Dec 2009

Giving Thanks

sale sale
Photo by xrrr

I recently travelled to Virginia on the spur of the moment and a dirt-cheap plane ticket. The original purpose was to see my mother Cynthia, but as plans blossomed, it became a Thanksgiving pilgrimage which then spilled into a shopping expedition the proportions of which tested my newly acquired serenity and anti-materialistic philosophy. Though it may have just been a period of severe superficiality, I am blaming it all on the mall.

Because Luciano and I are normally in the US only in the summer, this posed an unusual opportunity to not only find winter type items, but also sales like no other. I collected a list of requests from friends, Luciano suggested I wear a helmet, my sister and I planned strategy, and I fantasized of retail opportunities of which dreams are made. I planned to arrive at my mother’s door with two empty suitcases, wearing nothing but a sturdy pair of walking shoes.

In the end, it was of course not so dramatic. We arrived on Friday morning at the mall leisurely hour of ten and discovered none of the promised no, threatened, crowds. There was a moment of manufactured mania at the Ann Taylor where the staff was handing out coupons at the door promising an additional forty percent discount until noon only. Inside we joined a lot of tall, upwardly mobile women fighting over ugly suits. For some reason it all looked more interesting with forty percent off. Less so when at 3:30 we passed the store again to see the staff person still handing out those coupons. “Only until 5!” she warned.

The floor in Old Navy was littered with trampled t-shirts and pajamas, detritus from the early morning rush. As the staff gamely folded the endless piles around them, I imagined a shopper reaching down to pick up an item from underfoot after having been ground into the linoleum and actually consider buying it.

Six hours later my sister and I emerged to discover the parking lot in chaos. It seems that the crowds had decided to arrive after the rush and thus created their own. We smugly left the waiting cars to fight over our spot and drove past the miles of traffic waiting to get in. Had I not been feeling just a bit queasy from all the shopping, it would have been quite triumphant.

One might imagine that this would be enough for me, but it was not. I found myself desperately hunting for such disparate purchases as kitchen scissors, a left contact lens, a set of books for a literature class (bargain price, short, classic) Cholula hot sauce, copies of Dwell Magazine for Luciano and something to keep the neighbor’s cat out of my garden.

“Shotgun,” the man at the hardware store grunted.

“If only,” I rolled my eyes.

“No, the product’s name is ‘Shotgun’. Here, that’s $7.99.”

Having revealed how I feel about cats, I quickly escaped the store with a one pound bag of cat repellant which went into my suddenly very full suitcase.

The lowest point in my retail madness was a twenty minute dash into a Target on the way to the airport. I found myself rushing the aisles, like a woman who is being sent to the moon, grabbing at items that I felt I really needed…liquid whiteout, little bottles of hand sanitizers, Sharpie pens, a Martha Stewart magazine…only to find all here later. Except of course for Martha. She is definitely a US phenomenon. And that is ok. The point is that but for a few bright spots in my visit: Thanksgiving dinner, a family Christmas tree expedition, a walk at Great Falls park, the entire trip was awash in this unexplainable urgency to buy stuff. I had become the worst kind of tourist: the kind who travels to acquire objects as trophies, rather than experiences.

I use this to explain my behavior after my return home. Perhaps I still had my head down looking for the most expeditious way to get from point A to point B. Perhaps it was some sort of artificiality that had rubbed off on me. I don’t know, but while on my commute to Treviso I ran into a herd of sheep, commuting the other way. Almost literally, as a group of donkeys leading the flock came right at me and swerved to the left only at the last minute as the rest of the herd parted around my car Topo. I was furious to be stopped in my tracks like that, on a major road, on my way to work, and began snapping photos with my phone. I needed proof of this transgression, of these scofflaws. Hundreds of sheep bleated past my window, brushing up and knocking against Topo’s flanks as I muttered to myself and fumbled with the camera. The dogs and then the sheepherders finally approached, whereupon I rolled down my window and snapped, “This just isn’t done!”

I got the expected dismissive wave of the hand, but I shocked myself. All the way to Treviso I mulled over my reaction. Had I become so petty that during a simple timeless event such as getting in a sheep jam I could only focus on the fact that they were in my way? I wished I had spent more time watching the river of animals pass by my window while thinking, yet again, how different my life is now, instead of having my head down cursing my telephone camera. The sheep were not even trampling my garden…why had I been so angry?

Saddened over my sudden loss of patience and observational skills, I thought this over all day. When and how did this happen? Did this mean I could no longer write? Was the fact that I recognized my condition enough to make a difference?

Between classes I sat down in Piazza dei Signori determined to notice something. The annual radicchio festival was going on; an odd celebration for which hundreds of the truly depressing plants are trucked in and placed in the square for what seems to be about 24 hours. The elderly gentlemen who gather at the square every day for a morning glass of prosecco were admiring the beds of limp purple vegetables. I snapped a photo with my suddenly obliging telephone. A lady with spectacularly high heels strode across the square. As she passed me her heel jammed a bit in the cobblestones and she almost went down, but maintained her equilibrium and composure as she swept by.

radicchio tv

No, it just wasn’t the same. I was looking too hard. This was not honest. I stood and went to the lesson…bummed.

That evening as I was driving home, head down, point a, point b, I caught out of the corner of my left eye the tip of a snow-covered mountain in the nearby range, blazing hot pink at its icy peak. It was just a glimpse, but I pulled over next to an open field to see it again. And just like that I looked up, caught my breath…and put my head back to take in a glorious sunset. The Dolomites were on fire and the sky to the sea boiled in reds, golds and yellows over the stubbled corn fields. Houses glowed as if ignited, like so many bonfires scattered across the farmland…and then suddenly it was all gone. Cars sped past me in the gathering dusk, in a hurry to get somewhere. Quietly I got back into Topo and drove home. I felt better. Maybe I have found it again.

sheep tezze


Late again, I pushed Topo my trusty little car, through the fog on my way to work. Yellow palm shaped leaves swirled away from the road behind me, kicked up in my wake. Ahead a crew of road workers was finally laying markings on the road. Recently repaved, that wide, unmarked swath of black tarmac was too tempting for the hot rodders, scrawny kids on barely legal mopeds swayed crazily across the smooth black surface

Fresh white paint cut into the black and I admired it as I sped through Mareno. Up ahead a woman stepped up to her car parked at the side of the road and suddenly, without looking left or right, opened her door. I swerved over the line to avoid her and heard the swish as the tires hit the wet paint and then a soft
thup, thup, thup, as Topo laid down little tracks of white. Her own little mark on the road to Conegliano.

On the way home later I stopped at the chocolate factory to see if they had gotten back up to speed after the summer break. This small non-descript building sits low in the curve of a small river, behind an arched bridge. The folly of this design, which hides the factory from drivers coming up over the bridge, is truly apparent at Easter when crowds descend, parking willy-nilly, slowing down, and risking life and limb for a three foot fondant Easter egg. The egg-jambs can be perilous.

Christmas is a calmer chocolate season and, being only the end of November, they are not yet cranked up to full production. But I had not yet been inside since they shut down in May as the weather started to get too hot for chocolate and I wanted to see what was going on.

The shop shelves were still partly bare, some were stocked with toys and strange dolls, but one shelf had been filled with blocks of freshly made dark and milk chocolate blocks. They had also started to make Christmas figures, Santa Clauses, Befana witches and inexplicably, toadstools with little drawn faces. Hmm.

I checked out bags of chocolate-covered hazelnuts.

“Salve! Posso aiutarla?” The owner had come out

“Do you have these made with dark chocolate?”

“Let me look in the back.”

One might think he would be looking into boxes to see if they had been unpacked and the storage room stocked. But not here.

“They have just finished making them. Can you wait a moment and they will package them up for you?”


Fresh chocolate…can’t be fresher.

With my stash in the car I puttered on home, up over the bridge and past the tiny bike factory where they build the Piave bicycles. A few of them, freshly made, sat out front. The bakery parking lot was packed with customers lining up for the late-bake. As I passed through Bocca di Strada I noticed out of the corner of my eye a black and white trailer, clearly a dispenser of some kind and written across the top:

Il Buon Latte Naturale

Intrigued, I pulled into the church parking lot. If nothing else, I wanted to see what was keeping this trailer from being hooked up to someone’s truck and driven away, milk and all. I forgot my cynicism as examined what they were selling. It was a distributer of fresh milk, milked today, milk from cows grazing in the pastures of Codogne, a small town about six kilometers away. The only thing connecting it to the church was a stretched extension cord, powering the whole thing. I couldn’t resist and dropped 30 cents in the bottle distributer and a fresh liter bottle chattered into the chute. Stopping to the left, I peered at the instructions as a man stepped up behind me. Gesturing for him to go ahead I watched as he placed an empty Coke bottle in the compartment and as it was filled rapidly with a stream of milk.

“So I just put it in?” I asked. People always seem to like to help me…perhaps it is my mangled Italian.

“Well, let it wash itself first.” The door shut and a little spray of water washed down the walls. “Now put in your euro and the bottle. Tip it so there is not too much foam.”

I dropped my coin and the door opened again and music began to play, I think it was the theme from
Heidi, and fresh, raw, whole milk came shooting out of the spigot. At exactly the top of the bottle the milk, and the music, stopped and I pulled the bottle out. The door slid shut and its private washing ritual began again.

Placing the ice cold, unmarked bottle on the seat beside me I pondered the impossibility of finding something like this in the US. The milk, the producers of which were bedding down for the evening a few miles away, could not be fresher or less regulated. I have only the names Angelo and Giovanni, their phone number and slogan to count on:

Dalla nostra stalla…
Alla vostra tavola…

From our barn…
To your table.

I couldn’t wait to get home to try it and headed home. But I didn’t forget to look through the dusk for Topo’s mark from this morning and was happy to see that it was still there, a little swath of white in the pitch.