|My driver and I in healthier days photo credit: Davide Gerardi|
For three straight days it was enough of a challenge to get out of bed, much less walk out of our apartment. But on the fourth I ventured outside the short distance to the butcher shop around the corner and the fruit and vegetable stall. I'd decided we needed chicken soup. In America, for simplicity's sake, I would have bought it prepared. Here, I knew the best I could do was buy some broth already prepared and then fill it out with other ingredients.
This, at least, was my fevered plan--which I mentioned in Italian to the husband and wife proprietors at our regular butcher shop.
"Brodo?" she asked me, not understanding.
Yes, I repeated, broth. I was sure I was using the right word for it, but the way she repeated it made me doubt myself a bit. I woozily tried to explain what I meant.
She looked at her husband, also behind the counter, no less confused. Then another customer in the store came to my assistance and said, Yes, as I was saying, the bread and salami store nearby carried ready-made broth in "boxes" (or tetrapaks).
Both butchers finally understood: matching looks of comprehension dawned on their faces, then, a moment later, perfectly synchronized expressions of utter disgust.
It was as if the helpful customer had explained that the foundation of the soup I was planning to prepare for my ill family was going to be mosquito-clotted pond scum. Or a liter of petrol.
The customer herself looked no less appalled, even as she explained. She was willing to be helpful, but wasn't about to pretend she approved of such a reprehensible plan.
The disapproval of Italians in such matters is ecclesiastical. The influence of the Church may have faded in daily life, yet its forms, its manners of expression persist in secular contexts.
The judgement of these three fell upon me as if issued by a synod of bishops.
I wobbled where I stood. It was far from pleasant to be standing up at all. All I really wanted to do was crawl back into bed. I did not want to cook. I felt like I was going to die. And, I suspect, I looked like it: pale, with dark sunken-eyes and three days of beard.
But, those three bishops seemed to be saying to me: On the verge of death do you dare commit such a transgression? Ready-made broth?
The instructions and ingredients for making home-made soup turned out to be so simple, as the butchers explained them to me. It's about all we've been eating ever since.