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It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye

Rebecca Winke

I have a hobby. I make soap.

I can't think of a more appropriate hobby for a vegetarian who sometimes reels at the smell of cooking meat than one which, as Step One, lists, "Render suet into tallow." This is a missish way of saying, "Boil a big vat of beef fat on your stove for so long that your home reeks like a turn of the century British tannery and the stench of it has even the dog retching and the neighbors, who live three kilometers away and raise hogs, sniffing the air and wondering if someone has been burning garbage in the woods again."

(Before I start getting indignant emails, let me clarify that I know that one can make vegetarian soap. I tried it once and it was a big pain in the butt and didn't come out right, either. Now, there are those who live by "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" rule, but I personally live by the "If it doesn't work out the first time, it obviously wasn't meant to be so cut your losses and move on" rule. Plus, I'm just not that dogmatic about vegetarianism. I eat eggs, which many shun for obvious reasons, and cheese, which others shun for reasons I've never fully understood but have something to do with the lining of a sheep's stomach. I got completely addicted to this fabulous savory cheese bread they make here in Umbria around Easter before discovering that a loaf contains roughly half a pig's worth of lard. I figure if there's a vegetarian purgatory, well folks, I will just have to do my time.)

Step two involves mixing the rendered tallow with lye, and as we all know, no household with a toddler should be without soluble caustic soda flakes lying around.

This isn't the only hobby I have. I even briefly flirted with knitting when I found out I was pregnant with my son, because all pregnant ladies knit, right? (Sadly, this was just the first of a long list of tragic myths I debunked over the subsequent nine months. I also never glowed, got great nails, or big boobs. I try not to be bitter.) But there were two problems with knitting:

1) Knitting is boring as hell. Or at least it is at the beginner stage where I plateaued.

2) Knitting turns my husband on. It's the truth. He would walk into the living room, find me on the couch cussing and tearing out stitches, and come over, sit real close, say, "So, whatcha doin'?" in that voice, and start blowing in my ears and stuff. I married a sicko.

But, since Knitting is Boring as Hell (see above), he was usually able to sidetrack me without too much of a struggle and so my two and a half year old son's baby blanket is still roughly 12 cm by 12 cm and sitting in a Intimissimi bag on my closet floor. With the knitting needles stuck in it.

Anyway, I was making up a batch of soap the other night with my husband in the kitchen keeping me company and we started chatting about hobbies. Actually, I had started reminiscing about listening to Larry Lujak's Animal Stories on WLS every morning from grades 1-8 and I just couldn't stop laughing thinking about it, and as I am hanging onto the counter and wiping the tears from my eyes I look over and see my husband staring at me like I've just lost my mind. These are the times when I think that maybe I should have just married a guy from the Midwest.

It's not always like this, however. I remember once I was telling him how hellish it was to be named Rebecca during the 70's when everyone else was named something infinitely cooler like Amy or Julie, and he asked me what I would have preferred and I said, "Mindy." I started to launch into this explanation of Mork and Mindy and the utter hipness of Mindy with those two little pigtails she would wear in the front of her hair instead of barrettes, when my husband stood up, opened his fingers to a V, and intoned, "Nah-Noo, Nah-Noo." Apparently that sitcom made it over the Atlantic. (My second choice of a name was Blaire, having been a big Facts of Life fan.) I also remember once tying myself in knots trying to explain what a go-cart was, when he interrupted me to say, "Vuoi dire un go-cart?" all deadpan. Right. Un go-cart.

So we changed the subject and started talking about hobbies and I came to the conclusion that I know a disproportionate number of people in Italy who collect things. Not to say no one in the US is a collector (go to Ebay and type in Elvis ashtray, just for kicks), I just never met one. No one in my family really collects anything. My dad went through a brief phase of collecting toll booth gates, but that was more a side effect of the lack of sufficient eye-hand-foot gross motor control to pull off a Toll Booth Roll which results from simultaneously driving, listening to sports' radio, eating corn nuts, and reading the Trib. That little hobby came to a bit of an abrupt halt right around the time we got the visit at home from the State Troopers, as I recall.

I can't think of a single friend in the States who collects things. Now that I said this I'm going to get twenty phone calls tomorrow from childhood friends reminding me of those two hundred plus Pez dispensers they have, but right now going through my Christmas Card list, I can't think of one.

We have lots of friends here in Italy who collect things. In fact, almost everyone I know has some sort of collection going. Pens. Crystal figurines. Dolls. Coins. My own husband hasn't thrown out a piece of paper since 1982. (I'm not sure if that counts.) It seems strange, given that Italian homes are usually quite a bit smaller than those in the US. It would seem logical that there would be less collecting going on here, where there is no place to put all those ceramic clowns. On the other hand, Italians are much less mobile than Americans. Most Italians I know make only one move in their life: from their parents' to their own home when they marry. There is no concept of the "starter home" here. You buy a house (or, I should say, an apartment), furnish it down to the last throw pillow, and that is where you live out the rest of your days with very little renovation. You can pinpoint the year that most Umbrians have married based on the style of their living room coffee table.

On the other hand, there is nothing that culls personal possessions like repeated moves. From home to that college apartment, then to your first real pad, then a starter home or two, then your dream home, then back to the starter home when the dot.com crash comes, then assisted living. All those moves really make you reassess if having that extensive Victorian teapot collection is really all it's cracked up to be. I don't have a single item of clothing that dates to before 1992. Nothing forces you take a more realistic look at the probability of ever fitting into those jeans from junior year of high school again than the prospect of shipping them overseas.

So I suspect that the popularity of collecting here in Italy is closely tied to the improbability of ever having to pack the collection into a U-haul truck. But that's just a stab in the dark.

Back to the collections themselves. One of my favorite pastimes is stopping in at the newsstand to see what the public is collecting at any given moment. In Italy, many collections are linked to a monthly periodical. Each month you pick up your item to add to the collection along with an explanatory booklet. These subscription collections are often advertised on TV, so you see the commercial and you know to stop by the newsstand and reserve your copy of whatever it is that interests you.

Most of these collections are predictable. Porcelain birds and model airplanes and mini-perfume bottles and the like. But some of them are incredibly, um, odd. Some of my favorites:

Taxicabs from Around the World

You get a little Hot Wheels version of an Ethiopian or Dutch Cab plus a short pamphlet explaining the origins and history. If you collect them all, you can get the display case. A strong contender for top rating in the "What the ?!?" category.

Great Works of Literature in Miniature

Yes, you read right. The books are about the size of a postage stamp. My favorite part of this was the commercial, which depicted a smiling woman curled up on her sofa in front of a roaring fire, sipping a cup of tea and reading Madame Bovary from a book held between the tips of her thumb and forefinger. And she wasn't even squinting. This also comes with a little mini glass-fronted bookcase and an electron microscope.

Fashion Purses

Can't afford the Fendi baguette, the $5,000 Hermes Birkin tote that Martha showed up to court carrying, or those really ugly florescent Vuitton bags from that Japanese designer? Well, with this collection you get "certified authentic" copies so you can sashay down the Corso swinging them off your....pinkie. Yes, because they're only a couple of centimeters by a couple of centimeters. At least your Barbie can be seen in Milan without hanging her head in shame.

Make your own...

There are various versions of this, but they all involve constructing a model 17th century whaling ship and/or Boeing airplane and/or WWII tank using the parts included with each monthly issue of the collection. What they don't tell you is that it takes roughly seven years to amass all the various pieces to complete the project. My husband once asked me to stop in and see if our newsstand sold the collection he had just seen on TV which was the complete kit to construct a working, remote controlled model motorcycle. So I did. And Issue Number One of the working, remote control model motorcycle kit was: one metal spring, one screw, and one rubber tire. And the 300 page printed instructions. Few people aside from the Great Renaissance Masters have the stamina to dedicate themselves to a single project for the better part of a decade. My husband certainly doesn't.

Reconstruct Pompeii

Another funny commercial. This is a series with which you collect elements to build a model of the ancient city of Pompeii. The ad on TV shows a sweet docile couple working together with little miniature bricks and trowel to build the Villa of the Vettii. Please. My husband and I can't even assemble a set of bookshelves without ending up wanting throttle each other, let alone construct an entire Roman city with miniature tools. I think this kit must have been grounds for divorce for at least a handful of Italian spouses.

Learn a skill....

This is another theme with numerous variations. Two series that we briefly flirted with were the Learn about Wine series and the Learn about Restoring Furniture series. This has the same Achilles heel as the Make Your Own category... it takes you forever to amass any amount of useful information. In much less time (and for less money) we took a wine course and bought hefty illustrated tome entitled "The Complete Guide to Restoring Furniture".

What's the fun of that?

This is a series of collections for things like replica antique watches, replica period tins, replica Murano masterpieces, replica Scottish pipes, etc. Now, isn't the point of collecting things like antique watches and tins the thrill of the hunt and joy of discovery while combing through flea markets and antique shows? And the reason one collects Murano glass or Scottish pipes the excuse to repeatedly visit Venice and Scotland? I mean, if all you have to do is walk down the street to the newsstand, what's the point?

These newsstand collections and kits are wildly popular here, so there must be something to it. Every once in awhile I almost get reeled in myself ("Hey, look at that! A complete collection of miniature hand painted lead Roman soldiers! I'll be darned."), then my thoughts turn to the hours of dusting involved, and the whole thing loses a bit of romance.

It must be said, however, that unless you manage to throw yourself in front of a speeding bus when crossing the street on your way to pick up your latest issue, collecting model Roman soldiers is very unlikely to cause you any physical harm, whereas I managed to splash lye into my eye making my latest batch of soap. It hurt like the dickens and gave the phrase "keep your eye peeled" a whole new dimension. There are those who are attracted to the safe yet predictable pastimes, and those who revel in the sense of jeopardy and danger. (And then there are those, like me, who are just a menace to society and could probably manage to injure themselves cross stitching.)

It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.

Resources

Interested in starting a collection yourself? Get some ideas at
www.edicolafabbri.it and www.deagostini.it.

My favorite book on soap making for beginners is this one:

The Complete Soapmaker: Tips, Techniques & Recipes For Luxurious Handmade Soaps, by Norma Coney

Please note: The first editions of this book included a grave error on page 34 ... ALWAYS add lye to water, not water to lye. The new editions have corrected this error.


Rebecca's View is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Rebecca's View - Introduction" for more information.

Rebecca Winke lives in Assisi, Italy and operates Brigolante Guest Apartments. www.brigolante.com

© Rebecca Winke, 2004

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