Sunday, March 31, 2013

Aqua Agita

In the vernacular of southern Italian dialects, agita, referring to heartburn, in recent times has been extrapolated to imply anxiety, agitation, apprehension, concern, nervousness, worry ... got the picture?

It was Saturday morning when upon opening of my eyes I realized we'd survived. The smell of coffee and the sound of the TV in the kitchen confirmed we at least still had electricity and with it satellite TV. With the stroke of a pen at midnight my world had not ended, at least not yet. Weeks of exaggerations of impending calamity from those who traffic in words, all due to a cut in the rate of government growth, were apparently unfounded. The word draconian, seemingly reserved for these occasions, derived from the name of an ancient Greek lawmaker to imply something extremely severe, had been overused to describe the looming cuts. I hadn’t recalled such a non-scare since the turn of the millennium when the imbedded clocks inside our computers were expected to exceed their calendars, come to a crashing halt like the explosion of a trillion mainsprings and thereby herald a digital apocalypse. Some behind the scenes hard work had headed off that fiasco, but such had not been the case with our present self-inflicted debacle. Where were the current day fiscal prelates with sacrifice sufficient for a solution? As I continued to lie there, still hesitant to actually get up, I thought of other awakenings, which hadn't been as uneventful.

There was for instance that time in Calitri when I’d been reading on the couch before switching over to tackle a couple squares of Sudoku in a vain attempt to lubricate my synaptic nerve endings. In the process, I gradually went from being vertical to horizontal. Before long I apparently nodded off (so much for mental stimulation), only to be startled from my reverie. I won’t exaggerate. It wasn’t anything like Chinese water torture that woke me, nothing that 'draconian'. Simply a drip of water or two on my head was enough to bring me around.

Looking up at the ceiling I could make out a white circle, silvery damp as additional drips formed. It seemed odd how the outline of an obvious leak could be so symmetrical, so unlike some irregular blotch you’d expect to see. On closer inspection I was just about certain this four inch circle outlined the edge of a stovepipe. In a vague attempt at mental dredging, I recalled seeing something like that protruding through the ceiling back in 2006 when, prior to purchasing our Italian pied-à-terre, we’d first visited the place. Well, just maybe Sudoku does work! In the past there had apparently been a stove where our couch now sat. An obvious quick-fix during the restoration work had simply buried what remained of the stovepipe. How does it go, "out of sight, out of mind"? Somehow rainwater had managed to navigate over, around and through the half-pipe terracotta tiles that covered our roof to find this easy route inside. Fortunately I'd been at the right spot, just where I needed to be, to intercept that first drip! It had been raining and with a change of season approaching, much more could be expected. This needed to be fixed and pronto. Pre-suffering, commonly referred to as worry, quickly set in.

After moving the couch out some and placing a catch-pan to stand in for me, I contacted Emma, our house manager, for help. Being sometime residents of Calitri, having a contact like Emma or friends like Antonio and Mario who I can comfortably call on for advice, help and further contacts is a godsend. Emma indicated she had just the man we needed for this type repair and she would contact him. My concern, knowing how long things took to get done in Italy, was that the repair wouldn't be completed before we departed, only weeks away. Patience was needed, a heaping dose of it, to offset the sour agita building up.

Eventually we discovered evidence of activity but never the man himself. He had a day job plus it was harvest season - grapes in October, olives later in November. Like Santa, he must have worked by night, between pickings! Should we leave him cookies and milk or wine and cheese? He became our phantom repairman. His availability was sketchy to say the least. I'd find stacks of old tiles, discolored with the patina of time, on the ground and could see where they'd been removed from. As my acid level rose, I knew this wouldn't help since they were from the wrong spot on the roof! Just maybe he knew more about how water flowed than I did. I certainly hoped so seeing that my grades in fluid dynamics hadn't been sterling. Since I'd seen no one, details on the exact location of the leak may have been garbled in transmission. The 'sofa leak' was not above our kitchen door! To help out, I taped a note outside on the wall just about where I estimated the couch was located. Hopefully with the aid of a flashlight and his elfish helpers, he’d see it! It wasn't much but I hoped it would do the trick. It was what I can best describe as a "pointy-talky" consisting of a single word and a symbol just like this: Qui ↑ (Here ↑). Remarkably, even though we never actually saw him in the flesh, the tiles got replaced, the ceiling spot dried, the job evidently a success. Just in case, before we did leave, I moved the couch away from the drip line and hoped for the best. I doubt if we'll ever know for certain whether my pointy-talky actually helped as we await the next rainy season with our fingers crossed and wine and cheese at the ready.

I prefer things in proper order, repaired, picked up, neat, well planned. Luckily Maria Elena is like that too, but not to the degree I'm afflicted. In the Air Force I learned to operate by checklists, without deviation, and developed a greed for detail. I busted a flight check once just for turning a knob left when I should have first gone right then left and I hadn't even taken off! I was young then, still flying around with propellers, but my instructor wanted to press a point. Lessons like that sunk in and to the degree this 'brainwashing' took hold, I still rely on lists and checklists even today to get some things done. I also write “To Dos” and keep busy working on them until I have the satisfaction of striking them through. As you might expect, I'm not one to sit still, not for long at least (only recently I confess must I in order to write these tales). I'm limited on what I can accomplish in Calitri since to get on with any repair I am constrained by the number of tools at my disposal. I can't simply call the super or complain at checkout when something isn't right or a system goes south. I have to handle it myself or, as is the case most times in Italy, find help.

Though I wish it were true, life here is not all about wine and food! I must confess though that beginning in the morning, a better part of each day is taken up with food issues and not just the consumption side of it. An early visit to the bread shop for a still warm loaf, to the veggie man for whatever is then in season, to the man with fresh green olives on market day Thursdays, to the macelleria (butcher shop) or pescheria (fish shop) ... to name just a few, helps put our days into perspective. Since Calitri, like most towns, closes-up tight around noon until later in the afternoon and because various businesses are closed on different days or at different times of the same day, these considerations are important. Friends think it unwise and courting danger not to have enough bread to get through a weekend! I actually enjoy these excursions because it's fun to get out and meet new and old acquaintances as we roll along adding purchases to our little tag-along shopping cart. Besides, all the walking around involved is also integral to the Mediterranean diet that everyone raves about nowadays. Like most, we have a small refrigerator, something on the order of what you'd find in a college dorm. Nothing like the behemoths you find in the States. We therefore buy food for the day and start over again the next day. So while Mare does her thing in the cucina (kitchen), I keep busy in and around the house, that is, unless I’ve nodded off on the couch.

After renovations were completed and we first took possession, one of the first things I tackled was doing some painting. Nothing on the order of a scenic landscape mural, though I've thought about it. That would have been the perfect time to try; my primitive attempts easily covered over. We just needed some color to offset the dominant whitewashed look. Most home interiors in Calitri are painted white. I'm convinced that it's due to the cost of the paint. White is the least expensive but add a pigment and the price skyrockets. I was surprised myself when I got a bill for €60 for a small bucket tinged a 'salmony pink' needed for touch-ups outside in our cortile (courtyard), small as it is. In our bedroom an equally expensive tub turned a wall red and soon we were referring to it as the 'spaghetti red' wall. In the cucina I stood on the kitchen table to turn a couple of the walls there a soft yellow. Without a ladder and faced with at least eleven foot high walls it became a touch and go balancing act. Outside I used a kitchen chair, which I promised to cover in plastic, to reach the curved ceiling of the tunnel leading to our door, Casa della Feritoia (stylized photo above). At times my circus act would have been a treat to watch. Luckily there were no onlookers and as yet, Santa Maria, no need to call for medical assistance.

I usually awaken in Calitri before dawn creeps in. Like clockwork nature dutifully calls. In our modest 'water closet', as I’m fond of calling it due to the influence of British friends, hangs our water heater. These cylindrical devices, looking like small but chubby casks, sit high up on the walls. Ours is electric and it’s about then that I usually turn it on so we’ll have hot water later for showers and dishes. The water pressure in town I’m told is high. As a result, over the years and especially while water is being heated, there has been a recurring drip, drip from the pressure valve on the bottom of the tank. At first this annoying drip splattered on the mirror’s shelf directly below the valve. Using a short length of clear plastic tubing that I was fortunate enough to track down and some tape I eventually redirected this irritating dribble to miss the wooden shelf altogether and instead fall into the sink. We learned to co-habitat with our persistent drip, especially while brushing teeth, shaving or combing our hair! One morning, however, even without my glasses, I noticed a red streak marring the sink’s white porcelain. The ‘cask’ attached to our wall was leaking and although red in color, this unfortunately wasn’t water miraculously turned to wine! The rusty smear originated from the base of the heater right where the “I’m on” light poked through an access panel. Removing the panel I could clearly see the source of the rusty drip. Unmistakably, the high pressure had run its course; one of the tank’s welds was weeping. Mare, still asleep, didn’t know it yet but there would be no hot water that day since we faced the imminent failure of our water heater.

Waiting for a more respectable hour, I made a call to our friend Melissa. Her dad, Antonio, had done some kitchen remodeling for us and I knew he had un idraulico (a plumber) on his crew. He doesn’t speak English so Melissa served as our go between. A few hours later along came Melissa with her dad and plumber, Gerardo, in tow. The scene was somewhat reminiscent of one from the movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun” when contractors visit Bramasole to estimate renovation costs. As in this Hollywood romantic comedy, my problem was nothing money couldn’t cure. It all sounded better in Italian too as the plumber, like a doctor, did a thorough examination and summarily pronounced our water heater morto (dead). This was way beyond my capability, so Gerardo, through the intercession of Melissa, was given a green light to proceed. It seemed that water leaks, dripping water, water pressure, just water in general was a recurring problem on that visit.

Indirectly water was also the culprit in my next handyman project. We live on a mountainside riddled with tunnels. Rabbits have their warrens and medieval Calitri its grottos. Fortunately our home is above ground level but moving down the side of the mountain, to one side of the street just below us, for example, grotto apartments are carved into the hillside. Dampness can be a recurring issue in these dwellings. When it gets too bad and water actually begins to drip inside a grotto home, the fix sometimes is to simply pave the area above this particular apartment to prevent water from penetrating the ground and working its way into the grotto. It so happened that sometime between visits, the town in response to someone’s seepage issue had poured what amounted to a skim coat of concrete on top of the small terrazzo outside our door. Over time, parts of it had crumbled as chunks of concrete had come loose under foot traffic and from the surprising strength of weeds. After making some inquiries on where to get what I needed and borrowing a trowel, I headed for Antonietta’s, a sort of tool and tile shop, for some cement. I bought two bags. Each was about the size of a large bag of potato chips, only these were made of clear plastic and had no labeling or trans-fats! Everything pre-mixed, I just needed to add that pesky stuff, water. After promising to return Mare’s wash bucket just as I’d found it, I was off. Using a stick broken to a usable length and the trowel I stirred my slurry batter until it was just the right consistency and buttered each cleaned space as if I was frosting a cake. I even resisted the urge to scrawl my initials on top as I tried my best to remain mature. It set up well and a while later, lacking a brush, I used the bottom of my sneakers to smooth away any imperfections. Time will tell how well I did. I’ll know soon if my handy work survived the winter and the resurgent thrust of springtime weeds.

To lower any stress that may accumulate over these matters and others of their ilk, you might think I’d simply sit down, have a glass of water and relax. That way I’d have the twofold benefit of being hydrated and the satisfaction that in a small way I’d decreased the supply of the troublesome stuff! Not so. Instead, to lessen any agita and certainly always before leaving Calitri for home, we have to get a fix of our favorite gelato from Bar Jolly, known for its gelato, that metaphor for soothing comfort. Most visitors enjoy the art found throughout Italy inside its churches and museums but I like mine scooped atop a cone. Not simply due palline (two scoops) but due gusti (two flavors)! Creamy smooth with strong flavor and void of the iciness so common among the “also-rans”, the gelato at the Bar Jolly has our vote as the best in town and the best we have ever licked, slurped and at times scooped anywhere in Italy. Michale runs Bar Jolly but it is his wife, Lucia, assisted by their daughter, Veronica, who is the maestro of gelato making. Lucia is a short and always jolly sort, always happy to see you. Her disposition may actually account for the name of the place (unless jolly actually means 'wildcard' as it translates from Italian). Italians are notorious for giving each other nicknames, so I just might be on to something. Since name-giving is so popular, I'd like to propose "anti-agita" as their next gelato flavor!

The weeks were getting on and soon it was time to leave. We sensed it was time when the prevailing weather, day after day, was rain. Days had turned quickly from sunny warm autumn days, good for harvesting grapes, to dreary stormy days, good for eating popcorn while staying dry reading a book. We departed Calitri on a Monday late in October and yes it was raining. Since we were in no particular hurry, we drove through Basilicata and mountainous Calabria toward Sicily at a relaxed pace. Our intention was to catch a military "hop" back to the States from the naval air station located just inland from coastal Catania. Our five hour trip to Villa San Giovanni, where you catch the ferry across the historic Strait of Messina, was an improvement over past trips and relatively agita free. The primary highway south from Calitri invariably features heavy construction associated with the large number of tunnels seemingly under continuous repair. I stop counting after a while. It can be slow going especially when lanes (thankfully not the tunnels) collapse into one or switch to the opposite side to share one of the opposing lanes with oncoming traffic. We were fortunate we had no scheduled flight to catch, no particular time we had to be anywhere. We had another water problem though, two miles of it separated us from Messina.

The Strait of Messina, known for its strong currents, was feared by sailors in antiquity mainly because of the rocks and whirlpools known as Scylla and Charybdis, personified as female monsters in Greek mythology. Scylla sat to one side of the strait while her counterpart, Charybdis, occupied the other. The idiom "Between Scylla and Charybdis" is similar to our mythology-less expression of being "Between a rock and a hard place" and has come to denote being between two dangers, choosing either of which brings harm. When we queued-up at the embarkation point, we could see the ferry just pulling away from Scylla headed into Charybdis waters. Time to spare, we waited for the next ferry. Fortunately the sun shined as we dallied while being entertained by men passing through the cars lanes selling tissues, bootleg CDs and whatnots! It is a short trip, about 30 minutes. Time enough to leave your car below deck, get some air and enjoy the great views as you skirt the swirling currents of Charybdis and approach Messina. Once on the highway from Messina, we shot south toward the base.

When you arrive, you catch any flight you can, whenever they become available. Everyone competes for a seat, sort of like commercial 'Standby' in the past. It is a lot of hit or miss, mostly miss. It helps somewhat being retired. With no hard date to be home by, you can afford the wait. However, things were unusual this time. With Hurricane Sandy pounding the east coast of the US there were no flights scheduled to depart for at least four days. Sandy had disrupted the normal rotation of flights, making them scarce. We learned that chances of a flight home were better farther into the Mediterranean. It was on this advice then, that early the next morning we flew on an admiral's Gulfstream III executive jet, sans admiral, to Souda Bay on the Greek island of Crete. Going east to eventually get west seemed strange but so long as we didn't have to go all the way around, why not! Again stormy water had played its hand but this time we weren't complaining!

Sunny, hot, rocky and sown with wild silver gorges is how I'd describe the place. We loved it! We checked right away for a flight backtracking west and learned that out on the tarmac a KC-10 'Extender', though broken at the moment, would be ready to go within 48 hours. In the meantime, in view of the hardship and disappointment at the news, we'd just have to make due and enjoy the pleasures of this exotic refuge away from the storm. It wasn't long then before we were on our way to the nearby, picturesque, harbor-side town of Chania. Little did we know but Chania's historic old town is considered the most beautiful urban district on Crete, if not all of Greece. We had struck the jackpot. The promenade along the shorefront held a cosmopolitan atmosphere. A harbor lighthouse, narrow alleys, cozy corners and old charming buildings, many restored as hotels, restaurants, shops and bars made for a lively and colorful place. At the Alcanea Boutique Hotel, its resplendent courtyard surrounded by flowers, we idled a while taking in scenic views of the old port as night lights sparkled on the water. Its street terrace doubled as a cafe during the day only to morph into a wine bar by night. For starters we began with milky ouzo (milky that is once ice is added) and a assortment of appetizers, called mezes, of small fish, kalamata olives and lest I forget, feta cheese. In a twinkle my residual agita was a faded memory. For Maria Elena, suspended in an enchanted moment, the place had forever captured her heart.

We skirted the entire harbor listening to the good natured touting of restaurateurs, each imploring us to dine with him, professing that only their establishment offered the very best. One went so far as to offer us more ouzo along with tzatziki (we love this yogurt, cucumber and garlic dip mélange) simply to sit by the edge of the stone wharf so we might attract other patrons. Why not? An attractive couple can certainly attract! Our only problem was we ran short of tzatziki long, long before we ran out of pita bread.

I don't know why, maybe it had something to do with his name, Alex Papadokonstantakis, that swayed us to decide to have dinner at his place that night from among all those to choose from. I'd never met a Papadokonstantakis before! Locally born, certainly Greek through and through, Alex was a character and a fun waiter with an easy friendliness to complement his electric personality. It was evident that he enjoyed life. He believed being alive was a gift, living life happily a choice. Uncertain what half the items were on the menu but willing to learn, he guided us through an enjoyable evening. The numbers of patrons were few so we could chat and joke as the spell-casting ouzo flowed. It didn't matter if our glasses were half empty or half full, either way there was clearly room for more ouzo. I recall enjoying a fabulous layered moussaka but what Mare had must have been diluted from my memory by the milky drug, indifferent to the number of Sudokus I'll ever attempt. Luckily neither of us would be driving.

The next morning we checked on the status of our ride home. Parts for the KC-10 tanker would arrive soon and be installed overnight. The funny part was they would arrive by FedEx at the commercial airport which seemed a strange way to run an air force. By the next morning she was ready to fly and we boarded. When her three engines started I thought all was well only to hear them spool down. Apparently we had a problem. The question was could it be repaired quickly? When I learned the details I thought not since an electrical device that converted one type of current to another had failed. I doubted if something like that for so late a model aircraft was lying around in one of the hangers. It seemed ironic for in these very environs a Helen had once launched a thousand ships and here we had a problem launching one! Handy though I think I am, I doubted I could help since lately I’d specialized exclusively in water problems.

My enthusiasm to help a poor substitute for expertise, I sat back as the crew got to work. As opposed to the voluminous manuals of my day, everything they needed was preloaded on tablet computers. The failed part was identified and calls made home via radio where to my surprise a green light was issued to fly as is. There were four of these devices onboard but only three were actually needed to work at any moment. I thanked God for redundancy as they buttoned-up and got airborne. With the gear and flaps up, headed for an overnight stay on the island of Terceira in the Azores, my apprehension evaporated even with all that water below us. Along with us were two Marine Corps Harriers. Like hummingbirds they would fly off our wings all the way home. Watching them take on fuel every few hours as we transited the Med on into the Atlantic was electrifying for Maria Elena to watch.

We stayed in the beautiful little fishing village of Praia da Vitoria (Beach of the Victory) a few miles from the Lajes Air Base on Terceira. Following dinner and a stroll through town, we turned in at the Praia Marina Hotel. Things went smoother the next morning with our only surprise, a pleasant one. Shortly after we were airborne, one of the crewmembers informed us that due to the hurricane and all the recovery activity focused on New Jersey, our original destination, the mission had been diverted to Dover, Delaware. The enormous calamity of this storm for so many had been fortunate for us because Dover was where we had parked our car over a month earlier. We were home.

So much for the minor tribulations of home ownership in a foreign land as well as the anxiety brought on by freestyle travel. Water problems and breakdowns, yes even a hurricane this time ... you can always expect something. We can never really escape the annoyance of breakdowns or the need for repairs. They are just a part of our life wherever we choose to live it. Come what may and as befuddled and uncertain about what to do when difficulties arise, solutions seem to emerge. With some work, a few dollops of gelato and the help of friends, troubles miraculously have a way of working themselves out and flushing the agita away.

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos (as well as those from other adventures), click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Agita”.