21 September 2009

Cinema Purgatorio

Tonight, as I sat senza marito (without husband) at my in-law’s table during a visit from my husband’s aunt and uncle, my eyes began glazing over.

Years ago, in the same situations, I used to be so eager to keep up with their conversations; listening to every word, trying to understand, translating in my mind from Sicilian dialect to Italian and then to English. But I don’t have that eagerness anymore. I have since learned the utter futility of it and I no longer find the point of stressing myself to understand their rhetoric.

For years, I would work so hard to understand their conversations or some long story or joke (seriously long--like a ten minute joke), and I would get most of it up to the end, proud of myself for keeping up and anticipating the grand finale...and then the punch line would always be some super-fast zinger of half words that I couldn’t understand if my life depended on it! Then everyone would burst out laughing and I would sit there, not laughing, disappointed and frustrated. God I hated that.

I have since learned that it’s not worth my energy, because in the end, I will still be lost. So these days, I just sit as a quiet bystander, amused by my own thoughts, pulled in only when I hear “eh, Nicole?” (their way of checking I'm still breathing). Then I give my mother-in-law a blank look and wait for her to explain the discourse to me in Italian.

But tonight, as I sat there silently, I saw myself as if in a Fellini film, with his larger than life characters, the humor of the odd noises and shrill voices coming out of the mouths around me. Hmm, was it a scene from "Armacord"?...Totally.

But I didn't like it...it was just a bit too crazy for me.  

Cut!--Scene change--I prefer the cool, smart, Roman fashionistas of Fellini's "8 1/2". Plus, everything looks cooler in black and white, anyway. Yeah, that's more like it...a perfect scene for drifting into a dream sequence...

My memories of glamorous dinner parties in my sister’s grand dining room inserted themselves into the scene...place settings perfect, crystal glasses for each type of wine, classical music playing in the background... All of us are dressed well, the conversation is mind expanding and we discuss dreams and ideals, politics and current events and make plans for future travel. It is all so civilized and wonderful...all I need to do is give everyone black frame glasses, sharp haircuts, black clothes and cigarettes...yeah, now that looks perfect...

Eh, Nicole?

Damn, my Fellini dream sequence is interrupted like a record screeching to a halt. I am abruptly grabbed back to reality as my mother-in-law tries to bring me up to date on her story. She starts off in Italian to make sure I don’t get lost again and describes:

When I was at the hairdresser, the woman told me about the wife of Mr. Lupino, who’s all ‘tu-tu’ (insert gesture), who lives in the square, next door to ‘so & so’ (I’m not leaving out names, she really said ‘so & so’), who’s next door to Maria Nigura (that’s a nickname) who lives on the corner.

NO!” cries the aunt, abruptly. With the conviction of an attorney fighting for the rights of her client, she insists in a shrill voice:

LUPINO lives down the street that slopes!! (insert gesture of sloping street) Where ‘so & so’ lives (I assume this is a different 'so & so'). You know where ‘so & so’ lives? ACROSS!!! (insert gesture for across the street) Directly across from ‘so & so’.

Confused? Yeah, me too. I try to follow, try to figure out where I come in in this story, until I realize that I don’t. She just noticed that I was not listening and had to call my attention back to their conversation.

As usual, their tongues quickly slip back into dialect and their pace quickens to furious speeds. Somewhere between the “quidrus” and “quidras”, my eyes glaze over and I drift back to my dream sequence, far away from insidious town gossip...


I have often found myself in the observer seat here, watching them speak, watching them interact.  I know these people very well--they have been my in-laws for many years. But sometimes I feel so foreign--so out of place. There are worlds between our worlds and they have no clue. None of them ever came to visit us in the U.S. Some have never even left the shores of Sicily. I think about the simplicity of their lives: entire families all living on the same block, the husband that works 9-5 and the wife whose sole purpose in life is to take care of said husband. The grandparents that take care of their kids...and pizza on the weekends. It’s a nice and simple existence, and it works very well for them. But it’s just not my cup of caffé.

Speaking of which, it came time for making caffé (espresso), so I jumped up to do it--anything to break my time sitting in complete silence (god forbid anyone talked to me about my life or my thoughts). With my back turned to the room of animated chatter, I assembled the cafféteria (stove-top espresso pot). I hear my mother-in-law inform her guests that I am very helpful and the aunt agrees that it is much better to have a helpful nuora (daughter-in-law)--which is also a very skilled way to comment about her nuora not being helpful. Sicilians are champions of double meaning or back-handed compliments.

The espresso furiously spurts into the pot. I assemble the tray and run through the proper service:

Espresso cups? Check. Saucers? Check. Little spoons? Check. Sugar jar? Check. Napkins? Check. Perfect.

I bring the loaded tray to the table and try to get a word in to ask how they prefer their caffé. No one hears me over the sheer volume of their voices and the rambling of their chatter--even though I'm standing right in front of them. I stand there uncomfortably for a few moments, waiting for a break in their incredibly important conversation about what the neighbor has been up to.

Finally, I look at the aunt and forcefully ask:

Amaro (without sugar)"?


Then I ask the same to her husband and he replies: “with a little bit of sugar”.

I pick up the sugar jar to pass to him, but hesitate for just a moment, thinking that if he told me the quantity of sugar, it was for me to know how much to add for him. So I start towards his cup with the sugar in hand, when all of a sudden, my father-in-law stops me with a brisk lesson in serving caffé:

Nicole, FIRST, put the espresso in the cup. THEN give him the cup, the sugar jar and a spoon and let HIM put the sugar in.

Wow. Ok. Now I am officially trained in the technical skill of serving espresso. I clearly missed a course in Sicilian domestic arts. But hey, another item for the CV, right?

After serving everyone their caffé, I sat back down, feeling slightly wounded by my brisk, public lesson, and I wondered how they would fare in someone else’s culture. As I sipped my bitter caffé, I slipped away again, back into my Fellini dream sequence, back to my 'happy place'.

05 September 2009

What's a Nutritionist to do?

My whole life I grew up thinking that Europe was the seat of natural medicine. Homeopathy was a household word, pharmacies sold natural products and herbal remedies. All the conversations in my house that mentioned the state of health care in the US, contrasted the difference of the fantastic availability of natural cures in Europe. “At least there, you don’t need to worry about the FDA blocking the use of herbal medicine.

Fast forward 20 years, I’m managing an acupuncture clinic, having a good rapport with several different reps from the top vitamin companies, being able to order just about any product sold anywhere in the world, and all the time I’m discussing how great it would be to live in Europe. I’m doing my grocery shopping at Whole Foods, picking up organic everything from fruit, nuts, oils, coffee to household products that don’t contain harmful chemicals. Knowing the sprouts guy at the Farmer’s Market and the butcher stand where the grass-fed beef is sold. All the while, thinking how much easier and cheaper it must be to shop in Europe because they don’t need to worry about where their beef comes from--it’s naturally natural.

Now, here I am in Sicily, thinking back on my life in Los Angeles, the health food capital of the world, and realizing that it’s not quite as I thought here in Europe. And that famous Mediterranean diet? They don’t know what that is here. Well, they know what it is, and they think they follow it (because they live in the Mediterranean). But that diet doesn’t include packaged croissants for breakfast, a pound of pasta a day accompanied with a pound of bread and to finish, a pound of ricotta filled pastries (I’m not exaggerating the amounts here, people). And that’s all on normal days--you won’t believe what they can put down during holiday meals! There are more overweight, hypertensive people with cholesterol levels through the roof here than anywhere else I have ever seen. It’s rather alarming.

Although, I must admit that other countries in Europe, even northern Italy, are light years ahead of southern Italy when it comes to diet, alternative healing, access to herbal medicine and availability of organic products. However, this is where I find myself for the time being, and I must admit that all the things I thought I would miss--I don’t. It’s what I thought I wouldn’t miss that has caught me by sheer surprise.

The question becomes: what do I do about it? Yes, I miss the convenience with which all things complimentary and alternative were available to me. To have local, raw honey suppliers, yoga classes and macrobiotic cafes at my fingertips. Whole Foods, herb shops and pristine, sparkling Integrative Medical Centers in every town. But does that mean I should run back to my health haven? Or does it mean that I should attempt to create a refuge here, and bring the beauty of accessible holistic health care to a culture set in it’s ways? And would it even be possible? No, it absolutely would not be possible. Not here. I am also learning that nothing can change here. Even a 19th century Sicilian poet, Giovanni Verga, said of Sicily: “Everything changes to remain the same.

Living here, I have certainly become aware of all the little things I previously took for granted. Things I never thought twice about--like picking up a package of trail mix; ginger tea for tummy aches; buying organic berries, and simple, raw, unsalted nuts. Here, forget about it. I feel as though I have sent myself into health food exile. Oh, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, how do I miss thee? Let me count the ways: almond butter; maple syrup; quinoa; Zen household cleaner; Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap; black beans; almond milk; organic French roast coffee; cranberries (that one’s for Leo); coconut milk....Okay, I guess I’ll stop there.

So what do you constantly have stocked in the kitchen that you take for granted?

Vernazza Updates:

Vernazza is well on its way to normalcy and while I no longer write updates on their status, you can learn about the devastating floods of 2011 by clicking the label "Vernazza Updates". For the latest information from the organizations in Vernazza and Monterosso, visit SaveVernazza and Rebuild Monterosso.

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