A Call to the Plumber in the Heat of the Summer

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A couple of weeks ago, right when the mercury was hovering around 3 digits, but amplified in intensity by the black, blocky stones that fill Rome’s streets, our sink took a holiday with the rest of Italy.

August is the month of Ferragosto, a month that creates a giant vacuum in an otherwise bustling city, where Italians are sucked away to the many warm beaches and resorts, leaving Rome with only its smattering of tourists around the popular sites and otherwise, eerily vacant streets and storefronts.  Only signs, the type we Americans buy at the hardware store to advertise, ‘for sale’ or ‘garage sale’, fill their windows, which say ‘closed for Ferragosto’; be back in 3 weeks.

Ferragosto has roots from an old emperor Augustus (get it….Ferr Augusto?), who in the wake of lots of labor to create the harvest and yet another reason to party as only the ancients could, created the holiday sometime around 18 B.C. – to which is still survives today.  However, many Romans, understanding the impending financial woes in the Eurozone, are shortening or all together sticking it out and staying open.

A normally human-filled street, vacant during Ferragosto

So when our sink decided to utterly and completely clog, and when my normal artillery of tricks and chants to make the water go down didn’t work, I knew I was in for a hot, stinky, messy wait for help.  Where would I find a plumber at the height of the Ferragosto hiatus?

We live in a building that is over 300 years old, and while Italians have a penchant for renovations, at some point in the line its clear that you are working with some old stuff.  Also – I learned that our pipes are about half the diameter of the pipes we use in the United States.  Add to this a very serious calcium presence (I once heard an American teenage girl tell her parents – yuck, my hair is all stiff – and thought this is how teenagers are able to sense the cultural differences), and you might understand that it really wasn’t me, putting fish bones and loaves of bread down the sink to create this epic plug.

So a call to the property manager (or seven), and four days of making the pilgrimage with the dirty dishwater to the porcelain god – all in the heat of August, had me huffing and puffing, and blasting my sticky bangs with blasts of breath off my equally sticky forehead.  And when the property manager reached me on the fifth day, with a window for the ‘idraulico’ to come by between 11 and 1, I was tickled to death that the knight in shining blue coveralls would be there to solve the issue.

He arrived, and if I had any conception of what a plumber looks like (I think of the bulbous backside spilling out from under the kitchen sink), Maurizio was not that guy.  Standing eye-to-eye with me pushing 5 feet 4 inches, he was a good 25 pounds lighter and possessed a buzzing energy.  I opened the door, and instantly he set in ‘OH MAMMA MIA!!! CHE CALDO!!!! NON C’E UN FILO DI VENTO….!!!”  and the expressions about how friggin’ hot it was didn’t stop, but only became intertwined with comments about the plumbing as he set about his work, trying to figure out why this block was sending salad into our washing machine.

He talked constantly, half to me and half to himself, of which was hard for me to know when to respond. His talking his way through his work offered a bonus Italian language exchange, with a heavy Roman dialect leaving half of most words in the abyss, making it a good challenge.  What I did understand was all the words he used to describe the plumbing situation:  tutto bloccato (everything blocked), non va (it’s not going), non scarica (it’s not draining), no riesce (it can’t do it), non fa niente (it’s not doing anything), che devo fare? (what can I do)……in a word – this was one hellavuh block and most of the responses you may encounter in any Italian customer service setting.

After a couple hours of this very fun, spirited banter of half inner half outer talk, he determined the POMPA would be needed.    POMPA is a pump, but the way it is pronounces sounds like BOMBA – which makes it an awesome, bad attitude, let’s unblock this mother sort of contraption.  I was excited, until he told me that he would need to get it, after his lunch, and it would take to people.  Looks like I was becoming an apprentice plumber that very day.

Maurizio returned after the lunch hours with what looked to be an old, rusty bicycle pump – not the Hunger Games inspired contraption that I had hastily whipped up in my imagination – with a hand pump, the sort that cartoon characters used to blow up mountains with TNT.  He explained that this is how it would work; he would pump up the pressure inside the POMPA, and release it into the pipe through our sink in the laundry closet.  I, in the kitchen with a rag stuffed into the pipe, and pressing with all my strength, would try to keep it from blowing out all the goodies in the pipe.  Taking no chances I used my foot against the pipe, sitting on the kitchen floor and pulling against the sink to get more grip.  I couldn’t help but feel that this was all a bit dramatic for a lousy sink clog.

There we were – a petite Italian idraulico and an an American expat bracing herself under the kitchen sink, ready for the blast that would hopefully bring an end to this madness.  The first blast went, and……..nothing.  Maurizo pumped up the pressure again, an act which only burned more precious calories for the thin plumber – this time with more pressure.  And again, nothing.  Okay, he said, once more, but I can’t do anymore than this without breaking the pipe.  And so I said a little prayer to the plumbing gods – and WOOM!!!!  An audible uncorkage of the pipe was heard at both ends of the tube. It had worked!!!!!  We were equally ecstatic and both gave a little fists in the air – team idralico success cheer, before he packed up as quickly as he arrived and was out the door.  Just like that….all that trouble shooting, new Italian vocabulary, all the shared effort, and he was gone with the wind….and the POMPA.

So while this nice little sweaty story about a clog may not be earth shattering stuff – it does offer a few lessons.  First, if you are visiting Italy, don’t come in August. Your odds of meeting some of these genuine Italian people, such as Maurizio the plumber, are severely limited as they take off to keep their very generous work:rest ratio.  Secondly, opportunities to learn (language and plumbing in this case) come in the most humorously possible ways, and it is one of the great fortunes about living and traveling abroad.  Here’s to many more unclogged pipes!!!!

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Foto Friday: At the Watch Repair Shop

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In the spirit of making the ordinary errands extra Ital-dinary, I bring you this week’s photo, inspired by Italy’s debunked and ousted former Prime Minister, Mr. Berlusconi.

You see, I was at the watch repair shop having a few links removed from a watch that was made in my birth year, which of course makes it vintage.  I snapped this shot while waiting behind an Italian man dressed in a sharp tailored suit, trying to convince the watch repair man to fix his false, chunky Hublot watch, to which the repair man adamantly refused to work with, let alone touch it.  He picked it up with a pencil, swinging it around slowly, observing it as though it were a dead mouse, while the watch’s owner said it was given to him as a gag gift.  To which the repair man replied, “Sir, this is laughing matter.  I will not repair it.”  Italians are rightfully proud of their design savvy, and find no tolerance with shoddy products.

I am a bit off-topic here, but perhaps the binding tie is the sharp suited man who shares the same penchant for suits and false parts, as his former prime minister who prefers his artificial components in the long strand of women with plumped up lips and breasts out to —————> here, which he placed in powerful positions of government or on his television stations.

I could write for days on Berlusconi and his shenanigans – but for the purpose of this post will keep it brief, and  offer up only my top three Berlusconi blunders:

1.  The most famous and perhaps most damning – was his indictment of paying for under-age hanky panky with a 17-year old dancer, Ruby Rubacuore.  Miss Heart Stealer, as her last name reads when translated, denied this, but no one bought it.

2.  The same aforementioned lady of the night, after being picked up by the local police for robbing things other than hearts, gave a call to her pal Berlusconi, who called for her immediate release – a blatant abuse of his office.

3.  As if publishing the German chancellor’s photo with her hand raised in an oath-taking fashion, with the article title of “Running the Fourth Reich” in his own newspaper, or, calling her an un-bleepable lard arse (obvious PG-13ing editing here) in public is bad enough, just watch how he kept her waiting at a NATO summit while he chatted it up on his cellphone.  One would think you would play nice with the one person who is most likely to keep you, (and your country) afloat in the Eurozone that is a dangerzone.

With just a taste of the ever-unsatiated and randy Italian leader, it may make more sense of why, what I saw on a small table in the watch repair shop makes such a fabulous topic for today’s Foto Friday.  Famous for his gatherings/harems/bacchanal/blow-outs, these festivities have come to be known as Bunga Bunga parties, which has no direct translation – but does it really need one?   I give you, the Bunga Bunga Time cardboard watch display, found next to the dried flowers and hand-made doily at said watch repair shop. I don’t know what is more Italian, the audacity to manufacture and market this product, or the fact that this display would indicate that they’re all sold out.

Holy Pinoli! Avoiding the Death Nut in the Eternal City

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Oh pine nuts!  For those who know me, you may be wondering if I have eaten one in the past year.  For those who don’t know me, you may be wondering why anyone would wonder if I ate a pine nut.  The answer to the former is: sort of.  The answer to the latter:  it’s a really show stopper when I eat the corn-shaped nut.  Full allergy anaphylaxis take me to the hospital or lose me forever sort of show.

And, somehow, I managed to come to live at the epicenter of all pine-nut producing and consuming countries.  Before this turns into a woe is me poor gal had to move to Rome and avoid pine nuts, life is sooooo hard, I write this because – oddly, in the most strange way, the process of avoiding the prolific nut has unfolded some great nuances about Italy and its pine nut proffering people.

Death Cookies

My first run in with a pine nut was in the least tragically romantic locale possible:  at our own breakfast table.    It started like most oatmeal mornings – raisins, almonds, cinnamon, a little milk.  But I got that ‘thrill of the throat’ that only comes with a pine nut reaction, and couldn’t figure out where this stealth bomber pine nut was coming from.  Seeing as I am just too square to take chances with a potential blockbuster pine nut reaction, I downed the Benadryl and stood ready with my epi pen, like some wacky self-lifeguard ready to plunge that little device made so popular by Pulp Fiction.  While I have neither the drug addiction or stature of Uma Thurman, I do have a very real need for the epi pen.  Lucky for me, the reaction seemed to have leveled after the requisite reappearance of the downed oatmeal.  A couple of original Cokes to settle the stomach and a Benadryl induced daytime hibernation, and it was clear I would live after all.

Later upon inspection of the tall plastic bag into which I deposit my bulk almonds at my trusty market nut guy, I found the culprit.  There, somewhere nearish to the bottom, sat the little son-of-a-nut.  It must have jumped ship from one of the other nut bins, not unlike the vastly unpopular Italian cruise ship captain Schettino, who claimed to have fallen into the life boat.  And I am sure this little nut just ‘fell’ into the almonds.  Likely story.  They can be creepy little nuts indeed.  And now we have rule number one:  no bulk nuts.

Nutty for nuts! A dried goods stand often carries those pesky pinoli.

The second and hopefully last encounter with the pinoli took place a couple of weeks ago, while out with some visiting friends.  We promised to woo them with the best cappuccino in town, and carry on the lactose festivities at one of the most famed gelato shops.  I can handle the jabs in the side while jockeying for a position at the gelato counter, but the scratch in the throat is a whole other beast.  After taking my first licks of fig-caramel and hazelnut ice cream, I sensed it again.  But I have never been allergic to any other type of nut.   You scream! I scream! We all scream I have to run home and get some Benadryl!  Yet another minor reaction (no fun ride in an Italian ambulance), but those fox-like nuts keep showing up in weak shadows of their potent kernel form.  They must have dipped the same spoon into other ice creams – and now, if pinoli flavored ice cream is on the menu – I don’t get a gelato.  Now you can start feeling VERY sorry for me!!!!

I scream!!!!!! Pine nut Ice Cream!!!!

I scream!!!!!! Pine nut Ice Cream!!!!

Pine nuts otherwise run rampant in Rome.  Baccala alla Romana – made with salted cod-fish and tomatoes, is full of them.  Pesto is a given and although originating in Genoa, has become an international sauce and is very much alive in Rome.  La Torta della Nonna, or grandmother’s cake, is an ode to pine nuts.  Well, grandma is a cold-blooded killer, and so are all the other numerous tarts and treats with a few pinoli sprinkled on top.

Both these cakes feature Kat Kryptonite.

With all these pine nuts around, its amazing really, that I have only had a couple scuffles.  The reason why lies in the attitudes toward Italian cuisine – and this attitude alone has for the most part protected and successfully screened pine nuts clear of my plate.  When I go into a restaurant – no matter what I am eating, I always ask if it has pine nuts.  The Italian waiter, in his baffled state of why I would ask such a stupid question, nearly always replies, NO!  His what-are-you-crazy look and response of “This is amatriciana – its bacon, red pepper, tomatoes and garlic – and that’s it!”  They really just don’t screw with the recipes here.  They stick to them.  Like glue.  I have seen heated arguments of whether you can add onion to the aforementioned amatriciana, with banter sounding not dissimilar in tone and rising tempers that you might hear from two Americans arguing over whether Romney’s little army of children really couldn’t spell their last name correctly, or if it was all the work of Photoshop.  Italians take their food very seriously, it is personal, and to stray too far away from the prescribed ingredients would be to commit culinary heresy.

Because they remain so faithful to their food traditions, knowing what dishes pine nuts go into, and those which don’t, is half the battle.  The really comforting other piece to this is, they know what is going into their dishes.  I don’t have to worry about a 50 gallon barrel of olive oil that has been infused with pine nuts that even the chef doesn’t know about.  They just don’t process like that.  They keep it simple, fresh and pure.  And that is really the basis of what all Italian cooking is – using the fewest amount of fresh ingredients to make the fullest food experience possible.  The dish Olio, Aglio e Peporoncino, is a testament to that – just pasta olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper.  Simple, fresh and pure, and of course, free of pine nuts.

Foto Friday: At the ATM

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One of the best things about living in Italy, besides the evident gelato, art and lifestyle options are those “We’re not in Kansas, anymore Toto” moments.  Let me explain.

Italy isn’t so drastically different than what we are accustomed to from the mother-land, which also happens to be that other land that the Italians so adore, pulling much of our pop culture, economic and business influences.  We have here, among other things – CSI Miami (and New York!), Burger King and  dry cleaners. Although the three 1/2 gallon tubs of JIF that my mom-in-law so believed was essential to our survival,  kindly packed in her luggage 8 months ago and are still sitting in the pantry, we can buy peanut butter.   And despite the immense volume of unique palazzos with histories of feuding papal families that incited backstabbing and famous affairs alike, all those tempura and terra-cotta colored buildings start taking on a daily norm, and you just don’t see them anymore.   Some days feel much the same as if we were back in Sea-town.  We use ATMs.  We go to the hardware store.  We go to the gym (though the gym deserves its own post – I’ll add it to the list).  We buy food to consume.

However, every now and again, some serendipitous visual wake-up call reminds me that in fact – this is a special place.  A funny, charming, beautiful,  and sometimes bureaucratic or customer-service lacking place.  Its the type of place that either confirms or debunks the stereo-types that the tomato, basil and mozarella eating populace embodies in a single moment, and those moments are truly special.   I am sure I look like a damned fool, smiling with a cheese-eating grin at what for Italians is the norm, but  I just can’t help myself when something hits me square between the eyeballs.  BANG! now THAT’s Italian!!!!.  Take this for instance: the mental snapshot of the hubby throwing the plastic/glass recycle into the back of a garbage truck about a fifth of the size of the ones in the states, saluting the same lady with acquamarine eyeshadow  that he meets down the street every Tuesday morning, precisely between the hours of 8:00 and 8:30 am.  That is special.  It screams “This is kind of familiar, but soooooooo Italian.” And I need to take a picture outside of my own noggin of it.

So this is the inspiration of Foto Friday – to put up just one that might capture the essence of this place in the relentlessly-Starbucksizing (nope, they aren’t here folks – though oddly, low cut tank tops with the logo are all the rage with the ragazze) globe.   Everyone has seen someone in front of the Trevi fountain tossing their coins to the Roman government in hopes to come back , but I ask, have you ever seen the banality of daily life at the supermarket captured with joy?   Now, its the Italians who put the I in TGIF.

For the debut photo, I present: “At the ATM”, taken in Piazza Di Spagna while pulling out my ever-falling in value Euros, when I turn around to see an advertisement, with the unlikely pair of legs from a  carridge outside the bank vestibule.  Either the human needs a pedicure or the horse is happy with his online banking service. You decide.

Let the Games Begin

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I love the Olympics.  I love the stories that come out of wee-little corners of the globe, athletes arriving who train in hotel pools and by running cups of sugar to their aunts located in villages 15 miles away.  I love the banter, the media frenzy and the recaps.  It’s a two-week long Christmas morning.  Warm-fuzziness all-around.  If you live in the United States.

Watching in Italy however, was a whole other,  head-in-my-hands, pretend-punch-a-fist-through-the-TV experience.  In a word – frustrating.  I thought about flying back to the US, just to catch some of that spirit  that I have come to realize since is uniquely American.  All those back stories…..gone.  Good Morning America?…..not in Italy, its 5 pm over here.  And coverage on more than a channel? …..we were limited to the lonely state-run channel which would follow an event just long enough to know that a world record could be broken, when coverage would cut to a first round match of some re-run of an Italian fencing.  Analysis was given by these gals, who don’t exactly give you that twinkle-in-the-eye pass the torch commentation:

I have watched more fencing in the past two weeks (yes, Italian ladies swept the medals..BRAVA!!) than I can imagine I will for the rest of my life.  That and archery.  Leave it to the Italians to be good with arrows and swords.  It makes sense.

I was about to write a letter to the Italian government informing them of how many other sports exist in the Olympics, when the small town of Cagli in the region of Marche totally redeemed – on behalf of the whole country – that lost sense of Olympic razzmatazz that left me feeling Olympically anorexic.  And it went like this:

As in the Olympics, it began with a parade of nations, or in this case, a division of the four quadrants of the city, named for their Saint represented in each quarter’s church:  Sant’ Angelo, Sant’ Agostino, Sant’ Andrea & San Francesco – all dressed their respective colors and garb both Liberaci and Robin Hood would envy.

Following the parade of drums, archers, royal-looking folk, sheilds, and other things of the sort came the game players – a loud, cheering group of young athletes (athletes is loosely used here), not unlike the more muscular versions seen circling the track in London.

We followed the parade into the stadium, where a Chutes-and-Ladders format Olympics would unfurl.  But the events were by leaps and bounds more exciting, entertaining and hilarious than anything I saw the previous two weeks.  There was Tug-o-war. You know the kind where 12 people fall on their rumpelstiltskins to win:

And archery – similar to what was also on TV – but with flashier attire and artisan crafted arrows:

Barrel – rolling, a surprisingly strenuous test of fancy footwork and pied-piperesque concentration:

There were many more, including horse races, foot races, log-cutting,  races on stilts, relays, and, thank goodness, someone remembered the over-water-jousting some of us so fondly remember from American Gladiator.

So what about the medals?  No medals here friends.  You don’t need a medal when you have a golden duck.

And unlike the Olympic games, where the village is limited to athletes, their village was open to the rest of us beer and prosecco drinking spectators, to share in the joy with the beer and prosecco drinking athletes.  Food? Forget McDonalds!  You could find Marchese specialties – including polenta and snails, tripe and gnocci. And there were not one – but FOUR! – such locales to stuff your face with all things good and unique to the Marche region.

Olympic village of Sant’ Angelo

So a thanks goes out to those fabulous friends, who perhaps seeing the grief of an American suffering through the Olympics abroad, kindly invited us to the country to partake in something that perhaps embodies the Olympic spirit more than the games themselves – amateurism (the most amateur they come), goodwill, cheering and jeering and cultural celebration.

Turning Tables

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This weekend we got together with our friends for dinner out on the town.    Without a specific destination in mind, we took off around the backside of Piazza Navona, a zone with lots of great eats and lively street action.

What makes Italy, and the people who make it (Italians) is their steadfast stick-to-it-ness to the time honored traditions.  This is what keeps the food so pure and local, and also keeps the young people shut out of careers.  It’s clearly  a win some lose some situation. In this same vein,  one of the best traditions  are the long, lingering dinners that last longer than the digestive process.  I have never, never, never had anyone bring the bill without a clear eye contact and requesting “Il Conto!”   It simply doesn’t happen.  Pushing a bill to turn a table must be forbidden somewhere in the Italian constitution.

Buuuuuuuuuut, alas!  The twist in tradition.  While out to dinner with our friends, we witnessed and partook in a very covert and sneaky (important Italian trait) departure on the Italian Linger Law.  It bordered on treachery, but by definition the bill was only brought upon our request, saving the waiter, and the restaurant from damnation.

Here’s how it went down:  In the first place, we spotted the restaurant because it was full of real, bonafide Italians, a sure indication of the quality of the establishment.  It was packed, and we know we were dinner cruising in dangerous waters without a reservation, and agreed to the two minute wait outside on the street.  Even after waiting in  Italian time (multiply by 10), we were still standing in the street.

Just as we were about to find another joint, a waitress came out the door with four classes of Prosecco.  Oh!  Wow!  Thank you so much!!!  We were truly appreciative of the gesture; they realized our great pain of the wait and brought some of the Italian bubbly.  Truly a great offering.

We waited another ten minutes, and finally after one more request, were briskly ushered to our table, old coverings being quickly changed out for new ones as we took our seats.  We ordered, ate, and conversed in a timely fashion.   As soon as we finished, the waiter arrived – “Anything more? Dolce?  Cafe? ”  Nothing we said.  He swiftly turned on heel, and returned no more than a minute later with 5 shot glasses of Limoncello.   Yes:  5 glasses of Limoncello.  Before we could make sense of the extra glass, or why we were even receiving more free alcohol, the waiter said “One, two, three!”  And before we knew it, waiter and all take the Limoncello as a shot.  We’d only every had Limoncello as the slow sipper that it should be after a meal lasting the length of War and Peace.

And there we were, the proud recipients of not one, but TWO free drinks, and ready to leave!  Feeling spectacularly pleased, we left, and couldn’t help but notice the crowd gathering for dinner at OUR restaurant.

And then it hit me:  they found a way to turn a table without actually placing the bill on the table.  Not only this, but they also kept us hooked on a long waiting line to get our business.  Somewhere a round Italian grandmother is rolling over, and somewhere else some slick Italian is praising the ingenious loophole that our restaurant had found.

The restaurant, company, and FREE beverages were great.  Being rushed was alright because we had other plans anyways.  Not knowing we were being rushed until we came down from our prosecco/limoncello high – was well – Italian.