Sharp Monica

An honest voice in Italian paradise.

Update from Italy: Wellness in Translation

Photo by Jocelyn Morales on Unsplash

Closing the books on 2022. It’s been a season. Kids home sick for weeks with respiratory woes since Ognissanti. They’re on the mend, and not getting worse, but I have lost count of how many days of school they have each missed, not to mention the small fortune in para-pharmaceuticals and prescriptions that we have spent. The sound of the nebulizer provides a routine compressive hum at our vintage farmhouse table. Our kitten Dorian, now almost five months old, sleeps soundly for hours in the most comfortable chair, unworried and reminding everyone to keep calm (very, very calm) and carry on. I recollect how last year this time I was in quarantine in our guest room, binge watching “The Great” and waving forlornly at our kids through the bedroom window across the courtyard.

Health being at the forefront (as ever), and having a few of my own concerns this autumn (now mostly ironed out, save a rebuilt knee that’s had it, 23 years after reconstruction in Seattle), I have a couple of very amusing health-related anecdotes to report from the Italian field. We are in our seventh year and the thread still sometimes (often?) gets lost in translation.

Partly because it is winter and cold, and partly because full-fat yogurt, delicious and tangy thought it may be, does no one over the age of ten any favors in the pants department, I have convinced Jason to join me in the healthy Scottish morning ritual of oatmeal. (“Feels good twice,” as the old Quaker Oats commercial held, starring Wilfred Brimley. ) Yes, I am an oatmeal fan and connoisseur, I freely admit it. I like it with a splash of creamy coconut milk and some thick fruit confit, but brown sugar and cinnamon are also good. Jason had nothing to match my oatmeal advocacy and admitted that he too would like to join me in my quest for a hot breakfast. So I started mixing up Jason some morning oats when I made mine. Naturally, there now being two adults consuming oats each morning, the oats quickly dwindle, so one morning last week on my way to work I picked up a new bag at the Pam (“più a meno!” More for less!) supermarket on Via Cavour, which my friend Lisa swears is a shell company for some sort of broad-scheme financial malfeasance, so well-stocked and so often utterly deserted. The regular oats were all flavored so I picked up a bag of organic oats and toted my groceries to the law office to get some work done that morning. My Italian colleagues at the front desk immediately spied my sack. What did you buy? they asked me. Oh, just some groceries, I said, for home. Show us! they demanded. Italians are always very interested in this topic – no purchase too mundane for proper scrutiny, and delicacies always very much up for public review. I pulled out my items, one by one, and got to the oatmeal.

Oatmeal! What is this? For breakfast, I said. It is healthy. How do you make it? With boiling water, I replied. Then you drink it, like tea? one asked me. No, no, the other one said, giving her a shove, c’è porridge. Yes! It’s porridge! I said. But you filter it, right? the skeptical one pressed. No, no, I said, you eat it. (Had I had my wits more about me I would have done well to invoke polenta or farro stew, two grain-based hot dishes known to all Italians, or even semolina.) Look, we have a bollitore, a hot water kettle in the copy room; I’ll make you a mug of it right now, to try. They both looked shocked. Qui? here? Okay, maybe not a great idea, I said; I already had mine today. I vaguely remembered that oats in Italy might be livestock feed, if they can even grow them here, my State Department trivia was just out of reach. Maybe they grow oats in the north of Italy where they raise many dairy herds, and whence comes all that lovely, full-fat yogurt. I have no idea what the Chianina cattle of Tuscany eat, those enormous pale beasts. Probably corn.

Enough about the oats, but stay with me here on the state of adult abs in our household. Due to the holding pattern of the unreliable knee, I have had to cut back on my exercise routine. I do not love this development. But just as Rome was limited, the knee will not be repaired in a day, and meanwhile I, a person with the historic energy of a young hamster, am well annoyed being waylaid. I ran through my options for exercise, given the knee issue, and although I have done much yoga in my life, I just cannot see myself getting through sun salutations and warrior poses at this point. Hmmm what about Pilates? I thought. I sent out a note to friends in town, do you know a Pilates studio or instructor? About dozen messages came back – no kidding – proving once more bodywork is alive and well in Florence, a fit town where people look good and a low level of social pressure exists to keep looking good. I started contacting the referrals, having chats, trying to decide where to go. I needed a place close by that I could afford with a schedule that works with Victor’s morning school deposit, which I manage at present. I settled on a studio in the limonaia of the aristocratic Capponi family (every other limonaia in this town seems to now host a fitness business). I made an appointment to meet with an instructor. When I asked her if they spoke any English, she said no, so our initial meeting was in Italian. (I don’t get a lot of solid Italian language exposure on a daily basis right now – a source of angst, and a topic for a different post.) When I asked her if she thought I could do a Pilates lesson in Italian, I got the Caspita! response (You’re kidding!) Your Italian is fine! she assured me, and told me to return the following week in comfortable clothes for an introductory private lesson with her.

So I returned, in my knitwear, ready for a lesson. She sat me on a mat with a water bottle. The Italian was rapid fire. Stringi this! Spingi that! Okay, squeeze, push, pull, I got it, I am thinking on the mat, watching the water bottle tumble repeatedly off my belly. The instructor patiently replaced it each time, controllo, controlli, controlla, questo non è yoga (the local Pilates culture insists it has nothing at all to do with yoga, when in fact it seems quite aligned with the Iyengar yoga I practiced for years, in terms of control, alignment, and muscle engagement). The bacino! she repeatedly invoked the bacino. The bacino bacino bacino. Bacino DOWN. I raced around mentally. What is the bacino? The only translation I know for this word is a little kiss, such as Italian parents demand that their children give them when they drop them off at school. Un bacino, un bacino. The instructor wants me to put my little kiss down? I was very confused. At some point I worked out that it was my hips or butt she wanted me to slowly lay down on the mat, but there were some weird moments in there when I thought she was talking about a little kiss. (Put that little kiss just a bit further down! But I was too embarrassed to ask, and I was also trying to keep the water bottle upright on my belly.)

Later on I determined that a bacino is a pelvis and has about ten other definitions. It’s a basin, and I think it is close to that one word in Don Quijote for a shaving bowl. They also use it for a river basin. But yeah, it’s a pelvis too, which is funny, because isn’t pelvis a Latin word? And does my pelvis – or anyone’s pelvis – look like a basin? It occurred to me that if I had given birth to either of our two kids in Italy I would definitely know this word, bacino. I would not think it meant only little kiss and be confused by its constant employ in a private lesson in a Pilates studio. I also wondered what Elvis’s nickname was in Italy, because Elvis il Bacino just does not have that catch to it. Al Pacino the Bacino?

So, I hope your morning oatmeal is fluffy with just a pinch of salt, and that your bacino is properly supported by your abdominal muscles when you give your child a bacino in the morning in front of school. Years in, I find that transnational navigations are the gift that keeps on giving.

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