Jul 2009

Giù e Su


The wind screamed around the house and the single lamp to my right flickered for a moment. I dropped my hands, resting them and the work in my lap, as I took a mental inventory of what else might be flickering in the house.

It is not an unusual thing to do with the delicate balance of power that is typical of an Italian house. I must always remember that the microwave cannot run on a certain setting for more than 7 minutes, or when the oven is on. This I learned after blowing out the power breaker in that corner of the kitchen. Luciano always asks if I need to use the oven before he starts up the washing machine or we might blow out the entire first floor. And we all remember the evening when I plunged both our house and the one next door into darkness while drying my hair with the American blow-dryer with an Italian “adapter”. In fact, I am always amazed on our trips to the US that one can run the television, oven, blender and microwave all at the same time. But when you think about it, why would you really need to?

It is not that the Italian electrical systems are dated or slow; there is just no perceived need to operate all that electricity at once and so it is organized with this simplicity in mind. And it is the simplicity of my life now that makes it so full.

The storm was certainly an impressive one, with the horizontal rain cracking against the windows and the shrieking wind tugging at the shutters. Luciano was taking a nap and with Giancarlo and Anna Maria away visiting friends in Santa Lucia, I was virtually alone in the early darkness, snug in Maya the armchair and the solitary lamp which now seemed to be holding steady. Basking in the extreme coziness, I picked up the embroidery work from my lap and began again.
Giù e su, giù e su.


I had asked Anna Maria to teach me the
punto finestra or window stitch, an elegant way to finish a hem. She had shown me a tablecloth she had finished before getting married, a sturdy cloth edged with tiny stitches, as uniform as a machine. A skill she had learned from her mother, I was determined to learn how to do it myself and asked her for lessons.

“You know I can just do it for you so we can finish these napkins faster.”

“But then I would still not know how to do it. Please put me to work.”

“Ok, you need to hold the edge like this and then go from below on the first stitch, then from above on the second. Giu e su. Down and then up. Try it and I will be back in a minute.”

I sat in the warm kitchen, the clock ticking loudly, and struggled to move the needle as deftly as she had. It just did not look the same; something was off. Giancarlo sat calmly in the corner reading the latest John Grisham novel as I broke into a sweat. Wasn’t it up and down? Or down and down? Why didn’t it look right? Anna Maria blurted back into the room and I looked up in panic.

“Let’s see…Ok, this is a mess. What are you doing? Well, ok, if it is perfect, no one will believe it is handmade, right? Look, you are going
su e giù. You have to think of a mountain climber, but instead of going up and then down, you are going down the mountain first. Giù e su. Again, again and again. Now, give me back my needle, go home and practice.”

Anna Maria puts a great deal of stock in the belief that if you give someone a needle or a knife, it could cut the friendship and so with that last comment, she threw me out to walk back next door with my ageless homework wadded up in my hand, needleless.


For as long as I have lived here there had been a ragtag collection of cracked pots and rotting plants in the corner of the garden. I asked finally if I could take it over. Giancarlo immediately said yes, so I promptly cleared it out and planted what Luciano calls the world’s smallest vegetable garden. After a satisfying afternoon of heavy digging, pulling and carrying away carcasses to toss in the campo, we now have lettuce, basil, radishes, mint and hopes for leeks. When the lettuce plants had just cleared the dirt Anna Maria commented that they were almost ready for dinner. I get a lot of this teasing because I am, after all, the crackpot American. I am used to it, but it was a sweet moment when I caught Anna Maria headed out to the garden with a bowl. She stopped short.

“Oh, I was going to get some basil, but of course I would ask you first…if I saw you.”

I grinned with victory, “Please help yourself.” And I did too. This is the spring of fresh basil, fat sweet tomatoes and slices of creamy mozzarella di bufala on a bed of delicate baby lettuce. We can’t get enough of it.

Cousin Paola parked her car and, while unloading her kids for a visit, laughed at my plot. “That is the smallest garden I have ever seen,” she roared.

Luciano told me later to ignore her. “Your garden may be the size of a bathmat, but it is feeding four people.”
So I take my mini-shovel and head out to put in a new crop of lettuce. We are using a rotation method to maintain a constant harvest. It is a very old and simple system…

radishes mareno

“Hey Luciano, there is no water!” I called this bit of information up the stairs yesterday afternoon without too much concern. They seemed to often be monkeying about with the water here in Mareno and it never lasted long.

“Really? I’ll check.” Luciano shuffled next door to get the low down on what was happening and returned a few minutes later. “It will go on at ten o’clock tomorrow morning,” he reported. They always knew what was going on next door. How did they do that?

“Tomorrow morning?” I gazed at the mountain of dishes, a result of baking a cake.

“Yeah, they were doing repairs and someone broke a pipe. I’m going back upstairs, ok?”

“Ok.” I contemplated the predicament and with a shrug of resignation, I picked up the bucket by the back door and went across the street to the aqueduct that gurgles past our house. I stood in the soft light of the summer evening, barefoot in the grass, and filled my bucket to soak the cooking pots. Were I in Berkeley I might have been on the phone, losing my temper and tranquility on a hapless employee at the water company. Instead, I leaned down, letting the cool water rush over my hands for a moment, then shut it off, lifted my bucket and carried it back inside.

Giù e su.