Monday, June 30, 2008

A Grande day

Up in the Apennine mountains in a bowl surrounded by soft, curved hills is a wonderful place. It’s called Piano Grande, and is actually just across the regional border in Umbria. It’s famous for its thin-skinned lentils grown in checkered fields that deck the plain, every year yielding a crop of wonderful wildflowers in late June. The phenomenon is celebrated in the form of an annual festa in the Piano’s sole village perched on a mound on its northern edge. In typical Italian fashion, the town has a rhythmic, tongue-satisfying name – Casteluccio. Last Sunday, we went there.

The spectacular weather attracted throngs, and as we sauntered through the shady, oak-covered avenues in the valley en route, we were constantly overtaken by bikers buzzing like black insects toward the honey pot. Biking is a very popular weekend sport here, particularly among the curving mountain roads in our neighborhood. For some reason – maybe it’s a biker thing – they’re always in a hurry, which means, given the innate and unchangeable habits of the Italian driver, a constant dance with the wild side: overtaking on solid white lines (what lines?), speeding by on the other side on blind curves (who's blind?), and generally making a mad dash to get there … and do nothing. It’s all black leather, making everyone look the same, so it’s always intriguing getting to a communal stop to see who’s actually underneath all that black – anyone and everyone, as it turns out, and – in this country – pretty much as you’d expect.

Casteluccio has a permanent population of about 3, and on festival days, 30,000. Cars are parked all the way down the approaching roads in typical Italian fashion: eclectic, avante-garde style. The numerous mammoth coaches slow things down to a crawl, and jam up the village’s piazza, but it doesn’t matter – it’s festa time and all that’s important is that you’re there in some way or other. Chaos, after all, is what Italians thrive on, it’s like a life juice that injects them with an oblivious energy that makes everything just OK.

Ignoring the apparently obvious requirement to park a kilometer away, we crawl into the piazza, and scoot up a sidestreet, finding a parking on a precipitous slope just 50m from the action. Why everyone else isn’t doing this is anyone’s guess – I thought that finding obscure but convenient parking places was a national pastime.

Anyway, after spending a nano-second on that thought, off we go to explore. In the town itself, there are only three things to do – browse the few stores for the local products (lentils, salami, cheese, and curios), watch the people … and eat (of course). We did all three, crushing into a busy diner-cum-restaurant that had a single, heaving line to get in and out. Amongst the many dishes available, Julius and I had the compulsory lentil and sausage soup – more like a stew but delicious. My son then followed this up – much to our surprise since his appetite has shrunk since his eating-machine days – with a monster of a porchetta sandwich: whole roasted pig, a specialty of the larger region and an absolute must if you have the stomach for it. To our even greater surprise, he flattened it, and left sated and satisfied, hands and mouth glistening with grease.

We then took a drive up a bumpy dirt road that leads to who-knows-where up and around the corner, and stopped to watch the group of hang- and para-gliders readying themselves and throwing themselves off the slope and into mid-air. It reminded me of Douglas Adams’ flying instruction manual: throw yourself at the ground … and miss. Well, miss they did, these fellows, most of them English, it seemed, and went soaring over the plains and some of them up into the stratosphere, gliding peacefully some few thousand feet above the central Apennines’ highest peak, Vettore. There’s actually a school for such ventures not far from where we live, and watching these guys do what birds do – apparently as easily as they do too – took me another step closer to being convinced that I want to do it too. We shall see, maybe it’ll be my 50th birthday present to myself, although my Italian would need to improve in order to be able to understand all of the instruction and increase chances of survival.

After a couple of hours of this, down we went into the plains to get a close-up of the flowers. Not inordinately spectacular, I have to confess, but given the peaceful setting, buzzing with happy visitors lying down in the fields posing for photos, there was little to criticize.

Driving back at the settling dusk, I was reminded why I came here (notwithstanding my son’s unfathomable tantrum). Sure there are other beautiful places like this all over Europe and the world, but this one is just an hour from my house. And it’s an experience – bikers, congestion, food, gliders, throngs, and more – that you could only have in Italy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Contrasts and contradictions

About a year ago, a friend visiting from South Africa pondered our move as he stood looking at the shell of our house in the early stages of renovation. “I’m trying to get my head around your life here,” he said. His words echo frequently as I do my own share of pondering our life here, full as it is with contrasts and contradictions.

We get our honey from one neighbour, eggs from another, milk from a third. Our vegetable patch is doing OK given the lack of attention it’s received, but we had a few delicious meals from our first crop of the season – the fava beans.

In between, I do research on the internet and write for my American and Irish clients. Last Saturday, I watched South Africa play Wales in a rugby international, and on Sunday I watched Rafael Nadal win the French Open. Tonight I’ll watch Italy play France in Euro 2008.

I can go days without speaking Italian. Over the past three weeks, I’ve had to dust off my improvised German for Maria’s visiting friends and family, causing my hard-wired brain untold confusion and my bumbling speech to substitute languages with reckless abandon.

I suppose it is a little more complicated than it used to be in some ways, but it most ways, it isn’t. The simplicity of it is calming, even if the pressure to make money – a greater challenge here for me than ever before – isn’t.

But I’m reminded every now and then how different my life is - not only from my old life - but also from so many people around us, the locals in particular – what constitutes a good day, what a crisis is, how I earn a living … the list goes on.

A week or so ago a particular event brought it home in a jarring, etched-in-the-memory type of way. When we went to collect our milk from the farmer across the valley, I noticed one of the cows lying on its side next to the road. Thinking this an unusual posture for a bovine, I looked closer, and noticed a long gash in its neck. The cow-hand (a woman) came over and told me that it wasn’t well (pointing to its swollen leg) and so they slashed its throat. As we watched, it was eking out its last, moaning and groaning as the life bled out of its neck.

Mi dispiace” (I’m sorry), the woman kept saying matter-of-factly, which is pretty much how they must have come to the decision not half an hour before our arrival. And then led the cow across the road to its death gutter.

I suppose this sort of thing shouldn’t bother me, but it simply points to how different an upbringing and life I’ve had. People like me imagine life in the rolling hills of Italy to be romantic. It may be so, but it’s also real – perhaps a lot more real than I’ve ever experienced.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

From the land where nothing is straight-forward

There is no peace for the wicked … no such thing as a free lunch … no gain without pain … one forward, three back – you name it, there’s a cliché out there to describe our experience here.

Take our internet connection – my life-changing internet connection, chronicled here – for instance. Everything went fine for a couple of weeks. Even our neighbour backed off when I was able to string the cable a couple of metres off the ground, allowing him to cut the brush below it.

But then the inevitable happened – failure. During a storm. Just quietly shut down.

So down I go to the internet store – my network port is dead. Well, not dead really – the system knows it’s there, but it just didn’t work. No-one knew why.

So they gave me a network adapter that plugged into my PCMCIA slot. Worked like a charm … until the next storm (two days later). Down it went again.

Back to the internet store – network adapter’s dead. No problem with the antenna or my computer during and after the storm, mind. They were puzzled.

So they gave me a different type of network adapter, one that plugs into a USB port. Again, no problem … until the next rain, that is (two days later).

Now, at the best of times, this would have been a frustrating experience, but with two looming deadlines and a bucket-load of online research to do, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

But we soldier on. Down to the internet store again – now this network adapter is dead. The techie’s suggestion? Get an exorcist. He chuckled when he said that, and in a different scenario, I might have joined him.

He and his techie partners are flummoxed – they don’t know what’s causing it. So as a last resort, he gave me a network filter to moderate the signal coming through. Of course I had to get another network adapter, but since I had already blown the only two they had at the store (they only have a call for about two a year, since, in their words, “they never fail”), I had to go and get it somewhere else.

The store down the road was closed – permanently, it seems (their timing from my selfish standpoint was perfect, of course). The other store had to order it, and it took a day to arrive (not bad, given where I am).

In the meantime, my deadlines came and went, and I scrambled through them by to-ing and fro-ing to the internet store, where my wireless card – a useless piece of equipment so far in this neck of the woods – got me onto their network.

But the new network card has a gimpy connection, so I lost the connection the second time I tried it. I was distraught, thinking that the ghost was still in the machine. And hoping the fact that I got the network cable outside caught up in the weed-eater (strimmer) yesterday wasn’t the reason for it. Luckily, a firm push and the network card connected.

The network filter, however, needs to be properly earthed, something I’m led to believe will require an electrician. Which means a phone call & an appointment, neither of which has happened yet. So the filter is not operational yet.

As a result, the network adapter gets disconnected when rain threatens, which right now is daily, for several prime working hours. Last week it rained solidly for 3 days.

And so when the weather starts turning, I have to do something else – like cut the lawn, weed the vegetable patch, install something …

Yes indeed here we are in the Italian countryside, mixing vegetable growing with internet surfing.

But only when the weather’s good.