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Predictable Unpredictability

Valerie Schneider

Predictably, when we announced our impending move to the hinterlands of The South to friends and acquaintances in Ascoli, they widened their eyes, wrinkled their noses, and asked incredulously, “Sud?” with particularly heavy emphasis on the “d”. “Come mai?” Why on earth would you go down there? We already know their views about the Mezzogiorno, so we had expected their reactions.

But the weather was on our side ... specifically, the cold, damp chill and unremitting rain that created dark moods and low spirits also caused them to see the silver lining of going south, where at least the temperature would register higher up the thermometer and the sun had half a chance of shining. They began to express something close to approval at our opportunity.

We had rounds of dinners and get-togethers before leaving Ascoli Piceno. We packed and departed in the rain, just like when we had arrived two and a half years ago. It was sheeting in torrents when we got to our new temporary home on the Costa del Cilento, too. There seems to be a trend of moving in the rain. Maybe there is some deep message in that, but I have not yet figured out what it is.

Also predictably, the renewals of our paperwork, which we had applied for six months ago, were not yet ready when we departed. We had contacted the Immigration Office to check on the status. “Soon,” they told us. “They will be ready soon.” How soon, no body knew. Our friend who works at the Questura also tried pressing the capo to see if they could speed things up a bit. Pazienza, they told him. They had no control of it; they were waiting for Rome to send them back.

Four days after we left, we received the notification that our permessi were ready. Somehow we knew that would happen. A six-hour drive back to Ascoli would have to be planned.

We started to settle in, find our way around, explore a little, and figure out the local customs. We quickly found that the driving is crazier, the accent is thicker, and the coffee is something to swoon over. The bread is also better- thick, hearty and crusty, with salt even, unlike the somewhat mealy-textured, bland bread of central Italy. Our one real disappointment with Le Marche is that the pane is really nothing more than a sauce-sopping apparatus rather than a food group of its own to savor.

When the rain cleared and the sun came out we discovered that Spring was already arriving. Vibrant fluffs of mimosas, riotous explosions of pastel almond blossoms, and exotic bird of paradise were blooming all around us. Delicate yellow wildflowers carpeted the fields beneath the olive trees and daffodils stood up and showed their sunny heads.

Beautiful Italian Sunset

Beautiful Sunset

Since our first evening we decided that we would always try to be at home in the early evening so we could stand on the terrace and marvel at the sunsets. We had forgotten how majestic they are. In Ascoli, the sun doesn’t set so much as it tumbles behind the mountains. Here we get an unrivaled seat to watch as spectacular orange or purple streaks are painted onto the sky. We decided that sunsets are like snowflakes, no two are alike.

Hilltop villages are more plentiful, dangling over the sides of nearly every crest, or tucked into folds of mountain valleys. Many can barely boast a thousand inhabitants, yet they manage to live on ... preserving their historic centers and their rustic charms. We started heading for the hills with picnics, delighting in medieval streets, ancient history, ruins of stone windmills, and sweet old folks who stopped in mid-stride to give us a look-see.

Hilltop Italian Village

Hilltop Italian Village

Despite having lived here nearly three years, it turns out that life in Italy isn’t so predictable after all. We felt a vague sense of déjà vu as we spent several days feeling rather ignorant, not unlike when we first arrived in Italia and didn’t know how things worked. Where is the fresh pasta shop? Well, there isn’t one here, at least not in the off-season. The locals, one barista told me, prefer pasta asciutta. Hence, the pasta all’uovo shop only opens in the summer when “the Northerners” want the stuff. Otherwise, “fresh” pasta is available in packages in the refrigerator case. No prob. I can do maccheroni like everyone else.

We discovered shop opening hours and closing days are on a different schedule, and surprisingly, the grocery stores are open on Sunday mornings, unlike in Ascoli. Bryan’s cell provider is not as widely used and its coverage is not as extensive or reliable, while my signal is stronger and more prevalent than before.

There is also a difference in regional cuisine. In Ascoli, despite its proximity to the Adriatic, the culinary traditions are much more tied to the hills than the sea. The two pesce shops in town were owned by the same rude guy, who didn't like my requests to clean the fish for me. (At least take out the innards, I pleaded, which seemed to be too much of a chore for him, despite Chef Giorgio assuring me it was assolutamente normale to ask for this service anywhere else.) So we shunned seafood unless dining out and partaking of the Fully Monty feast.

I have very little past pesce experience to draw from. I grew up in Northern Ohio, where the only fish we encountered was of the fried persuasion. You could have it on a bun or on a plate, always topped with globs of tartar sauce. Then I lived in the desert for a long time where fresh fish is pretty scarce. Sure, there is the occasional river trout but everything else that swims gets flown in from long distances. I'm sure it's fine, but still ... I always had my doubts about freshness.

But now we find ourselves back on the Mediterranean where I watch the fishing boats tooling around the bay, and where I have chatted amiably with a few of the seafarers while they were dockside repairing their nets or painting their boats. I figured we really should partake while we're here where it's so fresh.

Italian village and fishing boats

Italian Village and Fishing Boats

There is a fish shop down at the bottom of the hill, and while the offerings have looked pretty abundant and good when I have passed by, it is also the local old-guy hang-out. That means that absolutely anything that transpires within the shop is completely open to public scrutiny and any purchase would go something like this:

Me: "Uh, what kind of fish is this?"
Owner: "That's a flounder."
Observer 1: "Mah! She doesn't recognize a flounder when she sees one?"
Observer 2: "That's no flounder, that's a halibut!"
Owner: “Gennaro’s right. That’s a halibut.”

Then a lively and lengthy discussion would ensue while I stand listening, ignorant and fish-less. I've had these experiences before. They can often be very interesting and enjoyable, but I really wasn't in the mood to have my ignorance put on trial.

I went into town to a smallish shop not far from the seafront. I watched the guys delivering the fresh catch just as I arrived, which I thought boded well. I wandered about looking at the fish while being careful to not set my gaze on the squid and seppia. Anything of the jelly or squishy variety is strictly off my list and the sight of their gooey mass makes me a little squeamish.

The guy asked what I wanted, so I just confessed up front, "I'm not sure. I don't know fish well, I'm from the desert." “Eh? Straniera? Va bene. Would you like the sea bass? Or maybe some nice vongole? Shellfish? What type?"

Boh. A fish, not frutti di mare, I said. Quickly grasping that I don't know my bass from a rombo, he gave me a little guided tour, speaking very slowly and loudly, I guess to compensate for my foreignness.

"Qui, questa e` spigola. SPIGOLAAAAA. CapitoooOO?" Si.
"Questo...QUESTO PESCE QUI...," poking at it, "OR-A-TA." And so on.

I chose the spigola and asked him to clean it, per favore. No problem! (Thank God!) He asked what I would be doing with it ("Grilled? Al forno? Do you want it filleted?"), and set about scraping off the scales and gutting it.

We chit-chatted about New Mexico and how the landscape is indeed similar to the John Wayne films he has seen and how that explains my fish ignorance. He handed over the goods, knocked a little off the price and wouldn't take a tip for cleaning it, despite the hand-written sign I spotted saying a gratuity was appreciated for that chore.

I've been initiated; he told me I could come back anytime for further fish lessons and he would make sure I get the nicest ones he has.

Most of the town has figured out who we are (we have heard strains of “loro sono gli Americani,” from passersby), and we are now pretty well acquainted with the area, so we no longer feel like fish out of water. It’s been another adventure and process of adapting. Just when you think you have things pretty well figured out, you learn that even the little things in life can be unpredictable. And in Italy, that’s one thing you can be certain of.

Additional Resources


Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2009

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