02 August 2015

LIFE: Clandestina

CHIAVARI, Italy – This is a true story. It’s the story of the day I was attacked by a vicious German shepherd dog while on an outing to Orta San Giulio, a small lakeside town in Piedmont. Actually it’s more than that. It’s a story of what it was like to live in Italy illegally, to live as a ‘clandestina”.

 Lakeside, Lago di Orta San Giulio (Piedmont)
I had entered Italy with a normal three-month Tourist Visa issued to everyone entering the country. But then, when my three months were up and I still didn’t have a legal Permit to Stay – a Permesso di Soggiorno, I took the train to the south of France. I spent a few days there, then I re-entered Italy getting my Passport stamped with another three-month Tourist Visa in the process. I didn’t know it then, but my journeys to the south of France would go on for many years, almost eight. 

It’s not that the Italian government was refusing to give me a Permesso, they just were not willing to give me the type of Permesso I wanted. I wanted a Permesso di Soggiorno that would allow me to work. I was, and still am, a free-lance journalist/writer but at that time, 1990, the Italian government didn’t understand the concept of “free-lance”. They wanted to know who I worked for. Since I couldn’t come up with a name or a contract -  Permesso refused. 

In Italy, if you are not a legal resident, or a citizen, you are not allowed to open a bank account, have an Italian Social Security number, rent an apartment or have a Partita Iva, which is a license to do business, in short, everything that I needed. If nothing else, I am a problem solver and within a year of living here I had managed to get all of those things, and more, in spite of being illegal.
The Main Piazza is Very Colorful
I soon settled into my Italian life. I had a nice apartment near the sea, I had tons of work, I got used to going to the south of France every three months, and truthfully I stopped worrying about my legal status. I knew  the situation would eventually right itself, but every once in a while being illegal would become problematic, and that is what this story is about.    

One bright June day Barbara, a fellow American, and I decided to go to Lago di Orta San Giulio, in Piedmont and have lunch. We had no idea what was about to happen when we stepped off the train. As there was no one around and the lake was nowhere in sight, we started down the single lane road in front of the station hoping it would take us into town and to the lake.

We figured we were going in the right direction since we were going downhill, but it seemed to be taking a very long time to get there. There were few houses along the road and those that we saw were set back and surrounded by tall chain link fences that seemed to send a message – do not disturb.

 View of the Island of Orta San Giulio
Then we spotted a woman out in her front yard and walked over to ask her how much farther we had to go to reach the lake. I approached the fence first and called out to her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a young guy coming around the corner of the house and next to him was a fully grown German Shepherd running full speed ahead, barking and growling and heading right for me.

I won’t say I wasn’t scared to death because I was. I pulled back from the fence but the dog, with fangs bared and spittle flying from his mouth, was on top of me before I could react. He crashed into the fence and caught me with his claws right at my waistline and dug in hard, knocking me to the ground. The pain was excruciating. I lay there in the dirt crying, clutching my side. My clothes were torn and I when I took my hand away, I could see I was bleeding.

Barbara, who spoke very little Italian, started yelling at the woman using the few words she knew, to get some water, some bandages, to do something. The woman did nothing. I don’t remember a lot of what happened after that, but when I heard Barbara saying something about calling the Carabineri, I remember saying no, no Carabineri.
 Our Destination - Lunch by the Lake
I settled for a ride to the nearest pharmacy where I bought bandages and something to clean the wound, and fixed myself up the best I could. I was in so much pain I could barely walk. We found a café, had a quick lunch and then took a taxi back to the train station and left.

When I got home I went to see my doctor. He looked at the puncture marks of the dog’s claws, and the deep purple and green bruising and just shook his head. “You can still go to the Carabineri and report them, and you can sue them too,” he said, “you certainly have a case. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this. Just think if you had had a child with you, that dog could have taken their eyes out.”

I knew he was right but given my legal status I didn’t want to do anything that involved me and the law. I had worked too hard to get here and even though I still hadn’t gotten my legal situation straightened out, I knew I would. Sooner or later. So I just said, yes I would get a Tetanus shot and yes, I would think about reporting the incident to the Carabineri. I thanked him for his concern and left.
 Lovely Shops Line the Piazza
He was right about the dog being dangerous, and if we had had a child with us the situation would have been much worse. But I knew I wouldn’t do anything about it. That’s the problem with being illegal. Even when you want to do the right thing, you are afraid to, afraid to do anything that will upset the fragile balance of your existence.

Did I think I would be deported if the Carabineri discovered my situation? In the beginning, yes I did. But then, the longer I was here I began to think that since I have no criminal record, and the fact that I am Italian, the most they would do is tell me to start heading down the path of legalization and give me a time period in which to do it. But if I hadn’t managed to legalize my status so far, how would I be able to do it with a deadline? I wouldn’t.

Then la forza del destino (aka fate) stepped in. Quite by chance I met an Italian Senator, who shall remain nameless. When I told him my story, he made some disparaging remarks about the Italian government and then he made a phone call.  In 24 hours I had a Permit to Stay and Work in Italy. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 Lago di Orta San Giulio
If I have learned anything living in Italy, it is that it is my “American” way of doing things is not better; in fact it doesn’t work at all – not here. And as far as my desire to be self-sufficient, that doesn’t work either. People just think you are stupid. Which I was, and in many ways I still am. I admit it.

As for my status, once I got my Permesso di Soggiorno, it didn’t take too many years before my Permesso became permanent, or as the Italians like to say, Valid for an Undetermined Time. And who knows, I may even get my citizenship next. I may not know much but I do know when I’m wrong, which is 99 percent of the time, and that La Forza del Destino works in mysterious ways.

29 July 2015


CHIAVARI, Italy – Truthfully, with the heat wave we have had the past few weeks; no one has really been in the mood to cook. The bustling morning market hasn’t been bustling as much as crawling, but that all changed the other day when a cool breeze began to blow in off of the sea. 
  The Market in Chiavari
With the morning temperature a more agreeable 80° F there was a bit more activity at the market yesterday. Watching to see what the Chiavarese mamas were buying, it soon became obvious they were choosing plump peppers, eggplants, zucchini and tomatoes. The Genovese have a real fondness for stuffed vegetables and I have a sneaky suspicion that is exactly what the mamas had in mind. 

The beauty of stuffed vegetables is that you can fill them with almost anything, bake them in the oven, and they won’t disappoint you.  It is a tasty way to make something delicious out of the little bits of left over this and that in the fridge. 
 Perfect Round Zucchini
Living in Genova greatly expanded my love of stuffed vegetables far beyond my mother’s peppers with rice and ground beef. Or it could be that just being in Italy makes everything taste better. Hidden in the alleys of the city’s historic center, there are take-out food shops, no bigger than a closet that sell stuffed zucchini and stuffed onions alongside trays of farinata and foccacia. It takes a strong will to walk past one of those shops without being drawn in, and I can’t say I’m particularly strong willed.

Stuffed vegetables are also easy to make at home.  One Genovese mama I know makes stuffed zucchini  using the scooped out center of the zucchini mixed with small chunks of ham and a béchamel sauce. Then she sprinkles the stuffed zucchini with breadcrumbs flavored with olive oil and grated cheese and pops them in the oven to heat through and brown the breadcrumbs.
 One Way to Stuff an Eggplant
Another variation of the zucchini filling is bread (the soft white center) soaked in milk, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, and a variety of herbs, preferably marjoram, and eggs to bind the mixture. Fill the zucchini with the milk soaked bread (squeezed dry of course), herbs and egg and top with the breadcrumbs.

The flavoring agents depend on what vegetable is being stuffed. For eggplant, you might want to add chopped porcini mushrooms plus a little garlic and oregano. When stuffing zucchini and onions, try leaving the mushrooms out and throw in a pinch of nutmeg for good measure.

You can also use mushrooms as part of a bread stuffing for artichokes, while chopped parsley is good added to the filling for stuffed tomatoes. The artichokes recipe also calls for the chopped stalks of the artichokes, chopped leeks, oregano and nutmeg. Best not to waste anything isn’t really a Genovese motto, but it could be.
 Stuffed Tomatoes
Here’s an easy stuff tomato recipe from the Corriere della Sera, Milan’s daily newspaper. 

Baked Stuffed Tomatoes

Serves 4

4 large tomatoes
80 grams of ground beef (more or less 3 ounces)
60 grams of long grain rice
60 grams of fresh (or frozen) peas
2 small zucchini
1 carrot
1 white onion
1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Wash the tomatoes and cut off the tops. You can also cut a very little bit off the bottom so they stand up better. Scoop out the inside of the tomatoes, chop it into pieces no larger than the peas, and set it aside.  Chop the onion, the carrot and the zucchini also into pieces no larger than the peas. 

Put a small amount of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and add the chopped onion, carrot and zucchini, the ground beef, the rice, a cup of water and let it cook together for about 10 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. 

Fill the scooped out tomatoes with the rice and ground beef filling, and cover them with the tomato tops.  Drizzle a little olive oil over the top of them and then place a small amount of extra virgin olive oil in a casserole pan and bake in a preheated oven (160 C/325F) for 40 minutes. 

The recipes calls for making a sauce out of the chopped tomatoes and serving the stuffed tomato on top of it, just as you see in the photo, but to tell you the truth you could just as easily add the chopped tomatoes to the rice and meat mix and reduce the amount of water, or leave it out altogether. 

You can use this filling for any vegetable you want to stuff. You can substitute the rice with couscous or the soft center of Italian bread, or tiny pasta, or leave them out as well and just chop the vegetable centers you’ve scooped out, either with ground beef, lamb or pork, or no meat at all. You don’t need peas or carrots either, but you do need onions.

Hmmm, just thinking about these delicious combinations is making me hungry. I think I'll head for the kitchen and rustle me up some grub Italian style. Buon Apettito.

26 July 2015

LIFE: Summer Dreams

CHIAVARI, Italy - On these hot summer days with the temperatures hovering in the 90's, I’ve been thinking about a trip I took to Lake Como a couple of years ago with a friend of mine from my Conde' Nast days. The plan was to take the ferry to Cernobbio and have lunch at the opulent Grand Hotel Villa d'Este.
Overview of Villa d'Este 
The villa, a Renaissance residence, was originally called the Villa del Garovo and the villa, and the 25-acre (100,000 m2) park which surrounds it, has seen many changes since it was built in the sixteenth-century as a summer residence for the Cardinal of Como.

Today it is a luxury hotel with room rates averaging €1000 ($1400) a night and top suites averaging €3500 ($5000) per night, and has been called the best hotel in the world by Forbes Magazine. 
 Villa d'Este, Lake Como
The restored villa is set in a large Italian Renaissance garden, complete with a rippling waterfall that starts at the fountain of Hercules and ripples down a stone staircase. Inside, the villa is furnished with museum quality antiques and crystal chandeliers. 

With the sun high in the sky, we decided to have lunch under the tall chestnut trees on the Villa’s lake front terrace. We picked a lakeside table with a view of the sapphire blue water, and with the sound of the lake softly lapping against the shore, it was impossible to not get caught up in the magic of this sweet dolce vita. 
Villa Carlotta, Lake Como
In the afternoon we took the ferry north, along the west side of the lake to visit the Villa Carlotta. In 1843 the Princess Marianne of Nassau, the wife of Prince Albert of Prussia, bought the villa and gave it to her daughter Carlotta as a wedding gift. It was Carlotta’s husband, Georg II of Sacen-Meiningen (don’t you love their titles!) who took charge of the garden and the planting of the 150 varieties of spring blooming rhododendrons and azaleas you see there today.

The Villa Carlotta is just about mid-way around the lake, at the Tremezzo/Cadenabbia ferry stop, where the lake is at its widest and most beautiful. Here the sparkling water is framed by the mountains that hug the border between Italy and Switzerland, opening up from the spur that makes up the inverted Y shape of the lake.
 Villa Balbianello, Lake Como
The fairy tale pink Castello Maresi is impossible to photograph as it sits behind high stone-walls and heavy wrought iron gates in a lush, flower filled park-like estate. It’s tall towers and turrets add to the castle's secluded romantic atmosphere which is why it was, and still is, the perfect place for a secret rendezvous.

The beauty and languorous melancholy of Lake Como has long attracted lovers from all around the world. Even famous ones. It was rumored that Prince Charles secretly rendezvoused with Camilla at Castello Maresi in nearby Griante when he was still married to Diana. The rumor was hotly denied by castle employees, but of course they would have to say that wouldn’t they. 
Terrace Dinning Room, Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, Lake Como  

From the ferry dock in Tremezzo it is only a short ride across the lake to Bellagio. The white neoclassic Villa Melzi, known for its exquisite gardens, anchors the town at one end and at the other end is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, the playground of the rich and famous. 

During the 18th century the Russian and European upper classes and royalty often made the hotel their own. It was no surprise for hotel guests coming down to breakfast to see the Empress of Russia, Prince Metternich or Queen Victoria buttering their toast in the hotel dining room. Even the 19th century French writer Stendhal considered Bellagio the most beautiful place in the world and confesses to having spent his happiest summers here enjoying opera, fighting duels and falling in love. 
 Early Evening, Lake Como
With the sun starting to set behind the mountains, it was time to board the ferryboat and return to Como. Standing at the rail, watching   the lake unfold before us, the light soft and sheer, it was easy to see why, since the days of the Romans, all who pass fall this way not only fall in love with Lake Como, but continue to dream about it for the rest of their lives.