Update from Italy: Unmoored American Musings

Art credit: Christopher Manning (c) 2020. Concept mine. But I am sure it is all over the interwebs already anyway.

The time has come! The time is now! JUST GO, GO, GO! I DON’T CARE HOW!

Donald J. Drumph, will you please go now?!

I see you in flight, to your ducks well-teathered / and though you be tarred, they be feathered / and from first class, the birds, they count seven / may they swiftly convey you to your sunk Tyrant heaven.

Donald J. Drumph, I don’t care when, I don’t care HOW! Donald J. Drumph, will you please go now?!

Your battering tantrums have weakened our world / I can’t hear your soundbites, I only see your lip curled / I’m tired of explaining how we got to this point / our federal branches, all three out of joint.

I’ve fretted and read and armchair analyzed you / I still can’t understand how your sycophants prize you. / In this pandemic year, all my goodwill is spent. / I said, ‘GO’! and ‘GO’, I meant!

Après Seuss. With my eternal thanks and recognition for how his poetry washed up on my juvenile shores in the seventies, remain buried treasure to this day, and deeply so. Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! is a 1972 children’s book by Dr. Seuss. Apparently he did release a version of it that was Nixon-specific, back when presidents knew shame.

Wishing everyone a kinder, gentler 2021. Remembering when leaders aspired to civility.

Florentine Notebook: River Muskrat

I might name him Ernesto. He could use a toothbrush. Photo by Max Saeling on Unsplash

The Arno teems with wildlife. One need only look for it. The water courses through the city, a vital line of energy, sluggish and full of mosquitoes in summer, rushing and angry during winter months. It is rarely placid. It is never blue, unless the sky above is clear and the sun shines brightly, making a heavenly reflection on the dun surface. I have spotted egrets, herons, ducks, and gulls in the nooks and crannies under the old bridges. The pluck fish from the water. River sushi.

The city enclosed the river within stone retaining walls – the Lungarno, or the length of the Arno – centuries ago. Prior to that, the riverbank was level with the mouths of many streets, and when the water rose with the rains, damage ran deep. Now walls two or three stories high drop from the street level to the water below, and when the water rises, it rarely breaches the walls. The last time this happened was in 1966, and the people still talk about it as though it were yesterday. Cars swirled through intersections, borne up by the pulling current. Innumerable precious manuscripts and works of art were lost. In Piazza Santa Croce, a priest held the hand of a woman in a wheelchair, trapped in her home, praying with her until she drowned. I still don’t understand how she was trapped in her ground-floor apartment. There is an account of it somewhere, the door, the iron grilles, the rising water.

I walk each day in the city. The quarantine this year was so hard that now I take every opportunity I can to gulp fresh air, gaze at a blue sky, a cloudy sky, blankets of mist, I don’t care. I walk up and down the Lungarno, out Via Romana to the old Porta Romana, back to the river again on Via degli Serragli. Two weeks ago we had rain for a week, heavy rain, and the river was roiling. Chocolate milk garnished with logs and lost balls ended in billows of foam over the old weir that used to power a woollen mill for a monastery. I could not stay away from the river and its simple drama: river running high. How different it looked, its tone, its voice, so loud I could barely hear my audio. It seemed frustrated, not angry, but somewhere under those swells was the memory of calmer waters.

The last day of the river’s churning I was walking across Ponte Vespucci (Amerigo himself is buried in the church of Ognissanti, at the bridge’s eastern landing, kindly painted by Ghirlandaio.) When I had almost reached the other side, I looked down and spotted a wise moustache, two bright eyes, and a sleek coat. The nutria! One of the nutrias of the Arno. He didn’t see me, but looked around, blasé and bored, never mind the water. I watched him scratch his belly with a back leg. He looked well-feed, and handsome, his whiskers almost touching the large rock upon which he sat to view the rushing weir. The poor cousin of a walrus or seal, coursing their salt swells in far-off oceans. More muskrat than beaver; the gamey meat falls somewhere on the spectrum, I read, between pork and turkey. They’re farmed as a protein source in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and longer ago, for their fur, but no one wants a water-rat coat or even water-rat collar these days. I laugh and think of my rabbit-patch fur coat from the seventies. Perhaps it was dyed nutria.

His face was wise. Bored, even. He’d seen it before. He’d see it again. I waited to see if he’d see me, but he never did. I walked on. He seemed so kind that I am now sorry to learn he is considered a global pest, an unwanted pelt, a faux pork chop.

Scottish Notebook: 1995/2020

Photo not mine, but not inaccurate. I must have been really carsick those weeks long ago. Photo by Ariel Pilotto on Unsplash

I was 21, fresh out of college. I longed for Europe, Scotland in particular. Probably due to certain wide release films (Braveheart, Rob Roy, I blush to confess it), I had Scotland on the brain. And bad. Really bad. I abhorred the Oklahoma sun as much as a McLeod set down in Alice Springs might curse the burning light of the Outback. I have always done my best thinking, my most creative writing, on overcast or rainy days. Sunlight bleaches it all out of me, suns me dry, until my thoughts and words and feelings lack for color and life. I vowed to myself that I’d leave and never look back. 

In my ground-floor office, I worked out my travel plans on a whiteboard with colored markers, tracing routes, starring destinations, on my freehand map. The middle-aged woman who shared the office with me stared, gaping. What in the world are you doing? I’d love to go to Europe to see how they lee-ive in huts.

Wrong continent, Linda! I’ll go here, I’ll do this, I’ll do that. I had friends in almost every continental port of call who urged me to use their guest room, I’d be welcome, mothers from Ireland to Spain and all over Germany would cook for me and do my laundry (the gender politics of this statement now jar). My planned per diem was laughable (somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five dollars a day, offset by all the free lodging and meals). I had a three-month Eurail pass and some cash scholarship money, plus a planned student loan to keep me over for a year. But I was most excited about Scotland.

I bought a one-way ticket to Edinburgh on British Airways and landed in the city in early August. Scotland in late summer meant long days and short nights, midges and pints, scenery and laughter. I made friends quickly as I traveled around with a friend from home, whom I’d known half my life but now felt impossibly mopey as he cast longing looks in the direction of a beautiful Australian. His anxiety was a burden. I had said I would accompany him, not be his personal tour guide in a country I looked forward to discovering for myself.

I wanted to steep in Scotland, to breathe its air, to travel with my eyes down the spine of her mountains. I wanted to drink her stout pints and milky tea, I wanted to revel in the dry humor and their fetching brogue. I wanted to take the train along the coast to Culrain, the ferry to Skye, set out in a small boat on Loch Ness. I wanted to eat every toastie and bowl of scotch broth I could find on a menu. An old man in tweed, drunk at noon, shouted Christ but you’re a cheesemuffin. I laughed. Perhaps the films had prepped me, but deep down I’d always had an affinity for the culture, the music. The people.  

Edinburgh’s damp morning streets led to Perth and Pitlochry, Aberdeen and Inverness. I went full American on my itinerary, seeing the breadth of Caledonia in three weeks. I lugged my backpack in and out of hostels and castles turned hostels. I met half of Scotland, it seemed. In Edinburgh a drunk man tried to tell me he was Pictish. I told him to get lost. Not one for mullets or acid wash.

On the plus side, my compatriot was a musician, and found us no end of traditional pubs hosting folk music. Fiddles, drums and harps, flutes and voice weave the soundtrack of those weeks. 

Outside of Pitlochry, we hiked a few miles on a path to a whisky distillery, the sweet mash perfuming the air. It was sunny. I have a picture of myself there, with short hair and a childish face, frowning into the lens. 

The Edradour distillery was small and inviting. Logs blazed in the hearth, even in mid-August. The sun could not completely chase away the Scottish chill. I loved it. We looked with mild interest down on the copper vats of mash from a mash man’s catwalk, heard about this or that step, and x amount of time. Yawning, bored. But down in the hall, by the hearth, a man in a kilt sat me down and poured me a dram in a shot glass with a pleasing heft. An Italian tour group was busy getting all the information interpreted for them. I sat on the masoned flagstones and sipped the whisky, the fire warm at my back. What was this, the whisky was sweet? And suddenly in a flash I understood, I understood so much! Why Scotland is cold, the sweetness of whisky, the comforting embrace of the heath’s gentle heat, how pleasant it is to take a rest after a long walk. This moment was a reset button for me on many levels. In my heart I felt I had come to my proper home.

I recently learned that, in 1685, my eighth great-grandfather – one William Sharpe of Aberdeen – emigrated from the east coast of Scotland to East New Jersey. About my same age, similar life circumstances, opposite direction. A flicker of recognition brushed my heart as I remembered my own youthful one-way journey, the prodigal salmon. I had no idea then what my family connection was to Scotland, only that I loved it and wanted to go there. Knowing what I know now, after hours of digging through archives and piecing together fragments and comparing lost stories, I understand so much more. It all makes sense. I’d love to return to Scotland now, with this knowledge full in my heart, in my mind. 

Spanish Notebook: Pipas 1948/1995

He held up his lighter, a well-worn U.S. Army Zippo. “Americano. Muy malo.” 
AmePhoto by Vinicius Löw on Unsplash

Pipas. Spanish sunflower seeds. Such a sweet, suggestive word, the cheep of a bird, a finch or a swallow, dainty in feathers, making hungry sounds. A word as happy as the flower from which they are harvested. Pipas does not sound like anything associated with a potbellied older man, wearing layers of salty jumpers and ancient grey trousers, a stinking cigar butt held loosely between two stubby fingers, drinking beer and cracking sunflower seeds between his teeth in a bar. 

He leaned in toward me with a conspiratorial air. He held his cigar in front of him and tapped it with the opposite index finger.

Cubano, he said. Muy bueno.

He held up his lighter, a well-worn U.S. Army Zippo.

Americano. Muy malo. 

He shook his head and slipped the lighter back into his trouser pocket.

They said that a bar’s good reputation was evidenced by the detritus on its floor, in front of the bar, under stools, underfoot. This was very strange to me, as a person from northern climes, where shopkeepers and pub owners swept their floors with pride, picking up crumpled receipts, dried gobs of chewing gum, toothpicks, wadded napkins, cigarette butts. In Spain all this refuse proved that patrons had entered and stayed awhile before hurrying off to their next destination. And in the most popular bars, the low drifts of rubbish are composed mostly of the husks of sunflower seeds. Pipas

And yet men of all ages – rarely women – placed pipa after pipa between their top and bottom teeth, balanced in the visa of their jaw, bearing down until it split its seam vertically to release the oily seed inside, spitting the hull onto the floor where it landed with thousands of hulls just like it, bitten in half. Seed after seed, picked thoughtlessly from a tight-woven basket set atop the bar, the perfect accompaniment to their ice-cold lager served in tall glasses they called cañas

Pipas, pipas, pipas. Cañas, cañas, cañas.

The acrid smoke from the black tobacco rolled into thin cigarettes twined in the air. An endless parade of cañas y pipas, lasting from the early evening sun until well after midnight. I see before me that girl Pipas, so named because she was the only woman anyone knew who cracked the pipas to eat them with her lager, smiling knowingly as she spit hull after hull onto the floor. They said she’d fought for the Republicans, and looking at her slender hips and thick, short braids, I believed it. They called her chica out of affection but she was at least thirty. 

No one understood why I didn’t speak to her. My hands trembled with the old frightened feeling.

One evening in Don Alonso’s I ordered a cerveza, por favor.

Don’t you mean a caña? Surely you want a caña, she purred an arm’s reach from me.

Yes, a caña, I nodded. 

After Alonso slid the caña over to me, I drank it in silence. I could feel everyone looking at me. 

Eh, Luz, order me a caña, why don’t you! a handsome man shouted from the other end of the bar.

Call her Pipas if you want something, an older man said. Then they all laughed.

I finished my beer and left. I was just a north-country git, a farmer’s son, and spoke barely any Spanish. I can taste the cerveza and pipas now, smell that cigar smoke, when I close my eyes. 

Author’s note: This piece is creative non-fiction, borne of my time in Spain and innumerable peninsular history classes and films, along with a healthy admiration for George Orwell.

Italian Notebook: My Darling Clementine

I’ve called them mandarins and satsumas. I’ve encountered them in cans and in wet salads in America. None of those command the loyalty I’ve found for the Italian clementine. Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash

The clementines begin to arrive from Sicily toward the end of November, packed into crates facing out from trucks framed by steel bars at the sides. Smaller than navel oranges, ovoid in shape, dark green leaves left attached by the stem to make them more orchard-fresh.

Clementines have been sold this way on the roadside in Italy for centuries. Sunshine in the palm of the hand, a burst of freshness to slice through the socked-in valley of the Arno that stays stubbornly grey all winter long. The days of endless Tuscan sun are promptly followed by soaked grey days of darkness and Tuscan thunder. I tuck one into my bag before leaving the house each morning, a modest mid-morning snack to anticipate with pleasure.

To peel and divide a clementine in December is to undertake a citrus dissection, biting the crescent in half, the cool liquid filling your mouth, mopping it clean with astringent and cloying pulp. You can taste the southern rays, close your eyes and smell the dust of Agrigento’s temples, the salt air blowing north from the African coast to a shore known by everyone down the course of history. The tiny beads of the orange burst between your teeth, reminding you there is hope even in the darkest days, and that summer appears in winter in this spritely form, rolling and cheery, game and full of laughter.

French Notebook: Radishes

Their green stems poking smartly over the edge of the white porcelain plate. Photo by Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

Eve sat at the wooden table tucked into the corner of the dining room. Her host parents were much older. The wife was round and looked like Mrs. Claus, blue eyes twinkling behind wire frames. The husband matched her height, in no great shape, a Frenchman from a different time. Without a doubt they both lived through the war. The wife put out a small plate of starters, tiny red radishes with their green stems poking smartly over the edge of the white porcelain plate. She also brought from the kitchen a fluted ramekin with creme fraiche, and a salt cellar. I watched Eve closely to see what to do. 

She placed her napkin in her lap; I did the same. She calmly carried on with the wife.

“Je vais toujours prendre une douche ce soir.”

I’m still going to take a shower this evening.

My mouth hung open. I heard every word she said, deliberately and slowly, twisting her brown hair around a finger, and realized with a flush how deficient my French was, living in a largely anglophone community in my résidence universitaire. Toujours can mean still! I was shocked. I understood everything, and heard a word used in a new way with which I had heretofore been wholly unfamiliar. I folded my hands under the table. 

Eve took a single radish from the plate. She held the radish in place with the fork and bisected it with the knife, then cut it again so that the pieces were now in quarters. She dollopped a bit of creme fraiche on the wedge, then pinched up some salt from the ceramic cellar and sprinkled it atop the piece of radish. I observed her carefully so that I could recreate these steps with as much confidence and panache. Prior to that I had never once considered eating a radish, in any format, raw nor cooked. 

I recreated Eve’s steps, gingerly halving the radish, then halving it again. Creme fraiche, salt. Spear it, bring it to the mouth with the silver fork. Eve continued her genteel conversation with the wife. I bit into the radish. It was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. I didn’t know horseradish then. I certainly did not know jicama, or daikon; those vegetables remained far up the road to Future Food. The radish flattened with a crunch between my molars. It was watery, with a firm base note of clean pebbles. It tasted of sunshine, and winter, and well-watered black dirt. The creme fraiche and salt were genuine improvements to the bland background palette it offered. The French of the Alsace clearly knew what they were doing with radishes. Eve had nibbled the radish down to the top of the step, then discarded the stem gently onto the plate with another quick pinch. I ate all four pieces of the first radish in this way. 

The wife came back, ready to remove the radishes in preparation for the buttered spaetzle she had just tossed into the boiling pot. I saw the steam from where I sat.

Non, non, je vous en prie, I said. Her eyebrows went up. Je les mange toujours.

Ah oui, c’est bien! She smiled with pride. Les radis, ils sont très très bon cette année.

Toujours can mean still. I am still eating them.

I always taste the radishes. I still taste them.

Spanish Notebook: The Latest Summer

Photo by Mourad Saadi on Unsplash

1995. The late September in Spain felt like a midsummer. Bea’s mother gave us a ride from Lugo to the beach at Figueroa in their tiny car with Aida, Berta, and Bea’s brother. 

We never rose before noon. We only got to the beach after four in the afternoon because after we arose, we had breakfast coffee, and then immediately lunch. We had nowhere to be. Nothing to do. 

For an entire week we were the only ones on the sprawling beach, spread out like a glittering gold cloth, the sun sparkling off the water. The water was cold and the waves were high, and when we jumped into them, I said Do you know they say that cold water makes your breasts more firm? and Bea said Qué venga! Qué venga! 

I had my nose firmly tucked into a Penguin classic about D.H. Lawrence traveling around Sardinia, roasting lambs on spits in town after town. The other girls found it hilarious that I was reading on the beach. They were all on the beach trying to forget about the exams they were meant to be revising for because they had all failed every possible exam in June. They were not going to read unless their lives depended on it.

The sun angled low on the water as we swam without getting sunburned. The Spanish girls laughed at my one-piece swimsuit. They wore bikinis, nonchalant about their tight taut bellies. 

Aida showed me the pile of brown potatoes in her parents’ storage by way of sightseeing. At night we went into the provincial bars of Figueroa for a beer and tortilla española and then perhaps to some nightclubs in the slightly larger town of Foz for whatever local mischief we could find.

Berta and I shared the guest room at the guest house of Aida’s grandparents: two tiny twin beds made for nuns with a crucifix over each headboard and a bath mat next to each bed on the immaculate tile floor. 

I had never been to that part of Spain, before much less its abandoned beaches in the rias altas. It was quite possibly the most provincial beach experience I’ve ever had in my life. This might have been due to the one-street town with the ocean right across from it, but probably had more to do with the mountain of potatoes in the garage.

Oklahoma Notebook: Without Words

Photo by Keenan Constance on Unsplash

The day was roasting, mid-July in Oklahoma City. I had stepped into a landmark building that featured, perched atop its roof, in fiberglass and opaque white paint, a facsimile of a giant milk bottle. On Twenty-third and Classen, not far from Provénce. The new Super Cao Nguyen was right behind it, with its neon palm trees in the parking lot; we called it Super Cao Expired, because everything in there was past its expiration date.

My hair was very short then. I was sweaty, wearing cotton shorts and a denim shirt, black leather mules. Sweat trickled down my back. An older white woman stood behind the counter.  “Hello,” she said. She looked like a grandmother.

I don’t even remember what was in the store or why I went in there. It was the first and only time. “Nice stuff you got here,” I told her. The stuff really wasn’t that nice, a lot of dusty used stuff, like a garage sale inside a closet with a giant milk bottle on top, but she was eyeing me hungrily.

“This beeeyooooolding is a landmark,” she announced.

“I know that,” I said, straightening. “I grew up here.”

This was her cue to trust me, inside and out. Her eyebrow arched. “Them fuckin’ foreigners gonna buy it! They’re taking over everything! Even the milk bottle!”

I said nothing to refute her. I backed away. I scrambled out of there, back into the suffocating heat, the blinding light. Like I’d done something wrong by being there, or by not responding to her uninvited commiseration.

I wish I had said something like, are you serious? Or, what you said does not make sense to me. Or, no one wants to buy your large fiberglass milk bottle. No one. No one from anywhere wants your milk bottle or anything under it.

I had been too trained by local culture to not talk back. I still regret not having said anything to her.

Oklahoma Notebook: Rampant Francophilia

Photo by Conscious Design on Unsplash

Provénce had a sister spirit in The Antique Garden in Norman on Boyd Street. The francophile spirit ran strong. Oklahoma yearns for Europe.

The building was low, covered in light stucco, with a patio out front where people used to study or play chess in the evening sun. When I was a student, the address was Café Espresso (exactly what it sounded like). Then it was acquired by La Baguette, central Oklahoma’s authentic French bakery, which was trying to be like Au Bon Pain in Washington D.C. or La Madeleine in Dallas. La Baguette could only aspire because, along with many other reasons, they always forgot to salt the water when they boiled the potatoes for their potato salad, creating a pasty mush garnished with green parsley. The food was depressing at best, and in their sit-down restaurant on the other side of the interstate, I had been told by a mortified French professor, they served diners water in sport bottles rather than in a glass carafe, requiring the diners to squirt the water into their mouths like they were coming in on the end of Day Eighteen of the Tour de France, somewhere after Mt. Ventoux. The chocolate mice were good, though, dark fondant chocolate ganache with a tiny drizzled tail at the back and a dark chocolate bead for a nose. I often ordered a chocolate mouse with my coffee.

In any case, La Baguette went out of business and decamped – the rent was too high, thanks to Harold Powell, which is another story. In came The Antique Garden, which we called The Antikew Garden. Like Provaynce. I mean, why not keep it consistent.

The owner looked like she had been raised in close vicinity to La Madeleine in Dallas, all blonde highlights, tanned, slim, careful makeup. But there were to be found neither antiques nor garden in the Antikew Garden. 

Here is what you could buy in the Antikew Garden: skinny jeans, Brighton key fobs, greeting cards, tile coasters with faded image transfers of French wine labels, throw rugs in school colors, or a third of a wooden altar screen ripped out of some European chapel with a now homeless Madonna, flat-faced and Gothic. I always wondered where they obtained the altar screen. The hinges hung half-crazed. The Madonna looked down as though she wondered herself what the hell had happened. She had a hand-written tag, indicating that the cost to purchase her was three thousand dollars. I felt unsure where anyone might locate such an item in their home. 

“Oh yes,” I overheard the owner say one day on a call, “we just ship all this stuff over from Europe. We just pack a container and ship it here. Once a year.” 

I tried to imagine the thin owner personally removing the statue and screen from a backwoods chapel in France. She didn’t seem hale enough for such work. I wondered who her despoiling henchmen were, and what she paid them. Maybe the items were just traded and fenced via unsavory brokers. 

I looked over at the deracinated Madonna, the flaking paint of her blue and red gown, and wondered what she thought when she was brought from the dark container and placed in the Antikew Garden, a pricetag on her pale hand.