them is a funny looking, yellow melon. It’s kind of bumpy, lumpy and odd looking from the outside. I have no idea what we’d call it in English.

But when you cut into it?

The fruit is sweet, soft, delicate and full of flavor.

That’s how I think of Italy.

From the outside, there is a lot to feel creeped out about. There is a definite problem with trash and litter. Even the most scenic roads are lined with smashed beer bottles and unwanted wrappers. While there are trash containers in every city and town, it doesn’t seem as if they are ever emptied.

The buildings are uniformly old.  Some are truly ancient, and many are simply left to crumble into the landscape. Others were probably built during the second world war, and have stucco facades that are peeling and broken. Some are newer, but even those often have a look of neglect.

The ground is dry and the plants are brittle. Weeds encroach often on small vias and byways.

But.

If you are lucky enough to be invited into one of the dry stucco homes, you will be amazed and overwhelmed by the beauty. Everyone seems to have floors of marble. Walls are painted in bold and beautiful colors. There is art on those walls. There are little touches of charm and beauty.

We have stayed in some very spartan places on our trip. In some cases the faucets were a little loose and shower doors didn’t close all the way.

But every single one of them had lovely decorative touches. Vases, glasses, tablecloths in vibrant colors, pots of flowers on the balconies.

And inside of every house, it seemed to us, there were people who were the very embodiment of kindness and warmth. Even though we speak little to no Italian, people tried to communicate with us. They used words, gestures, facial expressions, more words. The seemed to believe that if they just tried hard enough, everyone would understand each other.

What a wonderful concept!

People we didn’t know helped us to pump gas, to check out in the grocery store, to buy items we needed. People were patient when we repeatedly explained that we couldn’t understand. They laughed with us, not at us, when we made mistakes in Italian. They applauded and complimented us on our meager attempts to master their language.

Italy is like that funny yellow melon. On the outside, you aren’t really sure you want it. But once you cut into it, and taste the sweetness inside, you know that you’ll be craving it forever.

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Molto delicioso.