Monday, November 10, 2008

Musings on Food, and (different) Abilities

Thursday, October 10, 2019
11 p.m.

Inventoried the pantry today, with Evita’s help. Pretty good list! After Dolores and Zuza helped me with the canning, we have:
24 quart jars of tomatoes
15 quart jars of tomato sauce
18 quart jars of green beans
8 pints carrots
5 pints of yellow wax beans
3 pints of mixed pickled veggies
4 pints of jalapeños

There are four large bins of potatoes under the stairs (carefully screened to keep the cats from sleeping on them). Hanging from the rafters are 9 braids of onions, 5 ristras of chilies, and a basket of garlic (the hard stemmed kind, that you can’t braid.) I already put 12 tubs of pesto in the freezer earlier in the summer, before the heat turned the basil bitter. All of this makes only a minor dent in feeding us this winter—I know the satisfaction I take in the gleaming rows of jars is all out of proportion to their effect on our budget.

I can’t help but notice, as we work, what is not in the pantry. Sardines, which have become impossibly dear in the wake of ever more frequent El Niño events. Tuna fish (poor tunas! I have read they are so rare, now, they have trouble finding each other to mate.) Anchovies. I remember clearly being taught, when I was in grade school, that man would never run out of food because the sea was an inexhaustible resource! Hah. I do, however, have an abundance of dried seaweed, which is quiet good in steamed rice, and soups. And I still splurge on olive oil and on chocolate, despite the price.

Last night I butchered rabbits. Two dozen was entirely too many to take care of, so over Evita’s and Chevre’s protests (they became attached to them, just as I feared) I culled one dozen. I don’t mind dressing them, after the deed is done. I would far rather cut up warm, fresh meat than cold stiff flesh reeking of formaldehyde (memories of dissection in college and graduate school.) After a carcass is gutted, skinning is actually a rather interesting puzzle. I feel a great sense of accomplishment at getting the pelt off in one piece, with no nicks. I remember the swell of pride the first time I accomplished this, after a full year of generating tattered fragments. After skinning, each body slides into a dated zip-lock bag, and popped into the chest freezer. Cliff's friend Sheila, who keeps pet rabbits, is absolutely appalled. She refuses to come to dinner now, even if I assure her it is vegetarian. I think she views me as a monster for whacking bunnies. What can I say? In China they eat Chow Chows (or used to), and the idea of anyone eyeing Barsook as food makes me upset. 

When the hens start getting old enough to stop laying, I will have to learn to whack them as well. Scalding and plucking does not sound fun. The Tilapia are the easy. Sprinkle some fish chow in the big tank to bring them to the surface, dip in a net and haul out a nice big guy (Evita begs to wield the net), reach in and grab him firmly (this is the tricky part!), slap him on the butcher block and whack off the head. I suppose there are less dramatic ways to kill a fish. After all, in the fish store they sell them with the head still on. (What do they do, pull them out of the water and let them suffocate? Decapitation seems kinder.) Fish guts smell gross but they come out quite easily. It would be very efficient if the waste (rabbit and fish) could become pet food, but the cats won’t touch the offal for love or money. Spoiled brats! They are quite happy to come crying for their share when the good parts get cooked.

Having to put all this work into our food stock makes me much more careful about how I cook. I’ll be damned if I put all this work into raising, preparing and preserving this food only to toss leftovers in the trash. Not that there is much chance of that with Cliff, Flaco and Cintio sitting down to the dinner table (I swear each of those guys eats enough for two). And Iphan and Tenciero have started joining us for dinner once or twice a week. They were doing ok cooking on their own until a small fire resulted from Iphan taking a stab at making fried donuts. (He put the paper towels for draining the donuts too close to the burner.) After that they were rather spooked, and sometimes prefer to come over to our place. They are more than happy to do the actual cooking, even for all twelve of us, but they like having me or Dolores looking over their shoulders and letting them know all is well.

Iphan has phenomenal knife skills. He is the only person I know (short of a professional chef) who can dice vegetables and actually have them come out as perfect tiny cubes, each exactly the same size. Yet another illustration of how “differently-abled” is a better descriptor for his condition than “disabled.” And what would Russ do without his autistic employees to watch over his bees? Everyone else is scrambling to find pollinators, with all the various bacterial and fungal diseases conspiring to knock them off.

Russ has found that his “Auty Boys” (as he calls them ever so sensitively) will sit absolutely patiently for four hours on a shift, scanning the bees as they arrive back at the hive, catching and killing any that show subtle signs of disease in their morphology or behavior. I sat with Dan for two hours one afternoon, as he tried to show me what he looked for. I couldn’t see for the life of me what clued him in—he became quite cross and impatient with my stupidity! This culling, while ruthless, has given Russ one of the few healthy colonies in the area. And my skill at recruiting suitable young people from the Independent Living program give me an inside track in trading for the resulting honey—a blessing in an economy that relies increasingly on barter.

Off to a well-earned rest. Biscuits in the morning, I think, which Dolores is slowly beginning to accept as real food. Then finish my report for the Museum of the New Orleans Diaspora, and over to the fencing club to set up for the competition on Saturday. Oh the pain of trying to run competitions for groups limited to twelve! More on that later…

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Day of the Dead, Celebration of the Living

Saturday, November 2, 2019
3 am


Sitting in the laundry room again, on the drier, this time, since it is running. I like its gentle rumbling and warmth, and so do Em-dash and Stet, who are curled up at my side. Barsook is snoring on the floor.


I am happy and exhausted. Cliff is on the mend, the Bakery is restocked with flour, the grant proposal is in, the fish tanks are still running and all is right with the world. There are eleven people sleeping in the house tonight (Cliff in our bedroom, Flaco and Dolores in the guest room, Evita, Juan Pablo and Chevre bundled together in my study, Zuza and Cintio in the living room, our friends John and Julianne on the futon on the third floor.) The detritus from 60 other happy guests are scattered about the house.



Yesterday was the first Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)--a holiday celebrating the memory of friends and relatives who have died. For over a decade Cliff and I have thrown a party on DOD, at first semi-ironically adopting the trappings and traditions, and using it as an excuse for great food. Over time, and especially since the ReDS epidemic ramped up, it has become much more serious. The Offrenda is crowded with pictures of the many friends and family members we have lost. The sugar skulls bear names of people we know, not just the famous and infamous, as the collection originally began.


This year the crowd was bigger than ever. Flaco and Dolores brought many friends from the Smithsonian, including a large Mexican contingent whose contributions put my cooking to shame. Everybody pitched in, stretching the food to feed a multitude, hauling out instruments and making music on the porch deep into the night. John brought his ukelele, Cintio has a "seis" (kind of like a guitar) and Angelita, from the SI, brought a very impressive set of samba drums. Vitali brought his electric guitar and a very large amplifier. The neighbors would have complained, I'm sure--if they were not already all at the party!


We were in flagrant violation, of course, of "assembly 12" guidelines but frankly, we didn't care. And the amount of alcohol consumed was presumably sufficient to kill any microbe unwise enough to make an appearance. Everyone needed release, for one night, from the unending pressure to be responsible, to be careful, to be obedient. Day of the Dead, All Hallows Eve, Chuseok, Bon--many cultures have festivals asking the dead to protect us in life. We need this protection now more than ever. And we need to feel comfortable with death, uncertainty, chaos. We need a night to cozy up to the fearful and unknown and reassure ourselves that it is, in fact, a normal and inevitable aspect of life.


It was a raucous release of frustration, worry and fear, a celebration of life and an optimism. Evita supervised the many, many children making sugar skulls on the third floor, but foil, sequins, beads and tissue paper are scattered throughout the house none-the-less. Tenciero and Iphan helped me in the kitchen, turning out 247 tamales (Iphan counted, of course), dozens of flour tortillas, as well as iswas dulces (fresh corn tortillas) and sopapillas (fried dough.) A fierce but civil discussion about health care (or lack thereof) raged in the dining room. Lewis, on learning my neighbor Ed is an expert on the Ottoman empire, cornered him for an hour to get background for his historical novel (third in a modestly successful series). After everyone had moderately too much beer, some of the fencing crew got their equipment from the cars and staged a demonstration on the second floor balcony. (Conveniently just big enough to accommodate a standard fencing strip.)



Finally it wound down, people drifting off into the mild night clutching sugar skulls, pitching marigolds at each other, singing the tail ends of songs. A dozen or so of us remained, sipping home-made wine in front of the fire, washing up in fits and starts, talking quietly about the lost ones we honored this year, and speculating on what this next year would bring.


At last I extinguished the last candles, checked on Cliff (he is still weak, though much improved, and conked out early) and came down here to meditate awhile before heading to the Bakery. I'm contemplating how this celebration exemplifies much has changed, in the last ten years, and how much remains the same. There are so many people missing--dead, displaced, or afraid to attend a large gathering--and more new faces than I could have imagined. It is so much more complicated to find the food to feed such a crowd, arrange transportation, ensure the police turn a blind eye (fortunately the local patrol is very, very fond of Badger Bakery cupcakes.) Ten years ago I did almost all the work myself, with Cliff, John and Julianne pitching in. This year all our house guests, and a dozen others, started in on Friday afternoon and made quick work of everything.



Well, off to the Bakery for a few hours, ensuring that Pruittiporn and the boys (who went home early for a few hours sleep) actually show up and are functional after the modest amount of alcohol I let them consume. Then home for a long nap myself, and a good brunch and a proper day of practice, not these short stints of bouting I have been getting in.

Oh, and before being dragged off to bed, Evita whispered to me my Spanish word for the day--"puta." I really am going to have to supplement my vocabulary, or I am only going to be suited for the very rudest of conversations. Goodnight.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

On Illness, and Adopted Families

Wednesday, October 30, 2019.
3 a.m.
Sitting on the washing machine, writing. Even the laundry room is an uncertain place of refuge, now. My Ecuadoran guests can't seem to grasp that I actually WANT TO BE ALONE sometimes, and if they notice I am holed up here, writing, happily come it and plop themselves down to talk, knit, mend or read me the newspaper. Evidently they feel that for people, solitude is an profoundly unnatural state.

But I need time to just breath, think and figure things out. My world is so fragile--the whole network of support, supply, relationships that binds together my life, family and friends seems strong until one thread snaps, and the whole superstructure begins to sway. How can I mend the pieces?

Cliff is ill...not ReDS, thank heavens, but that nasty virus Gilles came down with in Tuscany. Night sweats, fever, coughing, vomiting, aching all over. Oh for the days when we could simply trot off to the doctor and be sent to the hospital if needed! Now the calculus is much more complicated--will going to the hospital expose him to something even worse? Will waiting until it gets even worse mean a visit to the emergency room, which, from what I hear, is in the running for one of Dante's circles of hell? And how can I stay healthy to help? I was already getting by on five hours sleep, spread over the course of the day between supervising the bakery, managing the fencing club and trying to get some of my consulting work done. Any less and my body will just rebel.

Today I put in a request for a visiting nurse-practitioner. (Who ever thought there would be a resurgence of house calls!?) The nice scheduling volunteer explained that this could take anywere from a day to a week, and in any case, if it is Gilles' virus, what can they do? Give him something to keep the fever down, make him more comfortable, until it works its way through his system. And hope, in the meanwhile, it doesn't leave him vulnerable to something worse. He looks awful--has lost at least fifteen pounds from his already lean frame. His breath is labored, and I am afraid if he has an asthma attack it will mean a emergency room run despite the dangers and frustrations.

Thank heavens for Zuza and Dolores--I don't know what I would have done without them. I have to finish a grant proposal to continue funding skill-mentors and training for my Badger Bakery crew. Iphan, Tenciero, and Pruittiporn are doing pretty well despite their disabilities, but only because of the support I have managed to patch together providing medication, counselling and training. Another fragile network. Without my Ecuadoran guests I would have faced a terrible choice--my husband or "my kids?" But Zuza and Dolores are treating Cliff like their own brother. Heck, they are pampering him more than I would! Coaxing him with fresh, hot soup. Rigging a steam tent to help with his breathing, massaging his feet with some special herbal oil. (I did draw a line at going farther than the feet...)

I feel ashamed, now, that I was trying to nudge Zuza and Cintio out the door. Even though the house now is bursting at the seams, with six adults and three children, this "family" is pulling together to take care of its own. Little Evita has taken on taking care of the rabbits and the basement fish tanks entirely, and has begun taking the extra eggs to market. (I thought eight is a little young, but Dolores seems to think it entirely appropriate.) Even Flaco and Cintio are being helpful, popping over to the bakery to check on the boys early in the morning. They are still total slobs, leaving clothes all over the place and expecting that "the women" will pick up after them, but I find it hard to stay mad at them. I think I will simply make sure that little Evita's reading includes Simone du Beauvoir. Well, maybe I should start her on old Wonder Woman comics, first.

My thoughts just keep running in circles. What is the use of all my Zen practice if I can't quiet my mind, and accept that I can't control what will happen? It is so hard, faced with real adversity, to believe Joko Beck's teaching that whatever happens is "o.k." I will take a firm seat, recite the sutra on "full awareness of breathing" and then curl up down here to get some sleep. Tomorrow will bring what it brings...but I know it will include a house full of people who care for each other very much.



Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Chaos at Badger Bakery

Sunday October 27, 2019

I don't know whether to laugh, or cry! Or rather, I know I should cry, but I can't help giggling all the same. I arrived at the Bakery this morning at 4 a.m., a little earlier than Tenciero expected. The look on his face! Guilt, surprise, and defiance combined. I only caught a brief glimpse of Iphan as he fled into the back. Pruittiporn was the only one with a clean conscience, and she coaxed Tenciero through his confession.


I suppose it could be worse. Last Wednesday, while I labored in Tuscany destemming grapes, Tenciero left Iphan on his own for a few hours to work on the bread. Now, on the face of it, this was a reasonable act of trust. Iphan is quite good at making dough, and is very conscientious about following instructions. His problem, related to his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is that sometimes he gets caught in a loop of actions, and doesn't stop when he should. Tenciero returned to find four times the number of loaves we would normally turn out for a day!


Poor boy, I have to give him credit for dealing with a bad situation. Clearly they couldn't sell all that (however good the Radiant Rye Bread and Perfect Pumpernickle, there are limits to the market.) So he called Pruittiporn and together they hauled the extra down to So Others May Eat to distribute to the homeless. The street residents of D.C. got an abundance of fresh hot loaves for once, instead of the unsold loaves we take down three times a week. And I guess I take a tax writeoff.
The biggest issue is that this throws off my schedule for restocking flour, the procurement of which is an elaborate and fragile arrangement. The grain I have sourced from Eastern Virginia. It comes up via New Pony Express when I send a pigeon down to tell Elana how much I need, and when. I send back honey in return, from Russ' bees. Russ gets a free supply of cakes and muffins throughout the year. Then I have to truck the wheat out to Colvin Run Mill in Fairfax County. (I coordinate with two other bakeries in town, so we can share gas whenever possible.) Thank heavens the Park Authority had the foresight to preserve Colvin Run as a working mill all these years. The volunteers who kept it running through the decades preserved the vital skill of milling grain into flour harnassing the abundant (and free) power of the river. The current miller, Umi-Shakti, is quite happy to trade labor for a combination of bread, honey, and a selection of fresh herbs from Sheila's market garden. Sheila, in turn, gets her crops pollinated from Russ' incredibly valuable little pollinators. (Russ, being her neighbor, provides this service for free, since the bees gotta eat, after all.)
So today was spent hustling out messages to get this started a week earlier than expected. Meanwhile, I am carefully calculating what I have on hand to take me through to next weekend. I am thinking there will be a lot of Wholesome Whole Wheat on the menu for a few days.
Vitali is back in operation, teaching lessons at the fencing salle, so I can go back to just practicing instead of teaching the little tykes to lunge, parry, riposte. I kind of liked it while it lasted, though I know V. thinks I am (after thirteen years of study) still unqualified to teach anything, with the possible exception of footwork. At least my Russian has improved...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Home again--but so much has changed!

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Woke up in my own bed this morning, Em-dash and Stet wheezing on top of me, Cliff still dead to the world. Had one brilliant moment when I thought all was back to normal, and I could pad upstairs to do yoga. This illusion was shattered by a piercing shreik and the thunder of feet on the stairs. The cats peeled off so fast they left claw marks on my tummy through the sheets, and Barsook, from the first floor, launched into his "fire! theft! murder! alarm!" barking.

We came home to not five, but seven house guests. Dolores and Flaco invited their cousins, Cintio and Zuza, to come stay. When we walked in the back door at midnight, stressed from the 20 hour trip back from Italy (not counting the eight hours it took to reach Pisa, manuvering through a trucking strike that blocked the highways) I blew up. Uncharacteristic for a repressed New Englander but heavens, what a mess! Flaco and and Cintio were drinking and playing guitar on the porch, Zuza and Dolores were cleaning up a massive mess in the kitchen from what had apparently been a dinner for 20 or so Latin American friends from the Smithsonian and the OAS. Evita was trying to get Juan Pablo and Chevre to bed, with notable lack of success. And worst of all, they had LET THE CATS OUT. Fortunately Em-dash, once out, succumbed to the inevitable feline desire to be on the other side of the door, and was howling on the back stoop. After a short, frantic search, we found Stet under the neighbor's car. Dolores thinks I am insane for insisting they are indoor pets (what a concept!) It was 2 a.m. before everything calmed down and we got to bed. Zuza and Cintio are sleeping on the couches downstairs, for now. I couldn't very well toss them out in the middle of the night with nowhere to go. They intend to stay for two more weeks--but I insist, not here! Today we will explore options.

To make things worse, I think Cliff is coming down with what Gilles had in Pizano. Though that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. My last anguished radio broadcast to the embassy on Wednesday night, telling them they might have a dead American on their hands (ok, so I exaggerated a little) provoked an entirely satisfactory response. The next morning, we were waked by a clattering roar, and ran outside to the inprobably sight of a U.S. army humvee trundling through the Villa gates. I would have sworn you couldn't get one of those behemoths down the road to Crespine as narrow as the track is, in places, between overhanging trees. On the trip out that puzzle was explained--the driver simply went off road into the vineyards or olive groves when she had to. I feel guilty about this--poor Simonetta! She lends me her radio and this is the destruction she gets in return.

Even the army couldn't make getting to Pisa through the trucking strike any faster, but the very, very nice (and well dressed) Mr. Amistead from the embassy did a bang up job getting us all through the health authorities, customs and security and onto a plane bound for JFK with minimum fuss. They even had a doctor waiting to check on Gilles (and it was not ReDS, just a very bad case of pneumonia) and put him on an immediate course of antibiotics. The steward (once assured that Gilles was ReDS free) made an enormous fuss over him the whole flight, plying him with tea and hot soup. Well, Gilles is very cute, in a Byronic way. Chris was getting irritated and started to snipe, but I kicked the back of his seat, and reminded him, in a fierce whisper, that this was a useful flirtation.

No rest today. Besides settling where Cintio and Zuza are going to stay, I have to go check on Tenciero and Iphan at the bakery. Dolores reassured me that everything seemed to be going well, so I am cautiously optimistic. And at least the tilapia didn't die this time, the last straw would have been coming home to a basement full of rotting fish...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In which we sneak into Siena for a covert museum meeting

Thursday, October 17, 2019
Panzano, Italy


Well, this has been some day! James arranged for us to catch a ride on a produce truck into Siena, and he took the bus from Firenze along with one of his young colleagues. As he explained later, the museum situation in Firenze had become so volatile that it was just as well that most of the original meeting participants could not attend.

The trip itself was a revelation. I felt like I was transported into some WWII movie. There actually were whole families traipsing out of the city on foot, on bicycle, on scooters, trekking down the 1A. My perch on top of a crate of Black Tuscan Kale felt luxurious by comparison. (Do I have to confess that I nicked a pear? Mea Culpa. It was delicious.)

Siena feels like a medieval city again, partially emptied this time by riot in addition to plague (several areas of the old town have been quarantined for ReDS. The city lost about a quarter of its population to the Black Death in 1348 CE--what a return to the past!)

We met up with James and Peter at the Orto Botanico dell'Università di Siena, a beautiful botanic garden in the middle of the city. Walking through the university campus, signs of unrest were everywhere. Students and professors were holding classes in the street, in defiance of the university closure. Periodically the police would come and shoo them off in a perfunctory manner, but they always reassembled. I had the feeling the officers were actually rather sympathetic.

video




From the botanic garden we walked to the museum of the Elephant Contrada, a beautiful structure built over two Etruscan tombs and an ancient grain cistern, all of which can be accessed from the lowest floor. The museum contains the banners won by the Elephants over the years in the annual Palio, or horse race. The Contradas were originally neighborhoods, but it seems to me that they function as clans, and very close-knit clans at that. We had the use of the museum because Peter had married into an Elephant family, making him "one of their own." (As an outsider, he actually had to sign a pre-nup agreeing that any children born to his wife would be raised as Elephants!)

James described the political situation in Firenze, which is rather grim. A number of the museums, notably the Palazzo Strozzi, have transitioned to semi-private status over the past decade. Contrary to the old Italian model, they are not governmental museums but are run by public/private boards. But, unlike the US, their funding is not broad based. The entities that appoint representatives to the boards (the state, city government, and major companies) provide the money and exhert a lot of control. And the politics of Firenze are such that everyone owes everyone favors. The president of the board of the Palazzo (who sits on every other major museum board as well) is the brother of the Mayor of Firenze. The Mayor is rabidly anti-immigration, and has been trying to whip up popular sentiment against granting residency to non-Italians, much less providing temporary housing for refugees and displaced persons. Through his brother, the board chair, he is pressuring museums in the city to mount exhibits and programs supporting this agenda. And he has solicited the support of the representatives of the major companies represented on most of the museums' boards.

Needless to say, the museum staff are not inclined to go along with this. But, other than mass resignation, what is their alternative? James wants my help in bringing the issue to international attention. If we can make it clear, as a very indirect, polite threat, the PR damage that would be done if this became public, the Mayor might well back off. We had a very productive hour making lists of who to recruit to this cause. The ICOM directorate, of course. They are great on righteous indignation. The American Association of Museums and their counterpart in the UK. I can also get the ear of Ludmilla Esteban, the noted international patroness of the arts. She is a passionate advocate of refugee rights, and when she speaks, the press listens. This could actually be fun. For me, at least, at a safe remove, assuming I find a way home. Poor James has to suffer the politics! But he seems more than capable of doing so. Indeed he seems to have thrived on the Italian social and political scene since his arrival over a decade ago.

Now, back at the Villa, we are nursing Gilles with increasing concern. ReDS or not, he is not well, and is having trouble breathing. I made another trip to Simonetta's house to use the short wave radio, attempting to get a message to the US Embassy. I think I got through...but what can they do to help?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Trading Labor for Food

Villa Crespine, Panzano, Italy
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Today’s lesson: lifting weights is nothing compared to destemming grapes when it comes to stressing the shoulders. If we had any hot water, I would be taking a long, hot bath. As it is, I settled for a freezing but refreshing plunge in the pool. What a weird blend of luxury and deprivation the villa is—a pool with a heavenly view across the valley, but no heat. Gardens of roses, geraniums, lavender and rosemary, but no refrigeration. I suppose this was what Tuscan villas were like in the Roman era—except we have flush toilets, and they had more functional heating systems!



My stint as a day laborer at Castello di Amore was very illuminating. I had wondered why the manager was willing for Nancy to bring me along, without papers, to help out. The answer is very simple, though it took me awhile to catch on. Racism. There are indeed plenty of legal day laborers available, but most of them are from North Africa. Examining the exclusively white hands processing the grapes, and remembering the crowds of young black men and women haunting the roadsides and markets, looking for work, it was impossible to miss the point. I wonder—is this based on a semi-rational concern about ReDS (which is prevalent among North African immigrants), or simply concern that the precious vintage not be touched by non-whites? I think in part the racial tension arises from resentment that some of the local vineyards have been sold to African immigrants. With the Italian birth rate having been below replacement level for over a decade, and with many young Italians moving out of the rural areas into the city, this was inevitable. The other buyers tend to be rich Americans or English citizens, retiring to be gentleman farmers, who are much more readily accepted by the Italians, but are less dedicated to maximizing the productivity of the land.

The outcomes of the day: a) my realization that I am utterly unsuited for the mind numbing exhaustion of manual labor (even in the beautiful setting of a medieval vineyard) and b) enough food for a week, thank heavens. I was right that the student unrest would continue to drive compatriots our way. Riding home in the back of the farm truck after the day’s work, we passed two dusty travellers on the road from Panzano, and pounded on the roof of the cab to make Guilermo stop when we recognized the wayfarers. It was Chris and Giles, who were caught in Venice when the unrest started to spread. They took the train most of the way, then took the same bus that transported Penny and Frank.

Giles has a terrible cough, which on the truck we attributed to the ubiquitous dust. After they were settled at the Villa, it became clear it was more systemic—he is pale and tired as well, and Chris says he has been unwell for over a week. This provoked a very awkward exchange, as Nancy, after some verbal dancing, asked to see their ReDS clearance papers. I thought for a moment that Chris was going to blow up and storm out, from offense at being asked, but Gilles was already asleep, exhausted from the trip, and where would they go? So he dug out their paperwork and practically flung it at Nancy, who none-the-less read it carefully, and checked the dates of the last tests. Now we are settled in a tense equilibrium, Nancy cooking dinner with Penny, while Frank and Cliff try to coax Chris into civil conversation, and I shuttle between the two groups, trying to build bridges of conversation and ply everyone with wine.

Tomorrow we are going to hike up the road to Simonetta’s house. She has a short wave radio, and Nancy and I are going to try to get a message to James in Firenze, and see if the meeting is, by some miracle, still on, and if he has any ideas about how to get me into the city. It may be foolish to persist, but I am feeling stubborn. Having been dragged into this ridiculous, and potentially dangerous situation, I want to at least accomplish what I came for. And I am becoming even more sympathetic to the Palazzo’s position, and interested in helping them resist the political pressure that has been brought to bear…If museums can’t speak out for social justice, who can?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

In which Penny and Frank wash up at the Villa gate


Tuesday October 15, 2019

It truly is an amazingly small world. Early yesterday evening as Nancy, Dan, Gary, Cliff and I sat down to dinner (pasta with sage pesto, pecorino and olives on the side), we heard shouting from the gate. After an awful moment of looking at each other (should we ignore it? Run into the olive groves to hide?) we cranked up the flashlight and cautiously ventured forth.

It was Penny and Frank, who know Nancy and the rest of us from way back. They were lugging rollerboard suitcases, which of course couldn’t roll worth a damn on these dirt/rock roads, covered with dust and exhausted. Penny was nearly hysterical, and it was all we could do to get them into the house, get some food into them and put them in bed. The next morning, fortified by coffee and scrambled eggs, they were able to give their story. They flew into Pisa a day after we did (just before the airport was shut down entirely), coming to visit their son Francis, in Firenze. The rental car company was entirely out of vehicles, so they tried to take the public bus—it took them all day to get halfway, since the authorities had instituted check points, looking for leaders of the student riots who had fled arrest. When they reached Pisano they gave up, disembarked and started walking for Villa Crespine. (Having visited Nancy before, they knew the way, though even armed with that memory they lost their way in the dark twice.)





Nancy and I have been taking inventory all day. Unfortunately Italians don’t stock a lot of prepared food, having a tradition of shopping at market every day or so for fresh ingredients. Which is fine when there are fresh ingredients, and you can get to market, neither of which pertains right now. The Pisano market is held once a week, on Sundays. We can walk in and back (about three miles round trip) but since the power is off more often than on, that means no reliable refrigeration. Fruit and veggies last ok for at least four days, and there are abundant pears, plums, grapes, lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, eggplant, kale, and some other basics. Nancy has plenty of flour stocked, and when we can get eggs we can make pasta. The villa has abundant fig trees, walnuts and almonds, all with ripe fruit and nuts just now. Herbs just grow wild on the grounds—you stroll around crushing oregano and fennel underfoot, and there are huge hedges of rosemary and sage planted along the stone paths. Unfortunately the main crop is olives, which is damn frustrating, looking at all those lovely olives, black and glossy and yet completely inedible before they undergo extensive processing. The markets at other "nearby" towns, such as Rada, are inaccessible without gas for the cars. Nancy and I are going to go volunteer at a nearby vineyard, destemming grapes as they are harvested, in trade for more flour, olive oil and eggs. In my case this is completely illegal, as I don’t have a work permit. The owner of the vineyard will turn a blind eye because Nancy is a friend and, frankly, they need the help.



Got word via email to Dolores, my brothers, and other key folks back in the States that we are well, though trapped. Andy is going to start making noises with the State Department to see if they are planning to help extract Americans trapped by the riots, but I don’t think anything will happen soon. So, we had better keep working on the food supply. I have a feeling that more folks will keep showing up…

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How to Get Trapped in a Tuscan Villa

3 a.m., Sunday, October 13, 2019

What insanity! We landed in Pisa yesterday afternoon. Banking in over the Mediterranean, we could see hundreds of small craft circling the port, and farther out, a dozen or so large ships (tankers? Container transports?) stalled at the edges, seemingly baffled by the boats buzzing off their bows. On landing, we cleared customs in no time (honestly—they didn’t care—glanced at our passports and ReDS certificates and waved us on through). As soon as we exiting to baggage claim it was chaos. The airport, which is pretty small, was jammed with travelers in various states of panic—businessmen, couples, families complete with babies and grandmothers, some dragging dogs or carrying cats in carriers, all with mounds of luggage, waving health certificates and passports, shouting hysterically at the airline personnel.

My first inane words (which Cliff, blessedly, did not hear) were “well, this is not good.” And indeed it wasn’t. Turns out two sets of protests have combined to create utter panic—the dockworkers were striking, and doing a rather good job of blockading the port. (They were the ones piloting the small craft holding off incoming ships.) The Italian (coast guard? Navy? The T.V. showed lots of very serious looking sailors on boats, all carrying impressive weaponry) were trying to drive them off, but strikers inside the port were threatening to blow up the fuel storage tanks if the authorities took action, so, stalemate. Inside the city, university students were rioting to protest…something. Since neither Cliff nor I speak Italian the specifics of the situation eluded us, but the important point was clear—a) we were not going to get a flight back to the States and b) we could not go to our hotel in the city, as planned. (We were going to stay for three days before proceeding to Firenze for the meetings at the Palazzo Strozzi.)




The roads into the city were blockaded, and the carabinieri stationed outside the airport were directing all traffic onto the autostrada towards Firenze or Livorno. James, when I called to see if he could find us a place to stay in Firenze, told us the students were rioting there, as well, and he could not guarantee it was safe. (At least he explained why they are up in arms—the government closed the universities, ostensibly to reduce the spread of ReDS, but the students contend it is an excuse to lay off faculty and cut student support.) Which left us, where? Stuck in Italy with a rental car, a map, and nowhere to go.

Except…one of the wonderful things about my career is that it has left me with friends literally everywhere. A bit of thought (aided by a cappuccino and a very nice almond pastry from the café in the rental car building) retrieved the fact that my friend Nancy retired to a small town in Tuscany some five years ago, where she is a caretaker for a villa owned by a rich German. Unfortunately, by this time the cell signal was down again, so we set off for Panzano armed with an excellent map and fortified with two prosciutto sandwiches (also from the café) that smelled really, really good. (They didn’t last 10 kilometers, despite our resolve to save them for later. And they were excellent. Evidently the food disruptions have not yet affected the Italians’ talent for selling decent grub from even the smallest and humblest shop.) We could only hope that Nancy was in residence (and that Herr owner was not.)


First challenge—the rental car company had only been able to give us a few litres of gas, and some vague suggestions, in broken English, for where to find more. The first three stations had nothing, and by that point we had to start deviating from the direct route to Panzano to search. By the time we did fill up (using up a good deal of our precious stash of Euros—we had not been able to get near the ATM at the airport) it was nearly dark. Finally, after many missed turns and doubling back, we trundled into Panzano at nearly eight o’clock at night, with no clue how to proceed from there. Still no cell phone signal.

Bless small towns. Cliff, being from a teeny one in Vermont, found Nancy by the simple expedient of walking into the first open café we could find, just off the village square in Panzano, and asking. When I expressed skepticism at this plan, he explained that having been there five years everyone would know Nancy, the details of her family, her health, her past jobs, and (quite likely) her views on politics and religion. And he was right—they provided directions (and better, a hand drawn map on a paper napkin), and asked us to deliver us three pounds of coffee she had ordered. (We would find out later this was part of an extensive network of black market trading that kept the locals supplied with goods no longer obtainable through the stores. That coffee had been “bought” with two bushels of figs from the trees on the villa’s grounds.)

Villa Crespine is about a mile and a half outside Panzano, down a truly execrable dirt road, worn in places to bedrock. We turned down two wrong spurs, bumping along between olive groves and vineyards, nearly bottoming out the car, before finding the correct dusty, steep, unmarked road leading to Crespine. By this time it was pitch dark (and I mean pitch—there must have been another power outage, as we could not even see the lights of Panzano, on the ridge across the valley.) I got out of the car and walked ahead with a flashlight, looking for the gate. Was scared nearly to death when a cingiale (wild boar) startled across the road in front of me and went snorting off into the underbrush.

But, here we are, safe, though shaken, warming ourselves in front of a nice, smoky, fire, eating salami, bread and olives and sipping some really awful red wine. (And I thought all Italian wine was at least decent!) Nancy was wonderful, welcoming us with open arms, and Herr owner is most fortunately in Frankfurt, dealing with his failing business. Our friends Gary and Dan are here, too. They were already visiting, coming up from Milan after Dan keynoted at an international cancer conference. We should be safe for a few days at least while we figure out what to do next. (And how to get word to Flaco, Dolores and our friends back in DC that we are ok.)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Day 3: A Visit from the Authorities

Damn, what a day. The border hounds came today for an unannounced spot check of the Cabezas. Thank god they weren’t from child welfare—that inspection we might have flunked. Chevre, was puking all morning (thus showing her affinity to the cats, who do the same with no compunction. In fact, Em-dash hovered in interested sympathy whenever Chevre started to heave.) Dolores, convinced that this was due to the bizarre food I had fed them for breakfast (biscuits and gravy) was torn between her politeness as a guest and her wrath as a mother. Flaco was yelling at Juan Pablo, who had let the rabbits out. Cliff, overwhelmed, had retreated to the bedroom, and I to do arm work on the porch. So the inspectors walked up the path to see me taking my frustration out on the target hung by the front door. Not, perhaps, the best impression. I was most impressed, and perturbed, by the fact that they carried side arms. They expected, what, deadly force resistance to checking of papers, etc? Still, I put my foil down in a hurry.

And it turned out to be not just another verification of paperwork, but a whole new round of blood tests as well. Evidently the original clean, negative samples for the Cabezas were misplaced, and they needed new samples on file. Chevre and Juan Carlos were compliant, having had to deal with this their whole short lives. Evita pitched an absolute fit, howling and crying, rolling about on the floor. I thought Barsook was going to go after the agents on her behalf—not a good thing, given their armament. In the end, Evita consented to having her blood drawn while hugging the chow, and burying her head in his considerable fur. Barsook, in turn, fixed the female agent taking the blood sample with an inimitable chow stare, making it quite clear that Evita was Under His Protection. By the time the Feds left, I had a migraine and retreated to the laundry room for a little peace. Barsook escorted them out and peed on the gate.

The laundry room is about the only peaceful place left in the house. I am appalled, in retrospect, to realize how much space Cliff and I had to ourselves her. We have fit a whole extra family in, three children and all, and the house is merely full, not crowded. Cliff and I still have the master bedroom and bath to ourselves. Flaco and Dolores have the guest room, and share the bath with the littlest ones, who sleep together in what was Cliff’s study. Evita has my meditation room on the third floor. Cliff firmly insisted the big space up there remain the exercise room, but it is rapidly filling with children’s toys, mixing plush animals and toy soldiers with the free weights and yoga props. As long as Cliff has a clear path to his rowing machine, he is happy, but the clutter is driving me nuts.

So, the plane flight tomorrow will seem peaceful by comparison, I hope. Much as I hate, hate, hate airport security and health screening these days, at least I can retreat to a corner with my laptop and iPod and get a little writing done. It is a night flight to Pisa, so I plan to sleep on the plane. Speaking of sleep, I had better get some now. A good practice tonight, but tiring. As I get older, my opponents seem to get younger and younger. Makes it all the more fun to beat them! And so, Ibuprofen and good night.

Oh, and my word for the day, courtesy of Evita, is "pendajo." I think I am glad that the agents did not speak Spanish...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Day 2: Settling In

Are all Latin American men male chauvinist pigs? I am, doubtless, showing my age even using that term. Flaco headed out for the Smithsonian this morning, eager to establish a foothold in the mammal range. He found a car pool that can take him to Suitland, close enough to use a bicycle, stashed at a coworker's house, to pedal to the Museum Support Center. Dolores stayed home to enroll Evita at Sheridan, and meet Luba, the uber-grandmother who will be caring for Juan Pablo and Chevre for part of each day. Luba is Ukrainian, one of Vitali’s network of friends and relatives—the “third wave” of immigration from Kiev and its surroundings. Funny how certain ethnic groups seem to get a lock on specific professions. Ten years ago all the IT staff at Cliff’s association were Burmese, all the D.C. cab drivers, from Ethiopia and all the nannies in the neighborhood from Mexico or Guatemala. Now all the “бабушки” come from Ukraine, or Belarus.

Theoretically, this is the carefully orchestrated dance: Flaco and Dolores work a staggered schedule—he goes in early, comes home mid-afternoon. She hands off the little ones to Katerina at lunch and heads for the herbarium, Flaco gets back at 3 to take over as Evita gets back from school. That leaves an affordable portion of nanny-time. She looks all grey and cuddly, but I suspect Luba is capable of being a dragon. Good thing, too, as I have premonitions of Flaco getting home later and later, as he struggles to drag himself away from his beloved potos. Dolores would let him get away with this. Луба не будет позволять ему делать это. (Why didn’t I study Spanish all these years rather than Russian? That wouldn’t have helped with my fencing lessons, though.)

I am just as glad to get out of the way and let them work it all out. This is, in fact, one of the few things that can reconcile me to flying to Italy on Thursday. What in heaven’s name was I thinking when I accepted this assignment? James is a dear, and I know he has a soft spot in his heart for the Palazzo Strozzi, but really, the Italian museum “mafia” could work this mess out without me. Mostly they want to be able to say that they had some big shot American consultant at the table for the negotiations—they don’t actually care what I have to say. Or think they don’t! Since I’m going, I’m going to make darn sure they are going to listen to me.

A tiny piece of progress with Evita today. I asked if she would help me with my Spanish by teaching me one word a day—her choice. Shy she may be, but a wicked sense of humor lurks behind those brown eyes. My first word of the day is “mierda.” At least she is teaching me useful vocabulary. When I made the request I had resigned myself to learning to converse about dolls and hair ribbons. She has enthusiastically promised to take good care of Barsook while we are gone, and somewhat more reluctantly taken on the cats. Dolores (of course Dolores, Flaco wouldn’t think of it) is taking rabbit and fish duty.

Well, too much to do. Tenciero will supervise at the Bakery while I am gone, which has sent Iphan into a sulking fit. But really, I can’t trust Iphan to run the shop during the day when he can’t make eye contact with the customers, much less small talk. People sense that Tenciero is a little “off”, but he puts such earnest good will into his efforts that they tend to overlook his social gaffes. I have to leave him a detailed list, however, of everything that has to be done, in precise chronological order. Knowing that he will, indeed, follow it precisely and unvaryingly is in some ways a comfort, but scary in others. What if he needs to adapt, and vary the routine? Well, the whole idea behind this staffing scheme was to help Tenciero, Iphan, Isabella and the others become self-sufficient. I suppose that entails leaving them to manage on their own at some point.

So, finish the “how to open and close Badger Bakery” instructions. Wire the blades I am taking with me. (Too fun, getting my tail whipped by Italian fencers! Though surely they can’t all be prodigies, Valentina Vezzali not withstanding.) Pack my respirator, sanitary wipes, health documentation, decent snacks for the plane and download a good book. Email Allison and remind her she agreed to open the fencing salle for early practice while I am gone, since Vitali is still laid up. My life begins to seem complicated when I try to disentangle the pieces like this, even for a week…

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

My story, part I (October 7, 2019)

My long-term “guests” arrived today, and I am already having uneasy second thoughts about whether this is going to work. Dr. Profesor Magnifico (Flaco) Cabeza and Dra. Dolores Fuertes de Cabeza are very nice people. They are from Ecuador, both former staff from the Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales (Ecuadorian Museum of Natural Sciences) in Quito. He is a mammalogist, she is a botanist. My friend John knows them through a collections care course he taught in Quito, and when they needed a place to stay in DC, he talked me and Cliff into opening up our house.

If it were just a matter of housing two nice young scientists, I bet this would work fine. But they come with children! Ok, I might as well confess right now—I am not generally fond of children. A normal person would reflexively call Evita (8), Juan Pablo (5) and Chevre (2) “adorable.” I reserve judgment—they are beautiful, and shy, and for now I am just relieved that they are quiet and well-behaved. It is difficult for a couple who has never had children to adjust to having little ones become part of the household. Cliff always said he wanted to be a dad, but I am not sure that his instincts have ever been developed! And I, evidently, have none. The cats are extremely cautious (perhaps rightly so). Only Barsook, our chow, took to them right away, nosing them in the face (they are just the right height) and offering them his paw. Juan Pablo and Chevre, however, are terrified, calling him a bear (“oso”) and hiding behind Dolores’ legs. Evita seems cautiously enthralled, and Barsook has been following her everywhere.

And the paperwork! Residency permits to allow them to register to stay in our house. Health certificates to document that they are ReDS-free. Affadafits to immigration and naturalization attesting to their good character and intent to return to Quito when their Smithsonian residencies are up. As I signed these last papers, I had grave reservations, since I suspect it is a lie. Why would they return to Ecuador in these circumstances? The museum is closed for the indefinite future. Even if it reopens I doubt they would have money to pay Flaco and Dolores a decent salary. The threat of ReDS is much worse down there, and the school system is falling apart. For now I have resolved to turn a blind eye to that, and do what needs to be done to secure them for the present.

I am nervously rechecking my calculations on food, trying to reassure myself that all the work that Cliff and I have done to ramp up production will add enough to commercially available food to cover five more people. By digging up the entire yard we have captured 1200 square feet for the veggie garden. I have added three more rabbit hutches in the basement. (Heaven help me if the children try to treat them as pets. Maybe, coming from Quito, they are used to distinguishing cute animals as food from cute animals as friends?) The tilapia tank is up and running again, after last month’s disaster (the basement still smells faintly of rotten fish, but that is fading). I have ordered a dozen chicks and am plotting how to shuttle them in and out of the house each day. Technically illegal, by local zoning, but Ursula gets away with it. Then again, Ursula gets away with everything. As far as I know she still has avoided ReDS testing (on ideological grounds) and has not registered the three “relatives” who have come to live with her.

I had better get to bed—up at three to check on the boys at Badger Bakery. Iphan is a dear, but he does tend to get mesmerized by the industrial mixer, and forgets to take the dough out to rise. More later.