Neron's Window

Neron's Window

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve rushed down on the little hill town and Neroni found himself eating tidbits from the early evening meal before midnight mass began. It had been snowing here, as it had all over Europe, and all the family cheerily agreed that going down the big hill to the town below earlier in the week for needed items and gifts was good because now the road was a ribbon of snow and ice, too treacherous for the little car to travel. Everyone pulled out the heaviest coats, scarves, gloves, and boots for the march to San Nicolo Chiesa for the beloved service. Papa wanted Nonni to remain at home, but she scolded him, “Aldo, I have nevered missed this service, and I do not intend to miss it now. Just hold on to me, and the angels will protect us as we walk to the church.” She took his arm, and following Mama, Pietra, Simone, and Cecelia, Nonni and Papa began their walk to church. Neroni scooted out the door as it was opened for the family's slippery troop up the hill, with all hoping they could safely enter the church doors with no falls.

Mama called after him, "Neroni, get back in this house. That snow will sting your paws!" But Neroni just turned around and looked at her with a sly little grin and scampered off. He knew another way to the church, where he was headed after he called for Mr. Gray Gatto to join him. These two cats loved the midnight mass. They usually sneaked in around the entering worshipers as they pulled the heavy doors open to the candlelit church. The two cats peered into the dim light to check to be sure that Mary, Joseph, shepherds, sheep, and other participants had not moved from their places, and suddenly they noticed that Bambino Gesu seemed missing.

Neroni then remembered and reminded Mr. Gray, "Always He is brought in by some of the bambini picoli. Just hold your breath so that they do not drop him." The two cats sat on the side close to the old organ as it began to sing out the old, old carols that began the service, and they hummed along in their cat voices, not too loudly for fear of being run out. How they loved the songs.

Finally the priest, along with altar boys dressed in white albs and red cassocks carrying the cross, the choir holding their candles and song sheets, and the children with Baby Jesus processed in to the notes of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and all took their places. Watching, listening, and sniffing, the cats grew sleepy after the incense spread up and down through the stone building,as the human voices prayed,the"Holy, holy, holy" rang out, the kneelers creaked as the Christmas people whispered their prayers after the special food they always ate, that Bread and Wine, and finally the lighting of each individual candle as "Silent Night" floated up to the angels hovering over the whole scene, which only Neroni and Mr. Gatto could see as they flutterd their wings. Then, the resounding "Joy to the World," ended this heavenly, once-a-year celebration that had taken place in the hill town for more than 1000 years. Neroni and Mr. Gatto made sure to rub their whiskers and face sides against the manger as the Christmas believers and church comers turned in their coats to face the cold and snow outside. Bambino Gesu always smiled at them as they left their gift of love on his bed. Quickly, before they could be seen, they ran out the big, wooden door as the priest closed it shut. The sounds of, “Buon Natale” that the humans shared made the cats smile and turn down the lane. Home was waiting. Registered & Protected

Monday, December 20, 2010

Getting ready

The days of Advent continue to proceed as the beginning winter winds begin their march into the hillside town, and Neroni chooses to sit, more and more, inside, in his window with his pink nose pressed against the chilled glass. These days of quietness have taken on a little more bustle as Christmas draws near, and Neroni takes his place in the little car; even though most cats hate cars, Neroni never misses an opportunity for a ride. Mama, Papa, Pietra, Simone, and Cecelia cram into the small auto, and Neroni patiently sits on Pietra's lap. It is time for a ride down the big hill, swaying side to side on the curving road, to the larger cita, or city, that sits at the bottom. Each member of the family has an errand to take care of, including Neroni.

Papa has to go see the lawyer, Signore Caspari, to double check any end-of-year forms and applications that are required for him to keep his small business open. And there are many,many forms in the country of Italy. So Mama drives, and Papa gets out with his beautiful leather bag full of papers on Via Roma where Signore Caspari's office sits, a grand old building which provides a home to Tomas and Pepe, law office cats. They get generous helpings of chicken, cream, and other treats from Lawyer Caspari and his family, as they live above the office and know that the cats keep the area free of the squeaky mice. Papa checks his nicest watch and tells them, "Come back in two hours for me. I should be finished with all these forms by then." He waves as Mama puts the little car into first gear and zips back into the center of town.

Turning left onto Via Tutti, Mama drops off Pietra and Simone at Vanelli's bakery with instructions to pick out the best baked goods from the bakery, to talk to Giacamo about his recent trip to London, and to do a little shopping for Christmas gifts, as everyone in the family loves the Lindt chocolates that grace the side display case. Since they, too, are chocolate lovers, Mama gives them a little money to get a hot chocolate while they wait for her to return. With them out of the car, Neroni gets a little more space to relax before Mama gets to his stop.

Neroni jumps out at Christ the King Church at the Piazza Cristo Re and trots next door to visit with the French ex-pat gatto named Jean. These two gatti have been buddies for many years, ever since Jean's owner, Therese moved into the little town in the late 1990's. Therese had moved here to get away from the noise of Paris and to help with her husband's family business.

The two gatto meow and screech a greeting in CAT, since Jean does not speak Italian very well and Neroni knows only a few words in French. CAT is so much more comfortable, any way. They whip around the building into the little garden that lies on the ground between Therese's house and the church. After some play chasing the little birds in the garden, the two gatto tip-toe quietly into the church to check out the creche or prespe and to be sure that Mary and Joseph haven't moved and that the shepherds and sheep are behaving. A cat can never be sure about these human-like figures that just seem to stand all day and all night. Also, those pesky mice can run in and make a snack of the wheat straw that lies in the manger, and Neroni always enjoys helping Jean control these brown, round, squiggly-tailed teethy animals.

Now Mama and Cecelia drive to the COOP to do the necessary shopping for all the ingredients and supplies needed for the Christmas Eve pre- and post- midnight Mass repasts. For the delight of the coming Christmas evening and especially for this time alone with Mama, Cecelia giggles and squeals. Nonni would have come with them, but she was a little achy today with the cold weather and thought she would remain at home and begin some of the last minute cleaning for this big night. So she helped to make out the list of needed items last night before saying her prayers and getting into her bed.

The COOP sits on the edge of town, at the bottom on a little hill next to the road that runs throught the olive, grape, and sunflower fields out in the country. The COOP sells all sorts of fresh fish, seafood, meats, and fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as all other baking and cooking ingredients. Aisles of other goods, such as sweat pants and shirts, cooking utensils such as espresso coffee pots, and toiletries and paper goods such as cards and wrapping paper wait for customers with needs beyond food items and who do not want to trade in the smaller, more expensive shops closer in town. In other words, the COOP is the Italian version of the supermarket.

Mama and Cecelia take out the beautifully written list and find these items listed: little octopus (as no meat will be eaten on Christmas Eve), chicken to make chicken broth for the soup, flour and eggs for the pasta capelletti (little hats)to be served in the soup,and for the lasagne for Christmas Day, cream for the cream tart, eggplant, finocchio, nuts, fruit, and brandy. As they drive their cart from aisle to aisle and pick out the best for their table, Mama and Cecelia share their little jokes about what fun Papa, Nonni, and Pietra and Simone are missing, but especially how Neroni would love to ride in the buggy. Mama chuckles, "Can't you see him jumping out on the fish table and telling the clerk to add some eels to the order, as well as some prawns?" Cecelia adds, "And how about his saying, 'Two extra containers of cream, please.'" for his expensive habit.
For helping her, Mama selects a box of special cookies to share with her brother and sister, just one or two at a time, to satisfy the longing for the delicious traditional treats which will occupy the big side board on Christmas Eve and Day. They complete their shopping, drop a few coins in the beggar's can, and rush to the car as a huge hand of wind pushes into the little valley where the COOP stands.

Into the little car they jump, and up the hill into town they drive, picking up Neroni, who is ready for a nap after scampering around with Jean, Pietra and Simone with bags from Vanelli's, and then Papa, his bag bulging with more forms to fill out at home--home on the narrow, cobblestone street in the town on the hill, just down the street from St. Nicolo's church, home with Nonni who has made delicious, hot vegetable zuppa and warm garlic bread for lunch, home with the window for Neroni to look out and then a much needed nap on the special blanket with dreams of the coming holiday. Registered & Protected

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Shorter days mean...

Neroni sits in his window on a frosty morning in early December and sees the local artisans hurrying up the lane to Chiesa di San Nicolo, or St. Nicholas' Church. He decides he wants to get in the unofficial parade and cries at the door until Nonni lets him out. He scurries down the steps and turns into the cobblestone lane and then turns right up the narrow street that leads to the church. So many things happen at this time of year, now that the olive harvest is over, and Neroni is always curious about what he might see or even better, taste.

Neroni had walked unobserved into church this past Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, to watch the lighting of the first purple candle nestled in the large wreath sitting on a stand close to the altar. The child who lit the candle is one of Neroni's favorites, as she always pets and strokes him and has tib bits for him to eat, such as bites of cheese and chicken. The singing in church was so sweet, too, that he sat down on a coat lying on a back pew and fell asleep while the priest spoke his words of preparation for the coming day of celebration, Christmas. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves, here.

Today, Neroni notes, the artisans are carrying the members of the Holy Family, well, statues of them,that is, in their arms, to set them into the presepe, or manger scene, at the church. Neroni recalls hearing about how that wonderful Saint Frances, who came from just down the way in Assisi, with the help of Giovanni Vellita, thought of setting up the very first creche, and the tradition of having artists create landscapes and beautiful statues for the scene soon traveled all over Europe, and now countries all over the world have their own versions. Neroni runs and rubs on the leg of the man carrying the Madonna, hoping to catch a glimpse of her loving face, but the man only tells him,"Be careful, Neroni, before you get stepped on. We need to get this done. There are more parts to bring to the church. Do not get in the way." As he mostly follows human directions, he trots along side this instant procession.

When they get to the church, the artisans begin to do their magic, arranging, freshening the paint, applying new cloth, renailing parts of the creche that have come lose, and singing, always singing. From the church hall, the smell of fresh coffee and cream, pannetone, and warm biscotti entices Neroni to leave the manger scene to find the source of these wonderful scents and to hint with a meow that he would appreciate some cream. He is indulged and licks his lips of the smooth, white cream which he adores. Satisfied with his ability to have turned on his charm to get such a treat, he returns home to find everyone excited about the coming feast day of San Nicolo, St. Nicholas, himself, for whom the church was named.

Neroni has often told his American cousin, Sylvan the Cat, that Italian children are not so familiar with this character known as Santa Claus, but everyone knows that the old elf with a pipe in his mouth is a descendant of St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, who was generous and who became the patron saint of children, sailors, and those wrongly imprisoned. But Advent is not about Santa Claus, it is a time for reflection, for house cleaning, for getting things in order before the Christmas feast. So, Neroni understands as the family gets ready on December 5 for San Nicolo's day on December 6 by putting their shoes outside their doors. As Neroni sniffs each shoe, he finds inside a carrot and a bit of straw for San Nicolo's horse. He knows this is good for he has seen both the horse and the saint. The house is quiet, as the children study and prepare their homework for the next day, and Mama and Nonni set the table and prepare the soup and salad for the evening meal.  Neroni settles into his blanket covered chair and drifts off into a pleasant late afternoon nap as sweet songs are softly playing on the IPod docking station, which sits next to Nonni's old radio. After 30 minutes of solid sleep and as he makes a turn around on the blanket, he spies both women writing something while the soup puts out its delicious aroma. His eyes slowly close again in dreams of some of the soup for his dinner, too, as it is pollo, or chicken.

The next morning, December 6, Neroni jumps down from his toasty warm blanket and stretches, oh those back leg muscles are tight. He has heard the noise from the kitchen and sees the table reset for breakfast in the prettiest red cloth, shiny dishes, and wonderful small statues of San Nicolo arranged in the middle. The children chatter about what they have found in their shoes from the the beloved saint: chocolate candies, a tiny flashlight, a new pair of mittens to keep away the cold, and letters that are to be brought to the table to share. Each person, including Mama, Papa, and Nonni, has found a letter from the saint in his or her shoe. They read aloud what the saint has noticed about their growth in character, changing good habits for bad ones, and noting the works of kindness for others that they have accomplished but not always made public, as well as suggesting that this coming year should continue to bring improvement.

Neroni sits on Nonni's lap as these lovely humans, his umani, read their letters. He tilts his head and looks straight at their faces, for he has witnessed these changes, too. Nonni rubs his gorgeous black fur, and he waits patiently for the breakfast to begin, cafe latte, eggs and pane, and some delectable grape jelly. Pietro, the youngest child, gives him a bit of cream and a bite of his eggs for his treat for the morning, his gift from San Nicolo, for his love of his family and good behavior, which includes staying off the kitchen counter, scratching only the post with the carpet (Nonni will scold him if he goes near the sofa edge), and waiting until at least 6:00 am before the first word of CAT comes out of his mouth. He, too, knows in what areas he needs to improve. Then he oversees the children out the door to school, the kitchen cleaned up, and then leaps up to his blanket again, as it is time for his mid-morning nap, time to dream again about San Nicolo and that horse of his, before it is time to sit by his window and watch.... Registered & Protected

Friday, November 26, 2010

What is this Thanksgiving event?

Neroni watches the TV intently everyday, especially the BBC. He, by the way, is a tri-lingual gatto, since he understands Cat, Italian, and English languages, although he speaks mostly in Cat. He listened and observed carefully all during the past two weeks as the BBC discussed Thanksgiving in the United States. Deciding to find out first hand, or paw, should we say,about what this event is really about,  he contacted his dear cousin, or cugino, in the US, Sylvan the Cat. Neroni found the traditions of the holiday very tasty sounding, and he wished that some year he might be able to share in such a delicious day. On the other hand, Sylvan asked what might be a similar event or holiday in Italy. Neroni told him in very clear Cat about the Olive Harvest, of which he has first paw knowledge since his umani family takes him and the children to their cousin's estate out in the Tuscan countryside every year to participate in this work and festival.

This special event also comes some time in November. First comes the harvest itself where nets are positioned below the trees which are hit with long poles of bamboo or metal to make the olives fall. If they do not fall, the gatherers must climb ladders to pick them one by one and place the precious fruit into baskets whose contents are added to the number of olives in the nets. This can last all day, and by evening the harvest takes on its festival atmosphere with a lucious dinner, perhaps in the olive grove itself, always accompanied by a rich local wine, toasting to the Earth, enjoying its gifts, and completed with laughter and songs. At the end of the harvest, the gatherers take their bounty to the press, where the first pressing makes what is known as extra vergine oil, so light, so delicious that it might be tasted right there on some Italian bread such as bruchetta, and a picnic begins. Then, carried by the press workers, the bottles of oil arrive in a basket, ready to take home to the sacred place in the cucina, or kitchen, to sit next to the spritely aceto, or vinegar, at the ready to bless the salads, breads, pastas, any ingredient that needs a bit of olive and grape for smoothing out and spicing up the day's meal, or pasto, a reason for grateful praise to the Creator.

In some Tuscan villages, this harvest might include a festival to commerate the life of a saint, such as St. Celement, whose special day is November 23, and who served as the fourth pope. In fact, cousins from Rome have reported to Neroni that ancient ancestors observed Christian worshipers in the second century who gathered quietly and secretly at an apartment to prevent being found and executed. Over this original building now sits the basilica which was built in the sixth century. The Christians dedicated this lovely structure to St. Clemente, and today they celebrate his special day with a parade with the church crucifix carried by priests and altar boys, his statue adorned with flowers, and food booths and singing, praying, candle lighting, and joy in the blessed harvest of both the olives and the souls who have been remembered earlier in the month at All Saints Day. These cousins from all over Italy love these festivals as the excitement to watch and the tid bits of food that fall to the ground allow for much fun, as well as all the children who are there to pet and play with them, the gatti of the region. No turkey and dressing, but Thanksgiving none the less. Then home to warmth, that special blanket, the rubs from loving owners, and at last a deep, autumnal sleep during the quiet night of November.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The aroma of bread baking

Nothing beats the wonderful aroma of bread baking. Neroni finds the aroma almost intoxicating, along with the lovely smell of seafood. And not being very far from either most of the time, has him running to the kitchen door of whomever is preparing such delicious treats. Now, it is unusual for a cat to love bread, but even cats in Italy love their daily share. When Mama or Papa take out the flour, cornmeal, eggs, yeast, and salt to make the rustic, Tuscan style bread, he comes running, ready to lie on the brown tile floor and watch and listen while the oven begins to hiss its warm-up sounds, and the flour falls into the bowl as it decends from the old tin sifter. He notices how quickly the cook's hands move to include the salt and to make a "well" in the middle to provide a warm place for the water and yeast. Then, after mixing, he knows that he must wait ten minutes for the lovely smelling bubbles to arise and for the flour sides of the well to be moved into the center with the yeasty water. Then after the current cook pushes it all around, a ball begins to form and Neroni looks with interest at what happens to this ball. Humans call it kneading, just like his kneading of the old carpet piece placed near one of his favorite sleeping spots, the south facing window, where in the afternoon between 2 and 5, nothing much passes by and he can get some needed rest.

Finally the ball goes into the old stone bowl, and the baker of the day places it beside the large, stone-lined oven to rise to perfection. Here, Neroni waits for the cook to turn to prepare other dishes for the evening meal and he hopes there might be some of his favorite included on the menu: seafood, especially octopus. Oh, the delight of those little fellows swimming in water, then gently placed on the cutting board and salted, cut, and ready to join the pasta in Mama's red sauce for dinner. If he is lucky, he just might be given a tid bit or two for his afternoon snack before that much needed nap.

After his sleep, Neroni comes awake with the sound of the dough ball being punched down on the floured counter top, then shaped by the knowing hands into a marvelous loaf to be placed in the cornmeal dusted pan, only to sit again by the warm oven to rise a second time to its rounded loaf shape and spread with some egg to add a glow,and then to be placed, finally, in the oven where the smell of fresh baking bread arises and travels out into the house and into the alley. This is where he must now go to make his early evening walk, or passegiatta, to check out the neighborhood and to confer with the other gatti as to what will be on their dinner tables and to assure them that his will be the best. Fresh bread, an antipasta, and penne and octopus, with lemon cake and espresso for afterwards, with a probable lick of cream from the whipping bowl for him, as everyone knows he loves that taste. Dolce vita.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Who is Neroni?

Neroni, the bello gatto, lives in a small hill-top citta and can be seen just turning the corner, his black tail held high. He commands the narrow alley ways around his casa and up the hill toward the church. Mr. Gray Gatto sits in the doorway and suns his old, grigio fur and warms his old bones as Neroni runs by, chasing a brown topo, or mouse, down the cobbled lane.

Many days, though, Neroni, too, feels the cold and decides that sitting in his finestra, a fine window, tall and elegant and shaded with a lovely Italian linen and lace trimmed tab curtain, is the better part of wisdom. For wisdom for both gatti and umani should come with age; whether to be off chasing the prize, or observing the movements of the day before moving, becomes no decision, but an instinct. Look out the window before moving out into the course of the moment.

So, from his window, Neroni can observe life as it drifts by, the other animals of lower case, and the other, higher case animals, the humans, umani,  that come to explore the bella country of Italy and all the gifts that she has to offer. Who is that walking by just now?

Friday, November 5, 2010


Home! We have returned from Italy! Ah, a sweetness fills us with happiness and thankfulness for a safe trip and return, but there remains the bitter part of such a return, a loss of anticipation of the unknown and the delight of the knowing. Italy took our hearts and minds, but we understand that the knowledge that hearth, home, and family will always have the better part of this experience. Going away brings new insights and memories, but coming home reminds us of the roots that ground us to a place and a life, one that must now incorporate all we have learned and seen.

The idea of sharing what I learned prompted me to begin this blog, a way of expressing the life we saw in Italy, understanding how we might infuse it into our lives here, and praising the Creator for allowing us the gift of travel over parts of this lovely planet, and the delightful gift of home.

Next time, I will explain Neroni's Window and how this picture will always go with me.