Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
September 29, 2010
My wife almost got arrested last night.
For cooking garlic.
We were staying with a friend and the “offensive odors police” (I don’t know their real name. My Italian is almost non-existent) showed up at our host’s door to announce that my wife’s cooking had set off an alarm at headquarters and they had shut off the gas to the house.
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Really. And this time I mean it.
Just to be clear, she hadn’t burned the garlic, she had simply sauteed it to a nice golden brown. Somehow, just the odor of frying garlic seemed to be the culprit.
Our host had to go down to central headquarters and jump through bureaucratic hoops for almost two hours to get the gas turned back on.
When the gas cop got back to the house, my wife – her Italian fueled by rage and embarrassment – quizzed him intensively.
“What do families do when they have to cook every night?”
“Well, yes,” he admitted, “it’s a problem.”
Cooking broccoli is particularly bad, he added. Red wine too.
Broccoli – OK, that I can understand. An anti-broccoli alarm might be a best-seller anywhere. But garlic? And red wine?
We’ve only been here a few days, but we’re already learning a lot.
On all our previous visits to Italy over the years, we’ve always been in full tourist mode: staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and having, needless to say, a wonderful time.
But on this trip, we’re changing our ways. We are, for a little while at least, living in Italy, not visiting.
We’ve been staying with our friend for a few days, but now – as I write this on a high-speed train from Milan to Florence (oops, I mean, from Milano to Firenze) – we’re heading to Siena, where we’ve rented an apartment for a month.
So we’ll be shopping for food and cooking our meals, dealing with the authorities, dealing with neighbors.
And learning. Oh yeah, we’ll be learning. And I’m not talking about the intensive Italian classes we’ll be taking.
Here are a few things we’ve learned so far.
Lesson No. 1: Italians hate garlic. Well, they certainly hate the smell of garlic cooking. After the odor police left, our host delivered a lengthy lecture on how to eliminate all odor from garlic. You slit the clove and boil it briefly – something that “every Italian cook knows.” (But not, my wife insists, Julia Child.)
A workman who came to the house after the Fried Garlic Incident (as it is now known), sniffed the air and said, “I can’t work in a house that smells like this.” (And our host never cooks. So it was my wife’s garlic he was talking about.)
Lesson No. 2: Italy is the most tightly regulated country on the planet.
For right now, I admit, I’m talking our host’s word for that – but the mere existence of the odor police is ominous confirmation. So, too, is the fact that when I went to an Internet cafe to check my e-mail, I had to show my passport before they let me get online. (“We have to be able to show who’s been using the Internet,” the very pleasant man at the counter explained.)
Lesson No. 3 (This follows directly from Lesson No. 2): Italians are very fond of superlatives. During our first days in northern Italy, we were told over and over again that Lake Como is “the most beautiful lake on the planet.” This was stated as a simple matter of known fact.
Now let’s be clear here. Lake Como is, in fact, a staggering, beautiful place. Time and again, we were struck nearly speechless by the beauty. But if the title of “most beautiful lake in the world” is going to be awarded, I can think of several other spots that would certainly claim a solid place in the competition.
And, by the way, although I don’t think it’s going to be a matter of national pride for anyone, I can think of several countries (China and the nation formerly known as Burma come to mind) that could give Italy some serious competition for the “most tightly regulated” title.
Lesson No. 4: Italian neighbors can be aggressively nosy busybodies – spying, peeping and calling the authorities when they think you’ve violated any of the country’s countless regulations. (See No. 2, above.)
Again, I have only anecdotal evidence for this – but even before I got here I read stories of Italian neighbors stirring up vast trouble for those who do not mop their staircase properly. And when your neighbors back up the odor police by stepping in and becoming self-appointed staircase sanitation police … well, I think we’re talking nosy busybodies, for sure.
And so, with trepidation, we head to Siena, where we will cook with garlic, stumble over regulations and deal with neighbors.
And yet … and yet.
Though this may all sound negative, let me assure you that we are heading there with great eagerness, excitement and delight.
Because we have already seen great beauty – both in nature and in the wonderful ancient towns we have passed through.
And because we have already met many, many kind, friendly, helpful, generous Italians – who have excused our mangling of their language and done their best to help us make our way through their wonderful country.
And as for those pesky regulations, well, someone said that Italians love to make rules just so they can break them.
Sounds like fun.
Here we go!
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