Saturday, August 15, 2009

In the Contadina’s kitchen

Imagine a kitchen with eight Italians aged 9 to 79 years, who all speak at once in strong dialect on five different topics, and every statement requires you to nod, contribute or respond at appropriate intervals. Then you get the feeling of spending an afternoon with a South Italian family.

The Contadina and her husband live in a whitewashed house, which does not differ significantly from other whitewashed houses around town. The house has two doors that open up to the street. One leads directly into the living room, where a middle-aged son lives, while the other door leads through a garage and storage room into the kitchen. In the hallway cum storage room, you can only just squeeze past the family’s Ape, parked safely next to the cultivator, blankets and winter boots. One of the advantages of three-wheeled work cars is their ability to fit in everywhere.

The hallway leads to the kitchen, where there is a sink with built-in dish rack in one corner, a gas stove with two burners in the other corner - and an abyss in the middle. The abyss is actually a deep staircase to the basement, where supplies of olive oil, wine, firewood, dried figs, cotugna jam and sour lampascioni onions are stored. The staircase has neither railing nor fall protection, and there is an imminent risk of falling, if you are working by the stove, but fortunately it only happened once, and miraculously the young grandchild was not seriously injured. Besides the staircase is covered with an iron plate, when it is not in use.

In the kitchen there is also a staircase (without handrail) leading up to the roof, where laundry is hanged out to dry; there is a well-worn 4-seater dining table, where vegetables are cut and dough for orecchiette is prepared; a refrigerator and a small wall cabinet for cups and plates. Like most of their neighbours, the family has no need for a kitchen table in the north European sense of the word, and thanks to the sparse furnishings the kitchen will accommodate a lot of people at the same time. At our last visit, we were two Danes, the Contadina and her husband plus three of their four sons, one daughter in law and two grandchildren, and all had chairs to sit on.

The Contadina’s husband talked about the drought and the rain, that might spoil the olive harvest. The Contadina herself had news about a grandson, who was having surgery for a broken leg. The daughter in law’s leg was also broken, so she occupied two chairs while praising her 14-year-old daughter for her abilities as a housewife. The 14-year-old would like to talk about her new school, starting after the summer holidays, where she would study childcare and psychology to become a teacher or a nurse. The 9-year-old boy tried to pull a few legs. And the men chatted about work - or the lack of work - and football Everybody had a good time for an hour or two before we all went our separate ways.

I used to wonder, why the Italians always socialise in the kitchen, instead of inviting guests into the softer living room chairs, but I guess, it is just one of life's riddles. It is not, as if the kitchen used to offer a variety of refreshments. A paper cup of espresso or ice coffee is about it, for it is not proper to eat in-between meals. Nor is the kitchen preferred for lack of a living room. Most homes have a room with expensive furniture, but they are just for show. It is much easier to make oneself comfortable in the kitchen with the old sofa and the television.

At the Contadina’s house television and sofa have moved into the dining room, but the dining room and the master bedroom have no windows. And the dim light is a disadvantage to someone like me, who is dependent on expressions and body language for a full understanding of this kind of Italian.

The kitchen has natural lightning from a top window up on the roof, so all in all, I am rather grateful for a space beside the sink, and I'm pretty impressed with how easy it is to cram ten people into such a small space. But then again: A family, who has raised six children and housed a grandfather in a 3-bedroom house with basement, is bound to have some experience.

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