Dec 2007

Lo Sciopero!

The Strike

gas station

Bundled in Topo, my little blue car, I sped to work through the ice frosted fields. With the morning news on the radio and warm air blasting on my feet, Topo barreled past sparkling vineyards and frigid villas. We were both enjoying the unusual tractor free commute as I half-listened to the radio. In order to understand everything in this rapid-fire Italian, I have to really concentrate and the morning was just too beautiful. I heard a few words about trucks, transportation, traffic…the usual. Ho hum.

As I arrived at the first traffic circle, or
rotonda, before crossing the vast Piave, I slowed to join a line of cars trying to pass. A row of trucks were parked along the four roads feeding into the rotonda and groups of men were clustered in the street. A small tent had been set up in the grass at the center of the circle under which there was a table, and what seemed to be a well stocked bar and a large pile of split wood. I was able to notice all these details because I had come to a complete stop behind a truck. As I peered around his load, I could see the intense discussion going on between the driver and the men on the street. After a lot of arm waving and hand gestures, the truck was allowed to pass, as was I, without a second look from the men who turned back to the refreshments awaiting them.

Mildly curious, I called Luciano to ask what was up as I motored across the long desolate road built in the dry, wide bed of the Piave River .

“Did they stop you?”

“Trucks, yes. Me, no. In fact they looked like they were having fun, except for the cold.”

“It’s the truck strike which has been going in since Monday. They are forcing the non-striking trucks to join them so they can say there is 100% participation. How are you on gas?”

“Enough to get to town. I was planning on filling up on the way in. Why?”

“Well, if you can find an open station, I would suggest you do that. With no trucks moving, the gas stations are running out.”

“Oh.” Abruptly reality hit, hard. I could feel the desperation in the air. Of course. This strike had been going on for two days, but in my little bubble I had not noticed.

I arrived at a second larger rotonda where we all came to a stop again as the hapless truck driver in front of me was confronted by the strikers. I glanced at the gas gauge and I contemplated turning off the engine. “Come on, come on”, I muttered to myself, “Decide what to do.” More minutes ticked by as my precious gas, which moments before had been taken for granted, was slipping away, drop by drop. Did the needle move again? Suddenly the trucker threw up his hands and moved his truck to the side of the street. Another reluctant recruit.

As I got closer to town I passed stations with hand written signs propped up out front:
benzina esaurita, gas finished. I pulled into my favorite where there was a line of cars, suggesting there was something to buy. But the garage was closed and there appeared to be an argument going on at the pay machine, so I moved on. I figured there had to be gas in Treviso.


Many years ago my mother and I traveled from Switzerland to Italy by way of the Mont Blanc tunnel where an avalanche had occurred a few days before, crushing one of the lanes. Because of this, my mother and I had been placed in a van, the only vehicle small enough to get though the small opening on our way to Aosta. At that very moment in Italy there was a gas strike going on and, following human nature, our Italian driver had stocked up on his run to Switzerland, placing two enormous tanks between the front seats. As he navigated those curvy alpine roads with one hand, he wildly gestured with the other---in which he held a fat, lit cigar--- carrying on a heated discussion with a companion. The gasoline sloshed, the companion nodded calmly, the driver jabbed the air with the smoking stogy, the ashes flew---and my mother and I, cowering in the back seat, cracked open a bottle of wine. What else could we do, as we awaited becoming a small fireball on the flanks of Mont Blanc? We all arrived safely, if somewhat snookered, with a story that only now I can see from the other side of the Alps.


The little niggling fear haunted me all day as I walked from student to student. For having struck out in finding gas, my only hope was to blast home, cell phone in hand and hope to make it on the fumes lurking in the tank. As luck would have it, Wednesday is my longest day and finally at 7:30, I settled behind the wheel. I sat quietly for a moment in the dark, gathering my courage. “Topo, get me home, ok?” I asked, stroking her dash. At that moment my cell phone chirped loudly. “Battery Low!” it cheerfully told me. Then, with a tiny, festive LCD light show, it died.

Great. Perfect. I stuck the useless thing in my pocket and started up Topo, easing her into the street and the fastest route home.

The whole way I tried to keep my eyes off the gas gauge needle. Both hands clutching the wheel, I pictured worse case scenarios: me, Topo and the dead cell phone, slowing to a crawl in the middle of the pitch black Piave riverbed, engine sputtering as the angry-eye headlights of a BMW bear down on us. Perhaps they would find us in the spring. My back muscles tensed, my brow furrowed as I helped Topo putter through the darkness. The needle danced below the red as I tried to keep a constant pace on the little country roads. I could see the rotonda in the distance, smoke rising from the strikers’ fires. Perhaps I could throw myself on their mercy. After all, I was in this predicament because of them. But Topo had her momentum up. I careened around the circle without even slowing down

We flashed past the Madonna. I saluted her quickly. Two more curves, a mini rotonda, a left onto our street and only then, I let Topo relax as I tucked her into her spot behind the house. Head down on the wheel, I sighed deeply, and wondered if I would have to push her to the street in the morning.

Luciano greeted me calmly, too calmly if you ask me, after my ordeal. He also informed me that the trucker strike was over. The government had promised to deal with their grievances “soon” and granted truckers unusual permission to travel on Sunday in order to get Italy restocked. Now that I was home safe, I felt for the truckers who work long hours and pay high tariffs only to be undercut by unregulated renegade drivers from Eastern Europe. It is an amazing thing that the entire country could be brought to it knees in a matter of days, with gas stations, supermarkets and businesses shutting down.

“But if the strike is over, why are there still truckers sitting out there, gathered around a fire in the rotonda?”

“You know, they are like the Japanese soldiers in the jungles after World War II. They won’t know about the end for a few days. When the wine and firewood runs out, they’ll go home.”

Now I have to go. I hear that a gas station down the street is reopening in Mareno this morning. With a little tailwind, I think we can make it.

Cibo Giapponese

Japanese Food

japanese food

“Prego, Signora!” The slightly built Asian boy leaned towards me in a brief bow. Behind him large bags of rice leaned up against the scuffed wall. A freezer, filled with ducks and pig parts, hummed along another.

“I am looking for tofu, but I don’t see it. Are you out?”

He answered me in flawless Italian. “You mean that stuff that looks like cheese? Sorry we are out. We will have more tomorrow. Anything else I can help you with?”

“Yes, I also need something called miso soup.”

“Hmmm. Ah yes,
fagioli di soia in pasta. It is over here.” He brought me over to the Japanese section, which is right next to the Indonesian section and across from the bin of patate americani, or sweet potatoes. No matter, it is all exotic.

Thus I found myself, an American woman standing in a Chinese food store in Italy, having a conversation in Italian with a Chinese boy while trying to find the last Japanese ingredients I needed to build Luciano’s birthday dinner of his favorite food, sushi.

Many of the items I got in Berkeley before leaving California. At a Japanese grocery store I had picked up containers of the pink spicy pickled ginger, seaweed to wrap the sushi, and special sauce for his absolute favorite: unagi or barbequed eel. I asked the nice lady at the store if it were the right product.

“Yes, but you know, you can buy the eel prepared, ready to cook, frozen. It’s hard to find eel around here”

I explained that I was serving this meal in Italy…in a few months.

“Oh, well you can probably get it there. And this ginger will last forever. Have fun.”

The ginger sat in a brown bag in the fridge for two months. Luciano asked once what it was.

“It is a project. Don’t worry about it,” I answered. And he, used to my often mysterious experiments, didn’t.

By the Friday before his birthday I had everything assembled except for the eel. I went to the local supermarket and asked about the large sea monster type creature curled up in a spiral on the ice. I liked the look of it, being skinless and apparently ready to cook. Was it a big eel?

“No, it is a kind of shark. We usually don’t get eel until Christmas when we put the tank in.”


“Oh, yes. We only sell eels alive.”

The image popped into my head of a flopping, gyrating eel, fighting to the end to avoid becoming sushi. I began to rethink the eel idea. Maybe some other kind of fish could be substituted; a fish stick maybe, ready to pop onto a little ball of rice. Then I stopped at the small fish market near the house. There right on the ice was a chilled, and inert, eel.

“Could you clean that beyond recognition?”

“No problem. But I would freeze it if you are not using it until Monday.”

Monday I pulled the stiff, headless and gutless snake-like creature out of the freezer and examined it closely. I wish I had asked her to filet it as its ribs seemed to extend everywhere. The skin was smooth and viscous, like a snake, and difficult to hang onto. I could not figure out its anatomy and dismembering it was so stressful I had to get a glass of wine.

“Are you ok down there?” Luciano called down the stairs. I think he heard my fretful sighs.

“Yes.” I answered while spreading out the precious pieces of flesh out on the cookie sheet and covering them with sauce. And taking another swig of wine. No wonder sushi is so expensive. While the eel was broiling, I began assembling the California roll and shrimp nigiri. I had read on the internet that to make the shrimp remain stretched out flat, one only need skewer them lengthwise before cooking them in salted boiling water. Indeed it works like a charm. What a gas.

It all looked impressive and tasted great, in my opinion, for a first time attempt. Luciano was more tickled by how excited I was that for once, after again deciding to do some kind of experiment for an important meal, it had actually succeeded. So what if it took two months of planning and poking though the only three existing Chinese food stores in Treviso for ingredients? So what if it looked as if a culinary bomb had gone off in the kitchen. I had not only successfully transported a little of our Berkeley summer to Mareno di Piave, I had also surprised Luciano. Not an easy thing to do.

We took a plate next door so Anna Maria and Giancarlo could try sushi for the first time in their lives. I want to explain the ingredients to them, asking Luciano how to translate “seaweed”. He shook his head and said quietly, “It’s better if we don’t.”

Without hesitation, Giancarlo bit into a California roll. Instantly his face collapsed in on itself, his eyes scrunched up, his mouth puckered. He jumped up from the table and ran out the front door.

Campo”, said Anna Maria. Yet, despite this strong and somewhat negative reaction from Giancarlo, she nibbled some of the shrimp. “Hmm. It is ok, but a waste of good shrimp if you ask me”, she muttered to Luciano.

Yet, this did not hurt my feelings. I was very proud of them for even trying such a foreign food.

Giancarlo came back in the door, swept right through the room and up the stairs. We could hear him brushing his teeth, a pause, and then he came back down the stairs and back into the kitchen. Still wiping tears from his eyes, he gave the plate of remaining California rolls a wide berth and sat back down. We waited as he collected himself.

“Well,” he said, “It is not my favorite.”