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


              

   


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Roadside Adventures



Roadside Adventures
We have known days of misunderstanding and ensuing confusion in Italy, many in fact.  These misunderstandings in many cases are due in part to the Tower of Babel effect of language.  I can attest to the fact that language based mistakes are pretty easy to trigger.  In the small print in my English-Italian dictionary, for instance, “enema” is listed just above “enemy”.  You can appreciate how my thick finger sliding over the small print of my pocket dictionary could easily get me in trouble with that kind of a slip if I wasn’t careful.  But it doesn’t strictly apply to spoken slip-ups. Insidious as it is, it can also result from inaccuracies in the interpretation of what is heard and sometimes seen.
As an example, we were driving to Puglia recently when both the map and GPS appealed to us to try an alternate route.  We’d passed that way many times before so we thought that for a change something new might be refreshing as we exited the Strade Statali (State Highway) for a Strada Provinciale, a road supposedly maintained by the Province.  With all the provincial “SP” rural roads we’ve been on in Italy, you’d think that by now we just may have turned provincial ourselves.  While it may have been designated “P” for provincial, it was more on the order of “P” for primitive.  In this instance, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves on a hot, dusty road in a wild landscape, the likes of the Serengeti Plain, only here surrounded by acres of appropriately named primitivo grapes.  I should know better by now to avoid roads without white centerlines!  It wasn’t long and we were committed - just about as far forward to go as to turn back.  With, according to GPS Margaret, eight miles of this trail remaining, Bianca, our little
Fiat,  was forever negotiating potholes in the road bordering on fissures in the earth in such a zig-zag manner that it had to have added half more to the distance.  We were definitely not moving as the crow flies, let alone any respectable magpie!  And there was no easy way to get around obstacles, for the road was hemmed by prickly pear cacti with fronds bigger than tennis rackets and thorns the size of grandma’s knitting needles.  At one point we arrived at a small pond in the road.  As I’ve already mentioned, we were too far committed to this torturous route by then to consider turning back, yet I still hesitated to attempt to cross.  Inspection soon confirmed it was too large to get around.  What to do?
There was no half measure about it either, no way to remain somewhat on terra firma with even two wheels and skirt the mirrored depths of its muddy-colored center.  The cactus just wouldn’t allow it.  But how deep could it be anyway?  Not wanting to find out, and with little choice at this point, I revved all 1.2 liters of Bianca’s engine and headed in or I should say, took the plunge.  Wow, I think it was only because of our speed that water didn’t have time to get through the doors as our forward speed initially generated a little tsunami on either side of us.  Fording the breach, I quickly realized why some off-road vehicles have snorkels rising like periscopes from their engines.  The muddy bottom’s stabs at fouling our wheels gradually took their toll.
A consortium of potholes had apparently conspired to disguise this menacing water trap.  Soon it would only be a matter of physics as to whether our forward speed would cease before we reached the opposite bank, and it would be decided soon.  Pressing down farther on the accelerator resulted in no appreciable advantage.  Only an increased strain on the engine was apparent.  A little longer and the lagoon would have had us.  If the massive water barrier won out, I doubted even the Italian Auto Club would have come to our assistance, let alone have been able to find us when we didn’t know where we were.
Lucky for us, the pond was yet immature and hadn’t grown large enough to snag us.  To our relief, like a phoenix rising, our now two toned, brown and white Bianca broached the opposite bank, but just.  We’d slipped its surly bonds.  Looking at each other, Mare laughed in the excitement of it.  Our day, just begun, had already been one marked by ill-advised adventure.
Believe me, there were other classic slip-ups; Plenty to go around.  For instance, when we were asked to come over to a friend’s home at 2:15, for us that was somehow translated to 2:30.  Our friend Giuseppe had pulled to the curb when he’d seen us walking in town, lowered the passenger window, and offered his invitation.  My Italian ear missed the rest of what quickly passed through that car window so completely that when our phone rang at 2:15 and I was asked, “Are you coming over?” we initially thought, though by then it seemed a little late in the afternoon, that the invitation might have been for lunch and hurried off.  While we were late, we just weren’t sure to what.  Nevertheless, the urgent tone of his voice on the phone got us in gear and we were out the door quickly.  
As we drove over, we wondered aloud why Giuseppe was so concerned with our being a few minutes late.  I could understand if he and his wife, Vincenzina, were waiting for us and the meal was getting cold.  I know how annoyed Maria Elena gets in a similar situation.  When we arrived, further conversation led us to believe that it had nothing to do with lunch at all.  Instead, we next jumped to the belief that he wanted to give us some of his olive oil.  Again, we managed to miss the point.  Although it concerned olive oil all right, it turned out that Giuseppe wanted us to go with him to a nearby town to watch as he had his annual harvest of olives pressed into liters of olive oil.  Certainly he had an appointment at the frantio where this is done and we were cutting into any pad he may have had built-in.  This had to have been the trailing part of his message, served earlier that day through the window, that we’d missed.  Now up to speed, we were game, piled into Giuseppe’s car, and were off, clearly for a “pressing appointment”.
We headed toward neighboring Bisaccia, but after some miles turned right at the base of a mammoth wind turbine stanchion toward Aquilonia.  In what I presumed to be the outskirts of
Aquilonia, we made a climbing turn and soon pulled alongside a warehouse of sorts hemmed by a few cars and tractors.  This was it.  While we couldn’t tell, we had arrived at a hangout for olive oil aficionados.  This production facility was a sort of cooperative where on appointment and for a fee, large and small local farmers could have their harvests transformed into oil. 

Inside, taking center stage, was an end-to-end stainless steel mechanical behemoth.  At the front end were stacked the great bins of olives that a no-nonsense young man named Antonio moved around with the help of a forklift.  We discovered that Giuseppe’s haul for the year was already there, ready to go.  When his turn came, Antonio positioned his crates, one after another, on
a hoist that lifted and tilted the bins so that the olives poured into a giant hopper.  From there the fruit was moved along ascending belts into another device that washed and removed any leaves and stems from the olives.  I thought the pits would also be removed, but not so.  The prep work completed, the olives awaited their turn to be crushed.  Next, a pass-through in the wall allowed the olives to move to the crusher by way of an ascending stovepipe conveyer where they soon rained down into a basin that for want of a better name you can imagine as a giant mortar and pestle.  Here, however, the pestle consisted of two truck size wheels  
made of stone, similar to mill stones, connected by an axel in a dumbbell-like arrangement that orbited the basin as the lumbering wheels rotated.  Around and around it moved to the grinding sound of stone on stone.  Beneath the mortar, a gray brown mash oozed from beneath the wheels.  Everything was consumed in this manner, olive pits and all.
The olives, now no more, replaced by a glistening paste, next made its way to a cooker where for 40 minutes it was heated while a horizontal auger continuously churned the mélange.  Marko, the operator of the oven, monitored this critical operation closely.  A series of panel lights kept him informed on progress as the heat did its magic and coaxed the oil from the mash.  Popping open a lid to expose the contents, Marko explained that in a good year oil would normally cover the paste by quite a few inches at this point.  It was not the case this year and the word was out.  It had the look of dry ground hamburger as
opposed to the more soupy consistency normally attributed to a proper harvest where sunshine and rain had cooperated.  Although not yet at the end of the operation, the writing was already on the wall.  In case after case this year’s yield would be below normal.  I couldn’t help but notice a small crucifix that hung from a pipe on the wall above the control panel.  Like so many things in Italy, the procession of the olives was almost liturgical.  The cross was a silent reminder of divine oversight, representative of a steady prayer for an abundance of oil so important to the Italian diet.  I suggested that it might help if they got a bigger one.
After an hour or so we took a break from watching and went into Aquilonia proper.  Parking on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel (I think just about every town in Italy has one), we crossed behind a passing tractor and went inside Bar Centrale.  Five or six men, worn down by life, filled the small space in front of an equally small counter.  Giuseppe seemed to know everyone.  He explained later that some were transplanted Calitrani who had married local women.  Too late in the day to nurse a cappuccino, we settled in on Nastro Azzurro beers and listened to the chatter from faces creased with grins and the leathery luster of faded sunshine under curly clouds of white hair.  It, like so many bars, was a man’s den.  While their wives, no doubt, were at home dealing with such things as olive oil, preparing for the ritual of their husband’s dinnertime return, here the men idled their time with all kinds of supplementary fluids.
 Returned to the facility, we found that the very last phase of production, a filtering process, had begun.  Following a press, it terminated at a table where one last attempt was made to coax any remaining oil that had been averse to joining the rest of the viscous brew from the fine greenish-tinted
gruel that remained.  This was overseen by the boss
of the operation, Enzo.  You might say he was a sort of devotee to olive oil making.  While wine lovers have their sommeliers and even lovers of malt and hops their certified beer experts known as cicerones, here we found Enzo, the olive oil equivalent.  I do not know whether as yet they have a catchy title for themselves but as he explained and a framed certificate on the wall confirmed, he’d taken the courses and was officially certified.  He was a burgeoning olive oil wrangler, if ever there was, who could get down to the chemistry and grading of oils if need be.
 People had been coming and going all afternoon, each with their precious cargos of olives or the resulting greenish-gold oil stored in glass or metal containers, hopefully enough to meet their yearly needs.  Now it was our turn.  In the end, to the murmur of Giuseppe’s gratification, a small but steady stream flowed from the spout into his stainless containers.  But it was not to last.  For
Giuseppe, his 252 kgs of olives resulted in 33 liters of  oil, a paltry amount by about half from the previous year.  It was clearly a hit or miss business.  While it is true that we have as yet been spared the back breaking fun of harvesting olives, it was only through a misunderstanding that we can now say we have observed in prayerful watch how nowadays olives are transformed into that divine fluid so essential to everyday Italian life.
On another occasion, again street-side at a table outside Bar Jolly in Calitri enjoying the best gelato in all of Italy, we met another friend, Angelo, the owner of a local pharmacy.  It was just a few days past my birthday, which he somehow knew, and after wishing me a buon compleanno (happy birthday) he asked if I liked wine.  He’d obviously forgotten I did because he’d once bought us a bottle of red at the Sagra della Podolica festival in Pescopagano.  That was a very different affair that I’ll take a moment to describe.  As opposed to India where Hindus revere cows and which they allow to freely roam about, in Pesco the reverence only goes so far.  Maybe it’s because there are few if any Hindus around, for on a particular July day each year, this free-ranging town pet, a white pedolica cow, is slaughtered and forms the basis for a great town feast.  That’s when I first shared wine with Angelo, or since he bought the bottle, the first time he shared wine with me.
To my affirmative reply of allegiance to Bacchus and his ilk, he said he would be back in an hour and that we should wait for him.  This we did without difficulty, made easier as passersby stopped to chat and sometimes sit.  Tipped off by his inquiry about wine, we assumed he was off to get me some vino as a gift.  In no time, but I imagine an hour or so, his BMW stopped alongside the curb by our table and he indicated I should get in.  In his rationed English, Angelo motioned to the back seat and said that “the woman” should also come.  I, we, hadn’t heard that phrase since high school when Freddie, a classmate, would announce Mare’s arrival in class with all the fanfare of a ruffles and flourishes salute, “Here comes Monico’s woman!”  And all that time I thought Mare wore rouge to fifth period math, when truth be told, it was actually the natural blood-rush of embarrassment.
Angelo drove us to his home.  Again we couldn’t help but wonder if we’d missed something important in the words that passed between us.  Could an exchange of words be somehow especially muffled when uttered from inside a car?  Compared to the Borgo where we lived, he lived in the modern part of town, in a high-rise neighborhood not far from the Tre Rose osteria, home to local favorites served up with conversation tossed gently with Italian TV quiz programs.  Removed from neighboring apartment buildings by a paved gated courtyard, the walls edged with plants, his was a three-story private home.  Ascending marble steps we entered a foyer that led either upward to the living quarters or downward to a finished basement area, home to a cooler summer kitchen.  The house was empty; His wife was running the pharmacy.  From there we were given a tour.  His home was a museum, elegant in its style and content.  Everything was in order as though they conducted tours frequently.  From Angelo’s conversation, however, there was also a hint of loneliness now that only he and his wife lived there.  Its large rooms held their memories bound up in photographs and mementos.  I couldn’t help but remark on the X-shaped Savonarola chair I noticed in one room, a style of chair Caesar himself would have sat in, while a framed collection of early dental tools, showcased in a wall shadowbox, caught Maria Elena’s attention.  Theirs was a tasteful Italian environment throughout, furnished in a style we enjoyed, void of that modern fascination with glass and aluminum so common in today’s Italy.  Our impromptu tour concluded, Angelo presented us with some wine, lots of it in fact - five liters of red along with a single bottle of white - before driving us home.  We certainly welcomed the lift.  We’d entered with nothing but uncertain curiosity and departed, our arms full with too much to carry let alone consume in our time remaining in Calitri, along with a growing appreciation of Angelo’s kindness.
We had yet another sort of “drive-by” incident.  This time it was an overhead balcony that played the part of Giuseppe’s and Angelo’s curb hugging autos as we happened to be passing on foot.  It was during Calitri’s annual Sponz-Fest celebration while the town was inundated with visitors.  We had met many of them.  They ranged from the curious to former Calitri residents who had moved away and descendants of current and former residents from around the world all back for a week of festivities.
A call to us from a second story balcony got our attention.  Looking around we spotted a couple we’d only casually met who were signaling that we come up.  Even if we had known how to get up there, stopping in was out of the question.  We had an appointment that couldn’t wait.  It was about then that we began talking, better described as shouting, back and forth, once again about time.  Fifteen, thirty, even forty minutes came up faster than I could translate the words in my mind.  We settled on trenta (30) minutes; Thirty minutes and we promised we would be back.  While we got the time right this time, or so we believed, we missed the rest of what passed between balcony and street.  It was Maria Elena who first brought it up.  What had they said?  Her question had a built-in answer.  Our weak language skills had let us down, although to the best of our recollection we were sure that no one had mentioned olive oil or wine!
About thirty minutes later we rounded a corner and looking up at the balcony spotted Angelo Maria and his wife, seemingly of a dyslexic play on his name, Maria Angelo.  They were waiting for us.  Moments later a door at street level opened and Angelo led us up to their apartment.  We were given a short tour and upon entering the kitchen saw that the table had been set for dinner.  That was it, they had invited us to dinner, which again we’d totally missed, but then look at how balcony dealings led to the confused deaths of Romeo and Juliet.  In comparison, we’d gotten off easy.
It was over dinner where we learned that Maria Angelo was a former Italian teacher.  Eureka! Here was the solution to an obvious recurring problem of mine and an opportunity to get smart about my Italian.  Somehow, I needed to make the jump beyond speaking words without hesitating to resort to my pocket dictionary, and get on to the real language of conversation.  It would signify a great leap.  But it wasn’t to be for they would leave soon and so would we.  Anyway, it’s not as if it was many yesterdays ago when I was first learning
to decipher words. To do that at my present age, my brain would need a boost from something much stronger than Prevagen.  I’d need to rely instead on being self-taught, but that requires a high degree of self-discipline, something hard to sustain when away from Italy and the immediate need fades with the distance.  Italian descendants like myself, scattered around the world by a seeming diasporic wind, have lost the mother tongue.  As in the legendary Tower of Babel story, my fragile Italian at times is confounded yet I persist in channeling my thoughts with hand waving, injecting many mispronounced words, sign language, the occasional smile, and at times by resorting to a piece of paper in a pointy-talky fashion to get my meaning across, whatever it takes.  We persevere even while being peppered with corrections from our well-meaning Italian friends.  And here is why … it’s just not worth not trying, or God forbid, not traveling to Italy at all and loosing connection to that original germ of utter fascination we first discovered there in 1999.  Italians you see, may not know it, but they are a chosen people, caretakers of a special place, progenitors of Western development, and custodians of an idyllic lifestyle, not to mention a special cuisine.  We’d never give that up.


From that Rogue Tourist

Paolo

Friday, March 31, 2017

Living the Dream


Naples Marina Seen from Grand Hotel Vesuvio
Living the Dream
There is waste in dreaming.  I mean in negative dreaming.  These pesky night marauders that occasionally punctuate my nightly reveries scale from forgetting my passport to having my wallet stolen - just enough to block-out more pleasant notions and thankfully put me wide awake in an instant.  But these aren’t the dreams I want to describe.  Instead, I’ll focus on dreams of the conscious variety, the dreaming that allows us to become what we
aspire to.  I saw something to this effect recently, a saying on an inspirational plaque.  I agree, dream about achieving something enough and it may become the catalyst for a plan to transform a dream into reality … some veiled, willed destiny presently beyond our grasp, what may be, what will be, if we had our druthers.  In a way, dreaming is a whimsical type of internal planning mechanism, where dedication to a desire helps us define our lives.  In my own small way, I’ve closed my eyes many a time and let my imagination loose in a dream of what might be.  It helps explain why occasionally I’ll buy a lottery ticket and while awaiting the drawing, get my dollars’ worth dreaming of what I’d do with the winnings.  I must say that while I go through the motions of my plan to win, sporadically buying tickets, as of yet my winnings have not materialized.  Lotteries are such fickle things though, way beyond our control.  As a youth, I dreamt of becoming a pilot.  How I’d do that I had no idea, but in this case the stepping stones would for the most part be under my control.  My single-minded determination eventually willed me into a cockpit.  At other times, in a flight from the reality of the moment, I’ve had simpler imaginings as for instance of us standing atop what Romans jokingly refer to as the “Wedding Cake” (Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II), sandwiched between the Forum and Piazza Venezia, surveying the breadth of Rome, a view even Rome’s Caesars never enjoyed.  It’s something we’ve not yet experienced, but know we will.  Then again, maybe in a relaxed daydream state, you, as I, have walked maze-like passages bordering on streets, in a medieval stone and cement cluster of beehive dwellings, once home to ancient humanity.  When our Cinque Stelle tour finally arrived on the streets of Calitri, our son, Chris, experienced a déjà vu moment as his dream moved to fulfillment, a blur in the divide between what he’d imagined and his present surroundings there among the network of cobbled, hallway-like streets of Calitri.  Clearly at times we get to live our dreams.  
Our arrival in Calitri had been delayed some, though certainly not because we were late in checking out of Castiglion del Bosco, which would have incurred a 500 Euro penalty for each hour we were late.  No, we were certainly motivated to depart on time.  The drive from Castiglion to Calitri in our Renault Espace spacecraft had for the most part been uneventful.  An error in
navigation, i.e. taking a longer route, caused by believing a sign verses what GPS “Margaret” advised, was the culprit.  The drive from Tuscany, north of Rome, was long enough without adding to the jaunt, which we somehow managed to do as we followed the ridge-running, zig-zag, up and down course that awaited us.  Chris wanted to see Italy and I assure you our route offered him that opportunity.  We made a few stops in this dream-like landscape, the first being to the picture-perfect Abby of Sant’Antimo, dating from the time of Charlemagne.  Most recently a community of Gregorian chanting Benedictine monks call it home.  The abbey is inspirational, the centerpiece of a beautiful valley not far from Montalcino.  It was from here that what looked to be a shortcut, proved instead to be the long way to just about anywhere.
When we finally arrived in Calitri it was late afternoon.  We’d made one stop for gas and some lunch at an Autogrill on the A1 Autostrada.  Where we come from they sell bottled liquor at the rest areas.  In Italy, Chris learned that they serve pasta!  We made an additional stop in Lioni at one of our favorite watering holes, Memphis, styled after the musical history of Memphis, Tennessee.  Chris wanted to order a martini, but we advised he not try.  Translating just how “dirty” he wanted his drink, that is if they made martinis, would have been a challenge.  Besides, they didn’t have his Ketel One gin nor any dry vermouth!  His five-star attitude hadn’t worn off yet.  Instead, we toasted our almost arrival with Aperol Spritzes. 
I must admit, we were done-in after our daylong drive.  At least I was.  Eager to get to the house, we left most of our belongings behind and exiting the piazza through a tunnel into the Borgo, headed to our home.  We were both eager to see Chris’ reaction to our humble abode.   At the door, I fumbled for the keys, lost at the bottom of my backpack, but soon all the tumblers and sliding bars were breached and we were inside.  After a quick tour,   
which due to its size didn’t take long, we climbed the stairs to our terrace that overlooks the expanse of the Borgo and more.  It was an OMG moment when from behind him on the stairs we both heard him exclaim, “Oh My God” as he stepped onto the terrace and took in the view from our eagle’s nest.  We only wished we’d been able to catch the expression on his face at that moment.  It would have more than repaid us for all the work it had taken to make it happen.  As he took it all in he remarked, “It’s a lot nicer than you made it sound, mom.”  Well OK, maybe in a protective move we had lowered expectations some over the years.  Don’t expect much and in-kind you won’t be disappointed.  Perhaps we had downplayed things.  On the upside, you just might be astonished by what does materialize.  Over the years, we’d made steady improvements.  Only weeks before, in anticipation of his arrival, we’d added long needed head and footboards to the guest bedroom.  Nothing but the best, right?  Too our pleasant surprise he was impressed and we were pleased. We’d been able to share our dream with our son.  The stars, more than simply five, were shining.

It wasn’t long after and we were enjoying wine right there on our rooftop terrace until long after the greeting “buòn giorno” had properly turned to “buòna sera”.  The wine by then had gotten a handhold on us and a late-day torpor had set in.  We were too tired to prepare something for dinner ourselves, so instead we opted for dinner at Locanda dell’Arco, only a short walk from our door.  It is a wonderful spot to enjoy the finest in local Irpinian dining overseen by a friendly family staff.  Elegant and inviting by anyone’s standards, it makes its home in a grotto hollowed from the mountainside.  Mare enjoyed an eggplant dish while Chris and I forked into pillows of homemade ravioli as together we shared in a bottle of the Baron’s wine who owned the Palazzo Zampaglione just above our heads.  
During our fleeting segue to Calitri from our Cinque Stelle tour, we sampled more than just the Locanda.  Early the following morning, we took a walk around town stopping at three cafes: Mario’s for introductions and coffee of course, Ideao Galose for its modern twist and to say hello to Francesco, and then to Zabatta’s for its classic pastry and another try at getting Mrs. Zabatta to smile.  Full of coffee and pastry by then, we returned in time for a late breakfast on the terrace.  The day obliging, we later walked the borgo, along with Maria Elena this time, making our way as far as the Santa Lucia Church where a grand view back toward the borgo made it all the more worthwhile.  Late that same day Chris put myself in low gear and headed off for a Castle tour.  Subsequently, to help recover from his climbing exploration, we stopped off at Roxy Bar for beer and a Naples verses Rome soccer grudge-match.  Our day concluded with another dinner out, first with a stop-off at
Double Jack’s for drinks.  Jack’s proprietor, Bruno, knew the makings of a proper martini down to the particulars of Chris’ precise instructions, which always seem to confound me concerning stirring, dryness, twists, and “dirtiness”.  Served up properly, Chris was more than impressed and dumbfounded when he learned their modest cost in comparison to what he customarily laid out for the same concoction in Manhattan.  I am now sworn not to let Bruno know!  Chris’ aches and pains now soothed somewhat, we next headed to Tre Rose, an establishment that while void of cocktails shaken or stirred, serves up local comfort food like cingul and canazza pastas by the bowlful.  You can always expect to have a good time in the company of owners Michale and Canio, while Mimmo, in his Tre Rose official vest, sees to our every need.  That night was no exception.
Although nothing was said, I suspect that after a few days Chris had tired of Calitri’s unhurried pace.  While he’d found a place far away from the busy everyday pace of places like Florence and Milan, our local version of the big city lifestyle he was accustomed to had soon dwindled to just about nothing.  He’d seen all the nightlife that Calitri had to offer by then and there was so much of Italy yet to see.  His brief off-the-beaten-path stay at mom and dad’s place concluded, the next day we departed to pick-up our Cinque Stelle trail, this time in Naples, a place that never rests.  
Naples proved no different from many of our earlier stops - a whirlwind.  The wind began to howl soon after we returned our rental to the airport and arrived 
at our hotel by taxi.  We were staying at Grand Hotel Vesuvio, a distinguished five-star establishment that is as much a landmark as Castel dell’Ovo, which faces it from the sea, across a short causeway.  Because our rooms suffered from spotty internet reception, the wind moved us to rooms at the front of the hotel facing the sea, a marina, the imposing castle, and an arcing view extending from Pozzuoli (where Sophia Loren grew up and did prison time for tax evasion) around to the left off toward Sorrento and the end of the Amalfi Peninsula.  Who needed the internet with that view!  This view of the Bay of Naples was amazing and we could have sat there enjoying it along with some red wine for hours but that would have to wait for that incessant wind soon had us moving again.
Our first objective was the National Archaeological Museum.  We caught a taxi to the museum where we thoroughly enjoyed a private tour.  From an early age, Chris had enjoyed history and archaeology.  I recall, long before the adventures of “Indiana Jones” and the tomb raiding exploits of “Laura Croft”, how he’d eagerly devour the National Geographic when it arrived in our mailbox and go on to tell us tales of the temples of Abu Simbel, Jordan’s rose colored Petra, and Schliemann’s discovery of lost Troy. 
One of the venues our guide led us through was the not to be missed, the once forbidden, so-called "secret cabinet" of erotic art.  It was full of suggestive art, everyday items of an explicit sexual nature, pieced together from the excavations of both Pompeii and Herculaneum.  It was apparent that Romans held a robust appreciation for sex and boldly depicted it throughout their homes in everyday objects, figures and scenes.  It proved to be a wow showcase of the well-endowed, full of naughty satyrs, perky oil lamps, and depictions of sexual encounters and secret trysts.  There were many red-faced, blushing tourists among us who appeared somewhat troubled by the explicit imagery.  Contrary to our puritanical predilections, these everyday items presented an ancient people’s appreciation for the erotic, which they deemed totally normal, and like a rabbit’s foot, symbols of good luck.  Many nowadays might consider the objects lewd and vulgar, though personally, after first blush, I found it rather funny.  In the company of frisky, well-endowed satyrs, we found it to be an equal amalgam of philanderer, Don Juan, lecher, Casanova, stud, and from some of the grips, outright masher.  We’d visited this restricted collection before and can report that not a thing had changed during our absence with everything as erect as we’d previously found it.
But enough with the naughty.  There is no better way in my estimation to get a feel for the human energy of Naples, a city like none other, than to walk its streets.  Words to describe it miss the mark.  It must be experienced.  And what better way to experience Naples than to stroll, or better put,
wonder with no destination in mind, through the historic heart of the city known as Spaccanapoli.
Stretching east-west from Piazza Gesù Nuovo along Via Benedetto Croce and continuing along for a few more streets, this narrow passage literally splits (spaccare) the city in half, accounting for its name.  It’s an adventure where just about anything can occur from street entertainers to street thievery, which also includes overpaying.  With a good pair of shoes and a grip on our wallets, we picked up the trail a few streets behind our hotel with a cut across Piazza Plebiscito, directly in front of the massive Palazzo Reale, once home to Spain’s Bourbons, and in due course, the House of Savoy.  From glitzy uptown we soon made the transition to the visceral nakedness of downtown Naples.  The transition, though gradual, was noticeable as it broke to the underside of life in the streets, heralded by what else but a sign for a strip joint.  Leaving the lap and pole dances behind we walked the length of Spaccanapoli finally finishing up on San Gregorio Armeno, referred to as the Christmas everyday street and a tourist destination of its own.  It is known worldwide for its workshops where cribs and nativity figurines of all shapes and sizes came to life to be carried off by the hundreds of shoppers that rummage through its stalls.
With the sea to our right and Vesuvius looming to our left, we next headed for Pompeii, a place frozen in time.  It was a toss-up on whether to visit Pompeii or closer Herculaneum, but Chris chose Pompeii.  After all, of the two, it had the greater reputation and he thought that if asked whether he’d visited Pompeii while in Italy and he said he’d toured Herculaneum instead, most people would have screwed their faces into a questioning expression, mainly due to their unfamiliarity with Herculaneum.  Whichever the destination, it was a question whether, like the ancient inhabitants of these ill-fated cities, we’d survive the trip.  I’d heard of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” but not yet of “Valeria of the Careening Taxi”.  She too had her share of tattoos, although she may have kept her dragon under wraps, likely on her heavy foot. 
Replicant or real, she drove like a banshee, lurching about as though in one of those epic race scenes from Ben Hur.  While her arms were festooned with personal body art, mine remained anemically white as I gripped the hand-hold throughout our madcap dash to Pompeii.  I didn’t understand her need for speed especially since she’d agreed to wait there for us for two hours while we explored Pompeii. 
As old as it was, it was all new to Chris.  Though he’d read about Pompeii, it was an altogether different matter to walk its streets among corner water basins, stepping stone crosswalks, urine collection pots, fast-food shops with their sunken terracotta containers intact, and
wander its deserted homes and gardens, some of which took-up entire blocks.  He especially enjoyed the amphitheater, the oldest in the Roman world with a capacity of 20,000 spectators.  Maria Elena and I enjoyed it too because it gave us a chance to sit down.  Positioned as it is in a peripheral area of the city, its builders had clearly anticipated a traffic jam, not of cars, but of pedestrians.  Not unlike soccer games these days, sometimes there were riots.   We learned of one, in 59AD, twenty years before it was destroyed, between the people of
Pompeii and those of nearby Nocera.  It was so bloody that the Senate of Rome voted to close the arena for 10 years.  Talk about a suspension, Tom Brady!
      After all this intense racing about, you can imagine how tired we were.  We needed to sit, sag, and relax somewhere, at least until the adrenaline rush subsided once we said goodbye to Valeria.  She was nice enough to hand me her card in case we’d like to go somewhere else in the coming days.  I gladly accepted it though with not the least of intent to ever use it.  It was The Transatlantico across the causeway at the foot of Castle dell’Ovo that came to our timely rescue.  There among a bobbing fleet of pleasure boats in the marina, we sat outside on a dock-like affair and enjoyed the evening.  The drinks of course were of the martinis variety.  Chris, more practiced in martinis than either of us, led the way while we followed his lead. 
These were later accompanied by wine and seafood dinners worthy of Neptune’s favor.  We enjoyed our wonderful meals in a nautical atmosphere unmatched in location - the sea lapping hulls ranging from humble skiffs to luxuriant yachts while the daunting silhouette of Vesuvius dominated the distant horizon.  While the boats may have been securely tired down, our appetites were unmoored.  Our tabletop soon groaned from the weight of heaping-full entrées, a veritable smorgasbord of alici fritte (fried anchovies - something I’ve raved about before), pasta alle vongole (a fave of Mare’s), insulata caprese (everyone’s favorite), pesce spada (swordfish) and risotto alla pescatora (fisherman style risotto with mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp) into which I vanished. 
We went long and stressed that very liberal Italian practice of not delivering the bill to the table until requested … so much so that when we called for it we were the last to leave.  It punctuated the end of our visit to Naples, for with the dawn and following an amazing breakfast at the Vesuvio (yet more food), we found ourselves aboard a high-speed train to Rome.  We’d apparently chosen an opportune time to depart.  As we exited the hotel to an awaiting cab, not Valeria’s, we discovered police officers and police cruisers by the entrance, along with a tour bus.  Apparently, Rome’s soccer team, Roma, had come to town to play arch-rival Naples once more.  The powers that be were taking no chances.  With the past so close at hand in Italy, all I could think of was that riot of 59 AD.  It seemed not much has changed in the interim.
Andiamo, we were off.  Another fabulous day in Italia had begun and there were so many more dreams to realize.  Next stop, Roma.

From That Rogue Tourist
Paolo