La Settimana Bianca

It’s all down hill from here.

“I’m not doing the course,” said my daughter, Giorgia, as we pulled out of the driveway, headed to the Dolomites for our annual ski vacation, known in Italia as the “La settimana bianca,” or the white week.

We were four families vacationing together in Folgarida. After cursing my way through a 45-minute line for the lift passes–“Why the hell don’t they sell them on line?” I blurted out at one point to the crowd. “They do!” came a random answer–we took the gondola up to the ski station, where I bought a brioche, wrapped it in a napkin and stuffed it in Giorgia’s inside pocket, in lieu of the leisurely breakfast on the panoramic terrace I had promised her. At 9:15a we were finally in line for the chair lift up to the ski school meeting point, where parents were dragging and shoving their kids through the crowd calling out, “We’ve got a 9 o’clock class!” By then Giorgia, through tears, was alternately begging to “Ski with Mamma, just for today” and lashing out at me for being “The worst mom in the world.” We got off the lift and headed down to the meeting point, Giorgia snowplowing behind me, yelling and crying, across the path of an instructor who smiled in our direction. “Ah,” he called out, “first day of the season.” Once we parents had left our children with their maestri, we skied straight into the nearest café and huddled by the fire over our second and third coffees, waiting for the mountain to thaw.

village of ArgentieresI learned to ski at 25, when I was just married and living in Munich, 45 minutes from the Alps.  My then husband was German, and had skied as soon as he could walk. His mother had tried to put him in a ski course at age two or three, but he would hang back and then ski off on his own when no one was looking. So his parents kept him with them, hiking up from the cabin they rented and skiing down from wherever they got to, ski lifts being luxuries they never even considered.

My husband took me to Kitzbühl, one snowy, windy morning in 1995. I had told him, honestly, that I had first skied at 16, but not told him, somewhat less honestly, that I had last skied at 16 as well. I rented skis, and we got into the cable car. The way he tells it, I grew greener as we rose through the air. Outside at the top, I could not see my hand in front of my face thanks to the fog and snowfall. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “It’s all down hill.” Somehow, I made it down, and over the years we were married I followed his smooth turns down some of the loveliest mountains in the world, in Germany and Austria, Switzerland, France and Italy.

Before we had children, we took to renting an apartment with three or four other couples, in Lech, in a modest, well-kept chalet called Haus Angelika, where the owner brought us a basket of fresh rolls for breakfast. The Germans (everyone in our group except me) liked to be at the ski lifts when they opened at eight a.m. From the first run of the day, our friend Stefan skied in front leading the line of us, up and down, turning, over the moguls, deep in the rare powder there was, down those wonderful wooded trails so common in Austria, up to the fireplace-heated huts for a sausage sandwich and a radler at lunchtime and back out into whatever weather there was to ski until it was dark. Those days, I thought of nothing but going along, feeling the mountain under me, absorbing it, pushing back against it, breathing the stinging cold or damp sun, never covering the same trail in a week, twenty days a year until I was six-months pregnant. There was real après-ski, too: glühwein and more radlers at the lamp-heated outdoor bars at the bottom of the slopes, dancing and shouting to the Tyrolian schläger, then walking home to our apartment, to a pot of spaghetti, wine and more dancing.

We occasionally skied elsewhere: in Cortina, where sport seemed beside the point, whereas wooly boots and the latest Montcler were de rigueuer for lounging in the sun, and where I learned there is no minimum age for a fur coat; in France, joining friends in “Cham,” as the Brits call it, for invariably great snow on the Mont Blanc, ski school that lasts all day (unlike in Italy where parents want to oversee the midday meal), and expensive, soggy pommes frites for lunch; in Switzerland, where no matter which week you go, a third of the cantons have spring break so the lifts are clogged and the best fondue places packed.

view of Alps from top of Chamonix gondolaAnd I skied again in Austria, with a different, Italian husband, a second daughter and an Italian granny who cooked and babysat and straightened up that same apartment I had shared all those years before. In the intervening seasons, Lech had grown more expensive and more popular, a double-edged sword, it was explained to me by a friend, one of the German group I had skied with there, who had married a Lech mountaineer and dairy farmer and now lived there year round. She had two daughters, three and five, who refreshingly had yet to don skis. There was now a mountain-styled Humvee to take us to the restaurant in the forest that before had been served only by cog railway or horse and sleigh, and chalets for twenty-thousand dollars a night. Haus Angelika remained—clean and bright as ever—only we played cards and sang the children to sleep instead of dancing into the night.

In Folgarida this past winter, I sent my older daughter, Charlotte, to ski with the guys, while we moms took our time on the slope, stopping to chat or admire the view every few hundred meters. Two minutes into skiing, my cell phone rang: Charlotte had already lost them. “Too slow, Mom, I’ll see you all at lunch.” At the rendez-vous to pick up the younger children from their courses, I caught Giorgia shushing down toward me, jacket flapping open, although it was 20 below zero. “I forgot to close it after I took out my snack,” she explained, and went on to say a boy we knew was in her same course. “A cry-baby,” she offered, “and a slowpoke too.”

Last March, I skied for a weekend without the kids, in Val Gardena. It was strange to be so free, used as I was to scanning the slopes for them. There were no drop-off or pick-up times to respect, no one to hand out chocolate to on the lifts, no extra sweaters to carry in the afternoon, no one who complained of the cold, or wanted to ski an extra run after I was all but exhausted. It was a perfect weekend: fine snow, plenty of sun and a friend who knew the mountain, such that we skied without stopping all day long, like we had in Lech all those years ago. I found myself thinking of Folgarida, though, and of the last afternoon of the trip, when I had skied, for a while at least, with my older daughter. On the last run of the day, she took off, light on her skis, and slipped down over the crest of the slope. Though she hardly seemed to be moving, she was gone in a flash.

Paring Down

How to save in Tuscany.

Mid-winter is belt-tightening season, literally and figuratively, everywhere except in Tuscany. The Tuscans eat just as much now as they do during the holidays, partially because, with the last feast, Epiphany, falling on January 6th, and Carnevale starting, some years, hardly a month later, there is no post-holiday season, and partly because the three- or four-course meals they enjoy over the holidays continue at family Sunday lunches all year round. So the belt stays on the same hole year round. Figuratively speaking, there is no household budget trimming either in the wake of Christmas, because frugality is like religion here—touching everything and everyone.

Before moving to Tuscany, my idea of frugal living was mid-1990s New York on a legal assistant’s salary—i.e., I couldn’t afford to go to Dorian’s every night of the week. The Tuscans, though, have taught me to interpret the term more strictly.

One of the first things my future mother-in-law noticed when I moved here was the price tag on some dish soap I had bought: “It’s thirty cents less at the other supermarket,” she pointed out helpfully. She also taught me how to save at the dry cleaners: “Just have them clean the skirt, not iron it. You can do that yourself,” which got me 50% off.

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Gender in provincial Italy.

“You want an example of domestic violence? When my wife waits until the game is on to vacuum.” An acquaintance of mine here in Siena posted this on Facebook recently, and while I know comedy often touches on pain, in addition to making light of a very serious problem, there was something maddeningly myopic, provincial and Italian about a woman finding this funny. The women here really do do the vacuuming and the rest of the housework, as well as, more often than not, the cooking. They take pride in, even safeguard, their roles as exemplary homemakers and enjoy the idea that their husbands or male partners would be helpless without them. Nor do they complain about feeling overburdened, except in the most teasing way.

The male point-of-view is even more anachronistic. This past August, a friend of mine who is divorced was thinking of taking his daughter to visit some friends–a husband and wife with two children–at their beach house. “But then I realized it wouldn’t be fair,” he told me. “Simona would have to cook and clean for all of us.” The consideration he wanted to show his friends just did not include, in his realm of the possible, the option of his pitching in with the cooking and cleaning.

I don’t know what the Italian word for sexism is—sessismo?—which says something about how often it’s come up in my fifteen years in Italy. My daughter was two-and-a-half when we moved here from Germany. In her playgroup in Munich, the girls and boys had the same bowl-cut hair and wore the same Osh-Kosh overalls in blue or red or green. At her new, Italian playgroup, the little girls were all dressed in pink: sparkly Winx tee-shirts and glittery pink and white sneakers, their long hair hanging down their backs. When she moved on to school, the girls wore white smocks and the boys black. All the boys played soccer, whereas girls could choose ballet, tennis or horseback riding. (One year we parents all received a letter from the city of Siena explaining how girls, too, could enjoy team sports and announcing a trial day of soccer for any girl frequenting one of the five elementary schools in town. Three girls showed up.)

To be honest, my daughter blossomed because or in spite of this narrow definition of girlishness. She loved to play “cooking,” chopping up vegetables and moss and bark on the steps of the garden and mixing them into minestra for her stuffed animals. She assembled a collection of make-up my mother-in-law had discarded and tried it on anyone who would sit still. And dress-up, in skirts and gowns and especially my high-heels was a regular pastime. But I drew the line at buying her the plastic irons, ironing boards and battery-powered mini-vacuums my friends’ daughters all had.

Women here, as much as men, it seems to me, are helping preserve the traditional Italian gender roles. What are the consequences for women? On the one hand, my women friends who wanted careers have them, and I have worked successfully for a number of Italian companies. That said, the list of encounters I’ve had that most Amercians would consider sexual harassment is pages long, from the famous professor of ophthamology’s hand sliding up my thigh while he was examining my eyes to the banker playing footsie during a business lunch whom I was told to ignore. (“He’s loaning us money—let the guy have his fun!”) It’s so common in fact, that, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve gotten good at extricating myself quickly and moving on.

My neighbor, who is Austrian and came here as a teenager over twenty years ago says it’s getting better—the men are more sensitive, the women more assertive, at least north of Rome. My recent call to the carabinieri got me thinking, though: either she’s a very tolerant person or it must have been really bad twenty years ago.

The day before twenty-four kids were due to come over for my daughter’s birthday garden party, I looked out the window and saw a black and white snake at least a yard long slithering along where the barn wall meets the ground. Since vipers abound in the Tuscan countryside, I called the carabinieri to ask for the number of the Corpo Forrestale, a kind of ranger service, to get help figuring out if the snake was poisonous or not.

“What happened Signora?” the officer asked, so I told him about the snake.

“A snake, Signora, you say?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Longer than your arm, Signora?”

“Yes, it was the biggest snake I’ve ever seen,” I told him.

“I see, Signora, I see,” he said, and paused. And then, “Is your name, by any chance, Eve?”

Il Lord

Lunches in a grand house.

“Our yard is on fire!” I yelled into the phone, over the sound of the helicopter swooping down to the swimming pool to fill its bucket.

“Does that mean you’ll be late for lunch?”

It did. A week earlier I had written to my neighbors, old English aristocrats, about their garden. Or about my garden, to be more accurate, with which I wanted their help. Their garden, open to the public and well known from coffee-table books, was reputedly a marvel of Italian Renaissance design, maniacally tended by four full-time gardeners, one of whose sister-in-law was my cleaning woman. Through her, I had sent them a note explaining my project—a redesign of our front lawn using only the flowers, herbs and shrubs found in Italy in the Middle Ages. I wanted their help and advice, but I was also secretly hoping to be offered a private tour of their grounds.

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Bambina at the Beach

While the Americans and northern Europeans flock to the Tuscan countryside, the Tuscans head for the shore.

girls at beachThe Italian constitution establishes work as the right of every citizen, but it could almost make the same claim for an annual beach vacation, since the way those are talked of here is as of a duty or a need. “Lo faccio fare del mare”—I’m having him do time at the shore, the parents and grandparents boast to one another of the children’s summer plans. From the plumber to the banker, every one seems to have a “casa al mare,” which I discovered early in my life in Italy means a cramped, sparsely furnished, 1960s- or ‘70s-built apartment and not the Martha’s Vineyard homesteads atop swaths of pristine private beach I had imagined.

Going to the seaside for vacation is a post-war phenomenon in Italy. Before the 1950s, the mountains were the destination of choice for anyone of means, and wisely so. They are still the only place to escape the brutal heat of summers on the peninsula. But these days, when the English and Germans and Americans rush in to occupy the Tuscan countryside in August, the Italians flee to the beach, to days that proceed as follows:

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Bringing Up Bambina

A healthy children’s diet, all’Italiana…!

In order to instill a lifetime of sound eating habits in your children, all you need is an Italian grandmother, and the will to stand back for twelve years or so, while she feeds them the opposite of what you would. You won’t have to foist the responsibility on her—she will take it as soon as she can. Conversely, should you not care to hand it over, you’ll find her expert slavish service to your child will remove your entire generation from the running.

Glass of eggThe moment I gave up nursing, my mother-in-law, Rita, stepped in with a diet of bottles of baby biscuits dissolved in boiled cow’s milk that continued (in its later stages by stealth) until Giorgia was almost five. Starting around six months old, my daughter also got a raw farmer’s egg to drink mid-morning, which quickly became a favorite. (Even the Italian physician balked at this: better a store-bought egg, she said.) At a year or so of age, she was ushered into the three-meals-and-two-snacks day that accompany Italians from the cradle to the grave.

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