Mar 2007

Italian Excess

coffee pots

I had an appointment for a final test to find out why I have a chronic cough for five months out of the year. I am sure a lot of people want to know. The long-awaited test was set for Friday and in anticipation, they sent a detailed list of instructions in Italian, naturally.

With a dictionary on hand, I carefully read the information in which they described what the test would entail. I was promised an armchair and attentive medical staff nearby at all times. Already slightly alarmed, I then noticed something about caffeine.

“Luciano, what does this mean, exactly?”

“Let me see. Hmmm. It says you should not have any caffeine prior to the test. But it does not say how much prior. I will call.”

“Thank you.”

A few minutes later he appeared at the door of the office.

“Three days.”

“Excuse me?”

“Three days before the test you must stop drinking coffee.”

“What?! That means now! No coffee for three days?”

“Yes. I am leaving town.”

Ok, well he did not say that, but being a smart man, he indeed did leave town for two days during my forced caffeine detox. I still had my placebo decaf in the morning, but try as I might to play tricks with my mind, I suffered three days from a caffeine withdrawal headache that took on a personality of its own and moved into the space vacated by Luciano, who was in Milan on some sudden business. The headache sat at the kitchen table, lurked behind my eyes while teaching the present perfect, and occupied Luciano’s space in the bed, stealing the covers just to be spiteful.

In explanation for my wincing during lessons, I explained my predicament to my students. Let’s face it, I was fishing for a little compassion. I got none. My students looked at me perplexed, not understanding the level of coffee consumption one needs to achieve in order to suffer a “caffeine headache”

“But how much coffee do you drink?”

“A moka for six. Every morning with milk.”

Eyebrows shot up, hand gestures waved, pens dropped. Absolutely no sympathy.

It is important to understand that a “moka for six” is the equivalent of a large latte from Starbucks. In fact, it fits nicely into my American coffee to-go cup. For an Italian however, a moka for six equals six cups of coffee, an unheard of amount of coffee for one person to consume in one sitting.

This brought to mind the Italian practice of moderation. In a land where a reputation of
abbondanza abounds, I have found that indulgence is a measured and careful concept in the most surprising situations. Americans who swill Italian coffee in mega mugs with a smug sense of the cosmopolitan would be surprised to know that they are missing the point. Italians drink a tablespoon of coffee, thick with sugar, often standing up at a bar and in one shot, like a hit off an opium pipe or an injection of B-vitamin, on the way to the office. They self-medicate with restraint and ergo, perhaps place more importance on a good cup of coffee.

At a recent dinner party that we hosted, between the six of us we polished off two bottles of wine. From start to finish, two bottles of wine. At an American party for six, two bottles would have gotten us, maybe, through the appetizers. I remember counting the empty wine bottles after a dinner party in Berkeley and not being able to recall even tasting any of the wine that had come out of them. I don’t want to suggest that wine is not important here. Wine is a life blood. It is purchased by the gallon. They were serving a good red in little plastic cups this morning at 10 o’clock in the morning after our foot race. The key thing to notice is little plastic cups.

By my third day of forced decaffeinization, Luciano had returned and the headache that had been oozing out of my ears had begun to disappear as my body adjusted, just as we arrived for my asthma test. In fact, I was feeling pretty good as I blew into a tube in my armchair with my nearby attentive medical staff. During the test, however, a colleague came in and asked about the capacity for respiration booth in the next-door examination room. The colleague went on to explain that there was a patient waiting that measured in at almost 400 pounds and, as they had never had such a large patient, wondered if would be safe to put him in the little room. My medical assistant was speechless for a moment. We were all speechless. Then she recovered and confirmed that it should work. Obesity, in the land of pizza, fettuccine alfredo and gelato, just doesn’t exist. At least not at the rate one sees in the US.

The medical assistant finished up the test, declaring me asthma free and then handing me a piece of chocolate she had hidden in the closet. While she was not looking I slipped it to Luciano who is loathe to refuse chocolate. For my part, the moment I got home I tapped my veins and injected a little cup of caffeine into my system. But then I immediately mixed all my coffee with decaf so I instantly cut my consumption in half.

I don’t want
that monkey on my back.

Casa Scricciolo

wren house

Spring has arrived abruptly, as usual. It comes hard on the heels of February, a month so horrible that if it were possible to remember it after the arrival of spring, I am sure no one would stick around. Suddenly I look out the window and see blossoms on the trees across the little lane, Strada Nuova. The tulips and crocuses I planted two years ago have multiplied under the ground during that dreary February and exploded across my miniature garden, despite the nay-sayers who doubted their survival. The green packages of Easter focaccia stretch as far as the eye can see on the supermarket shelves and Easter eggs the size of small cars stand improbably outside the tiny chocolate factory down the street.

Wild violets are carpeting the grass under the trees near Giancarlo’s grapevines. In the heavy warm silence of lunchtime, I stared at those violets which were triggering a memory of lazy summer days of my childhood. With my oh-so-picturesque basket I gathered a hundred or so and set up everything needed to candy them. As I sat at the dining room table, the warm spring sun falling through the window onto my shoulders, I dipped each blossom in a mixture of egg white and water. With a toothpick, I separated each petal and then plunged the flower into sugar I had ground to a fine powder. Each flower then went onto parchment paper to dry. Waves of memories swept over me at the same time that my shoulders began to cramp up and the purple pile looked endless. I was on my, let’s say, 65th flower when Luciano, curious to know where I had gone, stepped into the room.

“Wow,” he said softly, turned and left. With no excuse to stop, I continued for almost two hours on those cursed little flowers. I now have a nice little container of crunchy purple petals, but may never look a violet in the eye again.

This comment from Luciano could be construed in many ways. It could mean, “Wow what a ridiculous waste of time”, or “Wow, I am so impressed by your creativity”. So I asked him later.

“What was that ‘wow’ for?”

“Patience and commitment.”

“Affirmation or surprise?”




I announced to Luciano that this is the weekend that we will place my new wren house in the tree across the street. I have pointed the branch out to him and asked him to consider how we might procure a ladder to reach it. The wren house, a wedding gift from my sister Comfort, is already a curiosity since there may not be wrens for hundreds of miles and a bird house, out here in the country, is a strange thing to spend time on. Anna Maria is skeptical, to say the least.

"Is that for ants?"

"No, it is for a bird called a wren."

"No bird can get into that hole. It is too small. And what is a


"Ah. Never seen one. But that is a very nice house. For a bird."

I set the wren house out in the sun to inspire everyone. It is from South Carolina, made of pine and finished in the same grey weathering of the ancient cottages that line the Strands. A long way from Pawley's Island, it sits on the window sill in Mareno di Piave in Northern Italy gathering steam and support for its mission to entice any wrens lurking in this corner of the world. I stood outside this morning, arms akimbo, eying the branches in the still naked tree. A carefully placed ladder would do the trick. It was certainly the right time of year; I had seen a sparrow gathering bits of grass and feathers the day before. Luciano came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.

"Are you ready for this?" I looked at him sideways, checking to see if he had a ladder under his arm.

"Yes, but I have to tell you something."


"Listen carefully. The tree next to your tree is full of bees. Can you can hear the humming?"

I took a step forward and listened. A low robust hummmmm, one I had not noticed before, did indeed radiate from the cloud of delicate pink flowers. It sounded as if the entire tree might lift off, hover for a moment, and then shoot out across the field. How could I ask Luciano and Giancarlo to risk life and limb to climb a ladder in what might be a preposterous project? So Operation Wren House came to a screeching halt as we wait for the blossoms, or the bees, move on. The wrens will just have to wait.

Meanwhile, I must clean up the crocuses. Many are already spent, splayed out embarrassingly on the mulch, decomposing colorfully in the sun. One has fallen onto the terrace and its slimy body has left a vivid purple mark on the bricks like a chalk outline of a tiny floral crime scene.