Penguin Dress Code

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My great-uncle E. Hideousheart was the brother of my grandfather, who died very young in the early 50s, therefore I’ve never met him. For this reason, and because he brought up my dad when his mother had moved north to work as a cleaning lady for a rich family of Jew furriers, he represented the closest thing to a grandfather figure I could think of.

His second wife was a real Tuscany woman. A bit grim, frank and touchy. I admired her strength and independence.

I’ve been  a story about when this little woman approached some bricklayers who were working at a building on a boulevard in the center of Florence and asked them how much the house was being sold, and started negotiating the price. It eventually became their house they lived in for many decades, until they died.

She even disinherited her stepson, like Sting.

Tuscans make great comedians, but don’t dare teasing them, or trying to be funny. They have no sense of humour when the joke comes from someone else. Their attitude was already renown in 1765 when Tobias Smollett wrote this in its epistolary account of his Grand Tour:

There is a considerable number of fashionable people at Florence, and many of them in good circumstances. They affect a gaiety in their dress, equipage, and conversation; but stand very much on their punctilio with strangers; and will not, without great reluctance, admit into their assemblies any lady of another country, whose noblesse is not ascertained by a title. – Travels Through France and Italy, Tobias Smollett (1765)

My great-uncle and great-aunt used to spend their holidays in a town here on the coast, and we would visit and spend an afternoon with them. During one of these visits, they offer to buy me something: I was free to choose any toy I’d like. So we went shopping on the promenade and after much looking, I went for a cops and robbers set. There were a pistol and handcuffs and stuff like that. I can’t remember who said what, whether it was my father, my relatives or the shop assistant: anyway, it was pointed out to me it was a boy’s toy. “And so what?”, I asked. “I don’t like dolls”.

I think they would have bought it to me I had insisted. However, to avoid further discussion I settled for something non-committal: a structure where three-wheeled penguins went up an escalator and then rolled down on a slide. The penguins were a trio, so I said the red one was the mother, the blue one the father, and the black one, being black a gender neutral color, the son. My great-aunt suggested that the blue one was more likely to be a lady because she wore a nice blue evening dress. The black one was the guy in a suit, and the child was the one wearing red – it is appropriate for kids to wear a bright colour. She was a seamstress, so I had to assume she knew better.

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An up-to-date version of my penguin toy. Character colors have stayed the same.

Just to make things clear: I’ve never had any issues about my sexual identity. I find the thought of intimacy with another woman revolting. I was a tomboy, that’s all. I wanted to play boys’ games because they were more active, less boring, and because I was already smart enough to get the idea behind those games which merely consisted in mocking the adults. They put dolls in our tiny hands, so that we could learn how to do what was expected from us and forget those stupid dreams of pursuing a career. Then they would obsessively ask, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” just to test if the brainwashing had worked. It’s no surprise that I couldn’t reply to this question even on the eve of my enrolment at University.

Of course, I knew that at a more or less unconscious or half-conscious level. But I can distinctly remember watching another girl wiping the bottom of her baby doll in the kindergarten, and having a flash of a tedious future of a grown-up me feeding a baby who ate, peed, ate, peed in a loop the entire day for the rest of my life.

There is a never-ending debate if homosexuality is inborn or caused by external influence. I have an anecdote that is for me the evidence that children have their own taste and personality, they’re not blank canvas waiting to be morphed solely through imprinting.

When we moved to this town I went to a new crèche. As I walked inside, I saw a plump girl setting the table of a play kitchen. I unwillingly began staring at her. She became aware of me, and asked: “What are you looking at?”. I looked at the fake dish in her chubby hand and clarified I didn’t want to play. Was I playing cool because they were excluding me, the outsider? Did I convince myself that I wasn’t interested in it? I don’t think so. I was hurt at that moment, but at the same time I really didn’t want to join.

That girl became one of my best friends at nursery school, and I don’t recall playing kitchen even once through all my kindergarten years. I really didn’t like girly games, and if I only have happy memories of the kindergarten, maybe it’s also because I was spared the toy kitchen and didn’t have to spend  my first preschool day sipping from an empty cup like a dim-wit.

We played other games suggested by me, mostly roleplaying where we would impersonate male characters. Again: no gender identity issue. It was not my fault that eighties TV always put a man at the center of action and never have an interesting female protagonist. Japanese animes on the other end had female heroines, but they were all stolidly enduring bullyism and/or volley balls in their face, icons of the submissive woman who is willing to sacrifice in silence.

Today, I enjoy cooking and doing other womanly activities, like taking care of the house or shopping for shoes; even knitting. It just didn’t make sense to me to do them at that age. Why waste time in dull, repetitive work when you can still play creative games? I was supposed to do them for the years to come anyway!

My great-aunt used to say from time to time that she would leave all her jewels to me. When she died, I got nothing. I don’t care about her gold but why did she do it? Maybe at the last moment she decided they would be wasted on a tomboy like me? I remembered her with affection. It took me years to realize why my father never mentioned their name again after the two funerals. Now I see why they kept offering me to stay with them and go to the University of Florence. It was a trap, a subtle blackmailing: she would have given me her gold, on condition that I’d take care of them in their old age.

However, I have a picture of myself at the high school ball wearing a red gown. The girl beside me has a blue dress. We’re both undoubtably straight. And we don’t look anything like penguins.

The Miracle Jacket

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My most precious possession is a hand-me down blue leather jacket. It was bought in Disco Beach, which is also my birthplace, from a store which still exists today, approximately in 1974. Incredible as it may seem nowadays, it’s not imported. I picture myself at a very old age showing it to my nephews and explaining to those kids of little faith that there was actually a time when clothes were not made in China and our textile industry was second to no one.

When I tried it on for the first time I was about 16. Dad said he would never have expected his daughter to wear it one day. That was not because it was a man’s jacket – it is in fact unisex. It wasn’t even because it wouldn’t fit me: I was surprised to see how thin he was in his 20s. It fit me perfectly, and I was a skinny teenager. That piece of clothing was from the time before he developed a pot belly. There was a different reason for his comment: he didn’t think he was ever going to have any children. My parents had been married for over ten years when I was born, and had lost the hope. Then one day, when they were packing to go camping in the former Yugoslavia, my mother found out she was expecting. Summer holidays had to be canceled, but of course they didn’t care.

Sixteen years later, there I was: wearing the jacket while riding my purple scooter. This is why I have nicknamed it the “Miracle Jacket”. I have always loved leather jackets, and this has a symbolic value attached to it, so it’s twice as precious to me. I’ve had many similar items, but I seem to lose them all: the buckskin jacket I had as a child, wich I outgrew; the light brown one which got spoiled by the dry-cleaner, who refused to refund me for months in spite of the damning evidence (color had changed from brown to gray and there was even a patch, and it didn’t even look like leather any more but cloth, which made my mother believe it had been swapped); the designer white one which I forgot on a bus in the Dirty Old Town; the black one with the black and white dotted lining which I left at some train station. All got lost, dropped or damaged, except the Miracle Jacket. It is true I’m a bit careless, but light coats are garments with a big losing potential: their being worn in spring and autumn doesn’t help. You leave home unsure of the weather, and take a light jacket just in case, but then it’s too warm and you take it off, hang it somewhere or hold it on you arm, and forget it. Actually, I still have the brown one I bought lately (but I don’t know how long it will last. Knowing myself, I’d say its days are numbered).

Unlike most old items one could find in the basement or in a dusty box on top of the wardrobe, the jacket is completely odourless. It’s short and tight, but shoulders and sleeves are a bit loose. It’s dark blue and one button is missing from one of the cuffs, and another one from a breast pocket. The lining was torn and then repaired: like the zips and buttons, it is in the same color of the leather. The collar ends are pointed, in perfect Seventies style. It looks worn and is a bit faded at the seams, but in overall good conditions. It looks kind of badass: Fonzie would have looked good in it.

At the beginning I used to match it with flaired trousers, taking advantage of a revival in the 90s. Now that bell-bottoms have faded again into oblivion or some charity dumpster, I seldom wear it, but it’s always with straight fit or boot cut jeans.

I have a picture of me in it on the Eiffel Tower. In Paris and other big cities the Miracle Jacket saved me from muggers. I used the front pockets as a safe place to keep money: being robbed is unlikely if you keep valuables in the front.

Also, I have a photo taken by someone who used to be very important for me. It was taken in Disco Beach. Now none of the  feelings I used to associate to that pictures matter any more; however, I still treasure the portrait because it features the Miracle Jacket.

There is only one evidence of the thing being worn by its original owner. My father has it on at my first birthday: it’s in the picture where I blow off the candle. Well, it’s actually mum holding me and blowing from behind, but I seem to believe it. The jacket looks black, but it’s definitely it, as vintage-looking as dad’s longish haircut with big sideburns. He had healthier, shinier hair than me.

I’ve been married for several years now, and we haven’t got any children. Like in my parent’s case, it wasn’t a choice. There’s a concrete possibility that no one will inherit the blue leather jacket. Maybe one day I’ll give it to my child and say: “I would never have thought…”, but if this doesn’t happen, no doubt it will be tossed. Being old, it will surely be one of the top things to qualify for the bin. After my demise, it will be lost in a massive pile of things that once belonged to me, and I’ve no idea who will be the person to sort all that stuff. I don’t envoy that guy at all, because it will be an operation of titanic proportions: much better to throw away the whole stock. After all, most of it will be yellowed books, badly written notes, obsolete electronics and mature women clothes. A heap of garbage, except the books. But anyway, I know how much people value books around here.

 

Written in response to Writing 101, Day Twenty: The Things We Treasure

The Heir, or: There’s no such Thing as a Free Meal

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Liver crostini is a typical food of Tuscany. It consists of small pieces of toasted, unsalted bread covered in a thick brown sauce made from chicken liver, anchovies, capers and vinegar. My grand-aunt used to make them every time we went to her place. This didn’t happen every year, so those visits were a celebration in wich she treated us to a copious meal. Of course, a plethora of other things followed the crostini: probably home-made pasta or a vegetable soup; meat as a second course; there may have been wild boar salami; I can’t remember. The only thing I’m sure of is the starter.

I recall everything in the house: the transparent ball with the fabric rose inside, which looked bigger because of the thickness of the glass; the picture of the late house cat, honored almost as a dead relative as its photo rested on the living room furniture in a silver frame; the ground floor window overlooking a busy street in the center or Florence; the vintage label on a bottle of tamarind syrup on a kitchen shelf; the tailor’s studio with scissors, measuring tape, a dummy and all the tools of the trade; the large square balcony crammed with plant pots, a lush urban garden in the half-light of the central courtyard; the bookshelf in the mezzanine, where the oldest of my books comes from, a bulky cloth-bound tome of Russian tales with interesting pictures (possibly silk-screen prints? Lithographs?), in a slipcase. The book was cast off by G. Hideousheart, my uncle’s son from his first marriage.

G. H. would come over when we visited. He had been to Nepal and suggested I should become a geophysicist when I grew up.

When my aunt died, most relatives travelled a long way to be at the funeral – including us. This meant we were staying there for lunch, and someone else had to do the cooking. The meal included the same food she would normally have cooked for us, and of course the crostini.

As sad as the occasion may be, I didn’t mind being there. I liked the idea of my family being scattered all over the peninsula and reuniting at the dining table. I liked the idea of my aunt overlooking the scene and approving the menu. I liked the idea of a funeral that included refreshments, like I knew it happens in Anglo-Saxon countries, and celebrating the dead instead of just whining over the loss. I remembered that day when years later I was at a wake in Ireland and someone explained to me how in that country it’s not unusual for people to cry at weddings and laugh at funerals.

But I was a fool. Most Hideushearts couldn’t be bothered to come. My aunt didn’t want us to overtake the kitchen while she was not there: she would probably be outraged, like the time someone gave a birthday cake to her and she protested she was not a child to blow off the candles. My folks wanted nothing to do with the habits of the civilized Peoples of Northern Europe and America. The idea of a funeral “party” would sound like a bad taste oxymoron to them.

It took me many years to finally understand what was going on that day. My aunt kept saying she was going to leave her jewels to me. When I was done with high school, they suggested I should go to the University of Florence and stay with them. They also insisted that I took a part-time job. I said studying and working at the same time seemed too demanding, but they knew several youngsters in their apartment block who were doing just so. I saw it as a generous offer made out of hospitality, but I declined. Now I see they were probably looking for someone to take care of them in their old age.

Also, I didn’t become a geophysicist. And G. H. is a prick. When my father died, he said he was not coming to the funeral because he was leading a hiking trip. This one beats the friend sending me his condolence via sms, and my cousin who called to say she was not visiting me because she had her period (then she asked where the ceremony was at.). To enforce this pathetic excuse, G. H. informed me he’s been a hiking guide for 30 years now. I considered telling him that I’m also very much into hiking and I even have a blog where I write about it, but he doesn’t deserve to know.

In case you are reading this, G. H., yes, I said “prick”, and your wife is a dim-wit. When I called to tell you the bad news she didn’t even know who I was. She had no clue. I can write whatever I want about you. See, you’ve come to a certain age and all the hillwalking in the world can’t change this. It can increase your life expectancy, but it won’t make you immortal. You are eventually going to leave this world and then I’m not coming to the funeral, because I’ll be away on a hike. (I’ve planned it years in advance. I’m an organized person when it comes to leisure activities).

I chose a local University. As my uncle and aunt’s health went worse, the stepson apparently didn’t visit them too often. Some relatives my aunt had always criticized behind their back showed up in the very last years to take care of them, and the house went to them. They were the ones who prepared the meal, in the hope of keeping the others at bay and prevent them from jumping to their eyes to The Rains of Castamere, after my aunt’s last will was made public. My dear uncle was still alive but completely helpless and at their mercy, a human shell after the loss: sadly, only a step away from circumvention of an incapable. The stepson was excluded from the testament. I didn’t get the jewels, which had suspiciously disappeared a few years earlier.

Someone might say my aunt was plagiarized, but temperamental as she was I deem her capable of doing so. Tuscan are known to be touchy and bad-tempered. I have never asked or needed or cared for her gold. I admire her for disinheriting her stepson and was amused by the whole situation. As a fiction lover, I can’t resist a story in which the heroine behaves consistently to the character until the end.

Liver crostini are not for everyone. Capers are sour and many people dislike them. Many more are disgusted by the smell of liver. I love them, and relish their gross, lumpy richness. From where I stand, the recipe she has passed onto me through my mother is my aunt’s true inheritance.

However, this story could have ended in a worse way. Imagine if someone didn’t like them. After 10, 20 or 30 years of swallowing liver in the hope of gaining something, he/she discovers her/his name has been wiped from the testament (I can’t say swallowing gall, because the bile is removed in the preparation process. Chance missed for a pun. But I’m not sure this joke would make sense in English, anyway). This would make my aunt an accidental genius.

 

Written in response to Writing 101, Day Ten: Happy (Insert Special Occasion Here)!

Lost Things that Haunt Me: that Picture

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One day my mother called me while I was at work, saying an owl had stepped into the kitchen. I told her I’d be there in an hour, and waited impatiently for closing time. Then I rushed home and found it was a little owl that had fallen from the nest and couldn’t find its parents. One hour, and my mother had already made a pet of it. After our last cat had been ran over, she had resolved never to take another animal again. The loss had been too painful. But now, since this particular guy had found its way to her kitchen on its own initiative, she had no intention of letting it go.

“You know you can’t keep it”, I told her. She had no idea how to feed a wild animal, and what its need could be. She had given cake crumbs to it: the animal was puzzled and hungry. However, it was trying to adapt to the new arrangement: a new, featherless parent was all it could hold on to from now on. It had to be contented with it. It fled on our arms like a domesticated falcon and eventually landed on mom’s head, maybe finding the substitute of a nest in the fluffiness of the permed hair.

I made a phone call to a rescue centre. As a birdwatcher, I wanted to make the most of this unnatural situation before they came to collect our guest. I became delusional with dreams of a Pulitzer Prize or being featured in the National Geographic. I had waited forever for something like this: the chance for a close-up of a wild animal. And it posed like a perfect model, looking straight into the camera. Although I only had a cell phone with me, the pictures came out beautiful.

That night I gleamed with victory as I turned on my PC to transfer the files and finally see the photos full screen. But before that, I wanted to save the good ones and delete the few blurred shots.

Technology is evil: something didn’t work. Somehow I had managed to erase the good pictures and keep the crappy ones. I couldn’t believe it. I checked again: all lost. The damage was irreversible. The instant I realized it, I broke into tears like a child. I had lost the best photos of a lifetime and all is left now are a few clumsy shots that hardly justify a blog post.

 

Written in response to Writing 101, Day Four: The Serial Killer

Old Vinyls and Tapes

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THE ROLLING STONES – LUXURY

Oh, that music store! Plenty of second-hand LPs, I have never seen anything like that but this is America, a lively university town and lots of free time. It’s 1999, I have a whole life in front of me, hopes about the future and turns out I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself and integrating everywhere and adapting to any routine or environment. I’m walking out of the shop with a vinyl under my arm, a very good record that only costed pennies.

PEARL JAM – REARVIEWMIRROR

Guitars gather speed and weave a wall of sound I can safely climb. I stop for a moment to look down to all the abusive people I’ve turned my back to in past years. Violence doesn’t need to be physical: it can be subtle, his devious womanish mind knew how to turn the story around to your advantage. Whatever he did, he was always innocent. But I finally saw him grin secretly, I saw things clearer once you were in my rearview mirror. I had idealized him, but not enough to lose my clarity of thought and not see it was time to walk away. It took some time, but finally the shades are raised.

BECK – NOBODY’S FAULT BUT MY OWN

I always end up listening to this song whenever a major change in my life occurs. Now I let the music play, although it’s not one of those moments – or, is it? Could it be the wind of change, this breeze I’m feeling? Yes, the leaves are swinging on the trees outside the window. Or, is it the chilly wind from many years ago as I go home from that house, pissed off because I had to walk all the way back on my own in the snow?

 

Written in response to Writing 101, Day Three: Commit to a Writing Practice

Playground, 3 Colours

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Green – the grass is all around me, in the public green near my childhood home. I’m three years old. The garden is small, but looks immense to me. However, my visual field is now limited to a very narrow area: the part of bench I’m skinning.

Red – the paint is red. I scrape it. it comes away in flakes. This is the funniest game I’ve ever played. I’d go on forever picking at it. I’m so busy right now, but I’ll soon get restless.

Silver – the metal dome I’m going to climb when I’m done with the bench. I’m not afraid of anything yet. In the future, the usual traumas and social fears will make me overcautious: but now, the slippery smoothness of the iron tubes is the only obstacle to my ascent!

 

Written in response to Writing 101, Day Two: A Room with a View (Or Just a View)

Decluttering

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I’ve just finished throwing away old pictures from my student years. About 130 of them, from the yellow album. I thought about keeping some to undergo a second screening, but then I thought, no, I won’t waste more time doing this, two hours of my time are enough. See, it’s not general time we are discussing here – it’s MY time. My limited, precious time. What’s the cost of time? I guess it depends on demand and supply, like for everything else. Supply is scarce at this point in my life. So, they all went into the paper shredder.

Your photos were the first to go: they’ve been there for over a decade, and suddenly I can’t see why 20 pictures of your wedding of 14 years ago, most of which don’t even include me, still take up space in my album. Space, precious space, vital space. What’s the cost of space? Invaluable. That’s why we declutter at crucial times in our lives. One is enough to remind me of you, and make it clear to posterity that I did have friends at 20.

Moreover, I don’t have to keep pictures of people I don’t like or see any more. They surely haven’t kept mine. Ex-boyfriends, ex-best friend, not-quite-friends, friends of friends, schoolmates who surely can’t even remember my name. The seasoned colleague at your hen party who didn’t like my bangs, unsolicited advice – mind your own business. The poser couple with fig leaves behind the ear, your mother who recognises me only when it’s time to boast about your news, or pay me with a currency I can’t even spend. She refunded me because I’m the last moment underwear rescuer, remember? The bride needs underwear!

Bu you weren’t even present at my wedding. In fact, you don’t even know I got married, and with whom. Here he comes now, picks up some random photos from the table, asks what I’m up to.

“Can I see?”

“Sure you can, I have nothing to hide”.

He’ll never end up in the shredder. This is someone’s sister, that is my roommate’s pet rabbit, and this one…this one, I have no clue who she is.

Blank pages empty pages to fill up with shiny happy lively memories in high resolution, that’s what I expect from life now.

 

Written in response to Writing 101, Day One: Unlock the Mind