Friday, May 18, 2012

Food Inspiration: the last sack of potatoes


'Sack of potatoes' from
 http://www.dreasmstime.com/
Being a starving writer isn’t so fun anymore when the cupboards actually do go bare. The last ten days – the proverbial end of the month – have driven our little family to commit a long string of culinary no-no’s. Cooking up expired lentils, long-frozen hamburgers, sprouting green potatoes. Salvaging rusty cans of pineapple, half-eaten apples, the butt-ends of cucumbers. Eating nacho chips for breakfast, scrambled eggs for dinner, Easter eggs for dessert.

Ironically, it’s time like these that I am most likely to be extravagant with giving away food. Last week I used up the last of our cheese, white flour and salami – not to mention our only vegetables – for a pizza dinner with our friends. Then I used up the last of our whole-wheat flour, raisins and cinnamon making three loaves of sweet bread – and divided two of them up among family and friends. And my acupuncturist.

I don’t blame generosity for these nonsensical splurges but rather a book I read when I was about twelve. It’s too long ago now for me to remember the title or author, but it was a memoir about a Jewish girl growing up in wartime Poland. Her mother’s food supplies run lower and lower until all they have left is a small sack of potatoes which they’ll need to survive on for at least another week. After that, they don’t know where they’ll get their next meal. The little girl’s eighth or ninth birthday comes up and she desperately wants to invite her school friends over to celebrate. Of course, they have no food to offer the guests so a party seems out of the question and the perceptive girl doesn’t insist. However, her mother feels there is something deeply unjust about a little girl not being able to do something as simple and joyful as a birthday party. So she has her daughter invite everyone around and – what the hell – takes the entire sack of potatoes and makes a big yummy potato soup for all the children to noisily lap up. Even if it means their family might starve to death afterwards.

If that’s not an instinct to fight back, I don’t know what is. I still get chills just thinking about it. In the same spirit, I give away our last pizzas and our last bread, but I have the security that the supermarket is just a cash loan away. However, I’d like to think that I too could one day be capable of doing just what they did: one big joyous potato bash in the face of death.

But the happy ending is that they didn’t die of hunger after all and the little girl grew up and published a book about her trying early life and about how brave and inspiring her mother was. And isn’t it not just food but inspiration, in the end, that truly fills us up?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

And in the beginning there was...page one (Italian - English)

Grazie alla bravissima e generosissima Carolina per la seguente traduzione della prima pagina del mio manoscritto, e per avermi dato la speranza che potrei veramente farlo pubblicare in Italia, data il mio scarso successo finora con gli agenti letterari inglesi e americani. Poverini, quanti rimpianti che avranno!

Thanks to the talented and generous Carolina for the following translation of the first page of my manuscript, and for giving me the hope that I could really get in published in Italy, given the limited success up to now with English and US literary agents. Boy, will they be sorry one day.

Lost in the Spanish Quarter, p.1

Le diede il regalo senza preavviso. Lei neppure sapeva il suo nome.

He gave her the gift without warning. She didn’t even know his name.

“Tieni, l’ho fatta per te,” disse, porgendole la cassetta in una custodia scritta a mano con scarabocchi infantili. Per Rebecca, si leggeva. Come faceva a sapere il suo nome?

“Here, I made this for you,” he said, holding out the cassette tape in a hand-written case garnished with childlike doodles. Per Rebecca, it read. How did he know her name?

“Per me?” chiese lei.

“For me?” she asked.

Lui sorrise imbarazzato, il pugno stretto intorno ad una bottiglia di birra vuota.

He grinned awkwardly, his knuckles taut over an empty beer bottle.

“Musica?”

“Music?”

Di nuovo nessuna risposta.

Again no response.

“Grazie.” Stringendo la cassetta, Rebecca sorrise per rompere il leggero imbarazzo del momento. Aveva le mani indolenzite dal freddo, nonostante avesse trascorso l’ultima parte della festa seduta di fronte al caminetto, affumicandosi come un prosciutto.

“Thanks.” Holding the tape, Rebecca smiled her way through the mild embarrassment of the moment. Her hands were stiff from the cold, despite having sat the latter stages of the party in front of the fireplace getting smoked like a ham.

Udì lo scatto della porta al piano inferiore, probabilmente l’ultimo degli invitati che se n’era andato. Però lui era ancora lì. Lei piegò la testa di lato, come se così facendo potesse vedere meglio il suo datore del regalo. Forse l’aveva già intravisto prima, ad un’altra delle loro feste; non ne era troppo sicura. Ma era certa di non aver mai incontrato i suoi occhi prima o si sarebbe ricordata di quello sguardo intento, uno sconosciuto in attesa della sua approvazione.

She heard the thud of the front door downstairs, probably the last of the guests on their way out. Yet he was still there. She tilted her head to one side, as if by doing so she could better see her gift bearer. She may have seen him before, at another one of their parties; she couldn’t be too sure. But she was confident she’d never locked eyes with him or she would have remembered that intent look, a stranger waiting for her approval.

Se ne stavano in piedi in cucina, abbastanza vicini al caminetto da percepire la danza erratica delle fiamme, ma nessuno degli amici che ci si erano raggruppati attorno guardava nella sua direzione: erano persi nel loro mondo, a ridere, con le bottiglie di birra che si coloravano di ambra alla luce del fuoco. Non avevano nemmeno notato l’ultimo dei ritardatari, ora che la festa si era ridotta a questo circolo impenetrabile.

They stood there in the kitchen, close enough to the fireplace to feel the erratic dance of the flames, but none of her friends gathered around it were looking her way: they were off in their own world, laughing, beer bottles turning amber in the fireglow. They hadn’t even seen out the last of the stragglers, now that the party had dwindled into this impenetrable circle.

Il suo datore del regalo spostò bruscamente il peso da una gamba all’altra, forse scosso all’improvviso dalla consapevolezza di non far più parte della festa. “Beh, io vado,“ disse, posando la sua bottiglia sul bancone della cucina, cosparso di riso allo zafferano e di cerchi perfetti impressi nel vino rosso.

Her gift bearer shifted his weight abruptly from one leg to the other, jolted perhaps by the sudden awareness that he didn’t fit in anymore. “Well, that’s me,” he said, placing his bottle down on the kitchen counter, strewn with clumps of saffron rice and perfect circles stamped in red wine.

“Grazie per essere venuto e…per la cassetta… Scusami, mi potresti ridire il tuo nome?”

“Thanks for coming and…for the tape…I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

“Elio.” Sollevò le sopraccigla come per scusarsi, poi abbassò lo sguardo, il volto che scompariva sotto una criniera di capelli neri.

“Elio.” He lifted his eyebrows apologetically, then looked down, his face disappearing under a lion’s head of wavy black hair.

“OK, beh, grazie…” disse lei, non trovando in gola la forza per ripetere il suo nome. “Già te ne vai?”

“OK, well, thanks…” she said, not finding it in her throat to repeat back his name. “So you’re leaving?”

“Devo alzarmi presto domani mattina. Torno sulla terra per qualche settimana. La terra dei miei. Ci vado sempre a Pasqua. Beh, non solo a Pasqua, ma sai com’è… ”

“I have to get up early. I’m off to the farm for a few weeks. My family’s farm. I go every Easter. Well, not just Easter, but you know…”

Rebecca non sapeva ma annuì lo stesso. “Certo, certo. Beh, allora goditi il tuo tempo sulla terra, voglio dire, il soggiorno sulla terra.” Il suo italiano non era sempre perfetto, tendeva a sfilacciarsi un po’ in momenti come questi, quando era colta di sorpresa.

Rebecca didn’t really know, but she nodded. “Sure, sure. Well, enjoy your farmstay, I mean, your stay at the farm.” Her Italian wasn’t always perfect. It tended to fray at the edges in moments like these, when she was taken by surprise.

Una confusione di saluti e se ne andò. Ora poteva di nuovo respirare. Era stato strano starsene lì in piedi, senza sapere cosa dire.

A clutter of goodbyes and he was gone. Now she could breathe again. It had felt odd standing there, not knowing what to say.