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.