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.