Toast and a Summer Break
Ragù di Pesce

Here, There and Back Again


I saw a shooting star the other night; I was standing in front of my grandfather's house, though I have to learn to call it my mother's house now that almost three years have passed since he's been gone. I was standing there, with my neck folded back so I could stare at the Milky Way glimmering above us, hearing the acacia leaves rustle all about when I saw that celestial rush and sparkle past the roof. That very spot is the only place I can still see the Milky Way and every time I stand there in the dark looking up at the heavens I snap right back to when I was a little girl, learning about the universe for the very first time. Decades evaporate before my eyes.


It's been a long time since I wished on shooting stars, or stray eyelashes or any other kind of talismans. I try to make my own luck, don't want to rely on the gods or astronomy for the twists and turns of my life. Lately, I've been trying to focus a little more on living in the moment, zeroing in very closely on how each individual day goes instead of constantly, frantically, looking to the future for the answers. So I remind myself that I am a lucky person: to be alive, to share in the human mystery that is love, to call many places in this world my home, to squirt lemon in my mouth and taste sharp sourness.


I am grateful for the little marinated anchovies my mother and I ate for lunch one day a few weeks ago, especially the ones topped with little cubes of parsleyed carrots. The anchovies were vinegary and sort of sweet, too, and they melted in our mouths.


I am grateful that my mother is happy.


I am grateful that for three to six days a year, I am allowed to lie slothfully on the beach and work on my tan lines and read magazines that proclaim The Return of Fur and revel in the Coolness of Camel Coats, and I'm grateful for borrowed white sandals that make me feel like a little kid again.


I think it's lovely, in this time of instant gratification and international overnight shipping, that I have to go to Italy to eat spaghetti dotted with tiny little clams, so sweet and tender and briny that even the spaghetti tastes infused with the sea. I'll never eat this anywhere else and I like that.


One day I saw a big, beautiful family eating a simple lunch by the beach. I used to be too shy to do anything but stare sort of secretively at this kind of family, hoping no one would notice me looking at them. Now I think life is too fleeting to keep things like that to myself, so I told them how lovely they were and they broke into delighted laughter, all of them. I wish you could have heard it. I wish I could hear it again.


Time goes by slower there than other places. It's good because it leaves lots of room for silly self-portraits, for picking figs, for yelling at the wild deer to scram from the garden, for lavender picking and for finding newborn kittens abandoned in the scrum of foliage across the street.


And then you get impatient and snap at your mother who yells at the cat who slinks away sadly and just like that, the harmony is broken like a guitar string and you feel sort of flushed and awful. Luckily, because that's what I am, lucky, we get over things pretty quickly - we're good at that, we've had to be - and before you know it, I'm back to scratching the cat's chin while I think about what we're having for dinner.


Dinner: melon so sweet it is almost syrup on the plate, and salty slices of prosciutto.
Dinner: arugula from the garden, folded into homemade piadine spread with sour stracchino cheese and eaten with our fingers, oily and hot.
Dinner: grilled tomatoes stuffed with wild fennel-flecked breadcrumbs, charred beneath, juicy and soft within.


I learned how to make ragù di pesce and I promise to teach you how to cook it yourselves very soon, because it is wonderful and you deserve it for being so patient and kind with me while I took August off. I wish I could make it and have you all over for dinner in our garden, with fairy lights strung above us, mosquitoes nipping at our ankles, the crickets keeping us company in the gloaming.


I miss my grandfather and his gnarled knuckles, his dirty t-shirts, his toothy smile. But the house is my mother's now and it is lovely, and her garden has a baby cherry tree growing in it, and this November we are harvesting the olives from the trees he planted so long ago, and she is brave enough to kill the leggy insects that get inside the house herself and I know he's with my grandmother whom he loved more than anything in the whole world, even if they are buried in two different cemeteries, separated by a country road.


My mother taught me to love figs fourteen years ago. We were sitting at the kitchen table in her apartment in Rome and she'd peeled a great big pile of them for me to try, green-skinned ones, and it was hot out and her heart had recently been broken by someone who I'd loved very much. It was a terribly confusing time, but I can still feel the cool fig flesh in my mouth, the surprise of those hundreds of crisp little seeds, the impossible depth of sweetness. She was back in her hometown and I was far away from mine and we were both sad, for the same and such different reasons.


But that was a long time ago and now, when I'm at her house at the right time in August, I can stand below the fig tree, eating fig after fig while looking out into the valley below, planning to teach my children to love figs, too, to eat them only when they're there and not anywhere else so that they stay special.


I hope your summers were corn-filled and sun-kissed, my darling readers. I thought about you a lot this past month, about the faces I know and the many, many more I don't, but whose presence I cherish all the same. I know it seems crazy to say this about thousands of people you've never meant, but you all mean so much to me, more than I can actually put in words and I'm deeply grateful to you, for being here and reading me, year after year.


The next five months are going to be tough ones for me, as I get to the nitty-gritty of writing this book and so I'm going to have to step away more than I would like to. The truth is that writing this blog and writing my book are two sides of the same coin and while I may have once thought, naïvely, that I could do both, the hard truth is that I cannot. I won't be entirely gone: after all, I have ragù di pesce to tell you about and my list of good things to eat in Berlin is almost done, but it will be a little quieter. I hope you understand. I know you will; you all are always far kinder to me than I am to myself.


May your Septembers be full of promise and sliced tomato salads and that special golden light that only comes when the summer ends.