Monday, March 19, 2007

An interesting weekend

Sometimes a weekend comes along and contrives to effect a change. You can't always pinpoint something definite, but somewhere in there it leaves a residue that seeps through the consciousness to manifest itself ... who knows how?

This last was such a weekend. While on the surface it seems as if it was quite normal, there's just a tinge of out-of-the-ordinary about it, something intangible harbouring the prospect of some kind of change. Perhaps it was the combination of things - images of a different age, tales of theft and burglary, and a life hanging in the balance,
conjuring sad memories ...

Saturday was steeped in antiquity visiting the ruins of Urbisaglia,
a small town just 10km from us with the most extensive and best preserved Roman ruins in Marche. Fascinating stuff, with an amphitheater (for gladiatorial contests), a theater, a temple, and an underground reservoir fed by an underground aqueduct that was a master of engineering, inclining at an exact and consistent 1% below highly irregular and undulating territory. At its peak in the 1st century, the 'Urbs Salvia' colony - the only one outside of Rome to bear the distinguished 'Urbs' title - was home to some 30,000 citizens, far more than live there today.

While I was imagining the Roman nobility taking their seats for the evening's performance in hte theater, Maria was visiting a couple whose house we pass all the time, and whose solar panels and windmill intrigue us as ecological and economic energy alternatives for our house. Aside from what she learned about energy, she was concerned to see burglar guards on all their windows - apparently they were burgled, and the owner (a local Italian from Tolentino) told several similar breaking-and-entering tales, ostensibly the work of the local Albanian population who have nothing to lose and do not even care if someone is in the house.

That night, we learned that a Londoner we know that lives nearby had a load of cash and jewelry stolen from their house when they were out in the morning. They live a fair distance from Tolentino, where this other burglary happened, in a small hamlet where they know everyone else.

That night, I went down to our house and installed locks on all the doors.

Sunday involved a hike to the Lame Rosse (red blades) near Lake Fiastra with our Colmurano friends. It's a unique place, with wind and rain creating contorted and precarious designs in just this one spot - it's unclear why this is, but it's really quite beautiful, and so the reasons are unimportant.

It would have been a routine Sunday hike had we not stumbled upon a bab
y cinghiale (wild boar) in one of the ravines nearby. The most precious of little furry animals, it was clearly very young, still sporting its umbilical cord, and very unstable on its feet. It was also in dire straits, constantly in search of its mother's teat, but finding none. Wild boars can apparently be rather ferocious - not least with young around - and so we watched the poor little thing's struggles with cautious fascination ... from a distance.

We couldn't understand why it would have been there on its own, particularly at that precarious age, since it didn't look like it had fallen, and it was highly unlikely to have been abandoned. We even contemplated taking it home, but I'm not sure it would have made it to the car - it's jerky struggles brought back the haunting images of Mr Young's final moments, and I was filled with a sadness when we left. I wonder how it is today...

Perugia in pictures

Friday, March 16, 2007

Driving in Italy

You look in your rearview mirror, and there he is … he’s so close he could inhale exhaust fumes direct from your tailpipe, and he’s trying to mount your boot/trunk and drive into your back seat through the back window. Who is he? Who is this obsessed maniac that suddenly appears where there was no-one just a split-second before?

He’s the Italian driver, deadpan-faced and on a mission – to get as close as possible to the car in front.

Our friend Michael says it’s baked into their persona. After nodding in obedient agreement at an explanation of the benefits of a good trailing distance, he will promptly jump in his car and try to use his front bumper to scrape the dirt off the registration plate of the car in front of him. In short, he can’t help himself.

He? Most of the time, yes. But I must say that women have graced my rearview mirror more intimately than I would have liked on more than one occasion.

Women are more like men in the following respect – overtaking in hair-raising situations. Without losing their deadpan expressions. This is a curious phenomenon for a passionate and expressive people – an appearance so calm that one might be tempted to wave one’s hand in front of their faces to see if they’re conscious. It doesn’t matter what the scenario is either – they could just have had a layer of paint scraped off their driver’s door by a 10-ton truck going 120 km/h – pokerface.

But back to the overtaking. Lines – dotted, solid, or spotted – on the road mean nothing. Signs? Don’t know why they bother to put them up. Width of road? Immaterial. If they want to overtake – I think there’s a hormone that kicks in and "takes over" (sorry) – out they pull, and forward they go. It’s a rare occasion – imminent death (for themselves) being the only remote possibility – that they would pull back in at the same place in the traffic. And regardless of the closeness of the shave or the havoc they may leave in their trail ... deadpan.

It happens so frequently that, if I see a truck heading towards me on a single-lane-each-way road, I instinctively look for an escape route, and start considering how I might negotiate the ditch or rocky slope or river or whatever should someone’s bio-rhythms take them out into the oncoming traffic (i.e. me).

Sometimes they overtake even when there’s no-one to pass. This is a favourite practice on winding roads with blind curves. Our friend Al has a general overtaking maxim – the blinder the curve, the greater the irresistible urge of the Italian driver to overtake.

Al also has another maxim – if you’re a pedestrian and an Italian driver makes eye contact with you, you’re a-goner. It’s all over. This implies some degree of intent, and therefore assumes that said Italian is paying some degree of attention to what he is doing. This is far from being a given. Quite the contrary, in fact. It seems that Italians use their driving time to catch up on a few things, most notably talking on the phone (which they do all the time anyway and simply can’t help it), and day-dreaming (which they don’t have enough opportunity to do and therefore grasp the chance with both reckless hands).

Parking? This perhaps more than any other aspect of life here gives a visual insight into the Italian mentality. One could think of it as an avant garde design exercise. Parking bays? A waste of paint. Orderliness and organization? Huh? Blocking another parked car in when there’s oodles of space just 10 metres away is standard practice – it’s your own fault if you park yourself into such a vulnerable position. Protrusion into a traffic lane? Blocking the view of oncoming traffic? Pardon? It’s part of the design.

Take a look at Bruno Bonzetti’s classic portrayal of his native culture (, and pay special attention to the parking skit. (They are, by the way, all agonizingly accurate.)

Having said all this, I must say that driving on the freeways (which we do probably less than 30% of our driving time) is a refreshing experience when compared with the US – the people actually use each lane for its intended purpose. In other words, after they’ve overtaken a truck, they move back into the right lane (left lane for British, South African, Australian, Kiwi, and Indian readers). Granted, some of them drive like bats out of hell, and they’ll suddenly appear out of nowhere, trying to climb into your back seat, all the while flicking their lights. But they do the same in Germany. And Austria. And so you move over.

What all of this ultimately adds up to is a precarious and pericoloso driving environment that doesn’t exactly rank amongst the best in the world – International Living ranks it amongst the 20 worst. This has a direct affect on the rates of insurance, which are I believe the highest in Europe. Try renting a car in Italy – insurance is mandatory, and it’s not cheap. We paid €554 for 6 months of bare-bones (and I mean bare-bones) coverage of my 1998 Honda CRV with 103,000 km on it. (We’re hoping for a reduction for the next 6 months after Geico, following about 10 attempts, finally gave me a proof of coverage letter for the 7 years I was with them.)

It also has a sinister side – death. Here they cover wrecked cars with white sheets if there was a fatality. A few weeks ago, 4 young guys in a BMW were killed in the wee hours on a freeway somewhere up near Pesaro. White sheet. The next day I saw another picture in the paper. I didn’t have to read the caption – white sheet. The images stuck with me for days.

With all our technical know-how and innovation and capacity for creativity, how utterly foolish we can be at times ...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bologna photo essay

About a month ago, we took a brief one-day sortie to Bologna to do a restaurant review (my first - links will be forthcoming when it's published). I had the opportunity to wander around and take a few pictures. Here's a sampling of the fun I had.

Monday, March 05, 2007

An unasked-for learning experience

Every now and then life rears a head that we don’t pay attention to very often. And it reminds us not to take anything for granted.

Take the finger, for example. The index finger of your dominant hand, in particular. How often do you stop to think about all it has to do, and all that goes on inside it, when you straighten it, extend it, and stretch for something? I’ll bet you haven’t done this kind of thinking for a while (if ever).

But I have. Quite a bit too, for long seconds at a time, thanks to the deep slice that runs along a sizable part of my pointing digit.

It happened when Julius and I were on our way to a mountain ramble, and we stopped, as is our custom, to fill our water bottles from the mountain spring gushing out of the hillside next to the Fiastra road. Julius pointed out the icy patch to me, but my aging memory discarded the info when I turned to cross the road with a full bottle. The result was predictable – no traction on the shoe, out it flew from under me, down I went, unfortunately on the bottle side, and its glass shattered as I hit the tar.

It sounds cliché perhaps, but as I went down, it was almost in slow motion, and I thought ”Shit! I can’t stop this. I’m going to cut myself.” This was true.

It was a nice clean cut, deep, and it hurt like hell. So did the butt of my hand, which had a chunk of skin hanging from it, having taken the tail-end of the fall-and-break. But enough of the graphics. The finger needed 11 stitches, the base of the hand 5.

As a result, my left hand was called into immediate action to perform all sorts of tasks that it used to witness indolently as the right hand toiled. Like eating pasta, for instance, a vital life-sustaining task in Italy. Necessity being the mother of invention that it is, the left hand learned quickly, but I think it realized that it would never achieve the dexterity and proficiency of the right, backed as it is by long-established and powerful synapses in high places. Its respect for the right hand’s efforts has been further bolstered at tooth-brushing time, the morning’s dressing ritual, and during various other sundry (and basic) functions.

But it’s the stretching that’s the killer. I’ve learned to try and use my left hand when I can remember, or to keep my index finger bent when I have to use my right. But I forget, several times a time. And I pay. A sort of burning, buzzing, searing pain of a thing surges through my finger, and I’m compelled to stop what I’m doing – instantly. It happens when I’m doing something as simple as tossing a shirt over the chair, or putting a glass down on the floor next to the couch. These are not strenuous activities requiring great intellectual exercise. At least they didn’t use to be. Now unfortunately they are, and my life has become cluttered, with all sorts of considerations that were hitherto automaton tasks.

Ah well, everything’s a learning experience, right? There’s much to be thankful for. Like the fact that I didn’t fall face first on the road. Or that a car wasn’t coming along at the moment I fell.

And after the initial shock and resentment, my left hand has rather relished its new role, having its capabilities flexed and extended. I almost sense its disappointment as the finger begins its slow healing process.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Daily update - parte cinque

It's amazing what a voice raised in anger can accomplish. After numerous unfulfilled promises (the details are unimportant), and our house standing patiently waiting for its facelift, I lost it. I called Paolo (the builder), and in my fractured Italian, berated him for his absence and empty words, even questioning why I made a special effort to get him his first (sizable) payment.

Since then, he has been on site every day before 8am, works into the deepening gloom (at times dark) of the evening, and has gone so far as to curtail pranzo to but a single hour, a positively counter-cultural, even anti-patriotic, behaviour. Still more astounding, they're working in the rain, just as their colleagues run for cover and indolence for fear of melting (I assume).

Progress has been dramatic. The lower floor has taken on a rather more livable look than its previous rather obvious agricultural flavour. We're both holding our breaths, hoping the trend continues, and showed our friendlier side by inviting Paolo and his two assistants from Kosovo (with whom we've struck up a friendship) for a slap-up lunch, ostensibly to cement (sorry!) the relationship.

On the language front, for the past 5 weeks or so we've been attending Italian classes put on (for free!) by the Commune of Tolentino. The class is an eclectic mix of Albanians, Ukrainians, Senegalese, Indians, Peruvians, and French. The teacher and head of the academy, Franca, is a fascinating woman who speaks 5 languages fluently and runs an international store with products from the developing world. Like the renovation of our house, our linguistic progress has been notable and noticeable, although perhaps not quite as dramatic as the house's.

It's interesting how learning another language reveals our lack of knowledge of our own language. I'm now being forced to re-learn (learn for the first time?) imperfect tenses, past participles, pluperfects, and the like. I'm left thinking - who cares what it's called? Our natural proclivities are far more able to intuit it from simple examples (e.g. eat, ate, was eating, have eaten, will have been going to eat, wanted-to-but-couldn't-get-away-to-go-and-eat, etc.).

Oh well. As the apparently oldest person in the class, I do seem to get shown a little respect, and a small allowance for my clearly waning learning aptitude.

Curiously, I'm the only English-speaking person in the class. This is interesting given the profusion of expats in the area. Outside of our own immediate circle (which includes four English-speaking families), we recently met an Australian couple who live across the valley, and an English couple who are just a few km beyond. Then there are the English owners of a house near Colmurano, and the several families in the village I've heard tell of but never met. In the coffee shop I frequent each morning there's invariably an English accent in the buzz, and in the Internet store I go to each day, English-speaking customers come in almost every day.

It's really quite astounding, and the sheer numbers simply have to change the profile of this place in some way. So far the flow of English arrivals has already pushed house prices up by 15-20% and more for each of the past few years. Who knows how else it will manifest itself - it will be interesting (and hopefully not unfortunate) to be a witness to it.

Talking of the internet, I was recently referred to a new outfit that is erecting towers in the area for hi-speed wireless access. There's not one planned for Colmurano (right now 5km is the standard reach of the tower, ruling out Tolentino), so I'm trying to drum up the 10-15 names they would need to consider it. In the meantime, they've given me daily access (at a very reasonable cost) to their training room, where I plug in my laptop for 3-4hours a day. It feels just like going to work, which, in my so far low-income existence, makes me feel a bit better. Now I just need to make it work for me.

Sex and death in the Italian countryside

It’s a bloodbath on the roads around Regnano these days. Utter carnage. Like a bizarre canvas of splattered over-ripe fruit, the splayed figures of countless frogs are paying the ultimate price of their unflinching response to the call of nature.

They’re generally out and about after the rain – and it has been raining recently – but the recent numbers are unprecedented, certainly for us. On one trip home from Italian lessons in Tolentino on the curling, undulating backroads, there were probably 20-30 in one 10-15m stretch. Given our beastly sympathies, we stopped, and I got out to try and get them off the road and out of the “splatter and splay” zone. But they would have none of it, completely ignoring my nudging foot.

On closer inspection, however, I understood why. Several of them were indulging in an activity of a particularly sexual nature, while the remainder were simply waiting their turn. I can only assume that they had some sort of inside knowledge that their indulgences would produce a sort of "positive net procreative balance" when weighed against the death and destruction they risked.

Another curious observation was that the females – a safe assumption, I think – were inordinately larger, by several factors, than the males. Veritable Big Berthas they were, squatting passively and staring into the night with a look of utter boredom. I guess procreation can be a drag, particularly when you’re just being used, as female frogs clearly are. If there were such things as frog cigarettes, I would have expected to see one dangling precariously from her ample lips.

So this, in the end, was the answer – the road, and in particular certain obviously erogenous sections of it, is a “hussy highway”, a sort of “madam’s mile”, as it were. But why the road? Why not the slushy, squelchy mire of the sodden fields? This would be, I’d hazard a guess, a more appropriate environmental accompaniment, somewhat more akin to the reptilian form of the activity they’re engaging in. Perhaps they are out there in the damp darkness in far greater numbers than on the road, and I just can’t see them. But I’m not convinced. Must be some form of aphrodisiac in the aggregate used to lay the roads.

The bestial carnal frenzy seems to be over now. There are many who gave their lives for the cause, now anonymous stains on the road, soon to fade into reptilian obscurity. However, there are still a few of them out there. I saw one the other night, sitting – hopefully, it seemed – on the side of the road, looking for Big Bertha. Maybe he was a blooming teenager, hoping to learn from the pros, or try a few moves of his own.

“Where is everybody?” he asks.

I don’t know what to tell him.