After a long morning deep cleaning and organizing the house, we had finally piled everyone into the car last Saturday at noon, almost two hours later than I had anticipated. Coats were off, our lunch was stowed in the back, and the children were buckled when we looked up and saw our 62-year-old widowed neighbor out chopping a gigantic pile of wood. She had her automatic splitter hooked up to the tractor, but still. Tony and I looked at each other, hesitated a moment, and then acknowledged we’d better get out and help her. So much for our already postponed outing.
We tumbled back out of the car, put everyone’s coats back on, and walked across the street. Beatrice greeted us, wreathed in smiles, and we set to work together. Tony carried the large logs to the splitter where our neighbor carefully split them into quarters. Then Axa and Raj picked up the now-manageable sized pieces of wood and brought them to me so I could load them into the truck. This was a dream come true to three-year-old Raj, who lately has been insisting that his career will be as a “worker man.” My anxious explanations about college and salaries and job hazards fall on deaf ears. (And he’s never seen Bob the Builder, not once.) I’m afraid I must date his ambition to the weeks the sidewalk in front of our house was being completely dug up. He stood at the fence for hours on end, watching the “worker men” and having his little conversations with them, in which he is completely oblivious that the person to whom he is speaking doesn’t understand a word of English, let alone the dialect peculiar to three-year-olds. It looked like a huge job, and I was sure we’d be there for hours. But before we knew it the pile had moved from the ground to the truck, and Beatrice was telling us she needed to go in and have lunch.
So we made it out on our picnic after all, and spent a delightful time exploring the neighboring city of Mondovi, which for some reason is obsessed with sundials. Piemontese sundials are not the typical circle on the ground with a dial in the middle and the hours marked like a normal clock. The hours are usually painted on the wall of a building in a complicated pattern depending on the orientation of the wall, and often decorated with so many ornamental flourishes that the time can barely be read, even when the sun does happen to be shining on that particular side of the building. In the lovely little park at the top of the hill where Mondovi is built, there are four sundials of various types, along with a map of the many other sundials to be found throughout the city, and a truly gigantic clock. The clock tower is a normal-sized Italian tower, but the actual clock-face is about three times too big for a tower its size. We didn’t notice that the abundance of clocks in the city causes the citizens to be in any more of a rush than the rest of Italy. But they do have a delightful little cable car that for one euro will take you up to the old city from the newer part at the bottom of the hill. And it seems to run pretty much on time.
A few days later, Beatrice brought us a pan full of delicious baked Asian pears off her tree. Before I could return the pan the next day, she gifted us a huge pot of homemade polenta with a delectable porcini mushroom sauce and a Piemontese apple cake. And this Saturday we spent the afternoon roasting chestnuts over an open fire with her. We sing about it every Christmas, but I’d never actually done it. It was hard work, but delicious. The chestnuts were poured into what looked like a cross between a gigantic rusty frying pan and a sieve with a five-foot-long handle (Beatrice said it was fifty years old). She and Tony and I took turns sitting on a three-legged stool by the fire and bouncing the chestnuts up and down. My turn was about thirty seconds long, and I lost several chestnuts into the fire before I was replaced. They were heavy! Beatrice had gathered both the mushrooms and the chestnuts herself, in her very own forest (in Italy mushrooms and chestnuts are off-limits unless you own the forest where you find them). I took her some apple crisp to eat with the chestnuts, and she gave me back my pan the next day, full of another batch of baked pears. With Beatrice, any proverbial bread we manage to cast upon the waters tends to come back as chestnuts and cake.