Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Just another Saturday night

The toddler was crying. He had been for a while, a niggly, grisly, grating protest at his fatigue. The bespectacled woman, nondescript except for her piercing, nails-on-the-blackboard voice, was articulating a point with some passion. This involved projecting her strongest weapon at full volume, which for her was some decibels above anyone else. No mean feat.

Not to be outdone, the bespectacled man – anything but nondescript with his impish smile and artistic bent – was articulating a counterpoint. Simultaneously. They were talking to each other. Others were listening, although I’m not sure to whom, perhaps exercising an innate Italian skill, listening with one ear to each of two vocal combatants, much in the manner that a chameleon moves its eyes independently.

I couldn’t understand a thing.

The toddler cried, despite the attention of its mother. Others expressed concern (or at least appeared to, given my reliance on facial expression and body language for translation and interpretation). I thought I must be missing something – surely he would be taken to another (quieter) room, away from the cacophony of deafening competing opinions? Apparently not. It was like the frustrating experience of watching a poor spider falling continuously each time he tried to scale a (for him) precipitous slope, when a gradual slope invited his ascent just an inch or two away.

It was midnight on Saturday, and just another friendly get-together in a regular Italian home in Colmurano.

Julius and I had arrived at what I thought was fashionably late, 15 minutes beyond the appointed hour – 9:15 pm – only to find that we were the first to get there. By half an hour. I should be used to this now, I suppose – arriving within half an hour after the agreed time is considered early. Perhaps I’m just confused by the one clear anomaly to this rule – school pick-up time, when a tardiness of just 5 minutes will greet you with a ghostly, deserted school, and possibly even a mild reprimand.

Back to the night out – 5 families, including the host and us, with 7 kids in total. Games for the kids, and discussion for the adults. And food, of course, a table-full of snacks (this being an after-dinner gathering), which kept getting refreshed with roasted chestnuts, along with a wide selection of sugar and starch. Perfect late-night fodder to sink like a lead weight into fitful sleep.

The mother of the toddler eventually left to take him home to sleep – perhaps a rather extreme and overdue solution – leaving his bespectacled father to continue his verbal bout with the bespectacled woman. At around 12:30, we rounded up the kids, who were zinging through the passageways riding on their sugar- and starch-horses, and dispersed.

I feel lucky that we were invited to such a gathering. Stranieri (foreigners) in a local scene. And frustrated that I could barely understand a thing. It prompted me to look more earnestly into Italian lessons. After all, why shouldn't I be able to don my spectacles, express my opinion, and make my contribution to a toddler's sleeping habits ...

Appennini aria

The smoke wafted tantalizingly within osmic distance. I savoured it, savoured the memory of those deep draws of pure satisfaction from my days a social misfit (i.e. as a smoker). It may be a year and a month and counting since I last had a cigarette, but there’s not a day goes by when I don’t crave for one. Starting up again would be a breeze … and a catastrophe.

Which is why I grasp those occasional second-hand smoke opportunities when they drift my way. However, I must say I was surprised to encounter this one – on a trail winding through the woods on a steep hillside on the way to a religious cave in the Valle di Fiastrone forests. The smoker was the father of Ornella, deputy mayor, 4th grade teacher in Colmurano, mother of Julius’ classmate Marguerita, and friend of Claudia’s. For 22 years her father (the smoker) was a protector of animals from illegal hunting and the like, working in the service of the forestry service. Today he’s retired from his official job, and has settled comfortably into his role as contadino. Amongst other things he distils his own firewater, a well-established and respected contadino activity, and a few of his particular concoctions have numbed my mouth on several occasions.

Aside from his smoking and distilling habits, he’s a character, but that’s not the only reason I didn’t complain about his smoking on the trail – after all, a toke is a toke … but on the trail? Only in Italy.

Just another example of how this country is nothing if not a smorgasbord for the senses. While the auricular is perhaps the sense most impacted by the Italian experience, the olfactory is not far behind. And right up there is the intense, impossible-to-dislike, unmistakable aroma of coffee. It’s everywhere – in the piazza, walking on the beachfront promenade, idling past ancient monuments … and taking a break on a mountain trail in the Apennines!!!

Yes indeed, there we were at the hand-built hermitage – church, really – of San Leonardo in the Gola dell’Infernaccio (Hell’s Gorge), when the whiff coming from the Ancona man’s coffee pot atop his portable gas stove turned every head of the 30+ hikers in the vicinity. It was the trigger for a bout of good-natured verbal sparring between his party of a dozen or so and ours of similar size. As part of the repartee, we were treated to coffee laced with Sambuca, no less – no need to scrimp and deprive yourself just because you’re in the mountains.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Italians are a social people. To extend the risk somewhat further, they’re also sensual, as in “I want some of whatever it is that’s generating sensory overload.” Perhaps we would have interacted with the Ancona group anyway, but it’s interesting that it was an aroma that provided the catalyst. Followed, of course, by a treat for the taste buds. And all the while surrounded by a veritable feast for the eyes, the gorge stretching up and around dramatically (apologies for the cliché, but it just fitted).

The Gola dell’Infernaccio is a dramatic, twisting passage through curved, jagged cliffs that turn back on each other as the Tenna River finds its way down from its source on the mountain slopes. The path through the gorge ends up in Rome, so I believe, at one time providing the only route between the capital and this area. Its spectacular aspect prompted Fra’ Pietro, a Capuchin monk, to build his church on the remains of an ancient Benedictine hermitage, with his own hands. He’s been living there for over 30 years. Every Sunday he dons his ornate vestments and conducts a service. The church is always full.


“Ciao!” he says, arm and fingers raised in crooked salutation. They create an apt frame for his round head, bent forward and sideways in focused gesture. From eyes that lodge deep in the hollow sockets of a face shaped by eons of trial and toil, Vitaliano looks out at the world.

What does he make of these stranieri, these inglesi, who have begun to invade his land, surrounding him with their blustery exuberance and stone houses renovated to a condition that he’s been trying to leave behind all his life? Why are they here?

Life is hard for him – 70 years old with a frame that’s starting to creak, and still he has to work the land on his own. And yet here he was today, early February, mid-winter, offering us lettuce with the fresh earth still dripping from its leaves. We are neighbours. And as strange as we may be to each other, we look out for each other.

Vitaliano is the quintessential contadino. That means peasant, and in spite of it seeming to rankle of derogation (at least to me), it’s widely used to describe any class of people who are freeholders and who work the land. Their roots go deep into this earth, going back who knows how many generations, and they simply cannot be anywhere else – this is where they belong. It’s as simple as that.

Vitaliano’s house is an unfinished project, beyond his means but not his dreams. Stepping inside it for the first time – which we did to give he and Orellia (his wife) their Christmas gifts (mainly clothing) – it appeared from the state of the kitchen/dining room/lounge as if the plot of the dream has yet to take coherent shape. He was clearly uncomfortable to have us surprise them unannounced, and in retrospect I wish we hadn’t – despite their humble lives, they have a pride which hurts when dented.

When we first met Vitaliano during our September 2005 visit to see how our house was doing, he asked if our offering of chocolate was because we wanted to be his friend. We said yes. I might be misinterpreting his attitude at the time, but I remember it as edged with aggression, given that the previous owner was like a brother to him. But there’s nothing like that now, and I’d say there’s a solid respect between us, each with our own reason and different perspective.

He is nothing if not generous in sharing what his land produces and supports. Last week we ate the pigeons he gave us – plucked and frozen, thank heavens – with a few sprigs of rosemary from the veritable bush that he gifted us along with the birds. (All contadini around here keep pigeons, it seems, as a food source, fiddly and finicky as it is to eat them – for all we know, they’re a delicacy.) We still haven’t made it through his bunch of garlic, and we remember the fall and his earth-caked tomatoes, hand-picked from his vegetable garden. These are the things we came to Italy for.

And then we have our points of departure. Treatment of animals, for instance. Apparently, last spring his dog (Hyena, from a previous post) had four puppies. Vitaliano decided that his environment could only support one. He killed the other three. (I’m not sure how, but perhaps that’s irrelevant.) This is his crude form of birth control. He must have wondered at our obvious grief at Mr Young’s death – he was just an animal, after all.

The most obvious emblem of the contadino is the Piaggio, or cocolore as Maria has named them – 3-wheeled scooter bugs made by Ape (pronounced “ah-peh”) with one seat in the semi-open “cab” in the front, and a small open pickup-type bed on the back. Seeing them buzzing – “buzz” being used here to convey sound rather than speed – with a laboured whine on the curving roads is confirmation that you’ve arrived in rural Italy. Like their brethren Vespa, buzz-thing of the Italian urbanite, cocolore are veritable institutions for the contadini who putt-putt around in them from farm to market to church to neighbour.

Vitaliano, of course, has one. It’s his only form of transport, frequently getting him and his wife Orellia all the way to Tolentino and back. Seeing the two of them spilling out of its open sides triggers thoughts of scenes from some sort of weird, creepy movie (The Twilight Zone springs to mind). Massimo, their bus-driver son, has a car, but I’ve only ever seen Orellia in it once, and never Vitaliano.

Massimo, a miniature version of Vitaliano, bald spread and all, spends a few nights a week here. He recently sold his Mercedes to an Albanian – it had 600,000 km on the clock. I wonder what he got for it. Sometimes he brings the bus over to get an early start in the morning for one of his longer trips to Paris, Stuttgart, or other distant destination. It adds to the surreal picture seeing the luxury Pullman standing next to an unfinished contadino house with its requisite cocolore standing outside.

Regnano’s little microcosm has taught me never to be surprised at what you might find here. Naturally, I still am. I wonder how we contribute to its flavour – I sincerely hope it’s in some tasty way. It is certainly changing – with an English couple, an Australian couple, and a South African-German-American family all within eyeshot of each other, how can it not? But here’s a hope – that we don’t change Vitaliano and his values, and if we affect his life at all, that it’s in a positive way.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A visit to an Italian hospital

I have an aversion to hospitals. It’s not because they’re associated with illness and injury, or because they have that memory-triggering, clinical smell, or even necessarily because of the practices (and malpractices) perpetuated in them. Instead, it’s first and foremost because of the mounds of red tape and hours of waiting involved every time you step near one. At least that’s the way it is in the US.

So when I sliced my finger nice and deep after slipping with a glass bottle in my hand, I was more inclined to take the path of natural healing than the path to the hospital – clean the wounds, pull them closed, cover them up, and then bandage them securely. However, six hours after having done this, when the pain and bleeding hadn’t stopped, it seemed as if it might be prudent to get another opinion.

Not having a family doctor to call on, we headed for the hospital in Tolentino, where we expected Italian bureaucracy to stand tall, proud, and in the way. I took 3 books in anticipation of the wait, to accommodate the several mood swings that I anticipated during the hours we would be waiting see a doctor.

We arrived, and, to my surprise, found a parking within walking distance of the emergency room – a novelty when compared with the States. At the front desk (where nobody asked us to fill out a form), we were duly directed to the right place, which, instead of involving a maze-like path following a yellow line, simply required going down one flight of stairs.

When we stepped through the doors in front of us, we were in it – the emergency room, that is. No counter with a diversionary clerical squad asking for cards and IDs and mother’s maiden name … just a nurse and a doctor. Within the first minute, my bandages were off and the nurse was cleaning my wounds (vigourously) while the doctor got my details from Maria – all he asked for was my ID card and where I was born. Then he came over and stitched me up. We were in and out of there in just over an hour, of which perhaps 3 minutes was spent on administrative stuff.

Of course our experience was helped by the fact that there was no-one else requiring attention, and the only flurry of activity involved a changing of shift. But still – this experience beats anything I’ve ever encountered. It’s no wonder the World Health Organization consistently ranks Italy’s medical care the best in the world (although I’m sure they use a few more exacting measures than “time-to-operating-table”).

After the shock of the accident wore off, the shock of the ultra-efficient hospital experience still had me in a daze. I almost didn’t notice, as I got into bed, that the anesthesia had worn off and they hadn’t given me any pain killers …

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Why we moved to Marche - the good stuff

As I’m discovering, it’s very easy to write about the challenges of our new life here. Perhaps that should be a bit of a concern, given how it reveals a certain tendency in my character to focus on the negative. But it is cathartic, and thus helpful in its own way.

However, it does present a somewhat distorted view, which needs – through periodic posts like this one – to be put right. Here’s an example of the upside …

A few weekends ago, in order to try and atone for his rather gloomy and gift-less birthday following the death of Mr Young, we promised Julius a trip to Monte Vettore, Marche’s highest peak at 2,476m. He’s been hankering after a frolic in the snow for some time now, and has developed a burning desire to live in some remote place high up in the mountains, cut off from cities and crowds and, of course, school. He’s developed this romantic notion of living self-sufficiently – hunting (wild boar, like Asterix & Obelisk), growing vegetables, and experiencing the elements in all their depth and power. He’s even asked to go camping in the mountains, now, in winter, in the snow. His persistence has required me to take the request seriously, and my own alarm at the prospect has brought forth sources of reasoning that I didn’t realize I had.

Anyway, back to the frolic in the snow – since there hasn’t been any, at least prior to Christmas, it’s been a little tricky to oblige him in his request. However, a sprinkling in the mountains during the week after his birthday gave Julius some hope.

Saturday broke clear and glorious. When we got in the car, we actually stopped to consider our options – beach, or mountains. I dare say we could have swum in the sea – although perhaps only briefly – but we eventually decided to head for Monte Vettore. Such is the glory of Marche – that very same day, friends of ours went fishing at the ocean, and came back with sunburn.

As for us, after an hour of hiking, we reached Vettore’s base, and, given the icy state of the path, I made the executive decision not to go any further. Julius, after complaining that I was wimping out, enjoyed himself by sliding down some of the snow banks that dotted the mountainside. We even picked up some creamy gelato in Amandola on the way home.

Two weeks later, after a few more flurries, we headed to Sasso Tetto, the local ski resort just less than an hour away. The slopes were closed to skiing, there not being enough snow, but they were open for sledding, and we joined the rosy-cheeked Italians in careening down on all manner of snowcraft. Despite – or perhaps because of – the biting wind and stinging snow, it was an invigorating escape from the daily worries and challenges, and the time flew by as if in fast-forward. It gave us a good nudge on how to direct our energies most positively and productively.

A final note – one of the best aspects of this type of experience is the appetite it builds … and the way it is satisfied. Which is, of course, one of the other reasons we moved here …

Oh how I yearn...

I want a hot shower. I want to lose myself in the dreamy stupour induced by water crashing on to my crown and weaving its warmth over my closed eyelids, down my face and onto my shoulders. I want to feel its permeating glow running down my flanks, smothering my legs, and thawing my toes. I want to stand there, motionless, euphoric, transported, and not care about anything except the warmth I am experiencing – just simple, friendly warmth.

I haven’t had a hot shower for months now. At least not in Italy. The few showers we had in our own house were “challenges”, to put it mildly – a hand-held snake that spouted water from both ends, at a temperature that was both fragile and, when more than lukewarm, short-lived. Over Christmas in Germany, the showers in Maria’s parent’s house were more ordeals than anything, given the set-up of the bathroom and the protocols involved. The net result was a minimalist approach to staying clean.

In our rented house here in Regnano, the shower temperature has never risen above warm – “quite warm” would be as generous as I could offer. “Hot”? Nope. Not once. Maria claims to have had a hot one, but she can’t remember when. We’ve tried at various times of the day, freeing the water heater from any load for some time before taking the plunge – to no avail.

In a house that’s cold and draughty, it’s become another colourful, character-building aspect of life here. We always knew that we’d have to give things up to gain the benefits of Italian living – good beer? Yes. Shopping at lunchtime? Uh-huh. Easy communication? Yup. Hot showers? Uh-uh.

As always, though, we must look for the silver lining. It’s temporary. At least I hope it is. If anything, it has given me some serious motivation to make sure the plumbing set-up in our own house is tip-top.


Rita is Julius’ history and geography teacher. She has deep-set, staring eyes, bony, square features, and hair that’s a sort of mauve-red (an interesting colour choice for someone in their fifties). When everything’s put together, it gives her a certain gypsy look. This should make her interesting.

But she never smiles, at least not that I’ve ever seen or heard about, and, by many, many accounts from both children and adults (including other teachers), she has a proclivity for yelling … at children. In some cases this yelling doesn’t always appear to have a clear cause, a rational grounding, or a logical pattern. It’s unclear whether this “unjustified yelling” is in the majority or minority (when compared with the (debatably) “justified” yelling), but the fact that it’s even a contest is concerning, not only to a parent, but also to protectors of the principles of good, all-round education.

It’s so bad that Julius asks to stay home on days when he has Rita for anything more than 2 hours. Thursdays in particular he faces with dread, given the four hours of Rita torture that await. It’s highly unfortunate, given his love of geography and history.

It got so bad that he asked Maria to talk to Rita. She did, asking for a more gentle hand given Julius’ struggles with the language, friends (or lack thereof), and the loss of Mr Young (a continuing aching hole in his life). She (Rita) was very receptive, and even horrified that she might be the cause of Julius’ disinclination toward the scholarly dimensions of his life.

She thanked Maria for approaching her, and told Julius to let her know when she was overdoing things. Well, my dear son, contrary to my expectations of his reaction to such an invitation – his shyness manifests itself in a reluctance to join groups that do things he loves (e.g. play soccer, music, etc) for fear of being “shown up” as inadequate – called her on it the first opportunity he had. He told me this in a straight matter-of-fact tone as if it was the most natural thing to do (how our children, like our parents, never cease to surprise).

Unfortunately, Rita’s reaction wasn’t quite as welcoming as her initial invitation. She turned on two of the other boys in the class and told them to “calm down” (this is what Julius had suggested she do). Julius felt the whole point was lost, and therefore that her invitation was insincere. Since then, she has been markedly cold to Julius, even more critical than usual of the other kids, and – of even greater concern – seems to have similarly influenced the demeanour of her normally warm and approachable husband, who is both the headmaster and Julius’ math teacher. Perhaps needless to say, Julius hasn’t told her to calm down since.

We have toyed with the idea of keeping Julius back a year to repeat the fifth grade and allow him to develop a better grasp of Italian before making the big leap to middle school. Methinks that if we do, we’ll be driving a little further than we do now, to a different school …


Phew! The wind has stopped. It’s a whole different world out there. It seems like it’s been blowing for so long, I’d almost forgotten what it was like to have no wind. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for experiencing the elements, and will even travel to find them, but after days of constant, battering gales and gusts, where you can’t venture outside for fear of being bowled over (like our barbecue) or have the chill blown all the way into your bones, it was time for a break. Besides, it rendered us incommunicado at home, with our cell-phone struggling for reception and our bodies resistant to the necessary outdoor requirements of our telephone communication.

This wind is not the kind of thing one would naturally associate with central Italy, nor is it something I expected or came looking for when I moved here. I’m not sure that it’s a common occurrence either, but this January it was definitely a phenomenon.

The very antithesis of the warm and sultry Mediterranean scirocco, this wind has a somewhat ominous dimension to it, an unspoken statement that there’s something big behind it, which if fully unleashed, could split the world. Most noticeable is its voice – a constant, heaving wail, like a chorus of dead souls baying for atonement (or perhaps revenge). It’s almost as if it has a character, a rather devious, multiple-personality one, with a wit to match its malice – a sort of Falstaff, Rasputin and Attila the Hun all wrapped into one. And it’ll find your flaw and slap it until it flares, snapping your composure just when you most need it. Simply stated, it is beastly.

If I could have taken a photo of it, I would have. But such is the nature of wind – it’s invisible. And therein lies its ultimate power – we can’t see it coming.

But I ramble. The weather’s gorgeous now, and I’m going to head outside to enjoy it.

What’s that? I see the trees starting to stir. Looks like a breeze is picking up ….