Friday, August 5, 2011

Going fishing...for laundry

I have learned some really strange things since moving here – things I honestly never thought there was a “right” way or a “wrong” way to do. Hanging clothes on the drying line, for example. Like many Italian homes, we don’t have a clothes dryer, which is something I miss greatly about the U.S. (not something I miss as much as a dishwasher, but that’s another story). I learned what I thought was the best way to maximize the limited space on the 4 lines outside our terrace, and, also, the small bucket of clothespins we have. Through trial and error, I learned about marks the pins leave on the neck of a T-shirt (pinning at the underarm is much better) as well as where to put my underwear (closer to the house so the other laundry covers it and it’s not a discussion topic amongst the older Italian women living above and below me) and other things I brushed off as useless in the States, but things that caused Manuel great amusement that I simply didn’t know to do. Today, for example, I learned how to “fish” for laundry. As I was taking in some items drying outside, my neighbor showed me how she uses a fish hook and fishing line to retrieve any items that fall off into the terrace 3 stories below. When I pointed out the beach towel I dropped 2 days ago, now dangling on a lemon tree below us, she shrugged. For things like that, we need to make friends with the people below us so they will return our fallen clothes. Which caused me some confusion as to why she showed me her laundry fishing gadget in the first place, but there might have been another reason that was lost in translation.

Another laundry related issue is the ability to forecast the weather. I have yet to meet an Italian person who doesn’t have some unique way to predict inclement weather, and who is eager to share their secret method with you. “Ah, Cri”, one of the guys who sits outside the Cantina every night said, pointing at the mountains sloping into the sea to the north, “When there is a cloud like a hat on Punta Mesco, it will rain tomorrow”.

“Grazie”, I reply, confused, as his advice directly contradicts Ema, who asserts that the weather, in fact, comes from the opposite direction, and the presence of no cloud means fair skies. Manuel, also, is another one – looking off into the distance of the vast Ligurian Sea in front of us, and with a satisfied nod, he eyes the laundry.

“You had better take that in. It’s going to rain tonight”.

I, on the other had, go online and look at the weather report, which does no good either. Liguria is a little part of Italy that acts like St. Thomas. It will be brutally, unrelentingly hot, then a small storm will pop up, clouds descend, umbrellas fly over and laundry soaked for 20 minutes, before resuming a smirking sun, seemingly amused by the inconvenience its fickle behavior has caused. Now wise to these weather games, when I’m laying out at the beach and a few drops start to fall, I follow the lead of the Italians, who sleep right on through or slink under an umbrella for a few moments. Tourists, cursing, grab their things and stomp away from the beach, and I laugh silently thinking of how much more that stomping will intensify when they get back to their hotel and the sun comes out.

It’s not an easy thing to just “run home” and grab something here. Yes, Monterosso is a small town of about 1,000 people (though in the summer it’s about 12,000), but our apartments and condominiums are built mirroring the landscape. Nestled into rocks and cliffs, an apartment without a 3-story walkup is more uncommon then one with the 147 stairs it takes me to get back home. All in all, its not a bad price to pay to be at a crystal blue sea in a few minutes, but you certainly check your bag – and your laundry and whatever weather forecasting tool you subscribe to – before you leave the house.

The same goes for grocery shopping. When you want to buy something at the market, you really have to remember that this needs to go up those same stairs with you. Which makes shopping both easy and hard - yes, you go more often, but on days when there is little in the house, making lunch is a test of ingenuity if you don't want to have to run down that mountain. Today, for example, I gave chicken a Maltese twist and fashioned some easy sides with what I had from the farmers market. It worked well, though I'm still, literally and figuratively, wrestling with my American discomfort with dismembering whole pieces of chicken.

In addition to all of these things I’ve learned, I’ve learned quite a bit of Italian. I speak fluent “itanglish” at this point, and it’s more then enough to confuse waiters, ticket office sales people, and certainly any tourists I encounter. Twice now, Italians have commented to me – in Italian of course – that there are a huge amount of foreigners in Monterosso, lamenting, shaking their heads as they think they’ve found a partner to complain with. After I inform them that I, as well, am a “stranieri”, the usual awkward laughter ensues followed by, occasionally, a comment of how “brava” I am in regards to my ability to speak Italian. Usually, that’s the point where I flee before I embarrass myself and prove them wrong with my usual confusion of the subjunctive and my penchant for making up verb gerunds, but they certainly don’t need to know that. As long as you can fake it enough, it’s usually ok for me. I’m sure there are grammatical rules I break every time I open my mouth, but I feel like what I’m learning now is how Italian people act when they speak. Faces, filler words, hand gestures and noises of agreement – clucking of tongues in disapproval and heaving sighs – they’re all different then in the United States, and I feel like, in spite of all the things I’ve learned, this is the most useful of all. Learning to think like an Italian – not in Italian, per se, but like one of the many passionate people waving their hands yelling about the weather while fashioning ingenious laundry fishing lines – is one of the most important parts of being here.

"Maltese" Fried Chicken

3 kg chicken pieces (thighs work best, but anything with skin - and fat - will work well)

olive oil

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 small white onion, diced

2 carrots, diced

2 ribs celery, diced

1 large spoonful of capers, rinsed

2 roma tomatoes, diced, with seeds and juices

1 lemon, juice only

Cumin, turmeric, clove, cinnamon, garlic powder - 1 large spoon, spice ratio depends on your taste (garam masala also works well too, provided the curry portion isn't too high)

Parsley, salt and pepper

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat along with garlic cloves. When the garlic begins to sizzle, pat dry chicken pieces, season with salt, pepper, and some of the spice mixture, and fry on one side 5-7 minutes or until they begin to brown. Turn over pieces and cook the other side in the same manner.

Once chicken is browned (but not cooked through) remove from the pan, set aside, and reduce the heat to cool the oil enough so that it won't burn the vegetables. Then add the onion, carrot, celery and capers - cook until fork tender. Add the tomatoes and lemon juice, mix all together and simmer. Put the chicken pack in the pan, skin side up. Coat the skin with the remaining spice rub, and cover, simmering the chicken in the sauce for 10 minutes. Flip the pieces over and simmer on the other side until chicken is cooked through.

Serves 4.

To serve: garnish with chopped parsley, salt and pepper. I served this lunch with a crisp green salad, chilled green beans dressed with lemon, and some sauteed zucchini and onions.

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