Sunday, January 31, 2016

Time Portal

Time Portal 

The Sienese have their Palio, a horse race held twice annually in Piazza del Campo that sees its various contrade districts compete for bragging rights.  Then there is the Palio di Asti in Piazza Alfieri.  This is Italy's oldest race, held in the lovely Piedmont city of Asti, home also to that sparkling bubbly, Asti Spumante.  The people of subdued Saviano, outside of Naples, also go round and round annually, but at a much slower pace and definitely not on horseback.  Oh, there may be the occasional sighting of a 400 horsepower Ferrari about, which adds up to a lot of horses, but here they celebrate utilizing an ancient form of travel, afoot, going round and round a block in the heart of the old city.  When we'd arrived in Saviano, it seemed as though the evening celebration had started promptly with our arrival.  We were appreciative that they'd waited for us to appear from our weekend in Santa Maria di Castellabate.

We'd arrived close on the heels of our weekend hosts, Giuseppe and Stefania.  Not familiar with the route from their weekend retreat near the sea to Saviano, we were determined to stay right behind them, and this we did.  As he pressed-on north, sure to keep us in sight, Giuseppe took special care to avoid highways.  Late on a Sunday afternoon as it was, experience had taught him that this was the prudent course in order to avoid traffic jams, as similar weekenders poured back into Naples. 

One of the secondary roads he'd chosen took us over what appeared to be familiar terrain.  It was not some historic monument that caught our eye, but surprisingly a dirt lot.  We were pretty sure we had parked there only weeks before when we'd taken our daughter and granddaughter to explore the stone foundations and Greek temples of ancient Paestum.  As we turned, a glimpse of the southern entrance to Paestum, just ahead, confirmed our suspicion.  Close by, we passed Restaurante Nettuno, an elegant establishment positioned a fence away from Paestum's ruins and the nearby Temple of Neptune.  It was a pleasant memory to recall enjoying Spritzers there, the Aperol sort of course, surprisingly on an emerald green, thought artificial lawn, with the temples as historic backdrops.

Wedged between the Tyrrhenian Sea and Paestum, we drove alongside the city and saw something we'd not seen before, the massive block walls of this once grand city.  These mammoth stones were intact in places, integral to the wall, but in other places they were tossed about like a child's toy A-B-C blocks, exposing major breaches in its surface.  How this happened, I imagined, had been the combined effects of stone thievery, that had ravaged Paestum down to its present day foundations, and the destructive forces of earthquakes over the centuries.

It wasn't long before we crossed the Sele River that originates near us in Calitri to eventually spill into the sea nearby.  Continuing to follow the coastal road, our little convoy eventually cut inland in the area of Pontecagnano to skirt Salerno and the eastern slope of Mount Vesuvius.  It had gotten dark by then, stars began to be born.  I gradually lost track of our exact route, instead concentrating on the red glow of Giuseppe's taillights as he continued to lead us northward. 

We arrived in Saviano to a roadblock.  Had we finally managed to entangle ourselves in a traffic jam?  But it wasn't that.  Instead, a police officer had stopped our little convoy because of a fireworks display!  The deafening barrage was actually underway as we idled patiently at an intersection, a block or two from Giuseppe's home.  Our next challenge was finding a place to park in this dense-packed city.  I managed to find a sliver of a spot just beyond their front door.  With Stefania's help, and only after folding in the side mirrors, I was able to hug the wall and park, but not without cost.  Unfortunately I discovered a pipe, not to be confused with the parking meter type.  This one was stunted, only about two feet high.  I hadn't noticed it, especially in the dark and with my side mirror useless.  Back-in as carefully as I had, I found it the hard way, its presence made obvious by a sudden feeling of resistance and further confirmed by a telltale scratching sound.  The paint on my rear wheel hub was scraped, but not to worry because I was confident this Fiat 500 would be written-off as totaled when I returned it in a few days.  At least for the rental agency I was convinced it would be categorized as un-rentable and discarded.  You would have thought that when I'd rented it.  It was a mess with the driver side door on back visibly smashed.  Fortunately the doors still opened.  No one would be concerned with a miniscule scratch on the other side, or so I prayed.  As is often heard at an accident scene, "Move on, there's nothing to see here", my subterfuge, bordering on sleight of hand distraction, might just see what I considered irrelevant go unnoticed.  I'd only rented it because that's all there was at the time—a take it or leave it situation in the throes of the summer tourist season. 

Inside their home, as we deposited our luggage in their guest room, a second round of bombardment commenced.  This one originated from a home on a neighboring street just behind theirs.  We watched through an open window only to duck with each percussive detonation.  They were that close.  I could see a woman next door nervously patrol her yard, worried about the potential of fire as debris rained down like snow.  It was spectacular, something we could never get that close to in the States, even if we wanted to, nor would it be allowed in such a dense housing area.  When it concluded, Giuseppe mentioned that the property that had served as the launch pad for the aerial extravaganza had supposedly been constructed illegally, that is, without a permit.  It's well-connected owner had gone ahead with his own sky-show, later rumored also to have been without permission.  Clearly, friends in high places are useful, but as a minimum you must respect the process if you intend to remain unscathed. 

We were famished by then, especially following the long drive, the scratch trauma, lugging our luggage inside, not to mention all the explosive excitement.   Earlier we'd talked about enjoying a pizza together for dinner and were soon off on foot a few blocks into the center of the old town with that in mind.  What Maria Elena and I didn't know was that there was a celebration underway in conjunction with the fireworks displays, the likes of a street party.  The fireworks had simply been the inauguration of that evening's events, with much more to come.

We didn't have far to go.  A right turn outside their front door, through an intersection and then on across a small square, fronted by a church, led us past their nine year old son Raffaele's school.  Continuing along, we soon joined with other townspeople in the merriment of a carnival atmosphere, less the rides and cotton-candy.  For at least that night, it had become a no-vehicle neighborhood reserved to celebrate their old ways.  In seeming alliance with the long-ago, they harkened back to ancient ways by serving up personal insights into daily life as it once had been.  This became apparent as we strolled through the district that sought to bring past to present, the past once again alive.  A temporary archway spanning the street and topped with a decorative shield that proclaimed "Comune di Sirico 1807" served as a time-portal, signifying we'd arrived and were poised to eclipse time and enter another era.  

Passing beneath the makeshift arch, we prowled the many displays that had been prepared along the route and explored occasional alleyways that seemed to materialize from the shadows.  One
interesting spur off the main course featured a handy-craft theme.  It was there that we came upon costumed, sharp-eyed needlepoint maidens and practiced crotchet connoisseurs deftly maneuvering hoops and long needles while bent over the handiwork in their laps.  You have to have good eyesight for the fine detail involved.  Their intricate handmade designs were the end result of a cottage industry that today has faded into the past, a ghost of its former self, to be replaced by automation unaffected by failing eyesight or the occasional prick of a needle.  All along the route, which circled and eventually led us back to where we'd begun, all too quickly it seemed, there were smatterings of musicians on drums, flailing away on guitars and accordions, thumping giant tambourines, an entire repertoire of instruments, supported by singers, young and old alike, crooning in that special Neapolitan form of Italian.  

There were also the occasional individual standouts. One in particular we just happened to pass was accompanied by friends eating fried dough from brown wrapping-paper cones.  Come to think about it, it could have been chicken.  He was a dapper gentleman in a white plantation suite and matching hat and a cane who, though he lacked the heft and signature goatee, could have easily passed for America's once chicken king, Colonel Sanders. 
Moving on past other niches that housed long spent and long discarded metal hooped wooden casks, others with all things horse related from the occasional horseshoe, to saddles, bridles, horse collars and bits, even an old model Fiat sedan, we came upon a crowd.  Some on their tiptoes were trying to glimpse a group of actors in full period regalia, seemingly performing a street-side reenactment of a play.  They were adorned to exacting detail in 1920-30 period clothing.  With the women in their chic, helmet-style croach hats and their partner's shoes highlighted with white spats, I anticipated that at any moment they might flag their knees to a cross-hand Charleston swing.  To the thrall of their street audience, the two couples bantered back and forth, what about, I had no idea, though everyone in the improvised audience appeared to be smiling.  Their location in a bricked alley, down to the detail of a period style set decorated in the furniture and trappings of that time, inspired a fleeting glimpse in keeping with the evening's theme of old times and old ways among relics of the past.

Another memorable discovery was of all things, the comedian we happened upon next.  For some reason I was surprised to find it was a woman.  She reminded me of Nashville's legendary Grand Old Opry celebrity, Minnie Pearl.   Ms Pearl in her red and white checkered dress and straw hat, its price tag prominently dangling like a feather, based her signature look on clothes she'd picked out from a thrift store.  I wondered if the blue flower on white print dress with matching hat this entertainer wore were similarly intended—her signature look.  She was situated beneath a clothesline whose dangling laundry swayed like pennants.  Thankfully, nothing was dripping. The hanging slips, white sheets, and table runners suspended overhead may have all been part of the homespun mood intent on projecting.  As they say, something must have been lost in the translation, for while everyone snickered and laughed at her shtick, it all went way, way over our heads, a reasonable outcome considering the language barrier, especially when compounded by that peculiar Neapolitan dialect that even Calitri Italians find impossible to understand.  I can sympathize with them, for there are times at home when on TV words appear to help us northerners decipher with a thick drawled southerner is saying.  In addition to the standing crowd before this stand-up comedian, the courtyard was accented with scattered tables crowded with diners and counters of food vendors eager to serve-up assorted sausages, frittatas, panini, peppers, grilled meats, roasted corn on the cob, requisite pizza, and of course, vino.  It was a festive place but nothing in comparison to the venue we came upon next.

We had just about concluded our jaunt through the olden days of yesteryear when we came upon what I look back upon as something very special.  If there had been a vote, it would have garnered my ballot for the best entertainment of the evening.  We hadn't gotten there yet, but even from a distance, I recall how the music had attracted me.  I hadn't a chance, any resistance on my part was futile!  It was the most dense-packed street-side niche of them all.  We had to squeeze and "mi scusi" (excuse me) our way through the crowd, like salmon swimming against the current.  Here again some people stood, while others, fortunate to have found seats around makeshift hay-bail tables enjoyed the fare once again made available from vendors along the periphery.  High volume speakers pumped the music created by an energetic band.  If memory serves me, their instruments included a keyboard, guitar, accordion, those oversized tambourines, and a seemingly homemade rectangular wooden crate with a hole in its top for added base effect that served as a drum, played like a bongo.  Together, they produced the intoxicating gypsy-like rhythm that had first attracted me.  To the ensemble's musical accompaniment, dancers in long, blue, floor-length skirts swirled above astroturf carpets laid upon the alleyway's gravelly surface.
But what had made it especially unusual for me was the lead singer.  He was a middle-aged gentleman with the reflective sheen of a shaved head, dressed hairless-head to toe in black.  Something about his face reminded me of a youthful Benito Mussolini—just imagine being crooned to by Il Duce!  Then again it may have been his dress, remindful of Mussolini's very own elite corps of Black Shirts, that flew into my memory.  He looked tough with just the beginning of a wrinkled grin to his pugilist exterior.  With what sounded like an uno, due, tre e quattro (one and two and three and four) he began to sing.  Out among the dancers, to the noticeable clack of chestnut colored castanets looped with tassels in their hands, he too whirled, his gravelly voice visually amplified by the intricate arm and foot movements between paired dancers.  As their bodies moved to the music, each couple's arms intertwined and moved in and out, up and down as they glided round and round to the rhythmic jigsaw cadence and hollow percussive chirp, chirp, chirp of their castanets.  There had to have been many other songs that followed but I was urged by my hungry companions to move on.  Moments later, when I saw that now familiar arch, I realized that our antiquarian soiree was complete.  I could have remained there all night and made additional orbits to take it all in, again and again, orbit after orbit. 

Not to be denied, we eventually did get that pizza, though not at the street party.  The lines were just too long for the impatient to wait in, and not just for pizza.  Everything was in hearty demand.  Instead, on our way back, Giuseppe along with Raffaele and myself stopped off at a favorite haunt of theirs for a take-out pizza, or as they refer to it in Italy, "take-away".  It is apparently an Italian custom that as a guest you are not allowed to pay for anything, though try as you might.  Needless to say I didn't pay for the pizza either.  Home once again, to the deafening stillness of quiet streets and silent skies, we enjoyed that pizza along with slugs of wine around the kitchen table as we recalled our weekend by the sea and the night's events.

For us the following day was a day of recuperation, but teacher mom, student son, and executive dad had to get back to their normal routines.  They were off by the time we emerged from their guestroom.  In the kitchen we found a set of house keys and the assorted fixings for breakfast.  We'd see them again that afternoon.  Later, as we walked Saviano, stopping for cornette e caffè at a street-side bar, we found nothing remained of its previous night's charm.  The bustle of daily life had returned, traffic was again unrestricted, places of business were at full throttle.  We found where the celebration had been.  Beginning and ending with the archway, not the slightest evidence that it had ever occurred remained.  The relics of the past, so in evidence only hours earlier, were gone.  Had it really been a time portal to the past? 

In Saviano, as in many towns throughout Italy, the past remains very much alive.  Its people are aware of their traditions, and as that evening had demonstrated, revel in their past.  Even the castanet song I'd enjoyed so much had to do with past hardships.  As a storyteller, try as I might, it is difficult to convey the magic of that made-in-Italy experience.  Right from the beginning, with the fireworks, we should have realized they heralded something out of the ordinary.  The evening of celebration and ritual, at least for us, had been unique.  I can't speak for young Raffaele, who most likely had attended this celebration before, but we'd been given a nostalgic glimpse into a people's past, eclipsing that vast divide between then and now.  For a few hours that night it had been a pretend village stuck in a cultural shift from the contemporary.  The characters, the scents, the entertainers, the songs, each was a simple joy to enjoy.  It hadn't taken a Dr. Who style police callbox to take us there, just our friends and an archway.  Ours had been a been there, never done that experience.  That portal had definitely been magic.  

From That Rogue Tourist