Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Memento mori

Zio Giovanni Raviele passed away yesterday at 8:30 am. He was 88 years old. Zio means uncle in Italian and, though he wasn't our uncle, he was still Zio Giovanni. When a man reaches a certain age, he automatically becomes zio for the younger generations. It is a term of respect and affection, both of which were well deserved by Zio Giovanni.
When I got to know this man last year, he had already suffered several strokes and was pretty frail. It was hard to have conversations with him, given that Italian isn't my native language and his difficulty with speaking. It didn't matter. His daughter Virginia would walk him down the hill to the bar and he would sit at a table, smiling at the commotion and expressing himself as best he could. He would sip a cappuccino or espresso, glance at the newspaper and just enjoy being in the company of his friends and family. We would make small talk...he was happy to exchange a few words with the Americans, but mostly he just smiled a warm and tender smile.
Word spread fast of Zio Giovanni's passing. By noon, the "manifesti" announcing his death and the details of his funeral were posted. People started arriving at his house to pay their respects by early afternoon. His body stayed in the house where he had spent his entire life, until this morning when the undertakers came to carry his coffin to the church.
A small band proceeded the hearse and the funeral procession to the church. While they didn't play New Orleans style jazz, they also didn't play a funeral dirge. It was pleasant music to accompany his loved ones to say their final good byes. Everyone entered the was filled to overflowing. A mass was said, hymns were sung, and people lined up to express their condolences to his son and daughter. A eulogy was offered by a long-time family friend...something that doesn't usually happen at Italian funerals. He spoke of the simple kindnesses that Zio Giovanni offered, of his gentle spirit and loving heart. He spoke of hours spent together in front of the fireplace, warmed by his stories and memories of past times. All of us who loved Zio Giovanni were moved by this tribute, and there were few dry eyes to be seen.
We gathered outside in the shade of the trees that line the piazza in front of the Church of San Nicola and waited for the coffin to be brought out. Two trumpeters played taps, in honor of Giovanni's service during WWII. Then his coffin was put into the hearse and they headed slowly down the hill to the cemetery. We all waited silently for a few moments, then gradually the crowd dispersed and people headed off to their own daily activities.
I didn't know Zio Giovanni as well as those who have spent their lives here in this small town, but I did know that he was an icon here and a bastion of support for his loved ones. He will be missed. Rest in peace, Zio Giovanni.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


This has been a strange summer, here in the foothills of the Apennines. May, June and July were quite chilly, cooler than normal. Except for a few days in mid-July, we have been cool and comfortable, until the past 10 days or so. Now, when summer is waning, when we should be putting on a light jacket after sunset, we are in the throes of a massive heat wave.

The entire Italian peninsula has been invaded by hot winds from Africa. A high pressure system has kept clouds from forming and tourists and residents alike are wilting like roses in front of a blast furnace. The Telegiornale tells us that visits to the ER are climbing and hospital staff keep a constant supply of IV fluid in refrigeration, the better to cool down overheated bodies quickly and efficiently. The elderly, who often still believe that air conditioning is bad for them and refuse to even turn on a fan, are the most frequent victims of this heat. Their odd insistence that being in a draft will give them bronchitis or a stiff neck is incomprehensible to me, but that is their position and they are sticking to it!

One of the unfortunate side-effects of this heat is the issue of forest fires, and we in Cervinara are not exempt from this problem. For several days now, smoke has been seen on the mountains and ashes have been drifting down over the entire Castello-Ioffredo district. Helicopters bearing water fly regularly overhead to fight the flames. Forest rangers in off-road vehicles are coming through our narrow streets in greater and greater numbers. There is real concern for the chestnut and walnut trees, as well as for the safety of those who work and live in the hills.
Our neighbor Bertuccio, who knows these hills better than anyone, has said that things are under control, and so we have faith that the fires will be put out and that the damage will be limited. But the weather forecasters predict at least another week of this heat, and there is no rain on the horizon for weeks. Until we get a couple of good soaking rains, the problems of the forest fires will continue and the concerns about the chestnut harvest will linger. We are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for a positive outcome.....but it is certain that this summer will be one for the record books!

Monday, August 22, 2011


So, Mike and I were sitting outside the bar last week, minding our own business, sipping our cappuccinos and reading the paper, when a truck with a loud-speaker announcing a great deal came driving up the street. The great deal? Crates of peppers, peaches, melons and eggplants at ridiculously low prices. Mike: Let's get some eggplant. It's too cheap to pass up. Me: A whole case? Are you crazy? There's only two of us! Mike: But it's such good eggplant. seeds at all. Me: Are you crazy? Mike: We can share it with the neighbors. They'll be happy. Me: Are you crazy?
Long story short, Mike wins, buys a crate of eggplant for three euros and we trudge home. We give five to Mariarosa and five to Bianchina. We haven't made a dent in the crate. I start contemplating my fate and it ain't pretty.
Seven days later: my hands are stained an ugly purple-brown. My arthritis is acting up because of the peeling, chopping and stirring. We have had eggplant parmigiano, eggplant ai fungiatelli, stuffed eggplant, indorato e fritto eggplant, eggplant pasta sauce. There is eggplant in the fridge and eggplant in the freezer. I have made pickled eggplant sott'olio....a gallon jar of it!
In the hottest weather of the summer, with nary a breeze to cool us off, I have peeled, chopped, fried and boiled the entire case of eggplant. Today, as I made it down to the bottom of the crate, I actually celebrated when I found some rotten little buggers that had to be thrown out! Yeah!
Now....we start on the peppers!