Time and Chicken

A leisurely two-hour lunch with Jerry at The Pink Door today was the culmination of my three-day weekend, one filled to the brim with good friends, conversation, and Italian food.

On Friday, Jess, Aaron, Rob, and I sautéed lamb in the Marches style (first white wine, then a light mixture of lemon juice and egg yolk), while last night, I brought Civita to Tammie and Mike’s family in Burien with Tony’s recipe for chicken marsala and a simple pomodoro sauce over orecchiette (“little ears,” my favorite pasta shape.)

My meat mallet was put to good use, first with the lamb, then with the chicken as Joseph, Allison, and Melissa took turns pounding out the petti (chicken breasts.) As they flattened the cutlets and I stirred the sauce, I told them about my first visit to the macelleria in Bagnoregio, and how I ended up pantomiming my request for breasts, much to the butcher’s amusement.

Much different than cooking at my house, I enjoyed the chaos around me: three doll-faced kids who were interested in the ingredients and preparation, and their dog Moe, who refused to budge from his rug underfoot, wanting to stay close to the action. Nothing was so gratifying as watching Tammie’s kids slurp up the pasta and chicken tinted with wine that they had helped make; luckily, there was enough room in their bellies for the two gelati tucked away for dessert. We sat around the table after tidying the kitchen, telling more stories and debating which we liked better, the mango or the lemon.

After lunch today, I reviewed the final proof of my book, stopping at the page with a pull quote that reads, “I already know that the value of every day spent in Civita will increase a hundredfold for each one that I’m away.” I wrote that in October, days before I left for Rome.

Though these words could not be more true, I only knew it by a hint of a sensation then, yet as this weekend has proven, the threads strung between there and here are many and mighty.

Besides being fantastic company, one thing I like about my conversations with Jerry is that we always come back to unraveling this mystery of Civita—or, at least trying to. How is it that there are so many lessons to learn in one small, remote town where life is seemingly sleepy?

Between sips of pinot grigio, Jerry said something that is echoed throughout in my book: like life, the profundity of someone’s experience in Civita is directly related to what he or she brings to it. Last month over pizza at Queen Margherita in Magnolia, Helen said that, while she enjoyed her time in Civita, she didn’t have the revelation that I found; then again, she pointed out that she hadn’t arrived expecting that Civita would change her life.

As Jerry and I drifted to the topic of our life paths building up to Civita, he asked me which parent I thought I resembled most in my adulthood. I laughed and admitted that I’ve turned out much more like my Aunt Ellen than either of my parents. It got me to thinking about why that is, and how my childhood had prepared me—or not—for Civita. In fact, my upbringing was manned by a father who wouldn’t let me take French because I’d, “never use it.” (My travels to Paris and Montreal—during which I had no ear for French, regrettably—have refuted this notion.)

More to the point is how telling that one limitation is: neither of my parents thought big. There was no point in taking French because, in their world, none of us was ever going to France.

What has always thrilled and attracted me—and sometimes made me nervous—about my Aunt Ellen is that her approach to life is limitless. She may not travel the world herself, but she believes that the world is meant to be traveled. She supports the investigations that my cousins want to take, whether it’s soccer and surf camp as kids or living on the island of Curaçao or traveling to the Middle East in their 20s. It’s not that she doesn’t fear for their safety, but she realizes that the world is meant to be explored.

It was difficult watching this as a teenager, though I loved my cousins deeply. It seemed unfair that they received a birthright of freedom that I desperately hoped to discover in my own blood. I stood in awe, seeing how my aunt translated her own affinity for sashaying to the beat of a different drummer into creating a world where Zip and Ali were free to not only be who they were, but take whatever path and move at whatever speed they wished to travel in order to become themselves.

In between forkfuls of my squid ink pasta, Jerry suggested that, for those who seek it, Civita provides a place for the hidden side of one’s personality to finally shine through—the hopeful but neglected side, the side that needs sunshine in order grow. When it happens, that other side is finally set free to make its own rules and define itself without limits. In that light, Civita is not only a retreat or a mere paradiso, as Fabrizio called it, but the birthplace of creativity itself, as I’m sure Astra and most of her students would agree.

That’s what happened to me as a writer and as an explorer. Those dormant genes—the same ones that I share with my aunt and cousins—are what really woke up there, I think. That’s why it’s been difficult to bring that wild, boundless aliveness back to the staunch constructs in place in Seattle. Trying to fit such expansiveness into a small mold has been like trying to shove a genie back into a bottle.

And so, as I once again wield my mallet to pound out delicate strips of veal to make saltimbocca for dinner (literally, food that “jumps into the mouth”) I will smile at the thought of kids like Melissa, Joseph, and Allison learning how to cook food from a country halfway around the world. Maybe some day they’ll visit Rome, or even Civita, because the possibility of doing so was planted in their brains (and their taste buds) as children. 

Realizing that the past few years of taking chances and jumping into adventures was my own method of preparing for Civita, I like the idea that this brave new world I’ve found is most definitely still new to me, and that the place where it all began is a mere plane ride away.

Best of all, this time I’ve practicing the language they speak so that when I visit, I’ll be able to contribute and receive in equal measure. And to think, this one little thread upon which I can travel back and forth any time in my mind, and occasionally in reality, all began with learning to cook chicken with Tony in a small stone house atop a tiny hilltown in Central Italy.

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