Friday, December 25, 2009


For Thanksgiving a small group of us rented a farmhouse in Umbria and cooked a feast for nine people in an oven not much bigger than a ten pound turkey. Everyone brought a dish to contribute to the meal and, while the kitchen was the size of an inadequate closet, the turf battles for stove, oven and sink were often surprisingly civil. I was responsible for the turkeys (two ten pounders in anticipation of the smaller European ovens) and assumed that I'd have some sort of priority in the line for the oven. I quickly discovered that my priority number was just behind four of the women in the group who managed to elbow me out of the way with such skill, finesse and charm that I didn't even mind the bruises on my ribs. "But I have the turkeys," I whined. Their replies were shockingly direct and impressively descriptive and I retreated to the table to have a glass of Prosecco and reflect upon the evolution of diplomatic language.

When it was safe, I popped the first turkey into the oven and began to fight for one of the four burners on the stove. This time I was adamant and no amount of abuse could chase me away. I was able to commandeer a pot of just the right size and I put the giblets with water, broth and spices into it and began to simmer them for the gravy. Because chivalry is not dead, I then surrendered the field to the ladies and retreated to the porch to have a cigar with a couple of the men. When the cigars were finished I decided to go back in and check on the stock I'd left simmering on the stove. All four burners were occupied by pots filling the room with the wonderful smells of Thanksgiving, not one of which was my gravy stock. Where did my pot go? "Oh," said one of the women with an angelic smile, "I put it in the sink for safekeeping." Make a note, this is the exact moment when chivalry died.

Don't let the pretty smiles fool you, they'd eat their young before they'd give up their places at the stove.

After a brief argument over when it was appropriate to begin playing Christmas music (I still maintain that it is appropriate as soon as the turkey goes into the oven), 'regular' music played, wine bottles were opened, the table was set and Thanksgiving dinner was served. The food was amazing and there was so much of it that we were able to have a complete second dinner the next day. I ate enough to shame a wolf and still outreached the woman seated next to me for the last piece of sweet potato pie. Although everyone had had their fill, there was enough turkey left over to have sandwiches on Sunday. Time not spent cooking or eating was spent hiking, watching movies, reading and just sitting around talking. By any measure, our Umbrian Thanksgiving was a huge success and I'm hoping it will be repeated next year and, if so, that I'll be invited along again.

I opened an Italian bank account because the automatic withdrawal option makes it easier to pay my bills here. Without a local bank account you pay your bills at the post office every month and that entails standing in long lines and then being advised that you have been on the wrong line and must now stand on another even longer line. Along with my bank account I received a debit card which I was told could be used on the highways to pay the tolls. This might not sound like such a big deal but at every tollbooth there are three marked lanes; one with no line at all for cars using Telepass, one with very short lines for cars using bank cards and one with a line stretching all the way back to your original entrance to the highway for cars using cash. On my way up to Umbria, as I exited the highway, I pulled into the bank card lane and saw several slots that looked as if they would be where I should put my card, but I wasn't sure which one to use. Fortunately, there was an attendant in the booth and I asked him if I could use my bank card to pay and I explained that I'd never paid a toll with it and wasn't sure how to do so. He smiled and said, "Certamente!" then came out of the booth, took my card, turned his back to me and, blocking my view, paid the toll in one or another of the slots. Grazie!

"You Blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things: O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome..."

Shakespeare almost certainly had motorini riders in mind when he penned that phrase in the opening scene of "Julius Caesar".

Motorinis are a cultural thing. The humble motor scooter is used here as a form of mass transit and for 'mass' I use the Webster dictionary definition, "a coherent, typically large body of matter with no definite shape." Motorini is the word Italians use when referring to the motor scooter riders who zip in, out, around and through the traffic on the streets of Rome. It is already plurale and only Americans add the 's' when there are more than a single motor scooter. In the 1953 movie, "Roman Holiday", Audrey Hepburn takes Gregory Peck on a wild ride through bizarrely empty streets in Rome on, apparently, the only motor scooter in town. This little machine would have been called a motorino, but since 1953 the singolare of the word has been restricted to phrases such as, "Vincenzo hit a motorino today on his way to church. Grazie Dio, our car received only a small dent!" or "Look, Isabella, those boys on the motorino have your purse." Apart from that, it is impossible to spot a single motorino and they are always motorini, or if you're an American, motorinis.

If you grew up in Italy, I suppose that motorini traffic isn't all that unusual. It, much like famine, pestilence and death, is just there. Always has been (post-1953 anyway) and always will be. There don't seem to be any actual rules of the road for motorinis apart from "if there is a space you must occupy it." At every traffic light you must weave and wend your way to the front of the line of cars, even if that means temporarily trespassing into the oncoming traffic lane and, in anticipation of the light turning green, blast away in a pack during the last micro-seconds of the red light. Sidewalks, center dividers and every single square meter of roadway are all fair game for motorini. Yet, these zipping buzzing impediments to sanity and safety don't seem to annoy Italians and surprisingly few drivers bother to make a rude gesture or two or loudly question the riders ancestry. I watched a motorino run a red light in front of a police car the other day and no one was more shocked than the rider when he was pulled over. A pedestrian alongside me in the crosswalk said, "Beh, don't they have better things to do, it must be a very slow day today for the police." This from a man who had almost been knocked down by that motorino.

There is a piece of legislation sitting, largely ignored, in Parliament that would require all bloggers in Italy to apply for permits to continue to publish their thoughts online or risk being fined as 'unlicensed journalists'. While it is unlikely that this legislation will ever be passed or survive the inevitable judicial review if it were, it is almost certainly aimed at Beppe Grillo. Grillo is a political activist who supports freedom of the internet, opposes political corruption and uses satire and ridicule to lampoon Italian power structures and the government. I stand foursquare with him. I too support freedom of speech and oppose corruption, I too am willing to risk fines and imprisonment for civil disobedience or rather I would be if I weren't quite certain that I'm protected by diplomatic immunity.

The Christmas holidays are upon us and it's time for this unlicensed journalist to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year. May your feasts be plentiful, may you always find the short lines and may the motorinis miss you in the crosswalks in 2010!