The Fourth of July is the kind of holiday that has it all – a clear meaning that gives you a tug of pride, summer activities like swimming and boating, cookouts, and fireworks. It’s a laid back holiday – not a lot of fussy meals or extensive menu planning, no gift list, and no eating off the good china. It’s a holiday for the people which is exactly what it’s celebrating – the collective determination of the little people.
It’s also Steve’s birthday, which I always thought was pretty cool. He has mixed feelings about it. I think as a kid it was not so cool because everything was closed and you couldn’t be on the Popeye Club that day. And if you were on the day before, all the cupcakes and other goodies were stale. The burdens we carry as children know no bounds. But there were always fireworks, which seems like would go a long way to making up for stale processed food.
Just Another Hot Italian Day
Of course, there’s no recognition of the Fourth in Italy. So this year, on the first birthday he’s ever celebrated in Italy, Steve got to see what it’s like for the rest of us on our regular old ordinary birthdays. For the world around you, it’s just another day. It’s business as usual – no holiday from work, no day at the lake, no cookout, no fireworks. I don’t know how it’s possible that we’ve been coming to Italy for over 25 years and have never once been here for Steve’s birthday. We’ve been for mine in October many times. Maybe that’s it – October is a wonderful time to be in Italy, but July – not so much.
We’ve had a heat wave here for the past couple of weeks. It’s been 95 or more everyday, with many days over 100. Bright sunshine and no rain. The last real rain we’ve had was about five or six weeks ago. Everything is dry – the brown grass crunches under your feet and you can’t keep the flower pots watered enough. We have also been missing the wonderful breeze that is usually ever present. Most of Europe is experiencing this horrible heat wave so all we can do it wait it out and hope that whatever has happened to the jet stream corrects itself soon.
We’re managing this heat without the one thing that has become so much a part of life in the US that we take it for granted. AC. We have fans and can open the windows to try and catch the cool morning and late night air before we slam them shut tight, hoping against hope that the cool air will stay in and the hot air out. We’ve had marginal success with this system, but we’ve learned some strategy surrounding the series of interior and exterior shutters – when to open and close them for maximum air flow. We have to throw out our notion of letting in as much light as possible to try and minimize the effects of the blazing sun. Without getting into any controversial, it’s ironic that we’re struggling through this unusual weather pattern without AC. Because AC is probably one of the major culprits causing this unusual weather pattern. So we’re doing our part for climate change by suffering through this heat wave without pumping more chemicals into the environment. You can thank us later.
Dinner with Friends
Saturday night we met Michelangelo and Rossella for a little shoe shopping in Arezzo (Rossella is on the hunt for blue shoes). After stopping by several stores (no luck) we went to her sister’s house for an aperitivo before going to dinner with them all. We went to a place near their house called Le Quattro Pietre (the four stones).
I love this kind of place. It’s out in the country with gorgeous views and lush surroundings. It’s a small inn and also a restaurant. It’s a place locals know about and frequent. And they make their own pasta in one of the most impressive kitchens I’ve ever seen in an Italian restaurant. Usually they’re postage stamps, but this one was huge and very well-appointed.
We had a wonderful meal of pasta with duck and a mixed grill of various meats, sitting outside in the beautiful garden. Saturday was one of the hot days, so we were a little damp by the time the meal was done, but the food was so good we didn’t care.
When it came time for dessert, they brought a whole cake to the table that Rossella’s sister, Mariella, made for Steve’s birthday. We were so surprised – how did they get that cake into the restaurant without us seeing it? Are we that oblivious to what’s going on around us? And so we sang Tanti Auguri and toasted Steve and had a fabulous slice of Torta della Nonna (grandmother’s cake – an almond flavored cake with a layer of cream – yum). Great evening in a typical Italian restaurant with great friends.
The Hottest Day
Monday, Steve’s birthday, was one of the hottest days yet. And did I mention there’s no breeze? We are still enjoying our lazy life since our guests left, so we decided not to go out to dinner. I offered to cook a nice meal and we would have it on the terrace once the worst of the heat died down.
Since it was so very hot, I tried to make as much as I could ahead of time and stagger it throughout the day so the house wouldn’t heat up too much. I also wanted things to be as cool as possible – no steaming side dishes or have-to-eat-hot entrees. The menu was steamed leeks with a shallot vinaigrette, smashed parmesan potatoes, and grilled sliced steak with an avocado chimichurri sauce. And for dessert – one of Steve’s favorites – lemon icebox pie.
The pie presented a little bit of a challenge. It’s ridiculously easy to make a lemon pie, but apparently there are no graham crackers in this country. Graham cracker crusts are a key ingredient for this type of pie. I winged it and got a regular pastry shell (too hot to make my own crust). It’s also tough to find sweetened condensed milk – that iconic, sugary, dense concoction that gives the pie its consistency and flavor. I found something in a tube that said “Il Latte Condensato” which tasted just liked Eagle Brand. I had to go to three stores to find enough (must not be a big seller here). Converting it to ounces was a math problem because not all liquids are created equal and therefore you can’t use the same conversion formula for water that you do for honey. So I winged it (again) and put what I felt like was the right amount. It turned out OK, but the graham cracker crust is a marriage made in heaven and the regular old pie crust just was not the same.
An Italian Meal, An American Birthday
You can’t get anymore American than the Fourth of July, and you really can’t get anymore American that being born on the Fourth. They even wrote a song about it. Anyone who knows Steve knows that he has a profound love and respect for America. He is a student of American government and I challenge anyone to go up against him in a political or government themed trivia contest. He will wipe the floor with you. HIstory, policy, and strategy are innate to him. He’s like a gifted artist who can’t understand why some people just can’t draw, despite their best efforts. He thinks everyone should know what the Federalist Papers are and who wrote them (and he’s probably right, but come on). These are the kinds of things he reads for fun. He’ll close a book on some arcane piece of American history and shake his head gently in awe with a respectful smile on his face. This stuff touches his soul and inspires him. He is Yankee Doodle Dandy.
So for this, his 71st birthday, we celebrated quietly in Italy. No friends, no family, no red, white, and blue napkins. No sparklers, no magnificent fireworks display, and no Peachtree Road Race. Just us in a country that has rich stories and history, but nothing like ours. Ours is simple, it’s new (comparatively speaking), and it’s absolutely amazing. That our government has lasted as long as it has and that our country has become the premier power is a testament to those brave few who got together and designed a system so durable and so failsafe that it’s the envy of the world. Did they know what they were creating? How could they? I think of Jefferson and Madison and the others as the Renaissance masters of the political world. They ushered in a new way of looking at governing that would change the way people were treated and power was wielded. Is is perfect? Of course not, but it’s a damn sight better than anything else and no one has come close to improving upon it.
Now this Yankee Doodle Dandy lives in Italy and I do believe he loves it as much as he does America. For different reasons, of course. Here it’s a much simpler love – the way of life, the rhythm of the days, the emphasis on fresh, seasonal food, the art and beauty. It’s a love that I think you can appreciate after 71 years of living in America. Our culture is different, but we can appreciate both. And isn’t that what the Founding Fathers had in mind? Letting people decide what things make them happy and allowing them to pursue them?