Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A milestone event (in words)

It's not every day that one turns 50. In fact, there's only one such day in every (honest) man's life. And since it's a pretty significant ring on the trunk, it should be celebrated. We did. In fine style.

Of course, being in Italy only adds to the flavour of it all. The day of my birthday itself (Thursday 4th September) was a quiet, relatively uneventful day - a swim in the lake (after the clouds had come and the chilly wind had arrived), and a somewhat disappointing dinner at one of the touted local restaurants serving quintessential marchigiani fare.

But it was two days later - on Saturday 6th - that the milestone was consummated. It started out as a surprise party, but given all the preparation necessary, along with my periodic jabber about "what we're going to do on my birthday", I was soon helping (in a peripheral sort of way). Maria, along with the sterling efforts of friends Janette and Chiara, threw together a shindig that will go down in the annals of serious parties (and I've been to - and thrown - a few).

With a mixed crowd of our ex-pat and Italian neighbours and friends - split about 50:50 - we fired up the brick wood-burning oven for the first time and cooked around 30 delicious home-made pizzas. Giuliano - one of our neighbours - played the saviour and stepped in to direct (and ultimately took over from) our flailing efforts to get it going. And with the willing helping hands of his wife Ivana, another neighbour Giuliano and his sister-in-law Sabina, the production line clicked into full swing. Platters of steaming pizzas came flowing thick and fast - mozarella with tomato, onion, prosciutto, eggplant, mushroom, zucchini, many with a zing that required a swift response in the form of (the second) Giulano's family farm wine - a rich and edgy chateau di Regnano of the highest order.

When the birthday cake came out, I gave a (very) short speech in Italian, to the appreciation of all the locals.

As midnight approached and some of the neighbours were about to leave - some ex-pats had already scarpered - Janette and Chiara brought out "the present": a multi-layered wrapping with an anecdote from my life in each layer. These were translated into Italian for the locals. There weren't too many embarassing revelations, just stuff that added meat to the skeleton character that they'd all known up to now. Once that was done, the locals went off home, leaving just 9 of us.

And that's when it started. Pushing the volume capabilities of my laptop stereo to the brink, we blasted out a mix of old and contemporary music across the hills of rural Le Marche - Manfred Mann, 4 Non Blondes, Queen, Rihanna, Mattafix, Massive Attack, Madonna, Boston, Angelique Kidjo, Animal Logic, and still others. And we danced, none more freely - read "wildly out-of-control" - than my dear wife, who let go like I've never seen before, throwing herself around like the black-leather-jacket, rockin' German she is. It was wonderful to watch. The others left at around 4, we tidied up a little (or rather Maria tidied up a lot, me a little), and relaxed on the mattress outside to the strains of my favourite, more sedate music - Bruce Cockburn, Django Haskins, Lisa Gerrard, Aimee Mann, Bandits, Oystein Sevag, amongst others. Bedtime 5:30am.

I don't know when last I went to bed that late, or when I let rip quite as freely as that. But 50 be damned - I'll still be doing that (God-willing) when I'm 80.

Perhaps more significant than the milestone birthday that it was, was the feeling of being at home. Every single Italian neighbour turned up ... and stayted until the (pre-rave) death, outlasting quite a few of the younger ex-pats. I won't pretend that it's me that has fostered such goodwill in them, it's Maria, who's out there interacting far more frequently and freely than I do. But they look on us as a family, and they'll be there for us just as they'll be there for another neighbour.

I may not ever completely integrate into this country and its people, but one thing I'm pretty sure of - when it comes to the community we've chosen to live our lives, we've done pretty well.

And another thing - I'm happy here.

(Photo version to follow)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Talking of food ...

Say "Italy" and I'd wager a good 6 times or more out of 10 the knee-jerk response would be "pasta" or "spaghetti" or some other gastronomic impulse. This is no accident. Every single citizen of this country has a gene that renders them both willing and unwitting marketers of arguably their most renowned cultural facet: their cuisine. It's as if they're swept along on a sort of wave cast by the gourmand magician's wand, riding it boisterously and happily in blissful ignorance of their role in perpetuating an enviable tradition.

It's a little difficult to work out which is the proverbial chicken and which the egg in all of this - did the food come first, followed by the enthusiasm for it ... or did their desire for things sensual produce, inter alia, the most exquisite tavola? It doesn't really matter - it is what it is, and the world is truly thankful for it.

Most intriguing in this epicurean theatre - replete with its din of gestures and noisy camaraderie - is the role of the male. Not any and every male (although I suspect it's the vast majority), just those that don't spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen. They are, in my experience, the most eager to expound on the specialties of their regions ... the key ingredients of a ragu sauce ... the best place to find fresh (insert foodstuff here).

Two classic examples.

First, Pepe, our neighbour who lives in Bari in Puglia, and who visits his mother's house in Regnano several times a year. She (nonna) seldom comes these days, having now reached the age that her physical condition keeps her back in Bari. When she is here, though, you'll find her - blue scarf wrapped around her head in the way that makes all the older woman seem related if not clones of each other - bent over like a hook, scavenging the fields for cicoria or nettles or some other green leaf that grows wild in the fields.

Perhaps Pepe got his knowledge from his mother, or perhaps from his wonderful cook of a wife, Anna. But it's most certainly as a looker-on, albeit a mighty observant one, that Pepe's knowledge derives. When quizzed by Maria - as Anna slaved over the dishes after another of her prodigious feasts - whether or not he helped in the kitchen, Pepe responded that he had tried washing up once before, but he didn't like it so he doesn't do it any more. He wasn't joking.

But he can tell you exactly which ingredients to use for the perfect penne arrabiata ... what it is that makes pugliese bread so delicious ... and how long you should blanch the beans before taking them off the stove and mixing it with the ubiquitous olive oil and I forget what else. He's a gem, though, genuinely caring for our well-being, and - it goes without saying - the satiation of our appetites.

The second instance was on a hike with some 15 or so Italians on the premier festa of all summer feste - ferragosto (which falls on 15th of August and whose origins deserve a blog entry all of its own). Now going on a hike with a group of Italians (the word "large" is superfluous here) is an experience of an entirely different kind from a hike anywhere else that I've been, and is one to be savoured and enjoyed for its very uniqueness. However, that's not the point here.

The point is, after we'd had our various sandwich lunches and roused ourselves from the gentle slumbers that the food and the hot day had induced, somehow the topic got around to food. (There is a saying that all roads lead to Rome - perhaps that has some sort of proverbial significance here with respect to conversations and food.) Claudio - a really interesting guy who paints frescos and collects ancient stone implements - launched the first salvo, proclaiming with deep sincerity and mouth-watering conviction his unflinching and passionate loyalty to dried pasta (as opposed the fresh kind made with egg). He reeled off all sorts of shapes and incarnations of his culinary elixir, but I don't remember any of them. I do, however, remember his face - alive, sparkling, ecstatic, as he reeled off his heavenly weak spots. For a consistently fascinating and fascinated fellow, he rose to height that I hadn't seen before.

Sitting some distance away, Giuglio, normally a (very) silent, smiling chap, was immediately drawn to the topic, like a moth to a flame. Over he came and joined in with a verbosity that might even have surprised Carla, his wife. He bubbled with mirth - for what seemed a disproportionately long time - at the recollection of a friend of his who had once eaten pasta for breakfast. He took on a new persona for me in that moment.

It was indeed a spectacular hike, through a narrow, towering gorge with a crisp river that we had to wade through up to our knees. I'll remember it for that, no doubt. But I'll remember it more for the simple joy of that conversation, when everything else stopped and fell away, and the lifeblood of the Italian passion came charging to the surface, eager to be heard ... and shared.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bureaucracy bondage

Bureaucracy is an evil that of necessity one has to deal with in any country, doubly so when you move from one country to another. When one of those countries is Italy, the bureaucracy factor disappears into the stratosphere. But like all things Italian, it's not a static, predictable thing - it's dynamic (not in an energetic sense) and mostly very difficult to predict. I even suspect that the bureaucrat dealing with whatever's in front of them feels very much the same way - heads: reject, tails: ask for another form, coin stands on its edge: approve.

But I shouldn't be critical or cynical - the research I'm doing for a book about moving to Italy asserts that the way I came into this country and got my permission to stay (permesso di soggiorno) is actually impossible, can't be done, against the law, don't even think of trying it. I can only assume that I was a benefactor of the other side of that Italian bureaucratic coin - the Italian character.

Anyway, my permesso di soggiorno, the very thing that allows me to stay here, expires on September twenty-something. (See here for a blog entry on the original application process.) Three months before the due date, I start making inquiries. Coincidentally, at the same time I'm in the process of updating the very section of aforementioned book that deals with residence permits. Turns out - after clarification of the contradictory terms of the law - that I can actually work here legally thanks to my matrimonial state with an EU citizen. This is a revelation to me, I actually thought I was prohibited from working. I guess I can now follow up on that list of job offers that have poured in over the past months.

The application process - along with the law - all changed last year, and now one submits the application through the Post Office. This fills me with trepidation. When I finally get all the paperwork together - 40 pages of it! - I have to hand it over to a clerk working for an organization that routinely loses things, some of them very big things, like the box I sent from the US two years ago that never arrived. On top of it, I arrive to hand in the application just as they're closing, meaning they're all anxious to head off for lunch. But what can I do? I hand it over, and hold my breath ... only to be pleasantly surprised ...

Two weeks later I get three things - a web site where I can check the status of my application, and a text message on our cell phone, which says I have an appointment at the immigration office on December 12th. The text message even agrees with what the web site says. And then a letter arrives, confirming what the other media have already said. I am wary to start changing my view prematurely, but I'm now looking at all of this with a cocked head, creased eyes, and a curious, questioning, twisted pursing of the lips - is the system actually ... working?

I can actually vouch for the fact that the bureaucracy is indeed working exactly as intended in another arena of the government's grasp on my life - taxes. Now based on everything I've researched - and believe me the info I've found would fill more than a small book - I have no idea where I'm actually meant to pay income taxes. But given my belief that I wasn't allowed to work here, I decide to file in the US (which has a worldwide taxation policy for its lucky citizens). Hours and hours later, head bulging with with the instruction of numerous regulations, I fill in my 40 forms and find out that despite my meagre earnings in 2007, due to my status as a self-employed individual, I owe - guess what? - self-employment tax. Off it goes, once again into that black hole that is the Italian Postal Service, and lo and behold it finds its way to its intended destination.

On the Italian side, things work differently. Maria worked here last year, and so has to file a tax return, even though employers have to deduct and submit taxes from each month's payslip (i.e. PAYE). But unlike the US, where a tax return form arrives at your doorstep comfortably in time to file before April 15th, there's no such notification in Italy. Now I acknowledge that this isn't such a big deal. What is a big deal is getting the right form, accurately filled out, from her prior employers. With the due date have sailed languorously by a few months ago, we still don't have it.

More intriguing to me, though, are the other taxes. Two in particular - rifuti and ICI. Rifuti is for waste removal, ICI is property tax. You don't get notified that it's due, when it's due, and how much is due. You just have to know these things. If you don't go and pay, you're likely to get a bill in a few year's time with substantial penalties and interest. Interestingly, Berlusconi decided to abolish ICI for primary homes, but there's no official announcement (as far as I'm aware), it just sort of acquiesces.

[Update - with a uniquely Italian flair for the deadpan-faced prank, our rifuti bill arrived in the mail the day after I posted this entry to the blog.]

As far as taxes go, I think I'll miss ICI, even though I never had to pay it. As I understand its machinations, you march down to the comune, tell them what you think your house is worth, they then work out what you owe. So effectively you're telling them what you think you should pay. Now if I absolutely have no option but to pay tax, this is the kind that I could live with.

As for rifuti, you follow a similar path down to the comune office, tell them how big your house is, and they tell you how much to pay. Now it's not a huge amount, but my (thankfully) spendthrift wife tries to save on everything she can, and after an appeal to the woman behind the counter, she got a discount!

And you wonder why I love it here.