Firenze: Piumino Nuovo / New Down Coat

The seasons are turning at this latitude. Fall has set in, and thankfully it is not as drenched a fall as last year, when we were plunged into a dark and rainy night that lasted for weeks. The summer heat this year thoughtfully retired on the Friday before Labor Day.We had a superb stretch of sunny crisp days, blue sky. The leaves actually changed color rather than just being blown from the trees. I can’t stop taking pictures.

Along with seasonal changes comes the cambio di stagione, which Italians take very seriously. To every season there is a wardrobe. American and German tourists are so easy to spot right now in town because they are still wearing t-shirts, shorts, and flimsy summer dresses as though they had all just deplaned on Ibiza or Corfu. Sandals. Sandals, people. It has been 43 degrees (Fahrenheit, of course) and raining off and on for days now. We are currently in a clear sun break, which I will enjoy, as the light disappears around 4:30 pm. I see it all transition from behind the tall vertical windows of the French doors in my rented palazzo where I work. On rainy days, that daylight is gone by 4 pm, even from the suntrap that is Piazza della Repubblica.

Autumn skies over Repubblica

Our morning transportation from the apartment to school is moving from bike to bus – but slowly, because the kids both love riding on the backs of our bikes. Eleanor and I had an unpleasantly crushed morning on the 6B to Piazza San Marco this week.

If the kids would bundle up more, we might be able to prolong their bike commuter chapter. Victor does alright; he will wear a jacket, a piumino (down-filled coat) and a scarf. Eleanor, on the other hand… I’ll just say that we are working on educating her about layers, I finally found a pair of sparkly red fingerless gloves that she likes (now if we could just keep track of them and reliably use them), and for our Lady Eleanor, a scarf is anathema. You might as well ask her to wear a noose.

Yesterday I broke out my wool cashmere peacoat (purchased at market last year for twenty-five euros, and altered on Via Niccolini at the Chinese tailor).  It’s a good coat, but requires a serious cashmere sweater layer or two underneath. No kidding.

My long red down coat (purchased last year at Zona Blu, a local outlet) had seen a tiny bit of action already, but it tends to drop tiny feathers on everything, which makes it an unfortunate choice if I am wearing anything other than white weave (which is never, because who can keep up on that kind of laundry here.) It’s too bad, because I love it. But it is not well-designed for the coldest of rainy windy days, because it only snaps in front. The wind quickly finds its way in.

My standard go-to piumino which I purchased in Arezzo in 2012 from the lovely little boutique Tesoro di San Michele, run by my friend Teresa, has seen its last winter. Teresa is a petite Italian artist who now makes people look good. The year she dressed me was probably the most fashionable year of my life. Her eye for color and design were superb. She found the piumino for me, and I wore it like a cocoon for years. But now the zipper pull is broken. The snaps have popped off in at least two places. I love the fur-lined hood, but, let’s face it, it’s probably from a husky/retriever mix bred on a dog farm in China for its pelt, so… that’s not cool. Plus, it is just the wrong length for bike riding now – an issue I was not aware of in the hilly town of Arezzo, where I never biked. I didn’t even own a bike that year. Here I am typically on my bike 4-6 times per day, and the coat is just long enough that it gets caught on the back end of my bike seat, causing any number of near collisions and wrecks.

So warm. I will miss this cocoon.
Note my red piumino on hook behind me.
Jason’s piumino next to it.

I was literally in the market for a new piumino.

I headed this morning to the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, and locked up my bike, heading straight to the clothing. I quickly identified a few different piumini I liked. I tried one on. The woman said it was bello, but I disagreed. The extra zipper around the hood made me look as though I was peering from out of the jaws of a crocodile. It was cheap. It looked like I might be selling tissues and umbrellas soon under the arcades of Piazza della Repubblica.

Next. A maroon coat with a belt that I was unable to either fasten or remove due to its special magnetic clip. Its general effect was to make me look as though I had just eaten my way through a week of Thanksgivings. It had a very Finnish/Russian vibe, kind of like a pirakka pastry stuffed into a down coat.

“Go to the mirror, look at it on!” the woman called.
I went to the mirror. An older Italian woman was turning to see from all sides a coat she had on.
“Posso?” I asked.
She grumbled and took a half step to the left.
Yeah, this coat was totally not working for me.

Why is every size in Italy L or XL or more? They say a medium is a small. I almost never see a small, except in the clothes that I bought from Teresa in Arezzo. Seriously, there are never any smalls. The open market seems to be driven by a lack of size indicators, forcing casual shoppers to “just try things on for size,” thereby opening the floor for a general chorus of, “fits great! Bello! Buy it!”

Yeah, I got my new

I spied a more fun coat hanging from the ceiling bar. “What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s sixty euros,” she said.
“Can you get it down for me?”
It was dark purple, padded, with an amusing Dr. Seuss-esque fur lining.
She called her husband over, who came with a merchandise crook. He lifted it down.
“Is it small?” I asked.
“Does it look small to you?” she responded.
Sigh. I’ll just … try it on.
“Reversibile!” she said.
“Two-faced,” her husband said.
I did not even bother explaining double-sided, or his unfortunate faux ami in translation.
I tried it on. Is it possible for a down coat to make one feel twenty years younger, without looking ridiculous?
In Italy, yes. The effect is mandatory.
“Your Italian is good,” the woman said.
“Grazie, io provo!” I laughed. Thanks, I am trying.
She explained that her daughter lives in Buffalo with her husband and children.
I said that the winters there were serious, no joke. Good thing the lady was in the piumino business so she could send them some extra coats to combat Lake Effect.
She looked at me curiously.
Did she really have a daughter in Buffalo, and had that daughter really never mentioned winter?
“No zipper!” the husband called. “Snaps! Without snaps, it’s not two-faced!”
“I’ll take it,” I said.
“Sesanta,” she said. I did not even bargain. I bet they would have given it to me for 50.
I pulled out a fifty euro note and a five and a ten. I handed her all of them. My fingers were cold.
She handed the five euro note back, saying, too much!
“You’re so honest,” I said.
“Ma dai!” she protested. “Figurati.” Go figure, of course, forget it.
“We live around here, we’re here all the time.”
“Good!” she said, “I’m here all the time too!”
She was petite, about 70. She had a long down coat on – to her knees.
“I like your coat,” I said. “I like the longer ones too.”
She beamed. “Me too!”
I walked out of the market humming a tune that I realized was “New Position” by Prince and the Revolution, but I was thinking “New Piumino.” (This link to a cover is the only complete version I could find.)

Now, I look like a stuffed animal.
I think I will keep the fur side in.

Firenze: A Different Life, Part 2

I always hated the produce at the Norman Super Target, and yet that was, for years, our regular grocery destination. Nothing tasted like anything. Purchasing tomatoes or strawberries or plums felt more like a semiotic exercise than a reliably positive tastebud experience. You bit into things, no matter what they were, and they were, in a word, awful. No taste at all. Styrofoam and sawdust. Horrible texture. And so, so expensive. Why did we buy it? The word was on the list, and it matched the word on the tiny produce tag in the tables. But conceptual fidelity ended there.

The bakery section. I’d like to stop here for a moment too. A decent (by local standards) but small loaf of bread would easily set you back five dollars. And it wasn’t even good. And it was stale within a day. I am a baker by genotype, and early in the game after my return to Oklahoma in 2004 decided I would have to tackle the Yeast Question. Typically I trafficked in eggs, flour, butter, and sugar, but in this baker’s wasteland, it was time to figure out yeast. I became expert in turning out a boule two to three times per week, thanks to the NYT recipe that was all the rage in 2006. I had a Le Creuset dutch oven, and the round loaves I routinely turned out were better than any bread that could be bought in town. Even if I upped my game and went for Fancy Flour (Bob’s Red Mill; King Arthur) my loaves were still pennies on the dollar, and made mad good panini, eggs in a window, bread pudding, and sandwiches. And lasted four to five days.

Meat. Ugh. I hated meat in the US, pink in plastic. It tasted like nothing. No bones in, all wrapped on light blue styrofoam trays. Cut who knows how many days ago by a machine in a factory. At one point I told Jason, don’t buy any chicken, ever. Just stick to steaks and pork please. I could not take any more of that injected MSG flavor and liquid, the weird dryness of chicken breast meat. (As any Italian will tell you, chicken breast meat is “cat food”; people eat dark meat, which tastes better.)

Jason and I love food, fresh food, and we both came to food culture as adults, through travel. As children of the seventies, we ate our share of dinners that featured Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, Durkee fried onions, Potato Buds. Casting no aspersions here – it was very much the standard of the time. (To be fair, our mothers made plenty of tasty things too from scratch, but to purchase the fresh ingredients on a regular basis for every meal was, I imagine, prohibitively expensive on one salary.)

I had a long list of food phobias when I was 19. Nothing too spicy. No bones in. No blood. No marrow. No blood sausage. I had never really eaten broccoli, or eggplant. I hated eggs. I liked starch, and a bland palate. I was a case example of advocacy for Garrison Keillor’s “whitening agent”: mashed potatoes with white gravy and a chicken fried steak with more white gravy, with a side of buttered corn. The semester before I went to Spain for my first study abroad program, this was my favorite thing to eat, and it was doing my heart and weight no favors.

In Spain, I went all in, determined to break my food phobias. For what is a fear, of anything, but an invitation to mastery? Forty million people can’t be wrong, I told myself, and they’re not at all dying from the menu, as I ate plates of liver, pigs’ ears, anything and everything those gallegos pulled from the Atlantic and served on a platter: mejillones, langostinas, pulpo, merluza. I ate it all. I tried everything. I had a rule for myself that, if I did not like it, I need not eat it again. Cocidos. Tripas. Tortilla espanola a la espinaca. Everything. And less brave food too: medialunas that shattered when tapped with a small silver fork. Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Chocolate con churros. Gofres. I returned home with a completely changed culinary reference.

An aspect of Seattle I always valued was its food culture. Fresh food, Pike Place Market, people from everywhere. It is hard to get a bad meal in Seattle. (It is possible to pay far too much for said meal.) (Also, the Mexican options were never good.)

But Italy. Italy and food.

In Italy, food is a right, and good food is the only kind of food there is. Americans tend to regard food as a class indicator: eating well means you’re doing well. If you’re not doing well, well, then you won’t eat well. To eat well and organic with taste and flavor in the US means you will pay dearly for it, as this is a type of brand marker and market position that Americans have bought into. We have lost our food culture. If you fly in the US over infinite huge circles and squares of agribusiness, if you drive through Dodge City or Garden City and smell the stockyards for ten miles before and after, you see where we get our food from. How can good food possibly come out of this ADM/Monsanto world we live in, in North America? Answer: it doesn’t.

Americans on the whole do not know what food tastes like, or is supposed to taste like. This is part of the reason American tourists (and many other nationalities) flip out when they come to Italy and eat: it is akin to getting into a time machine and returning to 1900 or 1880 and tasting what food must have tasted like for my great-grandparents. (Granted they probably had less of it, but what they had tasted like something.) In Italy I never cease exclaiming over the tomatoes, potatoes, porcini mushrooms, the eggplant, the tiny zucchini and the little zucchini squash balls. The eggs, the dairy. One of my favorite Italian food moments of the past year was Victor’s joyful exclamations over the fishmonger’s supply at Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. He just wanted to look at all the types of fish because he was blown away!

The schools take lunch very seriously too: the food education does not end at the kids’ front door. Two courses plus a side, fresh bread, water, at a table with a plate and cutlery, and a glass glass. The menus are varied, and fresh, despite what the Italian mamme might say in a 148-message midyear WhatsApp tirade.

Eleanor receiving Italian lunch instruction.

Italy has never entered into the black pact of agribusiness because – well, look at a map. A narrow peninsula spined from north to south with mountains. Good luck getting mass irrigation profitably moving on that. Italy gave the world the Slow Food movement, to try to remind everyone to consider their culinary patrimony before plowing enormous monocrop fields, shutting down every family farm or garden, and heading to Burger King or Flunch or Golden Corral for a meal.

Our grocery bills in Italy reflect their value of Good Food for Everyone. A huge take at IperCoop, an Italian chain, will set us back just 90 euros. Groceries easily a third to a half less what they cost in the US. Produce even cheaper. A few examples: frozen pizza (special treat for kids at home), two euros. Brick of coffee (half a kilo), less than three euros. UHP milk brick, seventy-five cents. Cold cuts? a couple of euros for a handsome packet of prosciutto wrapped in paper. Fresh mozzarella balls? Sixty cents. A whole Italian chicken? Four euros. And on and on. It all adds up. We eat so much better here for so much less. When our friends come to cook, I keep an eye on all their tricks, and have learned a few
things here and there: a bit of butter in the red sauce. Salt your eggplant. How to dice zucchini for a frittata. And more.

The prepared food that is sold in Italy is more honestly made – in the sense that Italy does not add sugar to every single thing. We always say here, you know when you’re eating sugar, because you have either put it in your coffee, or you are eating a sensibly-sized pastry. The amount of prepared food in Italian supermarkets is a fraction of what you find in the US. I remember being so frustrated by all the colorful packaging, the huge freezer sections. What if I just want to make some food? I despaired. Rows and rows of frozen freezer bags of things Americans can’t or won’t make, or don’t have the time to make.

Italians always remark on it. Our friend Flavia was floored this summer in the US. Your food costs so much here! And it does. And it doesn’t even taste that good.

Italy wants you to eat, and eat well, no matter how much you make. You could eat well here as a single person on sixty euros a week, if you planned your meals and cooked at home like 99% of Italians. And they would be good meals.