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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Letter from Italy

Our old wooden mailbox
I seem to notice more each year how much more ritualized and regularized life is here. I think our stays here, usually two months or so, are just the right length to give us a unique perspective that is neither local nor tourist. We must join in daily life, but we never do so without noticing how it is.

For example, I can NEVER get used to having to remember to get milk and bread between 8:30 am and 1:00 pm, or 5:30 pm and 8:00 pm, and not on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.  I go to make lunch when we’re hungry, say at 2:00 pm and uh-oh! No bread. Or oops, I didn’t realize the milk was nearly finished at breakfast. The stores are only two steps away, but they are closed. And, if I forget breakfast milk on the way home from the beach at 7:30 pm, that’s it. I can’t pop out for some after dinner. I have to run out in the morning, BEFORE I HAVE HAD MY COFFEE, to get some milk to make coffee with.

All this to say: if this knowledge is ingrained from childhood, you manage your life accordingly. It never surprises our neighbours to realize that on Monday morning there is no milk to be had in our neighbourhood. And for them the shopping for bits and pieces all the time is ritualized and regularized. I am always buying as much milk and bread and fruit and cold cuts as I can carry on my bike, to minimize the number of trips. None-the-less, they are very small shopping trips compared to what I would usually do at a grocery store with my car. Meanwhile, everyone else in the store is buying one etto (ie a 10th of a kilo or 100 grams: in English it would be useful to have a “hectogram”, wouldn’t it?) of prosciutto and 2 buns and 3 peaches. And, they’ll come back later for a piece of veal and some spinach for dinner.

I feel and observe the same rituals around going to the beach, setting up at the beach, going home from the beach and cleaning up for dinner out. We are so used to our regular rushed pace, and so committed to maximizing our relaxation time, that it takes conscious effort to slow down and be thorough, and some of it we can’t always manage.

We do now try to think over the list for the beach bags, despite having a cabina (a rented cabin) where we store beach toys, towels, spare books and bathing suits. Does everyone have a couple of suits? Does everyone have a current book? Hmmm. Are there enough towels down there? Do we have some spending money for the bar? What about something to put on to walk home in?

Our space at the beach
 Then, arrival at the beach. Get the key and open the cabina. Carry down the towels and the suntan lotions. Pull out the lettini (Italian beach loungers – unrivaled for comfort and practicality, and practically unavailable in North America). Lay out the towels. Take off clothes and drape them over the spokes of the umbrella, all this while staying politely within the space to which your rented beach umbrella entitles you. Then, if you have children, there follows half-an-hour of putting on their sun protection creams, including arguing time, and resulting in sandy, lotion-y hands that require a wash. Then, and only then, can you spend another 10 minutes putting on your own, and arranging yourself at the correct angle to the position of the sun, with a smooth towel underneath you, and your book in your hand. Ah, bliss!

Now, going home from the beach is quite long too. First, beach toys need to be de-sanded as much as possible and taken up to the cabina. Just as the kids are old enough to do it for themselves, they basically lose interest in toys, so that is a total loss. Towels need to be shaken out and assessed for re-use potential. Mostly they are good for a couple of days, but when it’s really hot, and there are a lot of bagni (swims), it might only be one day. In any case, all the towels need to be either folded VERY neatly (this is what I observe ALL Italians doing, especially when taking them home at night) or hanging them on pegs in the cabina to dry out. Then, we all  get dressed, throw out our garbage and pack up our bags. Then, we go give our feet and flip-flops a good rinse at the fontanella (actually a little tap provided for cleaning your feet, but also good for cleaning your hands, your buckets and  your screaming toddlers). Then we leave.

Evening at the beach, just before toy-clean-up time
To this point, we have more or less conscientiously adopted the local customs. We allow half an hour prep time for leaving the house, and arriving at the beach. We allow ourselves 15 or 20 minutes for leaving the beach. Pretty good, considering. At this point however, we often diversify from the locals, scandalously! Instead of going home and cleaning up and dressing up, we go straight to dinner, from the beach, as is! Shocker! We regularly eat (by this I mean 2 or 3 times a week at each) at two or three of the best restaurants in town, which happen to be near the beach, and even near our section of the beach. Thus, we feel it our right, as regular clients, to show up as we wish. The proprietors are kind enough, and sensible enough, to accommodate us, no doubt putting our strange eccentricity down to our foreign-ness. 

I have also come to realize that this same ritualization is a diet secret of the Italian, although it is perhaps lost to the younger generation. For about a dozen years now, we have seen the same people at the beach. Many of us have watched each others’ kids grow up from baby-hood, as we have visibly entered our middle age. However, many of the people around us, from middle age and beyond already those dozen years ago, still look exactly the same, and here is why. Not only do they meticulously clean and fold away their beach towels and beach bags and bathing suits at the end of each day, they also do so at the end of each season, and they can pull them out again in perfect shape year after year. (Side note: from personal experience I know ladies who have pulled out bibs their children used 40 years ago, clean, pressed and ready to be re-used by their grandchildren. Bibs. Pressed.) What does this have to do with diet secrets? Their eating habits are every bit as ritualized.

Completely different flavours: anise, sour cherry, mint....
They consume the same modest amounts at the same time of day as they always did: one espresso and 2 cookies for breakfast 1 peach at 1:30 pm, 1 cigarette at 3 pm, one blue popsicle at 5 pm, 1 glass of wine at 8pm, perhaps with a second cigarette. They do not share the greedy self-indulgence of finding oneself in this world of deliciousness, nor our habituation to abundance. We love everything that is offered – not only pastries, nutella (don’t get me started on nutella), pizzas, gelato, pasta, and so on, but the milk! the yogurt! the eggs! the butter! the figs! There is nothing we CAN resist, and we are not able to consume with modesty.
This is one of our favourite breakfasts

The Marigold wonders nervously: Could we actually lose weight eating cookies for breakfast? Is it worth trying? Should I write a book?

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