Monday, October 27, 2014

SPEAK, MEMORY:THE KAKI ANSWERS



In his autobiographical memoir, Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov, (my obsession for whom predates my current one for Andre Aciman), says, " One is always at home in one's past...." Andre Aciman, in "Becket's Winter" (from his collection of essays, "False Papers") speaks about the lie of the memory:
"... all we have in the end is ourself, our loneliness – not even our memories but how they've lied to us...."

Earlier in that same piece, Aciman includes a 17-line single sentence worthy of Proust, but infinitely easier to follow. After seeing the film, "Becket," for the first time as a teenager in Alexandria, he viewed the film countless times, in three other countries and in my three favorite languages, French, English, and Italian. The last few words of the long sentence I mention state that, like King Henry in the movie, "... I, too, one day would have to learn to be alone again, but in the end the work of memory is the work of loneliness."

I tend to feel very in tune with what Aciman says about most things, and I have loved teaching both the text of Anouilh's play, "Becket" and the film version. But with respect to memory as a lie and as the work of loneliness, I'm not so sure. 


Take this "unloved" kaki/cachi (pronounced cah-kee) fruit, for example. No one can even settle on a spelling for it. I found it along with three others in the discounted, bumped-and-dented, past-prime section of our local market. 



If you think you've seen this bowl before, you're right. It was featured in the post A TRIUMVIRATE OF PEACHES:THIS IS A CONTEST!


I also call it an unloved fruit because of how many ghostly, frosted ones I see abandoned, hanging from the trees every winter in Umbria. (Now that I think of it, I saw a kaki tree for the first time on the property of a friend in France. The name sounds unfortunately like the French word, "caca," and my friend seemed to think it about as desirable.) At first I had mistaken these orange globes for magic lanterns.

But when we needed a tree to anchor a rocky landscape feature on the property of our renovated ruin in Umbria, the architect suggested a kaki, which she considered beautiful in every season--especially in autumn after its colorful leaves have fallen around the base of the tree.

Our own fledgling kaki, now age 5, has not done so well, but I'm not giving up on it, even though it hasn't born any fruit. Further, I've not yet been here at the right time to see those beautiful colored leaves on the ground.

Despite all this evidence of potential unlovable-ness, it was only today, when I was eating this perfectly ripe fruit that I had a flashback to my first encounter with a kaki.

My doctor dad was the eldest son of Russian immigrants who had a tiny corner grocery store in Minnesota. His self-effacing, scholarly father worked as a grocer, but his hobby was translating Shakespeare into Yiddish. While helping out in the store when he was a kid, my dad gained some knowledge about fruits, and many years later, wanted to teach me about the joy of a ripe persimmon. But in his excitement, he rushed to cut into it only to discover it wasn't fully ready. We were both disappointed--he because he had wanted to share something delicious, and I because although I could sense it, I didn't know what I was missing.

The pungent taste of an unripe persimmon is unloveable, indeed, but the one I had today was sublime. As Shakespeare put it, "ripeness is all."

Even many decades later, I can still taste that first acrid bite and feel the truth of this memory. And rather than it making me feel lonely, I feel happy to have had this moment of reconnection with my elusive father, who left for good 3 decades ago.

The lie of memory? Memory as the work of loneliness? Did that memory return because I needed a reminder of my father?

While waiting for my kaki tree to fruit, I intend to think about this a bit more.

Envoyé de mon Di-phone !

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

DEAR DONNA LEON (AND COLIN FIRTH, TOO!)



Dear Donna Leon,
I can't believe it took me this long to find you. Nearly 68 years, to be somewhat precise. And now, having just finished the last of your available Brunetti novels, I have very mixed emotions.

I never expected to be spending the first few months of leave from my academic appointment--my first significant period away from teaching--falling for Brunetti. I haven't read much in this genre since I was a teenager on the prowl for steamy scenes in Mickey Spillane. I was supposed to be spending this time off my Ivy League treadmill working on my own writing, instead of my usual work of helping others to write. But I could not stop myself. (SeeON CONFESSING TO SOME ODD LOVE AFFAIRS:THE THRILL OF THE  )

You know how in Alice in Wonderland, the King said gravely that one is supposed to begin at the beginning "and go on till you come to the end: then stop"? Well, I started at the beginning of your oeuvre, and here I am.

Here's how it happened. My 85-year-old writing partner who knew of my fascination with Montalbano offered to lend me some of the Camilleri novels in translation. She knew that I had seen all the tv versions, and was looking forward to comparing them to the books. My attraction to them had also taken me by surprise, but I put it down to the allure of Sicily, where I've never been, and to the superior acting on the shows. But then she had the idea to include a few Brunetti novels, saying simply, "I think you might like these." I was skeptical, but she certainly got that right! I started with the first one, Death at La Fenice, and never stopped. 



Now I'm in mourning as I impatiently await the publication of "Falling in Love" which will not be out until January. How will I make it until then?

PS:When I first heard there were tv versions of your novels, I was very excited. I was ready to spring for them, but when I saw that they were made for German audiences, I became suspicious.

I had already put some thought into visualizing Brunetti and the rest of the characters. It's both a good and bad thing that I saw a trailer for the series before opening my wallet. The euros I saved in no way made up for the shock and disappointment of seeing a Brunetti so unlike my evolving image of him. I might have forgiven him for spouting German if he had looked right.
It's just as well that this is so blurry, because NO, NO, NO, NEIN, NEIN, NEIN, this is NOT the right Brunetti!


Flash forward to the even more exciting possibility that the BBC will handle things better. As an Orvietana with no knowledge of Venetian dialect, I won't mind a bit hearing a Brunetti who speaks BBC-style English. And as a writing and literature prof who loves Henry James, I'm especially eager to see what they make of Paola.

After much consideration, in my fantasy world as casting director in possession of magical powers and an unlimited budget, I would go for Colin Firth as Brunetti. After seeing  him in many different guises--from Mr. Darcy to King George to the gay singing beau in Mamma Mia--I sense that he has the range and right blend of respectfulness, informed skepticism, and toughness to fill your Brunetti's shoes.

Although Firth speaks the King's English, it doesn't hurt that he has long lived in Italy with his Italian wife and family. In somma, he's the one I want. Somebody needs to make him an offer he can't refuse.




I haven't yet found just the right image of Colin Firth as Brunetti (it's floating around somewhere in my mind's eye), but I'm confident that he's the man for the job.


PPS: As much as I admire your discretion about your private life, I would love to know more about your involvement with Baroque music. A lifelong musician (piano and flute) who came late to the viola, I cherish  the memory of an exquisite chamber music concert in a Venice church. After the concert when we found ourselves waiting for the same vaporetto as the musicians,  I shyly told the violist I was a fellow altista who had loved her performance. She was very gracious, as I imagine that Brunetti, despite being no lover of annoying turisti, would have been, had I expressed my fascination with him. He is a true gentleman.


TAKING MY (nearly) NEW FRONT TEETH FOR AN ULTIMA (?) SWIM:IN BED WITH SENECA



Although I have previously written on the topic of 
TAKING MY NEW FRONT TEETH FOR A SWIM, this time is different. First of all, those front teeth are not as new as they once were. Further, it's October 20, when most less nutty people consider the swimming season over. But on each of the past three days, I've swum 42 laps. Stubborn about giving up the so-called summer--which, at least here in Umbria, never quite arrived--I'd been holding out for a nice, sunny swimmable day, and these were the diems to carpe.

I googled for tips on how to stay warm in cold water, and ended up wearing a funny-looking get-up of a stretched-out bathing suit topped by a tight-fitting French Los Olivades T-shirt with a snug Land's End bathing suit bottom over the whole bit. Although I have previously documented some of my what-Not-to-wear escapades (see 
UPDATE ON WHAT NOT TO WEAR (WHEN GARDENING IN UMBRIA) ) I will leave this particular outfit to the imagination.

In truth, I didn't care how I looked, and it was a great experience--a happy memory in case other chances for a final swim of the season wouldn't present themselves. The water was 68 degrees--not impossible--and since the air temperature was similar, it didn't even feel too chilling afterwards. (After all, I stayed here this semester to do crazy stuff like this, and I'm doing it.) In writing about it to my son, I signed my message, "your wet mom."

But now back to the "ULTIMA ("Last") SWIM" bit. I'm really hoping that that yesterday was NOT my ultima swim. I'll explain. The Italian ear reflexively associates the word "Ultima" with "L'Ultima Cena"--"The Last Supper." A dear friend who makes an admirable effort to speak Italian found this out when, on the last night of a trip to Italy, he proudly  announced to the waiter that the coming meal would be his "ultima cena." In response, the waiter's face darkened and he looked as if he would cry. He outdid himself in trying to ensure that this doomed Americano would enjoy his Ultima Cena.

Me? I'm watching today's weather carefully in hopes that yesterday will not have been my ultima swim of the season. On the other hand, I've been reading (in the remarkable Brain Pickings) "Seneca on the art of living wide rather than living long," so maybe I should not press my luck?

Here are some favorite moments from that article. (This morning I stayed in bed thinking, reading, writing. Seneca kept me company. Instead of constantly turning back to the Brain Pickings article, I decided to take notes from it so that I can refer to it as necessary.)

1."...the man who ... organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day... Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long."

The following water metaphor feels just right for a piece whose point of departure was taking newish front teeth for a last swim: "For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about."

2. Our task is then to "learn how to inhabit our own selves fully in this "brief and transient spell of existence...so that we may live wide rather than long."

Yes! Not to be greedy or anything, but I'm hoping that Italy may be just the place to try to live both "wide" AND "long." 

UNDERWEAR EMERGENCY?

My husband is getting nervous about his underwear.  I count 11 pairs in his underwear drawer, and even though all might not be entirely wearable (as he explained, "not all underwear is created equal"), I question whether this constitutes a true Underwear Emergency. But then again, Brinkmanship is my family's middle name.

This type of difference of opinion and personal style gets played out in many various ways during the course of a long marriage. But ours has lasted 44+ years, so maybe that speaks for itself.

In any case, tomorrow will be Laundry Day, so everyone will soon be able to heave a sigh of relief.

Friday, October 17, 2014

BLOG THE V-E-R-Y RELUCTANT SHOPPER:ON THE PAIN OF BUYING AND MOVING INTO A BEAUTIFUL NEW PURSE

So what's all this? Read on and you'll see. The "tee-hee/boohoo" souvenir tissues from our Virgin Atlantic flight of many moons ago aptly describes my emotions during this painful rite-of-passage. Now who in her right mind would consider all this stuff inessential to everyday life and thus unworthy of taking up valuable real estate in her pocketbook? So many treasures here that are about to be exiled!



Some people are "born" shoppers. They love the thrill of a new purchase. That would NOT be me.

My favorite clothes--the soft, preowned, cozy ones I love to wear--all came from the recycling room at the Meredith, New Hampshire town dump.

This was no ordinary dump. It was a state-of-the-art, model establishment of which even a summer resident could be proud. Way ahead of its time, the pristine Meredith dump had separate sections for each type of garbage. But for me, the highlight was the recycling room where the clothes bin had a special allure. It was quite amazing the things people would discard. For example, a turquoise cashmere sweater with just one elegantly repaired hole has, since the 80s, been one of my favorite garments.

I'm fact, today I'm wearing my flowered Liberty of London shirt with some matching blue pants, and yesterday I got a compliment on my designer linen jacket--all from you know where. Then for rainy days, there's the Louis of Boston silk raincoat.

Orvieto has an elegant but friendly new leather shop where I love to bring our house guests and watch them ooh and ah, as they delightedly make their purchase. Although I admire the inventory and take vicarious joy in their excitement, I cling to my own latest man-made fiber bag--the black LLBean one I found 
on a closet hook looking lonely and abandoned  by some member of my family. Practical but no beauty pageant winner, it has been serving me well for several years, and I had planned to use it until it gave up the ghost. As anyone who has ever bought anything from LLBean knows, this could take a while--maybe even the rest of my life.

So imagine my surprise to find myself admiring a "transformer" purse that can convert into a sleek back pack. (It may even be the same one that had caught the eye of another stylish house guest who was here earlier in the summer. The one who had a ball trying on many bags before emerging triumphantly with her selection.)

On this particular trip to the purse store my husband, a great shopper who has no retail anxiety, saw it first: the bag that cried out its readiness to dethrone my sensible black Bean number, and Cousin S and her friend C agreed completely.

I'm not sure why, but for once, I didn't actually obsess too much about whether to buy this "wonder bag" would be a good idea. Maybe it helped that sensible, discreet C, who  had arrived sporting a back-pack style purse was singing the praises of being able to move about with both hands free.

Our Cousin S, who has the same shopper genes as my husband, was convinced from the get-go that this purse was what was missing from my life. And in any case, after quickly buying a nice bag for herself, she decided she would also help me move into mine.

A quick study, she recognized right away that to buy the thing was only the first hurdle. Her visit would be over the next morning, and she wasn't leaving until I had made the transition.

GULP! Transitions have never been my forte, and without a lot of encouragement, bullying, etc., I would surely have allowed that new purchase to languish for quite a while before making the move.

But Cousin S who knows all about tough love would have none of my stalling.

I started the morning off slowly, staying in bed as long as possible. Then, in preparation for the purse-move, I took a few pre-move photos just to take the edge off, and started writing about what was to come. I noticed, for example, that my beautiful new transformer bag/purse/back pack had come in a lovely orange shopping bag. Inside that bag, was another fancy bag inside which was my new bag. Those nested Russian dolls that I like a whole lot better than changing purses came to mind.

Here's the outermost of the nested bags. 

Here's another view of the orange shopping bag that, several layers down, holds the new purchase. (In the background is a painting of a woman who would much rather be holding her first figs of the season than a new pocketbook. Furthermore, the color of that orange paper bag looks SO nice in that Moroccan bathroom that it seems a shame to have to tamper with it, n'est-ce pas?)

Here's the sensible, practical LLBean bag that is about to get the boot despite its being in near-perfect condition (never mind that there's a tear in one of its many, inner, zippered compartments. That slight defect just proves how well loved it has been. BTW, it's so nice and plump because it can e-x-p-a-n-d to hold just about anything a girl could need.) 

In true Russian, nested, matryoshka doll-style, the colorful orange shopping bag held a fancy, inner, drawstring bag that held the new bag. 
This is how it looked before I approached the hurdle of filling it.
Here's how it looks from the rear, with all its back-pack transformer features on view. A small tug down on the straps, and PRESTO!, it's an elegant back pack.


In keeping with the Russian dolls theme, Cousin S started out by offering me two little organizer bags from her own collection that could help me organize the stuff that would go into the new bag. But first she made me get a bowl into which I could dump everything inessential from the old bag.



One last look at these before they get the boot into the specially designated "you're not carrying this crap around with you any more" bowl.

Now what have we got here? Anti-stress ball in shape of a brain? Check!

 Dual-function anti-bug repellent cream complete with dopo puntura (after-bite cream hidden under the cap, just in case the repellent feature fails. Unfortunately, that happened so many times that there's no more of that supplementary product left, but that's no reason to dump the rest of the tube, is it? Of course not!) Check!

Extra supply of tissues for all the visits to the restrooms that lack the essentials. Check!

Homeopathic Boiron blue-tube cure for having eaten too much--a regular occurrence in a country where there is so much irresistible food. Check!

Pocket calendar for those of us who prefer the Hallmark-style, old-fashioned, pencil-and-paper version. So what if it's the 2013 one from last year? It can be just as important to know where you've been as where you're headed. Check!

Never mind the rest of the admittedly less exciting stuff at the bottom of the pile. But last and certainly not least, is the freebie fake French ID that reminds me of my beloved belle France--the very carte that came with the nylon velcro wallet, current whereabouts unknown, but last seen in the hands of Cousin S.

What do we have here? While at a kiddie show in a park in Slovenia, I was handed this "fortune" (?) by a lovely young woman in a folk costume. Because I only made it as far as Latin II and I am a fledgling speaker of Slovene, it took me a while to figure out what it meant, but I definitely was not about to discard it before finding out. TRANSLATION?: "BETTER LATE THAN NEVER." That lady in the long skirt really got my number! But do I need to carry this around with me in my new pocketbook? Maybe not...


With only a half hour to go before her departure, Cousin S was all efficiency as she coached/coaxed me into making the leap. Not interested in any of my charming back stories about my discomfort with anything but dump goods, she not only got me into the new bag. She TOOK its predecessor, the old LLB bag away with her! Ditto for the wallet with the velcro closings that I had found discarded by my son--the one that he and my daughter-in-law had tried for the past few years to get me to give up. The very one that he had received from a French friend a few decades before, and that had come with an imitation French carte d'identité. (See photo--shh..don't tell Cousin S, but I managed to keep that for old time's sake.)

So here I am back at the dentist's, where I am most Wednesdays. But this Wednesday is different since I'm  taking my new bag on its maiden voyage. (BTW, this is not the first time I have written about a maiden voyage in the context of my dentist. See 
TAKING MY NEW FRONT TEETH FOR A SWIM     )

So how does it feel to have survived the trauma of changing purses? So far, so good, although as I glance over at this beautiful leather thing, I find myself doing a double-take, unsure of whose it could be. 


And when not in use, doesn't it look great just hanging on the stairs awaiting its next outing?
Regrets? There's a post script to this story. I have to admit that I was having second thoughts about having failed to protest enough when Cousin S took my vintage bag and wallet with her when she left, saying that she would find a new home for them. True to my hoarding self, I kept thinking that both of those items had a lot more life in them and could have been put to good use, even if only for storage or a purse emergency. 

Cousin S must have felt some misgivings about that, herself, and reported that she had donated the bag to  a grateful fellow guest at the agriturismo which would be her next stop. That eased my pain a bit, but since no mention was made of the whereabouts of the French, velcro-enhanced, nylon, gray wallet with the endearing kelly-green trim, I am worried that it is missing me.

50th CLASS REUNION (A tale of the City Mouse versus the Country Mouse--and yes, we've got them here, too:rodents and other wild life are the less glamorous elements of Italian country life)




There's nothing like the  50th class reunion of a small-town high school to bring out the envy factor. After turning in my "update" survey where I confessed that I live in a renovated Italian farmhouse and work the land, one friend said she was picturing a glamorous Merchant Ivory-ish Farmer Donatella, instead of the more Grant Wood-ish reality.



Farmer D, dressed for working in a field of chest-high Umbrian flora.  (The mask is a good idea when combatting our  ubiquitous local herba della tossa, aka "the coughing plant." The Micky Mouse sweatshirt and pants discarded by son are perfect for all outdoor work. The once-chic hat has taken some hard knocks out here in the country. Ditto for the Madras cotton scarf from Guadeloupe that still offers good neck protection.)
Merchant Ivory, huh? 


While cleaning for the visit of our cousin and her friend, I stumbled on a perfect storm of an antidote to those misconceptions.

As I was going outside to sweep away some cobwebs from the outside window of one of the guest rooms (a never-ending battle), I couldn't help but notice a 6' foot-or-so thing slithering along the bottom edge of the sunny stone wall. Then just to prove this was no mirage, he extended his body straight up the full length of the window, the better to eat some lunch and to show me his striped self in all its glory.

I intended to tell him to stay still while I ran to get my camera, but by the time I realized I actually had it in my pocket, he had slinked around the corner of the house and gone behind the window box where I regularly fiddle with the geraniums.

Yikes! I'm thinking about two things. One seemed mildly funny: Cousin S arrives at our home in paradise, looks out her bedroom window to admire the view, and sees Signore Snake smiling back at her. Even I, a confirmed Country Mouse, would have shrieked.



So, welcome to our lovely guest room!


Even on a gloomy fall day, this is a typical view from the guest room. 
So here's where I was when I, watering can in hand,  noticed a genuine bit of Umbrian fauna slinking along behind these pots. This was just before he raised himself full length, nearly reaching the floral ornament on the wrought-iron grille. Was he checking out the status of the guest room? 
The room must have been up to his standard, and although it would be easy to confuse that black watering tube for Signore Serpente,  he's not actually visible here, because he had already rounded the corner.


The other thing that occurred to me and that seemed way less funny was  the prospect of me deadheading the window box flowers and have Signore Serpente pop up and say "buongiorno!"



Next stop on the reptilian tour was behind the window boxes where I regularly fiddle with the flowers that I have been babysitting for my blogger-extraordinaire friend, Susan, of Half-Year Italian. The long box is the perfect length to hide you-know-who,  but I'm quite sure that this is NOT his regular hangout--just a rest stop to flee that nosy gardener who seems to be pursuing him, albeit from a respectful distance. I truth, like her, he's shy and only wants to be left alone. Even so, whenever I go near that box, I'm going to keep my eyes open.

After recovering from the snake surprise, I went upstairs to where C, our other guest would stay, and while removing the ever-present cobwebs  from the window, I noticed four eyes staring back at me. Now I'm accustomed to seeing cute little geckos all over the property, but there on the window sill were two of the biggest ones I had ever seen! Once again, I found myself thinking, "oh, no! What if C had chosen that moment to look out the window?"

What other unappetizing thing could show up just when you want to put your guests at ease, and maybe even impress them a bit?

Well, there's always the swimming pool. With the way things had been going, however, I decide to head down there to check things out, just in case. That turned out to be both a good and a bad idea.The bad part? There was a dead mouse that had gone for one last swim and couldn't remember the way out. The good part was that I found it in time to alert J so HE, instead of me, could clean things up, and could thereby avoid spoiling the effect of the pool. What next?

The good news is that these little blips resolved themselves before the guests arrived and had a wonderful time. Their thank-you note gave us "six stars, based on rooms, food, ambience and general yumminess." But I wonder how many stars we would have lost for shocking these Big City girls with the local fauna.

Me? I'm still a Country Mouse, even though I prefer not to swim with them.






Tuesday, September 23, 2014

PLÉNITUDE? ABBONDANZA? FULFILLMENT?:EVER IN SEARCH OF "LE MOT JUSTE"


As a lover of language, I'm fascinated by the nuances of difference among these three words, and also by the cultural differences they evoke.

While all of these nouns refer to something very good, as is usually the case, perhaps the visceral, hedonistic Italian is winning out over the more cerebral French and English. And maybe that's why I live here.