Friday, April 20, 2007

Easter Sunday service

With a pronounced tremor, the pale white hands poked out from under their ornate robes and raised the chalice, golden and elegant, to the lips that drained its contents in one jerky quaff. (How none of it spilled is a mystery, it was a right storm in a chalice on its way up there, given the earthquake-like shakes it was experiencing.)

None for us, it seemed. And with that wine disappearing act, my knowledge of Catholic rites trebled – the masses only get the host, they can’t be trusted with the alcohol.

Our frail priest, clothed in his Easter best for this small Regnano congregation, gazed out at his motley flock with a sort of distant, resigned look. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given that it was arguably the most religious day of the year, and there was but a clutch of us to hear his words on light and new beginnings and doubtless other pearls contained in his – to me – otherwise unintelligible sermon.

On one side of the church the first two rows were empty, on our side the front pew was similarly vacant. Those of us that took to the benches dotted the remainder of the 5 rows somewhat sparsely, while still others stood at the back. It was like a lecture hall of reluctant students.

Why those fellows stood at the back when there were plenty of seats I’m not sure – to make a quick getaway, perhaps? My suspicions appeared to be more than groundless when one of the stand-at-the-backers came round to take collection, looking as if he had slept in his denim outfit, got out of bed, and come straight to church without combing his wayward mop, shaving, or even splashing a dash of water on his face. I turned to watch him return to the back of the church, untucked shirt tail flapping against the creased back of his jeans, just to make sure he didn’t slip out the back door with my €1.50. He didn’t. (We met him a few days later at our English friends down the road – he sold them their house and is now doing all their (substantial) renovations for them. His dress clearly disguises a shrewd business brain.)

Anna and Pepe (neighbours from Bari), Maria and Umberto (neighbours that we picked olives with), and Orellia and Vitaliano (our immediate contadini neighbours) were all there, and it was a right social gathering after the comfortably brief service. We were novelties in the crowd, the stranieri (foreigners, outsiders) come to this little corner of the world, an entire universe to most of those present. I think it left an impression on them that we came, not only because of the brash entrance we made in our little Smart skidding noisily up the gravel road as everyone waited outside for the service to begin.

The church itself is beautiful, recently restored and reconsecrated, a sky-blue dome with stars and doves painting a fresh, friendly, and peaceful welcome.

But perhaps the thing I’ll remember most is when we were standing outside before the service on our own. All eyes were on the stranieri. Vitaliano separated himself from his cronies and came over, dressed smartly in pressed trousers, jacket and hat, to wish us happy Easter and greet V’ron – our English friend and landlady, and also Vitaliano’s neighbour – who had just arrived that morning.

For a man steeped in the traditions of the place, including a suspicion of all things foreign, this was a mighty big gesture. Small, old, and creaky he may be, but he certainly has a big stature in my eyes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hyena's burden

In the past, I’ve written about the canine family that lives across the street (see The canine sagas), scrounging out their lives as best they can, living off the scraps that Vitalliano gives them and the left-over favours they get from the neighbours. A few months ago, Hyena (the sly, black mother) was in heat, prompting curled lips, snarls and gnashing of teeth from Buster (the father) when Bilo from down the road suddenly started making an appearance and showing distinct interest. While the threats were vicious, no blood was spilled as the primal courtship unfurled, and in the end only one thing was clear – seed was distributed.

Then, a few weeks ago, Hyena suddenly disappeared for two days. When she reappeared, her teats were swollen, but no puppies. She seemed to be looking for them. She never found them. It seems as if the marchigiani method of birth control was once again practiced – the newborn puppies were drowned.

The poor thing – she lives a desperate, clinging life, she carries the burden of pregnancy … and then her maternal instincts are shattered by man’s delayed interference. They’re a nuisance they are, these vagrant animals, but at times like this how can you feel ill toward them?

The canine war between Buster and the Weimerana that I expected a few months ago didn’t materialize after all. It seems the Weimerana’s wandering habits were finally noticed by its owner, and so it was locked inside during the day. It yowled non-stop. So now it’s kept (with the German Shepherd) somewhere else during the week, and all is quiet on Regnano Street.

Or sort of. Buster took a knock, apparently the work of a passing vehicle, and he’s been hobbling around on three paws, his left hind leg taking no weight at all. It doesn’t seem to be getting better, and while he seems capable of hurrying when he needs to, he’s slowing down in general. There’s a sad look in his eyes – I don’t know if I’m just imputing it, or if he’s taken on a more burdensome gait lately. I guess now we’ll see how tough he is. In his favour, it’s getting warmer, and so maybe this is just his autumn rather than his winter.

As for Hyena, I don't think she'll ever shed the empty sadness that her eyes reflect.

A lazy amble through the heart of Tuscany

I don't know whether this is still a honeymoon feeling or if it will last, but I'm still amazed at our ability to take trips like the one described here. "Let's take a drive through Tuscany next week," is all it takes. OK, it's not quite that simple, but it's as close as dammit. And for anyone that finds themselves in Florence or Siena, it's a very satisfying way to spend an easy day discovering the wine and landscape of the heart of Tuscany. For John (my South African friend) and me, it satisfied all the quintessential prerequisites – scenic, sedate, and scrumptious.

Winding our way south from Florence, the SS222/SR222 took us through the heart of the Chianti region and the centers of Strada, Greve, and Panzano (all referred to as “in Chianti”, just in case you were wondering). Tasting opportunities abound on this road, both at individual wineries as well as in the town cantinas. We threw a dart at the multitude of options and ended up at the delightful little village of Volpaia, which owes its existence to the vineyards that surround it . Consisting of a wine shop, cafĂ©, two restaurants, and cooking school, the village produces some quality Chiantis, olive oil and honey, and commands sweeping views across the classic rolling hills. Reputed to be busy in season (Easter-October), we had it virtually to ourselves in late March.

Continuing south, our next destination was Montalcino, home of the highly regarded red wine, Brunello di Montalcino. Bypassing Siena, the most direct route is via SR2, but a wrong turn had us careening toward Grosseto on E78/SS223. This required crossing over on a number of backroads, ultimately approaching on a dirt road through a verdant forest with views into forever.

As if it were possible or necessary, Montalcino itself has even better views, with a 270° panorama from its bluff-like promontory jutting out into a sea of rolling waves of green. At its highest point, the 14th century fortress commands the best aspect, although we forewent the opportunity of climbing to its upmost ramparts in protest at the €3 fee, exorbitant in our minds given the already-generous price of the wine.

Cost aside, the Brunello di Montalcino – which has to be aged in oak barrels for at least 4 years to earn the title – and its “poor” cousin, Rosso di Montalcino, are delectable and worth paying the €10 tasting fee, with each one displaying its own distinct character. The 200-odd vineyards crammed into this small comune – 16km at its widest point – also produce Super Tuscans, which are up there with the Brunello but are classified differently because they break a few of the stringent rules along the way. Depending on the weight of your wallet, you can pay from €10 to over €100 for a bottle of this liquid ruby.

Lunch at the small L’Angolo, right in the center of town, was quite superb. We started (and climaxed) with a thick tomato-based vegetable soup, which smacked the sweet spot with an ecstatic “Thwop!” We followed with the strozzapretti (short, stubby pasta that translates literally as “priest strangler”) and frutti di bosco (fruit of the forest - mushrooms and the like), accompanied by a plate of over-roasted vegetables, fresh and local and coated in a light film of olive oil – extra virgin and cold-pressed, of course. A small carafe of the house white, an after-meal espresso, and we were ready for the afterlife.

By the time we had eaten and peeled out a few blue euros for the bottles of Rosso, it was already after 4pm, and time to head ... to Le Marche, as it turned out (3-4 hours away). But from Montalcino it's less than 2 hours back to Florence, and within 60 minutes of Siena. After such a day you'll arrive full of the pleasures of life, sated, spoiled, and smiling ...

Friday, April 13, 2007

Daily update parte sei

The season has changed. This time I can feel it, it's not the false spring we had a few weeks ago before getting blindsided by a sudden chill, rain, and snow in the mountains. No pullover necessary until the sun goes down, and no extra blankets on the bed. It's actually a relief in a house that doesn't welcome warmth as a daily visitor.

Our own house renovations move on at what seems a reasonable speed, although the end of June deadline to complete everything looks precarious. Quotes are due from plumbers and electricians, and we're deep in the mire of selecting bathroom, kitchen, window, door, and other fittings. It's all become suddenly daunting, and is beginning to consume our free and thinking time. These are good things, I imagine.

Relationship with the builder and architect are tenuous at best, although they seem to have accepted the fact that our tastes are not theirs, and our suggestions are now met with a begrudging resignation rather than the "Bruto!" (ugly) and "Costa doppio!" (it costs double) that we've become familiar with. It's tiring being persistent, but it's necessary, although the irony is not lost on me that I'm frequently confused about my role as client or servant. Our architect even asked us point blank whether he thought Italians were stupid, this in reaction to our request for a different heating system than the average Italian employs. Unfortunately I wasn't quick enough to retort: "No, but do you think we are?"

It is rather exciting, though, seeing things take shape. Grouting and detailing on the exterior walls is nearly complete, returning the house's appearance to its former brick-and-stone elegance.

It's also been a busy social time, with a trip to Florence to hook up with a South African friend, with whom I did a leisurely tour through the heart of Tuscany before returning to Marche for the weekend. And then it was Easter, needless to say a big event here. Regnano was replete with its part-time residents, including our English friends and landlords, and our Italian friends from Bari in Puglia, and so there was much catching up. We also attended a large Easter dinner courtesy of our Irish friends, who fed 23 in total with the traditional roast lamb - delicious. After several bottles of Marche's best wines, we - the Argentine chef, this South African and his son, and a number of Englishmen and Irishmen and their sons - ended up playing rugby on the stone patio to end off the festivities.

We did stop for a moment to consider the plight of thousands upon thousands of lambs who, in that first week of April, were literally led to the slaughter, all across Catholic Europe. Reminds me of turkeys at Thanksgiving in the US. The day before the Easter weekend I was driving home behind a pickup truck, which had in the back a dog, some farm tools, and a lamb. It (the lamb) looked at me curiously, with an angst bred no doubt (a) from being separated from its flock, and (b) from being subjected to this alien and frightening journey in the back of a strange vehicle. It's angst was clearly justified, and these were among the last thoughts of its brief life - that was indeed its death wagon.

Julius has undergone substantial change in the past month or two, and it seems as if he's matured a couple of years in that time. Don't know what happened, but we look on with bemused interest. His best friends are now all Italians, notwithstanding the availability of English-speaking children, and he numbers girls among them. I don't remember even considering girls as humans at age 11, let alone befriending them (but then again I grew up in a rather male-dominated, distorted environment). His feet are now rooted to this place, and he kicks and screams when we suggest weekend trips away. He's also been devouring the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the books) which arrived a few weeks ago, and he's on track to complete them all in the space of about 5 weeks - not bad for a pre-teen. As we suspected, Julius has established himself quicker than any of us, in spite of his reluctant beginnings.

Maria has also settled in well, and is the primary reason we have a lot of friends. She also has a new job, doing the same thing as before - importing cars from Germany. This time, though, she only has to travel to Tolentino, and her boss is actually our neighbour with the Weimerana (see the previous "Canine sagas" post). Surprisingly (to me), she actually enjoys the job, being the only person in the office, and is responsible for the entire process, from proposal to import. Could be a good experience to learn about importing things into Italy.

Maria's job has meant that I'm now Julius' taxi and house cook, two responsibilities that are somewhat eating into my own job (writing) aspirations. Oh well, I guess it's a load I have to bear. After all, it's not everyone that can wake up in the morning as I did a couple of weeks ago, get dressed, and say: "I think I'll go to Florence this morning."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Florence in pictures

Took a two-day trip to Florence a few weeks ago to meet up with a South African friend. Here are some typical and some not-so-typical perspectives of Italy's Renaissance city.

No photo essay of Florence would be complete without this....

... or this....
Michelangelo called this a waste of material. I respectfully disagree.

Detail of the David statue

A curious presence in Piazza Pitti

Another quintessential Florentine subject, without which, etc, etc...

Two Florentines with different goals

Another two with different things on their minds

Like every Italian city and town these days, a growing African presence

From the little-known Museum of Pain and Suffering

The Sesame Fusion Restaurant and bar, which I wrote a magazine review on, and which will be on my itinerary every future trip to Florence, for the people as well as the food.

Sesame Restaurant's signature lamps, sourced from Morocco (as is all the furniture)