The Good Bell Tolls
This year I spent yet another uneventful Fourth of July in Agerola, which now makes it the third consecutive year that I have been outside America for the holiday. As it were, in addition to being the heralded anniversary of America’s independence from Britain, the Fourth of July also marks my independence from America or rather the date on which I left my native country to ridiculously establish my life as an “ex-patriot” in Italy. Two years ago, I was en route to Napoli, Italia. And as it seems that my invitation to Taylor Swift’s Fourth of July party was lost in the mail, I have spent the day reflecting, somewhat nostalgically, on just what sort of mad woman I must have been to leave a perfectly nice life in Washington, DC to live in Agerola, crazy-town, Napoli, Italia.
In the two years that have passed, I have managed to acquire a kitchen, a Permesso di Soggiorno (Italian green card) and oh, also a husband. I am what I always thought I wanted to be, an “ex-patriot.” For years I chased that distinction with the ferocity of a prizefighter and the precision of a doctoral thesis candidate. Somehow, I thought, that life as an émigré, would be the ultimate antidote to what I feared most: banal, boring, office driven, suburban stagnancy. I had longed for the halcyon days of a bygone era. I wanted a terrace, a Bombay and tonic, a pair of riding boots, a whirring paddle fan, a typewriter, and a boozy companion with acerbic wit. In retrospect, I realize, what I wanted to be was a British colonialist. I guess nobody told me that was an anachronistic profession of dubious moral standing.
Needless to say, I have not become a British colonialist. (And thank god for that, especially in light of the Brexit vote). I have, on the other hand, become an unwitting “contadina,” farmer and an ambivalent “casalingha,” housewife. Perched 700 meters above the Amalfi Coast, my adopted hometown of Agerola represents a different sort of bygone era. We follow moon cycles before planting bean crops. Geriatric men terror through town in trucks, transporting tomatoes to markets in the “big city” of Napoli.
Rotund housewives hang their laundry out to dry while screaming at their husbands in a staccato of local dialect. Herds of goats occasionally cause traffic jams on the main road leading into our town. In the mornings, I till the earth in front of our house, planting beans, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. In the afternoons I clomp down to our family vineyard and trim its two hundred year old vines. I pickle peppers. I preserve pears. I prepare pasta. And in the midst of all of this, I wonder if perhaps I traded one clichéd existence of ex-patriot for another of housewife, all while running from the ultimate dreaded cliché of 9-5 office drone.
And I have to ask myself, was it worth it? Would I do it all over again? While working for the Federal Government in Washington D.C., I was so painfully afraid of “settling” of becoming “boring.” I was not alone in harboring this sentiment. Many of my closest female friends juggled work ambitions, online dating dramas and occasional existential meltdowns all the while wondering, “Is that all there is?” We kvetched over drinks; dragged ourselves to the gym; lamented our search for the perfect mate; distracted ourselves with personal enrichment activities like trapeze class, art gallery openings, gin distilling. Privately, I think many of us wondered if some other secret destiny was waiting for us. If we should be eat, pray, loving instead of gym, tan laundering.
When I made the decision to leave Washington, it was like ripping off a Band-Aid, hair follicles and all. I told myself I was leaving. One week later I had rented out my apartment and quit my job. Two weeks later my boxes were shipped overseas. Three weeks later I was in Italy. One year later I was married. It has been an adventure. But it has not been the redemptive journey that gets recounted in memoirs like Eat, Pray Love or Under the Tuscan Sun.
I don’t feel like I have discovered myself. I have found little in the way of new life meaning. I have not become a better version of the Kristin I always was. What I have learned is that maybe I was happy all along in Washington and maybe I am happy here as well. We, especially as thriving, striving, surviving “successful” woman, are all too prone to constantly asking ourselves “Is that is all there is?” or “Do I have it all, and if not, why not?” But in this vicious cycle of self-reflection and flagellation, maybe what gets lost on all of us, is that we don’t need it all, or that we have had the illusive “it” all along.
On my worst days, I look at Facebook- the cavalcade of happy people from my past life with jobs and kids and houses and Vitamix blenders and puppies and I think, oh sh*t, I really screwed up. I live in a bombed out Grey Gardens of house in the middle of nowhere. I am an unemployed housewife. I can’t fit into my old Rag and Bone Jeans. I can’t even remember my old address in Washington. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
It would be tempting to put the best version of myself forward. To curate the persona of free living, bon vivant, zipping around the Amalfi Coast on a Vespa and brewing Limoncello in my basement cellar. And in fact, I do sometimes zip down the Amalfi coast, brew Limoncello and set off to Capri, albeit on a public ferry and not a private yacht. I also cover zucchini seedlings in rabbit poop and massage eggs out of chicken butts. Somewhere fantasy and reality collide and I am just living this new life I chose in Agerola, Napoli, Italia.
An 88 year old neighbor of mine, whom everyone calls “o filosofo” is fond of saying, “a bona campana se sente ‘a luntano….. the good bell is heard from afar.” I never used to give this old Neapolitan proverb much thought. This same neighbor also once told me, apropos of nothing that “the mother of idiots is always pregnant.” I took it to mean that he thought I was stupid, and screw it maybe I am. I have, however, been thinking about this bell thing a lot lately.
The proverb is meant to convey a source of hope telling us that good things always reveal themselves. I’ve been plaintively waiting to hear that bell toll, to make itself known and resoundingly justify my decision to leave it all in America to have it all in Italia. Perhaps I should start listening.
I stumbled down to our craggy old vineyard this morning, thinking of all that I used to have, all that I gave up, and all I seem to not have. I kicked a wood post. I picked some parsley. I looked over toward the boulder silhouette of Capri in the distance. Perhaps the more free-living, fun-loving ex-patriot version of myself was over there in the piazza slinging back Falanghinas and chatting with Graham Green. But Graham Green is dead. And I am a housewife. I am a farmer. And I am here, petulantly kicking a vineyard pergola.
For a moment, I was tempted to conjure up a new alternate reality. I could leave my life as a disgruntled ex-patriot famer/ housewife/ grape stomper/ mozzarella puller in Italy. I could move to an ashram in India, wear loose fitting clothing and take a vow of silence. But it is so beautiful here today. I can see Capri and lemon groves and realizing I am hungry, I think about lunch. I have zucchini and pasta and an old neighbor brought over fresh Amalfi prawns this morning. Maybe I don’t have it all. Maybe none of us really has "it" all. But today, I have zucchini and that’s certainly a start. Maybe that good bell has been tolling all along.
Scialatielli con Gamberi e Zucchine (Pasta with Shrimp and Zucchini)
Serves 6 as primo
- ½ pound zucchini cut into coins, 1/8” thick
- 12 prawns, shells/ tails removed and reserved, deveined and cut in half
- Cracked pepper
- 1 Lemon
- 3 tablespoons minced parsley, plus one frond of parsley
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 cup white wine
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin oil
- 1lb fresh scialatielli pasta or dried linguine
- Toss zucchini with 1 tablespoon salt in a colander and allow to rest in sink for 30 minutes
- While zucchini is resting, place prawn tails and shells in a sauce pan with 1/2 quart water, 1 cup wine, 1 tablespoon salt, half of lemon, parsley frond and 1 garlic clove to make a prawn stock
- Bring prawn stock to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, reducing to roughly 1 cup
- Remove zucchini from colander, rinse and pat dry with paper towels
- Heat vegetable oil in a large, wide brimmed skillet
- Add zucchini in batches and fry to a blond, placing each batch on paper towel lined platter
- While frying zucchini, bring large pot of salted water to boil for pasta
- Once zucchini is fried, off skillet heat, remove oil and wipe down skillet with a paper towel
- Place scialiatielli or linguine in pot of boiling water and cook 5 minutes for fresh scialietelli or 7 minutes for linguine
- While pasta is boiling, add 1 tablespoon olive oil to skillet, heat over medium flame and sauté 2 garlic cloves until softened
- While sautéing garlic, pat down prawns to remove excess moisture
- Remove garlic cloves from skillet (discard or save for another use) and add prawns
- Sauté prawns until pink on first side (roughly 2 minutes), flip and sauté an additional minute
- Add zucchini, prawn stock and minced parsley to prawns and cook for one minute, stirring with wooden spoon
- Drain pasta over colander
- Add pasta to skillet and toss to coat in zucchini prawn sauce
- Plate pasta in shallow bowls and garnish with lemon zest/ juice (from remaining lemon half), cracked pepper and parsley
- Serve immediately with chilled Falanghina of course!