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