THE GYM

I cracked my kneecap: a fairly common injury for an active middle-aged person, the young doctor told me with a smile. “You have two options,” he continued. “You can either go to the gym and strengthen your upper legs or have an operation.”

The next day, clutching my doctor’s certificate, I shuffled past the massive Roman gate that marks the confines of the centro storico of Verona and stepped gingerly on to the pink marble sidewalk of Corso Cavour. I slumped against the wall of a grand modern building (circa. 1700s – that is modern for Verona) and estimated the distance to the palestra (gym). It was only the goal of having Beyoncé-like thighs by the end of the year that kept me putting one foot in front of the other during that long five-block exercise in pain.

Gyms are a rather new phenomenon in Italy and they seem to be based largely on images gleaned from music videos.  Positive slogans in English – “A strong mind starts with a fit body” and “Energy – the more you give the more you get” –  are painted on the walls in letters a foot high.

Eight large televisions tuned to the major national channels and, inexplicably one tuned to German MTV, hang from the ceiling in front of a mirrored wall.  Facing the televisions are rows of ciclettes (stationary bikes) and tapetti (tread mills, literally carpets).

It is thanks to these TVs and my doctor’s advice to keep on pedalling that my German vocabulary has quadrupled since starting at the gym.  From being able to point and exclaim “Mein Hund!” (my dog) and “Mach schnell” (hurry up), I now know keen phrases gleaned from MTV reality game shows:  “Machen” (Made), “die gekickten” (those who have been kicked out) and “nächst!” from the dating show Next und the wonderful word “gepimpt”, as in “you have officially been gepimpt”  from the car make-over show Pimp My Ride.

The employees of the gym have their job designation printed in English on the backs of their tasteful black polo shirts: “Staff” or “Personal Trainer”.  This is very helpful as Italian Personal Trainers are not quite like those in the United Kingdom or the United States. In those countries a Personal Trainer is a muscular young person charged with nipping at the heels of the client, exalting him or her to “go for the burn” and “do ten more flexes” and “fifteen more ab curls!”.  They are expected to be smiling dictators who will keep the client on track. In Italy Personal Trainers tend, on the whole, to be weedier.  This does not interfere with their job as here their role is really that of a trained listener rather than exercise dominator/dominatrix. They drape themselves over a ciclette, their dark, sensitive eyes locked on those of the client and nod sagely and murmur in agreement while their sweat-suited or spandex-clad charge complains about the children, the weather, the state of the nation.  The exerciser’s pedalling or pushing or pulling grows slower as their monologue becomes more complicated.

At the gym the Italian fascination for cleaning products and fear of germs comes into play once again. (A recent study conducted by Proctor and Gamble and published in the Wall Street Journal not only confirms that Italians purchase more cleaning products per capita than any other Europeans, it also states that the average Italian spends twenty-one hours a week cleaning as compared to Americans who spend around five hours a week at the same thankless task.).  There are ladies at my palestra who, in addition to the little bottle of designer water and the matching wrist and headbands, bring a large towel, a spray bottle of disinfectant and a small towel for rubbing down surfaces.

As I was doing my fifteen minutes on the exercise bike I watched as one of the ladies unpacked her cleaning supplies and prepared her bike for mounting.  She scrubbed the handlebars, the pedals, the seat, the dials, the post the seat is attached to. (Have you ever seen anyone touch that bar? No, neither had I until I spotted the Disinfectant Ladies.)  She cleaned with the maniacal diligence of a serial killer, who has studied every episode of CSI.  After she was finished she carefully spread a clean towel on the seat before climbing aboard for her obligatory warm-up ride.

Another thing that sets an Italian gym apart is the perks your membership offers.  In New York and London gyms sometimes make reciprocal deals for discounts at health food cafes or leotard shops.  Here your gym membership card entitles you to a discount price on Happy Hour cocktails (and I do not mean a carrot juice smoothie) and the pleasure of noshing at the ample buffet at a local bar.

Should you wish to sign up at my gym you will have no trouble finding it. There are always four or five personal trainers and clients clustered around the entrance enjoying a pre- or post-sweat cigarette.

In the meantime, I continue to pedal on, my intentions still firmer than my thighs.

O Christmas Tree

The trappings of “an English Christmas” have so successfully infiltrated the Italian psychic that most people will look at you as if your were mad if you suggest that huge present-filled stockings and decorated trees have not been part of Italian culture da sempre (always)!

When I arrived in Verona, overcome by a feeling of nostalgia and loneliness, I decided to “have Christmas”. I wanted to approximate the kind I had as a child. Most of all I wanted a Christmas tree strung with flashing fairy lights. Armed with my shopping list, visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, I went down to the Standa, my favorite department store. I saw nothing on display that fit my concept of tree ornaments and I certainly saw no jolly oversized stockings. I decided to flag a shop assistant and make some inquires. It should perhaps be noted that at this point in my life in Verona I had taken to using Standa as a language lab. The good-natured staff was used to me coming in with my drawing pad and sketching the items I wanted and many of them had become adept at guessing my needs based on my charades.

“Stockings?” a shop assistant asked, confused but game.

“Yes, yes, big ones!”

“For you?” she said, glancing furtively at my feet.

“No. No for Santa Claus.”

This was met with silence until I dredged up the Italian name for the jolly old elf.

“Babo Natale!” I had hoped that these magic words would clear up our misunderstanding. I was wrong. She had no idea what I was on about so she called for the help of the rest of the sales staff. A little crowd of them gathered round while I acted out hanging stockings and shinnying down a chimney. As interesting as this might have been for them during a slack weekday afternoon, my capering left them mystified. I pulled out my pad and drew a Christmas tree. They complimented my draftsmanship and allowed as how they had seen such things before but they weren’t sure where I could buy ornaments.

“Germany or maybe Croatia,” came one helpful suggestion.

Dejected I left the shop and headed for my font of all things Italian, Annalisa, the owner of the Osteria Carro Armato. “When I was a little girl, there was one family in our village who had a Christmas tree,” she said. “All us kids would go down and press our noses against their window to look at it. After word got out about the tree, the mother of one of my friends said she couldn’t play with the children in that family again because they were pagans. But they weren’t pagans – it was just that the mother was English.”

Last Christmas I told this story to a nineteen year old university student. She of course felt the need to correct me. “No, no, no,” she said. “There have always been Christmas trees and Santa Claus in Italy.” After this little encounter I began a serious, scientific study into the subject of alberi di Natale.

People under forty assert that Christmas trees have been around da sempre and that such trees were a family tradition stretching back generations. “Your parents and your grandparents had trees?” I would ask. “Oh, yes. Of course!” Those over fifty, however, can precisely pinpoint the moment that they saw their first tree. These sightings occurred in the early 1950s, with the practice becoming more widespread in the 1960s. All my respondents, no matter what their age, agreed on one point, however: a Nativity Scene has been part of the Italian Christmas celebration da sempre.

Caveat Canem!

Years ago my husband and I brought home a three week-old pup who was destined to be left in a skip, that then being the standard way of disposing of unwanted mongrels (meticci – or more commonly – bastardini) .

Ed grew into a small, handsome, fox-like pooch. His face retained the soft contours of a puppy and his tail was like the plume on Cyrano’s hat. When we would go out walking in those early days, the tourists who roam the streets of Verona would ask to pet him. The Japanese even tended to take his picture. Italian mothers, on the other hand, would pull their children away roughly and hiss in their ears: “Dogs are dirty!” Italians are maniacal about hygiene – they spend more on cleaning products than any country in Europe. I well remember crouching to pick up Ed’s stools in a plastic bag and having astonished Italians stop to watch me: “Brava,” they would say, quickly adding “You’re not Italian, are you? An Italian would never do that.”

Every summer, when vacation time rolled round, it was common for some Italians to leave the family dog by the side of the road to fend for him or herself while they went off for a little fun in the sun. This was such a common phenomenon that a series of Public Service announcements were broadcast on television showing a pup wandering beside a highway with the message: He’s not the bastardino.

Italians’ views on dogs changed in 1998, the year Il Commissario Rex first appeared on Italian television. This Austrian production depicting the adventures of Police Dog Rex and his human partners became the most popular show on TV, averaging a 30% viewer share. Rex, a splendid German Shepherd, started appearing as a Special Guest on variety shows and features on the exploits of brave family pets started popping up on the news. In the last year or two bastardini have overtaken status symbol breeds in terms of popularity. I knew it for certain when a perfectly coiffed and immaculately dressed Veronese matron with a fluffy ragamuffin on a snazzy leather lead stopped to chat with me and Ed and proudly said: “Yes, Mitzi is a bastardino, too. They’re so much more intelligent and affectionate than cani di razza!”

This complete change in cultural attitudes took place within the short lifetime of Ed (3 September 1993 – 17 December, 2005). Italy is an even nicer place to live now that dogs are accepted as members of the family and not just as guard dogs, hunters, truffle hounds or fashion accessories.

I would strongly advise dog-loving newcomers to Italy to go to the local pound and pick out a canine companion. If you already have a dog, all he or she needs to accompany you on your move to Italy is a rabies shot and an up-to-date International Dog Passport. With a dog, every walk becomes a chance to meet people and establish firmer ties with your neighborhood. A dog also pulls you out of the First Person Singular (I am… I have… I want… ), the prison of many Beginner Language Students. Instead you will be in the much more sociable Second and Third Person. Si chiama Stanley. L’abbiamo preso al canile. é dolcissimo! That’s a pretty good description of our new dog Stanley.

Ugo

The first time I saw Ugo I leaned over and whispered in my husband’s ear: “I can’t imagine being married to a lunatic like that; his wife must be a saint.”

Ugo, a stocky figure with a square face (that looks as if it had been carved in bas relief from a slab of granite) and a mass of grey Harpo Marx curls, was declaiming dialect poetry at an osteria in Verona. His voice caressed each round, rich syllable, a performance I found strangely hypnotic once I got over my Anglo-Saxon embarrassment at such public displays of raging emotion. Though I have since learned that Ugo is often given to spontaneous outbursts of poetic meandering, this particular performance was meant to accompany a tasting of the fine Soave wines of Stefano Inama. Combining vino and culture (poetry, art exhibits, fashion shows) is a common Italian phenomenon.

That first sighting was over a decade ago. Now Ugo is one of our closest friends and he, his (incredibly patient) wife and their singular twins are the mainstay of our social life in Verona.

Ugo in many ways epitomizes the Italian character. He is mercurial, charismatic, generous and given to tired and emotional moments of eye-popping sentimentality. He is capable of peaks of temper, skeins of shrewdness and flights of child-like enthusiasm. He throws events together with an abandon that sets my Anglo-Saxon nerves on edge yet the results can always be looked back upon with pleasure. He once proudly proclaimed that he had written a play during the car journey to the theatre where rehearsals were due to start. The fact that the play probably ended up sounding like it was written during a two hour car trip is really beside the point. The object is To Do and thus To Be!

Every 28th December, he throws a party to celebrate the birth of cinema at which a classic silent film (Buster, Charlie, Lillian) is shown accompanied by music improvised by a guitarist, accordion player or jazz ensemble, depending on who is available on the night. He hosts the Veronese dialect poetry club. He created the local San Gi˜ Video Festival (entries from 31 countries!). He resuscitated Verona’s Cine Club. He writes a film column for a Swiss magazine and goes to all the major and minor film festivals in Europe. Ugo is a City Council member and President of the ecology committee. And, oh yes, though it is seldom mentioned, he teaches at an elementary school. When asked what he does he declares that he is an Artist of Life, a remark that would make most Englishmen squirm. I believe that their derision masks envy.

In British and American cultures adults are defined by their jobs: that is, the things they do to make money. At cocktail parties the first question after an introduction is: What do you do? The response is expected to be teacher, doctor, receptionist, mechanic, etc. To respond in any other way would be taken as be decidedly odd and result in the new acquaintance quickly moving as far away from you as politely possible.

Foreigners living in Italy have the opportunity to redefine the question: What do you do? Imagine how liberating it would be to answer “I’m a mystery novel reader.” “I am a dog lover.” “In the privacy of my own home I am a tuba player.” Once you become accustomed to making these simple replies, you can easily move to the next phase by saying: “I enjoy cooking.” “I enjoy drinking wine.” “I enjoy going to the theatre.” These responses will lead you inevitably to the simple declaration: “I am an Artist of Life”. You will soon be pitying your poor countrymen who never have the opportunity or the will to make that mildly preposterous but nonetheless exhilarating statement.

Classe

I was born in a fortuitous year. I won’t go into specifics. I’ll just say that, according to the Chinese way of handling these things, I am a dragon. Early on in our stay in Verona we made the happy discovery that around fifteen of our Italian acquaintances were also born in my year. Many of these lucky individuals owned or managed osterias, restaurants, ice cream parlors or bars. This is not so surprising when you realize the font of our network of contacts is Annalisa, owner of the Osteria Carro Armato, best woman at my wedding and my best Italian friend.

All those born in the same year and who hang out together are called classe, and my classe, as you might imagine from their professions, is a gregarious bunch. We often have dinners at which we celebrated ourselves! We praise the virtues of dragons and we eat and drink with abandon. At a certain point in the evening the singing begins. Although I am the only non-Italian I still know most of the songs… well the tunes if not the Italian lyrics. I am able to hum along to Sognando California, a song made famous in Italy by the group I Dik Dik and in English-speaking countries by The Mamas and the Papas, and La Casa del Sole, covered in Italian by I Dik Dik, and growled out in English by Eric Burden and the Animals as The House of the Rising Sun. Another I Dik Dik classic is Senza Luce. You may recognize this as Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale.

I learned to belt out the choruses of Datemi un Martello (If I had a Hammer), a song that tiny red-haired Rita Pavone recorded in her great big bluesy voice, and Pregher— Per Te, Adriano Celentano’s hammy version of the Ben E. King standard Stand by Me. I mumbled good naturedly through the I Nomadi hit Ho Difeso il Mio Amor, occasionally jumbling up the lyrics with those better known to me as the Moody Blue’s Nights in White Satin.

I learned that Bobby Solo spread the peace, love and eternal cosmic wisdom of Scott McKenzie’s hippy anthem San Francisco to young Italians who yearned to tune in and drop out. Ah, “if you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear a flower in your hair”.

Singing – or even humming along loudly – in a large group in front of an altar covered with the remains of a shared meal is a transcending experience. It is liberating to know that the songs that defined our youth were the same in The United Kingdom, The United States and Italy. The dinners at which these songs are sung are great at forging links with people with whom I share a rock and roll past.

At the first of these occasions I spoke, for all intents and purposes, no Italian but whole conversations were constructed around saying the names of bands. Blurting out “Pink Floyd” would have the others around the table nodding and murmuring approvingly. Saying “David Bowie” would bring shouts of “Changes” and “Ziggy Stardust”.

The titles of these tunes has probably given you a pretty good indication of just what kind of dragon I am, one that was just a shade too young to go to San Francisco without mummy and daddy but still old enough to dream of California.

Special Occasions

As a wine journalist my working life pretty much revolves around going to lunch and dinner. As they say: It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it. Yesterday I, along with fifteen other Italian journalists dined at Verona’s own Bottega del Vino. A few years ago the interior design, menus, wine list and warm rustic charm of this well known eatery were cloned and transported to mid-town Manhattan with great success. It always gives me a little frisson of pleasure to know a little chip of Verona is thriving just down the street from FAO Schwartz. We were guests of a cooperative, whose top range of wines is found in chic restaurants in New York and London, among other world capitals.

The only other non Italian there was an English woman who has worked with Italian wines for many years in the United Kingdom as a buyer for a supermarket chain. She now does promotional work for the co-op in London. As with all Italian gatherings, there had to be speeches. First we heard from the president of the coop, then the winemaker, then a professor at the university who oversaw an experiment for the coop, then the marketing man. The moderator (who at least gave an amusing presentation) then presented a proletariat wine journalists, who shows his independence by wearing rustic plaid shirts and always leaving early to catch the train back to Venice. Severino Barzan, the life blood of the two Bottega del Vino restaurants, took his turn. He was followed by a guest of the coop whose family manufactures high quality cakes, and finally a local wine and food pairing maven gave his usual opinionated discourse. It was generously suggested that the English guest give a little speech about selling Italian wines in the United Kingdom. All they lacked was a translator.

Cries of “Patricia, Patricia” rose from the table. I can only assume that my fellow journalists were looking for a little comic relief with which to finish the meal. Now, gentle reader, I can translate written material but I do not make a habit of translating for groups unless there is a gun to my head. The food and wine maven, who had made a snide remark about my Italian, held the smoking revolver. So I accepted the task and did a pretty good job until the English lady said: “Of course, these wines are for special occasions and so they are hard to sell in England”.

I dropped my translators role and replied hotly that perhaps it was our job as writers and promoters of Italian wines to help English people and Americans reevaluate the concept of “special occasion”. “A special occasion can be: it’s Friday! Or it can be: my favorite cousin is visiting! Or I just bought the most fabulous shoes come on over for a drink and a chat,” I said. “Those are all special occasions!”

The restaurateur next to me held up a plump palm and said: “Give me five!” We slapped hands like victorious basketball players. And at that precise moment I realize a major difference between Italians and most Anglo-Saxons: Italians realize special occasions do not have to be measured out in “significant” birthdays or national holiday; there is always something to celebrate.

Try a little of this Italian optimism and enthusiasm on for size. Tomorrow wear your “good clothes”, use your “best” china and put a decent bottle of wine on the dinner table. What are you saving all these things for? And most importantly call up your friends and ask them round to share your food, your wine and your company. Today, as everyday, is a special occasion.

How to Be A Spy

When I was thirteen I read a book titled How To be A Spy. Although my copy disappeared many years ago, it remains in my memory and, to be frank, continues to influence me even today. For instance it advised me to carry a hat and a pair of dark glasses at all times in order to assume a quick disguise, a suggestion I took to heart.

It also included instructions on how to tail someone, recommending the technique of pausing before a plate glass window to watch the “subject” in the reflection, thus avoiding eye contact and possible detection. I honed these skills in my youth and occasionally employ them to follow tourists – at a discreet distance – just for the pleasure of hearing what they have to say about my fair city.

One of my most cherished moments occurred one hot summer afternoon. A monumental American lady – imagine a Rodin sculpture brought to life and dressed in baggy Land’s End shorts – was strolling down via Mazzini, Verona’s main pedestrian-only shopping street. Her weedy husband trudged along by her side. He would occasionally pull at the back of his shirt to lift the sweat- soaked fabric away from his skin or fan himself with his baseball cap, all the while maintaining a steady litany of complaints: “It’s hot. I’m tired. You’re not gonna go in another church are you?” His wife made her way down the street, pausing now and then to gaze solemnly at the view or to assess passersby. She ignored her husband’s continuous whining, an ability obviously refined by years of practice. Finally, this magnificent woman could stand it no more. She stopped, and turning, with the swooping elegance of an America’s Cup yacht rounding a buoy, she looked her husband straight in the eye. “I’m only gonna walk down this street once in my life,” she said, “And I’m gonna do it… slow.” Ah, sublime!

How To Be A Spy also included a fine set of instructions on how to establish a “cover”. This information could well serve a new-comer to Italy who wishes to insert him or herself into a new community. The book advised one to go to the same café every day, engage the waiter in brief conversation and always order the same thing so as to establish a noticeable pattern. Try this technique. It works. I cannot tell you the pleasure I got when, after weeks of sloping into the Café Noir with my small dog, my cappuccino arrived with no sugar packet on the saucer and no cocoa sprinkled on top. Yes, the waiter remembered me. I was a regular! From that day forward our conversations expanded to dog care, popular music, the merits of C.S.I. and its Italian clone R.I.S. Everyone in the bar had an opinion and joyously expressed it. I began seeing members of the Café Noir crowd on the streets, at local street fairs and at the cinema. I suddenly knew a whole network of friendly people.

My cousin Susan in Colorado, who loves poking around car-boot sales and used book stores, is always quick to recognize the value of a dog-eared, slightly foxed, bathwater-spattered offering. So at the risk of putting her on the Homeland Security Suspect List, I have set her on the trail of How to Be a Spy (published sometime in the late 60s). If any of you have a copy floating around your house, you may wish to keep it out of the hands of impressionable children.