Alien Pleasures


This morning at 5:00 a.m., when I sit down next to her on the couch and hand her a cappuccino, my wife detects something foul on my breath. 

She takes the coffee, turns her head, and gently pushes me away. “What did you eat?” 

We stayed with the kids last night at our daughter’s house, while she and her husband went out. Later today I’m driving up to visit the county clerk for marriage and birth certificates. She’s making a request for citizenship in San Marino, for her kids and for herself. 

“A leftover hot dog,” I say. “I couldn’t help myself.”

I noticed it last night, just before we went to bed, resting on the cutting board next to the cooktop. It was dark, leathery, deep reddish brown, just on the verge of cracking open. A leftover hot dog that must have been cooked for the two future citizens, the five-year-old or the two-year-old. A leftover hot dog, unwanted by small children. This morning it was cold, the fats inside it congealed, its leathery skin even leatherier. The minute I saw it the night before, I wanted that hot dog. There was, about it, a certain air of inevitability.

Fresh out of bed this morning I ate it cold, in five bites.  

I expect my wife will say, “che schifo.” Italian for “That’s disgusting.” Reverso Dictionary, a translation site I just discovered, also suggests it sucks, it stinks, it blows, it’s gross, it’s crap, it’s garbage. You get the idea.

It was delicious. 


There are, of course, luscious leftovers that are inviting in the morning. Foods, for example, that are better the next day.  Stews, a boiled or roasted potato, a stalk of mushy broccoli, even cold pasta. Perhaps best, even better than leftover hot dog, is cold pizza.

According the Delish, a website that reports on food news and food trends, 53 percent of Americans polled said they prefer cold pizza to traditional breakfast foods in the morning. Not pizza.  Cold pizza. That’s definitely me. What a pleasure it is to come downstairs in the morning, finding the thin square cardboard box on the kitchen counter, its lid slightly ajar, and inside it 2-3 cold slices, the cheese just beginning to harden, the sauce cooled; and the crust beneath the cheese and sauce gone sodden, tough around the edges. 


If I had waited, if I had asked them, I’ve pretty sure neither of my grandsons would have wanted to eat that cold hot dog. Cold hot dog, like cold pizza, is big people food.  

Big American people food.


For some reason, the Republic of San Marino has recently decided it wants more citizens. This after a long history of regulations limiting who can become a citizen. The criteria were based strictly on parentage and gender. In marriage a San Marino citizen could confer citizenship on his non-sammarinese spouse and eventual offspring. 

Not his or her spouse, not his or her offspring. Only male citizens enjoyed the prerogative of marrying an alien and making their wives and kids official.

It was a policy based on residual–or, rather, historic–sexism. There were practical reasons. San Marino is a small country–24 square miles, population 33,000. There’s only so much room. And there are definitely cultural integrity issues at play. The country does not see itself as a melting pot or tossed salad. Though why the spouses and children of women sammarinese would sully the culture more than those of men is not exactly clear. We would have to ask the men in power to explain that.

Over time I have come to question the idea of dual citizenship, maybe because I am on the outs. I am, after all, a male alien. No RSM citizenship for me. But really: Can one be faithful to two countries, anymore than he could be faithful to two wives?

rsm citizenship

Then again, the government does leave the door open, if just a crack.  If I took up residency in San Marino today, after thirty years, at which point I would be 97 years old, I could request citizenship. My case would be brought before the Grand and General Counsel for review.  Background checks would probably be required, in a search for criminal behavior and character traits that might be seen as a potential pollutant of pure San Marino culture. 

“This suitor,” one Grand Counselor would say to the next, having reviewed my dossier, “eats leftover hot dogs for breakfast.”   

To which the General response would be: “Che schifo!” 

And: citizenship denied.

That term, “schifo,” has always struck me as powerful, viscerally expressive in the extreme, carrying the same impact as fuck or shit in English, maybe because schifo is often said with a distinctly shriveling look, in an attitude of total disgust and revulsion.

Given its power, I thought it might be a dialect term. Come to find out “schifo” is a standard Italian term (from “schifare,” a verb meaning “to disgust”), its usage extending as far back as Boccaccio and Petrarch, to the very beginning of the Italian language.  Evidently, unlike shit, you can say schifo in front of anyone in Italy without giving offense.

Or not. To disapprove of what someone eats, what someone relishes, to refer to it as a “schifenza,” is offensive.


Early in our marriage, having spent a night with her relatives down the coast from San Marino, I came down stairs one morning, possibly mildly hungover, to the smell of fish broth cooking. The stench permeated the house. 

“It’s good,” my wife said. 

The word “miasma” came to my mind. “If you say so,” I said. 

She said that she loved it, that I really needed to try it. 

“Che schifo,” I said. I was new to the language and thought I would try out the expression. To which she took grave offense. When someone insults what you love, it’s hard to be cool. 

smelly fish

One of her relatives used to make a special cake around Easter, called pagnotta di Pasqua. Its near relative was pagnotta Romagnola, a cake made with honey, sugar, raisins, and anisette, a sweet, fragrant breakfast or dessert food. My father-in-law made one, studiously perfecting the recipe in his retirement. For me it was love at first bite.

This old aunt’s pagnotta di Pasqua was not Romagnola. She was from Fano, in the Marches. (Nearby residents, instead of telling someone to go to hell, tell them to go to Fano.)  She added grated cheese to the recipe, which is evidently what they do in her region, but which was nothing less than a grotesque mistake. If there was honey, sugar, raisins, and anisette in her pagnotta, you couldn’t tell. All you could taste was cheese. It was an olfactory offense, a gustatory disaster..  

Everyone in our family agreed, La pagnotta della zia Iride fa schifo. Aunt Iris’s pagnotta is disgusting. Everyone, that is, except a cousin who grew up eating it.


I was delighted to discover that from “schifo,” in English we get the slangy and very pungent “skeevy.” Urban Dictionary provides this definition–Shifty, sleazy, creepy, dirty, dodgy, nasty–and offers these delicious examples of how the word is used:

Have you seen Britney Spears’ latest husband? Ugh, he’s so skeevy. 

Eeeew, look at that skeevy guy over there with the white plastic shoes.

Of course there’s no guarantee. He bought the thing from some skeevy dude in an alley.

Just as I can recall my first whiff of fish broth, I can pinpoint my first skeevy contact with the word, in Steely Dan’s “Cousin Dupree,” a song about a lecherous guy with a skeevy look in his eyes. Like scummy and scuzzy and scruffy, skeevy conveys disgust and revulsion, coming into English, according to Merriam-Webster, by way of New York and New Jersey Italians and their use of “schifo.”


“Do you work for a funeral home?”

Post-coffee, post-cold-hot-dog, I’m standing at the cashier’s window at the county clerk’s office. You order your documents, then pay while they’re being printed and stamped with the official raised seal. The cashier has a spray of brown hair tied up on top of her head and an easy smile.  

I tell her no one has ever asked me that question. 

“Sorry,” she says. 

I hand her my credit card. “Don’t be sorry,” I say. “I liked it.” 

“Usually,” she says, “a person gets just one certificate. Not a bunch of them.”  She adds, apropos of something, “Funeral directors are some of the best dressed people who come in here.”

She looks a lot younger than the rest of the women working in records (by the looks of it, it’s an all-women operation).

“Spiffy,” I say.  “Like insurance salesmen.”  

She gives me a fishy look.  

“You know what spiffy means.”

“Well put together,” she says.  

I make a mental note: look up the origins of “spiffy,” which must be the antithesis of skeevy.  (Probably from British English “spiff,” referring in 1853 to a well-dressed man, though “spiflicated drunk,” American usage first noted in 1902, carries a skeevy connotation.) 

Behind me is a guy paying for a concealed weapon permit. I turn and nod. He’s much better put together this morning than I am. 

With hot dog on my breath, I figure I’m somewhere between spiffy and skeevy.  And I’m perfectly all right with that.    



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