Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Bringing The Bird Home

THANKSGIVING... is at the top of the list of special occasions I did not want to miss when moving to Italy.   But where in the Veneto to obtain a turkey?   I had never seen a whole turkey in any market.  One could walk all over Padova and not find one gobbler anywhere in the meat markets.  They don’t exist.  The closest thing would be a leg and thigh, attached, or you can also buy breast of turkey.   Italians do not  eat a whole turkey, never see them, and they do not roast them or cook them whole.   I knew they had turkeys, just not whole ones.

I began to look harder.  My quest was successful after I questioned my local macellaio (butcher) if he could provide a whole turkey.    I began a long explanation, recounting the history of Thanksgiving in America.   He smiled and told me that my request could be met, and what date would I want to pick it up.  Thanksgiving was a go!

I described the size I needed, and this is important because the ovens in Italy are smaller than the ones in America.  I also had to tell him NOT to cut it up as I wanted to cook it whole.

Invitations to my Italian friends were sent out and we began to make plans over the dishes we would prepare and what wine would be served.   We already had table decorations with turkeys on the napkins and a matching tablecloth.  I went to the cantina and  brought up the two cans of pumpkin, two cans of condensed milk and one can of cranberry relish.  All these had been brought over in my baggage from the states.    We were set!  It was going be fun!  Thanksgiving in Italy.

The day to pick up the turkey arrived quickly and we drove over to bring our bird home.  Bear in mind that there are no frozen birds, this one would be fresh.
Smiling at my macellaio, but worried that he forgot our turkey, I announced I was ready to take possession.  He disappeared through the refrigeration door and came out carrying the hugest turkey I had ever seen.. It resembled a small baby!  Well, almost!
Take a look..
Comedian Butchers

All I could say, was I thought I ordered a smaller one!  Panic City!  While having some discussion about the size, my mind is quickly calculating and visualizing a possible buttering the turkey to squeeze it into the oven.  Having no other choice, we took the bird and after placing it into the pan we found that parts would not have to be removed.  Thankfully it just fit, but just barely, not touching the roof or side of the oven.

The hungry guests began to arrive and I greeted them from my second story window, with a big smile and a "Benvenuti"!  The first thing they wanted to do after removing their scarves and coats was to view the bird in the oven.  Turned to a shiny nice brown, it looked massive!  We took our seats, and they sampled some American appetizers, and discussed the holiday decorations while the bird was finishing .   We toasted Thanksgiving with a bottle of prosecco from my area of Colli Euganei and one of Soave from the village of Soave, near Verona,

Coming out of the oven, there were a lot of "ooos" and "ahhhhs"…None of us had ever seen such a big bird cooked and presented on a table.  It was a real feast not just for the stomach but for the eyes.  It was fun to watch the reaction.  There was a lot of good discussion about the history of Thanksgiving and what most of America does on Thanksgiving Day.  It was hard for them to understand that Thanksgiving is nearly as big a celebration as Christmas.   They had a hard time visualizing freezers chock full of turkeys in a Safeway store.  Italians have a difficult time visualizing lots about America, in particular, store sizes, choices and hours of being open. 

Now every year we have Thanksgiving, but we have it on a Sunday, because there is no Thursday vacation day here for the event.  Also to our relief, my macellaio now provides smaller turkeys.  

Happy Thanksgiving,

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Real Italy

There is a local watering hole I frequent, which I call the “Old Farts Bar”.  We have several bars in town where one can get a number of different kinds of coffee drinks.   Old Farts is only patronized by tottering old men, well past the age of 70.  It is a deep-rooted “men only” establishment.  Not more than once or twice have I seen a woman venture inside,  sitting by what I gather would be their husbands. 

These old men have been beaten down by a lifetime of hard work, wear and tear.    Italian life hasn’t always been easy.  You can expect sudden loud clearings of throats and noses, coughing and snorting.  If they see a friend on the street, a greeting will be bellowed out to get their attention.   They know everyone in the village and have an opinion on everything. 

The only woman inside this bar is the barista, a knock dead 30 year old with shiny well kept hair and big black glasses which partially hide her dark blue eyes.  She daily dresses herself typically in Italian designed super tight pants, and a loose blouse.  Bending over to clean a table brings near applause. There are times when the old codgers line up at the bar, hovering over her even without ordering a coffee. They outright stare at her like a kid catching Santa under the tree.  They hover like flies on honey and oogle Miss Hotpants as if judging a painting in an exhibition.  Beyond doubt they are completely dazzled by her charms.   There is a lot of “back in my day”  thinking.  The owner has been smart, with an eye on profit making.

Baristas are quite like therapists. People make short visits and while drinking their capuccino unload recent problems.  Offering little advice, Italian baristas are like therapists who listen and let you figure out your own answers.  However, the above mentioned hottie does not give therapy, they are too dumb-struck to communicate.

A Turkish Old Guy Group
One would expect to see old Italian men in a bar playing cards, but that scene is a bit of Hollywood.  They don’t play cards in my village.  My wife tells me that it is not allowed as it is considered  gambling.  This is against the law.   The local police are visible much of the time, and also two Carabinieri come in for coffee in the mornings.  The result is that there is no crime in our village.

I sit in this bar with my coffee Americano and with my laptop I type descriptions of these colorful characters that hang out there.   The whole gathering is a portraiture of old Italy in black and white.  What little testosterone they have left they use in their loud voices and litigations.  Opinions are expressed with a flair of typical Italian hand gestures.  

Observing them is good practice for me as the preponderance of them seem quite off-center.  If you are a writer and need characters for a novel, look nowhere else.  Sitting at the tables painted in Italian colors of green, red and white,  you will find a brigand, a gangster, a farmer, and a performer, comedian, mime, politician, and a mafia boss.  Even though there is no mafia here there is one who could easily put Marlon Brando on the bench.

The top 10 most fascinating inhabitants of the town would have the majority spots filled by these wacky pensioners.   In a faded yellow shirt an old fellow looks like a fossilized Sean Hannity,  pleasing himself with his point of view.  Another I have named The Roamer.  All morning with his hands stuffed in his pokets he walks back and forth to his car about every five minutes reminding me of a hyena trapped in a small cage at the zoo.   In the corner a thin man with tossled hair looks like Luciano Pavarotti gone diet.  He sits quietly hunched over the table thumping his knuckles and has a gaze sending me a message, “come back when you can’t stay so long”.  (Clearly, being American,  I am out of their league.)  

My favorite is the one I call the Pirate.  Sauntering in around 9:30 with the gait of a barbarous privateer, he sports a red bandana around his neck and a large and shiny gold earing hanging from one ear.  With his grizzled face and his hair tied back like a tattooed biker,  he commands respect from all his peers.   His gravelly voice orders his macchiato, while he positions himself at the head of the table with his buddies. He speaks to them with a library voice, and everybody listens.  If Steven Spielberg ever needs an old crusty pirate, I know the guy for the part.

This is a glimpse of the real life in a small village in northern Italy.  In future posts I will continue to describe my village.  In a few ways it IS like you have seen featured in the movies.  Just don’t expect the accordion player you see and hear in the background playing O Sole Mio.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

50 Years of Driving In America--no tickets, no accidents!

In America you can get a driver license within a minimum of time.  You take the test, pass it and drive your own car to show  your driving skills.  You pay the fee, less that 50 dollars, and they take your picture and you are out the door. 
In Italy a beaureaucratic mess awaits you.  If your country does not have an agreement for older licensed drivers from other countries to trade in and be issued a new license without testing (How do they drive in Sri Lanka, for instance?) you will experience your bank account shrinking as you pay over 600 euroes directly into the pockets of a driving school, a doctor who gives you a ridiculous 4 minute exam, and the government establishment which grabs the rest.  It is a shameless creation of government, over designed, and strengthened by a law that by its very essence plunders its citizens.  Topping it off is an exam obviously created by people who have nothing to do all year except think up more than 7,000 trick questions.   Many of these have little to do with driving knowledge or skill.   It’s a bonus for all if you do not pass as they will receive  more money from you in retesting.  It is in their interest for people to fail. So with all this in mind let me tell you about my second attempt in taking the exam..

Before the Italian computerized driver exam I sit in a bar, run by an irish woman.  We talk a little and she says she has a son who is 19 and just passed the test after two tries.  She tells me that her son, now at the University does very well in school.   She and I agree that it is no secret that many Italians fail at least once.   I mention that at my wife’s work there are two fellows who have taken the test numerous times, one of them at least 8.

I sit in that bar for almost four hours cramming my brain with everything I can find about driving in Italy  There are questions about types of drive licenses, all those weird signs found in Europe and how far they are from the intersection you can park, parking along the street, parking in the city, out of the city, on the highway, on the autostrada and even how you can park in the fastfood gas stations along the autostrada.  I find questions about walking your dog in the service area of the autostrada, whether trucks can transport animals, what to do if you drive into a demonstration of strikers, and whether motor cyclists wear boots with metal in the soles.

It’s time…… I walk to the motor vehicle area and wait in a crowded hallway with a bunch of teenagers.   We stand in the hall just outside of the examination room.  I am the sole person over the age of 18.  I am the only stranieri.  19 speechless Italian teens stare at the floor as they quietly await their fate.  Teenagers not talking!  Italian teenagers not talking!?  I am with them and I am one of them.  I don’t want to go home and face another month of study.  This will be my second attempt.  I know that of this group, I have studied far longer and harder to pass this ridiculous exam than any of them.  I have studied far more than a year.   
The hallway seems dark and cold.  No one moves,  somewhere down the hall there is a muffled conversation, but otherwise it is very very still.  We stand and we wait.  The sheet on the wall say that 20 people will be taking the test in room A.  The only people moving are those who excape to go outside to have a smoke.  Strange that teenagers have taken up smoking again...another issue, another future blog post.

 We hear someone walking towards us and we see a man of what I estimate to be 40 years of age.  He trudges towards us staring at the floor and  carrying his official clipboard and briefcase.   His posture and shuffling feet reveal that a midlife crisis has revealed the futility of his existance.   Fumbling for his keys he unlocks the door and orders everyone to go in and find a seat behind a computer.   I get the one at the front of the class near the door.

The words fly from the man’s mouth at machine gun speed and you can tell that he has done this so many times. There is no emotion or care to make sure people understand what will happen, how to use the computer and how  many minutes, and various rules. 

He calls each person to his desk in alphabetical order.   There is little chance that at his breakneck speaking I will be able to  translate what he will be saying.  He goes through my pages...,  pages such as the  medical doctor release, the eye glasses check, the school documents, and  documents of visa, passport, photos.  I looks up at me and then he bangs his finger on the first document and runs off a bunch of Italian... I stare, mouth open, God help me!,  He is clearly displeased and he points again at my paper.  I look and it and nothing  comes to my mind as to what he has said.  Another blast of words and he says  “Maine”  while pointing to the document. He stares at me like I am a sneaky thief trying to get past the system.. He raises his voice, babbling... and I clearly catch the word…" Luoghi"...ah...the place, I managed to hear the word for place and I realized he was questioning where I was born. so now I begin to understand that my driving school did not put my birthplace on the form, only the state of Maine.  
He looks up at me, and my mind is quickly thinking, mostly out of control, what the fxxx!  I reach for my backpack and take out my visa, my passport and my sanitaria card (medical insurance) and show him.  He takes my passport and the bastard begins to go through all the pages, looking at each one as if he is going to catch someone illegally in the country.  I am thinking, why would he want to peruse every page of my passport?  I am also thinking that he is not going to allow me to take the test!  And I am prepared!!!
I show him the first  page of my passport with the photo.  He holds the passport up and compares it to my face....can you believe!
I show him my visa, which shows I am legal....and he holds that up.
The whole classroom is very quiet.  Are they seeing a stranieri caught and  sent back to his home country.

My hands are shaking, seriously, I am befuddled as to what to do.  I need to take this test.  My life needs to move on!
He is enjoying the moment.  He thumps my documents with his finger as  if keeping time to Pink Floyd’s The Trial.  Finally he waves me off while handing me my documents sending back to my place.
I breathe deeply..and wait.  I try to calm down.
He gets up and begins to wander around the classroom as he explains how to use the computer and how to review the questions answered and how to quit the program.. None of this  I understand, but at least I have practiced the same at the driving school.  
I see the other people insert their card into the reader.  I have no card, the proctor did not hand me one.    So once again I hold up my hand and I signal, "no card".  He says in Italian, look in your documents!  I look inside my passport and there it is.  Whew!
I insert the card, but nothing happens.  I wait.  Maybe I have it upside down?  I look across from me at the girl and she has hers the same side up.  I wait more.    Meanwhile more instructions are being given.  Do I stop him, or do i wait until he has finished?  
I give up.. In desperation I put my hand back up.  I am sure he can see my shaking hands as he takes my computer card and shoves it into and out of the card reader. The machine refuses to function.
He signals me to sit in the new place in the back. I sit and see that all the computer screens have a different look, a different page than mine.  I change.  I try to advance the screen but nothing happens.  The proctor ambles over and after several attempts and a lot of grumbling he manages to make it function.  I turn and take a look at the class.  I am their circus!
He pushes a few buttons and then the proctor, bending over my computer, advances the program forward by punching rigidly on the screen.   His pallid face turns toward the class while looking as if he butchered a chicken, he throws his arms into the air and says, “Wallah!”  Then in the midst of another  burst of Italian to the class, I hear the word “stranieri “.  This is not a compliment.  He is talking to them about me.

My computer finally reveals the same page as the others.  More Italian. More explanation.  I am straining to translate.
I see everyone push with their finger on their screens to start.  I do the same, and begin.
A question I see is:

The distance of security itself is repected to the over of a certain velocity... That is the direct translation.
Sometimes Italian is confounding in the flow of the words.
I reason, …I think... I push true... and I miss it.

More questions go by, I believe I get them right.  I can only miss 4 out of 40.
A yield sign is pictured and it says, this signal along an autostrada is placed at 150 meters.
I am reasoning.. I have seen these on the on ramps of the autostrada  So... is the ‘on ramp’ a part of the autostrada?
OH  HELP ME SOMEONE:::.I think I…I  think ….and I choose true.  I guess wrong.
Another question is:
4) Quando la temperatura è vicino a 0° C il conducente deve chiudere i fori di aereazione per evitare colpi di freddo al collo.
The literal translation is…. 
  4) When the temperature is close to 0 ° C, the driver must close the ventilation holes to prevent colds at the neck.
What about fogged up windows, or frost, or the fact that my breathing will cause the windows to fog?  What is more important, the windows or my neck?  By the way, most Italians were scarves throughout the winter, even inside their homes.  I wonder why this question is used, perhaps something more appropriate to determining a future driver’s knowledge of the road.

I finish the test and review it.  I actually found two questions that somehow the computer jumped past when I pushed my finger to advance.  (this happened on the first test,  so I knew to check.)
I am almost confident that I might pass.  My hands are still shaking as I pull the card and walk to the front. The proctor sneers at me as I walk past.  Cleary he needs to take the workshop on how to treat his customers.
We all wait outside.  It is very quiet.  These teens WANT to pass!  It is their rite of passage.
Mine, too.

The exam door opens with a bang, and all eyes are on the proctor who, in his arms holds the hefty pile of folders containing school information, photos, and hopefully positive results.  He calls out names, alphabetically,  last then first.  There is little discussion with each transaction.
 I wait.
My name is called and he sternly looks at me... he says “Non è passato!", which means I have to pay another 100 euros and retake the exam next month.  
I ask him how many did I miss?  He looks at the paperwork and very loudly says, “DIECI!”, which is 10.  I said, "Dieci?"  He says,,,”Si!."  (Missing 10  is disgraceful and he loudly declared it to everyone.)  
I cannot wait to get out of that place.  How could i miss ten!  I am clearly lost, clearly exasperated.  TEN!
Over the weekend and part of Monday I am questioning myself.  How could I have missed ten.  Maybe i am getting alzheimers or was it a computer mistake and/or I am getting to old to be doing this.  
I tell my wife, I will not take the test more than two more times. It is clearly too much stress and the study is sucking away so much of my time.  (I have not painted for over a year, and the piano is collecting dust.)   I sit  and think…..what is wrong!  I must be losing it!  It was a hopeless weekend.

Monday afternoon my driving school sends an email... There is information as to how I will reapply to take the test in one month, how many stamps I must buy at the post office to pay the fees, how much money I will bring to the school, how to reapply for the medical examination and how many photos I will bring. (For some reason they cannot use the old photos.) 
Included in the email is a copy of the test with mistakes noted.  CRAP!  I only missed 5! …………. 5!
That bastardi test giver, he said “10” just to embarrass me!   Oh, I would like to meet him in a dark alley somewhere!
I grieved all weekend over nothing.  Suddenly missing one more than passing is not as big a deal to me, as now I  know it wasn't 10 and I am not losing it!
I feel a whole lot better!

I wait over a month and then on the next attempt, with a different  proctor, I pass the exam.  I am now a practice driver.  An 8 X 11 white paper with a capital P is taped to the back window of my car.  It will remain there until  I pass the driving test.  I am allowed to practice drive with another adult in the front seat.
I cannot tell you my relief in passing the first test.  But I have more to say about this formidible test, this cash cow established to empty the pockets of every eligible driver wannabe in Italy..

Just a few years ago the test was also  given in English.  That would have made it a lot easier for me to pass.  The Italian language used in the test is at a formal level.   I, on the other hand have the ability to order things in a restaurant, make simple conversation, get directions and slowly read books in Italian with the help of a dictionary.  There were no English/Italian textbooks on driving regulations to be found.  Therefore, I began to translate the Italian Driving book published by Bocco…This took me some months of study every day Monday through Friday.  Bogging down in language and translation, I waded through the chapters, discovering that there will be questions on insurance, giving assistance to the  injured, how the motor and parts of the car work, and all the different levels of license.  If you are only planning to drive a car, you are going to have to learn the details on motor scooter licensing, Quadricicling license….. Motor cycle license.  ….The test has questions like  knowing where on the motor cycle you turn it off in an emergency!  I will never drive a motorcycle so why should I have to know this!  Then there are questions about ages of the different licenses, how long they currently last, and how drivers move up to the next level.  Learning these facts take some time.  Later on a book in English and Italian was published.
The test uses a high level of language and they use double negatives.  So you are not just thinking about what they are saying, but you must also consider the double negatives  designed to confuse your choice of true or false.,   You will be confronted with 40 questions.  Many of them will have two correct answers, but you will have to choose which is more correct

An example....When you wait at the train tracks and the train has gone by, the flashing lights keep flashing as the barrier raises... true or false...
Well I reason that in America  they keep flashing….and past experience can be a problem because Italy does things differently.  These little things matter.
Why are they asking a question about the lights flashing after the train has  gone by and the barriers are raising?
I have more examples, I saved quite a few, and my plans are to make a booklet for English speakers to assist them in passing the exam.  I will put it on kindle books.

I will wrap up my post by giving you a thought to consider.  Every teenager, and every stranieri like me, thousands will  pay out over 600 euros to receive a driver’s license.  Where does all that money go?  And why?