Italy: Weights and Measures / Pesi e Misure

How much of one thing equals another thing?

This has to be one of the most overarching cultural questions. When we look at or hold something, a thing, a substance, we ask, how much of this thing is equal to this other thing?

This varies widely from culture to culture, and yet it is transparent to the cultural participants. Of course this much of this one thing is equal to this other thing! Only when we shift positions do our perspectives change.

Our apartment, as I have mentioned, is freddino. It is chilly. Our palazzo is beautiful, and central, and its relative advantages far outweigh its climate control. We are very happy here.

But it is so cold. The cold affects me especially in the morning, when I wake up and stumble into the kitchen (still wearing the scarf, sweatshirt, socks, woolen booties I slept in) to turn on the heat, turn on the electric heater, fill the kettle and light the gas hob for tea, check the situation for Jason’s coffee.

When I return from our school drop-off, things have cooled down again in the kitchen. This is where I always make my same mistake: I think I will just straighten things up a little bit. Just a bit. But my hands are freezing, my fingers barely work, the hot water takes an age to reach the tap from the boiler. It feels like the winter of 1890 up here. Just a small plate, I think to myself, I can scrub this, I can quickly wipe off this other thing. But with my cold hands, in the cold kitchen, the fingers, they do not have a solid grasp, the water is cold, where is the hot water, why is the hot water not running yet …

The plate slips. The ceramic breaks. Every time. Dozens of times.

Mundane plates don’t bother me to break  – a plain white plate, a plain saucer. They can be easily replaced at the sample ceramics vendor at Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, who sells only white ceramics, some embossed, modern and vintage-seeming, but all plain white. It reminds me of arty friends who brought out purposely mismatched and monogrammed hotel silver to entertain at home. Such elegant friends.

Last week, though, I dropped and broke our spoon rest, which came with the apartment in the giant china hutch (madia) of assembled essentials. The spoon rest gets a lot of use, and this spoon rest always tickles my fancy, because it is in the shape of a blue Volkswagen Beetle, which makes me think of, in this order, my mom, Mexico, and Brazil. Mom drove a powder-blue Bug for years in the Midwest, usually stuffed with three small children, a mutt, groceries, and a sheet cake. No air conditioning, vinyl seats, Oklahoma City in sweltering summers. Beetlebugs are all over Mexico and Brazil, destinations I have spent happy travelling time in, so any invocation of simple transportation with three gears, any ocean coast, and windows rolled down is welcome.

But this small Beetlebug was now in two pieces at the bottom of the marble sink.

I heaved a sigh as I picked them up. I dried them off, and verified that they still fit together, more or less. I added them to the small white sugar bowl, whose tiny knob atop the lid had cleaved in half under identical circumstances, and been carefully stored in the bowl until such time as I determined how best to repair it. I am a fixer. I do not like to throw things away, especially if they are sentimental, or I like them particularly. I know it is not always ideal to have a glued seam showing, but I am careful, and dexterous, and can fix things. It’s a personal challenge. I can work with imperfection. I struggle with total loss.

When this happened in the US, I had a very handy glue pen for terra cotta that worked wonders. That glue was awesome. I could fix almost anything with it. A bright bowl from Caltagirone. An ironic ceramic bowl used for cat food. The decapitated head of a concrete Saint Francis after a scuffle with a toddler Victor, reaffixed, that lasted through many cold seasons reglued. But I did not have this glue in Italy.

I knew just where I could find some, though: the mesticheria (home goods shop) on Pietrapiena, just around the corner from our palazzo: Casalinghi Mazzanti. Every quartiere (neighborhood) has one, but I like to think that ours on Sant’Ambrogio is special.

This mesticheria is seriously old school. The sales assistants are all men of a certain age in blue jumpsuits, with thinning and graying hair. They take their responsibilities very seriously. One might browse among the aisles of the shop, but in general it is not done; take a number, and wait for one of the jumpsuits to help you. You must have a number to be in the store, pretty much, if you plan on looking for anything or purchasing anything. The counter was amicably mobbed by day laborers and contractors, who handed over their number to say they are looking for denatured alcohol, a special kind of screw, rope of a certain weight, a new lock. A red-haired widow needed a water bottle. A woman in a luxe fur coat needed a specific can of paint. The store is packed to the rafters – my father would love it. Along with all the practical contractor inventory, they also sell Le Creuset ironware, bathroom accessories, gleaming copper pots and pans of every size and shape. Anything you might need for your home, from screws to a lightbulb to a specific kitchen tool, Mazzanti carries it.

I broke the rules a bit, and began browsing for glue to fix my spoon rest and sugar bowl. The narrow aisles were a challenge to navigate, especially at this busy hour right before lunch, when all the contractors had advanced as far as they could in their morning work without that tube of silicon or box of screws. I quickly found an entire section of glue, and silicon. It became immediately clear why I might need to first take a number to ask a jumpsuit which glue to buy. I had no idea. The selection was overwhelming, and a workout for both my Italian and whatever I remembered of semiotics from grad school. A vast array of sealants and glues were neatly hung on about eight feet of aisle shelving at all levels, and I started to look for the closest approximation to my terra cotta glue-all that I knew so well in the US.

After a few minutes I gave up, and went to look at the activity in front of the counter again. At least ten people were waiting. I noted the location of the number dispenser. I went back to the glue aisle and, finally, found a tube of what I needed where I had not seen it before. The yellow tube was indicated for marble, glass, and any item where visible dried glue is undesirable. At five euros, and with helpful pictures on the front of it of a broken Ming vase, a muffler, a wooden stair, and a dining room table, it was exactly what was needed.

I pulled a number out of the red dispenser. 53. I settled in calmly to wait my turn and to watch the organized mayhem. The jumpsuits were very efficient, and dealt kindly with both contractors’ demands and the hot water bottle needs of chilly widows. An American woman dressed in GMU-logo pushed up to the counter with two glass cruets. She spoke no Italian.

“Number please,” the jumpsuit said in Italian.
“I want to buy these,” she said, in English. Pushing the cruets forward on the counter. She smiled at him. I groaned inwardly.
The jumpsuit gave her a look and disappeared from behind the counter. Her cruets had no price tags. I wondered what the word was for cruet in Italian. I felt sympathetic for a moment as I inwardly agreed that there was no way I would ever wal
k into an Italian shop like this and start talking to a jumpsuit about my need for a glass cruet with a cork.
Everyone behind GMU began to grumble. She had jumped at least ten numbers in the line. Everyone else was holding their number and looking at it.
She turned around and saw the scene. She looked sideways at me.
“Am I doing this wrong?” she asked me.
“They’re traditional here. Gotta take a number to pay,” I said, relieved I was far from the most clueless person in the shop.
The unsinkable Molly Brown seemed to have assumed that other customers were simply too undetermined to pay, or perhaps fraught by indecision.
The jumpsuit finally came back and told her the price for the two cruets. She paid, and hastily made her way from the store.

By this time I was an expert in number-taking. One of the contractors, with plaster dust still in his dark gelled hair, asked me where I got my number from.
“Di la,” I said, pointing.
Finally, 53! I hopped up to the front, gave the jumpsuit my number, and paid with an acceptably small banknote. He smiled at me and shooed me out of the store, already thinking ahead to 54.

Realizing the master class I had just received in language and culture thanks to the long wait and general powers of observation, I resolved to contrive a reason to come more frequently to Casalinghi Mazzanti.

Saturday morning I got out my broken porcelain pieces and the glue package. I set the pieces of the sugar bowl and the spoon rest on the marble counter.

I read the instructions on the back over and over to make sure I knew what I was doing. Clean and dry surface. Do not get in eyes. Use within two to three minutes, hold pieces to be glued together for forty seconds. Forty minutes to cure. One phrase made me laugh. You may tint the glue with pigment as you wish, obviously before adding the hardener, which was in a smaller tube next to the big tube.

Yeah, obviously. Maybe the contractors knew that. Certainly the jumpsuits knew that. Well, it wasn’t a conversation I was going to have, with any Italian, in any case.

But one detail remained opaque to me. I had puzzled over it many times, and finally called over our house expert in Italian and Florentine culture, language, and measurements, Dr. Jason Houston.

“Read this,” I said. “The sentence about the chicco di caffe and the noce.” It was a description of proper proportions for glueing success.
He held the package close. “Yep,” he said. “It is referencing a coffee bean and a nut.”
The package outlined the proportions for mixing the glue (coffee bean-sized amount) with the hardener (walnut-sized amount), from each tube, to successfully employ the product. The text said that the hardener should be about 2% of the total mix, which I should then mix velocemente. The recommended percentage preceded the coffee bean and nut reference, which were meant to clarify the proportions in an easily understood metaphor. Except it was not easy to understand.
“Is a noce like a walnut?” I asked Jason. “Or a pecan?”
“Pretty much,” he nodded in assent.
“Okay,” I said. “And a chicco di caffe is a coffee bean?”
“Yes,” he agreed.
“Okay,” I said. “Do fifty coffee beans equal a walnut? It doesn’t seem like it to me. Or is there another Italian nut they are referencing that is huge?”
He looked at me like I had begun drinking before noon.
“Seriously,” I pressed. “Fifty coffee beans do not fit into a walnut. Think about it.”
“Maybe they mean a grain of coffee. Perhaps it is referencing coffee that is ground.”
“No, it specifically says chicco here.” This is a catch-all Italian word for a grain of something – a coffee bean, or a grain of wheat. Certainly fifty grains of wheat would fit into a walnut. But the package specifically referenced a coffee bean. “Fifty grains of coffee might equal one coffee bean, and a coffee bean does not equal a walnut.”

How much of one thing equals another thing?

I decided to go with a dab of hardener into my unpigmented glue. The mixture reeked. I mixed it in the plastic lid from a can of Pringles and a used drinking straw. Opening a window to let the smell out, and set about holding together my broken pottery pieces. The glue seemed to work just fine, notwithstanding my confusion over the recommended agricultural proportions.

The sugar bowl and the spoon rest are now convincingly restored to their original states. I think the jumpsuits would agree that I did a fine job.

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