How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

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.

 

Meraviglioso! 

 

 

An Empire Revisited

An Empire Revisited

People sometimes ask me, “What is the difference between baseball and cricket?”  The answer is simple.  Both are games of great skill involving balls and bats, but with this crucial difference: baseball is exciting, and when you go home at the end of the day you know who won. ~Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

The morning of our recent London trip, the newspaper read that two unexploded car bombs had been found near Picadilly and Soho. A third incendiary bomb had been detonated at Glasgow Airport.  John Smeaton, a Glaswegian baggage handler, became a national hero when he tackled and fought with the terrorist bent on incinerating himself and an airport full of people headed for holiday after term break.  Smeaton shared with the BBC, “I thought to meeself, what’s the score here; I’ve got to get this sorted.”  After breaking his leg and teeth in the thrashing of the terrorist, “Smeats” was an instant celebrity – a subject of news specials, blogs and proud recognition.  His reward?  1000 pints of free lager at his local pub.  To other would-be attackers, he was heard to remark with strong Scottish accent and cigarette dangling from his mouth, “This is Glasgow, we will set about on ye.”

Much has changed since our time in the Emerald Isle four years ago.  Gordon Brown is now the Prime Minister of England.  Smoking is banned in all restuarants and pubs, lawyers air personal injury ads, the US dollar enjoys the exchange value of a Mexican peso, and the property prices have gone from ridiculous to absurd.  What has not changed is the constant rain that disrupts Wimbledon, tiny loos, the threat of terrorist activity, great ethnic food, the Royal family as the face of the realm and a National Health Service under siege.  The Royal Mail still arrives the day after a letter is posted.  Manchester United still leads the Premiere Division and, alas, the red eyed, shaved headed lad still stumbles onto London transport wearing his soccer jersey and a sweat suit, clutching a can of Black Carling lager and daring anyone to make eye contact.

The British enjoy a love/hate relationship with their own country.  The NY Times recently reviewed The Angry Isle – Hunting the English, a book by British critic and polemic, A.A. Gill.  His theory is that every classically British trait – stiff upper lip, stoic humility, good manners, keen wit – is an ingenious strategy to deflect anger.  Gill asserts that the English are a culture founded on rage and aggression.  “The English created the queue because if they did not they would kill each other.  Gardening is a displacement activity for unresolved anger.  Pets are preferred as it is easier to love something small and fuzzy than another human.  Nostalgia and deep reverence of the past have helped medicate the embarrassment of Britain no longer making history but merely being resigned to curate it.”

Tradition and history are tricky things.  While Continental Europe is long on tradition, it easily eschews history for the sake of modern conveniences.  Independent England will fight to the death to defend history as tradition – the pound, the Royal family and the size of a phone booth.  History and tradition are fraternal twins and nostalgia is their mother.

Jane Walmsley, an American married to a Brit, crafted a brilliant book called Brit Think, Ameri-Think, which humorously contrasts England’s clash of restraint and tradition with American loud naiveté.  Walmsley jokes that the English bathroom is so small because the British have so little roughage in their diet that they actually never need to use the loo.  As an ex-patriot, you come to understand how clearly your country defines you and that subconsciously we are walking caricatures whose footprints occasionally fit less flattering stereotypes.  Our English neighbors in London could always tell the American houses because every light in every room of every house was illuminated at night.  “It’s as if you are having a party each evening,” one remarked.  We were hopelessly uninformed about European government, law or history.  The Tudors?  Aren’t they kinds of houses?  And what about that strange extra toilet that sprayed like a drinking fountain?  (The kids kept trying to brush their teeth in it before some European friends explained the concept of a bidet.)

Returning to the UK after four years, we quickly fell under the spell of Central London – jogging under the massive elms and horse chestnut trees of Hyde Park, peering through the grated fence of Buckingham Palace hoping for a glimpse of the Queen, navigating the phalanx of pedestrians at Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus and perching like a peregrine falcon atop the London Eye.  The theatre district remains a joy and high tea is still a tonic for anything that ails you.  London’s richest history is perhaps its most macabre, as recounted deep in the The London Dungeon where children hear stories of serial killers, plague, executions and the Great Fire of 1666.  Outside, the fickle weather unleashes great sweeping thunderstorms, hail, gusting winds, angry grey clouds and the constant tease of intermittent sunshine.

Our village of Wimbledon was dressed to the nines for the tennis tournament as players, visitors and locals mixed every evening in the Dog & Fox Pub and spilled out on to the high street.  Our old church, Emmanuel, had a message board that read, “God made Roger Federer.”  The vicar, Jonathon Fletcher, was quite proud of this; it drew attention to the pleasant Anglican Church.  We went on to Hampshire to overnight in a 500-year-old manor house.  Once the children were bedded down, the lady of the house shared “I did not want to alarm the children, but we have a very active ghost in the room where your daughter will be sleeping.”  My wife and daughter quickly conferred; it was decided that I should sleep in the haunted room.  Around midnight, the door creaked open and as I braced for a poltergeist, my son slipped into bed next to me.  I sighed in great relief…I did not want the house awakened by a grown man shrieking.  It would have been very bad form.

A few observations on touring England:  When boarding a tube, always put the children on first with an adult, lest you leave one on the platform.  Never give a child under 10 a pound coin (they are worth $2 and seem to slip from hands faster than greased acorns).  When anyone offers you pudding, take it.  Remember a yard is an abandoned lot.  A garden is a space in front or behind a home with flowers. Public school boys go to private schools and state schools are public.  The world of a teenager is made up of “shavs,” “skaters” and “preps.”

Although some inside and outside the UK may poke fun at the British, most Americans are Anglophiles at heart and Britain feels as if you’re visiting a close relative you never really got to know very well.  As for their unwavering support of America in these troubled times, we can learn a thing or two from our British cousins regarding their steely resolve, their patience, their pride…and their sense that regardless of what tomorrow brings, we must simply carry on.