Operation: Italian Thanksgiving – “La Festa della Gallina”

Ciao amici!  This is my first collaborative post with the C.O.S.I. (Crazy Observations by Stranieri (Foreigners) in Italy) blogger roundtable team.  A fun, talented group of expats taking on Italy one day at a time. We all post once a month on a common theme with different points of view. You can connect to the other members’ fantastic blogs here.  Also, if you would like to share your own experience in Italy about our monthly subject (this time it’s regional foods with a Thanksgiving spin), just use the hashtag #COSI when posting.

For as long as I can remember, in my house Thanksgiving had another name: “La Festa della Gallina” (The Feast of the Chicken).  This term was coined by my immigrant grandfather, Papa Guy.  Every year we would joke about it and ask him to explain the significance of Thanksgiving; he would just shrug his shoulders and ask to pass the stuffing.  It was a holiday all about food – an exorbitant amount of food – and that was good enough for him.

The Italians don’t have much of a clue about how or why this unique holiday is celebrated (then again, neither do some Americans) – but they are quite intrigued by it (Ma quanto pesa ‘sta tacchino?! How much does this turkey weigh?!).  The only saving grace is the fact it’s essentially all about food, as most of their holidays are, which they can certainly relate to and appreciate.

Celebrating Thanksgiving as an expat, as with many other things, has been an adventure and an evolution.  I like to think I’ve mastered it over the course of passing six of them in a country where it doesn’t exist.  But it hasn’t been easy.

My first year here, I’m pretty sure I had either inadvertently forgotten about it, or ignored it all together for the sake of assimilation.  The second year, my husband (then-boyfriend at the time) knew I really missed being at home that day.  I called him from work, glued to my computer screen watching the live streaming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ridden with nostalgia, tears rolling down my cheeks.  So he very sweetly surprised me with an evening out at the Hard Rock Café Rome, where they have a special menu every year.

The third year, I was motivated to see if I could remotely pull off a mini-Thanksgiving for two.  I quickly realized though, since Italians don’t eat a lot of turkey in general, at a last-minute glance the bird was no where to be found.  So, I asked myself: what looks like a turkey and tastes like a turkey, enough to pass off as a turkey?  The biggest chicken I could find, that’s what!  And it was then, during that first attempt at a Thanksgiving re-creation abroad, that I finally understood and celebrated the true meaning of Papa Guy’s “Festa della Gallina.”  I whipped up some mashed potatoes and peas and called it a day.  Gimmi was mildly impressed.

By the fourth year, I finally got my act together and was ready to attempt a true reproduction.  I successfully formed a troupe of brave Italians to share my table with whom, incidentally, were way more excited about it all than they should have been.  Hey, it’s not every day un’americana invites you to Thanksgiving dinner.  But little did I know the search for proper ingredients would be una vera rogna (a royal pain in the…), and they would cost a small fortune when I finally tracked them down.

One of my most enthusiastic friends directed me to her favorite macellaio in Parioli (a wealthy area of Rome).  Never had I seen a more glamorous meat market; it looked like a film set of handsome actors making jokes and suave glances between their choice cuts.  They could get us a turkey, but it would take a month and cost €75.  “Were they going to have to go on a group hunting trip to the Tuscan countryside and shoot it themselves?”  I wondered.  The famous specialty foods chain in Rome, Castroni,  turned out to be the best resource for all the rest of the accompanying delicacies – but at what cost?  A can of Ocean Spray cranberry jelly was €8?!  Porca troia!  I’d have to sacrifice next month’s rent to put this meal on.  But I was committed; there was no turning back on Operation: Italian Thanksgiving.  And it was a grand success.

Last year,our group reunited again and had a fantastic time cooking and enjoying together.  I had created a new tradition in my new home, and it felt great.  Oh, but I did wise up and ordered the turkey from my local butcher.  He only wanted €30.  Had a great laugh when I went to pick it up though.  The conversation went something like this:

Macellaio: That’ll be 60 euro.
Me: Seems like a lot – the guy I ordered from said it would be around 30…
Macellaio: 30 euro, for a 35-pound turkey?
Me: 35 pounds?? I asked for a 10 to 12-pound turkey!
Macellaio: Ooooh, wait a second – you ordered the female turkey… You must be the other American (good to know there were only two of us in town, and she had the bigger oven).

Pulling off a stellar Thanksgiving in Italy means adapting to what’s available and unifying it with as much tradition as possible.  Trust me, your average peas are much better with a little pancetta added in for good measure anyway.  Italy makes everything taste better, so of course, Thanksgiving does, too.

Happy Feast of the Chicken to all!

10 Things I Hate About Italy

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love Italy. But admiration alone doesn’t guarantee life as an expat will be an endless smorgasbord of pleasure and delight (well, literally it might, but not figuratively).  Oh no, you’ve gotta earn every drop of that mouth-watering gastronomic goodness; you pay for it with your blood, sweat, and tears, amico mio.  No matter how well I’ve assimilated to life here , there are certainly still times I view this country from a foreigner’s perspective – and if I concentrate on it too long, I realize there are a whole lot of things that can really girarmi i coglioni.

I’m typically someone who refrains from making conclusive statements before evaluating all sides of a situation (unlike those ignoramuses I detest who come back from a brief vacation abroad and are suddenly cultural experts on a place, making sweeping observations and statements like, “In Italy, everyone…”).  Generalizations are exactly that – but I’ll allow myself to indulge for a moment.  After five years here I think I’ve earned the right to make a few generic, open-ended, (dare I say) judgmental statements.

Hate is a strong word – but hey, life can’t always be a love fest, no matter where you are.  So, here they are, 10 things I hate about Italy:

1. Daily driving, which is absolute anarchy (in Rome, at least).  Imagine the chaos that would ensue if  traffic laws were virtually non-existent, and those which did exist were barely enforced.  Wait a sec, you don’t have to imagine it – just come to Rome.  The concept of getting pulled over essentially doesn’t exist here because of a lack of police presence on the streets, which makes the roadways a complete free-for-all.  You are literally at the mercy of your fellow motorists, which is not at all a good thing, since most of them are either in a hurry, in a tizzy, or just straight up stronzi (jerks, to put it lightly).

2. The post office. I’m pretty sure it was the tenth circle of hell in Dante ‘s “Inferno” – and if he didn’t include it, he should have.  I detest the place so much in fact that I haven’t physically mailed anything in at least four years.  People take a half-day off from work to accomplish something at the Italian post office.  In true useless bureaucratic style, a simple task is made difficult.  It’s probable you’ll leave with an acute hypertension problem.  Thank God I happen to live here in the age of online purchases and gifts sent directly through Amazon, otherwise I’d be a wreck.

3. Those stupid, tiny napkins at every bar that don’t absorb anything.  They seem to be coated in plastic, which makes no sense.  It’s like they’re having an existential crisis: if a napkin doesn’t properly absorb liquid, then what purpose does it exactly have?

4. The privately-owned shops and boutiques.  Ever suffered an anxiety attack while shoe shopping?  You will if you dare to enter one of these stress centers.  From the moment you open the door, the sales woman pounces and tension grows.  She immediately either: a.) wants to know exactly what you’re looking for; b.) insists on showing you things you’re entirely uninterested in; or c.) stalks you around the store in silence, just close enough to freak you out.  If you do show slight interest in something by merely grazing it with your hand, she feels the immediate need to inform you the item also comes in blah-blah colors and blah-blah sizes, and follows up with a brisk, “Can I wrap it up for you?”  Ten minutes in, and you’re ready to throw money at her and beg for mercy as you run for the door.

5. General obsession with health issues.  Everyone is always ready to self-diagnose or diagnose your symptoms (and most Italians are annoyingly proficient in anatomy).  Only in this country could you hear someone say in normal conversation, “Mi fa male il fegato” (my liver hurts).  In the States, most people couldn’t even begin to tell you where their liver is, let alone whether it hurts; we tend to lump our entire torso and its contents into the all-encompassing “stomachache.”  Then, there are the all-too-frequent discussions about digestion.  TMI, italiani! (not that TMI exists here).  Even young people habitually say things normally reserved for 80-year-old women, like: ”Mi piacciono i pepperoni, ma non li posso proprio mangiare – non li digerisco” (I like peppers, but I just can’t eat them – I can’t digest them).  I always thought it was just my immigrant grandmother who was freakishly in tune with her body (she would complain of  joint pain when it was about to rain), then I found out the whole damn country is one big pseudo-clinic of hypochondriacs.

6. Total wimpiness when it comes to the weather.  As soon as the temperature drops below 60 degrees in the fall, everyone begins to fret about the cambio di stagione they have to do at home (switching of summer/winter clothes), and they start dressing as if they lived in the Arctic Circle.  Please, people, I grew up in Ohio – your light rain and chilly temps are our Spring Break.  Then there’s the simultaneous widespread fear of the menacing colpo d’aria (cold blast of air), which, if caught without a scarf, can send you al letto (to bed) for days.  And the worst part?  I have also succumbed to this fainthearted fate, and never ever forget my scarf.  Disastro!

7. Complete lack of political correctness.  I once saw a job announcement posted in a store window advertising a position for girls with a “bella presenza, età massima di 28,” (good-looking, maximum age of 28). Seriously, they can actually get away with that?  Yes, for some reason they can – and it’s ridiculous and infuriating.

8. You always have to worry about having change on you everywhere you go.  Whenever you buy anything, every cashier, merchant, and place of business asks if you have exact change.  For example, if your bill comes to €15.62, they ask if you have thirty-eight cents.  Seriously, who has thirty-eight cents on them, all the time?  I don’t, and I certainly don’t want to have to worry about having it.  But yet I have to; it’s another thought I’m forced to squeeze into my limited brain space before going anywhere.  Otherwise, I will undoubtedly be haunted by the panicked, “Do I have any coins?” thought whenever I’m lucky enough to actually find a parking spot, or need a tip for the nice Indian guy who pumps my gas after hours.

9. The fact that the employment situation is so dire that people actually have to invent jobs that don’t exist.  No job to be found?  No problem!  Just park yourself at the nearest traffic light, parking lot, or gas station and become an honorary employee.  No, I don’t need a lighter that doubles as a laser pointer, or yet another pack of cheap tissues, grazie.  It’s a sad reflection on the state of the Italian economy when you feel obligated to pay someone for a service you really didn’t need or ask for in the first place.

10. Overly predictable people, and an awkwardly regimented society in general.  In Italy, there aren’t many people with complex identities: you are what you eat, wear, and do. Usually, what you see is what you get, without many surprises or exceptions to the rule.  From the perspective of an American used to a diverse society, that’s a strange concept.  It’s almost too easy to pinpoint a person’s social status, political beliefs, or even profession by appearance alone.  Also, much of the overall structure of society is based on the Italian eating schedule (which incidentally I’ve fully adopted, since I think it’s one of the few structural things they get right).  But I must admit it’s strange that in a country of more than 60 million people, you can actually plan your day around this schedule to avoid traffic.  For example, grocery shopping on a Sunday is a nightmare just around noon, but you can bet it’ll be a breeze from 1-3pm when everyone (and I mean everyone) is at home eating lunch. Honestly, it’s almost creepy.

That makes ten, but I think I feel a series coming on…

Check out the opposing viewpoint written on a happier day: 15 Reasons to Love Italy

Came across “Austin Powers Goldmember” on TV, dubbed in Italian…

It’s all quite hilarious, but the best part is Fat Bastard, or ‘Ciccio Bastardo’: instead of a Scottish accent, he speaks in Neopolitan dialect – which always seems to be the go-to choice for the most colorful/eccentric/lovably ignorant characters.