12 novembre 2018
Le poche volte che salgo in soffitta la ignoro. È sempre lì, la valigetta verde, nel suo angolino, seminascosta dai valigioni rossi e lucidi che aspettano pazientemente d’imbarcarsi per l’Italia. Mentre la valigetta verde l’Italia ce l’ha dentro. È un vecchio modello vintage anni settanta, leggera, perché le carte non pesano poi tanto. Anche quelle cariche di storie.
Stavolta la porto giù, l’adagio sulla moquette e, con mano leggermente incerta, tiro la cerniera.
Teneri i diari scolastici Grazia del liceo, con quelle copertine cool (almeno così sembravano allora) e spigliate. Calligrafia non bella, a volte anche disordinata, soprattutto quando scrivevo quelle dichiarazioni assurde e pesanti da adolescente (irragionevolmente) angosciata – Sono così infelice! Dio mi odia! L’amore fa schifo! Spesso scritte in un inglese da principiante, sotto la lista dei compiti. Poi i diari, quelli veri, quelli su cui disegnavo i cuoricini e i nomi più preziosi del momento. La passione possente che ancora non capivo, travestita da amore nascente, attenuata dalla naïveté della mia giovane età, che volava sulle ali traditrici di sogni irrealizzabili. Emozioni acerbe, pure e intense – ti amo, ti odio, mi manchi, ti riprendo, adesso basta, avanti un altro, quello vero, quello grande, quello ‘per sempre’. Ma ‘per sempre’ non esiste.
Le lettere. Carta fragile, sottilissima, quasi ho paura di toccarle, che si frantumino in un mucchietto di polvere e si disperdano nell’aria. Come i sogni. Nomi che mi afferrano il cuore, altri che non riconosco perché tanto tempo è passato, e forse non erano importanti. Quelle amicizie estive, sbocciate spontanee il primo giorno al mare (o in montagna), diventate vincoli di acciaio in pochi giorni, poi cuori spezzati quando ci si doveva separare. Ti scriverò tutti i giorni! giuravamo. E lo facemmo, missive fitte fitte, spedite in fretta, ricevute con gioia traboccante. Per qualche mese. Poi qualcuno non risponde più e finisce lì.
Le foto di classe, in bianco e nero, quei visi così familiari, ma i nomi sfuggenti; poi giro la foto e mi perdo nella dolce tortura dei messaggi e delle dediche, spesso spiritose, commoventi perché sincere nella loro immaturità.
I disegni. I taccuini a quadretti, tanti racconti infantili, da me creati quando ancora non sapevo che avrei scritto per una vita intera. Illustrati coi pastelli, fate con i veli svolazzanti, principi azzuri dai capelli biondi, il lieto fine, sempre un lieto fine. I ritratti di amici, sorella, compagni di classe, attrici. Ero brava, accidenti. Ma perché ho poi smesso di disegnare? Già, la vita, quella vera, mi ha incastrato, ha cancellato i desideri e la creatività, regalandomi in cambio una lista di doveri che mi occuperà per l’eternità.
Basta. Chiudo la valigetta, mi accingo a riportarla lassù, nel suo meritato nascondiglio.
Ma la trascino a stento, è diventata pesantissima, una cassetta di piombo che mi taglia le dita.
Against my better judgement.
I usually ignore it, when I go up into the attic. The little, light, green plastic suitcase, vintage 70’s, standing up straight, partially hidden by all the others, the large modern ones, mostly red, mostly rarely used.
But in there lies my story, my history, my Italian life, my marvelous and angsty formative years.
I unzip it, and the flood of the past engulfs me almost instantly. I can smell the salty marine air of the Portici’s harbor, all the fishing boats lolling on the gentle waves, preparing for their nightly journey. I am blinded by the lights of the parochial theater, buzzing with activity and excitement, as the teens enthusiastically rehearse for the play. I walk the elegant, crowded Viale Leonardo da Vinci, a river of chatty, animated young humanity, bursting with the hope and joy of those who still don’t know better.
A rainbow of notebooks unfolds before my apprehensive eyes: I blink, even turn my gaze toward the window and the fading green of the trees of my New York autumn.
I’m ready to close up that perilous well of the past immediately…but I can’t.
So much writing, more or less neat, in those hundreds (thousands?) of pages, a plethora of exclamations points ending the sentences, because emotions were pure, extreme and raw in those wonder days. The tender, innocent diaries of someone who was in love with the world, yet insisted on despising it. Call it teenage angst, or embarking into the tentative construction of your own life, not according to your parents’ desires and plans.
My cheerfully decorated school agendas, filled with an insane quantity of quotes, mostly sappy, but, at the time, fundamentally powerful, next to the list of my homework assignments.
Life was vividly colored then, no gray areas. Friendships were forever, infatuations were eternal love, the future was a kaleidoscope of images of that amazing life of traveling the world, a world that was kind and welcoming, as I believed in my naïve knowledge of humankind.
A stack of letters, some slightly yellowed, the ink fading in spots, some corners torn. I read the names, and some shake me to the core, others barely ring a bell. So many summer friendships, developed spontaneously at the various resorts where my parents would take us during the summer months, new ‘best’ friends, whom we couldn’t bear to leave, at the end of our two-week stay, our young hearts ripped in two. Thus, the frequent correspondence, afterwards, for several months, three-four sheets of flimsy letter paper filled, with every single detail of our lives, sincerely curious and interested in each other’s stories. Stories that eventually ended, when one side or the other would simply stop responding.
Those days when people were made of flesh and smiles, their touch was real, their voice close by. Not photographs on Facebook, their words blue-white letters on a lit screen.
My precise drawings, illustrating my original fairy tales, amuse and inspire me: Why on earth did I stop drawing? I was rather talented. Oh yes, life happened, the real thing, the one that overwhelms the mind and soul, that erases dreams and innate skills, that dulls the senses. It’s called maturity. Also known as the demise of spontaneity and vibrant, liquid emotions.
The photographs are aggressive. They grasp my heart and squeeze it till I’m gasping for air. Noisy school yards, smiling boys and girls, spensierati, yes, carefree though we didn’t know it. I turn over the class photos, and make my aching way through all the handwritten dedications and messages. Yes, I remember you, and you, and you I hated, but not truly. And you were my world till it ended. And, after that, you were my world. A series of important people that really weren’t so, after all. The cruel unfolding of life. Continuous replacement. Of everything.
I close the suitcase, grab the handle and make my way up the ladder to the attic.
But it’s so difficult, the climb: the little green suitcase is so much heavier now, I can barely drag it.
My comfort zone. My safe place. My hideaway.
I won’t cry: I will make an Apple Cake.
I won’t bang my head against the wall; I will start chopping onions on a pretty green cutting board, following Jacques Pépin’s precise instructions, and caramelize them slowly in a little olive oil. (Do try them on a burger).
I will avoid dwelling on the past, refuse to be tortured by regrets, what could have been if I had gone through the other door, if I had been wise at nineteen, if I had listened to my mother, if I…
It is small, my kitchen. Counter space? Will twenty inches do? Yes, my friends! I can work in that little space just fine, spreading out to my sturdy wood kitchen table when I bake. You don’t need yards of polished granite to perform, I assure you. You don’t need recessed lights, stainless appliances, French copper pots hanging from strategically placed hooks on the ceiling.
Or the ISLAND.
I never had the ISLAND in my life and, believe it or not, I’m surviving.
Desire. And passion. With a touch of fury. All you really need to become an outstanding baker and cook. Not that I claim to be.
All I know is that when I am in the kitchen, I am okay. I will put on my apron du jour, command (mostly) reliable Alexa to play something (Yes, Latin Pop works wonders), pour a glass of something other than lemonade, and become Chef.
The apron, by the way, is important. I do have a little collection of them, since people who know me well gift them to me at times (and I go directly to the housewares department of TJ Maxx more often than not). You slip on that crisp apron and…you’re on!
Getting serious in the kitchen.
You need to be serious. And determined.
Serious because you love it. If you don’t, then make reservations.
The kitchen can heal you. You are broken, limp through your emotions, tremble secretly, swear never again, consider extreme options, then brush them aside. You are going to cook!
My trusty black GE gas range is awaiting instructions. It’s four burners, by the way, not restaurant-size, but then, I’m not running a restaurant. I clean it lovingly every evening, grateful for its reliability. Yes, the Sausages and broccoli di rape were cooked perfectly, the meat tender, golden and flavorful (but I did keep a watchful eye).
I will not (usually) slam doors. I will not drive aimlessly for two hours, boiling with anger, swearing revenge (at least, not for the whole two hours).
I will not book a flight to Paris with a credit card, shrugging whatever, had enough.
I will make a little gem of a flourless chocolate cake. I will place it carefully on an egg-yolk-yellow cake stand which will enhance its simple perfection: I will buy fresh heavy cream, whip it to cloudy softness, add a hint of pure vanilla.
I will glance around my tiny yellow kitchen, smile at the colorful stacked bowls on the shelves across from the fridge, allow my patched-up heart to skip a beat at the sight of my French baking pan collection (gathered through numerous years of baking passion), trace the sharp curves of my Bundt pans, imagining all the glorious pound cakes to come.
I will turn the ache into a tender tart filled with satin-smooth lemon curd.
I will drown the sadness by bathing bright-green basil leaves in cool water, then patting them dry for an absolutely magnificent Pesto.
The kitchen can save your life.
The kitchen is my kingdom.
(Here is the link to the recipe for the Flourless Chocolate Cake).
Because life is short, and you always just do what you must.
Because you are practical, responsible, with common sense coming out of your ears.
That’s most of us.
You bake a pan of Brownies for the kids (scrupulously from scratch, please!), stirring the melted butter and chocolate with a spatula, in a pot on the stove, already visualizing the little dark squares that you have been making for twenty odd years.
Suddenly, the bubble of routine and intense boredom has become intolerable, and the urge to take that panful of molten monotony and shove it out of the window is nearly irrepressible.
So, you make Le Fraisier.
In fact, I bake quite often, but generally I go for simple, hearty breakfast cakes, the ubiquitous Brownies, a pound cake baked in a spectacularly intricate Bundt pan, to obtain at least a visually inspiring product.
Naturally, the time factor is the culprit, plus the constant exhaustion, as we zombie our way through life, our only purpose survival of another day.
Following one of my favorite TV programs, The Great British Baking Show, while partially dozing, due to the above-mentioned exhaustion (and perhaps the oversized glass of Pinot Grigio), I perked up when I watched the
mesmerizing preparation of the stunning Fraisier, one of the glories of French Haute Pâtisserie.
In the ‘old days’, before my life became so fast-paced and maddening complicated, I used to dedicate long, enjoyable, hours to the preparation of elaborate cakes and tarts, following lengthy recipes in my enormous cookbook collection. I became quite an accomplished pâtissière!
Then life caught up with me.
Well, I’m rebelling. I’m not making Chocolate Chip Cookies this time, but a stunning Fraisier! And I don’t need a reason for it.
I did some research in my French baking books, surfed the web, till I found a video that seemed quite reliable. I watched it very carefully, then wrote my shopping list, hit the stores for a few items I didn’t have at home – strawberries, almond flour, milk (yes, milk: nobody drinks milk in my house), then began the methodical prepping of the various components. It took a couple of days, stealing time from this
and that; prepare the almond genoise (French sponge cake), the crème pâtissière, the mousseline, the simple syrup, the marzipan. A serene joy filled my heart as I watched each creamy, velvety concoction turn out beautifully.
The little things.
The final assembly was perhaps the most heart-fluttering and dramatic stage of the process. The exquisite beauty of a well-executed gateau makes one feel, well, worthy.
Damn, I still got it!
I invited my whole family over for cake, the day after. Just because.
Le Fraisier became only a memory in thirty minutes flat! Thank goodness for smartphones.
Make a Fraisier, my friends. Good for the soul.
(If you want to give it a try, here is the link to the professional video I followed to the letter. Have fun!)
Yes, another wonderful year of Italian classes at the North Castle Public Library has come to summer break.
I’m infinitely grateful for having the joy and honor to teach these wonderful people who have come to class, year after year.
We celebrated with a Food Night, and my students brought so many goodies! I contributed the lattice-top torta.
Looking forward to starting again on Tuesday, September 4th!
Grazie, mille volte grazie, ai miei studenti! Siete grandi! Ci vediamo a settembre!
Benvenuti al mio Corso di lingua italiana!
Come to the North Castle Public Library in Armonk, and join our fabulous class!
Our Italian Language and Culture Classes continue through the summer, as we learn and have fun at once.
Look at my video, then come and say hello!
Spero di conoscervi presto!
Buona estate a tutti!
A heap of broken stories.
Never mind the dreams, hopes, expectations, and all that jazz.
Enter and exit stereotypes.
She believed because she was young. Tender and clear are the young. Willingly vulnerable, the world just a sea of glorious adventures.
She used to be kind. The smile rarely left her lips, she was open and soft and trusting.
She abandoned the well-known but dull, hanging tightly to sizzling comets. She didn’t miss the past, those left behind; the memories were tucked away, deep in the tunnel of things that don’t matter so much anymore. Or so it seemed, when the sky was so much bluer on the other side of regular.
But dreams are meant to explode. Or fade, or shamefully rot away.
Those splendid knights turn out not to be the heroes of a romantic crusade of love and forever joy beyond possibilities.
Sometimes she doesn’t recognize the image in the mirror. She sees her mother, or, frighteningly, a strange woman with no connection to her. She catches the image suddenly, brazen and bold, even mocking. She turns away, stricken, but when she dares peek again, it’s undoubtedly her. But twenty, thirty years in the future, right?
She feels cold and weighed down by a curtain of sorrow.
She glances at the heap of broken stories, touches it gently, silently cries out when they sting her. No tears, no visible anguish, no wavering, no time to feel. She signed that right away when she grew up.
She picks up her cup of coffee and erases the heap.
When things that are fine or normal for others are only desperate wishes for you.
The brutality of life.
Stay strong, right?
Quando le cose che stanno bene o sono normali per gli altri sono solo desideri disperati per te.
La brutalità della vita.
Tieni duro, vero?
It’s a holiday in Italy. Called Pasquetta or Lunedì dell’Angelo. A day dedicated to feasting outdoors. The great after-Easter picnic, which always happens since the weather usually cooperates. In Southern Italy, that is. A tradition that is fairly recent, dating back to the period right after World War Two, when the government decided to extend the Easter festivities by one day, so that people could relax and enjoy Easter without the stress of having to go back to work on Monday. Damn good idea, I’d say, can we adopt it? Anyway, I, having been raised in Italy in a less traditional way than most Italians, had not experienced this customary picnic until I was about sixteen or seventeen. And not with my family. We were staying in my father’s country house (his almost two-hundred-year-old ancestral home) in Colli, in the tiny region of Molise, something we did sometimes for Easter, as the weather was more pleasant and that little mountain village wasn’t as frigid (ancient stone house with no heat: not a cozy picture, believe me!). So, the day after Easter, some far-removed relatives of my father asked me to join them on their traditional Pasquetta picnic at Valle Fiorita, in the countryside nearby. Sure, why not, better than hanging out with my family doing nothing, or possibly bickering with my siblings. Allora, my father’s cousin and his daughter, a girl a couple of years younger than me with whom I occasionally hung out, came to pick me up in an old Fiat, and off we went toward the outskirts of the village, along bumpy and dusty country roads, till we reached – almost by magic, I thought, since I didn’t pay much attention to itineraries – a green valley, smiling cheerfully emerald under the sun, surrounded by woods. Pretty for sure…but there was nothing there. Now what? Well, ‘what’ arrived promptly. A small crowd of participants began pulling up in cars and motorcycles, all carrying baskets, containers, pots, and bags of groceries. Before I could get my bearings, folding chairs were opened up, a huge pot (a cauldron?) was removed from the trunk of a car and set on the grass, while some of the men began building a fire. As I was waiting for the salame and prosciutto sandwiches to be distributed, like at a proper picnic, I was surprised to see that the cauldron was being filled with water (from where?) and set on the now lively fire…while the women were tearing open packages of pasta. What? Yes, indeed, another pot brimming with sauce was bubbling already over another fire, and tables (from where?) were being set with tablecloths and napkins! I was stunned: we were going to have freshly cooked pasta at a picnic in the middle of a forest! And so it was. Spaghetti with some kind of tomato sauce (I think, I didn’t really pay much attention to these things as a teen, just focusing on boys, fashion, boys, romantic novels, boys, nail polish, boys…), with parmigiano, clinking glasses of red wine, followed by lamb chops cooked alla brace, on a makeshift grill, vegetable contorni, then the thick and golden frittate di Pasqua, special tall frittate made with dozens of eggs, filled with all sorts of meats and cheeses, aromatic of nepitella (a type of wild mint that grows in the mountains), cooked at length on the stove, till they looked like solid cakes, to be sliced with a knife (no diet food this, nor easily digestible, but quite delicious), green salads, plus, of course, the leftover pastiera and other Easter sweets, and, naturally, strong sweet coffee for all, freshly brewed in the little army of moka caffettiere brought along by everyone. A gargantuan meal, which bore no resemblance to a picnic. A long afternoon spent, after, lying around on the grass, half dozing, half listening to the soccer game on the radio (the men), washing all the (real) dishes and flatware and cleaning up the valley (the women). Us kids? Off into the proximity of the picnic area, with friends or boyfriends, a fairly reckless motorcycle ride down the country path, hanging on for dear life to a friend of a friend of a cousin who had this cool red Vespa…Never experienced it again, this incredible Easter Monday picnic that wasn’t a picnic, but, damn it, still can’t get it out of my mind, even after decades, wishing that, well, I knew then what I know now, and actually had a clearer memory of the bounty of the food and how it was magically created in the middle of the woods. Instead of the color of somebody’s eyes. Ma così è.
( I originally wrote and posted this memoir on April 1, 2013. Re-published here because I didn’t have the time to write a new one. Simple as that.)