WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, AND WHAT WILL THEY BRING?
It’s sometimes hard for me to make comparisons between our life in the states and our life here. Of course the biggest difference is that we weren’t retired when we lived in the states!
I was lucky because I always worked part time at the Post Office, and this gave me lots of extra time. I usually worked early morning hours, meaning that after 10 a.m. I had the rest of the day for myself! Since Art worked two jobs, this was good because I had time to do all the shopping, laundry, cooking, and whatever running around needed to be done.
Now that we’re both retired in Italy, we’ve sort of fallen into a division of work, more or less. Normally I do all the cooking, just because I enjoy it so much, but then of course there are days when it’s just too much to think of something to fix! On these days Art just steps in and throws something together, although surprisingly I don’t think he cooks as much, or as elaborately as he did in the states!
Of course as a man he’s ‘king of the grill”, but in the states the stir-fry dishes always seemed to be ‘his’ thing, but then we don’t really do much stir-frying here in Italy!
Anyway, what got me thinking about all this was that in the states we were just as likely to meet friends at a restaurant as we were to have dinner at their house or our house. Maybe this was because we were all still working, but I certainly had time to prepare dinner, so why does it seem that we usually went out? Maybe Art’s crazy schedule at Churchill Downs just made it easier to meet at a restaurant, I don’t know.
Had we stayed in the states, and as more and more of our friends joined us in retirement, would things have changed? Would we have cooked more at home? Of course I can’t really answer that question, but I do know that here in Italy we’re much more likely to have friends here for a meal than we are to meet at a restaurant.
With other expats we usually have lunch, just because we all have the time. No one has to worry about driving home in the dark, and believe me, that CAN be an issue. We’ve had friends drive two hours for lunch, driving on winding, twisting and hilly two-lane roads. Driving these roads during the day is tough enough, especially when you factor in the Italian drivers who like to use BOTH lanes when going around a curve! Driving them in the dark just isn’t any fun at all, and really, at this point, it’s all about having fun!!!
So this brings us to something we never experienced in the states….bringing a gift to dinner. I’m sure there are some social circles where this is the normal practice, but for us, if someone invited us for dinner we always asked “Is there anything we can bring?” We sincerely meant it, but often as not the reply would be “No, just bring yourselves!”
This is what I usually told people we invited to our house for dinner….I enjoy cooking, and because of Art’s schedules I didn’t really get to cook that much. Having company was a good excuse to try something fancy, something I’d been wanting to make, but didn’t, for one reason or another.
This especially applied to desserts! I NEVER made desserts for just the two of us because eventually, we’d eat the whole thing!!! I mean, even if we spaced the chocolate cake out over a period of several days, neither one of us really NEEDED chocolate cake in the first place, much less several days in a row! Company was our excuse to splurge!
Going to dinner at someone’s house here in Italy, things are quite different. Now if the guests are other expats, then yes, bringing a dish might be acceptable, especially if they have ingredients for things that you don’t, like chocolate chips for cookies!
In general, Americans seem to be much more comfortable with the idea of a ‘pitch-in’ than the Italians do, and I don’t think any Italians would ever say yes to the offer to bring something. Now maybe this is just my impression, and maybe they’d let another Italian bring something but wouldn’t trust me as an American cook!
The one constant about going to someone’s house for a meal in Italy is that you ALWAYS MUST bring a gift! A bottle of wine (or two), cut flowers, a potted plant, a box of chocolates, but something. I’ve also never received anything homemade as a ‘hostess gift’, although I’ve taken things that I’ve made, especially if I know my hosts have a weakness for one of my special American treats.
If wine is brought, it doesn’t necessarily have to be served with dinner, since only the cook knows what wine goes best with the food being served. (or then there’s us, we just grab a bottle of our favorite red and open it, knowing that it will ‘go’!) Sometimes our guests bring vin santo, a sweet dessert wine, and maybe they’ll also bring the cantucci to dip in the vin santo to complete the dessert. Usually most of our guests know to expect a dessert so that’s a rare occurrence.
A few weeks ago we had two expats couples for lunch. We wanted Jane and Ken, expats who’re living in Tuscany for a year, to meet Jack and Suzy, expats who moved to Italy after they retired. Jack and Suzy had previously lived for several years in Naples when Jack worked for a government contractor.
Because Jane and Ken are raising their eight year old grandson, most of the people they’re meeting here in Italy are the parents of Casey’s classmates. We thought it might be nice to introduce Jane and Ken to some fellow expats closer to their own age, and to have a chance to discuss subjects not involving kids, school, or the other topics that normally occur when parents get together.
Jane and Ken, who’re living in the heart of Chianti, and actually right in the middle of a vineyard, brought us the traditional and most welcome gift of wine. Jack and Suzy opted for a more colorful gift, and brought us a beautiful cyclamen. I was LOADED with flowers and was just about the healthiest, lushest plant you could imagine.
I sat the plant on the small wine barrel that sits next to the kitchen window, and it was fine for a few days. Then the leaves started to turn yellow. I knew I wasn’t over-watering it, since that’s how I killed my previous cyclamen, so I cut off the yellow leaves and moved the plant to the upstairs hall window where it could get more light, maybe even a bit of sun.
In my efforts to NOT over-water it, I think I may have let it get a little droopy, and I struggled to keep the right balance. I pulled the curtain back during the day so that the plant got light, but always made sure to close the curtain so that the plant didn’t get too cold at night. Still, the leaves continue to turn yellow, and I’m afraid that cyclamens might just not be the plant for me.
I think in the future if someone asks “Can I bring something?”, I think my answer will be “Anything but a plant!”
Post script: I've since discovered that cyclamen like cool temps, and being inside the house (especially when the heat is on) is just too much for them. These plants do well on a sunny windowsill...on the outside...in winter!