The Rooster: An Italian Childhood Memoir

We were still living in Naples at that time.  Before we moved to the suburb of Portici, where my formative years happened.  I was under nine years old, since I started fourth grade in Portici.  My memories of those early days are somewhat vague, but some are more vivid than others.

Like the rooster.

I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but somehow my very urban family ended up owning a live rooster. I seem to recall that it was an unexpected gift from someone my parents knew.  Perhaps the sometimes cleaning lady, who also happened to watch us when my mother was at school.  Or a kind school custodian who was grateful to one of my parents for a favor granted, I don’t know.  In those days, the outskirts of Naples were still mostly countryside, with farmland, and many people who worked in the city lived more bucolic lives out there, surrounded by fields, chickens and other farm animals.

Fact is that one day, my mother mentioned that we now had a rooster residing upstairs! At the time, my family was renting a small apartment in a two-family house in the neighborhood of Capodichino  (yes, where the airport is located).  We lived on the first floor (which would be considered the second in the US),  next door to the landlord who was a carabiniere.  A very nice family, who obviously allowed my poor bewildered mother to temporarily house the lively and not tiny rooster on the floor above, where the entrance to the rooftop terrace was.

Needless to say, we kids were enthralled, excited, scared, giggly, curious, ‘helpful’.  Can we feed it, please, please?!  The rooster was tied to the handrail, on the landing right above our apartment, where nobody lived, and the only door was the locked one to the terrace.  Also needless to say, it wasn’t a quiet rooster, but it squawked, shrilled, a total nuisance at all times of day and night.  My mother would regularly bring it some feed and water, hesitantly climbing the stairs, heart in her throat, terrified and resigned at once.  My brother, sister and I would follow behind, at a safe distance, even though mamma had told us not to, because she was afraid the strange creature would peck us.  She shakily placed the stuff near it, then quickly retreated.

Naturally, we were aware that it wasn’t a permanent pet, and its demise would be imminent, because that’s what happens to roosters.  Nevertheless, any time we could get away with it, we would run up the stairs and check il gallo, intimidated by its fierce expression, its constant, fitful motion, that regal, stiff red crest and the rust/brown/yellow feathers, which he seemed to shake off quite frequently, calling to him, making faces, trying to touch it for a second without getting pecked.  My brother especially, the reckless one, liked living on the edge: he would get so close that my sister and I would watch him frozen with apprehension, as he teased him into squawking loudly, then we would all run back down the stairs, even though the bird couldn’t get too far chasing us.

I overheard my parents discussing the stressful situation at night, arguing of course, what  were they going to do with that thing up there?  The landlord’s patience was wearing thin, my mother was not happy to have to take care of poultry, and surely was not expected to kill the darn bird herself, even though the well-meaning giver had said that it would make excellent stock, and, sure, my mother admitted, it would make a delicious broth for tortellini

Well, the day came when we ran up the stairs after school, and the noisy rooster was no longer there.  A strange smell and a couple of colorful feathers still lingered, next to a string.

We were saddened and alarmed at once, and wondered with trepidation what would be served for pranzo within the next few days. Not a pretty thought.

Indeed, my mother had dealt with the situation as best as she could.  The woman who had given us the unusual gift had quickly and matter-of-factly snapped its neck and handed it to my mother, nicely plucked and ready to cook.  My poor, traumatized mother had tactfully returned it to her, saying that she could not possibly ingest a bird that she had known alive and tended to for a week or so.  Grazie mille for this thoughtful present, but we are just not used to this kind of thing, we purchase our chickens (which we don’t know personally) at the butcher shop.  We are city people, forgive our squirminess.

Yes, of course, I was relieved.  My brother was particularly disappointed by the loss of our temporary ‘pet’, and pressed my parents to get another one to keep upstairs, just for a little while.

It was good to be able to get back to the terrace, without bypassing the nervous creature, and I certainly realized then I wasn’t made for the country life.

But grazie for this childhood vignette, galletto!

You too are deserving. Really

Bottom line:

It’s just you.  Always and only you.  Your biggest supporter, cheerleader, sympathizer.

Pick yourself up, shake off the grip of potential depression, get a steely control of your emotions, and put them in their place.  They don’t belong on your face.

Stay cool, detached.  Activate the powerful gray matter, focus on practicality.

They will stab you.  Sometimes unconsciously, accidentally.  But think: Shouldn’t they know better if they truly cared?

Reality: You are the one who needs to care about you.  Be your own advocate, wear your bullet-proof jacket, remain reasonably detached.

Build your immunity, start early.  Don’t allow the world to kick you in the face, even when the kicker is gentle and offers you a persuasive explanation.  There is no acceptable explanation.

Sacrifice is overrated.

Living in pain and anxiety, dwelling in the deepest unhappiness, simply not to rattle someone else’s life.  Allowing them to turn the other way not to get involved in a difficult situation that might offset the bricks they placed so neatly to pave their happy future.

This is unhealthy, self-destructive behavior.  Don’t self-destruct: you are worthy.

One cannot build personal happiness on the misery of others.  It doesn’t work that way.  Oh, they will comprehend at some point, of course they will.  But not now, focused as they are in conquering their brilliant future.

Stay resolute, freeze your tears before they show.  Stay true to yourself, don’t waver because that unfair sentiment known as guilt knows how to disassemble your soul.

Don’t give up. You matter.

Take that trip, you deserve it.  Love that city just because.  Even when they try to make the mere idea of your timid wish weigh on your conscience, and not necessarily in words.

Be brave.  Courage is real, simply concealed under deceiving, self-imposed responsibilities.

At the end, it’s always just you, forever.


Merry Christmas from Italian Class in Armonk!

Another wonderful year of Italian Classes at the North Castle Public Library in Armonk, NY, has come to an end.  So many memories, so much fun.  Thank you to all my students, old and new, who have made my Tuesday nights a precious time that I eagerly look forward to.  Always get my second wind at 6:30 pm on Tuesdays! May you all enjoy this magical time of the year…and I can’t wait to see you again in January!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from all of us, at the Italian Language and Culture Class!

Buon Natale e tanti, tanti auguri di pura gioia e serenità!

Christmas Ramblings

I want a simpler Christmas.

Like the ones of my childhood in Italy.  A period of festivities and serenity, quiet joy, great food, few gifts.

I grew up in a financially comfortable middle class environment, both my parents being educators.  We lacked nothing, but the ‘unnecessary’ amenities were quite limited.

My father was very focused on saving money, and, I know now, the majority of my parents’ paychecks ended up in the bank, leaving only what was absolutely needed for daily requirements.  This meant that we did have a serious vacation somewhere every single summer, but if I mentioned that I would love that new stylish coat that was all the rage among my friends, my father would automatically say no.  Upon inspection of my wardrobe, he would firmly state, “Non ne hai bisogno, il tuo cappotto è quasi nuovo e ti va benissimo.” You don’t need another coat, yours is nearly new and it fits fine.

Thrifty, I guess.  Very.

Yes, of course I was disappointed and resentful, calling him tirchio (stingy) under my breath, and whining to my mother, who, as a woman, was more sympathetic, and often would help me sneak in the object of my desire.  It took me many years to comprehend his motivation, his determination to keep us all safe and comfortable, and to provide for everyone’s future.  Which he did.

Naturally, that attitude left us kids with a meager loot on Christmas morning.

But we were ecstatically happy with our gifts from Babbo Natale.  A little case containing a pretty golden-haired doll, brush and comb, and a few outfits (including pajamas!) caused my heart to beat rapidly, as I spent the entire day organizing and admiring my treasure.  And so did my siblings, both enthralled with a newborn doll in a crib, and a bright red remote-control car.  One toy each, and a pair of cozy cloth slippers, often not even wrapped, just there, under the small artificial Christmas tree.

My mother would spend Christmas Eve setting up a fairly large presepe (creche), building the holy grotto with special thick paper, on top of a dresser, and we would eagerly position the figurines in the appropriate spots, and I remember still the flawless beauty of the Madonna, dressed in a pink gown and a blue veil; of course baby Jesus would not be placed in the manger until after midnight, when my mother would quietly deliver him upon his official birth.  Also on the Eve, mamma was stuffing and shaping tortellini, which we would enjoy in a rich chicken broth for our Christmas pranzo.  They were the best thing ever, and never enough. She made just enough for one abundant serving each, always leaving us with a slight yearning for more.  But that made them even more alluring.  Of course, we had a second course, often a delectable cotechino, a special, thick pork sausage, only prepared during the holiday period, hearty winter food, served with her perfect, creamy mashed potatoes, and assorted vegetables.  A golden ring of honey-coated Struffoli would be our much awaited dessert, plus an exquisite Cassata, an incredibly beautiful cake made of layers of Pan di Spagna and ricotta cream, flavored with white rum, and dotted with delicious candied orange and citron peel, and chopped bittersweet chocolate. There were also other traditional Neapolitan sweets, like Mostaccioli, spice cookies covered in a chocolate glaze, and pastel-hued pasta reale, tiny almond paste pastries that melted in your mouth. All the sweets were kindly provided by the nuns of a local convent-school, who had been my parents’ friends for years.  I now make most of these magnificent desserts for my American family, but, somehow, they are never as perfect as the ones of my memories.

My family was small, only five of us at the table most of the time, as my parents preferred to celebrate only with immediate family, and not with hordes of relatives with whom they might or might not get along.  It was a tranquil Christmas, Mass after the opening of the presents and before lunch, the day usually ending with a game of cards or tombola, and a slice of Panettone, always present on every Italian’s table during the holiday period.

We would go to sleep content and excited, looking forward to playing again with our new toys the following day, no school, those special sweets for breakfast with our hot milk, and possibly a few hours spent walking around downtown Naples, admiring the beautiful Christmas lights, that stretched overhead from one side of the street to the other, in glorious glittering rows, and the classic, detailed presepi – the famous Neapolitan nativity scenes – proudly displayed almost everywhere.

I realize that I’m remembering my childhood Christmas as indeed a child, not through my parents’ eyes, with their unspoken responsibilities, especially my mother, who was not a happy camper spending endless hours making dough, rolling it out on the huge wooden board, and tediously cutting, stuffing and shaping each individual tortellino.

But even those adult responsibilities were not nearly as intense as the ones I experience these days, as a grown woman and mother, feeling absolutely overwhelmed by the mad rush of the season, by the chores at hand which are often self-imposed, as I feel compelled to make everything perfectly festive even if it kills me.

A simpler Christmas, ecco.  Sitting on the floor looking up at the twinkling lights of the tree.  Going to the church’s Christmas carols concert, and just listen, without my brain twirling in my head.

Too stressed to live.

The most wonderful time of the year.

Almost Tragic

Driving can enlighten you.

Especially on a sunny day, when the traffic is light.  And you are just going.  Going.

But you have a destination.

And you don’t really want it.

Freedom is a luxury, is it not?  We all claim it, take it for granted, quote it, shout it.

But none of us truly owns it.

Oh those wings were clipped.  Long ago.  One must be responsible, practical, okay, perfect.  According to everyone else.

Dreams: cut!  Desires: cut!

Live for others, work, produce, accept, support, shut up.

You were never young, trusting, innocent, positive, happy.  What they think.

Traveling.  Everywhere.  Falling in love with the world.  Sure I was.  I also believed in my sacred pursuit of happiness.  Fail.

Don’t ruffle feathers, keep a low profile, go with the flow.  Any more clichés come to mind?

The sun is bright, I need to pull down the sun visor.   But I yearn for the sun to possess me.  Give me courage, please.  Make me brave, make me confident, make me assertive, give me direction.  Cancel my unwarranted sense of guilt about EVERYTHING  Because I’m a woman, and women suffer endlessly for sins not committed.

Give me the world to explore, repair my wings, damn it!  I gave them up them too early.

Why must I restrain myself?  Disappear into anonymity and boredom to boost comfort and stability for others?  I don’t really like to cease existing.  Don’t wish to blend into the routine background of a life never fully lived.  Frustration and resentment are not good companions.  My journey is not over, why should I blend it with the necessities of others?

The glittering of the sun rays on the timeless river distracts me.  Sheer beauty.  Seize this moment.  Inhale it.  It won’t last.

Freedom is only a concept.

Put the directional on, must bear right.

Modena Rivisited

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I never thought it would be so beautiful


Okay, sure, I had been there several times, mostly when I was very young, since it was my mother’s hometown.  I have vague memories of my nonna with her hair pulled up in a tight bun, and it had a sort of a bluish hue.

I recall being there as a teen, unhappily dragged along by my parents for some holidays, begrudging the fact that I would not see my boyfriend for several days.  But I was too involved in my own dramas to pay much attention.

This time it was different.  And I owe it to them, my wonderful cousins, whom I hardly knew, but who gave me the precious opportunity to spend a longer period in this absolutely lovely city, welcoming me and my daughter to their pretty home with touching warmth and kindness.  Not a reception one receives often as a guest.

Taking a walk around town on the very first day, I felt swaddled in a vibrant golden light: the stunning yellow and orange buildings of Modena, reflecting and intensifying the sunlight, warming the city and our hearts, as we wandered through the magnificent centro storico.  I’m fascinated by the superb architecture, the splendid Romanesque Duomo – the main cathedral- and its Ghirlandina, the bell tower that has become the beloved symbol of the city.  Elegant streets, shaded by classic arched portici, graced with chic shops, bars displaying a dizzying array of mouth-watering pastries, charming bicycle parking areas on the side (Modena is a serious bicycle town, the most common method of transportation!).  Rich in history, with its surprising, mysterious underground canals, with the beautiful Piazza grande, carpeted by thousands of river stones, smoothened by centuries of human footsteps, including my own, as I walked on them, a little tentatively in my heels, which I rarely do without.

I grew up in Naples, since my modenese mother had fallen in love with this city during her honeymoon journey, and she and the city embraced each other with a love that would last a lifetime.  Therefore, because of the distance, Modena and all of mamma’s relatives, had been somewhat placed in the background, as my siblings and I lived a totally Southern Italian childhood.

But they were there, those Modena roots, strong and everlasting, just waiting their turn to be uncovered.

With anticipation and wonder, I approach the “Mercato coperto”, the indoor market in the heart of the city.  I remember going there with my uncle, lo zio Walter, my mother’s younger brother.  He was a tall gentleman and had a beautiful shiny, flame red Fiat 600, of which he was very (very) fond.  I was an insecure and shy child, always felt a little in awe of adults, but when he offered to buy me a panino al prosciutto, freshly made at a deli counter, I eagerly accepted.  And here I am, surrounded by delectable prosciutti,  parmigiano, salami, and other local delights, and don’t even know what to look at first.  What a great food city is Modena!  Nobody makes tortellini like they do here, and those fat, overstuffed tortelloni, savory with ricotta, parmigiano and greens, the dough tender and so intensely yellow, their delicate flavor enhanced by fresh sage leaves; golden tagliatelle with a rich, white, porcini sauce; freshly made tigelle, spread with lard or stracchino, one of my favorite soft cheeses.  Breakfast is perfection when you bite into a heavenly diamond-shaped piece of gnocco, flaky and tender, warm and puffy right out of the fryer, ideal with your foamy cappuccino. And the bread, so unique in its many whimsical shapes, chalk-white and dense, yet light and easily snappable.  I also discovered a product called savor, which is a thick jam made of multiple fresh and dried fruit, used to make fantastic crostate and tortelli dolci, lovely tiny crescent-shaped pies, stuffed with various fillings and deep fried.  My mother used to make tortelli when we were small, usually filled with sour cherry jam (a specialty of Modena), and it was always a feast. I hear her accent all around me, at the mercato, as the shoppers chat and laugh, and my eyes become slightly blurry.

As I gaze at the ‘roofs of Modena”, sipping my espresso, out on the kitchen balcony, in the shade of the many trees that help cool off the fiery summer heat, I realize that this trip has changed me: my connection to my mother’s land is more solid, and I’m so fiercely proud to belong to this city and to these beautiful people.

Modena, you’re in my heart.