Jan 2008

A Crisis, Again

immondizia mareno
Mareno garbage

The Pope has been dissed. In a Berkeley-like display of unity, the students of La Sapienza, the famed university in Rome, effectively dis-invited the very representative of
God on Earth, Pope Benedetto 16th. They felt that a man who represents an organization responsible for the imprisonment and persecution of scientists did not have a place at the School of Science. Ratzinger himself had in fact declared in 1991 that the imprisonment of Gallileo in 1663 (for suggesting the earth revolves around the sun instead of the other way around) was a just verdict.

Now this is biting him in the butt, so to speak, as college students took to the street with posters, banners, and bullhorns, all using the eager television cameras to the best advantage…tight shot on the scrawled sign “NO POPE!” I am sure he has never felt such animosity, nor have the students at La Sapienza perhaps felt so much power as the very next day it was announced that he would not be coming because he did not want to “cause problems”.

This set off a new round of expressed outraged as the politicians, strangely silent the day before, all stepped up the mikes and declared this day a “Black page in the history of education in Italy when someone is denied the right to speak.” Students lashed back, politicians pontificated, journalists rushed back and forth.

I wondered if there was this much hooha when the president of Iran, a perhaps less influential, but no less volatile speaker, made an appearance at an American university. With my spotty Italian, I sometimes miss important bits of information in the rapid-fire journalist-speak. So I checked with Luciano and found that I had gotten it right:

“The director of the university invited the Pope. Some professors from the Physics department complained about the man, who is essentially against science, being invited to speak. In fact just a few very noisy students said no, but the Pope said, ‘Listen, I am not coming.’ And everyone wants a sound bite.”

Or perhaps it was to distract everyone from the mess in Naples. The whole world now knows about this “garbage emergency” which has been going on since the late sixties when the landfills were finally---filled. No one seems to know what to do about the problem, least of all the politicians. I am shocked by the images of mountains of garbage. I suppose that if I were to dig down to the base of that mountain, I would find the original dumpster, filled with garbage wrapped in newspapers from 1969. Before these mountains stand tearful housewives bemoaning the situation while a passing Neapolitan in the background lobs yet another plastic bag on the growing pile. Why don’t they just take it away and process it like other cities I wondered.

“Let me give you an example, Serena, of the situation in Naples.” One of my students, an elegant Treviso businessman, explained. “Imagine two men standing on the street. Drugs and money are exchanged. Suddenly a police car swings up the narrow street, but a boy on a scooter, who has been posted as a lookout, jams out into their path, effectively blocking them. The boy, of course, is not wearing the legally required helmet. The drug dealer and customer duck into a nearby house, where the housewife whisks them out the back door and into a waiting van which takes them to another neighborhood. All arranged by the Mafia. In fact, Serena, 90% of all garage mechanics are either part of or in the payment of the Mafia. It is that ingrained into society.”

“What would you do to fix the garbage situation?”

“Soldiers with live ammo on every street.”

immondizia napoli
Napoli garbage (
picture by Alessandro Zarcone via Flickr)

"Any kind of alarmism is baseless and founded only on emotions, amplified by the international media," said Naples Mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino in a statement. This was in response to a warning issued by the US Embassy in Rome…in July of last year. I wonder how many tourists are planning a stop in Naples…a city, like many in Italy, which depends on tourism to survive.

Since the citizens of Naples protested against creating a new landfill and the Camorra (or local branch of Mafia) makes money anyway, it looks like it may not change anytime soon as politicians fall over themselves to discuss how outraged they are, but in the end do nothing. Another student, a typically intelligent, hardworking, conscientious and incredulous Northern Italian was frustrated to near tears.

“Serena, the garbage from Naples is being trucked to Germany where the Germans turn it into useable power that they then sell back to Italy. My tax money is paying for this. This is how the government is ‘solving’ this problem.”

As usual I checked for confirmation from Luciano.

“Well, I am not sure about that, but it is certainly a rumor. But Serena, turn on the news and check out what happened today!”

I watched as more rapid fire Italian was bandied about, politicians spoke and people rushed in and out of the parliament. I was lost. “What happened?”

“The Minister of Justice and almost his entire party were involved in an investigation on suspicion of corruption, his wife has been placed under house arrest and everybody is resigning before they go to jail.”

“Wow…what did he do?”

“They used their influence to give people they knew better jobs.”

I blinked at Luciano in silence. I was confused, still.

“Everybody does that! What’s the big deal?”

“Oh, well, somebody made a noise about it and started an investigation; someone who is retiring in eleven days. Eleven days!”

The image of an elderly statesman with grey skin and slightly askew hair appeared on the screen. A swarm of journalists surrounded him and he looked pretty pleased with himself.

“Is that him?”

“No, no. That is a senior senator. He has been there forever. He will never leave. They will have to scrape him off his chair with a spoon.”


To top it all off, the Italian fashion industry has been declared dead by someone, I am not sure who...perhaps the French. With no solution in sight, a national new station did the only thing they could: invite the designer Valentino to the set for comments.

The dapper little man sat at the end of the vast network desk in a perfectly tailored suit with little diamond encrusted cufflinks. He was either wearing too much lip gloss or was perspiring elegantly. A man more removed from the heaps of steaming garbage could not exist. But he took it all on, explaining that the fashion industry was alive and well, but that he had no solution for the situation in Naples. He offered this observation: "You know my dear, Italy sometimes gets hit and we sink, but we always pop back up after a little while."

I asked Luciano if I had understood the comment. He replied brightly, "Yes, like a turd!"

I love this country.

diamond shoes

Meanwhile, Back in Mareno…

chicken mattone

(Part One)

“So, listen. A farmer down the road had two donkeys, a male and a female. Early one morning he discovered that the female donkey had disappeared. Later that day he found her corpse in a field, missing all her internal organs. While pretty unhappy about the loss, he felt it his duty to post announcements that the donkey had been sick and whoever feasted on her liver should go to the hospital right away where officials, of course, know all about it. We are all waiting to see who shows up.”

This story is courtesy of Anna Maria who delights in telling me of oddball events, even if they make us all wince. She certainly has her ear to the ground, but sometimes I come up with my own bits of information.

After five winters hearing about, but never seeing, the famous
Radicchio Festival in the main square of Treviso (seemingly for a fleeting instant every year) I finally saw the elusive vegetables in Piazza dei Signori. As I rushed past the raised beds taking up half of the piazza, I slowed to admire the exhibit, but could see why they are there for a short time. Set up in tidy boxes center stage of Treviso, it seemed to be a huge display of dead, wilted plants. Their cultivation is a form of torture, forcing a plant to grow in an unnatural way to produce the delicious end result. Nevertheless, now I can say I have seen it and tonight I will make up a salad of the stuff to celebrate. See my recipe page for more on this.

In more cooking updates, I got to the bottom of another food conspiracy. A friend asked me to look for something called a
chicken mattone, a system with which to cook chicken. A terra cotta dish listing for $40.00 at Sur la Table is used to make this “popular Northern Italian” dish called pressed chicken. The whole chicken, cut in way so that it will lie flat, is pressed by this device so that it is brown and crispy all over.

I had searched a bit in the cooking shops in Treviso, but never saw a
mattone, nor have I ever seen pressed chicken on any menu in my neck of the Veneto. I asked Anna Maria if she had ever heard of chicken cooked “a la mattone”. Nothing.

Suspicious of this expensive cooking equipment whose name essentially means brick, I decided to test the method. Cutting a whole chicken along the breastbone with poultry shears, I flattened it out on the counter. I flipped the wings over on themselves, making it as flat as possible. After throwing a little salt and pepper at it, I placed it, skin side down in a large, hot Teflon-coated frying pan with some melted butter. On top of the chicken I placed a large pot filled with water and then on top of that, an iron griddle.

While it looked kind of dumb, it worked and the resulting chicken was tender with crispy skin. And although it was a normal size roasting chicken, it cooked in about forty minutes, 20 minutes on each side. With a smaller bird, such as a Cornish hen, I imagine it would be even easier. My thoughts? While it is a delicious and elegant way to present an entire bird, just get a brick…or a big fat pot.

In other news, a reader kindly informed me that the Madonna di Motta on tour last month was the real McCoy and the one back in the church was just an understudy. My compliments go to the back-up team. Also thank you to the reader who reminded me to go downstairs and feed the damn sourdough starter which, incidentally, is not quite as cursed as previously thought.

One of my longer stories, Castle Beds, has come out in an anthology from Travelers Tales titled A Woman’s World Again, edited by Marybeth Bond. I have posted the beginning of the story at my
published work page here and the book is available…I guess in the normal book places, though not in Mareno di Piave. Luciano proudly showed our sample copy to Giancarlo and Anna Maria, but they could not get past the fact that it is not written in Italian. Anna Maria flipped through the pages and looked up.

“It is in English,” she said sadly.

It is indeed a pity that she cannot read what I write, but personally I celebrate the publication of my work in any language I can muster. Should I one day succeed in writing a story in Italian, I will certainly post it here in the Mareno News for all, and I mean all, to see.