Our first Christmas in Piemonte, Italy
It was with great excitement that we approached Christmas knowing this was our first experience ever in this wondrous land at this festive time of year. We decided to invite my mother for her first experience too and looked forward to her arrival, particularly as she was bringing little goodies, such as home made mince pies, with her that we were not able to have the time to make here from scratch.
Our plans for rest and relaxation though came to a grinding halt on the 19th December, the snow came. Now, for those who may have read my blog from March 2016 you will know that I am not a fan of snow here at all. I love the idea of a white Christmas, as long as I am squirreled away inside with a larder of food and lots of firewood and a full gas tank. This time we were caught out, returning from a trip to Dublin we arrived from Milan into Piemonte without a snowflake in sight. Once we got to the Langhe there was snow everywhere and, as we drove deeper in, the snow on the ground appeared to have grown in depth by an inch every mile. By the time we got to our town though things seemed to have been taken care of, and the snow was neatly brushed to the kerb and lots of people seemed out and about getting on with life. We decided, foolishly, to not stop at the supermarket and continue up to the house to put the heating on before coming back down for provisions. Wrong move! We got to our snow-covered driveway and a short way up the hill we got stuck with the wheels spinning faster than a hamster after chocolate on the wheel. We were going nowhere. Andrew parked it ski style so that we didn’t slide back down and stepped out of the car. The snow was about a foot deep and we trudged our way up Andrews shortcut, the recently made steps to the house, rather than risking ourselves in our town shoes up the drive. On a close inspection of the cupboards and fridge I established a possible plan of meals for a few days. The gas tank though was just under 20% and the firewood was limited to about 5 days. To make things worse the forecast read heavy snow all day and night for two more days. Tired out and, as it was dark, we decided to relax on the couch and not move.
The next day we woke and found ourselves snowed in, 14 inches of snow lay on the ground. We started shovelling. It was fortuitous that the car had got stuck so close to the bottom of the drive, as last time I had to dig the 200 metres from the house to the road, this time it was only about 40 metres. The next step was trying to work out how to use the legally obligatory snow chains, we had never opened these before. They looked like a snake’s chain mail and one that had been sliced into ribbons. Fortunately, YouTube came to the rescue and all was revealed. Finally, able to drive out of the driveway, we made it down to town for provisions. On the way back up we spotted our neighbour trying to dig his way out and after a chat Andrew volunteered to go back in the morning and dig him out too, as they were likewise caught out and were off to Milan for Christmas. With all crises averted we finally looked forward to Christmas and my Mother’s arrival.
My mother is an adventurous spirit and had decided to train it from Milan to Alba our nearby main station rather than us drive to Milan. She arrived laden with presents and mince pies galore. Christmas had begun.
After much Twitter and internet research I had decided on pheasant, as the main meal on Christmas day, Turkeys not being readily available. Besides, with the amount of pheasants everywhere picnicking on the land, and in our garden, this had to be the best choice. I went to the local cooperative butcher, a very popular place with the locals and it stocks local farmer meat. The queue was out the door. This is not because of this special time, the queue in this butcher is out the door most days, if you go at the wrong time. I was once trapped in this place in August, unknowingly before a saint’s feast day and was there for nearly an hour while everyone ahead ordered a week’s supply of meat to feed a family of 10, or so it seemed. Having been stuck next to the cash till section for a good 30 minutes I was astounded by the amount being rung up, without fail the minimum had been 60 euro, most were way more. The problem, although I am sure there is some community element to this, is that there is only a husband and wife team running it, with a back-room butcher cutting up whole carcases, the husband cuts up the meat and weighs it at the front counter and the wife rings it up and looks after the small dairy and hams counter next to the till.
The main issue, for me anyway, is the fight to get to the front and be served. When I first came to Italy I was prepared for the 'no queue' rule and each for their own, that, I thought, was the Italian way. But like many things in this perplexing country, there are local customs too. Mostly, in my town, it is a contradiction and more often there is a queue. Generally, it is the women who visit the butcher to get their weekly meat. The men lurk about outside with a cigarette, or sit on one of the benches inside, chatting to their neighbours. The women are a force to be reckoned with though. Because we are so close to Switzerland there are the contradictory 'courteous' women who seem to have an organised queue going, some of these ladies are Swiss in colouring too with blonde hair and blue eyes, which may explain their orderliness. Then there are the 'stranieri', like me, who follow the queue too. But the alpha Italian matriarchs upset this pretence to order and will appear suddenly directly ahead of me in the queue, with still 5 people ahead of me to go. Then another will appear at my side and start to inch further ahead of me on their tiny block heels, which, all women of a certain age, all wear here. I’ll look around for help with these 'ladies' and see the women behind me talking to each other saying things like, ‘She’s ahead of me (as in me), I don’t know who that woman is who cut in though, do you know her?’ etc. They will gossip like this for ages but do not assist in explaining to the one who cut in that there is a queue. This is perplexing, as it can take at least 30mins on a Saturday to get served. Four days before Christmas I was there for 40 minutes. One woman in her fur coat walked in to the shop a good 20mins after me and stood at my side, thereby bypassing about 10 people behind me, strangely she was joined by her massive burly farmer husband who kept leaning into me to talk to his mate on my other side. This went on for 10mins and then, as I finally got to the counter, she cut straight ahead of me, bold as brass. I was apoplectic. I could hear the murmuring women behind me tut tutting and turned to look at them to apologise but they just gave me a little wincy smile, as if I were to blame for them having to wait another 10mins. When it was my turn I asked to pre-order a pheasant to collect on Christmas Eve and the butcher practically laughed at me, and said something in Italian to the people in the shop, about this ‘weird’ order, they all tittered. He shook his head, no it would not be possible to get a pheasant. I asked for venison, surely with the deer ranging in my eye sight every day this was possible. Again, another joke, at my expense, was made to the onlookers, no, this would not be possible either. So, I had to settle for a Capon chicken for Christmas Day and a couple of guinea fowl for St. Stephen’s day. Not quite what I had envisaged (but joyful nonetheless). It was akin to another trip there, on a quieter day. when I had asked him to leave some fat on a pork joint, after all he trims every bit of fat off everything there, it’s the Italian way. Again, another joke was made by him to the waiting customers, even his butcher in the back room leaned around the door frame to see who had asked for such a thing. I may as well have been asking for a McDonald’s Happy meal. I really can’t say I enjoy going to this butcher and only go because the meat is totally out of this world, which makes it worth it every time. Hopefully, when I am more fluent in Italian, I can come up with a couple of useful phrases to throw back at the butcher and the Signora’s when they 'but in' next time, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Read the next installment, just when you thought the weather couldn't get worse...
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