Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cosmopolitan rural Italy

Our local village's annual arts in the street festival (Arti Strada) is on again right now. It's brilliant - top class music, dance, magicians, performance art, painting and sculpture, along with the requisite stalls selling perfumed candles, rings, ornaments, and a host of other interesting stuff. Not to mention tarot card and palm readers next to the fortune teller. It's arranged along much the same lines as last year's event, which is chronicled here, so I won't go into it in detail.

But there is one thing about the festival that prompted some reflections about living here. I was standing mesmerised watching a band playing, applauding loudly at the end of a piece when a friend tapped me on the shoulder and said: "That was worth coming here for, wasn't it?"

Indeed it was - a rhythmic, energetic, infectious world beat number played by a band thrown together from immigrants that gather in a piazza in Genova. They're from all over the world - Russia, Brazil, Morocco, China, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Senegal, and - believe it or not - Italy. Here in our little corner of rural Marche, a region that none of the 20-strong band had been to before, a world-class act playing just for the couple of hundred of us swaying enthusiastically with them.

And while they were the top billing, they weren't the only top notch performers from far afield. Uruguay, Australia, Holland, Spain, Chile, Macedonia, Congo, and Honduras were all represented as well. I could have been almost anywhere.

The international flavour of the day didn't end there. The friend watching the band with me is Scottish, an author and illustrator of books on goblins, legends, and spirits from all over the world. And earlier in the day as we sat on the beach, a Venezuelan who used to play baseball for the White Sox in Chicago struck up a conversation with us. He lives not too far from us with his Italian wife.

Who would have thunk that we'd be rubbing shoulders with such an eclectic mix in this place? It's not an isolated occurrence either. While this weekend was perhaps a little more concentrated on the international flavour front, interacting with "foreigners" is a fairly regular occurrence. And that's not including the many English people here, their community on its own offering layers of class, outlook, and soap opera happenings on a daily basis - there are also Australians, Americans, Argentinians, Kosovari, Albanians, Senegalese, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Moroccans, and still others.

Then of course there are also the locals, who provide their own distinct essence in an already rich patchwork. Vitaliano, our contadino neighbour, has likely seldom ventured much further than Macerata, a half-hour away. In contrast, our other neighbour, pensioner Franco, has travelled more than I have, in his days with Italian oil company Agip reaching distant parts of South America, North, Central and South Africa, and the Middle East. He still doesn't speak English, but it didn't stop us spending an Arti Strada night together, sharing travel stories and enjoying the music, him tapping his 70-year-old feet along with the teenagers surrounding us.

It's a veritable surprise of diversity. In a country known for its xenophobia, more pronounced in its rustic reaches than the urban sprawl, it's just another contradiction in the mass of anomalies that somehow hold Italy together.

It's a wonderful thing. As I look out of my office over the rolling hills at the breeze blowing the cotton-wool clouds gently across the cielo azzurro, bringing a welcome coolness to the air, I can only think how lucky I am to be here.

Our garden in pictures

A few pictures from our own little plot of turf. While some of the colourful products of our garden had us to thank for their robust vibrance, many are entirely free of our intervention, helpful or otherwise.

First up, a few cherries. Delicious they were, as the birds I'm sure would agree.

This rose had Maria to thank for its survival and ravishing health.

Growing wild ...

... as are these.

An onion blossom.

A couple of onion blossoms getting to know each other a little better.

Corn flowers a long way from the corn.

Four existing hibiscus bushes decided to burst forth this summer after taking a year off. No thanks to us either.

This yellow broom has likely seen its last season as a wood stack is destined to take its place.

Another wild guest.

And another Maria rose.

Flowers from our flourishing potato plants.

More cherries ... and an apple.

Talking of apples ...

And finally, another wild, unaided member of our colourful throng.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The three P's of wisdom in rural Italy

As things start taking on a semblance of normality, there is occasionally the time to think. Make no mistake, there is still plenty to do before we could say the house is "phase 1 finished":

- light fixtures to replace the blatant wires and bare bulbs
- office file cabinet to eliminate the iceberg-pile of stuff in the corner
- patio paving and loggia
- garden differentiable from the nearby forest so that it actually looks like we're in control, not the plants (weeds)
- TV moved from temporary location with frenzy of wires to permanent wall fixture
- furniture in the lounge(s) to replace picnic fold-up chairs, Marty Crane specials, and bare carpet
- kitchen drawers to reduce risk of back problems from having to bend over for everything
- proper storage space for tools so that we can actually get in and out of our back door without tripping over something

... and so on.

Basically what I'm finding is that there are 3 main ingredients for living contentedly here, or anywhere, for that matter - planning, passion, and patience. (OK, "passion" may be a bit poetic, but it was alliterative.)

The prime example is the garden. We planted vegetables back in April/May, romantically envisioning the bulbous onions, fabled beanstalks, and Popeye spinach adorning our daily tavola. Indeed. But such is the fertility of the soil here, and such was the dampness of the spring, that our garden positively exploded, burgeoning with green growth everywhere to such an extent that I'd barely finished the hacking through the rash-inducing, sweat-provoking, jungle-like growth on the bottom slope that I had to start again on the flat surfaces on the top (since they'd shot up in the interim like speeded-up home videos).

The vegetable garden? Forget it. It was a tangled mass of stalks and vines and leaves and grass and weeds within a few weeks of planting. It was so overgrown that on several occasions I simply turned away from it and banished it from my thoughts (at least temporarily) because it was so overwhelming I didn't know where to start. Eventually I came back to it, of course, and did some weeding, just enough to be able to recognize the vegetables from the feral growths that had invaded the place.

In the meantime, of course, while I turned my attention to the vegetables and my back on the remainder of the garden, the parts I ignored took the opportunity to enjoy a growth spurt. When I looked back at them again, it was as if I'd never even tended them in the first place.

Demoralising. When we stopped and commiserated with each other, we came to the realization that we just tried to do too much. We weren't ready for the vegetable garden, to give it the numerous hours per week that it needs. We hadn't planned adequately on what we wanted to plant and harvest, when we were going to do so, and where we were going to put them. And after a hellish year of renovations and nomadic living when everything was such an effort, we wanted it to happen too quickly.

Well, guess what? Everything is still an effort, and it'll always be. The garden will come in time, but only in it's own time, and after we've put in the time. And got the blisters and callouses on our lily-white hands.

Only if we embrace the process too, not just the end result. Without the passion going into it, the results will be lacklustre.

The same is true for the rest of the house and the property. Ditto for living here - the language, the friendships, the life...

It reminds me of an article I read some years ago about a young Yahoo! turk who had reflected that something that took two years to come to fruition (in business) was way too long. Six months was basically the edge of his time horizon. As a forty-something at the time, I had to smile wryly at the impetuous impatience. Such is the world in some minds.

What I'm finding is that things that endure take a little longer. And they don't have definitive measuring units - they simply take as long as they take. And there's no place better to learn that lesson than out here in rural Italy, where this concept is baked into the earth and infused in the veins of the locals that surround me.

I'm coming to terms with it, and calming down as a result. The key is to keep planting one foot forward, and if you get knocked backward - as we have innumerable times already and will be in the future - to step up and plant it again. With conviction. Slowly. Thoughtfully. Deliberately.
Maybe in a decade or two, I may even have a few pearls of advice for my son and his progeny.

Having endeth-ed the lesson here, a couple of more encouraging sequels. First, the fava beans were delicious and monstrous, we're enjoying the 3 types of onion right now, and the potato plants have been prolific in their output. Casualties? The peas and spinach. But 3 out of 5 ain't bad for a city slicker with computer keyboard fingers.

The rest of the garden, too, has taken it upon itself to grow anyway, in spite of my efforts to hold it back, rendering a colourful display that will be the subject of a pictorial blog in the not too distant future.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Grande day - in pictures

The visual companion to the verbal version chronicled here. (Note also that if you click on the picture it opens full-size.)