Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Degrees of Separation

Degrees of Separation

I could smell the rain and hear the rolling thunder.  Its early drops lifted dust into the air that the breeze caught and sent inside through an open window.  The scent of damp, vintage earth dominated just before the timpani-like pitter patter of more serious drops.  The patina of Italy hung in the air as it hung on everything, an amalgam of old and familiar worn down by the centuries.  You couldn’t have it any other way in Italy.  It was about then that I recalled why I loved this place, every aspect of it, the good and bad, the sweet and sour.   Every time I return to Italy, my sense of excitement is immediate, for it's like seeing it for the first time, both its smooth skin and pimply blemishes.
Since birth, my branch on some obscure limb of the human race went in one direction, my Italian friends and acquaintances, fed by altogether different
Fitting into Italian Culture
roots, in another.  It’s to be expected.  Though much alike, we differ on how life has been served up, in our experiences, our inherited traditions, opportunities at hand, the shelter and nurturing of family, and in many other influential ways difficult to quantify.  Each in this chain of individual circumstance  has had a hand in making us who we are.  They represent degrees of separation, but degrees nevertheless. 
      As I sat there, I questioned whether the tiny bug flitting and bumping across my laptop screen know of the electronics, let alone anything like the Internet portal it could access?  Could it possibly comprehend a different world so unlike its own?  By every measure, we were dimensions apart.  Likewise, the experience of Italy for me differs from that of my Calitri neighbors, for although we may both sense it the same --- ­our eyes see the same scenes, our ears share its sounds, our mouths taste its bounty --- it is again the ‘processing’ behind the screen that is so different.  Just as I’d lately been hearing ‘Upgrade to Windows 10’, it caused me to pause and wonder, did I need a new operating system?

For me, an Italian wannabe, ever the observer, I might watch their religious processions, but have no feel for the depth of their devotion.  I can inwardly scoff at their notion of a breeze being the culprit for who knows how many ailments, even when mouthed by a doctor, but then I was not there on their mother’s lap to hear the instruction on its whys and whatfors.  I can enjoy a glass of wine mid-afternoon and not understand their hesitation to join me, preferring instead to only drink wine with a meal, and one served in courses, not on a single plate, all at once. 
      But I sense that meals by installment like these, as Italians prefer, in addition to their claimed gastronomic advantages, reflect a covenant with family evidenced by the hours they spend around the table in conversation.  To know each other better, they relate their experiences and share traditions over mouthfuls.  True, Italians pay far more attention to family, for families are its strengthening agent, their culture’s mortar.  Here is an entire country of nation-state like families, sometimes approaching tribal status in their size, able to eclipse the notion of nationalism. 

     Equally baffling is the male penchant to wear beautifully crafted Italian leather shoes without socks.  Could an Isod or Ralph Lauren icon adorned sock be so distracting?  I’ve heard it said not to judge someone until you’ve walked in their shoes, but please don’t make it a long walk for my feet, not accustomed to living in sockless loafers, would surely blister quickly.  The unintended consequence, though I might look stylish, would be a limp.  I doubt it would be worth it.  Hear me out, I’m not complaining here.  These and many other little mysteries fascinate and intrigue me.  Nor, like some proselytizing imperialist, am I trying to foist what I might think as best.  At most, as I adjust to the culture, I’m reflecting on observations someone visiting Italy for a week or two might easily miss.

Recently, while we were sitting outside a cafĂ© enjoying a gelato, an illustrative incident played out.  A local traffic enforcement officer, a Barney Fife sort, was trying to do his job.  It seemed that a car had parked beyond a sign marking the end of legal parking.  Why he cared about this particular vehicle is one of those mysteries, especially in light of the crazy way vehicles are parked all over town, even on the sidewalks, sometimes nosed into the curb.  If you think double parking as you might see it in New York or Chicago is bad, you haven’t seen anything.  I wondered why he bothered to enforce such a minor infraction.  Seeing we had a new mayor, maybe the comune was cracking down or had he a quota to fill?  I doubted either were in play.  In any case, the antics that ensued were what made it so interesting to watch, a street comedy descriptive of Italian ways. 

     First he examined the empty car, walking around the offender’s vehicle as if sizing up an opponent in the ring.  He took notes, then back on the sidewalk, indignantly paced back and forth for a while.  With a jutting chin motion he even gestured to Maria Elena and me, silently asking if the car might be ours.   By this time the word was out and people began to take interest.  I think this was part of his plan … for the driver to appear and move the car thus avoiding the need for a ticket.  It seemed he really didn’t want to write a ticket.  After all, Calitri was a small town and he had to live among these drivers, regardless of their driving, or in this case, their parking habits.  It was a tug-of-war between the controls of officialdom verses the continued embrace of family and friends.  How to be disciplinarian and one of them at the same time must have been an ever present challenge for him, but he apparently had developed a way to deal with it.  
     When the strutting, jutting and puffing hadn’t worked, he next blew his whistle and shouted ‘cinque minuti’ (five minutes).  No one could say he had not tried to offer a way out, face-saving for both himself and the driver.  By this time a pool of limone flavored creamy liquid was my deserved reward for my lack of attention to my cup of gelato.  This was entertainment for us.  While we had never experienced it, most likely this was standard procedure.  As this entertainment continued to unfold, curiosity had gotten my attention, not my tarty confection.  The whistle had its effect.  If by then someone hadn’t noticed what was going on, it got their attention, testified to by the number of people who emerged from storefronts into the street, many the proprietors themselves in their aprons, some none too happy.  Along with them and before the whistled deadline had expired, a man appeared from a nearby doorway, protested loudly to affirm his innocence, and hustled to his car.  Funny thing was, so much time had elapsed by then, with cars coming and going, that the offender simple moved his car back a few feet into a freed-up space, out of no-man’s-land.  Barney simply adjusted his cap, flipped his ticket book closed and strode off with an added spring in his step, proud of the duty he’d performed in maintaining order.  

     I can't imagine getting a break like this anywhere else.  I think it is a part of the Italian mindset to seek to please and thereby avoid confrontation.  Similar to the Japanese, Italians, not willing to lose face or damage their bella figura (or that of another person’s), will see a traffic officer opt not to issue a ticket but rather seek harmony by seeing the situation rectified, no matter how long the delay.  He wasn't shirking his responsibility, only delaying its impact sufficiently to allow the transgressor a chance to correct the infraction, giving both wiggle-room and a chance to save face, avoiding any blemishes. 

It’s not just cars that are placed in wrong places.  Many times people ‘park’ themselves in the way.  In Italy people tend to plunk themselves just outside a doorway or stand smack dab in the center of a sidewalk, oftentimes ‘parked’ there, talking with friends.  They also do the same while seated in their cars, not concerned that traffic is backing up behind them.  As you approach, they don’t move aside or otherwise attempt to step out of the way.  Right of way seems a foreign idea.  Funny thing here is that these human pillars are not oblivious to your presence.  They appear to know you are there, but rather then move to let you pass, they seem to prefer to stand their ground as you attempt to squeeze by.  To this day we wonder, might it be a ‘king of the mountain’ or ‘I was here first’ attitude’?  Next time, I should ask. 
     At other times, the situation can be far from amusing.  A recent three month stay in Italy is enough time for blemishes to emerge on any idyllic complexion.  I recall one incident in particular.  An Italian man, living in Belgium these many years, in a humoring tone had just uttered, “This is Italy, not the USA.”  He couldn’t have spoken truer 
words at that moment just after I’d scooped up our granddaughter, Harper, from the pool.  She had somehow managed to cut her toe in a hotel swimming pool alongside the Gulf of Salerno, not far from the once lost city of Paestum.  Harper’s parents were, at that moment, off visiting Positano and we were watching our grandchildren, Harper and Gabriella, for the day.  Some hours at the pool seemed a perfect way to spend the afternoon. 

At the sight of her own blood, Harper had cried and carried on like death was at her doorstep.  The lifeguard, who among his many apparent duties also cleaned the pool and arranged the lounge furniture, hadn’t a clue on what to do in view of the situation.  The term ‘lifeguard’ may just as well have been an honorary title … we assumed he could swim.   You would have thought this was the first time anyone had injured themselves poolside --- nothing close to a first aid kit existed.  A towel would have to suffice temporarily.
     We’d been talking with the Italian expatriate, now from Brussels, by poolside when this happened.  The expat was spot on with his assessment of the situation and his coded insinuation about the evident lack of preparedness.  While nonna Maria Elena worked to comfort Harper and convince her all would soon be all-right, I headed for the reception desk for some help or at least a fasciatura (bandage).  My body language was apparently not enough to relay my urgency, for it only merited a raised finger from the receptionist as I waited for her to put the phone down.  I should confess, I have no patience these days.  I’m pretty sure I may never have had any.  As old as I am, I think I have a negative balance in my patience account.  As large as it is, I’m certain, like the national debt, it will never be repaid.  I think it may stem from wanting to do things for myself, beginning in my youth.  A shrink might be able to better assess the cause of my patience deficiency, but I lack the patience to wait for him or her to make that determination.  The receptionist eventually got the message, went into the back room and returned with something akin to a BandAid.  Soon calmed, patched and once again silent, Harper fell asleep in her grandmother’s arms.  Raised eyebrows from the Italian-Belgian across the span of a few chaise lounges served as a silent ‘I told you so’, reaffirming his point.  

Another pimple on an otherwise appealing appearance is my general impression that things are for the most part vague in Italy.  Yes, that’s one way to characterize it, the ambiguous nature of things.  I know I need to embrace and accept it, for this is the way things are.  This quirk is, along with everything else, what makes Italy so phenomenal and worthy of return visit after visit.  All the same, it still manages to fray my ghost of a patience further.  Even some Italians feel this haze of vagueness, especially if they have lived elsewhere during their lives.  Most often, at least for us, it is best illustrated in the difficulty of getting a straight, reliable answer.
     Let’s say, for example, that you need someone to repair something in your home.  The best you might get is the promise that they will come by tomorrow or dopo domani (the day after tomorrow).  If you press them to be more specific, which is a logical follow-up question, they may go so far as to specify di mattina (in the morning) or nel pomeriggio (in the afternoon).  Once in a blue moon you may get some range of time, like 10-12, but how many blue moons have you seen?  In the meantime, you await their arrival, a prisoner in your home, for fear you might miss them and have to start over again.  Why this is, remains a mystery to us.  We suspect that whatever they tell you, their intent is to make the current situation acceptable and keep you happy.  It lends itself to their desire not to disappoint.  By providing, and our acceptance of only the barest of specifics (‘in a few days’, ‘next week’, or ‘I will call you’), the severity of any failure to appear is mitigated.  For our part, we must strive to get over the urgent tug for the immediate, learn to relax, and remember the Belgian’s words.

Instructions can also be lightweight and half-measured, requiring return visits to get the full story.  Case in point was a Wi-Fi hotspot device we once purchased.  We were given instructions on how to activate it, but once home, it asked for a password.  As said to Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “We don’t need no stinkin badges!” apparently we did.  No one said anything about a stinkin password, however!  True, some of my confusion can be attributed to miss-hearing and errors in translating what’s being said, but it’s just too often.  Back once again, we were given the missing password, but that wasn’t all of it.  The day we purchased the device we went away believing we had so many gigabits of data before we needed a replenishment.  We therefore watched our usage and husbanded our bytes.  However, well before we’d hit the magic limit, it stopped working.  Once again we returned to the store, only to be then told the second half of the equation.  It turned out there were indeed so many gigs but with the added caveat of 30 days, whichever occurred first!  Ah, so we’d exceeded the 30 days, but why not tell us the whole story up front?  Did the owner simply enjoy seeing us?  I was a big boy and positive I could handle the full story up front.  Apparently, much like an Italian meal, directions appear to come in installments, where you are fed morsels of information, piano, piano (slowly, slowly).
     While I'm about verbalizing some of the cultural practices I've seen or perceived, there is another incident that comes to mind.  Maria Elena brought an electric heating pad with her from the States to deal with aches and pains.  I managed to quickly destroy it one midnight when I was awakened with a nudge.  Not thinking, instead of first connecting it to a transformer, I simply attached an American to Italian pin adopter and inserted it into a 220V outlet.  As you might imagine, something in the electrical translation didn’t add up.  It was a quick death by electrocution, the only sound my gasping realization at what I’d done.
At first our fallback was the wet towel in the microwave approach.  But while I could get them scalding hot if I tried, it was short lived and because of that, didn’t help Mare one iota during the long night.  Besides, telling from my midnight escapade, there was no telling what I might have managed to do late at night when awakened to recycle the towel once again in the microwave.  We quickly came to the obvious conclusion - we needed another heating pad.  Our first thought was to borrow one from a friend.  We did this but quickly discovered it was intermittent and therefore not reliable.  We needed to purchase one for ourselves and thus officially began the saga of the heating pad. 
     First off, Mare visited everyplace she imagined might carry them in Calitri including pharmacies and electrical stores.  She was looking for something akin to a cuscinetto calda electtrica (electric heating pad).  They seemed to have never heard of them.  About the closest thing they could produce was a rubberized hot water bottle.  This was surprising considering the advanced average age of the local population, and as you might expect, a resulting high demand.  Realize that we come from an on-demand, consumer society specializing in immediate gratification (certainly I think a large part of our problem), nevertheless, my nature told me that by then I could have found a hundred of them, mostly, I was pretty sure, in a single WalMart. 

We then entered a heating pad road-trip phase as we scoured the countryside, not for a hundred, but simply one.  Again, I realized I needed to slow down and give it time.  I was after all dealing with the piano-piano approach of Italy.  Even the search, I suspected, would need to go slowly.  We first drove to Lioni, about thirty minutes away, to the Euronics electrical appliance store there.  Here too we had no success and were directed to the Garafolo store in a nearby mall.  We had an idea where it was, but again while they had none, they assured us they could in two weeks.  Impatient and unwilling to wait that long, we kept searching.  Later it was suggested that we try the nearby Para Farmacia.  This too proved fruitless.  While they had none in stock, the pharmacist, after googling a bit, said she could have one in a few days if we were willing to return.  At least delivery times were improving.  We held out hope for a quicker solution however, and in a last-chance effort, stopped in Conza once on our way back to Calitri.  That too was fruitless.  About then I thought that if there was a business to be had in these parts, it had to be the electric heating pad business!  Having exhausted any chance of a nearby source, our only hope was to take a chance and order one, sight unseen, something we like many shoppers don't like to do.  We took the plunge at a local Calitri pharmacy, where we were assured we’d have it the next morning.  I wondered what had happened to that piano-piano Italian style.  Was this just their way to tell us what we wanted to hear?
     Saints be praised, as promised it arrived the next morning.  
The Winner by Default
It was a beauty too, with five heat settings on a fancy digital control pad, and for more uniform heat, it was filled with sand.  The only problem was, the best it could do was get warm, not as hot as Mare expected.  Why bother with five temperature settings when they were hard to tell apart?  I hated to see it go but we returned it immediately, without any problem, and were offered the explanation that the low heat was a safety feature verses older type pads, apparently the kind we were used to.  My guess the Chinese, who made the pad (like everything else it seems nowadays) had taken the McDonald's hot coffee product liability lawsuit to heart.  The 1 through 5 selector switch of questionable utility was apparently a design relic these days, undercut by a desire to not take any chance of a hot, lava-like sand spill.  

Days later, we learned of a large pharmacy in neighboring Bisaccia and in a last ditch effort headed there with fingers crossed.  At first the pharmacist feigned ignorance and said they had no such devises until I showed him the box of the one we’d borrowed.  Then scratching his head in thought he went into the basement, promising to return.  Something had clicked, although clearly there mustn’t be much demand for these devices, which definitely dashed my business model idea.  Some minutes later, he returned with one.  Again this design featured a sand filled pad.  It was a nice size and weight but again when we tested it there in the pharmacy, it didn’t get as hot as we’d hoped.  Just about out of options by this point, we bought it anyway and learned to live with it.  Whereas in the States we were accustomed to a full throttle blast of heat if we so desired, here again, along with slow food and a slower pace to life, slow heat seemed to also rule.  Like the sliding control on the pad, we would learn to adjust.
A Centuries Old Culture
     It is not just the place, full as it is with history and centuries-old architecture that makes Italy so extraordinary.  It is a place where its people appear to be far more patient, except as I digress, for the case when they are behind the wheel and patience, like mine, seems to evaporate in a Jekyll & Hide transformation.  The gentle person willing to patiently wait in line without complaining suddenly thinks he is a Formula-1 driver.  Though they may try, few if any achieve Formula-1 status, and certainly none on the streets of Calitri with Barney as vigilant as he is of late.  Steering back on course, their ability to make friends is far more doable.   

     A trait that will not go un-noticed to the average visitor is the expressiveness of their friendships.  Theirs somehow extends in its intensity into another dimension, appearing to go much deeper than I can identify with.  In small, hill-town Italy, where the majority of our experience originates, it is common to see men walk arm-in-arm, something the anti-virus part of my Puritanical American upbringing cautions ‘Danger Will Robinson’.  I’m not exactly sure why I feel this way.  I suspect it is due to the physical nature of their expressiveness that is so foreign to me.  It must be why I at first hesitated with the hugs and the double cheek kisses so common among greeting and parting Italians.  Thankfully, we are not in France where three kisses are expected!  I can honestly say, patting myself on the back, that I’ve come a long way at least in the hugs and kisses department, but confess I am not yet comfortable arm-in-arm with the guys.  The baggage of its symbolism must be weighing me down.  Where I come from, men avoid contact unless as part of some contact sport, like American football.  Still I envy their ability to express themselves in such an innocent and open manner.  I should feel honored, not hesitant, if ever asked to promenade linked with the boys.  Not only would it mean that internally my American reserve had thawed, but outwardly convey that I'm comfortable with them.  More importantly, it would mean that my linked friends were comfortable with me.  

     Their friendships can also approach the status of extended family, many times originating in their early school years and extending well on into their senior years.  One in particular stands out in my mind.  For years, one of my Italian friends has repeatedly received a phone call from a close friend.  I have been with him when his home phone rang.  Friends since childhood, it rings every night.  The caller is not expecting his call will be answered, the ring of the phone is enough, simply saying, ‘I’m thinking of you.’  And mind you, this is every night!  How beautiful an expression of camaraderie.  Foreign to my experience, I only wish I were the recipient of an equivalent chime.

     Is Calitri somehow different, some uncharted Shangri-La?  Though we certainly like to think so, the people there can’t be too far different than other southern Italians in other small towns.  Yet again, maybe we lucked-out and hit the social mores, mother-lode of courtesy, kindness and hospitality.  

    Thus were my thoughts, limited to the scope of my observations and peppered with sketchy memories.  They swirled through my mind as I wondered if a fly might have a dimensional password, just as another thunderclap bellowed and it began to seriously rain.  Could the fly have been a metaphor for me ... attracted to the light of Italy yet condemned by degrees of separation to an inadequate level of comprehension?  I'm not an anthropologist, yet even for them, plotting the long course of cultural evolution, so infused with social customs, in order to arrive at an understanding of what Italy is today, has to be a daunting challenge.  The southern Italian's characteristic willingness to please, even to the detriment of full disclosure and at times preparedness; their slow paced, laid-back temperament; and their zestful friendships, as flavorful as their gelato, reflect the image of a resilient people.

     I am no longer your average visitor to Italy.  Yet the more I visit, the less I seem to understand.  This is why Italy remains so wonderful and worthy of return after return.  There is no explanation for southern Italy.  Its face remains a convoluted mystery, beautiful, messy and confrontational all at once, sometimes as smooth as still water, sometimes flawed with ripples of imperfection.  But warts are not always offensive.  It depends on how we look at them.  After all, warts to some are beauty marks to others.

From That Rogue Tourist