Saturday, November 29, 2008

Would That I Could "Kitchen Police" Florence, Italy!

In September 1966 I entered active duty at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and kicked off a 3-month Officer Basic Course as a second lieutenant student (1193) in the United States Army Artillery & Missile School. I felt as if I had been thrown into water, above my head, to learn to swim and to do so without any lessons. I had studied military science for four years in university, but that instruction was mostly convoluted theory and centred on military history, tactics and strategy and not the nuts and bolts of real-life soldiering. Now, I was to get to the nitty-gritty of military life, and the amount of data I had to gain knowledge of was staggering. Classes lasted eight hours a day, and we had at least two hours homework each night in our apartments or in the quarters of our friends. The curriculum was an admixture of field artillery instruction and rocket and missile training, and I felt swamped when I looked at my class schedule and the conferences I was expected to attend. I was further impressed discouragingly because Vietnam was a gloomy cloud drooping over the head of each of us in class, and it was assumed that assignment to Vietnam would be in the field artillery, in support of infantry units, because no nuclear weapons, which could be launched from the army’s stockpile of rockets and missiles, were said to be in Vietnam. For me, the United States Army was one huge anxiety attack.

When school ended, I received my first assignment: I was ordered to the US Army Training Center at Fort Sill where I was programmed to instruct inductees in rocketry and missilery. I remember feeling a bit satisfied because I thought, incorrectly, this transfer would keep me States-side and thus not qualified for shipment to Asia. There was an eerie feeling on the huge, busy Oklahoman base as 90-day-wonders, enlisted men transformed into lieutenants, swelled in number to fulfil the artillery lieutenant quotas asked for by the ever-increasing involvement in the Southeast Asian debacle impressing us the more with the government’s determination to dig deeper into the quicksand of Vietnam.

I remember reporting to my battery’s (Little John and Honest John rockets) orderly room where First Sergeant Stone looked me over scathingly, from my head to my toes, and grunted his disapproval at the greenhorn Lieutenant Fuzz who was to drive him crazy with what he thought were useless or even dumb inquiries. I was scheduled to meet the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas, a West Point graduate and member of the US Army’s .45 pistol shooting team. He lived with his family a few doors away from my BOQ (Bachelor Officers’ Quarters) apartment, and when he invited me to dinner in his home, he lamented a great deal about how the army was being renovated to appear more like a corporation and less like a fighting institution. He was very kind to me, and he put in my head the notion that I, too, would come to agree with him later on if I was to serve in Vietnam.

With the Harvard Business School management techniques being incorporated into the daily activities of military life, career soldiers, many of them veterans of both the Korean War and World War II, retorted with frustration and disgust over the invasion of modern-day methods of administration which, according to many old hands, were compromising the efficiency of the soldier’s prima facie activity: fighting an enemy. The officer in the United States Army was expected to be a Renaissance man. His efficiency reports were required to reflect a knowledge of various competencies—not all of them related to combat effectiveness on the battlefield. Schooling was highlighted and a master’s degree from a civil university was considered an asset when an official was scrutinized by higher-ups for promotion. (Vietnam veteran General Wesley Clark received a degree in Philosophy, Politics & Economics from Oxford University’s Magdalen College and a master’s degree in military science from the US Command and General Staff College!) Community service was exalted. Language study was emphasized. If an officer, entering service, thought his life was going to be comparable to some John Wayne film, he was quickly disillusioned.

Into this Rebirth-like milieu, I—recently graduated from university with a degree in Philosophy and toting a thesis about John-Paul Sartre’s valuable contribution to twentieth-century thinking—crash-landed a bit eccentrically, to say the least. Sergeants would come to utter, under their breaths, that I was a pest, and one, one day, would shock me with this: “Lieutenant, you are so “intelligent” you’ll probably become a general some day!” I was sincerely overly conscientious, and the fact that one day I would be expected to serve as safety officer for the practice launchings of Little John and Honest John rockets, both capable of carrying nuclear “pay loads,” impressed me with the seriousness of the role I was called upon to play in this setting of martial novelty and rigidity. I would eventually come to be rewarded for my contributions with both The Wayward Missile and The Loose Canon honours! And, at one awards’ ceremony, I quipped an amendment to a quote (“I never met a man I did not like”) of the Northamerican humorist, Will Rogers: “Will Rogers never served in the United States Army.” Above all, I am proudest of the epithet the infantrymen, with whom I served in the jungles on the borders of Laos and Cambodia, paid homage to me with: The Hippie Lieutenant! (Now you know why the Department of Defence switched off to an all-volunteer armed forces in 1973! Logical, no? And, by the way, remember that imbecile Robert McNamara? He resigned as Secretary of Defence while I was serving in Vietnam. I wrote a letter from the field to President Lyndon B Johnson asking if I could resign my commission, too. Dixon Donnelley, Under Secretary of State, Southeast Asian Affairs, responded to me in an elongated letter saying: “No!” A bit crazy those Northamericans! Those ex-Europeans. [Breaking the United States Army’s Chain of Command is paramount to suicide.] To make matters worse for me in Vietnam, Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. On both occasions officers and non-commissioned officers, mostly from the south of the United States, held parties celebrating their deaths. AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT! I left it.)

I suppose it was the obsessive call to conformity that started to eat at any thought I might have possessed about making the army my career, but worse than that was the idea that I had to be expert here and proficient there in everything I attempted to do. I could see no focus on what I really was counted upon to accomplish, and I felt I was being pushed from one duty to another without achieving anything truly authentic for myself or for the United States Army. During my two years of active duty, I was assigned to the following supervisory slots: combat Forward Observer, combat Aerial Observer, Battery Commanding Officer, Battery Executive Officer, Battalion Liaison Officer, Battalion Assistant Adjutant, Brigade Liaison Officer, Lance Missile Project Officer, Public Information Officer, Stockade Counsellor, Solatium Officer, Pay Officer, Property Book Officer…and others. Five-star General George Marshall’s CV was not so mottled! I had to be a jack of all trades but master of none. Oh, I almost forget to mention! I inspected kitchens!

As I traipsed through the vicissitudes and confusions and frustrations of trying to find my place in the Military Sun—on 8 May 1967 I received a telegram from the Department of Defence ordering me to Vietnam—I remember one bright spot during the time I passed in the Little John/Honest John training battery: Sergeant Jefferson. A brown boot (an experienced soldier) with almost thirty years in the artillery, Sergeant Jefferson was just what the doctor would have ordered for me in the chaos of Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara’s (he had come from the presidency of the Ford Motor Company!) corporate idea of a military institution. Sergeant Jefferson had a unique sense of humour that I reflect upon even to this day. For instance, if I knew the answer to some problem but was still dubious about my judgment, I would go to him for a confirmation:
“Sergeant Jefferson, does this go here?”
He would reply Zen-like…
“Lieutenant, does a cat have an asshole?”
I would crack up laughing!
Or, if I didn’t know where an object was but really should have…
“Sergeant Jefferson, where is the SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) manual for the Honest John?”
“Lieutenant, if it was up your ass you’d know where it was.”
So on and so forth…
I will never forget Sergeant Jefferson and his compassionate way of trying to help me muddle through the United States Army’s identity crisis and do his best not to lose his temper with me.

One wintry morn when violent winds swept and howled across Fort Sill’s fields pockmarked with the dents left behind by exploding projectiles and practice rockets and missiles, I was ordered to inspect our battery’s kitchen. Not knowing what to do, I went straight away to Sergeant Jefferson for counsel. He referred me, in Kantian panache, to the proper SOP and added two important hints: make a list of my inspection’s pros and cons and base my final verdict on the preponderance, if so, of pros; and, take a white glove. To leave my mark, my final touch, he advised me to use the glove to see if there was any grime or grit under the rubber sealings of the refrigerators’ doors!

After dinner, I returned to my BOQ with manuals stuffed into a shopping bag, and then sat at my desk with hope that my research into the culinary intricacies of the United States Army would not keep me awake into the wee hours nor drive me batty. I scanned indexes. Took notes. Rummaged around for a checklist that would guide me along my inspection sightseeing. I wanted to impart a favourable impact. To do so, I would need to convey my authoritativeness and knowledge of knowing what I was doing. I went to bed, finally, at two o’clock in the morning, and fell asleep, with spoons and knives and forks spinning in my head, thinking how the morning’s mess hall scrutiny would turn out.

When you inspect a kitchen you have to think about food and the utensils that hold it and cook it. In other words, every cooking implement has to be clean, sterilized, and the food that is prepared in it has to be fresh and free from the bacteria which might cause outbreaks of massive food poisoning. An army cannot afford to have soldiers vomiting while at war. Amebiasis, campylobacteriosis, cryptosporidosis, cysticercosis, escherichia coli, giardiasis, hepatitis A, listeriosis, nonperinatal listeriosis, norovirus, salmonellosis, typhoid fever acute, typhoid fever carriers and vibriosis are some of the food-borne illnesses which might be caught from provisions improperly handled or prepared. Germs from raw chicken and meat can give one a serious dose of food poisoning. They might be found on one’s hands, chopping boards, sinks, worktops, dishes, knives or tongs. Raw meats that drip on other foods in the frig might wind up causing a severe physical reaction when the affected foods are digested. Chicken should be piping hot inside with no pink meat left. Burgers and sausages also should not be served “pink.” Seal and make safe steaks on the outside by browning the entire surface of the meat. One can eat steaks rare or pink in the middle. And leftovers must be reheated properly. My list went on and on to include vegetables, eggs, and beverages.

Hygienic utensils are a must-look in an inspection and so is the kitchen area supporting the cooking process. Workers have to be trained to prevent contamination. Hands must be washed correctly in adequate hand-washing facilities. Water sources, and particularly ice, must be approved meticulously. Proper parasite destruction procedures for fish are necessary. Food contact surfaces must be cleaned and sanitized. Food must be received and stored at the suitable temperature. In-use utensils must be stored as they should be during cooking. Proper cooling procedures must be adhered to. Cooking times and temperatures must be regulated. Accurate thermometers are to be provided. Toxic cleaning substances must be suitably identified. Ware-washing appliances must be properly installed and maintained. Sewage, garbage and wastewater must be correctly disposed of. Adequate ventilation and lighting in designated areas are required. An army is exceptionally attentive to all aspects of public health, and my kitchen inspection list was just a part of the overall effort to avoid serious sicknesses or injuries befalling our troops.

In Vietnam, there were three types of food: A, B, & C-rations. A-rations were those served at table with plates, glasses and silver- or plastic-ware; B-rations were hot foodstuffs transported in large thermoses, usually by helicopter, to far-off base camps not furnished with kitchen facilities; and, C-rations (Meal, Combat, Individual) were meal packs we carried in our rucksacks and which included: beef/lima beans with ham (in a can), chocolate mix, 3 cookies, can of jam, white bread in a can, and mini portions of cigarettes, salt, coffee, cream (powder), sugar, matches, toilet paper, gum, and a plastic spoon. There were also, sometimes, a limited amount of LRRP (Long-range Reconnaissance Patrol) rations which were dehydrated meals taken on long journeys into enemy territory by scouting teams. They were tastier foodstuffs and easy to prepare by just adding hot water—if it was available. All these provisions contained a high-calorie diet to feed grunts properly when climbing mountains on the borders of Laos and Cambodia around which I lived in a pup tent for four months.

During my two years of active duty service, I never experienced, or even heard of, a food-poisoning incident either States-side or in the Vietnam jungles. Mess halls in the United States were impeccably sanitary, and while messes in Vietnam were not 100% sterile, they were clean, well-kept and particularly sensitive to the pressing issues of proper food preparation and protection from cross contamination. Vietnamese civilians were often employed to help tidy offices, sleeping quarters and mess halls where they set tables and cleaned dishes. I remember one Vietnamese widow who, following the tradition of her country, wore a headband made up of a piece of rolled-up white fabric within which was contained the ashes of her dead husband.

While I was in the US Army I ate rattlesnake and dog. Oklahoma is rattlesnake country, and rattlesnake hunts are common there. The meat of the rattlesnake is barbecued and sauces are spread on the chicken-tasting meat to enhance its flavor. One can buy canned rattlesnake meat but it is rather expensive. As a solatium officer in Vietnam, I conveyed the condolences of the US government and presented $25.00 to the families of individuals killed by US Army “friendly” artillery projectiles fired, especially at night, to harass and interdict enemy forces. With an interpreter and an armed chopper, I was helicoptered to villages where my commiserations—first read in English and then translated into Vietnamese—were read to grieving people many of whom screamed hysterically at our presence. When all was calm, we were usually invited to dinner, and as I was instructed by my commanding officer (“You will eat dog if necessary, lieutenant!”), I dined on roasted dog which reminded me of a turkey’s dark meat. I may be wrong about that, however. I was so relieved the dog was grilled and so preoccupied about not wincing in front of the mourners, I did little to concentrate on what I was consuming.

It is easy for me to be concerned about food especially when I go to a restaurant where I cannot have control over the preparation and quality of the food I am going to gobble. In an eating place I will check to see if there are water stains on the glasses and dishes. I will check knives, forks and spoons to see if they have something still sticking to them. I will feel the linens to see if they are freshly cleaned. I frequently have the urge to get up and walk into the kitchen to see how faithful the staff are in keeping to the rules and regulations of food storage and preparation. When bored or if the conversation has lulled, I can look around the dining room to see to what degree windows are spotless, rugs are spick and span, and if the waiter or waitress’s uniforms are unsoiled and pressed. I remember when I was a guest in the generals’ mess in Palacio Miraflores in Venezuela’s capital, I almost could not believe how immaculate the dining preparations had been! Outside, in the very streets surrounding the President of Venezuela’s residence, there was dire poverty and unhealthy sanitation conditions throughout. I suffered from gastroenteritis a few times in Caracas after having eaten food served by street vendors, and to this day I never eat in the street.

And this is not the only discipline the US Army instilled in my persona! The United States Army made of me a great bane of your existence, my dear reader, and I try my best, without always succeeding, in following the advice of Henry Fielding who suggested this to me: “I have endeavoured to laugh mankind out of their favourite follies and vices!” In the army, recalcitrant soldiers were sent on KP for sixteen hours to “stimulate” them into conforming, into eliminating their follies and vices!. Discipline is not an option in life-threatening situations. I have been in many in my time. But, in an army in a combat zone it is restraint and habit that makes an infantry company function like clockwork.

* * *

What I am about to say is going to infuriate many foreign women who live in Tuscany (a third of the estimated number [60,000] of Northamericans living in Italy live in Il Gran Ducato), and I am just biting at the bit to get started! My knives are sharpened. Let me prelude my thoughts with this little tidbit: I have never seen a lady from Los Angeles who worked here in Firenze serving tables; nor, one from New York who put postage on my packages; nor, another from Chicago who taught school children; nor, one more from Dallas who nursed patients in a hospital. Yet I have caught sight of many of these “female aristocrats,” literally soaked in “culture” and dressed to kill in the latest creations of glorified cocaine-sniffing Italian fashion designers. And instead of telling their mommies and mummies that Firenze is a medieval pigsty, they rant and rave—skipping over their desperately unhappy marriages—about how they are feeding on the joy of what is billed throughout the world, by travel agency publicists, as The Cradle of Humanism and/or The Birthplace of the Renaissance—something Firenze once was. Poor girls. They are so sickeningly hackneyed! Florence and Italy are falling apart at their seams. Wherever you look you see the symptoms of an Italy in dissolution—materially and immaterially.

Let’s take a walk together: River beds and sewers are stuffed with debris…there are fissures in medieval foundations everywhere, and if you are about to enter a church, cross yourself and your fingers and hope the roof, or a piece of it, doesn’t fall on your head…roofs leak in offices and homes and universities…flood walls are in ruins…in the autumn, Italy becomes the Land of Landslides…cigarette ashes are on the floors of hospital delivery rooms…cockroaches scurry about on the surgical wards…Italian cars begin to fall apart only months after they are purchased…telephone, electric and gas bills are Russian roulettes…trailer trucks zoom through residential areas and spew black smoke in the faces of children and mediaeval statues…cars are upped on sidewalks, cracked and broken…one arrives at an Italian airport or train station asking not when departure time is, but how late the jet or train is…streets and highways are impregnated with crevices and potholes…lights in buses and apartment hallways are lit in the middle of sunny days…monuments are crumbling; or, air pollution is corroding them…downtown areas are gas chambers…school bathrooms and heating systems often do not function…there are but a few sports facilities for children and adults…Swiss ladies have clauses in their health insurance policies to escape in an air ambulance flight to Switzerland if they fall ill…banks offer 3% interest on savings then, after a month, decrease the interest without advising depositors…see that crooked church?…construction sites, abandoned for years, dot the countryside…floods, then droughts, damage crops…filth is in the air and on the ground…stadiums are wrecked habitually by acts of violence…hills are polka-dotted with garbage…supermarket shelves are missing items and others are expired…television programming is the worst in Europe…thousands of Italian companies are in debt or going bankrupt…fountains are clogged with scum and refuse…repair work is shoddy, months late…trees and plants are dying whichever way you rivet your eyes…urban planning is nonexistent or corrupt…public places are pervaded with tobacco smoke…motor scooters zoom to a “what do we do now?” standstill…STOP signs are GO signs…rivers of photocopied sheets—blown-down to spy size—accompany students to their examinations…thirteen-year-olds, during final exams, ask to be excused to go to bathrooms where they cellphone their mothers at home to get answers to questions that have perplexed them…software and CDs are replicated illegally with aplomb…politicians burp on television…no one knows what the public debt is; they are afraid to hold it up to view…children go to study tired of watching television and playing computer games…Italians are intoxicated with illegal and legal drugs; they are number one in Europe for drug consumption; every Italian home is equipped with a mini-pharmacy and they stuff their drug store cubby holes with expired drugs to brag their pill opulence to their friends…there are no qualified workers to content hundreds of thousands of job openings…Italians are the most overweight people in Europe—fat just like Northamericans, their idols…singers steal music from others…Italian business people are dressed to kill; the most elegant bankrupts in the world…they are, according to the International Monetary Fund, the most dishonest in the European Union…followed by the Poles—all God-serving Roman Catholics!…the cost of a cup of coffee keeps going up; nonetheless, the size of the coffee cup keeps decreasing…kids go to school, defy all in authority, call a strike, order teachers home, and when they are asked why they have walked out, they respond defiantly: “We don’t know! But, we know we must do it!”…business is excellent—for a few!…La vita è bella—for whom?…Italy is spinning its wheels—going nowhere…from the mouth of a nine-year-old Florentine girl: “When I grow up I want to live with Alessandra. But, please understand we are not lesbians.”…from the mouth of a forty-year-old Prato bus driver smoking while driving: “I’ll smoke wherever the *** I please!”…from the mouths of thousands of Veronese calico fans screaming in delirium: “WE HATE EVERYONE!”…Of course, that is stupid! But, it is Italian stupid, stupid!”…television audiences are paid off to clap at the right moment…games are fixed…sportspeople are drugged left and right…buses, frequented by millions of people coming from all over the world, are never disinfected…at least every month in Firenze some school or restaurant dishes out contaminated foodstuff…a hotel near my home was closed for a month after Spanish school children were infected with tainted water drank from the taps in their rooms…it is common in Florentine restaurants to substitute bottles of mineral water with tap water to save money…sterilization units in bars and restaurants are often not heated to a high enough temp to disinfect plates, glasses, cups and eating utensils…if you drink a cup of coffee in Firenze, do so with your left hand, if you are right-handed, to avoid the lipstick marks on the other side…sure the rugs are dirty…you’re right, that’s slime on your plate which was not cleaned correctly…bartenders wash cups with sponges so dirty they are nearly black…going to the bathroom in a restaurant, bar or public area is a nauseating experience: stinks, no toilet paper, no soap, urine on toilet seats, urine on the floor, bathrooms are the size of those in nuclear submarines, and to enter you have to ask permission to have the key…a recent edict forbids public restoration owners to bribe customers (“if you want the key to the toilet, you must buy something”) with a €160.00 fine…do not drink water from public fountains…if you are walking in the street, do not go under construction scaffolding, I repeat, do not walk under those riggings…who knows what you might catch pressing an ATM button?…a hotel remote control?…taking a bath in a not-so-elegant hotel bathtub?…want to use that bedside telephone?…want to risk washing your laundry in a Florentine laundry mat?…the only classical music station in Italy has to be subsidized by Tuscany region taxpayers’ money because it cannot count on private donations…the United States’ ambassador, in 2007, said he was worried that American business men are refusing, more frequently, to invest in Italy…the United States’ ambassador, in 2008, said he thought Italy risked going into decline…are you sure those supermarket cart handles’ are disinfected?…what about that mouse in that Internet café?…those doorknobs on the restaurant’s toilet entrance…the faucet handles in the café’s men’s room…the chef’s kitchen sink…don’t eat mozzarella cheese that has been made within a 250 kilometre radius of Napoli…Italy is Number One in Europe for work-related deaths…see those sewer grates and the rats going in and out of them?…I’m in the back kitchen room of Franco’s coffee/shop/bar in San Frediano…he’s preparing tomorrow morning’s brioche…the dough is laid out in front of us shaped in long slabs which will later be cut and rolled for baking…Franco is smoking…every once in a while he puts his cigarette down at the side of the dough…or he puts the cigarette in his mouth while he is talking to me…ashes fall on the dough…Franco blows them off…some remain…he brushes them off with his hand…Roberto has invited me to work with him collecting grapes during the vendemmia…I work in the vineyards for eight hours…15% of the grapes are dead but we are instructed nevertheless to pick them and throw them into the baskets with the healthy grapes…on our way back a tractor hauls us and our harvest…Roberto’s muddy boots are set on top of the pile of grapes in the cart being pulled by the tractor…I ask Roberto if that is not such a good idea, and he replies: “Don’t worry, these grapes are for the United States!”…ad infinitum…ad nauseam…


Italy is on its way to extinction.

It is doing not much to defend its position.

Italy is in a laid back position.
Sudden enlightenment is not an Italian option.

Italians do not crave to observe, to feel, to weigh themselves against others.
Nor, do they desire to seek a diverse reaction not in keeping with their own.

Jonathan Howard, professor of Cell Genetics, at the Institute for Genetics,
University of Cologne, Germany,
quotes another illustrious biologist
who believed that adaptation is simply
the consequence of an interaction between contingency and time.
Extinction is the outcome when:
· The contingency is too strict
· The time is too short
· The competition too intense

Authored by Anthony St. John

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