La Storia del Gallo: Ricordi della mia infanzia a Napoli

Forse avevo sette, otto anni.  Non ricordo bene.

Ma un giorno mia madre ci annunciò che avevamo un nuovo inquilino: un bel gallo!

Allora abitavo ancora a Napoli, a Capodichino.  Infatti ci siamo trasferiti a Portici quando avevo nove anni e cominciai la quarta elementare all’Istituto Cristo Re, dove mio padre era il dirigente scolastico (chiamato direttore didattico, a quei tempi).

No so precisamente come ciò sia successo, ma immagino che una bidella della scuola dove i miei genitori erano docenti abbia voluto dare loro un regalo per qualche gentilezza ricevuta.  Oppure era stata la signora che ci guardava ogni tanto, quando mia madre era a scuola per riunioni pomeridiane.  A quei tempi, la periferia di Napoli era ancora abbastanza bucolica: i campi coltivati ci circondavano, e anche i prati fitti di papaveri scarlatti dove si poteva correre liberi e felici nelle belle giornate di sole così frequenti nell’Italia del Sud.  Molti abitanti di quella zona venivano in città a lavorare, ma tornavano nei loro casali la sera.

Il gallo fu sistemato nel pianerottolo vicino alla porta della terrazza.  Allora noi affittavamo un appartamentino al primo (e unico) piano di una palazzina che era proprietà di un carabiniere.  Bravissima persona, molto comprensiva.

Così noi, topi di città, diventammo all’improvviso quasi agricoltori/contadini.

Naturalmente, essendo bambini, l’idea di avere un gallo da accudire ci rendeva molto felici, anche se un po’ nervosi e confusi.  Che fanno i galli?  Un gran chiasso, pare.  E non solo all’alba come eravamo stati istruiti, ma cantano (in modo tutt’altro che melodico) a tutte le ore del giorno e della notte.  Certo il carabiniere doveva essere un santo.

Il gallo era legato alla ringhiera delle scale, vicino alla porta della terrazza.  Mia madre metteva qualcosa da mangiare (non ho la minima idea di che si trattasse) in una ciotola e lo portava su, esitante e rassegnata, lasciandolo in prossimità del gallo affinché potesse avvicinarsi facilmente, ma non beccarla.

Non voleva che noi tre bambini curiosi la seguissimo, ma naturalmente era impossibile.  “Attenti che vi becca!” ci avvertiva.  E ammetto che la paura io ce l’avevo.  Ma mio fratello – temerario!- non poi tanto.  Sempre il più avventuroso, lui saliva su per le scale, mentre io e la mia sorellina, ci fermavamo qualche scalino prima, e cominciava a provocarlo.  Smorfie eccetera.  Roba da bambini, ovviamente.  Ma quando il gallo si arrabbiava, cominciava ad agitare le ali e a schiamazzare, via di corsa giù per le scale, tutti e tre, cuore in gola!

La sera li sentivo.  Il babbo e la mamma che discutevano.  Che cavolo si deve fare col gallo? Sono stanca di occuparmi di pollame, ho già tutti i miei alunni… Sì, lo so, la signora ha detto che fa un brodo strepitoso, perfetto per i tortellini, e anche molto abbondante, ma… Io non l’ammazzo, gli porto da mangiare da una settimana…

Il gallo era comunque diventato il nostro “cucciolo” e non perdevamo occasione per andarlo a trovare.  Però un giorno, quando arrivammo sul pianerottolo della terrazza dopo la scuola, trovammo solo delle piume rosse, bianche e gialle vicino alla cordicina.  E l’odore di pollaio.

Pare che la mia esasperata, stressatissima mamma abbia chiesto alla signora di riprendersi il galletto, grazie mille per il pensiero, ma noi siamo gente di città e il pollame lo compriamo in macelleria già bello preparato.  Lei avrà alzato le spalle, sbalordita, e, arrivata in campagna, tirato per benino il collo del povero pennuto e cominciato a preparare il pranzo.

Certo, noi ragazzi siamo rimasti un po’ delusi, avendo perso il nostro quasi pet, ma, almeno io, mi sentivo piuttosto sollevata di poter andare su in terrazza senza cercare di aggirare un gallo che non era mai di buon umore.

Comunque, grazie galletto, per questa simpatica vignetta della mia (lontanissima) infanzia.



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!

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.

When the Floors Had to Be Waxed: A Memoir

Rose graniglia floor

This was not a job that was done often, when I was growing up in Italy. It was extremely time consuming, required a good amount of elbow grease, plus the excruciating down time.

These days, most people in Italy prefer the trendier wood floors, especially sleek and elegant parquet, with tile usually installed only in the kitchen and bathrooms.  But back then, every apartment had floors made of graniglia, which is a kind of more affordable marble, sturdy and basic.  These tiles had all pretty much the same design, with some color variations, mostly in the yellow-orange, rose, and forest-green hue.  And those were the ones I grew up with in Portici.  I don’t remember too clearly the color patterns, but I believe the bedrooms were rose, while the long hallway was orangish. The living room and my father’s study were green. The dining room, the most formal space in the house, had instead a luxurious marble floor, with a nearly mirror finish.

In order to look attractive, all those floors were high-maintenance.  My long-suffering mother, who had a full-time job as a teacher, went food shopping on foot at the open-air market every single day, cooked and cleaned, and often assisted with our homework, tackled that major chore every couple of months.  Of course, the floors were all regularly washed weekly, but they lost that coveted sheen, and that was unacceptable.

Usually on a Sunday – since school is open six days a week in Italy – she would wake up in a fairly unpleasant mood, and begin her day of labor.  That meant, we had to get out of bed earlier then normal, and literally get out of the way.

Perfect graniglia floor

After seriously scrubbing all the floors, one room at the time, with a mop and a bucket, she allowed them to dry thoroughly, and we knew better than talk to her or even breathe then.  We were confined to a room where the floor had already dried, while my father had cleverly made plans to be gone for good part of the day (usually he went to his office in the school were he was the principal, to catch up on paper work in peace, while listening to Beethoven).

Then came the wax.  She would pour the liquid from a little bottle, then quickly spread it out with a special mop, and waited for it to set.

This is when the fun part began.

A smile of satisfaction would appear on her lips, we children released our breath, and got out our equipment: le pattine!

My unwaxed kitchen floor

The pattine were two thick pieces of soft cloth with a strap; you slipped your feet under the strap, and, voilà, you were on skates (pattini means skates in Italian)!   We each had our own set, and were rearing to go.  My mother would begin by going over the entire floor with a soft mop made for that purpose, then she would say Avanti, cominciate! And the race began.  Sliding and slipping playfully on the floors, we ‘roller-skated’ in circles, diagonally, and every which way, reaching every corner, sometimes slamming against walls and furniture, especially my very aggressive brother who was prone to turn everything into a serious competition.  The floors shined and glowed under our speedy feet, becoming a glorious rink, as our shadows turned into mirror images.

Oh, to fly freely through our spacious apartment, fearless and light, the fresh sea breeze from all the open balconies inflating our youthful sails.

The tedious chore had become a game, directing our infinite energy into a most practical job that didn’t feel like such.

The flawless glory of a highly polished floor.  My mother would be tired but satisfied and proud.  Only slippers in the house for that day.  My father would dutifully admire the result, and praise us for helping.

All was well with the universe.

Till the next time

The Way We Were

Young and innocent, we were.

The world was a field of dreams, and our hearts ached with the tender agony of anticipation.

I’m walking fast, down the main street of my Westchester town, barely used green Skechers on my feet, propelled by my customary anxiety, fury, determination and pain.   An older man is ahead of me, baseball cap on his head, advancing at an irritating leisurely pace, looking around, as if…life were a walk in the park.

Move on, I’m inwardly hissing, don’t got time for this, I’m busy, just trying to get some stupid exercise done before I dive into my nerve-racking life again.

And I see my grandfather.   Nonno Romolo, the only grandparent I really knew, my mother’s dad. He came to visit us twice a year, for about 3-4 weeks, and we little kids so looked forward to his arrival. My father drove the trusty old Simca to the train station in Naples to pick him up, a bit worn out by the overnight ride from Modena, but still cheerful and calm.

We waited at home in Portici, peeking out from the kitchen balcony to witness the arrival, excited about all the gifts he would bring us, especially (for me) those large beautifully illustrated fairytales books I loved to lose myself into.

Nonno Romolo was a dignified old gentleman, always impeccably dressed in a gray suit, white shirt and tie, and a fedora hat. Comfortably resigned to the fact that his daughter had married a Southerner, il nonno would wander, curious and eager, the uneven streets of Portici, unmindful of the unruly drivers that never even dreamed of stopping at a red light, of the ever-expanding pot holes, the cars parked on the sidewalk just because, slowly but steadily continuing on his daily path, stopping at the newsstand at the corner, where the smiling giornalaia handed him the local newspaper, Il Mattino, and wished him a buona giornata.

Often, we little hyper children would go with him, ever mindful of the abundance of the hard mint candies he always carried in his pockets, to be dispensed according to our behavior. He would take us to the Royal Gardens (part of the old Royal Palace Estate), of Portici, where a delightful skating rink awaited, always packed with kids, in those days, a wonderland in the deep greenery of ancient, illustrious trees.

He would sit on a bench, pull out of his pocket the Settimana Enigmistica, the most popular weekly crossword  magazine in Italy (to this day), and watch us out of the corner of his eye, while we attached roller skates to our sturdy sandals with the two straps, and flew off into the freedom of the rink (well, me not so much, as I, always tentative, stayed in close proximity of the handrail).

Those wonder mornings of my childhood, easy and innocent. After our exhilarating roller skate ride, off we went, skipping on the dusty trails, to the little lake, where regal swans glided proudly. We pulled out the chunks of stale bread we had brought and tossed it to feathered creatures, anxiously waiting to see whose crumbs they snapped up first.

The sun rose higher in the sky, and burned on our skin, sign that il pranzo would soon be ready.   “Andiamo, my grandfather would say, la mamma ci aspetta”. And indeed, my mother excitedly waited for us for lunch, happy and serene (a rare thing) because her adored father was there with us, his tranquil and benign presence an anchor in her taxing life. Sometimes, after lunch, while my father took his routine afternoon nap (or happened to be out), I would catch il nonno and my mother sitting pleasantly on the kitchen chairs, the floor still damp after the daily mopping, smoking a cigarette and speaking in modenese dialect, a mysterious and indecipherable language. I would watch, fascinated, awed and somewhat confused (after all my father had forbidden smoking), catching a glimpse of my mother as a woman and a human being. Strange, yes.

I slow down my frenzied pace, and look at the old gentleman with the baseball hat, relaxed, retired from the rat race, finally viewing the world as the miracle that it is.

We were lighthearted, we were loved, we were protected.  But didn’t understand it.

Grazie, nonno Romolo, for those magic days of childhood.