Monday, September 24, 2007

September reflections

This is the third September in succession that I have sat in this very spot on our patio looking out over the rolling fields and the mountains, distinctly aware of the moment – the soft warmth of the descending sun, the cool evening approaching, the silence of the Marche countryside, and a delectable Marche rosso or bianco at hand.

Two years ago it was a trip to initiate the renovation process. That was the stated primary goal. Unwittingly, however, and perhaps more importantly, it served also to let the significance of our real estate purchase sink in, rather than being a distant acquisition, a “thing” like our somewhat impetuous Panama purchases. It didn't start well - after the first visit back to the house, Maria wanted out – she hated the house and property she’d loved just a year earlier when we first saw it and bought it. “How can we get out of it?” she asked. She even spoke to our realtor friend to see what we might be able to get for it. After a few days, however, she settled down, and enjoyed a few moments just like this one right now, feeling in our cheap plastic furniture like royalty on their thrones.

Last year’s trip was deep breath time. We’d moved. Julius had been thrown into the educational deep end with his English and German in an almost all-Italian school. I had no job, nor did Maria. But it was moments like this very one that made us realize why we’d moved, and how strong those few intangibles on the credit side were in contrast to the lengthy list of tangibles on the other.

Today I’m (obviously) drawn into reflection. The sun is warm, the breeze is kind, and the Verdicchio is crisp. And my mood is buoyant. It was a day of accomplishment. I can safely say that I had nothing to do with any of it, but I have no qualms about taking the “feel-good” reward for it. Two concrete things happened.

First, the gas company came and buried their tank (for cooking and heating) – a step towards functional living.

Second, Cesari (the guy from Isoterm, a local building supply company) – a drop-dead gorgeous, green-eyed, quintessential Italian model type – bought his high-pressure spray gun and painted all our ceilings, up- and downstairs. It had taken me 2 days to do 2 rooms with my more modest equipment, and all I could see was a long, long haul ahead of me to get it all done. In one fell swoop, he rescued my next two weeks and gave them back to me. And took us another step closer to moving in.

But perhaps most significant of all, I’m sitting on our transformed patio, walled and bricked in and as inviting an outdoor space as I’ve come across. This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the house for me, given that I’d rather be sitting outside under virtually any (reasonable) circumstances.

And my wonderful office – another important aspect, given that I’ve never had one that didn’t double as something else – opens right out on to it. Three other glass doors on this western side open out to it, one from each of the other 3 rooms on this side of the house – Maria’s “drawing room”, the dining room, and the lounge.

With the quirky little stones – seemingly carved by an unseen avant garde hand – on the enclosing retaining wall, it has a unique character that says: “Welcome to this warm and friendly space. Feel the sun, the breeze, the moment. And stop the clocks – there is no other time but now.”

Me and my Verdicchio couldn't agree more - I feel like I could sit here forever.

Friday, September 21, 2007

One year on

It’s been a year now. I arrived in Italy on September 5th last year. So – what’s the verdict?

Knee-jerk is perhaps a good place to start – Damn! I’m living in Italy!

This little realization strikes me at irregular and yet moderately frequent intervals, and to tell the truth I’m still a little surprised at it. That’s probably because somewhere in my cautious, South African-reared conscience, I didn’t think that I would be capable of such a daring and “exotic” venture. Whether it’s the influence of living in the US or my adventurous wife that has cajoled me into going for it, I’m not sure, and I’m also not sure it’s important.

This “living in Italy” thing transcends the physical dimension too – I’ve left my old lives behind, and there’s no question of returning to them. Even in the moments of supreme emotional challenge (and there’ve been many), my thoughts have always been “how to overcome” rather than where to flee. I don’t know if this is folly or fortitude, but I’m not questioning it.

The second immediate sentiment is “Damn! I’m not in my house yet!” Like any homeowner in the throes of a makeover (the inevitable personal side as well as house-related, as all in that position will attest), the house saga dominates much of one’s thinking and worrying space. But I still have the excitement, and the vision of myself living in it, and now that we’re just a month or so away from moving in, the despondency has an end. I’m sure that in the coming years I’ll look back on it with some amusement and the knowledge of one with “experience”.

So what else? We came to live life for itself, and nowhere that I’ve been is this mantra as obvious as it is in rural Italy. Everything – and I mean e-vry-thing – is a process, and in most cases an opportunity for social interaction. Outcomes are not entirely irrelevant, but they’re not the be-all and end-all that they are elsewhere. Having been here for a year now, it’s quite clear that the Slow Food movement could only ever have originated in Italy.

Has it had the desired effect on me (i.e. slow down, loosen up, smell the flowers, etc)? Sometimes … when I think about it, or when I’m in such a moment. Like stopping to pick up Julius in Colmurano, for instance, when the prevailing atmosphere drugs one into the “live in this moment” mood. Or my experience in the Arte Strada’s preparations. Or in my awareness of seasons and cycles, which seem so much more prominent to me here.

It’s a vital attribute in dealing with Italian bureaucracy, and it’s one area that I’ve failed in. Poste Italiano and Telecomm Italia are primary examples of this. I still haven’t adopted the resigned attitude of long-time residents to these monolithic monuments to inert parastatals, and who knows, maybe I never will. We’ll see.

I’m trusting that osmosis will ultimately play its part in attaining that attitudinal plane. The way people here adopt you can only help, and it’s been perhaps the most notable aspect of living here – the warmth and generosity of the people. I only wish I could interact with them more freely, and therein lies another personal frustration – my struggles with the language. Naturally one has to shoulder most of the responsibility for not having become proficient, but when I compare the effort that Maria’s put in and the ease with which she’s become adept, I suspect there’s also a little bit of innateness about it. So be it – I just have to work harder. Classes in Tolentino start again soon, and so off I’ll go to work on my integration.

Julius, after a cautious start, has surprised me with his local affinities, and a loyalty to Marche (and Regnano in particular) that’s disproportionate to the time he’s spent here. He has his ups and downs, some of them related to the state of his friendships, others influenced by trips away to family (Germany and South Africa). The only thing from his previous life that he hankers after is his school. The public education system here is very rigid and “old school” (as it were), with little room for creativity or variations from the norm. And unlike both of his schools in the US, they barely get to go outside here, regardless of how good the weather is. Perhaps I’m naïve or uninformed, but it strikes me as a blind and unaware perception of the needs of 11-year-olds – keeping them sitting on their butts all day instead of letting off steam and energy in a physical way is nothing short of a travesty, denying them a crucial part of their growth and childhood.

Of course individual teachers also make a difference, and Italian love and caring shine through in the good ones. In one instance last year, when Julius was being ostracized by his classmates for having not towed the group line, his Italian teacher Lori noticed and spent 2 hours one afternoon with the class talking it through. When it comes to their emotional wellbeing, she (and others) treat them as children rather than as pupils; I just wish that this would extend to all aspects of scholarly life.

Maria, for her part, has found her feet as she would just about anywhere. Her natural flow with the language and the way Latins find her to be “simpatico” has helped her integrate quickly. But the house has taken its toll – her German penchant for precision and punctuality, along with the local resistance to anything that varies from what they’ve always done, has resulted in much stress and frustration. Hopefully that will all be a thing of the past rather soon.

The only real loss of our move has been the fourth member of our family, our beloved Mr Young (see previous post here). In the end, it seems our unsettled life in the six months before his death was just too much for him. The passage of time has helped me heal, Julius too I think, but not Maria – she still harbours a deep sadness that won’t go away. Perhaps there’s a (harsh) message in there somewhere – we shall see.

There’s so much more, too, to be thankful for – the crisp clean air, the stupendous views, and the blazing wildflowers of the Sibillini mountains … the soaring cliffs and turquoise waters of the Riviera del Conero … neighbours knocking at your door with spinach, garlic, tomatoes, still dripping with earth.

And, of course, being able to wake up in the morning and say: “I think I’ll go to Florence today.”

Now all I have to do is find a reliable source of income so that we can stay here …

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Non-Italy pictorial: Out of Africa

Africa's largest (Kruger National Park) ...

... and it's smallest antelope, the Damaraland dik-dik, Waterberg Plateau Park, Namibia

Diverse watercraft on a blustery Durban day

This baobab tree is supposedly 2,700 years old - near Tzaneen, Limpopo province, SA

This guy watched us closely for a long time as we took our break on the bush walk, Kruger NP

Sable antelope, Kruger NP

A new day and some new carrion?

A motley crew enjoying sundowners, Kruger NP

Waterbuck, Kruger NP

Lilac-breasted roller

Bar's open!

The desolate beauty of Damaraland, Namibia

Victim of the Skeleton Coast, Namibia

Dunes of the Namib, the world's oldest desert

Krisjan from Damaraland

Full moon rising, Waterberg Plateau campsite, Namibia

Harry (of Potter fame), one of the newest adoptees at Cheetah Conservation Fund near Otjiwarongo, Namibia

Victim of the desert (springbok carcass) - b/w Damaraland and Skeleton Coast

Dragon's jaw natural rock formation - Twyfelfontein (translates as 'fountain of doubt'), Namibia

Rock etchings (2-6,000 years old) at Twyfelfontein - the famous long-tailed lion

Amazing Damaraland campsite - Xanagu near Twyfelfontein

The old and the older - welwitschia plant (hundreds of years old), fossilized tree (millions of years old)

Female relativity - wife, niece, sister outside Windhoek

Swakopmund craft market and the buzz of a film crew

Maria and Paula - Khomas Hochland, Namibia

Reluctant tourist subject (HRH), abandoned rig in background - Skeleton Coast

Lone dune boarder - south of Swakopmund

Cool dude at moonrise - near Windhoek

...and an 80th birthday to cap it all.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Back from southern climes

We’re back. The clichéd “doesn’t feel like we’ve been gone” feeling is settling in just days after the six-week southern African jaunt. Family, friends, a warm winter, a safari, and a dusty ride through some of the planet’s most desolately-beautiful landscapes took our minds off the renovation struggle for a while, but here we are once again, back in it.

It was a nervous return, given the lack of accommodation that awaited us. But once again, thanks to our lifesaver Ornella, we’re back in the farmhouse until our house gets finished. Turns out Paolo the builder worked through most of August (unlike his compatriots), and we were greeted with a nice surprise when we first visited our house. But more of that in another entry.

So what to write of la dolce vita when we weren’t here for six weeks? Perhaps a few thoughts on the similarities and differences between Italy on one hand, and South Africa and Namibia on the other.

Similarities? Strangely, yes. The chaos and indolence of Italy has an unlikely mirror in the “inaccuracy”, should we say, that one finds in Africa.

Take our attempts at buying a cooler and freezer blocks. The store assistant at Pick ’n Pay (in Johannesburg) said they didn’t have any, so we walked through the mall to the house ’n hardware store where we bought a decent cooler. But no freezer blocks. Where are they? At Pick ’n Pay, of course. Back to Pick ’n Pay, where we find the freezer blocks next to … would you believe it … a cooler. At half the price. So back goes Maria to the house ’n hardware where she gets a refund, but back at Pick ’n Pay things aren’t going so well. There’s no bar code on the cooler, which means we can’t check it out, even though it clearly shows a price of R89 (around $12). So over we go to the customer service desk for a series of prolonged discussions, summonsing of different people (including the guy who told us they didn’t have coolers, just to instill a little confidence), all the while glancing anxiously at our watches which are creeping closer and closer to the arrival time of our guests back at my sister’s landlord’s house. Eventually, some 25 minutes later after a few saunters here and there – African store assistants are physically incapable at moving anything faster than an amble – the store manager gives it to us for R58. I think it was simply the number that came into her head at that very moment.

But for the language and the race (and perhaps the final price), this could have been an episode out of an Italian store. We encountered it again and again.

For the rest, however, the differences were stark.

  • Johannesburg’s fortress existence, living behind high walls and barbed wire, where everyone has a personal “close-shave” story to tell. A lasting image one late night on the way home – a man and his bloody, cut-up pursuer almost ran straight into our car.
  • Car theft – it’s standard practice to pay a car guard every time you park your car, such is the risk of it not being there when you come back. The guards are not armed, and there are stories of bribes by organized thieves, but it gives everyone (a false) peace of mind.
  • Pestering art and craft salesmen, desperate to get just a tiny piece of the obvious (relative) wealth borne by European visitors, a far cry from the Italian whose apparent lack of interest in the sale renders a very different frustration for the buyer
  • Waves (the marine kind)
  • Wildlife, in and around the urban areas as well as out in the bush, and in numbers that you just don’t find in Europe
  • In Namibia, endless vistas of dust and stone and straight, deserted roads, and a peaceful, liberating feeling that you could be the only people on the planet

So as hard as it was to leave my family and my friends and my homeland to return to our new home, it is nice to be able to run inside to get something I’ve forgotten … without having to lock the car every time. It’s nice to be able to stroll through the streets at night … without having to look cautiously over my shoulder at every stranger approaching out of the shadows. It’s nice to be able to sit outside of an evening and admire the view … without a wall and a fence and barbed wire separating me from the view and the rest of the world.

It was also interesting, exciting even, way out in the desert country of Namibia, to hear the Italian staccato that we’ve become used to in the past year. This is a new development – the Germans have always gone there in large numbers (there’s a daily Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Windhoek), but in my previous 6 visits I’ve never encountered Italians before. To the persistent embarrassment of HRH the boy king, we struck up conversations every chance we could, exercising our rusty Italian to their pleasant surprise. Somehow it brought the two places a little closer together for me, and the possibility that perhaps you can have two homes after all, even if you don’t live in one of them.