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:]