Monday, August 22, 2011



Q:What's your favorite Italian purchase?

A:My beaded curtain
To me, this looks like a shimmering veil of Jujubes. And if you are too young to know what a Jujube candy is, even though I only like to imagine myself a Principessa, your teeth probably have far fewer crowns than mine. My friend who is married to an Italian and who heads Italian Language Program where I teach said she loved this photo because "it SCREAMS Italy."

Q:How do you spend your time in the Umbrian countryside?

A:Cupping bugs with a plastic Michelin cup and a postcard from one of my French students.(see July post, "Jiminy Cricket No Longer Lives Here")

Q:We understand that you write a blog called “In Love with France, At Home in Italy.” What is your work station like?

A.We invested in some beautiful old furniture well before our former ruin was renovated. At the dealer’s, I was looking with curiosity at an old, iron, mirrored wash stand that was missing a few key parts, such as the piece of marble for the table top. The female half of our ingenious architect team suggested to the seller that, in addition to a SCONTO (price break), he should give me, as an OMAGGIO (a gift, something Italians with whom you do serious business love to offer). This is probably a psychologically astute way to soften the blow of the high price you will be paying. The furniture man responded by saying he wanted to give me the wash stand in question, but he was disappointed when G, our brilliant architect who knows how to bargain Sicilian-style, added, “of course you will refinish it to perfection, and in the process, you will change that BRUTTO (ugly, cheap) piece of green marble for a nice slab of Carrera marble. He didn’t like getting outfoxed like that, but was not about to lose face by not delivering on his omaggio. That left me wondering, what on earth am I going to do with that piece?

No worries. G, a design genius, had anticipated where the wash stand would go, and the good use to which I could put it as a unique desk in my Moroccan bagno. It is now my favorite piece of furniture, and that bagno/office is the best room in the house! As you can see, it might not be to everyone’s taste, but it works for me.
Those are inexpensive curtain panels from the market, to which G gave a few creative tosses and knots to soften the hard spaces of the room. I always marvel at the way those who have the designing gene can visualize just what to do and then they do it in a flash, and with utter confidence. I, who lack the visualization gene,  need to use the trial-and-error approach:"Will that house look good? Build it first and then I can tell you if I like it." If one considers the gazillions of choices and decisions to be made when renovating a ruin (and how much work and $ go into each one), it is clear that my approach is not cost or time-effective. Fortunately, other members of the family have a good eye and the good taste to save me from myself and make the right choices.  

This is where I sit to write. That's an ancient Mac (that has a special feature of a line down the middle of the screen due to an unfortunate fall) stacked atop a tower of thick books. Why? To bring the computer up to eye level so that I don't "hunch."

Here's a closer look at my workspace that reflects the France-versus-Italy focus of this blog. There are two Italian dictionaries, last year's (now full) Italian journal where I record what might eventually turn up on the blog, along with the new, French, Clairefontaine-brand pocket journal brought back from Paris by a favorite former French student. I've only used the first 4 of its 98 pages, so this one should last a good while.  

Q.As you are about to leave Italy for the new academic year, do you have anything besides "arrividerci" to say to the property?

A.Perhaps inspired by the Italian wine Est! Est! Est!, I want to say Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! to some of my plants that I have “dissed,”  fussed over, and threatened to relocate over the course of the summer. It all turned out OK, and I was Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
These morning glories got off to a slow start and I was sure that they would never make it. Now, like The Little Engine that Could, they have made their way up to the roof, from which they poke their little heads out every morning. As they were waiting for me to give up on them, they were probably saying to themselves, "I think I can, I think I can." And they were right!
This is the view that greets morning glories who made it to the roof of the pergola. I don't want to put words in their mouth, but I think they're saying "it may have taken us all summer to get here, but it was worth the climb." 

These "polka" roses looked puny and miserable for much of the summer. I fussed over them endlessly, and was ready to tear them out. But just then Farmer G gave them an infusion of his Grade A cow and sheep manure, which saved us all from tearing our hair and flowers out.

Ditto for these red roses, which despite my skepticism, are happily climbing up the persimmon tree. Some winter day I hope to see icy orange globes of persimmons hanging from that cachi (pronounced "cah-kee"--unfortunate sounding name for a tree, no?). They always look magical in the winter landscape. Of course that assumes that they did not get eaten, first!

Q.I know that you had been worried about having an endless series of Bad Hair Days this summer. Was it as bad as you anticipated?

A.   Well, what got me concerned about this was that prior to my arrival here in Italy, there were some dark moments in my blond life. My trusted hair professional who for more than 3 decades had been giving me the illusion that somewhere within the depths of my being, my natural blond self still existed, pulled a fast one on me. As he delicately tried to explain, “as blond hair ages, it often turns dark well before becoming a nice, mousy shade of gray.” His recommendation? Instead of highlighting it, I should let him make it darker to match the intermediate phase of my evolution to black-stockinged Italian grandma.

BIG mistake! I emerged from that salon a lot poorer and with someone I did not recognize staring back at me in the mirror. The evidence was clear: some aliens had landed on my head and turned my natural blond hair Dark! Dark! Dark! Every time I looked out of the corner of my eye, I was greeted with unsettling darkness. I was convinced that a Helmet of Gloom had descended on my head.

Just how bad was it? Even my husband, who ordinarily does not pay so much attention to such things, looked up from his iPad and said some version of “Yikes! What happened to you??”

The bad news was that I had to go to class wearing my Helmet of Gloom, and my students, who change hair color at whim said they thought it was cool, and that I should give it a chance.

No way! An attempt was made by my annoyed hairdresser to patch up the situation (sorry! sorry! sorry!, only it was once again me saying it. Maybe I spent too much time in my youth playing the board game, Sorry?) But that left me wondering what would happen if my hair were left to its own devices for 3 months in the Italian sun. Would the dreaded Helmet of Gloom be back after a few weeks?

Who knows? And who cares? 
I decided to bite the bullet and let nature take her course. The Umbrian flora and fauna and my farmer friends all seem to recognize me and don’t seem to mind my bi-color look. And due to scheduling issues, I will be appearing this way at the Freshman Dinner and when I meet with my new advisees on Monday. But by the next day, I think that thanks to the wonders of modern chemistry, I will be transformed back to what I think of as my lifelong blond self.

What on earth could this be? Looks like the surface of the moon. But it's actually a tile on the wall of my bathroom. Some creature from Outer Space must have left some dark hairs there.

And those same aliens also left a few dark hairs mixed in with the blond ones in the very sink where I was combing my hair. This was not a happy discovery. I would like them to go back to their own planet, and take their dark hair with them.

Is it true that blonds have more fun?  
Maybe not so much when you are a sweet, young thing on your Jr. Yr. In France vacation being chased around the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa by a bunch of lusty Italian soldiers. But in general, I’d say the answer is “yes.”

Now why does that 50’s rock n’roll song “Mama said there’d be days like this, there’d be days like this my mama said” keep  rolling ‘round my brain? Could that singer have been talking about a Bad Hair Day?

Q.Read any good books while you were on your summer vacation?

A.   I have already mentioned David Nicholls’ mind-blowing “One Day” (in a newly released film I can’t wait to see), David Lodge’s “Deaf Sentence,” Anthony Bourdain’s “Medium Raw,” and for my book group, I’m currently trying to get into Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.” 

Having been a fan of Bourdain’s Les Halles restaurant, of his “Kitchen Confidential” in which he told some shocking “tales out of school,” and of his tv travel-cum-food-focused shows (“No Reservations”, etc.), I can’t resist saying a word about this book.

Bourdain’s bad-boy persona has particular shock appeal to lifelong good-girls like me. But what really struck me was the underlying message of how a person headed for disaster and tragedy can be saved by the power of writing. He only hints at this realization as he recounts a very raw tale of drug addiction and spiraling out of control, but I can’t help thinking that the unexpected success of “Kitchen Confidential” and his skills as a writer are what saved him. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound….” Now there’s a song for all places and ages. And especially for the bumpy trajectory of so many writers. Raymond Carter’s “Where I’m Calling From” gets it pitch-perfect.

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