Thursday, December 11, 2008

Drifting a little off the subject

This is a slight – OK, significant – departure from the normal subject of these blogs, but after reading a few articles recently, there’s something inside that’s just compelling me to pass comment. I found the articles in question on the BBC web site – my primary source of news – under the Science category, an occasional destination for me when I see a headline that piques my natural affinity for things extraterrestrial.

You can read the articles in their entirety here:

Now it’s worth pointing out that I have an innate fascination for things related to journeys into space and the search for other worlds “out there”, so my mind is probably more open than most when reports are subject to the personal credibility test. Even so, wandering through the corridors of the BBC’s space reports is like stepping into another world, and they’re always worth the visit. But these three reports took an extraterrestrial step just a little beyond my credibility threshold, and they left me with an overriding question – are they really serious?

The obvious answer is “Of course they are, these people dedicate their lives to their quest,” and I have to admire them for it. But just scanning through the names involved seems to indicate that it’s a kind of club – Shoskar, Gabriel Gatehouse, Oli Madgett, Charkin, McCaughrean … did they change their names when they chose their vocation, or did their professions choose them? I suspect that if I applied for a job at the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute, my application would be rejected when they got to “Name”.

Working in these fields also without doubt requires a mind that relishes the prospect of knotting itself into contorted, labyrinthine blobs on a daily basis. Just take the concept of a black hole, for instance. It’s defined as an object whose gravity is so great that nothing – including light – can escape them. Now I have an analytical mind, and like to think that I can occasionally get my head around complex concepts, but this one has my synapses firing off without reply into the very stratosphere where such dark cavities are “found”. Gravity … light … bedfellows … ?

They then go and compound the issue by telling me that the black hole they discovered in our galaxy is four million times heavier than our Sun, which itself – as we all know – weighs a mere two billion billion billion tons, or – more familiarly – 220 duodecillion pounds. Also that it’s 158 thousand, million, million miles from the Earth. Say what now? How heavy and how far? How do they know this, and can I check their calculations? What sort of scale did they use to weigh these things, and what kind of ruler to get the distance? Seems like they rounded off quite heavily there too, immediately raising my suspicions. At least if they’d put it in terms I could relate to – like how many elephants or how many trips to the grocery store, for instance – I might have been able to relate.

Not surprisingly, the observations were made with the Very Scientifically-Named Very Large Telescope – affectionately and curiously known as the “VLT” – in Chile. Apparently the study to find and define the new discovery took 16 years – quick work rate there, I must say, it would take me that long just to type those numbers into my computer. However, what I want to know is – how did they know to look for it? What if, after 16 years, they didn’t find anything – would they continue for another 16, and turn it into a generational thing? And after several generations of “studying” would they eventually be able to make a conclusion – “Nope, there’s no black hole there”? Would they then start looking for another black hole next door?

Thankfully, we don’t need to answer these questions, and we can comfortably move on to the next, particularly satisfying phase of every science study – coining new terms. I’m not sure if coming up with this one to describe the size of this black hole also took 16 years, but they can be confident they came up with a real doozy – “super-massive.” I kid you not. What are they going to call it if they find an even bigger one? Super-duper-massive? Incredibly-mind-bogglingly-huge? So-unbelievably-big-that-it-dwarfs-the-last-one-by-three-duodecillion-times?

Moving on and talking of competitiveness, it seems that the burgeoning social networking movement doesn’t want to be left behind. Either that or they’re on a serious membership drive – they (Bebo) sent out an electronic package to a planet just around the corner, some 20 light years away. According to the report: “Some 501 photos, drawings and text messages were transmitted on Thursday by a giant radio-telescope in Ukraine normally used to track asteroids.” Apparently the message "passed the Moon in 1.7 seconds, Mars in just four minutes and will leave our Solar System before breakfast tomorrow".

Now that’s all very well, but does this planet have PayPal so they can sign up? And do they have a reliable internet connection? After all, it’s only going to reach there in 2029, by which time all Bebo’s members would have solved Saturday night’s date problem, and even if they hadn’t, how could you be sure that the message’s recipients didn’t age badly?

One of the article’s more illuminating quotes suggests that we may not get a reply: “So if anybody's out there and they find that signal, they at least know it that, in the direction of that star system over there, there must be a planet with some pretty clever things on it.” If this quote is any indication of what’s in that electronic package, I suspect that the recipients might make the Very Disruptive Decision to go and colonize a planet a little further away.

One last thing puzzles me too. The target they chose was a planet called Gliese 581C – why? What was wrong with Gliese 581A and B? Or, for that matter, the exoplanet Fomalhaut b or the three that orbit the star HR 8799?

This last option is the subject of the third article, which raises some teasers of its own. First off, who gets to name stars and planets? For example, I wonder how the residents of Formalhout b would take to being named after a fallen angel and a gatekeeper in Italian witchcraft? And not even an A-grade one at that. At least I’d be able to counter their complaints by saying their name has a little more character than the inhabitants of the HR 8799 solar system can claim. After all, if hurricanes – which are a tad more transient than planets, even if they are full of character – get real names, why not stars? At first blush it appears that there are multiple planet- and star-naming committees, some drawing on their passion for folklore, others on their favourite chemical formula, and yet others opting for a dart-in-the-board method. While they’re at it, why not take suggestions, or name the planets after real people – Bart, or Yogi, or Joe, for instance.

One other thing that emerges from the third article is the apparent reversion in planetary science to terms we can relate to. “Super-massive” broke new ground that way. Now there’s “wobble”, which is what an exoplanet induces in its parent star. It would somehow give me a sense of comfort and confidence if I were selected for a manned space mission to search for life in a far-off solar system, knowing that its star had “wobbled” in the telescopes of astronomers some 11 billion miles away.

But I’m taking things out of context here, and the article clearly states that the “wobble” method is passé. Things have moved on since then, and with today’s technology, they’ve been able to detect that Formalhout b is “the coolest, lowest-mass object ever seen outside our own solar neighbourhood.” How about that as an advertisement – cool and low-mass, bound to fill up its social calendar in a heartbeat. Needless to say, personal visits would only be possible for those able to cover those less-than-precisely-calculated 11 billion miles within a reasonable time, not to mention access to a warm wardrobe. You’d also need to have faith in the assertion of the scientists that it is indeed the coolest and lowest-mass, and be sure that they had no ulterior motive in promoting it thus.

Perhaps the most revealing of indications comes from the concluding quote of the third article – astronomers indeed have a sense of humour, or at least a colourful way of expressing themselves to those of us who spend most of our time on terra firma. When reflecting on the fact that not just one, but three exoplanets have recently been detected, astrophysicist Mark McCaughrean had this to say: “It's like a London bus - you've been waiting for one for ages and suddenly four come along at once.”

And it wouldn’t surprise or concern me if sometime in the future they all had the last laugh at the expense of tongue-in-cheek people like me. After all, while Copernicus was encouraged to publish his heliocentric model – placing the sun at the center of our solar system – in the early 16th century, he delayed it, perhaps for fear of the reaction to his claims. Even then, the heliocentric model had been around for over 2,000 years, first emerging in India in the 7th century BC. And a contemporary of Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century BC accused him of impiety for “putting the Earth in motion” in his own heliocentric model.

So who knows – maybe London bus number 6222 isn’t only going to King’s Court …

Monday, December 08, 2008

Olive picking

It's olive-picking time. November-December, generally. Last year's crop was poor thanks to the lack of rain. This year's is better due the late rains we got in September-October. Last year, our singular tree - buried as it was by others of different varieties around it - produced a total of four olives! This year it was full.

I've covered the mechanics of the process in a previous blog post (here), so won't go into it now. But a couple of things caught my attention this year, prompting this post.

First, I was struck by the tradition of it when I took my chain-saw for the umpteenth time to the local garden machinery repair man. (In our city days, I used to have a dry-cleaning guy; now I have a chain-saw man.) His father, an ever-present fixture at his workshop, hovers around seeking conversation at every opportunity. A few weeks ago he cornered me as soon as I walked in and asked me if we'd finished picking our olives. No clearance check to even see if we had any olive trees to begin with - he just assumed it. After all, why would you live out here if you didn't have any?

He then proceeded to tell me of all the mishaps he'd heard about - a 70-year-old that fell off his ladder to his death in Macerata, an 80-year-old that broke his arm in Loro Piceno, another anziano (senior citizen) who got badly scratched in a fall. Now this is a wide swath of territory that he's talking about, testimony to the enduring efficiency of the bush telegraph. And it's also a dangerous business too, one that's responsible for its fair share of population culling, it seems.

But more than all that it's a testament to the powerful nature of the cycles that still exist out here in the country. November - olive-picking time. No question, there is nothing else. It's porobably more prevalent and deep-rooted as a tradition for the elders than it is for the merely middle-aged, who see it more as a task than anything. So its gravity may be on the wane, leaving me thankful for the old guy who's genuinely interested in our lonely little olive tree.

Second, we're helping some other neighbours - Teresa and Franco - pick their trees this year. They're both in or near their seventies, and have just a daughter to help them with their task. And it's a big one - they have some 450 trees. That's a lot, when it takes a good twenty minutes to a half-hour to clear just one (moderately-fruited) tree.

Now you can't pick the olives when they're wet, and you can't pick in the dark either, so with the surfeit of precipitation we've had lately - combined with the early hour that the sun takes its leave these days - opportunities to clear those trees have been limited. Once the serious frost arrives, or the last appointment for delivery to the olive press comes and goes (for them it's December 15th), it's all over, and the olives will simply be left to rot on the trees.

That's a real shame in anyone's language, but to Teresa it's more like a tragedy. She's an avid biodynamic farmer - simply put, one who works closely with nature's innate cycles, properties, and spirit to nurture her charges - and so she really cares for her plants and their offspring (even if they're destined for the dinner table). And so these various situational aspects have conspired to add to their stress to get it all done.

Being biodynamic also precludes the use of mechanical devices - or at least automated ones - since they have the potential to bruise the olives and stress the trees. So it must all be done by hand. Luckily their trees are all of a stature that ladders are not required, and some of them are not laden with olives.

But 450 - that's a lot, and so we've been helping. I use the term "we" here more liberally than I should - I've been there three days now, Maria's been there probably more than ten. We're still shy of being two-thirds done, and judging by the speed and the weather, I'm not sure they'll all get harvested. Real pity.

On a crisp, clear early-winter's day, when the sun's shining and the effort eventually prompts the pullover to be discarded, it's a classic pastime. Zen comes immediately to mind - breathe, pick, clear the mind, feel the touch of the silvery-green leaves, the smooth skin of the olives, clear the mind, breathe, pick ... Not to mention the chance to exercise my spotty Italian - neither Teresa nor Franco speak English (Teresa speaks a little, but not really enough for a conversation).

And that's why I have to sign off now - to go and pay homage to this age-old tradition, to exercise my spotty Italian, to get my dose of Zen meditation for the day, and to help out some neighbours. Just another day in the Italian countryside.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Silvio and Barack

Not surprisingly, the euphoria emanating from the US on November 5th drifted across the Atlantic to Europe, permeating the atmosphere with an equivalent spirit of hope and promise. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, one of the first - and arguably the most enthusiastic - of the European leaders to come out with a positive message of congratulations was French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said: "At a time when we must face huge challenges together, your election has raised enormous hope in France, in Europe and beyond." Others followed - Gordon Brown referred to Obama as "inspirational," "energising," and "progressive," hailing his "vision for the future." Others such as Angela Merkel and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin were more circumspect, but they were generally positive, and they were all quick to comment.

All except Italy, that is. I kept waiting and searching for an official Italian reaction to the result. Nothing. Perhaps not surprising given the cronyism Berlusconi and Bush practiced. But really - for an event that captured the world's attention, when virtually everything else stood still, surely the Italian leadership could offer more than an awkward and deafening silence? Niente.

Until today. Berlusconi was in Russia this week, and in a press conference, he made his first public reference to the US elections. (At least it was the first that I've read.) And boy was it a clanger - he referred to Obama as "young, handsome, and tanned." Now I must confess that we can't for one moment say we're not used to Silvio's proclivity for back-handers, crudity, and chauvinism, but honestly, doesn't the man have just one classy cell in his decrepit body?

Needless to say, his opponents were quick to jump out in criticism, just as his supporters - at least the few mildly sensitive ones - were no doubt scuttling for the shadows. And what did our noble prime minister do? Called his critics "imbeciles", of course, claiming instead that it was "a great compliment." I haven't been able to canvass any of my neighbours on their reaction to his PR finery, but I can imagine that most will react much as they do, for example, to a foreigner's incomprehensible rantings about the Italian postal service - a shrug of the shoulders, interpretable thus: "That's Berlusconi, what else did you expect?"

Indeed. He's truly a law unto himself, and the product of a unique culture, full as it is of peculiarities and contradictions. Recently the man enacted a law that places members of certain offices (including his own, of course) above the law. In other words, all the corruption charges against him that lie wallowing in the glacial Italian courts are now irrelevant (or at least more irrelevant than they were, if that's possible). And by the time he's ousted from power, the statute of limitations will render those charges as valid as they are now.

I have to believe, though, that the "Obama effect" will have some effect on the youth of this country, and mobilize them into some degree of political awareness. But who knows, Berlusconi's term runs for another four-plus years, and that's a long time for political memory and consciousness to endure.

However, at a minimum everything points to Berlusconi losing his moniker as the US President's biggest pal. Hopefully that'll end up marginalizing him in the power corridors of Europe, and he'll finally be revealed as the fraud and crook that he is. I suspect, though, that this is all just wishful thinking - with Italy's anemic contribution to the Eurozone's faltering GDP, it's just not that important to the Germanies and the Britains and the Frances of this world: whoever the Italians want as their leader, let them have him, they've only got themselves to blame.

So here we, tingling in the afterglow of a historic global event, living in a country whose leader at best makes light of it, and at worst spews out barely-disguised racial insults. Meanwhile, the average Italian gets on with his or her life, struggling to make ends meet, ignoring him as they would an embarassing family member.

As for me, my lot doesn't really change much, I suppose, given my choice of challenge and discovery living in this country. But out here in the rolling hills of Le Marche, I'm thrilled to see the spirit of a nation rise up and bellow its undeniable wish for change. Each day now I feel I can get up with just a little more hope ... and the recognition that, along with millions of others, my vote did actually make a difference.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A transplant's dilemma

I'm confused. This is not an unusual occurrence, but this time it's unique - I'm not sure who I am.

It all stems from the decisions I make at the start of my day, and it all comes down to this - should it be a day of brawn, or a day of brains?

Indecisive as I am (I think), this is not the type of decision I've faced before, and as a result my indecisiveness is breaching new existential boundaries. In my old life, I used to get up and go to work - nice pressed clothes, sometimes a tie, and for the most part a corporate-type environment. Analyze, manage, liaise, plan. All pretty neat and compartmentalized.

Of course over the last couple of years prior to coming to Italy that existence took a slight turn in that I was working in the corporate environment three days a week, and freelance writing the other two. But still I was behind my desk at the computer, doing research, writing, and trying to find clients.

This last part of my life has followed me from the US to Italy, and while the change of location has indeed had a major impact - for example not being able to hop in the car and go and see my client, or even give them a call during my work hours - the essential elements of it remain within the realm of (my) known experience.

It's the other part that's thrown the spanner in the works, the cat amongst the pigeons, the clean finger-nails into the dirt. The wood's the most recent (and stark) example.

Since we heat our home and hot water using a fireplace - unlike others who use gas - we need to have a good stack of wood to do so. With prices running at around 13 euro per quintale (100 kg), and an annual need for around 40-50 quintale, any savings are eagerly sought. One of our neighbours, Giuliano, recently discovered a source selling high-quality oak for 8 euro a quintale. This is almost 40% below the going rate, and we jumped. Two trips later we had around 30 quintale lying on the ground ready to go into our brand spanking new wood-shed (which a friend and I built). Only we couldn't just load it, because it's in huge pieces. Pieces so large in fact, that I can barely lift them. Hence the price.

So I had to cut it up. Our bargain chain-saw - which according to the local chain-saw maintenance man is good for cutting the little twigs at the top of trees - has lived up to its price-quality promise and failed on several occasions. A unique screw, custom-made for the saw without which it can't operate, broke. I bought something vaguely similar and fashioned it according to my saw's need, and it now works better than the original.

But the screw's demise also signalled the demise of the chain, since it came off the rails when the screw broke and blunted several links so that they could no longer run in the guidebar's groove. New chain.

These time-consuming iterruptions didn't help overall progress, which itself is hardly racing ahead at break-neck speed. Chain-saw work, I'm finding, is actually hard work, not least when trying to saw through a three-foot-thick log with a chain-saw that doesn't reach through to the other side. My body's finding that there are muscles required that haven't been called on for a while, and their shock at being jolted into service has caused them to revolt after a long day's wood-cutting. Getting out of bed in the morning has, as a result, taken on a new significance, alerting my mind to the fact that I had so long taken it for granted. "No more" is the multi-layered message I'm getting loud and clear.

But the chain-saw's not all. In order to cut manageable longitudinal logs one has to employ a 7-kg long-handle hammer, with which one smashes cast-iron wedges into grooves one has cut into the top of the wood. Depending on the grain of the wood and the accuracy of the strike, the wood splits into nice wood-fire fodder. This effort, now in it's third full day and only halfway through the load, makes the chainsaw cutting seem like a gentle flexing of a well-used muscle. (Taking a pound - OK, a gram - of flesh out of one's finger on day one has the unsurprising consequence of not speeding things up either.)

Two consecutive days of this task are not possible to a white-collar, keyboard-centric professional like me. But the wood-pile still sits there, waiting to be hacked up. In my white-collar way, I have sequenced the chopping and stacking to leave the oldest (i.e. driest and best-burning) wood on the top of the pile.
Which means the stuff we need first is yet to be done. And now the rain is reportedly on the way. Not to mention the cold. In other words, I have to get it done - soon. Only my body's saying "Not today, please" while my mind's saying "Wood pile waiting to be cut, wood pile waiting to be cut."

Hence my confusion. Even as I type this - very gingerly thanks to my flesh-diminshed right index finger - I'm reminded of my quandary. My brain votes daily for a brawny session, while my body pleads for a cerebral journey into (something like) the impact of the Romans on today's world.

Of course I could simply gloss over the dilemma with the recognition that it's all very romantic - chopping wood in the Italian countryside so that we can heat our house in a natural, sort-of traditional way. Watching Maria pick the tomatos from one of our plants helps to enhance the feeling. And in fact, while I'm in the thick of the task, I must confess to a sort of wood-chopping, masculine enjoyment. It's actually a zen-like thing, as are most of the jobs one has to do in rural Italy. Which, after all, is where we'd like to be, us men, even if we don't readily know it - being brawny in the bliss of a "zenful" sweat.

It's just that morning feeling as I creak out of bed, asking the question whose answer will ultimately define our existence here: "Who am I today?"

Amalfi, Cilento, and a Greek surprise

There’s something about travelling on your own. Especially when it’s somewhere you’ve never been before, even more so when you know little about it.

That’s why my breath was taken away when I saw the massive columns glowing golden in the morning sunlight, a glorious surprise on the flat, uninteresting plains some 90 km south of Naples. Paestum is a gem, regardless of your expectations. Populated by the Greeks around 650 BC, it contains some of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world, and boy are they impressive. The fact that they’re still standing, pretty much intact, some 2,500 years after being built tells something of their amazing construction. But what strikes you most is their size – they’re absolutely massive, and built with a precision, grace, and scale that I’m doubtful could be produced today.

Called Poseidonia until the Roman takeover of 273 BC, the site not only reveals layers of history that cover centuries and different cultures, it also conjures visions of the spiritual world that its citizens lived in. Three main temples dominate the place, dedicated to two goddesses – two to Hera (the goddess of fertility and motherhood – Juno in the Roman world), one to Athena (goddess of wisdom and the arts – Minerva to the Romans).

The town was abandoned when deforestation silted up the rivers nearby, turning the area into a malaria-ridden marsh. Ironically, it was the marshland that ultimately saved the buildings from ransacking and destruction. I’ve been to the Parthenon in Athens, and seen the Pantheon and the Coliseum in Rome, but I have to say nothing prepared me for the grandeur of Paestum – for me they blew the other legendary sites away. Maybe it was my lack of expectation, or maybe not …

Paestum is on the northern end of the Cilento National Park, second largest in Italy. Combining stretches of rugged coastline with expanses of sandy beaches, it’s not as dramatic as the Amalfi Coast further north, but in many ways it offers more. There are a lot more places to swim, for example. And inland the Alburni Mountains rise rapidly, creating an entirely different atmosphere and environment, where cool forests offer misty vistas and miles of hiking trails. In fact, it’s been declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, giving the area the protection it needs to retain (at least some of) its distinctive character.

Tough job, though, in Italy – on the drive up to the sanctuary on the top of Mount Gelbison, trash littered the way up, just as it does on the steep coastal cliffsides. “National park” in Italy means something a little different from other places in the world – people carry on their normal lives here, living in their towns, farming their land, building their industry, disposing of their waste ... I know from our own area back in Marche that the parks protect certain fauna and flora, so I assume that this is how they achieve some sort of protective preservation. But like so many things in Italy, there’s a contradiction – people throw their rubbish out of the car window, but they won’t pick a flower because its protected …

I stayed two nights in Cilento – one at an inland agriturismo, where I enjoyed a hearty meat-based dinner, and one on the coast at a young couple’s B&B. In many ways it’s comparable with our own mountain-hill-coast combination in Marche, but it’s different in that the mountains are far closer to the sea in Cilento, and it’s coastline overall is more rugged, the Marche’s Conero section of the Adriatic coast being the only exception. Indeed, driving through the cool, green countryside inland reminded me of my own home further east. Had it been warmer, the beaches might have been more inviting, although finding the best spots proved frustrating and fruitless, with roads to Punto Licosa declaring “Private” and preventing me from satiating my curiosity and desire for exploration. But there’ll be a next time, there’s still lots to explore …

Before the Paestum and Cilento experience, I drove the renowned Amalfi coast, my first time. It is indeed dramatic and not for the faint-of-heart, but I must confess our “Sorrento squeeze” experience topped it for sweat-on-the-brow. Stopped in to look at the famed Amalfi cathedral, a Byzantine work of art supposedly housing the remains of St. Andrew, the town’s patron saint. Tourists everywhere, as one would expect, but I must say it’s really an appealing little town, nestled into the crook of a steep mountain valley as it descends to the sea. Left there with a rahter unwanted souvenir - a 36 euro parking ticket.

The drive through Salerno down to Agropoli at the northern edge of Cilento, however, was nothing special, with the long stretch of coastline offering a sort of second-class oceanside experience – run-down resorts, dusty towns, and a rather bland stretch of beach which didn’t really appeal despite its lengthy span. But I suppose one has to have the average in order to appreciate the special, and it served to speed up my arrival in Cilento, for which I’m unquestionably grateful.

Pictures to follow.

A milestone event (in pictures)

A (belated) pictorial companion to the verbal version here. Thanks to Anna Finn for all photos save the last.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A brown grotto, a perfect beach, and the Sorrento squeeze

If you go to Capri (pronounced CAH-pree as all those in the know are well aware), the Blue Grotto is likely to be on your itinerary. Go in the morning, when the lighting's just right, and the row-boats are there to take you inside.

We went in the afternoon - no boats. They normally leave just after lunch, since the grotto doesn't have the same appeal at that time of day. But today was different - they weren't there because the tidal swell apparently made it too dangerous. So we walked down the iron steps to look at a small bland opening in the side of a cliff - the entrance to the grotto. Having resigned myself to not seeing it, the sight of a young guy and his girlfriend diving into the water from a visiting boat and swimming into the cave didn't immediately flick a switch in me, but it did in John, and quick as a flash he was in. Carl and I followed, apprehensive but thankful for John's gusto.

It wasn't dangerous, and even though the lighting wasn't optimal, it was impressive, a luminescent glow under the water giving it a surreal feel. When we got out, we saw the sign absolutely forbidding swimming nailed to the rock face right above where we'd dived in.

Carl - a true gentleman (mostly) who's not only modest but is always thinking of the comfort of others - asked for my towel to wrap around himself so he could change modestly into his dry clothes. Since the place was deserted, I encouraged him to simply drop his swimming trunks and change right there. He did. That's when the boat full of sightseers came around the corner, with Carl bent over showing them his least romantic aspect. With smiles beaming from the passengers, Carl's frantic efforts to pull up his drawers served only to get his knickers in a knot (sorry). The only competition to Carl's strangled cries of embarrassment were the howls coming from John and me. (As mutual friends will attest, if there's one person you'd prefer to not have around during an embarrassing moment - out of the knowledge that it would never, ever be forgotten - it's John.)

For reasons that escape me, the phenomenon has since been officially renamed "the brown grotto."

As Carl said after our trip, our get-together is etched into his memory. It certainly is in ours, no doubt as it is for a number of tourists who decided to take a boat trip around the island.

Capri was one of the destinations of a 4-day trip that the three of us took to celebrate our 50th year. As I said in an earlier blog entry (here), a 50th birthday only happens once. But there's no reason you can't celebrate it several times. And there's absolutely no reason why one of those celebrations can't be a several-day affair in a cool place like Italy.

At least that's what a bunch of (aging) boys from a Durban North high school (South Africa) decided some nine months ago. My preference for having the celebration in Italy earned me the job of leading the organization effort - destination, accommodation, etc. Since "coast" and "action" led the field in terms of priority, we eventually settled on Sorrento, my first choice of Matera being a little too far from a major airport to be worthwhile for those coming from far and staying just a few days. The agreed date was the end of September, after the main summer season.

An initially enthusiastic group of about a dozen started seeing casualties in about April. Numbers dwindled steadily for all manner of reasons, and with just 3 remaining at the end of August, it looked doomed ... until the original instigator of the whole event (Carl) said: "I'm still in, who else is?" Another (John) re-joined the fray, while the timing unfortunately eliminated a third (Kevin). We were on.

Having driven the pleasant 6-hour journey from home in the morning of the 25th and checked into the hotel, I duly left in the evening to go and pick up Carl & John at what I thought would be an airport apt to a major urban center such as Naples. I was wrong. It took at least 45 minutes to find the sucker, Naples' road signs to Capodichino acting as an apparent deterrent to anyone with the odd idea of actually going there. Once I found it - dogged persistence being the only reason I did - it was a shambles, construction rendering it a site of pure Italian chaos, with cars parked at Picasso-like angles in places that you'd never imagine a car could go. Lucky their plane was several hours late, and the airport is the same size of that in Podunk, Idaho.

Sorrento itself, like Capri and Pompeii where we spent our first afternoon, is a quintessential tourist place, with a character moulded by the hordes of Englishmen, Americans, Germans, and French - not to mention the odd South African - that jam its streets, piazze, and mostly cater-to-the-tourist restaurants. Until late night, that is, when the young beautiful people of (probably) Naples and the surrounding areas gravitate to its main piazza. Perfect spot for a trio of 50-year-olds to "observe" the passing parade. (Sorry, one 50-year-old and two near-50-year-olds.) Bar Fauna took a good few euros from us on their overpriced beers and grappas as we watched the Italian proclivity for social interaction unfold. Since the Italians are not big drinkers, who needs to spend money at a bar or pay to get into a club when all you want to do is talk? Just as it's been for a thousand years and more, the piazza is the perfect place for hooking up, and all three of us are very glad that it is.

Our other memorable destination, unfortunately without an embarrassing tale to hang on it, was the beach at Marina del Cantone on the inside of the Sorrento peninsula. Cupped by a curving mountain ridge, its pebbled beach was the perfect spot to recline and relax with a few beers and a few swims to clear the head from the night before. With mostly Italian families wandering the beach (mostly in jeans and long-sleeved shirts), the ideal setting sparked thoughts of another reunion with families in the Torre Turbolo ( just a short walk away. Maybe ...

One last quintessential Italian experience deserves mention. As we attempted to drive out of Sorrento on the Sunday morning, my penchant for finding "quick" backstreet routes found us in a long alley that seemed to have been built hundreds of years ago. In other words, it was narrow. Very narrow. So narrow, in fact, that we couldn't get through it with my side mirrors folded out. When we came to a corner - more of a kink in the road, actually - it took a few inch-long back-and-forward maneuvers to get through it. "How am I doing on that side John?" typically earned a response that I should move more to my side, where my elbow was scraping the side walls. Carl's picturing the arrival of an oncoming car didn't help. Our sparse conversation in thin voices confirmed the reason for my white knuckles on the steering wheel, and I had visions of having to go for help to haul us out of there ... except that none of us could actually get out of the car. Eventually, the alley emptied us out on to another sidestreet, one where I could actually flip out my side mirrors - it felt like a six-lane highway. The smell of a burning clutch filled the car and our trailing path as an acrid legacy. The guy working in his garage gave us a bemused, puzzled smile as we went by, no doubt wondering how the hell we'd ended up there. Somehow, we made it without a single scratch, but the sweat pouring off my brow told a different story. The "Sorrento squeeze", I call it.

So now it's come and gone. All the hours I spent in doing my research for it are done, and - as a major event in my life - in a way I'm just a little sad that it's now past, perhaps because of the lengthy months of anticipation. Not having seen Carl for 26 years, and only seeing John every 5 or so, we slotted in as a threesome as if we'd been travelling together for ages. In retrospect, it couldn't have been plotted any better, I just wish it could have lasted a little longer.

Carl and John left on the Monday morning to head back to their respective homes in Cape Town and Jersey. For my part, I headed down the Amalfi Coast and then further south, on another journey of discovery. But that's the subject of another tale ...

[For a few pictures of our Sorrento soiree, go here:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Tuscan grape harvest

Merlot is not a wine grape that one would typically associate with Italy. More often than not you'll run into its better-known cousins such as Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Barbera, but in recent decades Merlot has been making inroads, often as one of the varietals blended with Tuscany's renowned Chiantis.

Some people, however, have a particular penchant for Merlot, and have dedicated themselves to it exclusively. Mario Madiai is one of those people. On his country home just outside Livorno, he produces about 1,000 bottles of his own Merlot every year. He picks his grapes - as do most - when the sugar content reaches a certain level. This year it was September 11th. We were lucky enough to be there to help him pick a few of them.

Mario is an artist of some renown. His specialty is red roses. He hand-paints the labels for each bottle of his annual harvest. He also happens to be the father-in-law of my Indian friend Yogesh from my Columbus days. And that's how we were lucky enough to take part in this quintessential Italian tradition.

I'll have to admit that the mention of the "harvest lunch" was perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of it all beforehand - visions of a large home-made feast piled high on the table with a large boisterous group quaffing good local vintages under an autumn Tuscan sky. It was like that ... only better.

Picking grapes was of course fun and a little sapping given that it was a boiling hot day. (In fact, such was the state of the dryness that the Madiai's well dried up, leaving the house without water (twice), an event that would have thrown most people into a state of panic on such a day. Not here though - it didn't take long before one of the local neighbours was chugging along the dirt road to the farm with a large tank of water on his tractor's trailer.)

And the "harvest lunch" didn't only live up to expectations - it exceeded it. Francesca's mother, Enrica, put so much into it that it couldn't have been much fun for her, given the scope and demands of such an undertaking. Under the spreading pinyon tree with the classic rolling hills of Tuscany stretching off into the distance, plate after plate of home-made antipasti, pasta, and meat cooked in the brick oven came rolling out to a table of companionship, relaxation, and mirth.

These were all wonderful things, and worth the trip. But what made it extra-special were - not surprisingly - the people. Catching up with Yogesh, and meeting his wife and children for the first time was just as one hopes such events to be - warm and interactive. Yogi's friendly brother and wife added further colour to the reunion. Francesca's family - from mother and father to sisters and boyfriends - welcomed us like good friends, opening up their hearts and homes with genuine warmth and ease. And our fellow grape-pickers were chirpy, playful, and interested in us. I'm sure such warmth exists all around the world in its own way, but there's something very distinctive about the Italian personality and their open arms and their welcoming smiles.

Then there's the house, a huge stone beauty in the middle of an expansive open area with gentle hills surrounding it, and a calm, at-home feel about it. It took Mario and Enrica 3 years to renovate it, taking meticulous care to give it its original character - simple, strong, stylish, serene. Maria fell in love with it.

As one would expect, a trip to a wine harvest involves a certain amount of contact - one way or another - with wine. In this respect, we were doubly blessed. Both Mario and his daughter's sommelier boyfriend, Massimo, know their wines. I say this in a way of deliberate understatment - they know their wines in a way that makes them unique among my circle of friends and acquaintances. On the night before the harvest, Massimo treated our palates to the most mouth-watering, distinctive, cant-have-enough white wine experience of my life. Just when we were getting over the raptures of one wine, believing we'd reached the end of the quality road, he ordered another one which matched it and took us charging off down another vinous lane of ecstacy. All of them were Italian, most of them from the north. On the evening of the wine harvest, we lazed around the table savoring the renowned quality of a few Californian Zinfandels. Once again - just as my humble palate was heaving itself up from another ecstatic collapse, Mario and Massimo delivered their verdicts: OK, not great, good ... Oh that my life could count such sensual experience as "the norm" ...

These memories will live with us for a long time - they're etched in there for good. We're still talking about the trip, and how lucky we are to have had the opportunity. After all, experiences like this one and the kind of people we met are precisely why we came to this country.

[For a pictorial rendition of the trip, go here:]

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A milestone event (in words)

It's not every day that one turns 50. In fact, there's only one such day in every (honest) man's life. And since it's a pretty significant ring on the trunk, it should be celebrated. We did. In fine style.

Of course, being in Italy only adds to the flavour of it all. The day of my birthday itself (Thursday 4th September) was a quiet, relatively uneventful day - a swim in the lake (after the clouds had come and the chilly wind had arrived), and a somewhat disappointing dinner at one of the touted local restaurants serving quintessential marchigiani fare.

But it was two days later - on Saturday 6th - that the milestone was consummated. It started out as a surprise party, but given all the preparation necessary, along with my periodic jabber about "what we're going to do on my birthday", I was soon helping (in a peripheral sort of way). Maria, along with the sterling efforts of friends Janette and Chiara, threw together a shindig that will go down in the annals of serious parties (and I've been to - and thrown - a few).

With a mixed crowd of our ex-pat and Italian neighbours and friends - split about 50:50 - we fired up the brick wood-burning oven for the first time and cooked around 30 delicious home-made pizzas. Giuliano - one of our neighbours - played the saviour and stepped in to direct (and ultimately took over from) our flailing efforts to get it going. And with the willing helping hands of his wife Ivana, another neighbour Giuliano and his sister-in-law Sabina, the production line clicked into full swing. Platters of steaming pizzas came flowing thick and fast - mozarella with tomato, onion, prosciutto, eggplant, mushroom, zucchini, many with a zing that required a swift response in the form of (the second) Giulano's family farm wine - a rich and edgy chateau di Regnano of the highest order.

When the birthday cake came out, I gave a (very) short speech in Italian, to the appreciation of all the locals.

As midnight approached and some of the neighbours were about to leave - some ex-pats had already scarpered - Janette and Chiara brought out "the present": a multi-layered wrapping with an anecdote from my life in each layer. These were translated into Italian for the locals. There weren't too many embarassing revelations, just stuff that added meat to the skeleton character that they'd all known up to now. Once that was done, the locals went off home, leaving just 9 of us.

And that's when it started. Pushing the volume capabilities of my laptop stereo to the brink, we blasted out a mix of old and contemporary music across the hills of rural Le Marche - Manfred Mann, 4 Non Blondes, Queen, Rihanna, Mattafix, Massive Attack, Madonna, Boston, Angelique Kidjo, Animal Logic, and still others. And we danced, none more freely - read "wildly out-of-control" - than my dear wife, who let go like I've never seen before, throwing herself around like the black-leather-jacket, rockin' German she is. It was wonderful to watch. The others left at around 4, we tidied up a little (or rather Maria tidied up a lot, me a little), and relaxed on the mattress outside to the strains of my favourite, more sedate music - Bruce Cockburn, Django Haskins, Lisa Gerrard, Aimee Mann, Bandits, Oystein Sevag, amongst others. Bedtime 5:30am.

I don't know when last I went to bed that late, or when I let rip quite as freely as that. But 50 be damned - I'll still be doing that (God-willing) when I'm 80.

Perhaps more significant than the milestone birthday that it was, was the feeling of being at home. Every single Italian neighbour turned up ... and stayted until the (pre-rave) death, outlasting quite a few of the younger ex-pats. I won't pretend that it's me that has fostered such goodwill in them, it's Maria, who's out there interacting far more frequently and freely than I do. But they look on us as a family, and they'll be there for us just as they'll be there for another neighbour.

I may not ever completely integrate into this country and its people, but one thing I'm pretty sure of - when it comes to the community we've chosen to live our lives, we've done pretty well.

And another thing - I'm happy here.

(Photo version to follow)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Talking of food ...

Say "Italy" and I'd wager a good 6 times or more out of 10 the knee-jerk response would be "pasta" or "spaghetti" or some other gastronomic impulse. This is no accident. Every single citizen of this country has a gene that renders them both willing and unwitting marketers of arguably their most renowned cultural facet: their cuisine. It's as if they're swept along on a sort of wave cast by the gourmand magician's wand, riding it boisterously and happily in blissful ignorance of their role in perpetuating an enviable tradition.

It's a little difficult to work out which is the proverbial chicken and which the egg in all of this - did the food come first, followed by the enthusiasm for it ... or did their desire for things sensual produce, inter alia, the most exquisite tavola? It doesn't really matter - it is what it is, and the world is truly thankful for it.

Most intriguing in this epicurean theatre - replete with its din of gestures and noisy camaraderie - is the role of the male. Not any and every male (although I suspect it's the vast majority), just those that don't spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen. They are, in my experience, the most eager to expound on the specialties of their regions ... the key ingredients of a ragu sauce ... the best place to find fresh (insert foodstuff here).

Two classic examples.

First, Pepe, our neighbour who lives in Bari in Puglia, and who visits his mother's house in Regnano several times a year. She (nonna) seldom comes these days, having now reached the age that her physical condition keeps her back in Bari. When she is here, though, you'll find her - blue scarf wrapped around her head in the way that makes all the older woman seem related if not clones of each other - bent over like a hook, scavenging the fields for cicoria or nettles or some other green leaf that grows wild in the fields.

Perhaps Pepe got his knowledge from his mother, or perhaps from his wonderful cook of a wife, Anna. But it's most certainly as a looker-on, albeit a mighty observant one, that Pepe's knowledge derives. When quizzed by Maria - as Anna slaved over the dishes after another of her prodigious feasts - whether or not he helped in the kitchen, Pepe responded that he had tried washing up once before, but he didn't like it so he doesn't do it any more. He wasn't joking.

But he can tell you exactly which ingredients to use for the perfect penne arrabiata ... what it is that makes pugliese bread so delicious ... and how long you should blanch the beans before taking them off the stove and mixing it with the ubiquitous olive oil and I forget what else. He's a gem, though, genuinely caring for our well-being, and - it goes without saying - the satiation of our appetites.

The second instance was on a hike with some 15 or so Italians on the premier festa of all summer feste - ferragosto (which falls on 15th of August and whose origins deserve a blog entry all of its own). Now going on a hike with a group of Italians (the word "large" is superfluous here) is an experience of an entirely different kind from a hike anywhere else that I've been, and is one to be savoured and enjoyed for its very uniqueness. However, that's not the point here.

The point is, after we'd had our various sandwich lunches and roused ourselves from the gentle slumbers that the food and the hot day had induced, somehow the topic got around to food. (There is a saying that all roads lead to Rome - perhaps that has some sort of proverbial significance here with respect to conversations and food.) Claudio - a really interesting guy who paints frescos and collects ancient stone implements - launched the first salvo, proclaiming with deep sincerity and mouth-watering conviction his unflinching and passionate loyalty to dried pasta (as opposed the fresh kind made with egg). He reeled off all sorts of shapes and incarnations of his culinary elixir, but I don't remember any of them. I do, however, remember his face - alive, sparkling, ecstatic, as he reeled off his heavenly weak spots. For a consistently fascinating and fascinated fellow, he rose to height that I hadn't seen before.

Sitting some distance away, Giuglio, normally a (very) silent, smiling chap, was immediately drawn to the topic, like a moth to a flame. Over he came and joined in with a verbosity that might even have surprised Carla, his wife. He bubbled with mirth - for what seemed a disproportionately long time - at the recollection of a friend of his who had once eaten pasta for breakfast. He took on a new persona for me in that moment.

It was indeed a spectacular hike, through a narrow, towering gorge with a crisp river that we had to wade through up to our knees. I'll remember it for that, no doubt. But I'll remember it more for the simple joy of that conversation, when everything else stopped and fell away, and the lifeblood of the Italian passion came charging to the surface, eager to be heard ... and shared.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bureaucracy bondage

Bureaucracy is an evil that of necessity one has to deal with in any country, doubly so when you move from one country to another. When one of those countries is Italy, the bureaucracy factor disappears into the stratosphere. But like all things Italian, it's not a static, predictable thing - it's dynamic (not in an energetic sense) and mostly very difficult to predict. I even suspect that the bureaucrat dealing with whatever's in front of them feels very much the same way - heads: reject, tails: ask for another form, coin stands on its edge: approve.

But I shouldn't be critical or cynical - the research I'm doing for a book about moving to Italy asserts that the way I came into this country and got my permission to stay (permesso di soggiorno) is actually impossible, can't be done, against the law, don't even think of trying it. I can only assume that I was a benefactor of the other side of that Italian bureaucratic coin - the Italian character.

Anyway, my permesso di soggiorno, the very thing that allows me to stay here, expires on September twenty-something. (See here for a blog entry on the original application process.) Three months before the due date, I start making inquiries. Coincidentally, at the same time I'm in the process of updating the very section of aforementioned book that deals with residence permits. Turns out - after clarification of the contradictory terms of the law - that I can actually work here legally thanks to my matrimonial state with an EU citizen. This is a revelation to me, I actually thought I was prohibited from working. I guess I can now follow up on that list of job offers that have poured in over the past months.

The application process - along with the law - all changed last year, and now one submits the application through the Post Office. This fills me with trepidation. When I finally get all the paperwork together - 40 pages of it! - I have to hand it over to a clerk working for an organization that routinely loses things, some of them very big things, like the box I sent from the US two years ago that never arrived. On top of it, I arrive to hand in the application just as they're closing, meaning they're all anxious to head off for lunch. But what can I do? I hand it over, and hold my breath ... only to be pleasantly surprised ...

Two weeks later I get three things - a web site where I can check the status of my application, and a text message on our cell phone, which says I have an appointment at the immigration office on December 12th. The text message even agrees with what the web site says. And then a letter arrives, confirming what the other media have already said. I am wary to start changing my view prematurely, but I'm now looking at all of this with a cocked head, creased eyes, and a curious, questioning, twisted pursing of the lips - is the system actually ... working?

I can actually vouch for the fact that the bureaucracy is indeed working exactly as intended in another arena of the government's grasp on my life - taxes. Now based on everything I've researched - and believe me the info I've found would fill more than a small book - I have no idea where I'm actually meant to pay income taxes. But given my belief that I wasn't allowed to work here, I decide to file in the US (which has a worldwide taxation policy for its lucky citizens). Hours and hours later, head bulging with with the instruction of numerous regulations, I fill in my 40 forms and find out that despite my meagre earnings in 2007, due to my status as a self-employed individual, I owe - guess what? - self-employment tax. Off it goes, once again into that black hole that is the Italian Postal Service, and lo and behold it finds its way to its intended destination.

On the Italian side, things work differently. Maria worked here last year, and so has to file a tax return, even though employers have to deduct and submit taxes from each month's payslip (i.e. PAYE). But unlike the US, where a tax return form arrives at your doorstep comfortably in time to file before April 15th, there's no such notification in Italy. Now I acknowledge that this isn't such a big deal. What is a big deal is getting the right form, accurately filled out, from her prior employers. With the due date have sailed languorously by a few months ago, we still don't have it.

More intriguing to me, though, are the other taxes. Two in particular - rifuti and ICI. Rifuti is for waste removal, ICI is property tax. You don't get notified that it's due, when it's due, and how much is due. You just have to know these things. If you don't go and pay, you're likely to get a bill in a few year's time with substantial penalties and interest. Interestingly, Berlusconi decided to abolish ICI for primary homes, but there's no official announcement (as far as I'm aware), it just sort of acquiesces.

[Update - with a uniquely Italian flair for the deadpan-faced prank, our rifuti bill arrived in the mail the day after I posted this entry to the blog.]

As far as taxes go, I think I'll miss ICI, even though I never had to pay it. As I understand its machinations, you march down to the comune, tell them what you think your house is worth, they then work out what you owe. So effectively you're telling them what you think you should pay. Now if I absolutely have no option but to pay tax, this is the kind that I could live with.

As for rifuti, you follow a similar path down to the comune office, tell them how big your house is, and they tell you how much to pay. Now it's not a huge amount, but my (thankfully) spendthrift wife tries to save on everything she can, and after an appeal to the woman behind the counter, she got a discount!

And you wonder why I love it here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cost of living in the Italian countryside

The other day I filled up my car. I was horrified, not because the pump just stopped before the tank was full, but because it took 78 big old euros to get that far ... and it still wasn't finished - the pump was somehow set automatically at that amount, and so it didn't even fill up the tank. €78??? That translates to about $114, or R893 (South African rands).

Such is the price of living in the Eurozone. It prompted me to thinking that those of you in the netherlands (USA, South Africa, the UK, and other places) might find it interesting to know what it costs to live here. So I put together a list of day-to-day items. (In truth, I didn't just do this for the blog - I have a couple of assignments that were looking for this info.)
The grocery items come from a local co-operative and include in-season fruit and vegetables, which are either more expensive or simply not available out of season.

Shopping basket Euro South African Rand US $
Loaf of rustic bread 2.03/kg 23.24/kg 1.36/pound
Milk 1.25/liter 14.31/liter 6.95/gal
6-pack of coke 2.64 30.23 3.88
Bottle of table wine 3-5 34-57 4.50-7.35
6-pack of beer 3.76 43 5.53
Mineral water 0.45/1.5 liter 5.15/1.5 liter 0.66/1.5 liter
Sugar 0.90/kg 10.31/kg 0.60/pound
Coffee 2.05/205g 23.50/250g 5.47/pound
Free-range chicken 4.30/kg 49.25/kg 2.87/pound
Ground beef 6.00/kg 68.70/kg 4.00/pound
Pork chops 4.90/kg 56.11/kg 3.27/pound
Norwegian salmon 7.90/kg 90.50/kg 5.28/pound
Prosciutto 19.80/kg 226.70/kg 13.23/pound
Bananas 1.69/kg 19.35/kg 1.13/pound
Peaches 1.89/kg 21.65/kg 1.26/pound
Onions 1.28-2.45/kg 14.66-28.05/kg 0.86-1.64/pound
Potatoes 0.86-1.14/kg 9.85-13.05/kg 0.57-0.76/pound
Zucchini 0.89-1.49/kg 10.20-17.05/kg 0.59-1.00/pound
Carrots 0.89/kg 10.19/kg 0.59/pound
Tomatoes 1.48-1.98/kg 16.95-22.67/kg 0.99-1.32/pound
Quality Pecorino (sheep's milk) cheese 14.50/kg 166/kg 9.69/pound
Italian butter 1.66/250g 19/250g 4.43/pound
Eggs per 1/2 dozen 1.32 15.10 1.94
Spaghetti 0.86/500g 9.85/500g 1.15/pound
Olive oil 5.05-9.59/liter 57.80-109.80/liter 7.42-14.10/liter
Monthly costs for running a 2000 sq ft (200 sq m) farmhouse Euro South African Rand US $
Water & electricity 60 687 88
Gas (for cooking, hot
water and heating) – winter
375 4294 551
Gas (for cooking and hot
water) – summer
100 1145 147
Fixed phone(moderate-significant international calling) 50 572 74
Cell phone 30 343 44
Hi-speed internet 25 286 37
Satellite TV 45 515 66
Going out Euro South African Rand US $
Movie tickets for 2 w/popcorn & 2 sodas 18 206 26.50
Dinner for 2: 3-course + wine 50 575 74
Espresso 0.80 9.15 1.18
Local beer 2.50 28.65 3.70
Car expenses Euro South African Rand US $
Gasoline 1.47/liter 16.83/liter 8.18/gal
Diesel 1.44/liter 16.50/liter 8.01/gal
Car insurance per year (bare bones for 10-year-old car) 1200 13740 1764

Monday, August 25, 2008

HRH: pre-teen going on 20 ... or 70







This is the regal telephone diction of HRH. He's rather more eloquent with us, but only sometimes, and only just. I guess it's the age, and the concomitant slide into monosyllabic taciturnity.

This summer, a new habit has evolved - the Urbisaglia get-together. Urbisaglia is the little town just 10 minutes away where HRH goes to school. His mates live there. They go out to the local piazza and campo (field) on a daily basis to play football and "hang out" (one of HRH's more verbose phrases).

We typically drop him off at about 4 or 5pm, and pick him up as close to midnight as we can manage. Italians are night owls, and their children get inducted into their ways when they're still toddlers, so there are often plenty of them still milling about when we pick up HRH. Needless to say, this "early" pick-up is not the most popular of our parental actions.

I must confess that rural Italy is probably one of the few places I'd feel comfortable about doing this. I'm sure he'll want to start moving further afield the older he gets - he's already started talking about getting an Ape when he's 14 (fat chance) - so maybe our concerns will grow accordingly then. Last year it was Colmurano, this year Urbisaglia, next year ....?

But even then it's not a major problem - the local comune puts on buses to the discos on the coast a half-hour away that pick them up at 11pm on a Saturday night and bring them back in the wee hours. Now that's what I call a pro-active attempt at keeping the youth happy and keeping them safe at the same time. But in any event, I'm hoping the fairly frequent presence of girls in the current crowd helps to motivate a more "local" interest.

Last night I went to pick him up just before midnight at one of the local bars. Now this is not the type of bar you'd find in the US or the UK or South Africa, for example. Here they're gathering points for the village, probably the biggest item they sell is coffee, and anyway heavy drinking is not something one finds in rural Italy.

The boys had gone down to watch the Inter Milan - Roma derby on TV. When I arrived, they were playing cards on one of the outside tables. Just across from them on another table, the 60 and 70 year-olds were also playing cards. Both tables were engaged in rapid-fire chattering, loud remonstrating, and hand-led gesticulating as is the Italian wont. I had to do a double-take. For a moment I thought I was looking at a superimposition of future time against the present - which one of the old guys was HRH?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Colmurano Go Kart Grand Prix in pictures

The setting

Didn't quite come out as intended, but the sweeping colours are interesting

Through the neighbourhood

Avid potential go kart buyers (HRH at center)

More unintentional waves