Sunday, February 1, 2009

Angel Cake

(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, January 2008)

It’s been said by millions of people…there is no place as close to paradise as is Italy. Spectacular valley, mountain, and ocean views give inspired artists their manna. Kitchens from every part of the peninsula offer up gastronomical gifts that really just seem to be exercises in pure physical pleasure. Kindness is something inherent in its people, and beauty surrounds every step you take. And just when you thought Italy couldn’t get any better…they go and have TWO Christmases!

January 6th is the real end of the holiday season for Italy. Well, let me rephrase that. 365 days a year is basically the holiday season for Italy. It never ends. I think it all has to do with the great zest for life here, as every single day holds some reason to celebrate. Last summer I was invited to join a large group of friends for dinner. When I asked what the special occasion was, my friend said, “It’s Thursday!” I waited, thinking that something more informative would follow, but nothing came. I finally turned my palms upward in good body-language style and said, “Okaaaay. Aaaaand?” My friend began to laugh, “But Terri, Thursday only comes ONCE a week! We HAVE to go out!!!” I know she was kidding me, but she was kidding only so much. There was a grain of truth to her teasing. Let us not forget, the term “Carpe Diem” was invented on this soil.

But the 6th of January is the end of the Christmas season anyway, best known as “Epiphany” or “Little Christmas” in English, but is also known in Italy as “Befana.” And what kind of holiday would it be if it didn’t have its own mascot? This holiday stars “La Befana,” depicted as a witch-like old woman, dressed in black and riding a broom, bringing gifts to good children, lumps of coal to bad children, and giving your floor a good sweeping while she’s there visiting in the night. Though outwardly she may look like a witch, she isn’t anything of the sort. The Catholic based legend says the three Wisemen stopped by her house and asked her for directions to the Savior’s birth. She had no idea where this child was, but offered them food and a night’s lodging. The next day, when the Wisemen were leaving, they were so moved by her generosity, they asked her to join them. She declined, saying she had too much housework to do (hence her broom symbol). Later however, she rethought the offer, and set out after them. Unfortunately, she never did catch up to the Wisemen and is still to this day, flying around on her broom looking for the newborn Christ.

I think she visited me today.

I’ve come to know many of the “little old ladies” in the village where I live. When I was first learning the language, they were the only ones to speak slowly and clearly enough for me to understand. And their lives just intrigue me. Women who are now in their 80’s and 90’s, were children in the 1920’s and 30’s, and the changes that they have seen astound me. When they describe their childhoods, it sounds to me to be something from a fairy tale. There was no indoor plumbing or electricity in the town, there were Countesses in horse-drawn carriages, coal sellers in the piazza, butchers, bakers and candlestick hear them talk, it seems as if they are recounting tales from the 16th century not the 20th! And the dearest of them all is a wonderful young woman of 85, named Adelia.

It’s the very end of the season for this tourist town. In just a few days, we’ll be shutting the door until springtime, but for another day or two I still have a job. These days, that job consists mostly of just sitting and freezing in our unheated boutique, reading or writing to pass the time, or dancing to try and stay warm. Today I forgot my book at home, so I was deeply engrossed in reading the fine print on the calendar, when I heard the door open. I looked up, trying desperately not to have “PLEASE COME IN!” too obviously plastered on my face, when to my surprise, it was not some lone tourist, but Adelia standing in the doorway.

She carefully held a brown paper bag in her tiny hands, and asked if she was disturbing me. As she was the first sentient being I had seen in the last three and a half hours, I assured her that she was not disturbing me at all. She came in cautiously, as this cold weather does terrible things to her knees and slows her down a bit. She sat the brown bag on the desk in front of me, and said, “I made this myself. Now, there’s no hurry to eat it right away. I’ll be back to pick up the plate on my way back home after Mass this evening.” I peeked inside the bag, curious and excited to know what she had brought. As the bag opened, I saw the pink and yellow layers smothered in a chocolate blanket, and I drooled more than I said, “Oh…Zuppa Inglese…!” Now this particular sweet-treat I had never seen in the States, but it is neither a soup nor is it English. It is instead, a layered sponge cake, soaked in a light liqueur, with bits of candied fruit and chocolate to top it off. And it is one of my favorite things in the Multiverse.

I looked back up at Adelia and asked, not ungratefully, “But why? Why did you bring me this today? That’s so kind of you!”

She came close, and leaned over to where I was sitting. She looked at me in a way that was so kind that I almost felt unworthy of it. She touched my cheek with the back of her hand and said, “I was just thinking of you today, and I know it must be very hard for you sometimes, being all alone in a country where you were not born. I just want you to know that I care for you as if you were one of my children.” And in that moment, I felt like a child. I felt like a child that did not get coal this year, but got the most beautiful gift instead. My eyes began to burn as I fought back the tears that were forcefully fighting to run down my face. Adelia quickly took her hand back, and waving it in the air as if brushing away a flurry of butterflies said, “Well, ok. Maybe more like one of my grandchildren, I AM pretty old!” and gave me a smile that somehow, for that instant, made everything in the world all right.

She gave me two quick kisses, one on each cheek, and then on her way out the door, she stopped, pointed at me and directed, “Now you eat every bit of that, you understand?” And with another radiant smile, was gone.

I don’t see La Befana as an old witch riding a broom. To me, she looks like a delicate angel carrying Zuppa Inglese.

No comments: