Monday, February 27, 2012

The Challenge of Naming Characters

The protagonist in my work is an Italian American woman named Caroline Woodlock. I’ve been challenged on several fronts by people who think she should have an Italian surname. I’d have thought Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, with her Italian mother, would have put that question to rest a long time ago, but apparently not. It seems just a wee bit sexist to suggest that someone must have an Italian father to be Italian. But I digress.

Kathleen Turner as V.I. Warshawski
Choosing names can be a challenge for a fiction writer. I want a name to feel good in my mouth and to tickle my ear when I say it aloud. When I first dreamed up Caroline, I was drawn to the name Caroline Whitlock. It felt right. I had gone through lists of first names and settled on Caroline early. Whitlock just seemed to fit. But as I developed the character’s personal history, I discovered that her father had Irish roots. Some internet research showed that Whitlock could never be Irish, but that Woodlock could. So I changed her name. She seems happy with it and so am I.

When I first began writing in Italy, I scanned the phone directory and newspapers for names, but that was unsatisfactory. Most Italian people can recognize the geographic origin of a surname, but I don’t know how to do that. Internet searches proved unsatisfactory as well because the sites I found were devoted to helping people find their genealogical roots. People could key in their surnames or that of their grandparents to learn where they came from. I wanted the opposite: I wanted to find names from geographic regions to give authenticity to a character from Venice, for example.

I had a wonderful serendipitous find about four years ago on a trip to Florence. I was waiting for a bus, in no particular hurry, when I spied a man selling used books on a street corner. About twenty years ago, I had browsed through the wares of a used book seller on another Florentine street and found a really interesting book about the 1966 flood with lots of photos. But I was in a hurry and I didn’t buy the book. I’ve regretted it ever since. Whenever I’m in Florence, I gravitate to used book sellers in hopes of finding it again.

This time, as I approached the table, a huge book leapt out and bit me: Il Grande Libro dei Cognomi (The Big Book of Surnames). In 450 pages, this book lists the 5,000 most common surnames in Italy along with their origins and meanings. It includes history of the name, such as when it came into the language, and famous people who have had it; the geographic origins plus variations and derivations. It’s a goldmine for me!

The Italian name that corresponds to Miller, for example, has many variations. Mill in Italian is mulino, but the miller (the job) is molinaro. The name varies up and down the peninsula: Molinèr in the extreme north, Monari or Munari in Veneto and Emilia-Romagna regions, and Mugnai in Tuscany. And other variations abound: Molinaro and Mulinari, Mulini, Molina, and so on.

Soon after I found this book, I found another one on a remainder table called simply Libro dei Nomi (Book of Names). It’s much shorter that the other book, but just as useful. It’s the kind of books that parents might use in choosing a baby name. The first chapter gives the signs of the zodiac and their influence on names. The book doesn’t suggest names for particular signs. It lays out the personalities that come with each sign. Because all Italians celebrate their Saint’s Day in addition to birthday, the idea is to balance the personality between the sign of the birth with that of the saint chosen for the baby’s name. I find this amusing, but not especially useful.

The rest of the book is an alphabetical list of names and that is useful. While the entries are brief, they give tidbits about the name’s origins and information about the saint or historical figure from which the name derives.

Since I write for an English-speaking audience, I try to keep things simple. I sprinkle in a few familiar Italian names like Giovanni or Giuseppe. Sometimes I use the English version of a name (Julia for Guilia) or choose names that are just as common in Italian as in English (Amanda or Cristina). I try to avoid names that would cause pronunciation problems for English speakers (Gaetano or Guglielmo). And since the Italian language is such a collection of vowels, I try to balance sounds.

I have made one mistake, a pair of brothers named Nino and Aldo. In retrospect, I fear that confusion may arise because the names are short and end with an “O,” as does their surname. But they’re already in print. I hope they’ll see print again, but since they’re both middle-aged, it’s too late for a name change.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Battle of the Oranges, A Carnival Tradition

Tomorrow is Martidì Grasso, Fat Tuesday, Marti Gras. From Rio de Janeiro to New Orleans to Venice, people are celebrating Carnival with gusto. The Battle of Oranges in Ivrea, Italy, stands out as one of the most unusual Carnival celebrations anywhere.

The event combines several moments in Ivrea’s history beginning with 1194 revolt by the peasants. According to legend, the revolt was sparked by Count Raineri di Biandrate, a bloody tyrant who, among other things, claimed his right to bedding brides on their wedding night. Known as the jus primae noctis, this practice symbolized all elements of this and other tyrants’ mistreatment of the common people. His last intended victim, Violetta, a miller’s daughter, chopped off his head with a sword she’d hidden under her dress rather than submit to his demands. Her act of defiance led to an uprising by the peasants against the Count’s troops. The peasants threw stones, and they won.

A second revolt came in 1266 against Marquis of Monferrato. Both of these revolts are commemorated at Ivrea’s Carnival. A young woman is chosen to be Violetta each year, and her identity is a closely guarded secret until she’s presented to the throngs on the Saturday before Lent. She dresses in a white woolen robe with a sash of red, white, and green, Italy’s colors of freedom and liberty. Her head is adorned with a red cap with a long pointed peak that drapes over her shoulder (more about this cap later). She rides in a golden carriage and tosses candy and sprigs of mimosa to the crowds. Other people represent characters in the second revolt, and they follow along behind Violetta in the procession on foot.

Nobility Pelting Peasants
The Battle of Oranges then begins in earnest and continues over three days. The warriors representing the nobility arrive in decorated carts. They wear helmets and protective padding. The common people are on foot and unprotected. Each of the city’s districts has a distinctive team with unique costumes: Ace of Spades with a red jacket emblazoned with their symbol or the Chess team in black and white checked jackets marked with a red castle. 

Originally, each district had its own Carnival celebration and battle, but they were unified into one city-wide event during Napoleon’s reign in 1808.

Anyone can join the battle, but you must choose a team. Spectators who do not want to participate must wear red caps like Violetta. These caps originated in Phrygia in what is now Turkish Anatolia. This sun-worshiping people wore these caps as part of their religious ritual. In ancient Rome, freed slaves wore these caps to indicate their emancipated status. Later these caps became symbols of the French Revolution, representing liberty. In Ivrea, this cap is known as berretto frigio. If you’re wearing one, it means you aren’t throwing oranges, so in theory, no one will throw oranges at you.

The people of Ivrea have incorporated many elements of their history into the Carnival. Huge cauldrons of beans are set up at various points throughout the city, for example, and generous portions are ladled to anyone who wants a taste. This part of the festival represents feeding of the poor during the Middle Ages. And people representing Napoleon’s soldiers parade in the characteristic uniforms of the period. The most recent addition is text messaging. All the carts have numbers, as do the battles. You can text your vote on the best one.

All the partying comes to an end on Tuesday night with a giant bonfire. Then people hug and kiss each other saying, "arvedse a giòbia a'n bòt" (local dialect for good-bye till Thursday at one). That means see you at the beginning of the Carnival next year.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Little Crusts of Bread

When I first posted this, I made a mistake and left out the anchovy paste in the ingredients list. I've corrected that below. PW, August 27, 2013

Crostini are generally little slices of bread toasted or fried in butter. The word comes from crosta, the Italian for crust. The “ini” means little, thus crostini means little crusts. These little pieces of toast can be served alongside a nice minestrone. Or they can be topped with tasty morsels of meat, vegetable or cheese. Throughout Italy, these tidbits are served as part of a first course in restaurants or as a snack to accompany drinks at bars in the afternoon.

They have become extremely trendy around the world in recent years. Just do a Google search and you’ll find hundreds of recipes, ranging from a simple blue cheese and fig to a more elaborate ham and cheese concoction.

Here in Rome, I’ve been served crostini laden with toasted cheese, sausage and other heavy toppings that, frankly, were too rich for my tastes. I favor those from Tuscany, especially the ones made with chicken livers.

Chef Giuseppe Alessi
Chef Giuseppe Alessi of Florence makes delectable crostini using simple ingredients like fresh chopped tomatoes seasoned with capers and parsley, bound with an emulsion of butter and olive oil. This lovely topping is spread on thin, toasted bread and garnished with tarragon.

He makes other crostini with dried porcini mushrooms soaked in water, flavored with garlic and onion, and cooked for about ten minutes. The mushrooms are then blended into a paste before being spread on those same little pieces of toast.

But Chef Alessi’s greatest crostini are the traditional Tuscan ones made from chicken livers.

Chicken Liver Crostini
Crostini di Fegatini alla Toscana

4 whole chicken livers, cleaned of connective tissue
1/2 onion thinly sliced
1 tablespoon pickled capers
1/2 bullion cube
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 tablespoons soft butter
1 tablespoon anchovy paste
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Put the oil and onion n a small, heavy frying pan and let them cook for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the chicken livers and brown on all sides, taking care not to let them burn.

After another 4-5 minutes, add the bullion cube and the white wine, stirring to allow the cube to dissolve and the wine to evaporate.

After 2-3 minutes, add 1 tablespoon of the butter, the capers, the anchovy paste, and a pinch of pepper.

Keep stirring while increasing the heat for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor and mix until you have a thick puree. Taste for seasonings and add capers, anchovy paste, salt, or pepper as needed. Process again until very smooth.

Serve on fresh slices of bread.

Monday, February 6, 2012

It Doesn't Show Signs of Stopping

Photo by Flavia Pesciatini
Rome has been paralyzed this week by a rare snowstorm. Usually when it snows here, the flakes melt before they hit the ground. Even if snow makes it all the way to earth, it disappears in a few minutes. But three days after the snow began falling here, it’s still clinging to the roadways and rooftops alike.

It’s not that Italy doesn’t have snow. In February, people often celebrate “White Week” by taking a ski vacation to one Italy’s many mountains. It’s just that snow is so rare in Rome that most people don’t even own an ice scraper for clearing wind screens.

From my window, I see many cars still covered with snow, which isn’t really surprising since it’s illegal to drive on Rome streets now without snow tires or chains—things most people don’t have unless they routinely drive in the mountains in winter.

Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, is taking it on the chin for not being prepared. The civil protection service apparently warned him that the severity of the forecast warranted a plan, but he discounted it. He’s now being ridiculed for having 5,000 snow shovels distributed to the public and asking people to go out and shovel the sidewalks!

Photo by Carol Markino
Hardly anybody’s doing that because snow shoveling isn’t in Roman job descriptions. At many apartment buildings, for example, where a porter sweeps up litter from the sidewalk, snow and ice remain packed down from pedestrian traffic.

A fake Tweet, supposedly from the mayor, read, “Snow emergency. Abandon the city. I’m already in Milan.” An enraged Alemanno is vowing an investigation and legal action. That is, if he isn’t forced to resign before he can initiate it.

Shelves at grocery stores are empty. At a chain store near my home Sunday, there was not a single piece of fruit. Just a couple of wilted heads of lettuce. People are comparing it to bread lines during World War II. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but it does reveal Italy’s weak infrastructure.

Things are much worse in other parts of Italy. There have been a number of deaths. People have been stranded on trains. Power is out some places.

Me? I'm worried about the serious threats to several agricultural crops, including wine and olive oil. That doesn’t bode well for my dining table next year.