Having barely survived our hectic existence back home, we’re longing to embark on a slower pace of life here. But my father-in-law seems to be related to the bus driver; he, too, is a man on a mission. With only a couple of weeks left before their departure, Giorgio has much to show us, and time is of the essence! Obstacles such as our extreme jet lag will not be allowed to get in his way.Day one, his first mission is to get us registered with the local police.
“We don’t think this is necessary,” we say.
He is determined, however, and when an Italian is determined, it’s definitely best to go along with it. Having a soft spot in her heart for sleeping children, David’s mom wakes us up just minutes before we have to leave.
“Where is Giorgio?” I ask.
“He’s in the car, waiting for you,” Maria nonchalantly answers. Because we know Giorgio does not possess the patience of Job, we down our caffè latte and pastry and run off in a stupor.
Sitting in the backseat, I soon realize I’ll be calmer if I look sideways, rather than straight ahead. In matters that relate to speeding oncoming traffic, it’s best to remain ignorant.
After traveling at a velocity I never thought possible for this poor little Fiat, through what I assume is lovely countryside, we arrive at the police station. We press the buzzer. A big, burly man glares suspiciously through a little window on the door and then lets us into a small chamber. My claustrophobia kicks in. The tiny room swims in front of my eyes, and the walls close in.
“Breathe,” I tell myself. “In and out, in and out.” I fear that a panic attack would not garner any sympathy but rather may get us shot. This is a necessary evil, so just remain calm.
The police size us up and occasionally pat the impressive black machine guns hanging on their belts. Finally, they decide that we’re unlikely to be a trio of terrorists, and the chance that we’ll do them any harm is minimal. We are led to a bigger room, where we wait to see the chief. Every few minutes, someone pops his head out from the adjoining room and curiously stares at us. We refrain from smiling and greeting the person and keep staring ahead. Our best bet is to look frightened at all times. We don’t speak, we don’t move, and we try to keep our breathing to a bare minimum.
Finally, a husky man with a big curly moustache approaches us. He’s decked out in a crisp blue-and-white uniform with gold stripes. We all stand up as a sign of respect. The others join him and stand to our left. Is this what all tourists must go through? No wonder the guidebook says that most do not bother to check in with the police.
Giorgio explains why we are here. The chief pauses, then says, “You are at the wrong police station. This is the military station, and you need to go to the Questura, which looks after matters of immigration.” No wonder everyone was staring at us; we are, after all, three very unlikely characters to join the military!
All is not lost. The town, Civitella del Tronto, is quite lovely and perched so up high on a rocky mass, it looks impregnable. With a sense of pride and nationalism, Giorgio takes us on a tour. He explains that it was the last location to hold out to Italian unification until it succumbed in 1861. We enjoy a leisurely stroll and pose for pictures, thoroughly enjoying a much-needed moment of peace and calm. I spot a bar and hope for a second cup of coffee.
That instant, a silent alarm goes off in Giorgio’s brain. Like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, he panics. He leads the way and runs to the car, cane in hand. If I thought he drove like a maniac when we had all the time in the world that was nothing. David’s father has a clock in his stomach, and he must start eating before the last echo of the one o’clock chime. My envisioned calm, nonchalant way of life will have to wait.
Despite our speed on the mountain’s hairpin curves, we arrive home safely. Maria is on the porch, anxiously waiting for us. She’s wearing her apron, short white sport socks, and black running shoes. Accessorizing this outfit are heavy gold earrings and a thick gold necklace. Lunch, of course, is already sitting on the table, because we’re two minutes late.
Last night a friend dropped off some porcini mushrooms he had picked in the forest, though he could not divulge where.
“One does not tell,” he said. “Picking mushrooms is a dangerous thing. You have to hope they don’t slash your tires. There are enough people picking mushrooms, they don’t need anyone else.”
Visions of myself stranded in the forest, with slashed tires, quickly end any future plan I had to pick mushrooms.
Maria had dipped the porcinis in breadcrumbs and fried them. They are so flavorful that a soliloquy on the superiority of Italian food naturally ensues. Writing a nationalistic cookbook, lesson two . . .
At two-thirty, Giorgio’s same finely tuned clock goes off. In mid sentence, he leaves the table and dashes to the bedroom for the sacred pausa. Do we take a pausa as well and forfeit the only quiet and calm time in this house? We opt for the pausa to inaugurate our new lifestyle. I lie down on the bright yellow-and-burgundy velour bedspread, trimmed with fuchsia pink pom-poms, and find myself face-to-face with pink and forest green angels dancing on it. I will hide this bedspread in the back of the armoire the moment my mother-in-law leaves.
We close all of the shutters, lie back in the darkness, and within minutes fall into a deep sleep.
We are awoken shotgun style, like a warning shout from the police mere seconds before the SWAT team breaks down the door.
“Hurry!” Maria yells. Five minutes to get ready—because Giorgio, naturally, is waiting in the car. We must make the customary rounds of visiting relatives. I get dressed in record time, but apparently my new top will not do. Maria says this baby-doll style might make Zio Luigi and Zia (“Aunt”) Franca think I am pregnant.
“Don’t you have something a bit more form fitting?” Maria asks.
The sound of impatient honking adds to my stress. I enlist Maria’s help, and after several attempts, she settles on something suitable for me to wear.
This scene will be repeated numerous times, because specific rules must be obeyed concerning matters of dress, especially when visiting relatives. My outfits will be judged according to weight, length, warmness, cut, overall appearance, and so on. I feel as if I have Giorgio Armani scrutinizing me moments before his runway collection will debut. Incidentally, other rules, such as building permits, dumping laws, and driving regulations, are optional in Italy.
People seem most offended by my fashion faux pas concerning the weight of fabric.
“Those pants are too light. You should put on a sweater with that outfit, it’s too summery.”
I make the mistake of arguing. “Though it’s October, it’s still very warm, so why would I need a sweater?”
“Simple,” Maria says. “No one else is in short sleeves at this time of year.”
I give up and make any required adjustments, then silently swelter in the back of the Fiat.
We are briefed on what is not to be discussed in front of relatives. My second-hand shopping sprees, though popular back home, are not to be mentioned. Nor is the divorce that is taking place in the family and has been under way for several years. Thanks to my limited Italian, I can be trusted not to spill the beans on any of the taboo subjects.
We arrive at Zio and Zia’s family compound. It makes me want to call the Milan stock exchange and purchase shares in cement. It’s as big as a small village, and several generations live within this area—to all outward appearances, happily. Also housed within this complex are flocks of sheep, chickens, goats, pigs, and even a pair of ostriches for special occasions when a frittata for twenty-five hungry souls is on the menu.
The old stone house has weathered slate-blue shutters, dripping with character. Sitting on a hill with stunning views all around, it is abandoned, except for a few animals dwelling in one section. Another part of the structure houses two dozen hinds of prosciutto hanging from the ceiling.
I picture what British or American expats would do to that house. They would restore it, then write a book about repairing it and their adventures with their Italian neighbors. I point this out to Zio Luigi, who laughs heartily and says, “Who would want that old place?” Ville & Casali décor magazine is evidently not on his short list of preferred reading material.
The shed-to-house ratio is in normal proportion: four ramshackle corrugated metal sheds per house.
We enter their combination dining-living room. Almost as an afterthought, the dining room is enclosed by the living room. A broad table sits in the center, and pieces of a living room set are placed against the surrounding walls.
As the non-Italian in the family, I get the quick once-over and hear the word simpatica. It appears that my mother-in-law’s wardrobe coaching has paid off, and I have passed the test.
Course after course of fine Italian food is served. I realize that when you are full and your plate is empty, you must guard it with your life. Otherwise, it will be chock-full again within seconds.
Accompanying each course is a commentary on the superiority of Italian food, with David and I knowing full well that no one in the room has ever tried any other type of cuisine. They would most likely choose death over eating a meal in a Chinese restaurant.
Although my plate keeps getting filled, my glass does not. David, however, appears to attract a magical, ever-flowing fountain of wine. His uncle makes desperate leaps across the table, lest our Italian prince’s mouth become dry. Cheese is now being served, and I long for another glass of red wine to accompany it. As if reading my mind, Zio suddenly looks at me.
“I didn’t notice your glass was empty!” He apologizes and quickly fills it with pineapple juice.
The TV is on full blast, so everyone has to shout. A crazy game show is on. The camera zooms in on a pair of velines’ (showgirls’) breasts spilling out of their low-cut tops, as the women sit crossing and uncrossing their long legs in miniskirts, with the host laughing uncontrollably. Certain channels feature more scantily clad velines, offering their commentary on the soccer game. Our other option is to watch thirty-year-old-reruns of Columbo speaking Italian.
We sit upright on hard wooden chairs. I longingly gaze at the couches surrounding us, as the unsolicited double portions of pasta induce sleep.
Though I don’t speak a lot of Italian, I have mastered good eye contact, a perfectly timed nod, and a warm grin. As a result, Zio and Zia regularly compliment me on how quickly I have picked up the language. Because they haven’t asked me a single question I need to answer, I’m able to convey an excellent grasp of the language.
Orders for coffee are now being taken. “Will David’s wife have coffee?” Zia asks. She serves dessert, along with spumante in plastic cups. This time my glass is filled to the brim, with foam.
After-dinner entertainment includes watching a cousin’s wedding video. The bride poses lying across the floor like a snake in her fluffy white wedding gown, surrounded by carrots, tomatoes, and other vegetables. The background music for the wedding video is “Against All Odds.”
Exhausted and stuffed, we begin to say our good-byes. We start off in the dining room, proceed to the hallway, and then, after another twenty minutes on the veranda, we take our leave. In the distance, we hear them yell, “Don’t forget to come back soon!”
The Fiat groans as we drive up the mountain. One aunt and uncle visited, only six more to go.
Life in Italy, amongst her husband's family, inspired Ivanka to write A Zany Slice of Italy which became an Amazon bestseller. Available at Amazon.com
Ivanka and David continue to make Tuscany their home. Family, along with quirky situations in everyday life, continue to provide ample inspiration to write.