How To Make An Italian Chef Smile
It had been a rough first six months since our move to England. Each child was showing the strain of change and unfamiliar circumstances. I arrived home one evening from a business trip to find my wife striking the washing machine in complete frustration.
“This stupid thing is so small I can only wash one sheet at a time.” It seemed as though it would never stop raining. The fickle sun would appear at odd and inconvenient times like an unreliable friend. While intellectually invigorated by our European move, we underestimated the emotional trauma of being cast adrift from friends, family and the familiar rhythm of our Northern California lifestyle.
My parents had joined us in London for the children’s October break and like most Brits, we immediately fled the damp emerald isle for the warmer embrace of Southern Italy. We landed in Rome and were immediately serenaded by the whimsical strings of a city wired on life and caffeine. Rome was a marching band with no conductor. Every Italian seemed to move without regard for traffic lanes, lights or legal parking. The classically laissez faire Italian police were more intent on staking out single women than suspicious characters. Vespas buzzed like mosquitoes while autumn starlings banked and rose in an aerial ballet. With each hour, we regained our warm weather equilibrium and sense of adventure. After three days of fountains, forums and fusilli, we escaped north to explore Florence and the surrounding ancient hill towns of Tuscany resting like unsteady siena crowns on the crests of hills forested with beech, oak and chestnut trees.
We arrived at our hotel, Villa La Massa, on October 31st. The chrome morning mist rose slowly, taking its time to shake off low gray clouds. A wet chill loitered in the ravines and hollows and in between the villa’s main house and the guesthouses that peered over the southern banks above the Arno. There were no black cats, pumpkins or dark effigies of witches and goblins. The long, pebbled driveway guarded by columned cypress trees and an ancient wrought iron gate, showed no signs of imminent pagan celebrations. Our children, ages 7, 4 and 2, were only mildly interested that it was All Hallows Eve. Back in America, giggling adrenaline-fueled goblins would be racing in and out of the shadows and light cast by houses a thousand grinning jack-o-lanterns. It would be a night of sugar, ghouls and mayhem. I sighed. At our old home, we would be wandering our neighborhood – – faceless flashlights inching along dark streets and cul de sacs greeting the silhouettes and voices of our friends. Halloween was America and an essential milestone in the life of a young family and we were missing it.
On this warm, windy day, I volunteered to take the children to the Etruscan hill town of Fiesole while my parents and wife wandered the back alleys of Florence. We spent a glorious morning chasing and playing among the ancient amphitheatres, roman baths and ruins. A local restaurant owner adopted us, treating us to lunch at his local café where we were overwhelmed with freshly baked foccacia, homemade pastas and pizza. As the sun’s arc dropped toward the West, we descended into the valley of the Arno, navigating a patchwork quilt of vineyards and farms. As we followed the narrow road back to our hotel, I could see the Duomo and the medieval skyline of the city that was once the cradle of the Italian city-states. For all the enthusiasm I felt for being in this special place, I was suffering from a parochial melancholy wondering whether my decision to work overseas had been a mistake. Was I denying my children a quintessentially American childhood? Would they one day ask me, “Dad, what’s Halloween?”
European interest in the celebration of Halloween was mixed. Given the more reverent traditions surrounding festivals like The Day of The Dead, Italians resisted the secular commercialism of monsters and Milky Ways. Yet, there were signs of Catholic unrest. In Milan, Halloween festivities were held by American schools and often spilled over into local communities. In Bologna, the “Miss Strega” (Miss Witch) beauty contest was held to identify the most enchanting sorceress. A few Roman novelty shops had displayed masks, monster memorabilia and treats. Yet, the Villa La Massa showed no signs of western infestation. It was just another sleepy Tuesday.
Unbeknownst to me, my clever spouse had packed a Donald Duck mask, a spider man outfit and all the accessories that a Hawaiian dancer would ever require. Prior to departing that day for Florence, she had approached the charming concierge, Sylvia, explaining that the children were far from home and missing an important holiday; would she allow them to come down to the foyer that evening to trick or treat – knocking on the office and storage room doors of the sparsely occupied hotel where we might give them candy? She left uncertain if our polished patron understood her request.
Once home, my wife whipped the kids into a happy lather explaining the significance of Halloween, their apparel and trick or treating. Dusk brought frenetic preparation and squealing enthusiasm as the children donned their costumes. I walked down the narrow hallway where a sinister suit of armor looked disapprovingly on my waddling two year old Donald Duck who would not stop making sounds like a dying Merganser. A serious super hero and a seven-year-old hula girl bolted past the wobbly toddler. We fell down the elegant staircase like a spilled bucket of tennis balls, crashing across the cobblestone breezeway toward the main house. There were signs of movement inside the lobby as shadows darted across the row of equal-sized, closely placed windows. Soft light spilled out into the courtyard from the prominent portico.
Sylvia gasped with sheer delight as my youngest child quacked, announcing his arrival. To my surprise, the entire hotel staff lined the foyer like an honor guard. Each employee – waiters, maids, porters, groundskeepers and drivers – was holding a basket filled with homemade Italian treats. Throughout the day, the Italians had baked and wrapped homemade cookies and chocolates. The children were instructed to close their eyes as their hosts darted off to the first floor rooms. As each child approached a guest room door, it would swing open with an Italian feigning surprise and raising their hands in disbelief. Sylvia suddenly had an idea and motioned us to follow her toward the restaurant kitchen. She was explaining in broken English that she wanted to have the children trick or treat the head chef. This spontaneous suggestion elicited disapproving looks from several of her male colleagues. As a gourmet hotel, the chef was the mercurial lord of the manor. Yet, Sylvia seemed determined to enter Hell’s kitchen. My older children sensed the reticence of the staff and held back while our youngest recklessly burst through the cucina’s swinging doors clucking like a hen heavy with eggs. There was silence, followed by a sudden burst of baritone laughter. The doorway suddenly filled with a large, handle bar mustached Italian chef holding my son and pinching his cheeks. The staff applauded. Sylvia leaned in victorious and whispered, “they are terrified of him. They have never seen him smile.” We lingered in the hotel for some time forging a primitive bridge out of ragged Italian and English words as the children unwrapped candies and explored the living room.
We later walked slowly across the empty grounds and into the guesthouse, climbing past a not so malevolent suit of armor to our rooms. My anxiety had melted away. It was clear that I had been wrong. We were not missing anything back in America. Our best Halloween will forever be remembered as a magical blend of cypress trees, ancient ruins, laughing chefs and doting Italians.