Monday, March 31, 2014


Hate is a crass word, especially nowadays, but the Philistine in me insists I use it anyway - I HATE GRAVITY!  The kinder, gentler me, however, should rephrase since hate may be too strong a word.  Besides, Maria Elena would insist.  Let's say I’m just anti-gravity!  It’s a downer for sure, pun intended.  It is evident that the older the curmudgeon in me gets, the more I dislike gravity.  Seems its force has gotten much greater than the gravitational pull (or is it a push?) of 32 ft/sec2 I was once taught.  You’d think that with all the snow this year (12 more inches last night) I was getting closer to one of the poles, where it is supposed to be greater.  Not a chance.  Things just seem to fall faster giving me less opportunity to attempt a flailing grab after an object as it tumbles away from me.  Have I missed some shift in the Earth’s magma?  I swear its pull is at least double around me, as though I’m surrounded by some sort of gravitational anomaly, kind of like that Lil Abner comic-strip character, always overshadowed by a cloud of bad luck.   

My anti-gravityness helps explain why we now have a refrigerator with the freezer on the bottom, why we live in a one story home, why I avoid slivery sized pieces of soap in the shower that flip away so easily onto the floor, why I now believe the bathroom scale, in league with this gravity conspiracy, lies, and why when I come upon a lost coin on the street these days, its denomination makes all the difference on whether I’ll stoop to pick it up.  Apparently, without even realizing it, I have developed my own gravity standards! 

            Once upon a time we visited Cambridge, England on the Cam River with our British friends Bernie and Gerry.  It was there at Trinity College, in the Wren Library, not far in fact from the bridge across the Cam River (“Cam-Bridge”), due only to the overt kindness of just the right librarian whom providence happened to have on duty at just the moment we wondered in, that we were blessed by being allowed to see some very famous documents.  All originals, they included a 17th century Martin Luther Bible along with an original copy of William Shakespeare's Complete Histories & Tragedies and A. A. Milne's manuscript of Winnie-the-Pooh.  While Maria Elena especially enjoyed seeing the Pooh manuscript with its "Hundred Acre Wood" cast of characters, for me it was Isaac Newton’s personally annotated first edition of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica published in 1686.  In it he applied the rigor of mathematics to nature and in so doing defined universal gravitation.  We all recall the tale of Newton sitting under an apple tree when it just so happened that an apple fell on his head or maybe it was only nearby.  It didn’t matter.  Thinking about this experience, he eventually formulated his theory of gravity.  A similar incident happened to Maria Elena while we were in Italy once, although the result was an entirely different formulation. 

            We were in Pulia, unfortunately even now, typecast as an Italian backwater though far from it.  We were actually in Cisternino, a town on the road to Alberobello, which is home to the famous conical stone roofed huts known as Trulli.  At the time, we were staying in a beautiful, rustic, four-coned trullo along with our friends, Antonio and Gerardina.  This was our first of many visits to Puglia.  Everything about the area and our stone home for the night was new and exciting.  Far removed from the dizzy rush of our e-world, our trullo home was simple, utilitarian and spoke to the resilient history of this place.  Inside the structure's central limestone cone the uncertain light of a single bulb, without a shade, dangled at the end of a long cord in full agreement with gravity.  Like a Foucault pendulum it extended from the apex of the corbelled vault high, high overhead only to halt just above our heads at the kitchen table.  Two sparse bedrooms, under lesser cones, spawned from this central room.  Completing this quilt of stone space, in addition to a common bathroom, there was also a small kitchen with an adjacent pantry separated from the central living area by curtained doorways.  In this residue of old, it was evident that the past lingered here, suspended in an unchanging moment.  Other than the kitchen appliances and meager electric lighting, as we sat there without TV, radio or air conditioning, it was easy to entertain the feeling that we had eclipsed time's sieve and returned to a past age – evidently, for me at least, a common sensation whenever I'm in Italy.

            It wasn’t long before we were outside exploring our new surroundings.  Finding stone stairs we ascended to the base of the roof cones.  We walked carefully along a lengthy stone gutter of sorts, for here was a place eager for rain.  What there was of this occasional precious liquid was directed into underground cisterns through this network of troughs.  Close-up, the roof cones consisted of thousands of rectangular loaves of limestone.  Each tile was meticulously chipped and shaped to fit into its spot along the overlapping circles of stone.  Like bracelets of ever decreasing circumferences, one stone circle sat atop another, each gradually getting smaller with every course.  This continued all the way to the tip of a cone, seemingly in defiance of Newton and his ubiquitous scheme of gravitational waves.  From our vantage point, off in the near distance, we could make out the tips of other trulli among ancient groves of olives.  Like ours, these strange structures, which even the annals of time cannot account for, their origin only a guess, stood out like muffin tops torn from their bases, or better, the conical spires of English castles separated from their lofty towers.  Absent the fluttering pennants of castles of yore, however, each cone instead terminated with a cannonball size stone sphere called a pinnacolo (pinnacle).

It was here on that sunny afternoon, as Mare sat outside on a stone wall surrounding our trullo courtyard that she, like Newton, was struck on the head.  It was not, as has been my misfortune numerous times, the willful droppings of some wayward bird.  No, not at all.  In this case the body in motion attempting to remain in motion, in complete compliance with Newton’s principles, but for the presence of Maria Elena, was not an apple but a plump fig.  But unlike the musings of Newton, Mare, after examining the fleshy projectile fell on another idea.  It had nothing to do whatsoever with the inverse square of distances mind you.  Putting mathematics aside, since Newton had adequately covered that, her formulary instead weighed factors like sugar and temperatures.  The tree under which she was shading herself was bursting with the over-ripened fruit.  Why not some jam?  That mathling fellow, Newton, if he had a sweet tooth would have been pleased.

It was not until we’d thoroughly explored Alborobello and had enjoyed two superb meals together: one of briny fresh fish by moonlight on the Adriatic coast, the other, threads of pasta at a rooftop restaurant in Alborobella (see photo album) and had returned to Calitri, that Maria Elena crafted what became her "Fig Newton" jam.  Her alchemy, in addition to the mashed figs, was a concoction of fresh squeezed lemon juice, sugar and to gel everything together, pectin.  It was while I watched her moving around the cucina at this task that I struck on another gravity related idea.

            At the Calitri markets we buy only for the day.  Everything is wonderfully fresh and seasonal.  They even sell sprigs to grow your own "everything".  Problem is we have no soil other than a few pots, and besides, who would water things while we were away?  We tried to rely on the hand of Mother Nature once, but that resulted in a withered mess, evidenced by the empty planters now outside our door.  So instead, we buy at the markets.  Our need for refrigeration is minimal since most of the lot is consumed daily.  With our visits to Calitri still limited and with few leftovers to be concerned with, it seemed a waste of overinflated Euros to have a large American style refrigerator.  Instead, we have what I consider a small, dormitory-size fridge.  Being as small as it is, it sits low to the floor.  Having passed through our youthful college years long ago, I hated it (there's that word again) every time I saw Mare have to kneel on the floor to get into the fridge.  I really hated it when I had to, for in those cases, keeping with Newton, the body in motion was mine!  Mare is no Zumba workout princess nor for that matter am I someone with a mega-chiseled physique.  Watching her having to get up and down became the germ of an idea to remedy this inconvenience.

            We have made many friends in Calitri.  It's not necessarily because we are especially good at making friends (by the way Maria Elena is better at it than I am), it's just that the warmth and friendliness of the Calitri townsfolk make it impossible not to.  There is one gentleman in particular I met when we first visited in '07.  He is someone I call upon who can be more than helpful, but more importantly, I now consider him an amico (friend).  His name is Michelangelo.  My good natured friend, who reminds me of Pinocchio's wood carving creator, Geppetto, has a genius for furniture restoration in addition to being a locksmith.  He speaks little English but that doesn't prevent us from communicating.  As he’d polish a refinished table top, I’d polish my slowly improving Italian.  We manage to get by this way along with notes that I’ll sometimes prepare in advance with the help of Google Translate.  For those spur of the moment occasions, a pocket dictionary along with my broken Italian and when necessary, drawings, usually does the trick.  Though we have never locked ourselves out, not yet, and needed his professional help that way, we have pieces of furniture he's breathed new life into.  I love to sweep through his little shop on Via Tedesco each time we are in town to see what he's working on and what might be available.  Thinking about our stump of a refrigerator it occurred to me that Michelangelo, handy as he is, just might be able to make things right, or in this case, in defiance of gravity, taller.

With measurements in hand I visited Michelangelo.  My idea was to fashion a wooden box tall and strong enough to support, but more importantly raise our refrigerator off the floor and thereby make it easier to get at things inside.  No more kneeling on the floor! The space inside the box, accessible from the front, would also provide room to store tall bottles like two liter bottles of water and bottles of wine that seem to miraculously multiply when in fact their increase was due to an unreasonably good deal or the sighting of an interesting label.  We went over the figures together only to realize, that stuck in my American ways, I needed things in centimeters, not inches.  So much for my left braininess.  The need for conversion quickly remedied, Michelangelo got to work.  It is said repeatedly, "Rome wasn't built in a day", and neither was this box.  You have to realize that nothing happens quickly in Italy.  It’s normale (normal).  There is a cadence to everyday life here, most often to a very slow rhythm that takes getting used to.  About two weeks later the box was ready to try.  In defiance of gravity it worked just fine.  Michelangelo and I should go into business mass producing these things (see photo album)!

Besides the levitation of iceboxes and the validation that gravity fully functions under fig trees, I also take issue to those step-wise "gravity scaffolds" called stairs.  Although we thankfully have no stairs in our Calitri home, and few do in the Borgo, modern Calitri is replete with apartments stacked one above another in high-rise fashion.  Whereas stone steps so worn that they’re concave toward their centers are common, I've seen few elevators in Italy.  When I have, most often in the big cities, hardly any functioned.  Needless to say, I know of none in Calitri.  Seems many of our friends choose to live high-up in these lofty abodes.  For instance, Titti makes her home in a third floor loft while Antonio and Gerardina, I'm recalling, nest even higher in a fourth floor apartment.  As I climb these staircases, leading me higher and higher in opposition to this invisible force, I maintain that gravity pulls on me harder with every step!  Lugging something along with me only seems to aggravate the effect.  It's that anomaly again, I swear, and has nothing to do with the fact that I'm getting older, although I'm sure Newton about here would interject in my defense that my "mass" had increased by whatever I carried.  I recall one trek in particular, which although gravity indeed did take its toll, turned into a cultural comedy of sorts.

            We were going to dinner at Antonio's parent's home (just below Antonio's and only a three floor walk-up, only!!).  We wanted to bring them a gift.  Hoping to show our appreciation for their hospitality, we at first considered bringing along a bottle of wine.  Though a commonplace practice in the States, we realized that in this case it might be inappropriate since they harvest their own grapes and make their own wine.  We had in fact helped with this in the past.  We had been to the market that November day and noticed large bouquets of potted chrysanthemums for sale.  In all our market visits we had never seen flowers and eagerly scooped up the largest, most colorful blooming specimen we could carry.  That evening we began our assent, seemingly of Everest.  We hadn't gotten more than one flight or so up when Antonio, as he caught sight of us rounding a landing, burst into laughter, almost falling over the railing.  Was I that flushed, panting maybe, was my zipper down, had I left a trail of dirt all over their spotless marble stair-treads?  We didn't know what to make of his reaction.  As soon as he'd recovered somewhat, he explained.  It turned out that the reason for chrysanthemums in the market, just then and not before, was because the next day was the celebration of Il Giorno dei Morti (All Saints' Day) when Italians honor their ancestors by visiting their graves.  Chrysanthemums had the sole reputation of being flowers for the dead and were used to decorate graves throughout Italy on that day.  No one ever gave them as gifts!  In the "gravity" of the moment, Mare's face colored slightly as the breathy sound of sudden surprise from her throat echoed through the stairwell.  Well, the joke as on us.  Little did we know.  About then I could have let them go.  Confident in Newton's calculations, they'd have certainly disappeared from sight and found their way rapidly back to terra firma, but Antonio, even then somewhat still in stitches, insisted we still give them to his mother, accompanied by his explanation.  We all soon enjoyed a good laugh.  Today those chrysanthemums grow in their backyard garden, still worthy of a smile, I'm sure, whenever Antonio or his mother set eyes on them.  Now each year, their blossoms are a testament to life.  Repurposed, they are all now about living, not dying.  Like true stranieri (foreigners), little did we know and consequently understand.  We had a lot to learn about local traditions and customs.

About now, some of you may say all I've been talking about here is avoiding bending.  Others of you may say: "Paolo, the answer lies in losing some weight to reduce "mass", you know, that stuff gravity likes to grab hold and pull on."  I say that's hogwash!  Every morning, I swear gravity is at least ten times stronger when I first wake up.  I know its pull is greater for how else can I explain why it takes at least another hour for me to get out of bed?  It's Newton’s invisible force I'm sure that holds me there fast against my pillow-top mattress!  Maybe it's because I'm horizontal.  Standing up I'm surly, at the very least, "gravity streamlined".  Now there's a thought.  I see a possible chink in Newton's theoretical armor here.  Anyway, all this hocus pocus about gravity is after all just a theory.  A better one could come along at any moment, and with any luck, explain my anomaly.  Following his experience under that tree, Isaac could just as easily have come up with a simple aphorism like "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree", and calling it a day, walked away eating the apple or gone home to devise not gravity but applesauce.  But I guess he was what we call “left brained” and therefore better at his math than thoughtful of his grammar.  Besides, there was already a popular tale about an apple with interesting characters like a snake.  Even if he had penned the expression, I suspect Newton would not have been content until he'd measured all the various tree-to-apple distances and conceived some universal rule on just how far apples can fall from their tree.  So I didn't get hit by an apple (or a fig).  It is nevertheless still very clear that I have my own ideas on these matters.  Problem is, no one seems to take me seriously when, as you can see, I've just about got this anomaly thing solved.  Hold onto this fanciful fiction with me won't you?  Who knows, maybe it's this gravitation anomaly that keeps pulling me back to Italy!

From that Rogue Tourist,


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on the photo album entitled "Anti-Gravity".