During the weeklong run up to the Easter holiday the words Buona Pasqua were uttered thousands of times all across Lucca. For years I had wondered what it would be like to spend the holiday with an Italian family, in their home, on the one day of the year that seemed to rival Christmas. Shortly before the holiday I received a phone call. It was Patrizio. “%&*#@ venite a casa di “%&*#@,” he said. The only words I understood were venite a casa di, which meant come to the house of.
“Ripeti per favore,” I requested, kicking myself for failing to understand any more than I did and wondering: Will I ever understand Italians when they speak. I knew around 1,900 Italian words, but I was still asking Italians to repeat what they had just said. Oh, mio Dio. As usual, Patrizio responded to my request by using a completely different set of words, none of which I understood. “I can’t hear you; there must be a problem with the phone line,” I fibbed. “I’ll come by the lavanderia.”
Patrizio had simply wanted to invite us to join him and his family for Easter at the home of his mother-in-law, Tiziana. “Sì. Sì,” I said, questioning why I hadn’t understood such a simple invite? Why hadn’t he just said, Vorreste venire a casa mia per Pasqua? That’s what I would have said and had Patrizio said that, I certainly would have understood him. Oh jeez.
On Easter morning Donald and I awoke to the ringing of church bells. Virtually every bell in this city of a hundred churches chimed simultaneously. I had never figured out the ringing of the bells in Lucca. Supposedly they resounded to indicate the time of day, though the rings never seemed to match the time on any timepiece I owned. On other occasions they clearly chimed to commemorate special events, like luminara, the annual celebration of the Volto Santo, where the city if lit by candlelight. I wrestled myself from the comforts of bed and flung open the shutters overlooking Piazza del Carmine. The old marketplace and clock tower looked a bit forlorn in the pouring rain, while the cobblestone streets glistened. Soon we scooted out the back door of our palazzo and hurried across the narrow street into Pasticceria Buralli, where Keti and Romina, who ran the pasticceria, shouted out, “Buona Pasqua.” Without asking, Keti handed us our morning dolce, un cornetto vuoto per me e una sfoglia di ricotta per Donato. Romina gave each of us our coffee. Soon Alberta and Paolo from Ristorante Canuleia came in. “Buona Pasqua. Buona Pasqua.”
Once the rain subsided, we walked to Patrizio’s house where we met three new additions to his family: Oscar, Elmer and Gino. Oscar, a black, rambunctious pug; Elmer, a chubby, white bunny rabbit with pink eyes and a little black nose and Gino, a loud, brightly colored parrot were Easter presents for Samuele, who was not yet five years old. Like most Italian kids, especially little boys, Samuele was doted on. The five of us, senza (without) gli animali, wedged ourselves, along with one large car seat, a hot pink azalea plant, presents for Samuele, an enormous Easter cake, several bottles of wine, toys, umbrellas, raincoats and more, into the small Punto Fiat. Like circus clowns we drove to Tiziani’s.
Tiziana was dressed in a plain pink smock and white apron. She came rushing from the kitchen to greet us; the aroma of Italian cooking drifting like clouds through the house. Ernesto, Monica’s father and Tiziana’s ex-husband came out from the kitchen and, along with Tiziana, wished us “Buona Pasqua… Buona Pasqua.” As always, Ernesto, with his ruddy complexion, was tanned and fit. He wore a tight, studded pair of Levis and a bright blue fitted shirt, opened to the navel, revealing strands of grey hair. His shoes were patent black leather and very pointed. He seemed small next to full-figured Tiziana. Ernesto looked as if he were ready for a disco, rather than a family dinner.
Tiziani’s home was filled with Easter presents wrapped in rich pinks, deep reds, crisp yellows and bright blues. Many were displayed on the mantelpiece. The colors were reminiscent of Mrs. Noyer’s glorious summer garden in Stockton. Mrs. Noyer was the old neighborhood lady who year after year had gathered the local kids and taken us to the San Joaquin Country Fair. For two weeks in summer, we made arrangements using the flowers from her lush garden and entered them into competition. I adored Mrs. Noyer, who often said, when she saw my arrangements, “You are very gifted.” When it came to flower arranging, I was good at it. Little Ronnie Morgan, who lived down the block, and I competed with adult males in the Men’s Division, where we “cleaned up.” Between us, we won hundreds of ribbons, occasionally finding ourselves pictured in the daily newspaper, The Stockton Record. At the time, I was too excited and naïve to worry that these feats had landed me in the Women’s Section of the local rag – those concerns would come soon enough.
Donald and I had spent many evenings with Patrizio and Monica. Often Ernesto joined us, even hosting a number of dinners for us at his smart, new condo in the Lucca countryside. La cena had most always begun with numerous antipasti, followed by a pair of pasta dishes, due entrees, molti contorni or side dishes and due dolci. Why is it that Italians always seem to serve multiple desserts? Each course had been paired with a local Tuscan wine. If I left the table or even turned my head, I found another helping of food piled high on my plate and my wine glass filled. Ernesto paid no heed to “No, grazie” and I steeled myself to ward off his efforts.
Donald asked, “Dov’è Monica?” and as he did, she appeared at the front door. She was slowly walking, arm in arm, with 88-year-old bisnonna, great grandmother to Samuele. Bisnonna was five feet four, with a slight hunch and a head full of grey curly hair. She wore a rather ratty, blue velour bathrobe. Once she spotted Donald and me, she began to cry. What’s that about, I wondered. Was she protesting, embarrassed that she was meeting due americani in her bathrobe or was there something else going on?
Tune in next week to find out what bisnonna and Ernesto “bring to the table.”
If you have friends or family members traveling to Italy, especially anyone heading to or near Lucca or anyone wanting to learn a bit of Italian, please let them know about my website, www.welovelucca.com. Grazie mille!