Sunday, May 17, 2009

When in the Italian countryside ...

Spring is probably my favourite season here - warm days, cool nights, green everywhere, wildflowers blooming, trips to the mountains, and a busy bustle on the streets. Things don't just grow in this time - they explode into life, bursting out of their slumber and smothering the landscape with their colour. It's a phenomenon.

Of course, this applies everywhere - out in the fields, up on the slopes ... and in our garden. We've arrived - by a sort of natural evolution - at a horses-for-courses division of labour: Maria does the artistic work, nurturing and helping things to grow, while I'm the destructive maintenance man, cutting the grass, cutting the trees, and gathering up the detritus for burning and stacking for next winter's fire.

So an arduous week of cutting back our garden jungle back in April was barely over before I had to start again, given the vigourous growth that the warmth and moisture contrived to foster. It's one of those tasks that induces sighs and prompts thoughts of other "necessary" tasks to divert from the pressing need to get out there. Eventually you realize that it can't be delayed any further, and so out you go ... only to discover that your trusty lawnmower or weed-eater/strimmer or some other machine is not as eager as you are (and that's saying something). All of which brings me to the point of this post ... buy Italian.

First of all, rule #1 for garden machines with engines - they will break down, and they will need to be fixed. Rule #1a (applies to rural Italy) - if it's not an Italian machine, they can't fix it. Italians tend to be a tad xenophobic, which could be interpreted as nationalistic when it comes to cars, clothes, household appliances ... and garden machines: they (almost) always buy Italian. Consequently, when one takes in the German mower or strimmer for repair, the response is invariably the same: "Where am I going to get the parts?" If said machine is Italian, however, parts are readily available, technicians know how they work, and often there's a replacement available while your machine is being fixed. Now I can't speak for the big cities, or even further north, so maybe this is just a regional rule.

The Germans are very proud of their workmanship, and so initially I didn't resist the inclination of my German wife to procure gadgets and gizmos on her fairly regular trips home. But now I know. Even German machines break down, and I'm getting a bit tired of having to coax neighbours' and friends' mowers and strimmers and such
out of their clutches so that I can delay the inevitable overrunning of our property and our house from the green advance.

It's going to take diligence to keep this mantra in full sight, because Italy is not Europe's cheapest country - in fact, it's generally more expensive than its neighbours, in many cases by some distance. But I know that any temptation to buy German engineering at a cheaper price is false economy, pushes the limits of neighbourly friendship to a degree I'd rather not, and ultimately makes for more work than the initial substantial load. I put this new-found wisdom to work recently, buying a top-of-the-range strimmer - Italian, of course.

But it doesn't end there. Just buying Italian doesn't always cover all the bases. If you've got a go-to guy for fixing all these things, he's the guy you need to buy it from. Only then will the not-to-be-sneezed-at Italian proclivity for going the extra yard kick in. Hence we bought the strimmer from Roberto, who rewarded our final acceptance of the rule by giving us a nice discount off the substantial price.

So for those thinking of bringing your appliances over here when you move - without even starting on the different electrical requirements if you're coming from the US - unless you're absolutely positive that your fearless flamethrower will never, ever stutter and stumble, sell it. Buy a new one when you get here. It's taken me over two years to learn this valuable lesson, but I have now reached the point of integration where my automatic response - with unflinching conviction - to any who has bought a new watchamacallit, is this: "Is it Italian?"

Monday, April 06, 2009

Italy stops

There are several phenomena that tumble without effort into the category of "reality checks". From a purely individual experience point of view, heart attack, near-drowning, brain seizure, for example, would all typically qualify. From a shared experience perspective, one thinks naturally of tidal waves, war, ... and earthquakes. We just had one of the last-named here in central Italy, and - like all its brethren phenomena - it has left me checking my reality.

The first impetus to do so came in the middle of dreamtime just over a week ago, when a shaking bed bothered me awake. After looking to see if our new family acquisition, Zack the "well-built" ginger tabby, was the cause - he was nowhere to be found - Maria and I exchanged thoughts: "Was that an earth tremor?" I agreed without fully believing it.

After feeling five of the countless aftershocks - including one last night (April 14th) - I'm now believing. The ruins of L'Aquila and its neighbouring towns ... the 294 dead ... the 1000-plus injured ... the 40,000 homeless ... all make it dreadfully,
thought-provokingly real.

In planetary terms, it was a mere shudder, a shiver up the backbone - in this case the spine of the Apennines, which run down the middle of central Italy. In geological terms, it was caused by friction between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates - Africa is supposedly marching north towards Europe at the rate of 2 cm a year (invoking all sorts of symbolic thoughts). In human terms, it makes us realize how powerless and unmighty we are when measured against the sheer raw dominance of the earth as it flexes itself (for us ignorants) in apparently random jerks.

So much for economic crises, so much for border disputes, so much for nuclear arms races ... if we felt every one of the 6-plus-magnitude earthquakes that occur somewhere in the world every three days - we miss most because they occur out at sea - these other human-instigated things might seem less worthy to expend valuable energy on. I, for one, found Easter Sunday's exhilarating breezes on the Apennines a little more invigorating than normal as they blew over the proliferating crocuses sticking their heads out of the recently snow-free soil to check out what spring's all about.

Naturally Abruzzo's earthquake conjured memories in our area of the similar-strength 1997 earthquake that destroyed the Basilica of Assisi in Umbria just over the mountains, causing significant damage here in Le Marche as well. In fact, back in 2006 for the first 3 months of Julius's school life in Colmurano just 4 km away, he went to classes in a prefabricated building while the reparations of the main school's damages from the quake were being completed. While much of this lengthy restoration period can be ascribed to the lethargic leviathan that is Italian bureaucracy, it does give a sense of how long it will take before the poor people of L'Aquila can return to their homes.

One upshot of the 1997 quake was the increased stringency of building regulations on earthquake damage containment. Our house, for example, had to be fitted with a steel collar before it could pass structural muster. And maybe that's why it just felt like the bed was shaking the other night and not the whole house.

However, after all's said and done and we're finished with our existential reflections and spiritual confirmations, it really is quite something to live through, an earthquake. I've experienced a few, including a fairly major one in Los Angeles some 20 years ago, and on each occasion I've never failed to be in awe of what's happening in the moment when the whole building starts shaking. Everything stops. If someone's nearby, you look them more directly in the eye than at virtually any other time, and make a connection in that instant that few other experiences can match. Emotions, thoughts, physical sensations collide in an instant to provide an experience that can never quite be adequately described in words. And you're left with the deepest of memories, the most profound of reflections which arise from those singular glances - sometimes between strangers - when you look directly into each other's soul ...

Friday, January 16, 2009

It's been a while...

I think I recognize this place, I was here about a month ago. But it seems like an awfully long time ago, during which rather a lot has taken place.

First there was Christmas, enjoyed with 3 other English and Italian families, and then the trip to a bitterly cold Germany for an enjoyable family time and social New Year's celebration. Even though Maria did most of the driving (not least because we went in her car), and it's entirely on 2/3-lane highways (i.e. it's not complicated driving), I must say it's a long 1,060 km journey up there and back - 12 hours each way, thanks to traffic buildup in a few places - and doing it 3 times a year as Maria did in 2008 would be daunting for me. But it's no surprise that she did, the option to be able to hop in a car at short notice to go and see her aging parents being one of the motivators to move here in the first place - not so easy when you're 3 expensive flights and an ocean away as we were in North Carolina.

Then - as it has been for the last 13 years and will always be the case - just a week after the seasonal festivities were eking their last (January 6th - Epiphany or La Befana in Italy - is a big holiday here), HRH's birthday was upon us (on January 8th). This year was different, though - he officially became a teenager, even though he's been practicing at it unofficially for some time. Pretty low key, all in all, despite the momentous milestone that it was. Even our ruse to take him out of school for the day in order to give him his first skiing experience was scuppered - it was a total white-out up at our local ski resort, Sassotetto, and we had to "resort" to sledding blind down the deserted ski slopes - visibility was less than 10m. (There are a couple of photos on my Facebook page of the new towering teenager.)

But these aren't the reasons for the delay in keeping this blog up to date. It's rather the fault of a new initiative I've started with an English friend here - a monthly magazine in English about life and events in our province, Macerata. With modest initial intentions, we started with an email transmission to a list we developed from our own contacts, and after two months it's grown organically by about 50%. Feedback has been positive, and we're now looking at approaching advertisers, and indeed have been approached by one or two already. So far so good.

But it takes an awful amount of time, hence my absence from this place. One of the most frustrating parts of it is dealing with the local municipalities (comuni), who we're fairly reliant upon for the events (festivals, music and dance performances, etc) that form a core part of the magazine's motivation. Our first edition had a rather inauspicious start, at least as far as Tolentino and Sarnano were concerned - we received Tolentino's listing of December events on the 12th (of December), and Sarnano's on the 16th! The magazine goes out on the first of the month, as it should do to be useful for the month in question. I must have made over a dozen calls to my contact in Tolentino, every one of which yielded a promise to get me the info "the next day", and two personal visits to my Sarnano contact produced that quintessential Italian gesture that I've now become so familiar with - the shrug of the shoulders.

But on we tread. And it feels good. Not having had a consistent, ongoing "job" for a while, and finding the adjustment from employed to self-employed to be a real "learning" experience, having monthly deadlines is actually rather refreshing.

Not to mention, of course, the fact that I'm in charge of the monthly wine column, which entails visits to all the wineries in the province ...

(If anyone's interested in receiving a copy of Macerata Monthly, send me an email at So far we're simply sending out a PDF copy by email. We'll probably post them online at some point in the future, but I'm not sure when. As I said, it's a modest beginning...)