- What happens when an American woman ends up spending three quarters of the year in an Italian city and the remaining quarter in the French countryside? She feels better, more content. Happier. This is her attempt to explain why and, hopefully, spread the feeling.
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You never forget your first granita. Mine was the classic granita al limone on the island of Favignana. Somewhere there’s a black and white snapshot of me, bent in full concentration, over this Mediterranean wonder of ice, lemon juice and sugar. I was new to Italy, and everything was part of a fairy tale in progress. Every taste. Every sight. Every new word. While citrusy crystals melted on my tongue, I practiced the word “gabbiano” (seagull), unwittingly binding the taste of frozen lemon and the urgent cry of the seagull together in my mind forever. But this post isn’t about the lemon variety. It’s about something a bit more decadent. And powerful. Granita al caffè.
This, I experienced for the first time on the Island of Elba at a fantastic gelateria called Zero Gradi (Zero Degrees). I blogged about it fleetingly a couple years ago, while trying to recap the magic of vacationing on that island. Granita al caffè is usually made with strong black coffee, which I no longer drink (god, do I miss my caffeine!); but when the heat rises and the energy flags, this is one orgasmic experience I choose not to do without. There’s a time for discipline. And there’s definitely a time for the lack thereof.
Fortunately, I discovered a simple recipe for making it at home, and it comes passably close to the gelateria version. So simple. So delicious. And I can slip in my decaffeinated coffee for good measure. When served con panna sotto e sopra (with whipped cream under and over) in the Sicilian way, it becomes a luscious little dessert that packs a refreshing punch, perhaps at the end a summer barbecue. But I like it best in that dead lull around 4:00 in the afternoon. Before or after a walk. Time for a me-party, no?
In a small pan, mix 2.5 dl (approx. 1 cup) of water with 70 grams (about ⅓ cup) of granulated sugar. Place the syrup over a medium flame and bring to the boil. Let it boil for one minute, then lower the flame and add 2.5 dl’s of already-made, strong coffee. (I make mine in a Moka. We’re talking espresso, here.) Add vanilla seeds to the coffee syrup you’ve made, then cut the flame entirely and let the mixture cool to tepid. At this point, the original recipe asks you to filter the mixture into a plastic or stainless steel container that goes comfortably in your freezer. (I never filter mine.) Leave it in the freezer for two hours or more, as necessary, mixing every half hour to avoid the granite becoming too compact. Before serving, whip cream and distribute under and over the granita according to your and your guests’ tastes.
A NOTE: We’ve noticed that once mixed and scraped to the perfect consistency, the granita has to be moved back and forth between the refrigerator and the freezer to somewhat maintain the balance between icy and liquidy. But don’t worry. You can simply chuck it back into the freezer, if there’s any left over, and remove it to the refrigerator about an hour before serving and remix it when it thaws ever so slightly.
There won’t be any pictures today. I have been digitally lazy, and besides, I don’t think I could show what I’m trying to express.
I am, essentially, a torn person. And I’m learning that I’m happy that way. Maybe “wholeness” for me means embracing twoness. I am happy knowing that my existence (in terms of family and friendship) is firmly rooted in two continents. I’m equally happy split between urban and rural. When I’m in the city, I am a city person, rarely missing the country. And when I’m in the country, I feel that the people who live here full-time live according to the best kept secret. (Shhhh. It’s better here.)
In the city, I am overwhelmed and filled up by the genius of humans to coexist and to inspire each other to create bridges to a future that didn’t seem possible. I love the hustle and bustle and the constant drive. I love the machine that throbs at the heart of it. I love the fermentation of ideas—the bubbling up of creativity and the fact that the city reinvents itself over and over again.
In the country, I am conversely filled up by silences. By a heavenly lack of pretension. By the heady perfume of nature in place of the cloying persistence of other people, no matter how brilliant they are or profess to be.
In both places there is a way of breathing deeply, of pulling it all into yourself, and then…of disappearing in the process. Losing yourself into what each has to offer.
When I come to the country, though, particularly in the summer, I have an experience that is profound for me. It involves deep breathing, but not mine. Here, I can feel the earth breathing. If I stand very still, I can feel eddies of air, like water currents, brushing past each other. Warm and cool, intermingling then separating and sweeping around me.
Behind our little place is a vast uncultivated field and stretching up the hill from it as far as you can see are fields of grain, sunflower, rapeseed, rising up toward an elevated horizon marked by the lone tree or copse. Last night, the earth literally heaved a sigh of relief at sundown. And the lovely breath exhaled wafted down that hill and all around us.
Day turns to evening latish this time of year—at nine or ten there is still light—and yet the day has turned from warmth to “coolth.” An undeniable shifting down. A slowing. A gentle breathing all around. The earth exudes a perfume of dirt and exhaling leaves. Coolness swirls around you. The labors of the day are laid to rest. It is beautiful.
When I am back in the city thinking the city is the place to be, I will be missing this. In the city, the night just brings a different challenge to your energy, and you hope to wake in the morning with enough energy to start again. In the country, day falls like a gentle giant, releasing a mist which fills your lungs deep with new life for tomorrow.
I love that.
Have you experienced it before?
I’ve been in Italy for 18 years. And I never stop marveling at how pretty it is. And the real head-scratcher is this: how is it that Italians have a knack for creating beauty in a particular way that the rest of us don’t have? How is it that their benign neglect or their very way of simply living creates a beauty that sends Stendhal-Syndrome-sufferers to hospitals and clinics? How is it that someone’s dishtowels, hanging overhead can make my heart ache? Did this person know that that red towel would perfectly complement the deep shade of the alley and the sage green of the adjacent wall?
Oh, the rest of us can design stuff. We can make it hip and chic and modern and cool. We can make clothes and living spaces adhere to the latest graphic, fashion and architectural trends. We can arrange things—personal shrines, closets or bedside tables—so they look good enough to photograph. We can consult websites and blogs ad infinitum. We can try and try really hard. But will we ever succeed in creating that slightly neglected, found-art quality that almost everything Italian seems to have? Will it feel so…genuine? If I hung my laundry out to dry, would it look so good? Would it be art? Could I convince my neighbor to park his black scooter under my laundry so that the whole thing would be—oh I don’t know—that much more picturesque?
When Italians renovate, they seem to know when to stop. They seem to know when to let the crumbling wall stay in a state of crumble. They seem to realize that water-stained surfaces are more stunning than those of a single, uniform color. Maybe this laissez-faire is born of fiscal necessity (I know it often is). But I also think Italians know in their bones that they live in loveliness, and it is their national duty to allow it to persist. Why else would they laboriously maintain cobbled streets instead of just paving them?
The Italian aesthetic seems to quiver vibrantly between the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi (in which beauty resides in imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness) and the Greek ideal of proportion and absolute beauty. Here what was historically beautiful is in a state of lovingly prolonged decline. And what is natural, real, human, useful—those objects that define the everyday—assume their place easily in that mis en scene. Everything breathes. Everything is part of a passage. The fact that, ultimately, none of it will last just adds to the magnificence of it.
And Italians contribute to the beauty as easily as breathing. They never try too hard. In fact, they may not try at all. They just make it so.
I’ve filled this post with hanging laundry because it’s an omnipresent national monument that never ceases to attract my eye. But consider these last two images. Peppers out to dry. Not because they’re pretty, but because—duh—they need to dry. And the most unassuming alley-side cafe you’ve ever seen. What could more beautiful then these tableaux? (I mean, please, a bare light bulb hanging over just one of the tables?) And you know there wasn’t a set dresser, designer, architect or expert-of-any-description in sight. It’s just beautiful because it is. And we non-Italians are left to wander in the midst of it all wondering how it could possibly be…
There’re a ton of jokes out there about how hot it is. It’s so hot, the fire hydrants are chasing dogs. It’s so hot chickens are laying hardboiled eggs. It’s so hot I can’t be bothered to list another one. Round here we’re not telling jokes; laughing would generate too much bodyheat. So we’re just laying low. Waiting for the latest canicule to be over and done—make that “well done”—with.
It’s so hot, the flies lord it over us. Food stays under cover from those nasty little feet. It’s so hot—staying with the insect theme—the vines are alive with buzzing and even green is a warm color. It’s so hot, one of my favorite beverages isn’t anymore.
If you point your phone at the sun and “click,” the picture turns out like this. But in reality it’s just a blinding white. The world turns into a midday composition of black and white, where even the shadows are hot. Lawn chairs sit empty.
The only flowers that look “purty” are fake. (Though I gotta say, fake flowers have come a long way.) Gardening tools are on sabbatical. That includes the lawn mower, which sits parked, until further notice, in the head-high grass.
And last but not least, there will be no more hot baths. The tub is nothing more than a wasteful, wrought-iron accessory, but don’t tell the French plumbers who heaved it up the stairs. (Come to think of it, that’s a pretty hot, sweaty and slightly butt-cracky tale…but we’ll save it for another day.)
A couple weeks ago, I told you we were moving. And so we did! We moved from a couple kilometers outside the center of Milan to the very heart of it. We vacated the place on the left and landed in the place on the right. With the help of Italians and Romanians and Albanians, painting and heaving and plastering and packing. Always arriving in little Italian trucks, and driving off again in little Italian trucks
And from this new vantage point, we’re like children let loose on summer vacation in a foreign land. Every day we walk and walk, peering into the unknown nooks and crannies of our next chapter. (I have actually lived here before, but it was years ago, and as you know, cities don’t sit still. They change as if their lives depend on it.) Today we stomped around Corso di Porta Ticinese and the Ripa di Porta Ticinese, which runs next to one of Milan’s old canals. Once upon a time, it looked like this:
Now, it looks like what you see below. Not changed in significant ways, but dressed up in others. A modern, loose-handed and spirited creativity, slathered generously over the bricks and mortar of hundreds of years ago. A slow moving, secret-keeping water which ties it all together under bridges that prove just how diminutive it all is. (A couple bounds and you’re up. A couple paces and you’re over. A jump or two and you’re down on the other side.) Floating restaurants, bars and boutiques. And every few paces another one-of-a-kind art gallery, clothing store, antique store or eatery. You want Italian? Good. It’s there. But if you want Greek fusion or Brazilian sushi, they’re serving as well.
And before we arrived back home again, a sighting of the kind of character that makes me so happy to be here. A Japanese woman peddling home, dressed as if she just stepped out of the Japanese countryside, groceries swinging and a garden installed in her bike-back crate. There can never be too many expressions of who we are…Out of frame, an allium, its big blue ball of a flower bouncing over her head like the flag of her very own domain.
If this post were to be accompanied by music, it would undoubtedly be Michael Franti’s “Stay Human (All The Freaky People)” As he says, “Every flower got a right to be bloomin’.” Today we saw so many. And therein lies the beauty.
A little more than a year ago, I posted about the Spring colors of last year, featuring a piece of art, a “Flowerhead,” by Olaf Hajek. This year, as if Hajek’s fantastical visions were coming true, real flowerheads were recently spotted in a nearby shop window.
A man. And a woman. Their brains in full bloom. I have to admit, after the move I feel as if my own head is bursting with weeds. I had anticipated upheaval, but I hadn’t anticipated just how “upheaved” I would feel. So picture my head an explosion of dandelions, with little fluffy bits flying into thin air.
On a lighter note, a little Italian humor. Or maybe it’s just common sense. The climate may be nuts, but you can never go wrong interpreting it like this:
GYPSY CORD THERMOMETER
fog (or, drink less).
someone stole it.
Oh, ha ha ha. A couple posts ago, I was writing about mis-en-place as if I lived and breathed it. Now I’m wondering what happened to the organization I used to consider my middle name. It’s been replaced with something…well…else. And I’m reminded of a line one of my writing partners, Janet, wisely squeezed into a script for a TV spot Nike (unwisely) never approved: “Life is messy.” Jeez, is it ever.
We’re moving. I said that the last time I posted. Forgive me if I repeat myself, because that’s what you do when you move. You go a bit nuts for a while. Everything is upside down. Not just the books and boxes and memories and sentimental objects that all of a sudden just seem like something else to get rid of. But also the emotions. I am happy then I’m sad. Giddy then exhausted. Negative than positive. Whatever’s happening, I’m being moved by it. I’m being heaved up by a big tidal wave I invited into my life. You get what you ask for.
And what we asked for starts tomorrow. Tomorrow! Yikes! So, everything feels off. Everything is in flux. And despite all my best-laid mis-en-place plans (yes, I’ve drawn diagrams and floor plans and closet plans and you-name-it plans), I have this funny feeling that things will land a bit differently than I think they will. It’s all very funky.
And in the process of it all, we have revisited every moment of our own lives. Every choice. Every person we knew. Every shred of evidence or shame or glory. Every scrap of paper has been looked at and categorized, sometimes as “Trash,” sometimes as something to be newly enshrined. Every thing, every object has been reassessed. Our life has passed before our eyes, if not in a minute, then in a month of getting ready. The sense of an end is palpable.
But it’s just the end of a chapter. And without ending one chapter, you can’t start another. And that’s what it’s all about. A new, thrilling, different start. As much as I like might like to experience life as someone else, I’ll still be me with flaws and strengths, my quirks and insecurities…but I’ll be seeing the world from a different place. And this will be a new life for me. For us. I’m so excited about that.
We may do everything exactly as we do now. But then again, we may not. I don’t really think we will. A place can have huge impact on how you live, can’t it? Where we have noise now, we will have quiet. Where we have open space, we will have dedicated spaces. Where we now have lots and lots, we will be living with less. Much less. Where we now see cityscape, we will see vines. While we now commute to the center of the city, we will now be in it. A different set of contradictions. A different set of realities.
I don’t know that we will really “get anything right”…I just have faith that it will be. I’ll let you know.
What was the most traumatic move in your life? What move has changed you the most? Where would you move next?
I hope you have a beautiful day.