Monthly Archives: November 2013

After the rain....

25th November 2013. Now, if I could just reach to that pot at the end…..

Lost in Translation 1 or “we wuz robbed”.

Handsome Swain went to collect the official photos from MiniNotTreading’s First Holy Communion yesterday. (That the photographer has been calling us for 3 months to go and get them is another story….)

I grab the bag from him and eagerly riffle through the pics, which are lovely. 15 full-sized ones, and then a “sample” (measuring about 3 x 4 inches, so a nice little extra) of each. And a free album to put them in.

He took 75 euro off me for those!!!”  expletes HS grumpily.

I say nothing, but reflect on the strange, and peculiarly Italian use and sense of the verb “take” here.

Because HS wasn’t saying “they cost 75 euro”. Oh no. He was inferring he’d been robbed. That the 75 euro had been extorted from him. Very much against his will. The 75 euro were taken, not given in a fair exchange for the product/service received.

I pointed out to him that we knew, when we ordered the photos, way back in May, that they were 5 euro each. And we ordered 15. With no prompting or bullying from the photographer. HS concurred and said he hadn’t meant it that way (he bloomin’ well had)  and it was just a modo di dire. (way of saying stuff)

But in Italy that doesn’t seem to matter, the fact that you know the price first. It is part of HS’s mentality, part of his upbringing, that whatever you pay is always too much.

I do private English lessons, and my tariff hasn’t gone up since they introduced the euro. Italy is in a financial crisis, a Great Depression, and I know that it’s better to ask for 15 euro and actually get  the clients, than ask for 20 and have people shake their heads sadly and tell me I’m too expensive. (“you know what she wanted to take from me?”) Despite this fact, and despite the fact that the local school of English charges more for a group lesson than I do for a one-to-one, people will always, but always, ask for a discount. They will ask for a discount on the basis that maybe I teach a different member of the family on a different day, or at a different time…the famous sconto di famiglia. And even when I point out that they may think they are deserving of a discount for their bulk purchases as it were, I am still working the same number of hours, they just don’t get it. They think I’m being pedantically British. I have learned that the best way round this is to mutter “Well, my normal price is 20, but seeing as it’s you, I can do you 15”. I have mortally offended one woman this year who asked me “is the price still 10?” because she paid 10 last year to a person who wasn’t a native speaker, wasn’t a graduate, and wasn’t me!!! I have sometimes said, and only half joking, that if I offered private lessons free of charge, some people’s immediate reaction would be “ooooh that’s a bit steep, can’t you do me a discount?”

Sometimes…..all I need is the air that I breathe……or maybe not…..

I don’t think I have read a single ex-pat blog that didn’t speak about the infamous “colpo d’aria“. The peculiarly Italian problem of the “hit of air”. The air that sneaks up on you unawares and lands you in bed with a “febbre” (fever, for which read any tenth of a degree over 36.5. 36.6? You have a fever my friend and need antibiotics forthwith. Trust me, I live in Italy.

Never ones for minimising a situation, a headache, a cold, a bad throat, all those minor, niggly symptoms (that let’s face it, beyond the borders of Italy can get you in any season, not just winter)  will have an Italian off work/school for a week, with antibiotics and anxious parents (even when the patient is in their 40s) wringing their hands with that kind of pseudo-relish at having a gory tale to tell, and letting the whole neighbourhood know that young (or old) Giuseppe is in bed with a febbre or influenza.

I had only been in Italy a few months when I got one of my migraines. Nothing dramatic, just a blinding headache that put me in bed for 24 hours. My friend let the English school know I wouldn’t be in when she went in for her lessons.

“Does she have a febbre?” asks the secretary.

“I don’t imagine so,” says my friend, “she’s got a headache”.

Hah. She comes home brandishing a thermometer. “Nieta says we have to see if you’ve got a febbre and she can’t believe we haven’t got one of these in the flat”.

After ringing Nieta to see where we put it, and what it was supposed to do, and what it was going to say if I did/didn’t have a temperature, we established that I was not, as the whole town was suspecting, feverish. Just headachey.

A few years later, and a different school, I had another migraine and asked Concetta to ring the businessman and cancel my evening class with him.

“NotTreading won’t be able to do the lesson this evening, she has influenza”

“Concetta, I do not have influenza, now he’ll think I was telling fibs when he comes in the day after tomorrow and finds me fighting fit! Why didn’t you just tell him I have a headache?”

Too easy.

I have to tell Handsome Swain off for using the excuse with his mother on a Sunday;

“We can’t come, la bambina has a touch of influenza”.

Now anyone who has ever really, truly had influenza knows that you don’t get a “touch” of it. You get a full-blown headlong crash-into-a-brick-wall occurrence and you are bedridden for days. Unless you are Italian, in which case you can get it about 4 times a month, all year round.

One summer I was working in a residential summer school, and the director came banging on my bedroom door about 2am:

“Get up, quick! There’s a medical emergency! We have to call an ambulance! One of the kids has a fever!”

I scrambled up and grabbed my clothes, thinking some kind of malarial nasty, or meningitis. Then I checked…..

“Erm, Mark, what nationality is the kid?”

“It’s one of the Italians”

“Go back to bed, he’s got a cold. Get the group leader to stick one of the suitcase full of suppositories she’ll undoubtedly have about her person up part of his person and we can all get some rest. Once his parents have telephoned every hour, on the hour of course.” Which they were doing anyway. But that’s another post.

Handsome Swain’s mammy is an old lady. Granted. But does she really need to be taken to A and E every time she gets a cold? Of course she does! It’s nearer than the doctor’s. And then we wonder why there are news articles about patients lying in A and E on trollies for days on end. Simples: because 75% didn’t need to be there in the first place. And the other 25% are not seen to when they should be because of this constant going-to-the-hospital mentality.

Everyone has the flu jab. Except us. And everyone gets flu. Lots. From the end of summer onwards, the news always has a little slot with some expert telling us when the “real flu” will arrive, and how bad it will be, and how many of us will end up in bed. This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the ones already in bed with it when the telly doc is telling us it hasn’t arrived yet have “pre-influenza symptoms”. Like their bodies are preparing them for the worst.

But back to air. In the summer they can’t get enough of it. Unless it is coming through a window, in which case, it’s also lethal in summer. At MiniNotTreading’s nursery show, June, 37 degrees outside, all the windows had to be closed because the mothers sitting too near would get hit by it and then get a cervicale. You wondered when I was going to talk about cervicale, didn’t you? I have been told other people’s headaches are worse than my migraines, because theirs are “cervicale”. Fair enough, it’s not a competition. Actually, at times, when I describe my headaches to Handsome, they do seem to fit in with the Italian definition of this Really Bad Thing. That sort of headache which reaches down into your neck and shoulders. –I think we’d call it a tension headache–  I do rather get off though on saying, in a voice laden with doom and gloom “I think I’ve got a cervicale”.

You don’t go out when it’s not summer though. Mini was born in October, and the following April, a pharmacist friend came round, gingerly sniffed the air (brave brave lady) and said “I think in a week or two, you can start to take her out a bit, in the mornings” (did I mention air goes bad in the afternoon? Even the paediatrician told me that) Mini was first taken out when she was 10 days old and we waited that long simply because I had stitches that made walking any distance ouchy. I didn’t dare tell the pharmacist though, in case she rang the social.

I have quickly learned that a cold, or a headache, will simply not cut it. If you tell them that’s what you have, then they will simply tell you that they have flu and cervicale. So if you get in first, you’re sorted. Sympathy all round.

Finally, you remember the lethal qualities of sweat? I will leave it to you to imagine the full horror of a child coming out of the gym, or the soft play, sweating to dangerous levels, and finding it’s November when they get outside giving a double-whammy of sweat and air.

What’s for dinner? Let’s have THINGIES!!!!

These are people who don’t just like their food fresh. They like it pulsating. They like the challenge of preventing their tea from making a last-minute bid for freedom. They like to think a good vet could revive it. There is, to the Brit abroad, something fundamentally Not Right about waiting for your dinner to die (or worse, having to help it on its way) but here, it’s a way of life.
I have been on a beach and watched while Handsome Swain scrambled about on rocks scraping thingies into a water bottle, and I’ve sat with the same water bottle held at arm’s length on the way home trying to stop the thingies from crawling up the sides and getting out. (Those particular thingies had an odd taste, a sort of cross between land and sea, meat and fish. Think salty soil)
I’ve set the table for English visitors and shared their horror as the sea urchins loving bought and cleaned by HS waggle their waggly bits as if in greeting. (They taste like bits of bath sponge soaked in salt)

Salty orange bits of bath sponge

Salty orange bits of bath sponge

And I learned long ago that you buy mussels and other molluscs fresh and eat them on the day. Because if you don’t, they eat your teatowels….. Our first Italian boyfriends took us to buy mussels one Saturday night and the mussel-man told us they would be fine the following day as long as we put them in a bowl of salted water, not in the fridge and covered them with a cloth. The cloth was a red teatowel, and the bowl was placed on the kitchen worksurface. All through the night I could hear splish-splosh-splash from the kitchen, and through my stupor imagined there was a dripping tap somewhere. Then we found the floor wet through, the mussels in half the water they had started off in, and half the red teatowel gone. (I don’t know if they tasted of teatowel.  We ate pizza.)

Still under the impression that tomorrow was theirs....

Still under the impression that tomorrow was theirs….

Razor clams and crayfish are the worst I think…..Something about the wormlike nature of the razor clam, or the way it shrinks in horror when lemon is squeezed along its wormy body. Or perhaps it’s the fact that the crayfish has proper eyes, living eyes, that look at you from out of its plastic bag.

razor clams who think that if they shrink as small as they can, we won't notice them...

razor clams who think that if they shrink as small as they can, we won’t notice them…

Whatever, love Italian food as I do, I prefer my fish to be fish shaped, and to have been dead for at least a few hours, and by someone else’s hand, before I pick up my cutlery.

Qua’ si fa cosi’- The Child’s Birthday Party

My American friend and I, and our two young children, were invited to a 2 yr old’s birthday party. Now, generally speaking, a child’s birthday party in Italy is rarely, if ever, organized with the child in mind, but is planned with lavish and military precision for the benefit of older extended family- some of whom will finish work at 9pm, or will have had a 4 hour sleep after lunch, or been made to travel from far flung towns… It’s thus by no means unusual for a child’s birthday party to begin at 10pm…

We were therefore very pleasantly surprised to be summoned to our friend’s country house (totally not as posh as it sounds- these places are small cowboy built bungalows with few amenities and are used just for the day and only ever in summertime) at midday.

We were discombobulated on our arrival to catch not one teasing glimpse (or indeed sniff) of huge steaming foil-wrapped  packages of lasagne the size of football pitches. Instead there was just a couple of discount store carrier bags full of those cotton woolly sweet burger van bread rolls  and  2 packets of boiled ham. Hmm. We were swiftly handed bendy plastic knives and instructed to set to with the buttering (except the butter was, in fact, mayonnaise). Our friend did unwrap a focaccia which was placed proudly in the centre of the table….but oh dear, it was a home-made one…..Now, focaccia is a truly wonderful thing and one of my favourite Italian food items, but why make a wheel at home out of old bits of rubber and sticky backed plastic when there’s a Dunlop on the corner? Home made focaccia is bloody horrible. And all these illegal no planning permission country houses are probably built out of it. Whenever there is a “do” the inevitable clamour will arise “Well, I can bring a few home-made focaccias” – and everyone mentally books their dental appointment for the day after. Earlier this year at our church function there was a table visibly buckling under the weight of 24 focaccias (and 3 packets of cheesy wotsits that I had found in the back of the cupboard on my way out of the door)

As the ineffectual knives flicked mayonnaise and bits of cotton wool bread all over the assorted children, a car arrived containing the extended family… Well, what can I say? My American friend and I had laboured under the illusion that because our friend was nice to us, and didn’t have a problem with us being foreign, that her family would be the same. Hah! The  mother (who I recognised as one of the old biddies who rams their supermarket trollies up your backside and gets in front of you in the queue by pretending that a) you are wearing your invisibility cloak and b )there isn’t a queue) just stared and stared at us the whole day long and never spoke. The mother in law had obviously done really well in her mother in law school exams (and our only consolation was that she stared at her daughter-in-law’s family with the same level of utter disgust and hatred with which she stared at us)  and the  father had a wooden leg and smoked cigars all day and never spoke to anyone either.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any more qua’ si fa cosi’ there was an almighty crashing and bashing up the driveway and the Large Family arrived. My word, some homemade focaccia had gone down well in *that* household…Our friend’s sister, her teenage niece and a nephew (whose size and demeanour put him at about 9 but who turned out to be not yet 5 and still in nursery school despite being the size of a caravan). Giant teen thought me and my friend were mother and daughter, which went down well on my side given the 7 years between us ,and even when it had (slowly and clearly and with words of 1 syllable and a bit of sign language thrown in for clarity) been explained to her that we were not, she couldn’t quite get why we didn’t live together with us “being from the same place”. She was very interested in hearing about America though as she wanted to know which season “Beautiful” (a very popular and totally crap American soap that has been on Italian TV every afternoon for the past 485 years) was on in the States, but my dear friend, not having lived in the US for 12 years, and being in possession of more than one brain cell was sadly unable to enlighten her.

Of course there being Italian parents present meant there was a lot of worrying and hysteria about colds, temperatures, nappy contents, feeding times, nap times, dust and er, names for vaginas. One child fell asleep and there was a  United Nations style debate and secret vote as to whether her shoes should be taken off as “she’d been sweating and her feet might catch cold”

AT 5 pm everyone (except us) leaped up like some biological Italian inner alarm clock had just rung and yelled “it’s 5 o clock , get the yoghurts!!!!” and every child on the premises (except ours) had synchronised dairy stuffed in its face. This rather reminded us of another one of those what-the moments when, following the clocks going forward that Spring, every mother in the park took part in a lengthy and tormented soul search to decide if the daily portion of fruit should be given at the old 11 o’clock or the new.

We managed to escape early (before the next synchronised nappy content inspection became due) as I had a cleverly arranged doctor’s appointment to attend.

We drove off, for our darkened rooms and straightjackets,  leaving behind a flurry of sweeping brushes and protestations about children’s noses, which, as it was getting near on 6pm were about to start running copiously in approximation of some saint who cries real tears twice a year.