Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Story of Life and Love in the Monferrato

“Oh dear!” He said in a mock British accent. “ I think we have a teensy weensy problem.” “What’s wrong?” she asked as the car shuddered to a stop. “I’m afraid we are out of gas.” “Oh dear!” she echoed in the same accent with a funny frown on her face. “I’m terribly sorry Christina, but I forgot to look at the gauge before we headed out this morning. It’s my fault, so I’ll walk back to the last village and bring back some help.”“Don’t be silly.” she said “I’ll come with you.” So they locked up the car and set out on the road back.

“Darling, do you love me?” he asked. She paused and reflected. “ Well, sometimes more than others, why do you ask?” “Well, because I love you very much and I want you to know that no matter what happens I won’t blame all of this on you.” Her eyes widened and before she started to fire back her retort she caught herself and played into his little joke… “That’s most considerate of you my dear. How I deserve you, I will never know!” He smiled and they continued down the road.

The walk back was not particularly fast-paced. The air was warm and thick with the perfume of flowers and freshly-mown grass. Crickets chirped and birds sang, but otherwise there was little noise besides the sound of their own footsteps in the gravel, where a dust cloud rose as they walked and obscured the view behind them.

“Peaceful here isn’t it?” he said after several minutes. She answered in her mind but didn’t give an audible response. He knew her well enough to know what she was thinking, and he knew her well enough to know that this was a special moment; something they would look back on and remember. And so they walked on in silence, each absorbed in the solitude and the serenity.“Yes, yes it is.” she said after several minutes…so softly he almost didn’t hear her. She was feeling a little melancholy because she knew all of this could only be temporary. In a few days she would be back at the office, cursing the telephone interruptions and trying to get a mountain of work done which she no longer had any interest in completing. Here is where she longed to be, here in the Monferrato with its rolling hills crowned by little villages. Here, where earth, vine and human life become one.

“Look darling there’s a little house!” they quickened their steps and headed for the tiny cottage and knocked on the door. A middle-aged man in a white t-shirt squinted at them through the door. “We have run out of petrol!” Peter said in an exaggerated and loud voice. “Non capisco.” said the unshaven man. He then smiled and pointed to his chest…“Francesco!” “Ah! Ciao Francesco! Peter and Christina,” they said as they pointed to their chests in exactly the same manner as Francesco. “Ciao Peter et Christina!” “Inglese? ” Francesco asked with a big smile. “Non, Americani,” they confessed. “Ah! Americani! Fantastico!” he said, with even more emotion.

“Benvenuti, benvenuti,” he repeated and motioned them into his humble little house. They obediently followed and were lead into a tiny kitchen with a round table in the middle. The TV was blaring in the corner but Francesco didn’t seem to notice. There was an old restaurant stove against the wall and above it a tiny extractor hood working as hard as it could to pull the vapors up from the two softly bubbling pots placed on the back two burners. The air was thick with the perfume of simmering food and the counters were littered with bowls, herbs and ancient knives. The walls were hung with chipped earthenware pottery, old wooden cutting boards and heavy copper pots. On a shelf, boxes of rice and bags of dried pasta were piled up and held in place by cans of tomatoes and beans. The walls, once white, were stained a pale yellow from years of cooking fumes and many of the white tiles on the wall behind the stove and sink were cracked or missing altogether. The whole place needed a good cleaning, but one couldn’t help feeling that the important parts, like the cutting boards and knives were spotless.

“Un momento, ho una figlia che parla inglese.” said Francesco as he picked up an old and well-used telephone and began dialing a number. “Mia figlia!” he smiled. There was a pause, then suddenly a huge explosion of Piemontese dialect with the daughter on the other end, and suddenly Francesco handed Peter the phone…“Mia figlia Claudia!” he said proudly. “Hello,” Peter softly said and then explained their situation. Claudia relayed the unfortunate circumstance back to her father and there was another explosion of dialect between them ending with “si si, nessun problema". With that, Francesco hung up the phone and motioned them to follow.

“You see my dear everything is coming together perfectly, we will be on the road in a few minutes and back at the hotel in time for dinner.” Peter said with confidence. They followed Francesco out to the barn and he pointed to a big petrol can. He smiled, winked and gave them the thumbs-up sign. “Nessun problema!” Then he reached out for the can, only to discover it was as dry as bone. “Momma mia” he said half-exhaling and half-cursing. “Oh dear!” said Peter and Christina at the same time. Francesco fired off a long string of expletives in thick dialect and then explained something about a “Lamborghini“. “A Lamborghini?” said Peter. Surely he doesn’t have a ….. “Oh dear!” said Christina as she pointed to the label on the ancient red tractor parked by the door. “Yes, my dear…. he does have a Lamborghini and a big one too!"

It only took Francesco half a minute to hitch a little wooden wagon to the back of his tractor and fill it with a few armfuls of hay, and with the turn of the key, they were off at a trot, down the dusty lane. Christina and Peter were both spread-legged on the little wagon bouncing with every pot-hole and holding on desperately to the petrol can. Peter looked very unhappy when suddenly Christina began to laugh. At first Peter didn’t see any humor then he began to laugh too. “Do you know how much it costs to go for a private hay ride in Westchester County being pulled by a Lamborghini?” Christina asked, and they both laughed even harder.

Francesco’s back straightened a little as he drove through town, and the village people watched as the spectacle passed-by. As the old tractor sputtered and spat to a laborious halt in front of the gas station, one of the old farmers standing by the door of the corner bar shouted across the street asking if Francesco was growing tourists this season? Francesco smiled and waved back.

It was 45 minutes before they got back to the car and poured the gas into the tank. Francesco was proud of his assistance and said something to them in dialect. They both stood there motionless, looking at him until he raised his hand to his mouth in a drinking motion and said “Apero, apero?” “Ah! Si, Si, Si!” they both chimed in and followed Francesco back to his little cottage.

Without ceremony, Francesco brought out bottle after bottle of various vermouths, spirits and liquors and produced three mis-matched but clean glasses. “Una apero!” He announced as he offered Peter and Christina to take their pick. “Salute!” Francesco chanted “Salute!” replied Peter and Christina. Somehow sitting here with this humble man seemed to be worth so much more than all the cocktail parties and gala dinners they had attended back home. Peter looked into Christina’s eyes and smiled and she returned his smile, both were wishing that the moment would never end.

Shortly thereafter, Claudia arrived with her family in a big ceremony and the apero was terminated with huge plates of coppa, mortadella and the fresh pork sausage called “Salsiccia” which is traditionally eaten raw. Grignolino wine was poured by Francesco to wash it all down. Then came a big platter of carpaccio drizzled with fine olive oil, lemon and shavings of parmesan cheese. Claudia’s husband snapped something at her in Italian and she smiled and turned the burner up on the stove. She inspected a big copper pot and set it on the flame. In an instant she had a shallot and a small tomato finely diced and threw them in the pot with a bit of olive oil. Gently, she stirred in a couple of handfuls of carnaroli rice and began to fry the mixture. One ladle at a time she added some of the stock that had been simmering on the back of the stove and occasionally stirred the rice to insure it didn’t stick. Meanwhile, Francesco cut off two equal-sized pieces of cheese, one parmesan and the other sheep’s and placed them in a blender with some olive oil and a handful of basil leaves and pureed it until it was creamy. “That goes in only at the end.” Claudia announced. In the final minutes she added the cheese and basil puree, gave it one last stir and placed a plate over the pot and turned off the heat. “It must rest.” she said. Once served, everyone sighed and smiled as they slipped fork after fork of the beautiful risotto into their mouths.

So the evening went, one dish after the other, followed by carafes of fruity local red wine and finally some Grappa to wash away the effects. Peter and Christina drove back to their hotel slightly drunk and very happy. “I’ve never eaten like that in my life,” Peter said “it was all fantastic. So pure and simple but perfectly cooked.” “Yes, it’s extraordinary Peter, they never issued an invitation, they just continued the conversation and never really gave us a chance to leave. It was just assumed that we would stay! I have never experienced anything like it."

The next morning they slept until 10 and missed the hotel breakfast completely, but it didn’t matter because neither was hungry. Two cappuccinos arrived at their table and they sat quietly reading their papers as the steam rose from the thick white foam. “Darling, I was just thinking,” Peter said softly, “I wonder about the price of real estate here. Do you think houses are affordable? It isn’t particularly touristy, God knows why, because it’s beautiful here!” He added. “Shall we have a peek in the window at the local Agenzie?” “Darling, are you serious?” Christina chirped, clearly not concealing her excitement.

As it happened there was a little cottage for sale in a tiny hill-top town that suited them perfectly; it was simple and clean and with a little work it became theirs. They were always very happy there, just the two of them. There were many fine meals and they made lovely friends. At first they were only able to come a few weeks a year, but then Peter landed a big contract with an advertising agency in London and it allowed them a little more time to spend together in the cottage. There were local vintages to be sampled and bottled. They cooked elaborate meals then washed the dishes together afterwards. They invited friends for long lunches and tested new recipes. They were so happy in their little house, life was easy and free from the stress of the city. They were young, they had time to be in love and they enjoyed each other’s company so much. Each new thing they discovered they shared like two children playing with their toys and it made them inordinately happy, and so it went for many years.

They had just arrived home from a few days at the April wine fair in Verona and Christina went to the doctor’s office for a routine check up. There was some concern about a lump and the doctor said she would like to run a few tests just to be sure everything was ok. The long-awaited first buds of Spring were beginning to sprout and Christina decided to keep her secret from Peter in order not to spoil the beautiful season, but the cancer was much more progressed than anyone had ever guessed and by the time Summer arrived Christina could go no further.

The cold water stung and as Peter raised his face from his hands he looked at himself in the mirror. He tried to not let himself dwell on it. He tried not to let himself get caught in one of “those” moments. But it happened now-and-then and he could feel it happening again. He dropped his face back into his hands and began to cry. He felt his knees give way and he gripped the sink in vain as his body slid to the floor. He could feel the coldness of the tiles soaking through his pajamas, but he was far away, sitting in a long forgotten café, staring into her eyes, planning their next adventure. He could see her perfectly in his mind. She was beautiful and kind, and stared back at him with all the love he could have ever hoped to have from any woman. He allowed himself to lay there for some time until his mind slowly overcame his grief and began to focus once again on the reality that he now knew to be the truth. She was gone, completely and forever and all he had was her memory.

The grief was slowly killing Peter. It seemed all the happiness that they had shared together had been eclipsed by the extreem sorrow which now wracked him. Months passed and he refused to see anyone. Francesco and other friends came to visit but Peter wouldn’t open the door. “Life is over.” he thought. “I can’t stand this…I can’t go on.” He pulled himself up from the floor feeling nothing. He intentionally didn’t allow his mind to focus for fear of what he might see. He had lost so much weight he looked like a corpse. As he caught his elbows on the sink to support himself, he looked in the mirror again. “God, who am I? What has happened to me?” he asked himself. The tears had acted like glue and flecks of dirt and paint from the bathroom floor were sticking to his face. He looked pathetic so pathetic he scared himself. "What would Christina say? What if she walked in the room and saw me like this?" He thought. He forced himself to stand up and as he did so tears were streaming down his cheeks. His body was so weak, the sorrow had almost destroyed him and he felt so alone. At that same moment there was a knock at the door. “Ciao Peter!” the voice called. It was Francesco trying once again to make contact. Peter wiped his face and went to the door and slowly turned the latch. Francesco burst in and hugged him. “Oh Peter, Madonna, what has happened to you my poor friend?” Francesco stayed with him and made a soup and forced him to eat it with some bread and drink some strong red wine. Peter admitted he felt better. It felt good to see Francesco again and hear his voice.

Some weeks went by and Peter began to recover and gain back a few pounds. “Ok Peter, on Saturday you come to have lunch at my house, just like the old days!” Francesco told him. “I won’t take no for an answer.” Peter promised he would come. The whole family was there and Peter thought to himself, how good it felt to be with friends again. Then just as Claudia and Francesco were about to start the risotto, there was a knock at the door. “Can you answer that Peter? We have started the risotto and we can’t stop for anyone!” Francesco shouted.

Peter got up from his chair and went to the door. A strikingly beautiful English woman stood before him. Frantic and half-shouting she said “Do you speak English? I have run out of petrol. Can you please help me?” while pointing frantically at her car. Peter turned to Francesco and said, “Tell me Francesco, where do you keep the keys to the Lamborghini?”


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