KitchenScraps: Eat, Love, Panic – And Then Make Focaccia by Pamela Bell

by Matilda Butler on October 28, 2010

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #61 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Eat, Love, Panic –
And Then Make Focaccia!

By Pamela Bell
Monday Morning Memoir Blog

During the three years my family and I lived in Florence, Italy, I got a vacation from medical scares. At home in the U.S., when you call a doctor’s office, they put you on hold and that recording comes on and tells you about all the scary cancers you might have. The media is constantly scaring you about harmful foods, and the warnings are contradictory. Red wine helps prevent cancer; wine causes breast cancer. Fish is great for your heart but don’t eat it more than twice a month because it’s loaded with metal toxins that can kill you. And there’s my personal favorite: worry raises the risk of Alzheimer’s disease so if you worry, you better worry.

In Italy, when you call the doctor, there is no tangle of telephone options to navigate and no recordings reminding you of the latest frightening cancer statistics – and even if there were I couldn’t understand them. There is no huge office staff, no officious managers or receptionists implying you have an hour to live and they could care less if you don’t. In my village, the private village of my mind with its own ancient superstitions and rituals, the callousness or indifference of medical personnel is dangerous. I can imagine a brusque, unfeeling nurse gazing impassively at my corpse, for example. This is not a good sign. An uncaring doctor is even worse; he can cause your death.

I am always terrified after a medical test that I will get a call from the doctor giving me bad news. I imagine him sitting at his desk with my file in front of him, and hear him saying, not very sympathetically, “Now I don’t want you to panic, but there’s a problem with your test. Let take this one step at a time.” Part of this fear is terror of a call – the universal summons. It could be a harried doctor from a busy medical practice calling you on the telephone, or the Gestapo knocking on your door in the middle of the night. Either way it’s bad news.


My personality fits better with the way medicine works in Italy. You call the doctor and he (or she) comes. He prescribes all kinds of vile powders and potions, kisses the cat, if you have one, and tells you he’s moving to Australia (he means going on vacation). And you get the feeling you’ll live, which is a big improvement.

I love the accessibility of doctors in Italy. When my daughter, then four, had the stomach flu, the pediatrician advised me to buy rectal suppositories while racing around on his Vespa on Sunday afternoon. At Via Fossombroni, I even persuaded a gynecologist to make a house call. There I was, lying on the bed in one of the front rooms with a white-hot floor lamp shining between my legs while she inserted a plastic speculum, grumbling all the time. For me, it was a fantasy come true. I’ve always dreamed of marrying my gyn (even though I’m not gay) just so she could do a pelvic exam in the middle of the night in case I got a panic attack and thought I was dying.

The Italians seem to think nothing of discussing their most intimate medical problems in public. Our landlady on Via Fossombroni, Anna Maria, came often to visit her old mother who lived downstairs. Anna Maria was about sixty-five, had the air of a well-to-do Italian lady, jangled with gold, and spoke English well.

“Ah, Mrs. Brill”, (that’s Italian for “Mrs. Bell”) she would say to me, her gold bracelets clanking on her tanned wrists, “you have no idea how fortunate you are to be able to express your inner feelings and sensibilities through your writing.”

After the home gyn exam, Anna Maria shouted up at me from the sidewalk.

“How are you, Mrs. Brill?”

Somehow, she heard that I’d been having medical problems. Secrets as well as sheets are aired in the courtyard.

“I’m recovering,” I shouted back, leaning my elbows on the windowsill. I was still in my nightgown.

“What was wrong?” yelled Anna Maria.

“Cistita,” I answered.

“Oh, cistita!” (Next door a man peered over a wall with interest).

“I get that all the time!” said Anna Maria. “Does it burn when you urinate?”


Outside on the sidewalk, two nuns walked by.

“DOES IT BURN WHEN YOU URINATE?” shouted Anna Maria.

“Not exactly!”

“Be careful of white wine!” called Anna Maria, her gold bracelets jangling. “Especially expensive white wine. I don’t go anywhere without my antibiotics!”

It’s not completely true that I’m free of medical scares in Italy. I did worry a lot about my husband, John. He was sixty-eight the first time we went to Florence, and had a congenital heart murmur. He had fainted at our annual neighborhood Christmas party in Pennsylvania two years in a row. I was terrified he was going pass out while we were in Italy and hurt himself falling. Or worse.

One day I was on the bus near Piazza San Marco when we passed a man collapsed on the street. I couldn’t see his face, but his feet were turned towards me. He was surrounded by medical personal, two ambulances and a crowd of people. I thought, my God, it’s John! As the bus passed, I looked back and glimpsed a shiny black computer bag lying beside the man in the street. It looked exactly like John’s. I swear I even saw that little colored Apple logo on it. My heart was pounding and I started to hyperventilate.

But what was he doing in that part of town? I asked myself, knowing my propensity to panic and rearrange reality to support some screwy scenario. Wait! Wasn’t he supposed to go to the cell phone store to get more time put on his phone? The cell phone store was on Via Mazzini but there was another one near Piazza Beccaria, where the man lay in the street. Stores in Florence were forever closing early or mysteriously not opening. Maybe the store on Via Mazzini had been closed, so he’d gone over to the one near Piazza Beccaria instead.

Get a grip, I scolded myself. Just call John on his cell. When he picks up you’ll know it’s not him lying there on the street. So I made the call. Someone picked up but all I could hear were voices, chaos, and crackling noises. It was John, collapsed there in the street. My knees almost buckling under me, I stumbled off the bus at the next stop.

There was only one tiny detail that didn’t fit. His shoes. The shoes worn by man in the street did not look like John’s. They looked like Italian leather shoes, not American walking shoes like John wore. But the computer bag…the voices…the sound of chaos on the cell phone. Everything else fit.

At that moment a tiny voice (the one that arranges all the panic and the details to support it) whispered to me.

“Well,” it said, “you can’t have everything.”

A few minutes later I did reach John on his cell phone. He had been in the cell phone store when I called. The store was full of people and the reception was bad, which explained the chaotic background noise.

In Italy they have these walled cemeteries with compartments for the remains of the dead. Every Sunday all these little old ladies go to visit the graves of their departed husbands. One day I was passing one of these cemeteries on a bus and suddenly it all seemed so simple. What was the big deal, all the agonizing and panic? All you have to do is eat, drink, be merry, get old, die and go into one of those little walled graveyards.

That was easy.

That was easy.



1 teaspoon sugar
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt


In a small bowl, dissolve sugar and yeast in warm water. Let stand 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture with flour; stir well to combine. Stir in additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until all of the flour is absorbed. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly for about 1 minute.

Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 475 degrees F (245 degrees C).

Deflate the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface; knead briefly. Pat or roll the dough into a sheet and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Brush the dough with oil and sprinkle with salt.

Bake focaccia in preheated oven for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on desired crispness. The longer baking time results in a crispier bread.

Outdoor picnic in Tuscan garden.

Outdoor picnic in Tuscan garden.

(c) 2010 Pamela Jane

“A ghoulishly good time.”
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