Stories from Shanti
Jul 14, 2011
|On Speaking Italian
I’ve always wanted to be a trend setter. I figured being hip, cool, and American (ha) gave me the perfect opportunity to bring some Americana spice to small-town Italy. Since we consistently have guests here, I also figured that said guests can disperse my catch phrases throughout the rest of Italy. So far, I’ve attempted to get “sweet man” started. In Italian, this is “dolce uomo” (dolche womo) but translates, literally, as an older male who tastes sweet. So far, this phrase hasn’t caught on. I’ve yet to give up trying, though.
I’ve also tried bring “that’s hot” (a la Michelle, not Paris Hilton) into people’s working vocabulary. However, when I proclaim “Che caldo” (Kay caldo) all I get are blank stares or a response of “What? You’re hot?”
The one thing that has caught on, at least among the Shanti regulars, is my peace sign gesture. When I enter a room, I do my stereotypical peace sign and proclaim “Pace” (pachay) in a stoner voice. I’ve gotten people to start greeting me this way, so I consider it a success.
In terms of legitimate Italian, I have a variety of phrases, verbs, and random words memorized. I can also curse fluently (my favorite is cazzo, pronounced catzo, which emcompasses pretty much anything). With these key phrases, I can trick guests into thinking I know Italian. Unfortunately, this backfires as soon as we step out of the simple first grade greetings and questions. Nonetheless, it’s a good feeling to know that people are capable of believing that I speak Italian. I’ve also managed to have several hour-long conversations with guests in an odd Spanish-Italian mix with a sprinkling of English, which always makes me feel prouder than it probably should.
As mentioned in the “Getting to Know Shanti” post, Oliver is… interesting. His greatest regret in life is that he wasn’t born a cat; two years ago, he was “addicted” to Tylenol. While we do have normal exchanges and I’ve mostly broken him of his weirder habits, we still have the occasional odd interaction. Here is one example, which took place while we were hiking.
Oliver: I love it here, man. There’s just like, more oxygen.
Me: Yep. We’re pretty close to sea level.
Oliver: No, I mean, like, look at all the plants. It’s such a cycle of life… they take in the carbon dioxoide, they put out the oxygen… it’s such a trip. *Leans in to sniff a plant* Woah, oxygen high. See, there’s so much oxygen around that plant!
Me: … That’s not really how it works…
Oliver: No, man. You have to sniff the plant.
Me: I’m not sniffing the plant.
Oliver: Sniff the plant!
Me: I’m not sniffing the plant!
And so on and so forth. When I first got here, I thought he was just kidding around. However, unless this is an elaborate two week joke that he’s setting up, this is really how Oliver thinks.
Note: I wrote this bit about Oliver a week ago. Since then, Oliver has become my best friend here, and he’s actually hilarious. I still haven’t figured out when he’s being sarcastic, and when he’s being serious, but I no longer think he’s as weird as I originally did. Since we spend approximately 12 hours a day together, every day, we've become remarkably close in such a short period of time.
On Being American
After travelling around Europe for three weeks, and living in Italy just as long, I’ve come to realize that most Europeans don’t really grasp how big America is. I’ve tried to explain that America is a massive country, with many different regions, cultures, and subtypes, more times than I wish to remember. Oliver, in particular, seems unable to grasp the true complexity of the American regions and people. I finally snapped today and drew a map of America, with all 50 states, and then drew an overlay of Europe. I fully plan on keeping this drawing in my wallet, and using it to explain that stereotyping all Americans as one group of people is like trying to stereotype all Europeans with several descriptive words.
America does seem to have a certain glamour to it, though. People routinely tell me that I look like an American actress or think I am an American singer (confusing, but still, compliment!) because of my straight white teeth, slender frame, and blue eyes. I wish that it was this easy to be actress material in America. So, despite being a country of ignorant, fat, obnoxious cowboys, America is also a country of straight teeth, blue eyes, and rockin’ cool catch phrases.
Since a blind, deaf, mute beggar could tell that I like to flirt within 10 minutes of meeting me, it took Franco approximately 30 seconds to figure out that I like boys. Unfortunately, the nearest boy under the age of 50 (Oliver excluded, for obvious reasons), is 30 minutes away by car. Therefore, my flirting is limited to anyone who comes through the Shanti house. Unfortunately, 95% of these guests are gay, taken, or hippie. Of the remaining 5%, 4% speak only Italian and winking seductively only goes so far. The remaining 1% are scared off by Franco. A typical interaction goes like this:
Franco (all in Italian, I’m providing the loose English translation that I’ve managed to piece together): “Michelle! Come here! Ah, here she is. Ciao bella! Isn’t she pretty? Like an American actress!”
Boy: “Hello, how are you?”
Me: “Hey how ar—“
Franco: “Ah, look at them flirt! His skills are incredible! Such a love match!”
Boy: “I’m getting nervous by the strange man narrating our conversation”
Me: “Don’t wor—“
Franco: “Ah, look at her blush! He has a good job, too! But maybe he is too young! Yes, you are too young. Michelle, you must wait for a better boy! I have one coming tomorrow that will be perfect!”
Thus, the strange cycle of getting set up and then knocked down continues. I suppose it’s for the best, though. Now I can concentrate on the important things in life, like following Pippo around and painting my nails various shades of awful colors (I changed them to a jaundiced yellow after Franco made fun of the gothic look one too many times).
The Shanti house is mostly empty during the week. But, starting Thursday, we begin to fill up, sometimes hosting as many as 50 people in the various houses. Many of the guests are traveling musicians, so an hour without some sort of beat is a rare thing. We’re currently hosting a famous Italian reggae artist who uses the Shanti recording study to produce some of his albums. Last weekend, we hosted two porn stars. No joke. We’ve also hosted designers from Milan, international pilots, indie actors, graphic designers… the works.
Since it is so cheap to stay here, guests often provide offerings from their trade. My favorite so far has been a runway hair stylist from Milan who gave me a trendy new haircut. If the guests don’t bring marketable skills, they bring food. Living and working here has exposed me to the best wines, breads, cheeses, and produce that Italy has to offer.
The most interesting guest so far was a guy named Andrea who works closely with big companies like R.E.I. His job is, literally, to go to destination travel spots, scout out the best restaurants, hotels, and activities, and plan dream vacations for his clientele. Apparently, this is a rather lucrative job, because he has several houses, one of which is on Como Lake (located in the Italian Alps, and vacation destination of several VIPs, such as George Clooney and Madonna). Andrea and I got along fairly well and exchanged e-mail addresses. After he left, I received an e-mail inviting me to come visit his house at Como Lake. What started as a friendly correspondence quickly deteriorated, though, once he offered to buy me a Gucci or Prada purse “depending on his mood” after the week. Mistress, I am not.
The wildlife here is lacking compared to Colorado. There are no deer, no bears, no mountain lions. But, what it lacks in mammals, it makes up for in insects. Showering outside exposes one to slugs, spiders, and the occasional scorpion. At night, moths the size of my hand flit around. When I wake up, I perform a check to see what new bites I have; the creepiest one so far has been in my ear. We’ve begun a fly hunting game (I killed 7 in 10 minutes today). The most terrifying of the insects, though, is the ‘roided out relative of the bees. You can hear them buzzing 30 seconds before they arrive, and they are the size of small dogs. Just kidding, but they are massive and you can hear them before you can see them. I’ve been told that if you get stung several times by one, you die, but I’m hoping this was just a joke… If nothing else, this trip has destroyed the last bit of squeamishness that I possess.
The food deserves its own sub-section, beyond what I said in the other entry. Italians love their food, coffee, and wine, and are displeased if you don’t share the same passion. For example, Franco has currently revoked my coffee-making privileges because I’m incapable of making proper Italian caffé. It’s more difficult than it sounds but, essentially, you fill the bottom of a moka pot with water, put on the espresso holder, fill the holder with espresso, and then screw on the top. Some sort of magic pressurized physics happens, and Italian coffee is produced. Since we have this caffé with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I fear that if I don’t learn to make proper coffee soon, I’ll be forced to leave.
The pizza also lives up to its mythical reputation. We recently went to one of the best Italian pizza places in Liguria; one tiny old Italian grandmother in a floral apron cooked the pizza in a back oven and then brought orders to various tables housed in a giant tent. There is no menu- you either already know what you want, or they will tell you what you want. We first got a typical cheese pizza, which was awesome. After one slice, I was sated. However, this was followed by an anchovy and caper pizza (just capers for me), which was even more awesome. At this point, I was full. But, we weren’t done yet. Next came this delectable, deep-fried “pizza” that I would compare to American breadsticks if it didn’t do it such a disservice. After eating this, I hurt. Yet, more pizza still came. The last was a deep-dish pizza covered in my favorite Italian cheese-- this soft white spread called stracchino. After eating this, the waitress asked if we wanted any gelato, and I almost began to cry. Conservatively, I’d say I consumed 7,000 calories that night.
Pippo’s meals are equally mouth-watering, though. The pasta is cooked al dente, and the vegetables all come from the garden outside. Franco’s handpicked fungi are served as an appetizer, and, sometimes, we’ll have frittatts, fried potatoes, caprice salad, or just sautéed vegetables. Everything is always soaked in olive oil.
Handmade bread and cheeses are also served with each meal; we currently have a goat cheese, two different nameless cow cheeses, parmesan that has been aged 20 years, and stracchino sitting on the table. The wine is equally delectable; I always considered myself a beer girl but, after experiencing some of the best Chiantis that Italy has to offer, I’ve revised my opinion.
The desserts are my favorite part, though. Pippo made a tiramisu the other day that melts on your tongue, leaving behind a glorious dream of espresso and cream. The meringues are also a favorite; Martina will serve these vanilla pieces of heaven with a dollop of cream and cinnamon. Yesterday, Franco looked at me and commented that I’m getting “curvy.” While I don’t think I’ve gained more than 5 or 10 pounds this whole trip, it is true that I finally fill out bathing suit tops… If my shorts stop fitting, I’ll be forced to leave Italy early.
Well, on that note, I'm being called to dinner. But I'll post the final pictures in a bit, so check back in a day or two!