We were excited but largely disoriented during our first few days living in Rionero. Every little daily task involved a learning curve which we navigated mostly on our own, starting with how to make coffee in the moka. These stove-top coffee makers brew coffee by passing boiling water pressurized by steam through ground coffee that you put into the top. Invented by Alfonso Bialetti, they are a staple of Italian culture. I had seen people make coffee in a moka many times before so thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t, and it took me days to get it right. Every time I used it, I ended up with a dense, bitter shot of coffee, and I couldn’t figure out how to master the moka. That David also struggled to make decent coffee didn’t make me feel better.
During an outing with Maria a few days after our arrival, she asked to stop at a home goods store for a few items. I seized the opportunity to wander the aisles to find a new moka and quickly purchased one. There wasn’t anything wrong with the one Maria had stocked in the apartment. I just needed one that came with instructions. So I wouldn’t offend Maria, we told her we wanted it to take home to Denver.
The next day, after reading all the instructions (in Italian) that came with my new moka, I learned I had been pressing too much coffee into the upper basket. The moka didn’t operate like an espresso machine in a bar, and to allow the right amount of steam to create the perfect shot, it needed to be loosely packed. I also learned why I had been so jittery that first week. The small moka in our apartment was portioned to make three coffees, which in Italy would be three shots of espresso. But I had been drinking it like an American cup of coffee, the entire moka in one cup, and then following it up with a second “cup”. By the time I had my two cups of coffee each day, I’d consumed the equivalent of six espresso shots, leaving me sweaty and shaky every time.
Laundry was also a challenge. I knew Italians rarely used a clothes dryer, so I had come to Rionero prepared to line dry my clothes. Maria had shown me the stendino when we first arrived and told me I could set the drying rack up on the front balcony so the sun would dry our clothes more quickly. But I hadn’t grasped what doing laundry like this would actually entail. At home in Denver I could do one massive load of laundry each week in about 90 minutes in my oversized washer and dryer. Our apartment in Rionero had a tiny apartment-sized washer that held about four items, assuming they weren’t bulky, meaning I had to do many loads back-to-back. I’d hang the wet clothes on the stendino out on the balcony and by the second or third load it would start raining, sending David and me running to pull the rack into the living room. We thought about laying the heavier wet clothes on the radiators so they could dry inside, but feared we’d start a fire.
With practice, I learned it was better to do a load of laundry every time I had a few items to wash. That way we never ran out of clothes and wouldn’t need to wait, possibly for a days, to ensure things would dry before they were needed. Our apartment was a constant rotation of clothes hanging from the stendino, dining room chairs, or towel racks in the bathrooms. But as I watched Maria and our other neighbors hanging out their laundry to dry on their own stendini on their own balconies, I felt at home, like I was one of these Italian women now.
Then there was the garbage. There were three plastic tubs in the kitchen for trash, with a cardboard note explaining what should go out on each day. On Sunday night we were to put plastic and metal in the yellow tub and organic waste in the brown one. On Monday, glass in the green tub and all nonrecyclable trash into the gray tub. I loved that the Italians called the nonrecyclable trash indifferenziato, like the person throwing it out is indifferent to the effect on the world by throwing this stuff away. On Tuesdays, organic waste again, in the brown tub. On Wednesdays, plastic and metal again, in the yellow tub. On Thursdays, paper in the blue tub, and on Fridays, organic and indifferenziato again in their respective tubs.
There were so many ways I got this wrong that I was sure Maria thought I was unteachable. First, I put the compost in the brown tub unbagged. Since the goal of composting was to reduce landfill, the bag seemed unnecessary to me, but Maria texted me that the trash guys wouldn’t take anything in any of the tubs that wasn’t bagged. That explained why she had made me buy so many different types of trash bags during our first grocery store run.
The second challenge was that we didn’t have a yellow, green, or blue tub—only a gray tub marked Jolly with a yellow lid. Since the Jolly tub was shown on the card next to the yellow, green, and blue recycling tubs, I figured it was a tub that could be used for all recyclables like we did in Denver, with recycled plastic, glass, metal, and paper all in one large bin. On the first of the recycling days in Rionero, I put all our recyclables into a bag as Maria had directed and put the bag in the Jolly tub. The next morning when we retrieved our tub, we found that the trash guys had taken the plastic and metal with the bag but left the glass behind in the tub. Massively confused, I studied the card in the kitchen one more time and finally figured out that the Jolly tub could be used for all recyclables, but each only on the specified day. I wasn’t certain if the Italians were just making this harder than it needed to be or whether I was just stuck in my American habits.
Over the next few weeks, as we came and went from our apartment, I observed the trash collectors. In a small town like Rionero with many pedestrian-only streets or steep staircases to apartments that no trash truck could reach, the collection was done by men driving miniature trucks with tiny bins who walked up to the door to grab the bags and return them to the truck. I finally understood why everything needed to be bagged and that the only way they could possibly collect everything and haul it away was to spread the various items out over six days in the week.
As we got ready to leave Rionero at the end of our adventure, I sent a text to Maria. I didn’t want to leave the Sunday night bins out on a Saturday as I knew the older woman in the apartment below us didn’t like the clutter at the front door, so I asked Maria if she could put the Jolly tub with our remaining plastic and metal recyclables and the organic tub out for us the next day. And yes, I assured her, everything was bagged properly.