Friday, December 15, 2006


Beato Ugolini was, in one respect, like any other man – he got jilted. Perhaps the reason behind it was a tad unusual – the target of his affection took her religious vows – but his subsequent withdrawal to ponder his lot was not. In fact, it was a pretty natural thing for a man, devastated by the blight of unrequited love, to go and hide in his cave for a period of reflection. What did constitute a departure from the norm, however, was that, first, he literally went into a cave, and secondly, he stayed there for a little while longer than most would – for 30 years, in fact. Until he died. This clearly was one jilted fellow.

Granted, his cave was in a pretty amazing location – on a remote hillside on the banks of the Fiume Fiastrone in Le Marche. But 30 years of penance for his amorous failure? Apparently, he wasn’t the first to wallow in his rejection to such an extent, and indeed followed the example of St Francis, who also sold all his property and withdrew to meditate on his lot.

Ugolini was a religious man, as his name implies (Beato = Blessed), and today there’s a little chapel near the site of his rather lengthy rumination. There’s a trail that leads there too, through stands of coniferous trees, and magnificent views of Lake Fiastra. Of course, being man-made, the lake wasn’t there when Ugolini undertook his meditative marathon back in the 1300’s, but I’m sure the view was no less impressive.

The creation of Lake Fiastra in 1950 as a hydroelectric project changed the whole area, as one might imagine. Quite dramatically, in fact. What was a collection of sleepy villages with an interesting history that predates the Romans, is now a tourist haven, particularly in the summer when windsurfers, fishermen, boaters, sunbathers, and promenade-walkers crowd its shores.

Our first visit to the lake’s tourist center, San Lorenzo al Lago, was well after the end of the “official” season in October. It was still busy, and when we went into a restaurant for a late lunch, a group of 30-odd leather-clad bikers was just leaving, having driven all the way from Rome to celebrate a birthday. We enjoyed a delicious meal there, which included cinghiale (wild boar), Julius’ favourite (thanks to Asterix & Obelisk).

Our visit to San Lorenzo followed a rewarding hike down into the depths of Gola de Fiastra, the gorge created by damming the river. The trail winds through what seems to be old-growth forest, teeming with all sorts of plant life, and criss-crosses the crisp waters of the Fiastrone river through its narrow canyon.

Apparently (according to a local friend) water is periodically released from the dam, flooding the gorge. This naturally conjures images of the standard Italian modus operandus of notifying people after they’ve done the deed, and it added a certain … edge, should we say, to the outing. Looking at the plant life down there, however, it didn’t look like there’d been a release for quite some time.

In addition to the chapel dedicated to Ugolini, the area has a number of sanctuaries, as well as few “rustic” hermitages, where religious recluses lived in caves. There are many in Marche, apparently a sort of clandestine infiltration tactic on the part of the various religious orders as a result of the marchigiani’s resistance to organized Christianity. Witchcraft, or stregheria, was once “the way” in these parts, as it was in the ancient Etruscan realms, and elements of it still survive, both separate from and integrated with established Catholic rites.

Beyond its religious history, archeological findings indicate that there have been settlements in the Fiastra area since around 2000 BC. The Romans also used it as a stopover on the way to the colonial capital of Urbs Salvia. Prior to being absorbed into the papal state in 1545, Fiastra fell under the respective domains of the Magalotti family (until 1259), and the Varano family – several castles serve as testament to this period of its history, the most notable (the 9th-Century Castello dei Magalotti) providing a sweeping vista over the lake and its surrounds. During its medieval and subsequent years, the area became known for its wool, flax, and hemp.

The construction of the dam in 1950 submerged many of the villages and hamlets that comprised the community. While the physical changes wrought by the flooding of the valley have been significant, it’s the drowning of the historical culture encapsulated in these Fiastrone communities that perhaps represents the greater change. Some of it survives – in its sanctuaries, its frescoes, its castles, and its ruins – but today “Fiastra” is more likely to conjure responses related to fishing, swimming, and sunning.

So be it. Life moves on. It was probably just as great a change when the Magalotti family started exerting its influence in the area some thousand years ago. But as we ramble along the valley … walk the trails on the valley walls … and visit the deserted hamlets and castles that remain … perhaps we should open our spirits to the voices that still speak of ancient tribal customs, colonial Rome, and medieval industry. It is, after all, what’s buried in the hills and under the lake’s waves … forever.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A few casual pictures

Brooding sky

Looking for cell phone reception

Tourist in Jesi - by Julius

Indoor wildlife
Morning glory
Morning ritual
Writer and helper - by Maria


Artful sky

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


I’ve been climbing trees lately … with our 70-year-old neighbour, Maria. She’s pretty deft at it, and fearless too, peering and reaching over the topmost branches.

But let me explain – while this was at least part-recreation for me, and conjured up memories of my clamberings in the avocado tree in our back garden in Durban, it was pure business for Maria. Not that she sees it as business, though, it’s actually simpler than that – it’s her life.

That’s of course not to say that she’s a professional tree-climber – although I’m sure she would be a contender in the senior categories, along with innumerable other head-scarved marchigiani – but it’s just that those olives need picking.

Our mutual picking sessions were the result of an offer we made to help her family at olive-picking time, in return for her son, Giuliano’s, help in tractoring our household belongings down the steep hill – our driveway – that the moving truck couldn’t negotiate. I won’t deny that there was some selfishness in my offer – the opportunity to get to know our farmer neighbours, and participate in one of the most timeless traditions of the Mediterranean countries.

The family’s picking team consists of Maria, a diminutive, energetic, cherub-faced, salt-of-the-earth marchiagiani; Umb
erto, her equally diminutive 70-something husband with his glass eye (not sure about this, but it does “glaze” over quite a bit) and inane smile (pure deception); and her two sons, Giuliano and Giuseppe.

I ended up helping for 3 full days, and another two half-days; Maria helped for a day-and-a-half, and Julius, one Sunday afternoon. We probably covered 100 trees in the time I helped – they had maybe 150-175 to pick all told.

Let me make one thing clear – I/we
have no prior history in olive picking. Consequently, everything we did was a new experience for us (as in “wow, isn’t this cool?”). And so, in spite of the confidence and apparent knowledge with which our experience is related, remind yourself that it’s the voice of a pure novice (a babe in the olive woods, so to speak) …

Now olive picking, in its purest form, is a hand job. That’s right, manual. The day before the older Maria came and summonsed me to the field, Julius and I had stripped the couple of trees on the property of our rental home. Pick, put in bag, pick, put in bag, pick, put in … you get the picture. Took all @#$@#%$ day, it did – two trees.

So I was glad to see netting spread below the trees to catch the olives, and olive rakes to expedite the stripping. The rakes are more like big combs, which you pull along the length of a branch, separating the olive from its perch, and sending it plummeting … yes, into the spread-out net below. On picking day #2, Giuliano arrived with a machine, powered by an air compressor attached to the tractor, that is a bigger, mechanical version of the olive rake, snapping open and closed on the end of a long pole, just like Pacman’s open-and-close munching action. This machine made a huge difference in productivity, and, I suspect, has revolutionized the olive-picking industry.

The goal – almost always accomplished – is to get every olive on the tree, whether black, red, multi-coloured, green, or shriveled. The machine can’t get all of them, particularly those on the “inside” of the tree, so we take to the ladders and climb.

To get to some of them, you have to get up into the topmost branches. Ladders help with this … to start with. But for those out-on-a-limb rascals, you have to s-t-r-e-t-c-h. Precarious? At times, yes. Particularly for those of us that are not regular tree-climbers, which – notwithstanding my aspirations in this field – is a category I fit comfortably into.

But it’s a thrill, nonetheless. The weather was glorious – blue sky, temperatures in the
springtime ranges, the kind of day that you’d describe if you had to be outside the whole time. And climbing trees – how can it get better than this? Not earning a penny doing it, but the feel of the olive branch, the olive itself, the teetering ladder below … heaven.

Watching the family at work was a treat too, particularly the elders. Most amazing to me was Maria, climbing trees, carrying ladders, falling over under the weight of what she was carrying and just getting right on back up again, leaving to go and make lunch, returning after cleaning up and carrying on until dark. And Umberto – patriarch in his white coat (!) and black woolly-cotton cap, always out there first, silently pulling the effort forward, expecting and getting.

The big bonus of the experience was the daily pranzo with the family. Lunch being the sacred event that it is in traditional Italy, it was just assumed that we would join them. I felt simultaneously like a guest and a member of the family … special and yet one of the crew. It was wonderful. Pasta every day, of course, with a variety of meats. Wine from last year’s grapes, and a smorgasbord of last year’s olives – green, black, dried. And the focus of everyone’s attention – Leonardo, 18-month-old son/nephew/grandson, blue-eyed imp and pure charmer.

The picking seems to be all over now. It was interrupted by a bout of wet weather – olives can’t be picked when they’re wet, they rot – and then continued in a couple of locations in the vicinity until yesterday. Senior Maria stopped by the other day to ask us for glass containers to give us some olive oil. From last year’s batch, since this year’s is still “più tòrbido” (use your imagination). Our wages.

We gave her two five-liter jugs – she asked if that was all.

It’s enough – we have our reward. Perhaps best captured by a single moment – Maria (wife) and I were both on ladders, stripping th
e tree using our olive rakes under glorious skies, and I turned to her with a smile and said: “Can you believe this? We’re picking olives in Italy.” “And we don’t have the internet,” she replied.


The canine sagas

Vitalliano, our organic neighbour, is now right across the street from us in our rented house. He has 4 dogs. One is small, old, and precious, and yaps when it comes outside. It’s really Orellia’s (his wife’s), and is the only one that’s allowed the privilege of going inside the house.

The other three are a family – father, mother, and son. They live outside, and more or less have to fend for themselves, including for most of their food. I’ve never seen Vitalliano show them any affection, or, for that matter, any kind of recognition at all.

They’re a pretty motley crew, when all’s said and done, but a tight unit, I must say. And in spite of my negative inclinations to the canine population here … resentment at the deft footwork we need when venturing from the house to the car (to avoid the pungent “smear-bombs” that surround the house) … and the invasions on Mr Young’s freedom … I’ve been watching them since we’ve been renting here (a month now), and it’s a fascinating case study.

Dad is a street-smart, half-blind nondescript mongrel, as tough as old nails. I call him Buster. Mom is a shifty-eyed, pitch-black, equally nondescript mongrel. I call her Hyena, for both physical and character similarities. Puppy is non-stop energy, ever curious, fighting, bouncing, biting, chasing, sniffing, eating.

Mom is the model of measured patience and discipline with Puppy – a perfect mother. Dad is the typical father of the animal world – aloof, tolerant, and decisive in his reprimands. Puppy knows his place with dad, and has already developed a wisdom on how far to go.

They’re an archetypal cooperative unit, opportunists and hardy survivors. And a real family, in every sense of the word.

Down the street, there’s a Weimerana (I think that’s what it is), who partners the dumb-as-a-plank German Shepherd that loses its skin in excited barking every time we walk anywhere near. The Weimerana has found a way out of its confines, and has recently taken to the streets and the fields, prancing around (as Weimeranas are wont to do) as if looking for something. It almost seems like it’s lost.

But yet out it comes through a whole in the fence, a hole it seems the German Shepherd is (a) too big to get through, (b) unwilling to breach for fear of leaving its safe haven, or (c) too stupid to figure out. (Personally, I think it’s a combination of (b) and (c).)

In any event, the Weimerana today encroached on Buster’s property, and they “met” each other. Sniff … lift leg … pee … sniff … lift leg … pee … sniff … and so on. Buster walks away nonchalantly, back to his armchair, as if he doesn’t care. Weimerana continues its stiff-legged prance-action, looking confused and unsure. Hyena hangs around on the edge, watching her adversary, and after a while, trots back to join Buster. Puppy stays well back behind the frontlines – instinctively he knows it’s not a playground out there.

Ten minutes later, the ritual is repeated. Sniff … lift leg … retreat. No bared teeth, no snarling ... yet. But who’s to say what might happen as the battle of nerves for territorial supremacy rages. If it comes to arms – or teeth, rather – my money’s on Buster. Julius disagrees, saying that Weimerana’s bigger. But Buster’s smarter … and he’s got Hyena.

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, in between the routine of sniffing and leg-lifting, it seems the family collared a rooster or a chicken today. Or maybe it was Weimerana. I found Hyena and Puppy hovered over this headless feather-body this morning, tugging and gnawing and grunting. Hyena retreated very slowly when I approached to investigate – normally she runs away, tail between her legs – barking at me as I did, reluctant to give up her prize, and then ran back in to claim it as I walked away again.

Later I saw Buster carting it around, and Vitalliano found him with it. He (Vita) picked it up and walked away muttering, probably to check if it was from his own brood. I’m convinced it was, and so was half-expecting to hear blood-curdling yelps and squeals as he exacted his punishment for their indiscretion.

There was no yelping, no squealing. Clearly I still have a lot to learn about this rural Italian man-animal relationship thing …

General update - parte tre

Life continues, in comfort in our rental home with its stupendous views. The sky and the light here are unreal. Every day is different, and sometimes I feel like I’m looking at a Lord of the Rings or a Roger Dean picture – surreal cloud formations, shards of light piercing the silver and grey layers and highlighting a hill or a house or a field, blues and yellows and golds, and the ever-changing shades of green on the rolling landscape. It strikes me every time, and I remind myself how fortunate I am.

Some good and some frustrating to report, but mostly good.

First – the renovations to our house are scheduled to start in the next 2 weeks! We inked a contract with the builder last Friday, and he’s committed to be done before June 30th, otherwise a penalty kicks in. Turns out he’s the cousin of one of our neighbours … such is life and its connections here. This is one huge cloud lifted.

The night before this momentous event, I completed my application for residence, and this past Monday I got my residence identity card. This, it seems is the equivalent of having arrived – I am now official! And an amazing thing happened – my residence was granted the same day I made the application! Non-plussed, I was … but ever so grateful.

And to cap an eventful week, we bought a car – a second-hand Honda 4X4 to help us negotiate the winter roads and the mountain passes when we get up there to explore and go camping (next year).

Unfortunately, however, the vagaries with the Italian service industry continue. First, the postal service.

Item # 1 – Maria sent a small package to our part-time neighbours in Bari in the south of Italy. Four days after sending it, I just happened to intercept the postman trying to deliver it … to us! They had ignored the large-as-life bold address on the front, and instead focused on the minute address on the back, added at the last minute at the request of the postal service clerk who took the package. I managed to explain his/their (incomprehensible) error, which, unbelievably, it took him a while to recognize. But he took the parcel away again, and … lo and behold … it arrived in Bari 2 days later, quicker than it took to get 10 km from Tolentino to Regnano!

Item # 2 is a letter I sent to a friend in the US, containing a check, part of which was meant to go towards my SA Passport renewal application. Disappeared. No sign of it. This is now a month ago. Nothing I can do either – like a trusting idiot, having had one envelope make its way safely over there, I did not register it.

On the semi-positive side, unbelievably two of the boxes that were ostensibly sent back to the US showed up. The third is still MIA – it hasn’t been received back in the US, and they have no record of it in the post office here. Of course, it’s also the one with all the books I really need and want, and, frustratingly but by now not surprisingly, there’s just nothing that can be done.

It doesn’t get much better if you use UPS either. We had to have a cheque reissued (a refund from our movers) because it got lost in posteitaliano. So they sent it UPS. 3 weeks later, no sign of it. Contact moving company. UPS says our address doesn’t exist. Call them (UPS in Marche) – they need a phone number. Give it to them, but unfortunately incorrectly. Call them back to correct – no, don’t need it, they’re going to deliver tomorrow. 3 days later, call back – can’t deliver, the phone number’s wrong. Give them the right one, they’ll deliver tomorrow. Call from Tolentino – we don’t know where Regnano is (and are too lazy to find out). OK, we’ve had enough of this, leave it at the bar just outside the bridge into the city. Finally pick it up yesterday.

Don’t know what we’re going to do about this postal thing. Maybe get a PO Box in Tolentino.

On the phone and internet side, still no call from telecomm Italia since they put the phone down in the middle of one of Maria’s complaint calls. Turns out there’s a web site dedicated to complaints about telecomm Italia from English-speaking people in Italy. Now that makes me feel better…

Friday, November 10, 2006

General update - parte due

Last week we had the first frost of the winter, and snow on the mountains. Julius was ecstatic. We weren’t. We have an uninsulated house, and no central heating. It’s the beginning of November. Our spirits were dented and daunted by what lay ahead.

So we caved … and ran running for the neighbour’s house. By the end of last weekend, we were firmly ensconced – an insulated house that holds its heat at a pretty constant 10-15° C, and central heating if we need it. Three working bathrooms. A clean kitchen and living room. In other words – bliss.

Even Mr. Young has adjusted, roaming around the house as if it’s his own, and venturing outside in plain sight of – but respectable distance from – our organic neighbour’s four dogs.

Seems our move was timed just right. I collapsed with a streaming cold, Maria with a stiff neck, both probably taking hold as we exhaled and released the tenuous tension of living “down there”.

Quite a bit of walking and exploring lately – Bolognola and Sasso Tetto up in the mountains, Gola dell’Infernaccio (Hell’s Gorge), Lake Fiastra, and Jesi, center of arts, music, a Juventus coaching clinic for youngsters, and the verdicchio wine-producing area of Italy. Maybe a separate post or two on these subjects in the future. And we’ve just scratched the surface. It’s wonderful.

At the end of the month we’re going to England for a long weekend. Holmfirth in Yorkshire, to be precise, home of the neighbour whose house we’re living in. Somehow we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of his invitation at €2 a ticket from Ancona (Marche) to Liverpool, €103 for all 3 of us with taxes. Thought of trying to catch one of the Springbok rugby games, but at £150 we’re taking a pass. Now we’re focusing on getting a ticket for an Anfield (Liverpool) game, maybe even get to sit at the Kop. But at £50 a ticket, we’re not holding out too much hope for that either.

Renovations to the house still haven’t started. There’s always a (legitimate?) reason from the builder, but his frequent promises to “set up a meeting to sign a contract” turn out to be somewhat hollow, and do not instill confidence. Worse still, our architect and project manager, who we ran into one evening this past week, assumed not only that the building had started, but that it had stopped for the winter. Is this Italian for "being on top of things"? As for my overall confidence, if it manifests itself as a sort of hole in the stomach, then I guess I’m brimming with it …

The canine challenge

Dogs … bark. It’s what they do, an indisputable reality, in much the same way as sugar is sweet, sky is blue, and husbands are wrong.

In the case of dogs in Regnano – and rural Marche, actually – this reality is doubly true. Perhaps even triply. They bark … a lot.

They also, through their vocal proclivities, can have an impact on the performance of ritual and tradition. Take the passegiata, for instance, one of the noblest and enjoyable of Italian traditions. This is the evening stroll down the promenade with family and friends, a leisurely end-of-the-day ritual in towns and cities across the country, intended – or so it appears to me – to slow down, catch up, and clutch out. We’ve indulged in the pastime – with relish – whenever we’ve had the opportunity. I tried to do so in our little one-road borgo, while Julius rode his bicycle – it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, thanks to the dogs. Apart from barking incessantly, some of them were quite menacing as they approached me, and, being in no hurry to test the theory of barks being worse than bites, ended up siding with discretion rather than valour (i.e. I scuttled off … with my tail in a place I’d rather have seen my antagonists’ in).

One of these dogs – a German shepherd, or Alsatian – is positively scary. He gets so excited that I can actually picture him opting to jump out of his skin (if given the option) just to get a chance to go at us. Being an immediate neighbour, one might have hoped that he’d develop some familiarity over time, given the frequency that we pass him, both by car and on foot. No such luck. Not even a hint of recognition. Thank heavens he’s confined to a fenced-in garden. His frantic, beside-himself behaviour makes me wonder if his owner is hiding something behind such a vicious visage.

A week or so ago in Bolognola we saw a woman trying to calm her own dog as her son and grandson arrived for a visit. His (the dog’s) reaction to her slapping his jaw was downright frightening – his bark turned to a snarl-growl, and he bared his teeth as if he was about to de-hand her. The 3 of us (Maria, Julius and I) watched – horrified and transfixed – waiting for him to perform the severing act. To our morbid disappointment (or possibly relief), he didn’t, perhaps deciding at the last minute to postpone the dastardly deed. If I’d been her son carrying in my own child, I’d have turned tail and fled for the hills rather than take the risk of having my boy in the company of such a beast.

Out in the country, these dogs roam free. Our organic neighbour has four such dogs. They’re always out in the streets or galavanting across the fields, sometimes sniffing around our house. They shit everywhere, of course. And bark. A month or so ago, he told Maria proudly how they’d caught and killed a rabbit. Back in June when the bitch had four puppies, he killed 3 of them – a sort of post-partum method of birth control. Such is life out here – basic, practical, unemotional.

On the way to school in the morning, we often see another roamer – a large German shepherd running along the road with an apparently definite destination. I’m not sure where he’s bound, but he always looks earnest and serious, as if he’s on a mission, and not one of altruism or charity either. Sometimes he has buddies with him, each displaying the same ominous purpose. They seem like a canine sort of Gestapo – sly, ill-meaning, and not to be trusted. Every time I see them I think the same thing: Me here (in the car). You there. Good arrangement.

Across the valley from our house, I’ve counted up to 13 dogs at one of the farms. It’s possible there are more. They hold the valley’s title for most barks per square meter. Many of these accolades are earned at night. As you might imagine, across the silence of a rural Italian valley at night, sound carries, right into one’s bedroom and one’s ear and directly through to one’s attempting-to-sleep conscience. The impact is flash-like, turning a pacifist animal-lover into an irrational vengeance-seeker with disturbing thoughts of deeply satisfying mass murder. (Naturally, this is only on the bad days – the normal ones only render us savage-like.)

Having said all that, I think I sort-of understand why this canine culture exists. I’ve seen it before, in South America, where a sturdy stick (or canine repellent) is an essential tool when walking out in the country. The dogs provide protection and an alarm system – it’s cheap, efficient, and the only option available, in most cases. Interestingly enough, they also seem to know their boundaries and their role. Our neighbour, for instance, also keeps chickens, pigeons, and cats, and the dogs leave them well alone, not even reacting as they stroll past within biting distance at mealtimes.

Naturally, understanding of the reasoning behind it all doesn’t necessarily diminish the frustration it breeds. And it hasn’t stopped us scheming how to do some clandestine culling of our own. Of course, we won’t go through with it, not only because it would be criminal and cruel, but because it wouldn’t make a difference at the end of the day – within weeks, perhaps months at the most, there’ll be a new litter, and this time around they’ll let the whole lot of them keep breathing and barking on instead of just one or two.

So, like a parent that develops a tolerance of an infant’s wailing, we’ll just have to build up our immunities. Who knows, maybe we’ll have a Spot of our own sometime in the future … although I somehow doubt it. And besides, it’s a virtual certainty that HRH (Mr Young) would veto such a suggestion with pleasure and a feline flourish.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Learning Italian - parte due

From 10-18-06 (see post entitled "Learning Italian - parte uno" for context)

Learning Italian means learning that …

… you don’t order cappuccino after 11am

… you can’t shop when it’s convenient for you, only when it’s not

… or, its corollary – pranzo is sacred, and is never, ever to be disturbed

… if there’s a patently obvious way to do something, it will not be done that way

… the only nutrients necessary to sustain life are pasta and pommodoro sauce

… the only goal of driving is to see how close you can get to the car in front of you

… ‘going the extra yard’ does not translate for the Italian service industry

… ‘going the distance’ does not translate for the Italian service industry

… in order to request phone service, you first have to have a phone number

… street signs are for decorative purposes only

… language is not just a verbal thing

… language is about communication, not just a combination of words

Fed up

It’s a clear blue sky, a slight breeze blowing, there’s just the slightest hint of crispness in the air but I’m nonetheless in my shorts – it’s a beautiful day in the Italian countryside.

And I’m fed up. Frustrated. Pissed off.

It’s the insects. The $%@#?&@ insects, that is. I’ve now officially declared an all-out war against all kinds.

I’ve written previously about the bees and wasps and hornets. They’ve become so annoying that I now wield a fly-swatter on a regular basis. Yesterday I swatted my first two. Those that know me and my creature-loving side – I help spiders across the road – will appreciate the gravity of this action. Worse still, I watched with some relish as they squirmed around after I’d smashed them to the ground. If my aim was just slightly better, there’d be more notches on the swatter. It’s simply gone too far, and pushed me beyond the pale.

As if abluting in a third-grade bathroom and cooking and eating in a damp-ridden kitchen were not bad enough, last night as I read in bed, the gnats were so thick that they were not only walking on my lenses of my reading glasses, they were examining my eyelids and checking out the inside of my ears. I felt like I was in an Edgar Allan Poe story. It got so bad I had to flee to a place with more space between the light and me, just to preserve my sanity and to be able to continue reading.

There’s a permanent fruit-fly presence in the kitchen, an ample supply of your common garden fly, the ubiquitous stink bug, and a healthy enough selection of other creeping and flying crawlies to make your average tropical forest proud. I managed to ignore it for a while, and then tolerate it, but finally even grinning and bearing it became too much, hence the call to arms.

They’d better watch out, these insects, they’ve awoken a giant. Numbers? (Ouch!) Who cares how many of them there are! (Get off my leg, you ^$@#*&!) I’m not cowed. (Damn bite won’t stop itching!) If they’re not careful, I’ll move up to our neighbour’s …

Autumn chill

Above just about anything else, I remember the wind when we were in Patagonia. First, on the shores of Lago Pingo in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, and then in Argentina’s Glacier National Park at Lago Electrica. It came across this massive ice field, second largest in the world, if I recall correctly, and whistled across the glacial waters to the shores where we met it. I remember imagining the path it had travelled, and tried in my own mind to do the same – envisioning the route across the dark and bitter southern ocean, and then barrelling across the bleak, frozen expanses, all well beyond the pale of human endurance. I was enraptured by it – somehow it struck at the core of my human survival sensitivities, wanting to know how it would be out there, out of this comfort zone.

And so when I feel this chill autumn wind here in Marche, and there’s an undercurrent to it as if it is coming from far away, my romantic memories resurface, and I am invigorated by the elemental nature of it. Clearly, Regnano is a long way from Patagonia, there’s no ice field within a thousand miles, and I can step into my house instead of my tent, but who gives a damn. It adds an edge to autumn and lends just a hint of the pioneering spirit to our endeavours here. (The half-camping nature of our existence here might have something to do with it.)

The skies are also brooding, as a few of the pictures in a recent blog post attest, and there’s the scent of a portent in the air. Or perhaps it’s just in my mind. I’ve heard so many warnings about the severity of the winter that I’m waiting with trepidation for it to hit us in our uninsulated, unheated house. And if it comes when the roof’s being worked on … hell, I don’t even know where we’ll be sleeping then, probably in the uninsulated, unheated caravan, and waking up with stiff backs in craggy moods. Boy, I can’t wait.

In the meantime, I’ll just let my mind wander over those Patagonian ice fields, and the legendary peaks of the Sibillini mountains …

A macabre departure from the purely Marchigiani

Death is a strange subject. Some shy away from it, ignoring its ever-present threat, perhaps being able to live more in the moment as a result. Others are aware of it, fear it, and take extreme precautions to minimize its likelihood. Then there are some that immerse themselves in it, study it, write about it – like Gabriela Garcia Marquez, for example, who penned a number of death-obsessed short stories around 1950, which I’m now reading in his “Collected Stories.”

I fall into the category of those with a curiosity verging on morbid fascination, sort of like a moth drawn to a flame. However, Garcia’s stories go a bit far for my comfort level. That’s because he makes it so personal – my curiosity is perhaps a little more removed, in more of a Monty-Pythonesque “What’s it like?” sort of way.

I recently found myself fixated by a hunt of Mr Young’s. In spite of our inherent animal-loving natures, we’re reluctantly encouraging him to cull the local mouse population, given their penchant for eating through and defecating on our possessions. They’re extremely quick, the blighters, and so I was amazed at Mr Young’s dexterity in chasing it down, given his own prodigious propensity for lethargy. I guess those natural tendencies kick in when such quintessential feline opportunities come along.

In any event, having caught it and deposited it in the long grass where its escape was more difficult, he proceeded with the age-old cat-and-mouse game, pretending he wasn’t interested and then pouncing as the mouse tried to make a dash for it. After 20 minutes of this, which took him under the caravan and back out again, I came to investigate, and found the mouse on the ground in front of him. It was literally kicking its last, its hind legs kicking as if to try and get away, but – with its back broken – producing no momentum beyond a futile desperate jerk. A thousand thoughts ran through my head, from “Ag, shame, it’s so cute”, to “Just half-an-hour ago this mouse was on its way somewhere, oblivious of its pending fate.”

It’s this latter thought that preoccupies me. Not that the mouse had dinner plans and his friends are now wondering why he hasn’t turned up at the restaurant yet, or even that the mouse necessarily has thoughts of the future. But we do. And when death strikes, tomorrow doesn’t matter any more. That new car you were going to buy, the struggle to pay the rent, the fight you were having with your mom, next year’s Rugby World Cup … none of them are even remotely interesting anymore. Sudden and final. A complete and utter change of plans. Sort of colours our preoccupation with our current plans, doesn’t it?

Of course there are a myriad other subjects that spring from such thoughts, most of them spiritual, but this is not the place for those things. What the mouse did not see, having passed into the afterlife, was how Mr Young then danced, twisted, contorted, and leapt as he threw the corpse in the air, attempting to catch it as it flew lifelessly in its morbid arc. It was a ceremony, a rite, a celebration. I’d never seen Mr Young do that. Nobody has ever taught him to do that. It’s entirely innate. I guess he has his own fascination with death.

After he was done with his ritual, he proceeded to eat it, but only half … the top half. All that was left of the little rodent that was scurrying along the wall less than an hour before was a tail, two hind legs, and the lower part of its torso. I left it where it was, to see what other death-related custom might emerge in Mr Young’s behaviour.

But it was not to be. The next morning it was gone, devoured by another carnivorous creature passing in the night. Mr Young didn’t even look for it. Was that the mouse’s destiny in being put on this earth – to hone the skills of a domestic cat that didn’t need the nutrition, and to provide a free meal for one that did? Hmmm, wonder what mine is …

Around the house

If you saw me walking through my house these days, you’d be excused for thinking that I’d gone religious. Now that’s not to say that I’m aspiritual, but the reason my head is bowed is not one of reverence – it’s purely for self-protection, perhaps even self-preservation.

For some reason, the marchigiani build their doorways low. The permanent bump on my head bears testament to that. With my bowed head approach, I’ve got most of them beaten now, but there are two that catch me like snipers waiting for me to drop my guard, and I do this regularly enough to keep the bump permanently tender. Both of the danger zones involve steps, and they carry out their assaults when I’m going down. The doorway from the bathroom wing to the dressing room is one, while the first step down from the outdoor stairway is the other. In spite of my “going down, head down” mantra, they both enjoy healthy success rates.

“Thud!”, when all’s said and done, is probably the best sound approximation of head meeting doorway. It has a real depth to it, without any hollowness, but with substance, transcending layers. Of course “Thud!” is merely the opener. It’s followed by a barrage of audible reactions, which tend to have something of an “edge” to them, and a skull-penetrating, flashing pain that tends to render everything else that was going on utterly irrelevant.

After the umpteenth head-crunch, recovery – which takes some 5 minutes – is typically followed by an angry and wholly unsavoury reference to the doorways, and an oath to ensure the builder raises them all.

While the doorways have a tendency to impact my sense of touch, there are 3 particular rooms in the house which invoke distinct reactions of another sense – the olfactory one.

First, the kitchen. While it’s very functional, and we’re making do, the encroaching chill has necessitated that we close the windows in there. This has brought out a “character” that we’d rather not have been introduced to. The lingering moisture in the walls has left a musty, dank aroma, prompting the thought: “This can’t be healthy.”

The room next door – the ex-wine pressing and storage room, which shares a wall with the kitchen but no door or other opening – has a similar smell, only thicker and with a hard-to-place “twist” that leaves you wondering: “What did they do in this room?” This is where Julius’ bicycle and the Bowflex get stored, both removed for use.

The third room is the bathroom. Now us first-worlders spend a fair amount of time on scents and aromas and perfumes to make our bathrooms smell distinctly unbathroom-like. This is not the case with us. Walk into ours blindfolded, and you go: "This is a bathroom." No question. Think “public toilet,” and you’ve got it. Now if you know Maria and her hygiene obsession, you’ll appreciate that this is not only demeaning, it’s mood-altering. The uncomfortable whiff is attributable to the manual-flush toilet with its rusted mechanism. We’re planning to replace it soon, not only to eliminate the need for bucket-filling and self-flushing, but also to alleviate the need for breath-holding when we’re in there.

Other than this, however, the periodic ceiling paint deposits, the hayfever-inducing dust, and the incessant buzz and interference of insects, everything’s just fine.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Learning Italian - parte uno

There's a wonderful book on writing - it actually extends into one's life, actually - by Gail Sher called "One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers". Her first order of business is to require the writing student (me) to write about the same subject each day for 14 days straight. I chose "Learning Italian" as my subject. Here's the first of several posts, excerpts from this series.


If I keep at it, day after day, reading and understanding in the moment what I am reading, then the knowledge will come. This is what my heart yearns to be true – that simple mechanics can convert me, transform me. And so I do it.

Then I go out. It generally starts well – my Italian conversational counterpart, usually a store clerk or similar, recognizes my handicap and talks a little slower. I lean forward, getting my ear closer to the words so that with greater clarity in hearing them I will enjoy greater clarity in understanding. I nod in acknowledgement of the general concepts being expressed. This encourages the speaker, and soon they are talking at their normal speed – rapid-fire – and using words that they’d use with their family and friends. They step out of their “speak simply for the straniero” role and they get into their normal persona.

Little do they know what a roller-coaster ride this causes the listener – me. I run after their words, zig-zagging as if following random clues, my nodding continues mechanically, without thought, and I cling, fingers on the cliff-edge, holding on with the last ounce of my strength.

And then it gives – my grasp slips, and I’m gone, plunging into the deep abyss, hopelessly dazed, knotted in confusion, and soon the speaker sees the blank, faraway look in my eyes, and they know they lost me a while ago. Then comes the smile, sympathetic and with just the slightest, friendliest touch of frustration, and they once again switch personas. Back we go and start again.

In this moment, I know that mechanics have failed me. With it comes a tinge of despair – how will I ever master it, when, in the heat of battle, I forget that “I am” is simply “sono”.

“You have to live it,” says Claudia, and she’s right. Countless times I’ve noticed errors in her vocabulary, her verb forms, but she presses on, and for her, the conversational counterpart doesn’t have to switch roles. They engage, they flow, and the conversation goes with them.

This is what speaking Italian is about. It’s not mechanical. Aside from the hand-speak, there’s an energy that’s established at the outset as part of the conversational contract, and the participants both follow it and lead it. “Going with the flow” might be the cliché way of expressing it, and it’s true. It comes only from getting out there and doing it. The mechanics have their place, but the real knowing comes from immersion in the conversational currents.

Musings of a future murderer...

It started out as seething anger, and I considered a “boiling cauldron” sort of post, with lava spitting and fire searing everything. But that lasted for a day, and then the despondency set in. Now I simply feel defeated. Not just by a whisker or a hair, but comprehensively.

I’ve written about Italian bureaucracy in the past, but this surpasses it, by far – laziness, incompetence, thievery, and couldn’t-care-less attitude. It has to do with mail, on 4 counts – yes, that’s right, not just one count, but four.

Case #1 – the 3 boxes. These were mailed on the day of my departure from the US, containing clothes, personal papers and accounts, home study course material, and a load of books that I bought for my business consumption and research here (i.e. important material for my money-earning intentions). I’ve been eagerly awaiting them. They never came. Finally, 6 weeks after they were mailed, we went to the post office in Tolentino, USPS tracking slips in hand.

“No,” we were told, “we don’t handle packages. You’ll have to call this number in Civitanova Marche.”

We did. They told us that since they in Civitanova (one of Marche’s larger towns and a coastal holiday destination some 50km from us) were not familiar with Regnano, they sent the boxes back. To the US, that is, where they were mailed from. Excuse me????

“No!” we said, “we live here, we have a house here, why didn’t someone come and drop the boxes at our house? PosteItaliano seems to know where we are – they deliver (some) of our mail.”

“Sorry,” they said, “but we don’t know where Regnano is.”

Is this a first world country I’m in? If your job is to deliver things to places, and you got a delivery to a place you hadn’t heard of before, wouldn’t you look it up? Apparently not. Incredulous doesn’t begin to describe my reaction.

Follow-up calls – which involve a minimum 15-minute wait before getting a live person – yielded this: “Complaints? You’ll have to do that in the US, where the packages originated.” There’s just nowhere to go from there, is there?

However, if I were to step away momentarily from my morass of anger, frustration, and evil desire to do someone some real, serious harm, and look at this whole scenario from a distance, I’d have to confess that this is, after all is said and done, brilliant. Teflon. No flies. They’re untouchable. Which makes me want to hurt them even more ... as the boxes make their way back to the US.

Case #2 – the other package. When we were enquiring about the 3 boxes, we learned that there was another package scheduled to be delivered. This is likely a package of special coffee Maria ordered. We gave them our phone number. “Call us,” we said, “and we’ll direct you to our house. It’s easy.”

They called this morning. “Can I drop the parcel at a bar outside the gates of Tolentino?”

I'm sorry, what was that? Tolentino is some 12 km away, and it’s not Regnano!!! Just after Maria said “Unacceptable,” they simply hung up the phone. I kid you not. Just like that – problem, go away. Smoke coming out of ears by now (ours, that is).

Call back – music, recorded message, no answer, and this from the number that just, just, hung up on us. Half an hour later, get someone on the phone.

“We were just talking to someone about our package, and they said they wouldn’t deliver it to Regnano.”

“Thank you for the information,” they say, and promptly hang up. Yes, that’s right – Click. We’re now beside ourselves. So we go and commiserate with Michael and Lili. In spite of their own personal experience with such things, lots of it too, they’re amazed at this flagrant display. Scruples? Conscience? Desire to do a good job? Absent. Actually, even that’s inaccurate – it was never there to begin with.

Later, we checked at the bar they mentioned – no parcel. Maria called again, and spoke with someone who said they’d make sure the parcel gets delivered tomorrow. Uh-huh.

Case #3 – the forwarded mail. While Cases #1&2 are in progress, I’m also anxiously awaiting a package containing all my mail from my US-based postal address. Amongst regular bank statements and such, I’m expecting several checks (one rather substantial), and another business-related book I ordered. I send an email to mailing service – where’s the package? Package on its way – sent October 2nd.

Two weeks later, and still no package. First-world country to first-world country, right? Uh-uh.

Finally, a card in the mailbox on 18th – pick-up registered package in Tolentino. I thought PosteItaliano didn’t handle packages? Scratch head. Don’t ask, just go. Off we go.

“€8.66 please, and then we’ll give you your package.”

“€8.66? What for?”

“Customs, postal expenses, and taxes.”

What? It’s a $%#%@^$$ package of personal letters!

“OK, would you like us to send it back?”

Pay the €8.66, more smoke barreling out of our now-prolific personal smoke-producing machines. And that’s on top of the $23 postage that’ll be hitting my credit card any day now.

Open the package. Checks are there – good. But the book’s not. Instead, there’s the “You have a package that wouldn’t fit in your mailbox” card that everyone who physically picks up their mail (in the US) gets. She forgot to include the book. I can’t believe it.

All of this, bear in mind, has happened in the last 3 days. This is when my head starts to droop. I turn off the smoke-making machine – it’s no use anyway. It’s a conspiracy.

But wait, there’s more…

Case #4 – the vanished check. Remember the container story? The US-based moving company promised to reimburse us several hundred dollars for our moving pains. Check the mailbox every day – not there. Send email – did you send the check? Yes, on 20th September. It’s a month later. No check. No hope. Defeated.

Maria philosophizes thus: “If we didn’t have all these attachments to things, this wouldn’t be happening. We’re trying to move from a complicated life to a simple one, and they just can’t (or don’t) handle things the same way.” All very true and rational, but this afternoon I could see the picture in her own mind of getting her hands around someone’s neck. And I know what her response will be if her special coffee doesn’t arrive.

However, she’s right. We can’t lose sight of the mountain top. And even though I might be reminded of my very first blog post “Who would think of moving here?”, I haven’t once thought: “I wish we hadn’t done this. I wish we were back in the US.” Not even for a nano-second. At the end of the day, I may get indicted for first-degree murder, but I’m staying in Italy.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Recent pictures

Hills near San Ginesio

Interesting statue railing at the church - Corridonia

Maria's picture - grasshopper in rose

Brooding full moon rising over Colmurano

Threatening sky over Colmurano, but it didn't rain

Sunset from home

Abbadia di Fiastra, a wonderful, peaceful refuge (during the week) a few km from home

Mr Young drawn by the sunset

A wizened face in the streets of Macerata

Numana beach, about 45 mins from our house - that's us on the sand below

Sunrise from home

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Daily update - parte uno

Since quite a few prior blogs left several loose ends blowing in the breeze, it might be time to give a few updates.

First, the container did finally arrive, and not too late either. Couldn’t get the truck down the driveway, so we had to engage the help of neighbour Giuseppe and his tractor. Took 2 trips to get everything down, and stacked in the barn. Only one casualty as well, it seems – the glass from our framed Miro poster, shattered when some customs or moving idiot threw – yes, threw – our large chair back into the container during/after inspection. Luckily, the picture itself is not damaged.

Much time is spent going through boxes looking for various things. Needless to say, I didn’t make a full inventory of the boxes (see “A real man moves out” if you want to know why), nor are all the boxes comprehensively labelled. For example, there must be 6 boxes with “Kitchen” scrawled across the top (none in my handwriting, of course), and just a few with specific things like “Glass jars”, or “Orange Creuset pots” (in my handwriting, of course). The longest and so far least fulfilling search involves a box-scouring effort to unearth truffle and coconut oil (I kid you not), and a thermos flask.

Money-wise on the moving saga, the Italian agent agreed to pay half of the delay/demurrage fees, while the American company (Rainier) said they’d chip in $400, not apparently because they feel they were at fault, but due rather to my ranting and raving. The cheque, of course, is in the mail …

Car-wise, the BMW transfer got finalized, without any hitches, and the money duly found its way into my bank account. Phew!

On the home front, several changes. First, the field kitchen got scrapped after an all-day cobweb-cleaning, floor-scrubbing, and partition-demolishing effort to make a workable indoor cucina. It worked. All meal preparations and cleanings up are undertaken indoors, and have been for a few weeks. It has made all the difference. We’ve entertained two sets of guests so far, very successfully, too, although I can’t claim any credit for the high-class meal that Maria produced.

We’re also the proud owners of a new cooker, donated by our friends Michael and Lili, who had one collecting dust in their basement. This one even has an oven, for making toast! Now all we have to do is get some bread.

Maria and I have also moved indoors, putting our Natura bed on top of the resident bed frame. As a result, we’re now thankfully getting up without the back creaks that were a feature of our caravan days. Julius, however, continues to soldier on in the caravan, he and his nighttime prisoner Mr Young.

Mr Young is a veritable hunter of the plains, stalking everything from lizards to mice to what might as well be phantom saber-toothed tigers, for all I can see. The haring streaks around the garden and up the trees have increased in frequency, as much if not more than when he was in Chapel Hill. In many ways, there seems to be more going on for him in our little rectangle of space here than the nearly two acres we had back there. Whether this is a reflection of reality or the imagination – his – matters not one iota.

All the random branches and tree trunks that were lying around the garden when I arrived – some were even in the house – have now been reduced to firewood, courtesy of several lengthy (hand) saw sessions by yours truly. At the tail-end of the last sawing session – the one in which I lacerated the index finger on my left hand – Julius stood not two feet from me munching away on something as the sweat dripped from all parts of my body. He said it was fun watching me work.

The builder has now been here twice, and although he has yet to actually do any work, we are encouraged that yesterday’s estimate on when he’d be starting was down to 10-12 days after the initial 15-20 days he gave two weeks ago. It seems that the current phase of the other job he’s working on – we went to look at it and it’s good – is nearing completion. We’re praying for the rain to stay away, since apparently Italians melt in any kind of precipitation (and therefore don’t work outdoors).

Other than that, our days alternate between house work and scuttling around in the Smart, bopping from Internet point to department store to grocer to whatever-the-flavour-of-the-day’s-need happens to be.

I’m now getting desperate for an Internet connection at home, so I can be productive in my various searches for other people’s money. The telephone company – at whose whim we find ourselves – said that a technician would give us a call within 8 days to set up an appointment to come and check us out. That was 2 weeks ago. I’m fully confident that I’ll be online in my barn by the end of next week…

Bee season

Not only is it tractor season, it’s also bee season … as well as wasp, hornet, and buzzing-stinging insect season. They’re everywhere. And they’re curious. They find me particularly interesting – not that I’m flower-like (!), but more likely that I’m pungent in some compelling way, leading them to investigate with a dogged persistence. Doesn’t matter whether I’m inside our outside either, they’ll find me, and they’ll sniff.

Apparently they’re prolific around this time because of the ripening grapes. I wasn’t actually told this, I’m just extrapolating from a comment that during grape-picking and wine-making (at least the local variety), anything goes – that means the swarms of wasps and bees that buzz around the sweet ripening grapes end up in the drink along with everything else (thereby giving wine an unheralded protein content). But it makes sense to me that they’re around at this time, given nature’s innate way of creating intersecting bio-rhythms.

In any event, there are not only regular bees, there are also wasps just like yellow jackets, and these monster wasps or hornets that are less interested in me (thank heavens), that we mostly encounter in their final moments, tottering along before buzzing their last. One of the smaller wasps stung me the other day, and it’s taken a week for the irritation to go away, leaving a hole in my arm to boot. (Reminds me of a man back in suburban US who ran into a yellow jackets’ nest in the woods, and was dead in 30 minutes as they swarmed out and over him in defence of their domain.)

So with these able and willing stings about in such numbers, there’s really only one way to handle it – with a Zen-like patience and acceptance. Think: “This is their place just as much as it is mine, and they have a right to the honey on my finger just as much as my tongue does.” So when they investigate – as one is doing right now (apparently reading what I’m writing here on my laptop) – I simply stop, let him find out that there’s really nothing for him here in spite of the misleading odours, and resume when he moves on to other sources. Often this takes him a few iterations to make sure (they’re thorough, if not super-smart) … which is where the patience comes in. All good for the soul, I say.

There’s also another buzzing insect, that I know only as a stink bug. It’s clad in a sort of green armour, and apparently stinks when crushed. I can’t vouch for this since I haven’t smelled it yet, so I report on the basis of hearsay. However, it’s not the stinking of these bugs that I find interesting, it’s their flying.

Now, as a flying insect, I would have thought that their capability in the air would need to be halfway decent to have made it this far without becoming extinct. It seems, however, that this is not the case, because they must be the worst fliers that I’ve seen – each takeoff appears to be the maiden voyage of a malfunctioning, diminutive mechanical toy with a built-in obsolescence amounting to but a few minutes. They’re so clumsy, and slow, and noisy, and without even the slightest semblance of direction, bouncing off even obvious obstacles (like walls and foreheads) as if they were not visible, that I would have thought they’d be simple fodder for birds, bats, lizards, and other bug-eaters. Apparently not. The only thing I can think of is that they taste like their reputed smell – ghastly, thereby removing them from all menus.

As a result, there are many of them – thousands, in fact. They don’t bother me much, since they don’t bite, but they freak Maria out, so she’s devising some evil plot to strike terror into the heart of all stink bugs that venture anywhere near 31 Regnano.

For me, their success is encouraging. After all, if they can still be around in such numbers, there’s hope for everyone …

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tractor season

These marchigiani farmers are a hardy bunch. They seem to do most of the work themselves – no hired hands, it seems, or at least none that we’ve seen. Just them and their tractors and harvesters and various sundry grinding agricultural machines ... and their fields.

These days they seem to be tilling the soil. At least, in my ignorance, it seems to be what they’re doing, and “tilling the soil” does have something of an informed sound to it. How do I know they’re tilling the soil? Well, I do actually see them, all around me, going up and down in their fields. But mostly I hear them. All day, in fact. With no break. It seems even pranza is skipped in these soil-tilling days.

Yes, they’re tough, these marchigiani farmers, enduring that chugging, buffeting, droning, humming, chinking, constant, incessant tractor sound, all day, up and down, up and down. Watching them has almost an entrancing effect, especially from a distance, as your eyes pull them on, trace their path ahead of them, willing them to go just that little bit faster, up and down, back and forth, up and down. And the chugging.

Last week they started the grape picking. Most of them apparently grow grapes for their own wine production and consumption – 400 liters seems to be a magic number around here. That’s probably because it equates to a bottle a day with a few extra for feste and visitors. No doubt their own hand-made wine tastes delectable after a day in the tractor seat – I know my bought wine does after a day listening to it. (This Bianchello del Metauro from the Fossombrone area, for instance, is quite exquisite after today’s tractoring, although it’s fast depleting itself.)

Last week our neighbours, Giuseppe and Fernando, seemed to be wrapping up their toil-silling antics on the two fields right next to and below our house. Their proximity made it all the more real for us – the up and down, the tractor hum, the sill-toiling. With those last two neatly, completely churned fields, I thought that was it. However, it seems I still have a little to learn about farming, since they started going over their work this week in the same fields – up and down, back and forth, accompanied by that familiar tractor refrain. Did they perhaps make a mistake? Can’t say that I’ve noticed one, it looks pretty well done to me. But there you have it – soiling the till obviously requires some rigour.

Now I’m wondering - with some trepidation - if they’re going to revisit the fields on the other side of the house …

Crushed by the household appliance monster

Campbells: 0 Household Appliances: 3

What a way to start the week – Monday morning, up and at ‘em, ready to accomplish, forge ahead, feel fulfilled. 2 hours in, and we’re defeated, not narrowly either – comprehensively – lost souls wandering in a wasteland of failure.

First, the manual toilet. Determined to shake off Saturday’s ridicule when Michael turned on the tap to fill the toilet’s cistern, diagnosing a stuck “ball cock” as the cause of leakage, I mounted the ladder to peer in the cistern and unstick the ball cock. Couldn’t see – too dark in there and too close for my aging eyes. Down the step ladder, downstairs to get the torch (flashlight), and … “Can you help me figure out this vaporizer?”

Interrupt trip, wade through vaporizer (vacuum cleaner/steamer) manual, retrace steps to ready it for operation – it was lent to us by Michael & Lili to try and figure out how it works – and run into the same problem as Maria: red warning light flashing, no movement on the vacuum side. Check “Troubleshooting” section, a random collection of problems, some referencing numbered parts, others not, rendering the numbered diagram – a busy little chaos of alphas and numerics and lines – only partly decipherable. Try all documented possibilities – red warning light flashing. Try steamer instead of vacuum – red warning light flashing. Own internal red warning light – flashing, so give up and return to toilet with flashlight.

It’s a foreign (to me) flushing mechanism, and part of it seems rusted. Push disc where water seems to be scurrying through – no movement. Pull another just above it – no movement. So decide to induce some movement of my own – climb down the ladder and abandon this task.

On to the shower-head fitting which we bought to make our own shower operational, and reduce our total reliance on our neighbours, Al and Veronica. Cut open package, pull out instructions, arrange parts. There are only half a dozen, so this shouldn’t be difficult. Also only 4 steps to installation – piece of cake. First line of instructions refers to “adesivo” (adhesive) – search through the parts and the package, nothing like it. OK, keep going, keep going. Circular attachment bracket in step 2 of the instructions? Hmmm, can’t find that either. Abandon instructions, see if common sense can make the pieces we do have fit nicely together. Screws for the wall … but nothing to screw into the wall (besides the screws themselves). Shower bracket with holes to fit over something … but what? On top of it, one of said holes is off-center, which would make a blind fitting a natural “over-the-edge-tipper”, and could render far more consequential damage to the shower (as a result of internal red warning light flashing) than we can afford.

Abandon shower installation. It’s all over.

Time to go and chop some %@#& wood.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Magical Marche liquids

Say “Italy”, and as often as not, a person’s knee-jerk response is likely to be “Food”. Like Anthony and Cleopatra, Abélard and Héloïse, Romeo and Juliet, it seems as if those words were simply made to go together – “Italian food”. It’s equally fitting because of the passion involved in an Italian meal – the love and nurturing, the fresh ingredients, the careful selection of taste and texture, the deliberate and committed enjoyment, the wine…

Ah, yes, the wine. “Nectar of the gods,” I think every time I taste an especially verdant verdicchio, or a deep rosso conero, or any of the plethora of varietals and blends that abound in these hills. Another equally quintessential aspect of Italy, wine is woven into the fabric of every day, and is as much a staple as pasta.

But it’s not the only liquid on display at the tavola, not by any means. The others make their entrance after the secondo (main course). It’s a less familiar aspect of the meal for me, but as it turns out, it’s an integral part of the process, contrived perhaps as much to prolong it as to enjoy it. I’m talking, of course, about the after-dinner drink.

In all of the homes we’ve had the privilege of enjoying a 3-plus hour repast, the host has needed 2 trips to the cabinet to bring out all the various liqueurs, distillations, fortified wines, and other sundry liquors to stand haphazardly amidst the ruins of the battlefield that was pranza or cena (lunch or dinner). Pride of place typically goes to the specialty of the area – vino cotto or vernaccia, for example, in some villages in our neck of the woods – but there’s also strong competition from the home-made coffee and other flavoured liqueurs identifiable by their unlabeled bottles and questionable hues. And then, naturally, there are the grappas, in bottles of all shapes and sizes, made from all sorts of grapes, using all sorts of methods.

Once all these bottles have been arrayed in front of you, a second series of “courses” commences – the sampling of each of the soldiers in front of you. Some make a hasty getaway (like Maria, offering to help with the dishes). Others, like myself, rise to the challenge, and dive in head first, generally emerging the other side both lighter of head and warmer of body. It’s a fitting end to the meal, making each one of them a memorable affair.

Reluctantly stepping away from the alcoholic side of things for a minute – although not entirely away from the table – there are a couple of other liquids that we tend to drink rather a lot more of, and that we find tend to have a generally more healthy impact on our daily lives – water and milk.

We live at the heart of the rolling hills of Marche farmland that rises up into the Sibillini mountains, part of the Appenine range. The water up there is crisp and quenching, and it somehow finds its way down into every town and village in the area, where it’s liberally available … for free. The nearest village to us – Colmurano, with a population of around 1,000 – has 2 fountains that we stop at almost daily to fill up our bottles. If we’re on an excursion, wandering a little further from our normal arc of habit, we simply take along our bottles – we know there’ll be a fountain, and its water will be delicious. It’s a rare treat and an unexpected benefit of living here.

Another one that we half expected, although perhaps not in quite the “convenient” form we’ve found it, is raw milk. It’s well nigh impossible to find it in the US, where this most nutritious of drinks is outlawed in most states. Instead, the American population is forced to drink a bland, processed-beyond-recognition beverage that’s a pale approximation of its original form. Its properties are manufactured and are either not altogether understood, or are kept from public consumption because of their harmful effects. The irony of all of this is complete when you reflect on what the Italians call raw milk: latta fresca – fresh milk. No ambiguity there.

We’ve found two sources within 10 minutes drive of home, where we take our own bottles, plop a euro into the slot, and get a liter of fresh, cold, untampered-with, delicious milk, just as nature intended. Some of our supply goes into making yogurt here at home (it’s quite simple, even I’ve done it successfully). Along with a banana and a cappuccino (made from “fresh” steamed milk, of course), this is my daily breakfast, taken outside on the lawn looking out over the patchwork of fields and distant Sibillini peaks.

If liquids sustain us, I feel not only sustained, but blessed. And when I’m out there on our sloping lawn in one of our cheap rickety plastic chairs, sipping one of my chosen liquids, it feels like the gentle appenine zephyr rolling across the hills was contrived solely for my comfort.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Italian bureaucracy - parte due

When she picked up the single piece of paper and held it up, turned it around, and examined it as if it was foreign matter, I knew I was in the presence of a professional. When she sent us off to get the extra, “surprise” photos – not published in the official pre-requisites – and did not tell us about the required franco bolo (official stamp, which we didn’t have, of course) until we returned once again, I acknowledged that I had underestimated her: I was dealing with a true master. And her cool, calm, trance-like demeanour, patently oblivious to the struggle raging on the other side of the glass divide, rendered her the quintessence itself – bureaucracy in its purest form.

The residency permit, or permesso di soggiorno, is a somewhat crucial document in order for us to stay in Italy legally. Maria, an EU citizen, successfully applied for hers a year ago, but they wouldn’t give me mine at the time because our wedding certificate was not in Italian. With the translation duly in hand, last week I went to get mine.

Now, last time we went to the immigration office, it was a breeze – very few people, little to no waiting, and no sense of disorganization at all. Turns out we went at a time reserved for EU citizens. Being a US/SA national, I had to go in the non-EU citizen time slot. And what a difference.

“Bun fight” is the first term that springs to mind. “Chaos” is another. Bruno Bozzetto ( does a caricature of Italians queues, and it seems the free-for-all phenomenon he depicts infects everyone that steps within the country’s borders – Indians, Moroccans, Russians, Slavs, and who knows what else squeezing, pushing, edging in a shapeless mass, like iron filings around a magnetized pole, in a zealous surge to reach a singular, common goal – the counter window, and the clerk behind it.

On reflection, all this crazy effort seems entirely counter-intuitive, given what each aspiring resident is striving for – to speak with a bureaucrat. Somehow it reminds me of a moth fluttering around a flame, constantly drawn in until – zap! – suddenly it’s all over, and there’s just a pile of ashes left behind.

So there we are, future ash piles all of us, driving towards the flame. Once you get there, there’s a 50% chance you’ll having everything you need. Some of the missing pieces you can get in short order, and return … but not to the front of the queue. You join once again at the back, and you have to go through the whole bun fight again.

The clerks behind their glass protectors are singularly unmoved by the chaos happening on “the other side”. Their eyes drift calmly across the swarm of sweating faces and hands thrusting reams of paper at them, each of them desperately hoping that they’ll be chosen. Because if they’re not, it’s going to be another 20 minutes – at least – before the clerk will be ready to select their next victim.

We had to go through this 3 times. First, I didn’t have photographs. There is a photo machine on the premises, but it requires exact change, and most patrons can barely put together the €5, let alone the right change for it. I must have asked 15 people for change, without success. Maria scored gold on her first try.

So off I go to get the photos, returning just as Maria gets to the counter. All’s going well until we find out I need 6 photos, not four. Off again, this time to return as a combatant without rights, just like everybody else. Almost through, and then she (the same clerk) informs us we need a €14.62 franco bolo, available at most tabacchii. We didn’t have one.

Interestingly, this information was available to her when she sent us off to get the photographs. But she failed to avail us of it. I’m not convinced her omission was accidental, but I’m also not sure it was conscious. Bureaucracy, it seems, sustains itself through its inefficiencies and the ultimate capitulation of its victims – you endure because you have to, taking so many whippings in the process as to ultimately be at the mercy of the system. The clerks themselves are part of the system, perhaps even unaware of their own role in sustaining it. Brilliant, when you think about it.

So off we go again again, this time off the premises. The first tabacchi didn’t have any franco bolo left (of course), so we had to go to another. Back into the fray.

Within sight of the finishing post once more, and this time Maria contrives to contribute to the mix, asking about Julius’ residency, and confusing the matter by saying he’s German and producing an American passport. This, naturally, drew their attention away from that final staple and paper clip that would seal the deal, to become engrossed in a discussion with each other about the procedures in such a case. To my relief, they eventually get back to my application, but the distraction has cost me several places in the next queue I’m destined for – mug shot, fingerprints, vital statistics, etc. It probably cost me an hour, but we did get Julius’ residency after all.

This last wait gave me the opportunity to catch up on some reading – I’m no fool, I come prepared – and also to watch bureaucracy in action. The whole system, it appears, is controlled by paper. I use this term as if the paper itself has a presence, an existence, such is the respect and submission of the clerks to those thin, square-edged power-mongers. They seem mesmerized when they pick up single pieces of paper, studying them as if they’ve never seen such a thing – a piece of paper on its own, how can it be? – only to snap into their automaton characters when the single sheafs finally find mates, and are bonded together with a staple or a paper clip. It’s almost as if the clerks get into a trance when they get the feel of multiple pages in a stack – forms, transcriptions, photos, photocopies – moving through the motions, reaching for the stapler, the stamp, the pile of paper clips, slapping the package onto another pile in the application’s journey through the warren of halls that sustain this bureaucracy. This is their world.

It’s also somewhat puzzling (although it shouldn’t be) that two of the tools of their trade – stapler and stamp – are almost always misplaced when they’re looking for them. To start with, there was only one stamp between 3 clerks – how this doesn’t launch them into fits of insecurity is beyond me. They also have a habit of passing you new forms to fill out, and then not giving you a pen, leaving you to the whims of your surrounding foreigners to yield up theirs.

When I finally got out of there, there was one other applicant left, waiting to get fingerprinted. The clerks had gone to lunch, and it felt serene and calm, showing no signs or scars of the morning’s struggles. As I walked out, I could almost feel the building sigh with relief.

Julius - my hero

[Written on September 25th]

I’m so proud of my son. This is not just your common garden variety parent pride, there’s a third party element of independent awe involved here as well.

Julius, as prior blog postings have attested, has always been as highly apprehensive about the language component of moving to Italy as he has been enthusiastic about the gastronomic rewards. This to the point of making an articulate case of staying in Germany, on the eve of their departure from Maria’s parents’ home for Marche. It manifested itself on arrival in his steadfast refusal to go anywhere, mortally afraid that someone might actually talk to him, and – heaven forbid – expect an answer.

So when we dropped him off for his first day of school in Tolentino, we were both aching for him, wishing to be there next to him all day to make sure he was OK. Not only was it a positively rude deposit into the deep end of Italian life, but it was also longer than he’s used to – 8:30 to 4:30, a full 1½ hours longer than in the US. The class wasn’t too big – 16 I think – but none of his classmates spoke English, and only one of his two teachers (the afternoon one, I believe).

Of course he made it through the day, and the week, making friends along the way. Once he realized his Englishness wasn’t viewed as a disease, and that people actually liked him in spite of the communication difficulties, he was fine, although perhaps a little concerned about his ability to keep up academically with his peers.

What appalled us, however, particularly with our Waldorf experiences, was the fact that the kids never went outside all day. Not even for a minute. Lunch break was spent eating lunch, of course – a very important daily event in Italy; they even have chefs on the school staff – while their other rest period was spent playing in the gymnasium.

So we decided to consider other options:

- Tolentino has a half-day alternative, which would give the afternoon at home for outdoor activity, but it involved Saturday school, and would eat into our weekend explorations

- Urbisaglia, a small town nearby, has whole and half-day possibilities, but we weren’t sure the clipped, drill-sergeant-like teacher (in a nice way) would be Julius’ cup of tea

- Colmurano, the nearest village to us, with only a whole-day program, welcomed us with open arms; they spend more time outdoors, and have a Jack Smith from Ireland amongst only 5 students in the fifth grade

So we switched. To Colmurano, of course, although it wasn’t quite as obvious as it seems.

Having spent a morning at the Colmurano school “test driving” it, Julius couldn’t decide, since he’d already made friends in Tolentino. And if he didn’t get on with the other 2 boys in the smaller fifth grade class (girls being second-class citizens, of course), what then? So Maria and I made an executive decision, giving a vote of confidence to Julius & the two boys in Colmurano’s fifth grade class.

He’s just finished his first week there, and is thriving. Everyone waves when we drive through the village – not at us, but at Julius – and his confidence has grown. He’s singing around the house (and caravan), and has even started throwing out Italian replies when questioned by locals. On the weekend he had a play date at Jack Smith’s house, and Maria and I spent the entire afternoon there as well, talking with Jack’s friendly, interesting and inspiring mom, Amanda.

In short, Julius is happy. We’re hugely thankful. I think this experience will be invaluable in building his self-confidence, and will be a major reference-point for him in his early life.

Another side benefit of the Colmurano switch is the activity that surrounds the school drop-off and pick-up. It’s a veritable social gathering, an opportunity to catch up, make arrangements, and find out everything that’s going on. It’s an event, and I think the parents actually look forward to it.

On another score, Julius has also developed a rather zealous loyalty to our Regnano home, becoming particularly defensive when we look at and talk about other properties. I’ve also turned the corner in this respect, and, like Julius, am now totally committed to renovating our place into a charming and engaging expression of ourselves. Even Mr Young has settled in to his new home, and is as chatty as he ever was. Now if only Maria…

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Regnano pictures

In response to a few requests, some visuals of our area.

Regnano - yes, just about all of it, save for 4 or 5 houses behind the church. Our house circled.

View east of Colmurano on a clear day.

View east of Colmurano on a (you guessed it) misty day.

The maestro in his chamber.

Catching some culture in the barn.

Looking south.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Container travails

[Written on Friday, September 15th]

Remember the container that broke this real man back at the end of July? Well, its story continues.

It found its way uneventfully, it seems, to Naples. Perhaps not surprisingly in this “colourful” city with a storied past, things started going awry. Having arrived on the 18th August, neither Maria nor I were notified that the Italian agent (Alpha International) were waiting for the appropriate documents to clear the container through customs, this in spite of the fact that I told the US mover (that we paid), Rainier, based in Oregon, to contact me in Chapel Hill until I gave them Maria’s telephone number (email being an unlikely option for her given its paucity and unreliability in the area of Regnano).

Having communicated the telephone number to Rainier on the 21st, I also asked about the due date for the container’s arrival, blissfully ignorant that it was already there. Rainier failed to answer my query, and so I counseled Maria to contact the Italian agent handling it. After struggling to find a company name buried amongst many in a plethora of emails, and then having to call several numbers to finally find the right one – all along with no help from Rainier – she finally got through, learned of the documents to send, and duly did so on the 28th. What she was also required to do, however, was send them a cheque for over €4,000, which she did in an induced state of following instructions rather than her normal questioning mode.

Two weeks later, we still hadn’t heard anything, so we called Alpha, only to find that our container had been selected randomly for “special inspection” by customs, involving further delay and, unbeknown to us, further cost. Believe it or not, no-one had thought to notify us. Alpha said they would call us back the following week to let us know of progress. Guess what? They didn’t. (As it turns out, thankfully, the “special inspection” yielded nothing.)

We only learned of the container’s status when, after 2 days of trying, we got access to the internet, and received an email – in spite of our explicit instructions to call, not email – saying they were waiting for us to pay demurrage and delay fees of nearly €1,400. Needless to say, I was shaking with anger, and promptly dispatched a seething email to Rainier, who was involved in a pissing match with the Italian agent. We were in the middle, and bearing the brunt of it. I asked Rainier to call us to discuss the issue. Guess what? He didn’t.

Turns out Rainier, who I’d paid back in August, told the Italian agent to demand COD in order to clear the container and get it delivered to us. So we paid twice. While Rainier continues to ignore my question on what this €4,000 was for, Alpha – who was operating under Rainier’s instructions – has agreed that it needs to be refunded to us, and so is helping to facilitate it.

In addition, Alpha was prepared to share the demurrage/delay cost with us, even though we don’t understand why we are responsible for any of it. But at €680 (instead of €1,380), I’m willing to pay to play. Maria isn’t, and continues to fight the good fight.

Having agreed to pay the €680, Alpha said that our container would be delivered today late morning. It’s now early afternoon, and we haven’t heard anything. Needless to say, we’re shocked…