Wednesday, May 31, 2017

“La Dolce Vita” Meets “La Joie de Vivre”



“La Dolce Vita” Meets “La Joie de Vivre”
We were looking for new adventure.  You  
 might think we’d already had enough, but there was always the urge for one more surprising fling into the unexpected.  We thought we’d give normal the day off and try a European river cruise this time, where we could experience a series of mini-adventures, day after day while snapping pictures in drip-dry clothes for a week.  It seemed just the thing to satisfy our longing.  The idea wasn’t some spur of the moment grab your bag and let’s go affair either.  It had been years coming, years in the making.  We’d talked about it many a time but invariably managed to put it off to some future anniversary or significant numbered birthday.  An out of sight out of mind malaise set in and the years passed by regardless of the approach of any meaningful anniversary or the arrival of a milestone birthday.  We can point to television for the genesis of its rebirth, for gradually we succumbed to that British voice that each week, while watching Downton Abby, beckoned that we cruise the “HAAart” of European “cities and landscapes to see things differently”.  That finally did it, we were hooked, clutching our tickets as the days gradually melted from the calendar.  Clearly premeditated, our vigil lasted for some time for we committed to our
Viking River Cruise a year in advance.  I can recall the moment we made the commitment.  Maria Elena’s memory is even more vivid, for she hadn't been feeling well for a long time.  A future trip, something to look forward to, might just be the medicine she needed although at the time she couldn’t see it happening and, believe me, the idea of packing her suitcase right then was sufficient grounds for divorce.  In one of my many less than diplomatic “men are from mars” moments, I was insensitive enough to remark that as far off as it was, she would be either quite well or quite dead!  You can imagine how that cost me, the least of which was the full, any excuse goes, medical insurance for the length of our time afloat.
Postponing death and evading divorce, our adventure would begin in Lyon and meander along the Rhone River south as far as the city of Arles in Provence.  The name Rhone continues the Gaulish name for the river to this day, which was Rodonos. 
Those Gauls had been a thorn to Roman dominance of the area going way back, even as early as 218 BC when this 800 yard wide river served as a natural east-west boundary.  That was the year the Battle of the Rhone Crossing occurred as a prelude to the Second Punic War.  Front and center during that campaign was that most famous of Carthaginians, Hannibal.  History recollects that just north of one of our stops, Avignon, the Volcae, a Gallic tribe allied at the time with Rome and acting on their behalf, tried to halt Hannibal’s eastward advance toward the Italy peninsula.  Hannibal, however, proved to be a slippery opponent even then and ruled that September day by sending a detachment upriver in a flanking maneuver which crossed at a shallow point to ambush the Gauls from the rear as Hannibal crossed the river in a frontal assault.  No Romans had been directly involved.  Maybe Roman organization might have saved the day but in this case it was a rout.  Had the Carthaginians been prevented from crossing the Rhone, this ripple of the past, the 218 BC invasion of Italy, might not have taken place.  While the Carthaginians had not met any Romans, I was curious.  Would we find the Roman modern-day equivalent along the banks of the Rhone during our trip?  Beyond the pizzeria and ristarante storefronts, where were the present day descendants, the Italians, of this once Roman province?
Though I doubted anyone aboard the “Heimdal”, our Viking home afloat for the week, would be able to point out where Hannibal may have crossed the Rhone, since the exact location is unsure, there would be plenty of breathtaking remains of Roman architectural wonders along the route.  Not far from Avignon, near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard, lies one of ancient Rome’s greatest remaining architectural marvels, the Pont du Gard Aqueduct.  Intact, this magnificent, arched, three-tiered structure, straddling the Gardon River, was built entirely without mortar over 2000 years ago.  One of the most ambitious engineering projects of its time, the aqueduct moved 44 million gallons of water daily to the Roman outpost of Nimes, which then had an estimated population of 60,000, from springs thirty-one miles away.  Some of its stone blocks weigh six tons and were somehow lifted 160 feet.  It stands today as the greatest legacy to its builder, thought among other contenders to be Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Emperor Augustus.  Relying on gravity as its power source, with a drop-off of only 25 inches per mile over its entire 31 mile span, the water of this artistic and technical masterpiece moved at a rate that took a drop of spring water 27 hours to make the trip to a fountain, bath, or private home in Nimes. Simply amazing!
Various episodes of Italian migration, beginning in ancient times in sporadic cycles, have gone on for centuries.  This interchange of cultures in fact began long before the Medici name became
linked with French monarchy.  Though not well known, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself was of Genoese and Tuscan ancestry and was ethnically Italian of Corsican origin.1  With the northwestern border of Italy being one and the same with the southeastern border of France, there was easy access.  So yes, I wondered whether during our holiday afloat we might happen upon some remnant of Italian influence beyond the sway of Italian cuisine to be found just about everywhere.  Maybe someone on our ship, a fellow passenger, member of the crew, or shop owner in some port, for instance, might be the one.  After all, my French connection on my mother’s side went back to Paris in 1435.  Could in be that difficult?  There is a charm in something undefined that allows for once-upon-a-time imaginings of what might be, what may have been.  We all need dreams to sustain us, so go ahead, call me a dreamer, but by then, after all the waiting, I’d warmed to the task and would be on the lookout for that link.
                 1.      “Italians in France”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italians_in_France
We departed Boston’s O’Hare International late one afternoon for Frankfurt, Germany before continuing on to Lyon where the “Heimdal” awaited, our luggage properly hung with tags like Christmas ornaments that made clear we were the next crop of vacationers destined for the river cruise docks.  After that part of the safety briefing where for the thousandth time I was trained on how to open and close a seat belt, with only a sliver of belief that there are still souls out there who really don’t know how to operate one, I paid close attention to the life preserver instructions.  I wasn’t Navy and with the majority of the flight over water, I thought I’d better listen.  On the climb-out, while most people might idle away the flight hours thinking of what lay ahead, I dwelled on what was behind.  We would be gone a long time, what had I forgotten?  Simple things came to mind like pencils, for instance, to do Sudoku and things I’d failed to do in preparation, like put the cable TV into vacation mode.  Too late.  Instead, I took out my Sudoku, which I hadn’t forgotten, and tried my best to fill the squares using a pen, though very quickly I was forced to give up due to being unable to erase the multiple possibilities.  In a mental segue, my thoughts were interrupted when the flight attendant arrived offering us drinks.  I immediately forgot about pencils and such and focused on happy hour.  Surprisingly, she never mentioned the cost of things I was so used to hearing on other airlines … $5 for beer, $6 for an alcoholic beverage.  Like one of those better weddings you might attend, it was apparently an open bar at 30,000 feet!  I was impressed with Lufthansa and jokingly asked if she could make me a Negroni.  To my surprise, though she was unfamiliar with the concoction, she offered to try.  I explained the formula and the stewardess did her best with a brew of Campari, gin (unfortunately not chilled) and tonic water (sorry, no sweet vermouth).  I didn’t complain, especially since at the moment this was the only bar around.  After a few rounds of those I’d certainly be asleep, which I thought was their secret objective.  As a result, it seemed that in no time we touched-down in Frankfort.
On the second leg of our journey, with no chance of an emergency water landing enroot from Frankfort to Lyon, I hardly paid attention to the pre-takeoff briefing.  Fifty-five minutes and a salmon sandwich later we touched down in Lyon where an awaiting van hustled us off to our cruise ship moored in the river.  It was close to noon and the dreaded part of the journey, the travel part that Maria Elena so hates, was finally over.  We had arrived and were soon aboard the “Heimdal”.  After a brief stop to check out our room, we along with additional new arrivals headed for the dining room to join other early arrived passengers.  Considerably jet lagged, we made restrained, polite hellos over lunch as we met and greeted others who were equally hesitant to make a wrong impression.  We’d be with these folks for a week and would have plenty of time to sort out those we would like to eat with more than once.  First we needed some sleep, which we got as passengers continued to trickle–in throughout the afternoon.
I find that I’m getting more and more cynical.  My antennae went up quickly when Chris, the ship’s hotel manager, said how excited he and his team were to have us aboard, when we knew this
wasn’t his first rodeo and he saw 178 new faces every week.  I wondered just how excited he could be to the customary humdrum of his job.  It just seemed rehearsed.  Nevertheless, if it was put on, the cynic in me honestly couldn’t detect it.  He along with the entire crew tried to convey a family atmosphere and by the end of the trip many of us, total strangers on arrival, had bonded into a family afloat, some destined to be friends forever.  The staff was marvelous and tried in every way to exceed expectations.  As a typical example there was that night walk in Viviers … a town of Roman fish ponds, a fortress rampart to stroll along at sunset, and where both a “Sacred” and “Profane” part of town, separated by a porte coulissante doorway, had once kept ancient “one percenters” from the rabble … where Chris and some of the crew, including the chef, were waiting for us with cheese and crackers in one of the town squares. 
When it came to finding that prototypical Italian with a bloodline flowing in his veins from some once-upon-a-time Roman like the waters along the banks of the Rhone, I must admit I never did.  They had to be there somewhere, though I doubt they would know it themselves.  It was common practice for a retired legionnaire to be granted land in one of the conquered territories.  The idea of these land-grants being to gradually Romanize an area by seeding it with the real thing.  When you get down to it, however, I wonder who colonized who? While no one could really prove my thesis, Italians and signs of Italy were everywhere.
The evidence began to mount subtly.  The emergence of tiny meatballs at the breakfast buffet was a clue that hinted I was on the right track.  French and Italian words were also closely paired.  One word, common to both Italian and French, like is “barbecue”.  I’d always thought it an American word adopted like “weekend” has by many languages, but I was wrong by a mile in this case.  If the story we were told is to be believed, it is derived from barbe and queue or cue.  The barbe refers to a chin’s beard where the skewer is inserted, and yes, the cue refers to the behind where it exits!  So there you have it, barbecue!  On our daily walking tours at various ports of call, at Avignon, Viviers  and Arles for example, evidence was thick with Roman heritage seen in amphitheaters, temples, aqueducts, fish ponds, and even the scalloped stone decoration in the walkways, which were just like those of hometown Calitri.  Once rulers of the world, those Romans definitely got around, leaving their fingerprints everywhere.
As further evidence of an Italian connection (or is it a French connection?), I even picked-up a few non-male (not bad) for some excellent ball placements at a bocce game in a park.  While not
played in a box like classic Italian bocce, it was the same game Italians play.  These players certainly were inventive, however, with one elderly chap using a magnet at the end of a cord to pick up his ball without having to bend over.  These days this was probably mandatory for him due to years of stooping to pick those French Gamay du Rhone grapes that grow so ridiculously near to the ground.  You would be close to being correct if you imagined grapes dangling from a bonsai
tree growing in soil full of rocks the size of potatoes.
      Later, I met Italian crewmembers.  One in particular, Daniele Sulla, was an accomplished piano player who entertained us nightly in the ship’s Aquavit Lounge.  He was of Sicilian descent having originated from Marsala in western Sicily, not far from Trapani.  His last name alone struck me as intriguing since it was the same as that of the Roman dictator, Sulla.  Lucius Cornelius Sulla, commonly referred to simply as Sulla, was a Roman general and statesman.  He was awarded a “grass crown”, a most prestigious Roman military honor earned in battle just as Julius Caesar would
years later.  He had the distinction of holding the office of council twice, as well as reviving the office of dictator dormant for over a century.  Sulla was a brutal dictator who employed state controlled murder of political opponents to maintain control and accumulate wealth by confiscating the property of those he declared as enemies of the state.  Would he be my missing link?  Unfortunately not.  While that Sulla had cold blood coursing in his veins, music ran in Daniele’s for his father had been a professional singer with his own band.  Growing up, he’d picked up a few tricks like being able to play the drums and base-guitar in addition to the piano.  He was also surprisingly a superb singer.  I thought at times I was listening to a recording when a turn toward the piano confirmed I wasn’t.
One day, while exploring an art studio, I came my closest to hitting the jackpot.  It was here that we met sculptor and painter, Claude Urbani.  Talking about his work, we somehow got beyond his explanation of his sculpture of the Egyptian sacred bull god Apis and a piece on Odysseus’ Cyclops to mention of his ancestry. 
He said he could trace his linage back through the Romans to those still mysterious Tuscan Etruscans.  Though not due to a land-grant, he lived in France today because his grandparents had emigrated there from Umbria.  His last name, Urbani, was connected to Umbria like the name of my doctor as a baby, Dr. Siciliano, had been tied to Sicily and likewise for the DeBari’s and DeRoma’s I have known.  He was self-confident of his Italian heritage, the record of which had been handed down to him in oral history extending over centuries.

We were repeatedly told to beware of the “Mistral wind”, where low and high pressure fronts conspire to the north and shoot south through this region.  By all reports, it exceeded anything we were used to in Calitri in terms of velocity.  While our high altitude Scirocco wind sucks up fine Sahara sand particles and transports the dust to our windshield, this breeze was said to be on the order of some zephyr out of windy city Chicago.  We were spared the brunt of its impact this time of year, however, and what we did endure was simply a mild warm breeze that almost saw my hat in the Rhone River one day.  Like most weather reports, it seemed along the vein of so many things, just a little hyped.  Wind or the many river locks we passed through didn’t hinder the Heimdal’s steady progress one bit as we continued south into Provence.
We were especially looking forward to the food.  French food, particularly known for its sauces (just ask Julia Childs), beyond some French onion soup, Chateaubriand and some snails, was not a large part of the standout repertoire of the chef aboard the “Heimdal”.  This we could understand, for he happened to be Greek.  We did eat ashore during an extended stay in Arles where under a shading
tree, we noshed for hours on carpaccio, veal wrapped in eggplant, and moules (mussels) at La Mule Blanche.  There was one thing we cautiously avoided on the menu.  They called it “offal”, something that by my estimate and experience was a concoction approaching that breakfast treat, scrapple (I’m sorry scrapple fans), where you eat just about everything from a pig but the squeak.  Not knowing what a particular dish entailed (no pun here) I passed on this shiver stuff that featured this gastronomic barnyard form of conservancy.
My search for that missing link ended when we finally disembarked from the “Heimdal” in Avignon.  With my own heritage a mix of French from my mother, traceable as I mentioned to 1435, and Italian from my father (I’m only to 1845 with my grandfather so far), my bloodline is bracketed somewhere between Lago Lugano in northern Italy and the coastal planes of French Normandy farther north.  While 1435 is still about 900 years after the fall of Rome, it strikes me that all this time I may simply have been looking for myself.  My own early ancestors had obviously wandered this very same contested land and possibly navigated this very river.  Here then, in my ending, just may have been my beginning.

From That Rogue Tourist Paolo

… written while afloat