A bulky builder with huge working hands, fingers thick as sausages and cracked skin (the sort of hands that Tina Modotti would photograph) is holding a tiny red and white kitten when we arrive at the house in the morning. Set against the dark cupped paws of the builder, the kitten’s delicate tininess is emphasized; a quasi poetic contrast. Funny how the biggest and burliest start cooing in front of a little furball. We don’t know who it belongs to, and there is no collar, so we decide to set out some water and a little crate lined with an old soft cloth while we make inquiries in town.
We seem to be a hub for little creatures as of late. Last week we found blood stains on the walls of the freshly painted hallway. Droplets of blood directing us towards the north facing double windows lead us to discover a little bird . It kept throwing itself against the window trying to get out. The thumping sound it was making, made me queasy. Poor little thing must have been terrified and exhausted. Andrea carefully picked it up and we positioned it on the terrace for observation. It hopped about for a few seconds and then flew off.
Later on that same day, while transporting unused plastic tubes and supports to the garage, a huge toad comes rolling out of one of the larger drainage tubes. A frog was found, by the tiler, under some plastic tarp in the kitchen area. And of course there is the usual array of scorpions, spiders, ants, flies, wasps, stink bugs and more.
For the moment, our dog stays at Andrea’s dad’s place where he can run and play, carefree, until fences, gates and walls have been erected to ensure safety on this property.
We have invited a few of the workers to stay for lunch today seeing as its a mild sunny day which permits me to create a makeshift dining area outside. Our kitchen still hasn’t arrived! I set out a huge old trunk on the patio, as a stand in for a table, and cover it with a floral print tablecloth. As I unfold the cotton and flap it out, the smell of softener is released; aromatherapy. I position picnic and camping chairs around the trunk and then out come the mismatched dishes, glassware and cutlery that have dutifully accompanied us, through the years, on many picnics, campsites and relocations. I call these items my battleware.
I fire up the portable grill and the electric range and get to work on a vegetable risotto and some grilled steak sandwiches, grilled peppers and radicchio. I holler for Andrea to bring out the wine and holler at the workmen to get washed up and start heading over so I can serve the risotto immediately.
I love noisy tables, clinking cutlery, wine bottles and dishes being passed around and everyone chatting at the same time. To the untrained eye it may seem that no one is listening, but in actual fact this chaotic loud conversation runs deep and covers manifold topics.
Perched on a pallet of tiles with my feet dangling I enjoy an espresso at the end of our meal. It feels luxurious to have the warmth of the sun penetrate into my bones after a long winter. Looking at the the workers sitting around, I try to imagine what they were like as little kids. I bet the burly construction man was a lively round faced prankster, the tiler looks like he may have been shy and quite thin and pale. The roofer was most probably a handful with his tanned good looks, twinkly blue eyes and confident attitude. The others are a little harder to pin down, as I only just met them, but they probably rode around on bikes, played soccer and skinned their knees, adored their moms and hated having to dress up for church on Sundays.
Espressos downed everyone scatters. The tiler to finalize the baseboards in the living room and dining area, the stucco contractor to complete the bedrooms, the construction guy and his team to continue pouring cement into the basement and along the external perimeter and the roofer to finalize some general repairs. After tidying up from lunch, I reprise my role of sweeper, holder, bringer, taker, cleaner upper to any and all that require assistance.
As mentioned, the kitchen is supposed to be here but it is not. I was hoping to dedicate myself to its organization. I am tired of looking at the ever growing piles of boxes strewn all over the place waiting to find a home. And I really want to cook a proper meal in a proper kitchen and sit around a proper table on proper chairs. But, we are at the mercy of the delivery company and so I will just have to embrace the bohemian lifestyle for a little bit longer.
During a lull in my activities, I take the garbage down the road to the bins dedicated to plastic, paper and glass and decide to knock on some doors, on the way back, to ask about our little house guest, still curled up asleep in the basket by the back door.
At the fifth house the owner confirms knowing who the kitten belongs to and immediately places a call. About twenty minutes later, our doorbell rings and there is a young mom with her two kids anxiously awaiting their pet. I bring them inside and while the kids cover little Striscio (I discover its name) with hugs and kisses, the mom and I start chatting about the house and where we are from. And lo and behold, she speaks perfect English and Italian, having grown up in Buffalo and just recently having returned to her paternal home here in town with her husband and two kids. Small world.
The rest of the afternoon is spent moving tiles and panels, leftover planks and discarded wood so as to keep rooms and walkways as safe and orderly as possible. Most of our old wooden doors and frames (once separated from their hinges and handles) were picked up by the local association that organizes the Pignarul celebration. Every year on the 6th of January a huge bonfire is lit in the main square and a witch puppet is positioned up top. Tradition says that once the witch (that represents the past) is burned to ashes, the new year can officially be welcomed in. More importantly, the direction of the smoke from the bonfire will determine the outcome of the year’s harvest. If the smoke blows towards the east there will be an abundant harvest, but if it blows towards the west it is a bad omen.
Neighboring towns compete to see who will build the biggest and most impressive bonfire each year. Our area of Tarcento is one of the top two towns renowned for its Pignarul and people come from far and wide to participate in this ancient Celtic based tradition. You eat Pandoro and Panettone and drink Vin Brulé and hot chocolate while talking, singing and dancing around the fire. If the smoke brings auspicious news for the coming year, many times there is a giant barbecue on the remains of the original bonfire.
As you may have gathered food is central to Italians. Foodies can attest to that! The most popular events are centered around locally produced products. There is a deep rooted pride in the doc (denominazione di origine controllata) affiliation on products as there is in the MADE IN ITALY denomination.
Eating here isn’t just about survival. No! It is a way of life, a philosophy, a pleasure that makes the rest of life’s hardships bearable, a moment of escape and satisfaction, family and camaraderie.
Ancient rituals for thanking the gods of food and agriculture, find us in the 21st century throwing feasts and dances to celebrate the pumpkin, mushroom and potatoe. I personally love these celebrations because although seasons have melded (due to global warming) we can still demarcate spring, summer, fall and winter based on these sagre (feasts); each with its associated seasonal scents, colors, textures and flavours.
Some of the best events are: the Magna Longa which is a race (you can also walk and stroll it) on a course which winds its way through the vineyards and hills of Friuli. There are specific rest stops along the entire course where, you guessed it, you can enjoy food and wine. The Cantine Aperte are open cellar days where you can get a peek into some of the best and most niche cellars in the region with associated tastings, presentations and food. And there are numerous street fests with themes like: Street Food or Slow Food or Sapori (Flavours).
Calendars are marked at the beginning of each year so as to not miss the feast dates for asparagus and snails in May or prosciutto and frico in July, mushrooms in September and pumpkin in October.
Just to prove the point, at five o’clock, after the last of the workers have departed, we sit on the topmost terrace and with a chilled glass of white Friulano wine and a wooden board of Montasio cheese, bread and cipolline (miniature onions in vinegar) we chat about the day before getting cleaned up and heading out to meet friends for dinner at a local trattoria.
But for at least the next half hour, with a gentle breeze rustling the forest below, we gaze over the valley towards Nimis and Savorgnano, sipping and munching, feeling very satisfied and very thankful indeed.