Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Going postal ... again

I started writing this post a couple of days ago, but I had to stop, because there was this loud ringing in my ears. It must have been my blood pressure soaring into the stratosphere with such speed that it rendered a high-pitched resonance, making rational thought a lost cause.

The ringing's now gone, and thinking has now lost the certifiable edge that prompted my early misgivings, so I can get on with it.

It's the Italian postal service. Again. Or perhaps more precisely, it's the misnamed mail/package delivery industry at large, this time in the (dis)guise of UPS, who, after this episode, I might take to referring to as UPyourS.

Now I never had a problem with UPS in the USA, but it seems once a piece of mail floats into Italian air space, it changes composition. Packages are condemned to dark corners because, well, I'm not really sure why, although this most recent episode did offer a hint.

To tell the truth, my envelope wasn't ignored, it was simply maltreated - one glance at the address, quite obviously out in the country, and it was labelled as undeliverable because it didn't have a valid street address. Now our big red letterbox with its official municipal plaque, not to mention the official cadastral record, would clearly beg to differ. But official records be damned, what did they do? Mark it for return to sender. They simply didn't want to have to drive all the way out to our place, a mere 10 minutes from the nearest town.

A desperate phone call to the HQ in Milan, and things were rectified. Our error (yes, ours)? No phone number on the address label. Now duly supplied, they called to get us to drive into town to pick it up. My wife (who took the call) refused: "This is your job. You are paid to deliver it to our door." Still they resisted: "It's out in the country." "So what? It's your job." Eventually - in the interests of actually getting our hands on said package - a compromise was reached: drop it off at the local store, about 1km from our home. In the end, the store owner, who we obviously know, brought it to our house, in spite of our protestations that we'd pick it up.

When you relate the story to locals, in a rising crescendo, all you get in response are sympathetic smiles, but no surprise: "This is how it is". We've been through it before: falsified delivery attempts ... mis-transcribed telephone numbers when they stick their own labels over the carefully-written number ... tracking numbers that change when they enter Italian postal space ... and parcels that disappear into the ether of post office neverland. And whenever we transgress the most important rule of Italian addresses, we get burned - there is only necessary piece of information necessary on an Italian address: the phone number.

But I still can't help myself, and I get upset. I know this is the ultimate test of integration into the culture here - accept it, it's not going to change, and because of this, it serves no purpose to get upset.

As almost every book on Italians written by Italians will tell you, there are no set rules in Italy - everyone has their own set, and they believe in them unquestioningly. Nothing is set in stone either - last week's rules are just that: last week's rules. This week things are different.

Things work the way they work, not the way you think they ought to. And if someone follows a different set of rules from your own, you need to change yours to accommodate them. In some perverse way, I guess this is why we came to this country - to become more tolerant, accepting, and calm about everything. If only we'd known...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Little guy

One of the ubiquitous sights on the winding roads of the central Italian hills is of cats - hundreds, even thousands of them, scurrying off into the brush as you approach, crouching in apprehension as you pass, eyes glinting like lights in the night when they can see us and but for their eyes we wouldn't see them. Many of them are wild, living off whatever they can find in the small clutches of forest that separate their other larder, the ploughed fields. Others are domesticated, but not in the sense that I'm familiar - they're working cats, earning their keep by supplementing the meagre diet their owners allow them by hunting rodents, thereby serving a purpose. The locals don't impose any form of birth control - apart from the hassle of getting it done, the €80 cost to neuter/spay a cat most certainly plays a role in an area where incomes are low - and so the population runs unchecked.

It's a tough life, and I feel sorry for them. "Rescuing" our Luna from an existence as a contadino cat, where she would have had to scrap for every morsel she might come across, has been a telling experience. All you have to do is look at her, and the story tells itself - she's big, furry, and purry ... and at least twice the size of her mother, who still lives the contadino life a few km from here.

So when the little guy started sleeping in our unrestored shed, we took pity ... and started feeding him. Of course we knew the rule - feed a cat, you own it - but we took it on knowingly. Like most of the wild cats, he was small and under nourished, but with a beautiful, unusual striped-grey colouring that reminded me of a snow leopard. Timid to the point of being startled when we approached him, we eventually realized why - he was completely deaf. What a challenge for an animal that has to live by its wits. Not only that, but he had breathing problems, with a wheeze to his respiration that seemed something of a struggle. As we got to know him better, his paltry, pathetic meouw - like a strangled parrot at low volume - led me to better understand his precarious condition.

Over time he let me get closer, even allowing a gentle stroke when I gave him his food, and purring with a pleasure I'm sure these cats rarely have the opportunity to enjoy. One afternoon his constricted squeals drew us out of the house to find another, bigger male with his jaws around his throat - had we not arrived to drive the other cat away, it would have been curtains for him. He and Luna became friends of sorts, occasionally cavorting together in the garden, with Luna contracting a cold from interacting with him. He was kept outside to try and create a limit, but we often caught him sneaking in the back door to finish off the uneaten food in Luna's bowl.

Eventually, however, such became his dependence on his meals twice a day that he didn't live any kind of life of his own. When we got up in the morning, he was outside the back door, and he stayed there most of the day, croaking out his mews every time we left the house, hoping for a morsel (even if he'd just eaten). It even got to the point of being a nuisance as he practiced the cat habit of walking right in front of your feet, presenting a wonderful tripping opportunity.

For him, what we offered was a drug, and he became hooked, his life reduced to waiting for the next fix - a bowl of cat food. Perhaps he had a tapeworm and was constantly hungry, I don't know, or perhaps he knew something else. Maybe his constant meowing was a plea for something.

I had been meaning to write this blog entry for some time, and to take a photo of him to post with the article. But two days ago he disappeared, and he hasn't been back. After feeding him now for over six months, and having developed his dependency on our food, he most certainly hasn't made the decision to move on. I've searched garden and its surrounds, but I can't find him, and I suspect like all cats he took himself off to somewhere secluded to die.

A local told me that dying was a better option than living the way he did, with all his problems. I don't agree. For a few months he felt he belonged somewhere, and he had a protector. He even purred a few times. Suddenly, though, he's no longer around, and I'm sad that we couldn't do more for him. Sad that his little spirit had to struggle so through the brief period of his life. I hope I continue to remember him for all these things. If only I had taken that photo ...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This is why we're here - in pictures

The photographic accompaniment to the textual version available here.











This is why we're here - in words

So what does one do on a Sunday out here in the rolling hills of central Italy? If your son plays football - as in our case - you go and watch him. It's a pastime I get tremendous enjoyment from, even if the season lasts from September to May. But when a gap opens in the schedule - as it did this past weekend - we snatch at it and use the time to pursue one of our other passions: the mountains.

Now when I say "snatch", I guess I should qualify - given the six-day school week with 6:15am risings and Sundays with their early football wakeup calls, any day off that offers a bit of a sleep-in to a family that loves its shut-eye and doesn't aspire to "bright and cheery" labels (at least the pre-9 am ones) is "snatched at" with equal enthusiasm to the pull of the mountains. So we compromise ... and take advantage of the very reason we moved here - we sleep in, have an early(-ish) lunch, and take off for an afternoon hike.

This past weekend I chose Monte Rotondo, a 2,102-metre mountain we frequently see, but have never scaled (OK, walked up). This involves a drive up a rocky road of about 6km with some very steep slopes on its up- and down-sides, and that is likely soon to close for the winter. At the end of it - which is joined by another dirt road coming from the other side of the saddle - is a concrete monstrosity of a refugio, which serves meals to rocky road adventurers and offers beds to hikers in the summer (albeit only on the weekend except for August). It's also the trailhead for numerous great hikes up to the airy Sibillini ridges, including a short 40-minute climb to Monte Rotondo.

The day was crisp with a brisk breeze that blew the thick low-hanging mist over the surrounding peaks, creating constantly-changing vistas of white-out alternating with clear skies. Puffs of mist drifted through the air like sailing ships into the blue beyond, and cascaded over cliffs, magically dissolving as they fell down the sheer rock faces. On the way up we found a lone purple wildflower and the decomposing remains of two sheep - "I'm thinking wolf," reflected HRH, engaging his wild side. We also came across a plaque remembering two young Italians who lost their lives here in the winter of 2004, a day apart.

The views from the top were stupendous. Apart from the shifting scenes created by the armadas of mist, the central Apennine peaks stretched southward in a panorama unlike any other we've seen before on our many excursions on these ridges. To the west, the light refracted into a stark and surreal line, as if we were on the surface of the sea - below it, waves of mountains were tainted in a hazy blue, and above it the air was vividly clear. We had it all to ourselves - there wasn't another soul around.

On the way down, Maria picked some mushrooms which the owner-cooks of the refugio were surprisingly and disappointingly unable to identify, not only regarding their species, but whether or not they were edible. We reluctantly dragged ourselves away from what promised to be a sunset of banded colours and shifting red shades in order not to have to drive down the rocky road in the dark. On the way we filled our water bottles and slaked the bitterly cold mountain water rolling down from the peaks, and stopped to look over the sheer drop where a cyclist fell to his death on an April day two years ago when we started up the road on our own bicycles and turned back because of the deep snow.

Back home a hot soup warmed our satisfied souls as we reflected on our good fortune - a day like this one is always there for us, just an hour away whenever we might make a snap decision to head up there. And as we find every time we go up there, it's always different, there's always a surprise waiting to be uncovered for those who choose to look for it. Thankfully all three of us have the eyes to find the surprises, and to drink in the liberating sensations of this alpine world with its cleansing air, infinite views, and the unmistakable message that it always whispers - there is nothing else but the here and now.

(If you're interested, there are photographs of our excursion here.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Of vegetarians and carnivores

Of all the associations our synapses automatically fire off when someone mentions Italy, food is probably the one most often made. It's a sensuous thing (as most things Italian are), and I'm as much a victim of our preconditioning as anyone. Hearing the clattering symphony of plates making their way to the table in wrinkled hands as I stroll the cobbled alleys of a hilltop village at lunchtime never fails to conjure images of steaming pasta and the babble of multiple conversations around a table that is cosy, comforting, and convivial.

Pasta? Almost always, yes, not least in this neck of the woods, where this quintessential primo piatto is more often than not followed by pork (or some other meat). Which is what made La Coroncina so different last weekend. Now there are more opinions about the quality of restaurants in this area than there are culinary establishments, ranging from the romantically-inspired view that all the food here is good, to complaints about a lack of variation and overcooked meat. But regardless of your proclivity, there truly is only one word to describe La Coroncina, snuggled as it is amongst the hills of Italy's pork belt - unique.

It's unique for one primary reason - it's vegetarian. In and of itself, this is sufficient reason to get the permanent black marker out to score it from over 90% of locals' restaurant lists. Indeed, when our part-time Australian neighbours took their garden maintenance man and an Irish meat-and-potatoes friend there, they described it as "a religious experience", most likely heading home afterwards to scour the fridge, praying for a beastly chunk of salami.

Now I like my meat as much as the next carnivore, but I also appreciate good food for what it is, whether there is muscle in it or not. (My favourite restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, with its ample supply of quality steak houses, was indeed vegan.) And that's exactly what La Coroncina is - good. Very good, in fact. It's a real testament to imagination, with a variety of seasonal dishes that inspire curiosity with their originality and moans of pleasure at their medley of flavours - cream of yellow tomato soup with ricotta and basil, layered aubergine slices with pine nuts and mint, ...

The welcome is warm too - diminutive Melania with her shock of blond/white hair is friendly, attentive, and a constant smiling presence. We effectively had the run of the place too, with only one other dining couple (locals, somewhat to my surprise), in a beautifully restored farmhouse. The agriturismo is officially classified as organic - you can find more information (including the menu) on their web site: www.agriturismocoroncina.it.

That was Friday. Saturday threw my taste buds so far in the other direction as to give them culinary whiplash. With his mop of long, thick, graying hair and his dental discontinuities, our neighbour Sergio is a wiry local character that's always entertaining to be around. Aside from having done a marvellous job with our patio, he throws an end-of-summer party each year, to which we are typically invited. With the promise of a hearty, meaty menu, HRH - a marchigiano in the making, whose suspicion of a vegetarian restaurant prompted him to decline the invitation to La Coroncina the night before - readily sacrificed Saturday night out with his friends to join his old man up at the local church.

While it's hosted by Sergio, it seems that most of the work was done by the Mari family, who own the house he lives in and who produce a range of delectable honeys from their hives spread over the province. Husbands, wives, daughters and sons ferried trays piled high with the steaming contents of the most classic of marchigiano meals. Around the church hall tables and hard chairs, Sergio and his friends engaged in the most simple and amicable of pastimes - talking and eating, with each enjoying equal priority. Amid the clamorous echos of competing conversations, we flattened numerous platters of first tagliatelle al rag├╣ di cinghiale (pasta with wild boar sauce) and then roast lamb with roast potatoes, all served on paper plates. Wine from
Giuliano's vines on the hill next door flowed generously, his daughter capped it all with a delectable tirams├╣, and Giuliano brought out his precious acqua miele (literally "honey water", an ancient distilled liquor made from honey, water, and grapes). We ate, drank, and chatted to satisfaction and beyond, until we just couldn't any more.

Simple. Delicious. Warm and friendly. In short, a classic marchigiano evening.

Life here may be difficult at times, but if I'm able - just every now and then - to enjoy a weekend of such delicious diversity, I'd say I'm a rather lucky man.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Camping in the mountains - Part 2

If you're interested in reading about the event that these pictures portray, take a look at the Part 1 blog entry.






















Monday, August 23, 2010

Camping in the mountains - Part 1

For nature lovers, the Sibillini mountains are a dream - airy ridges, narrow gorges, forested valleys, alpine plains, and legends to fit their mystical feel. From spring to autumn, its most popular trails are busy with seasoned and sometime hikers, most often in large gregarious groups, lending the experience a distinctly sociable Italian flavour. However, often you can find a place all to yourself, and you can feel as if you're the only person in the world, with nothing but the wind, the river, and the birds complementing the stillness.

As an occasional but keen camper, I've often hankered after spending a night in such surrounds, and so after years of procrastination, we finally gave it a whirl. Now there are numerous campsites available, with designated sites, water and toilets, and the accompanying social buzz that characterizes any gathering of more than one person in this country. But our aim was solitude and the still night of the mountains, away from noise, light, and convenience, while still being accessible enough to be able to camp next to the supply-carrying car. We found it near Castelluccio in Umbria's alpine plain, the Piano Grande - a site tailor-made for our purposes, on the fringe of the forest with marvellous views of the mountains, totally out of sight of the town and the plain's organized and bustling campsites. It was as if the site had been conjured out of a description based on my wishful preferences. There was even a ring of stones for a fire, with a healthy stack of wood neatly piled next to it.

Sitting round a blazing campfire with meat sizzling on the grill and the crescent moon rising in the evening sky over the forest takes you about as far away from the daily grind as you could imagine, and when we stumbled upon the fact that it was our fifteenth wedding anniversary - we're not very good with such dates - it completed the scene. Marche's second highest peak (or Umbria's highest, depending on which map you reference), La Cima del Redentore (2,448m), was etched against the deepening blues of the heavens, prompting ambitious thoughts of the next day's walk to one of the central Apennines' premier destinations - Lago di Pilato.

Our ambition to do the full Redentore-Pilato loop ended up being tempered by the hot weather and our physical condition, since we hadn't done a long hike in quite some time. Even so, the direct Lago di Pilato round trip took us around 8 hours (with breaks, including at least an hour at the lake), covering about 18km. The resulting burnt foreheads and aching legs aside, it's a wonderful place, nestled in a bowl at 1,940m between Redentore and the central Apennine's highest point, Monte Vettore, the twin lakes glittering "like the glasses of a rattlesnake", according to local myth expert Giuseppe Santarelli.

The lake is named after Pontius Pilate, who - according to one of many legends - requested Emperor Tiberius to load his body on to an ox cart after his death (which itself is somewhat vague) "and left to the power of fate." The oxen, masochists that they were, chugged up the mountains to this very spot - remote and accessible only with extreme difficulty - and subsequently deposited his body in the lake. Another legend claims that the lake turned blood red at precisely the moment of Christ's crucifixion, while yet another that leaves suddenly sprouted on the surrounding slopes in the shape of joined hands pierced by nails. The tiny rare freshwater shrimp that turns the waters red at spawning time flapped about the shallows like bulging-eyed fledglings learning to fly, perhaps smiling at their role in the creation of a legend.

Whatever the truth, it's a popular destination, and on our visit was buzzing with the satisfied acclaims, camera shutters, and reclining snores of numerous hiking pilgrims. On our return trip we met a mountain runner charging recklessly down a steep slope, and a gentleman clad in nothing but a towel and a skimpy swimsuit, adding distinct colour to an already multi-hued cast.

Needless to say, there was less activity around the campfire that night, but not so in the surrounding forest, where combative grunts interrupted the still night, suggesting a family of cinghiale (wild boar) in the neighbourhood. But we were wrong - just before turning in, a bluster of hooves and snorts drew us out to see a herd of horses come galloping out of the trees. Wild horses? Sort of ... The Piano Grande down below is a favourite of horse people, some of whom spend several weeks up here as part of the annual holiday. There are some who have "retired" or released their horses into the semi-wild here, giving them the freedom to roam as they will. We've encountered such herds before, and one needs to treat them with respect - get too close and the dominant male will suggest in no uncertain terms that you're quite close enough. Seeing their shadowy frames careening out of the forest as if escaping an unseen foe, gave a feel of being part of some dark medieval tale, but we were tired enough to sleep soundly in spite of our imaginations.

After packing up the next morning - leaving no trace of our presence - we headed for Castelluccio and the daily capuccino fix (there are some luxuries that simply can't be given up), our creaking bodies told us that the planned hike for the day (a short one) was not a starter in the continuing heat. So we headed for Norcia instead, and a taste of Umbria's premier salami town, but that's another story.

All in all, a perfect getaway, and our camping fix accomplished. The freezer blocks held out just long enough in the mid-summer heat to keep the dairy and other perishables fresh, although the absence of a grocery store and butcher in Castelluccio - it must be the only such town in pork-mad central Italy - did impact the planned menu.

It would be remiss of me to omit mentioning that, strictly speaking, free camping and fires outside of the designated areas are not allowed within the Sibillini National Park. Which makes the rather obvious campsite we stayed at, along with its fire ring, rather curious. But let's not forget - this is Italy after all.

For a photographic experience of the trip, see Part 2 of this entry.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Festivals: Montelago Celtic Festival (Serravalle di Chienti)

Given where we are - in a deeply traditional part of central Italy - the Montelago Celtic festival is best described in a single word: unique. Ringed by peaks of the central Apennines, the high Colfiorito plain on the Umbrian border comes alive over the course of a weekend in a feast of colour, sound, and humanity.

"Colour, sound, humanity ... unique?" I hear you justifiably ask. OK, consider this - there were enough kilts on display to suggest a McFellini family reunion (although the black Megadeth T-shirts that offset their tartan pleats were a tad incongruous). Then there was the all-night concert which ended after sunrise, a not unheard of phenomenon in these parts ... except for the fact that The Wild Rover by a band from Lazio named The Shire ended the musical festivities after a stream of Celtic favourites throughout the night. (A local marchigiano band named Mortimer McGrave closed out Friday's lineup.) Tossing the caber, McEwans Scottish ale, and a Tolkein booth (amongst many other similar attractions) added a flavour that these hills - and others in the region - have seldom (if ever) tasted prior to Montelago's first bash eight years ago.

But away from the stage, and the food, drink and craft stands, it's the life in tent city that defines the festival. A broad arc of coloured domes, gazebos, A-frames, and who-knows-what border one side of the site, with setups ranging from the sophisticated to the fleeting. Our neighbours, who obviously got there early, had their site neatly pegged out and cordoned off, military style, with a covered outdoor area and sheeted entranceway meticulously pegged down, citronella candles laid out symmetrically to repel the anticipated coordinated (and symmetrical) mosquito attack. Their shoes and boots stood neatly in paired obedience outside the sleeping area. The mosquitoes never came, obviously deterred by such organized defence, but it was all we could do to stop from mischievously disturbing the candles' symmetry and fussing the shoe ranks.


In front of us was an open-sided gazebo with an equally open-ended invitation for strangers and kin alike to join their festivities, while a few sites down a couple of night owls had draped their canvas loosely over a very low horizontal support constructed out of those flexible tent rods meant for the sides - if any thought had gone into its construction, it was fleeting, with only one object in mind: haste. Every now and then a chorus of voices would join forces to herald a developing primal roar, sweeping around tent city like a wind.

The majority of regalers seemed to be in their twenties, something of a surprise I must say - I expected more thirty- and forty-somethings - but despite their not inconsiderable overindulgence in a diverse menu of liquid refreshment (with predictable purgative results), there wasn't a hint of tension, confrontation, or anger. And this to me is what makes it uniquely Italian (or perhaps central-rural Italian) - the spirit of friendliness and camaraderie of a group of young revellers out on a weekend adventure. It's one of the many reasons that makes living here such a pleasure.


As for the music, it was pretty good all round, although the featured group on Saturday - coming on stage at 1:30 am on Sunday morning - was outstanding. Kila is an acclaimed seven-piece band from Dublin, playing a range of rousing music with Celtic overtones that was several notches ahead of their fellow performers. Well worth the trip on its own. Last year featured Spanish bagpipe virtuoso Hevia, demonstrating the organizers' continuing efforts to attract world-class headlining acts.

As we packed up and left at around 8:30 am on Sunday - as part of an extremely well-organized and civilized exodus - I reflected on why it took me four years to finally make it to this festival. But one thing's for sure - it won't be another four before I'm back again.

The Montelago Celtic festival is typically held on the second weekend in August. Details of the festival can be found online at www.artenomade.com.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Festivals: Treia - Disfida del Bracciale (Part 2)

If you're interested in reading about the event that these pictures portray, take a look at the Part 1 blog entry.

















Festivals: Treia - Disfida del Bracciale (Part 1)

The Renaissance had a major influence on Italian, European, and even world culture back in the 15th and 16th centuries. But it wasn’t only in the fields of the arts, humanities, and sciences, it also played a significant role in the development of popular sport in Italy. Born in the noble palaces of Tuscany, and based on a combination of tennis and an ancient Greco-Roman game, il pallone col bracciale became the most popular sport of north and central Italy from the late 17th century until as recently as 1930. Using spiked wooden armlets (bracciale), a leather ball was pounded back and forth between two teams of three, with a high wall on one side permitting deflection back into the field of play. Such was its popularity that it spawned full-time professionals and massive followings, particularly in the Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, and Le Marche, and special courts called sferisteri (singular sferisterio = ball court) were built throughout its popular realm.

The most renowned sferisterio of the time was Macerata’s, which today hosts the illustrious Opera Festival every July and August. The prescribed dimensions for the high wall that borders one side of a sferisterio required a height of between 14 and 20 metres (Macerata’s is 18m), and a length of around 90 metres (Macerata’s is 88m). It also needed to be on the west side of the court to prevent the players from being disturbed by the rays of a setting sun (the game was played in the afternoon). The arena was also used for other activities such as circuses and an Italian form of bullfighting, which was a popular Papal State “sport”.

Le Marche’s other major centre of pallone was just a few kilometers away in Treia, perhaps not surprisingly since it was a privileged man’s sport, and Treia was home to numerous noble families. And it was here, into the wealthy landowner Ercolani family, that the greatest player of the game was born – Carlo Didimi. Such was his prowess that he amassed a substantial fortune from his tournament winnings, on one occasion in 1830 demanding a fee of 600 scudi for a performance – schoolteachers at the time earned 25-30 scudi a year. A strong proponent of the growing unification spirit of the country, he was implicated in the failed 1831 revolution, but was pardoned when Pius IX was elected pope.

On the pallone court, Didimi was a battitore (batter), the player who sets the game in motion with a mighty swipe of the ball tossed by a mandarino (server), who plays no further part in the game. The other two players that participate are the terzino and spalla, who stand in mid- and fore-court respectively. Scores are the same as tennis – 15, 30, 40, game – and the first team to win six games is the victor.

If this year’s finals of Treia’s disfida del bracciale are anything to go by – the competition has been held since 1978, just 100 years after Didimi’s death – the battitore exhibits one quality in spades: attitude. Losing finalists in 2009, the green-sashed Cassero team has a battitore that walks so slowly back to the serving board that I wondered if he was actually going to make it. His attitudinal amble is liberally punctuated with furtive glances to the crowd, all the while keeping a stern, stoic expression on his face. The yellow-sashed Onglavina team – 2009 winners and clear crowd favourites – has a battitore with rather more urgency about him, although the serious attitude and crowd-checking glances are the match of his Cassero counterpart’s.

The game itself is a drama-filled event, with much chest-bumping, primal screaming, and angry self-remonstration. This year’s final dished up an added element of drama, one which my local friends could not remember happening before. Onglavina’s mandarino must be close to 70 years old, and on August 1st the occasion seemed to get to him – his tossed serves to the battitore were all over the show, and on most occasions he (the battitore) was forced to “decline” the first serve, and risk an erratic second. The battitore’s initial anger turned to arm-around-the-shoulder encouragement, but it wasn’t long before the team manager called a halt and replaced the poor fellow with a younger mandarino. Their serving improved dramatically, they got back into the game, having been two down when the original mandarino was replaced, and almost snatched victory. However, after drifting off into the crowd, I never saw the old man again, and I don’t believe he watched out the game. Even though Treia is one of Macerata’s larger towns, it’s still small enough for everyone to know everyone, and with the disfida being its leading event of the year, I’m sure “the replacement of the mandarino” is going to be a talking point for some time.

When Cassero finally won the thing, their team members collapsed in a heap on the ground, soon to be joined by a few groupies who gleefully leapt on to the mound of bodies. Serious stuff, this pallone. But I must say as a first-timer and a lover of ball sports it was really engaging, and I was captivated throughout – the seesawing contest, the emotional charge of the players (and the crowd), and the skill and thumping shots of the protagonists. (To be honest, I’d love to have a go myself.)

The whole thing is preceded by a parade consisting of four groups each dressed in period costume portraying a particular social stratum – artisans, the middle class, nobility, and the peasants. On a sweltering day when shorts and T-shirt constituted a state of overdress, I admire the parade participants for their forbearance in their heavy fabrics and multiple layers, all the way down to the youngsters.

This is a unique festival in the province (and indeed the region, if not the nation), and definitely deserves a visit - it's held in late July/early August. And if you were dubious about the importance of pallone to this area’s history, consider the fact that Goethe wrote about it during his Italian journey in 1786-7, and that Le Marche’s poet laureate Giacomo Leopardi – who was born in the nearby hilltop town of Recanati just eight weeks after Didimi – eulogized its most famous player thus:

The face of glory and her pleasant voice,
O fortunate youth, now recognize,
And how much nobler than effeminate sloth
Are manhood's tested energies.
Take heed, O generous champion, take heed,
If thou thy name by worthy thought or deed,
From Time's all-sweeping current couldst redeem;
Take heed, and lift thy heart to high desires!
The amphitheatre's applause, the public voice,
Now summon thee to deeds illustrious;
Exulting in thy lusty youth.
In thee, to-day, thy country dear
Beholds her heroes old again appear.

If you're interested in seeing a few pictures of the event, have a look at the Part 2 blog entry.

Friday, July 16, 2010

You know you've arrived ...

Arguably the most singular announcement of your arrival in the Italian countryside is the Bee. Not just your common-or-garden lower-case bee, but one with a capital "B". Or "A" rather, since "bee" in Italian is "ape" (pronounced ah-pay), and here we're talking about the ubiquitous and quintessential Ape. Now the intent is not to heap disrespect on the magnificent worker that supplies us with that godly nectar, honey, but rather to profile an aspect of living in the rolling hills of central Italy.

First built in post-war Italy to help kick-start an economy populated by millions with meagre financial means, the little three-wheeler Ape with a small flatbed and cab has become a fixture of Italian life, and constitutes many a contadino's sole means of transport. Baby brother to its urban predecessor the Vespa (wasp), its buzz is a constant among the hills of rural Italy, its little motor whining up steep hills with the ardour and work ethic of its namesake insect cousin.

Not only does it serve the needs of the rural smallholder, it also gives a modicum of independence to the country's fourteen-year-olds, whose landmark birthday gives them the right to drive the 50cc version after having taken the test. And they take advantage - drive through any village out in the countryside of a summer evening, and there's a veritable hive of them congregated in the piazza, drivers and hangers-on buzzing around them in sociable amity.

Which brings me to my point: one certain fourteen-year-old recently took - and passed - the written driving test which enable him to drive one legally. And it just so happens that said youth - known as HRH to (one-time) regular readers of this blog - has one, acquired for a small sum about two months ago. A vintage 1976 model, it has now passed inspection, had a few things fixed up, and been insured, thus preparing itself for the independence onslaught that lays in store.

As HRH (and I) will attest, driving them is not the simple matter it seems at first blush. The absence of a fourth wheel gives cornering a whole new meaning, and their reputation for tipping over is well-founded. The severed side mirror - now sitting glass-less and forlorn on the steps in our house - bears testament to this proclivity, the result of a near-introduction to a tree that found itself in the way of a sharper-than-advisable turn on one of HRH's early learning forays. The downside of the misfortune has its corollary, however, in the added caution HRH now exercises when approaching turns.

Another learning experience has been the emergence of HRH's apparent inheritance of a trait that both his parents possess - an uncomfortable relationship with things mechanical. Unlike their more modern brethren, the older Apes do not have a starter button, but rather a stiff lever that one has to pull with some force to get it to sputter into life. Whether the Ape was in gear (as I maintain) or not when HRH tried to start it some 10 days ago is perhaps beside the point - he ripped it off its soldered base, leaving it waving somewhat uselessly in the stifling confines of the cab ... and therefore unstartable by mechanized means. Until we had it re-soldered - for which the generous solderer charged nothing - HRH was reduced to giving it running starts down hills in order to get it started for the jaunts he took around the roads of our rural paradise.

But that is all behind us now. Last night he provided his own transport to and fro the local festival, and this morning at 6:45 took off to catch a bus to the coast from a stop some 8km from our house. For the first time ever, we found ourselves in the luxurious situation of being able to slumber on, rather than performing the heretofore parental task of taking him to the bus. Early morning schooldays in the next school year paint an equally desirable scenario, leaving us with the sole task of getting him up and feeding him before launching him on his buzz off to catch the bus ... alone.

For all the advantages, however, there are also several other sides to the coin. The obvious one is the concern for his safety, and we will now be faced with the prospect of waiting up for his safe arrival home on those nights he decides to stay out late. But perhaps the bigger one is the start of a new phase of his and our lives. He now has the independence that he has for so long craved, giving him a new world to explore. While this in and of itself is not a bad thing - indeed, I look forward to observing his new experiences - it also means he will be taking a step away from us. And as any parent will know, this type of change is difficult to go through. From one perspective, I'm going to miss those drop-off and pick-up trips.

But if any event signals his sinking of roots into the earth here, getting an Ape is as profound as anything he's done before. Not that he isn't integrated - on the contrary, he's more integrated than his foreigner parents. Amongst his friends, he's the only one who passed the driving test, and is therefore the only one legally bopping around under his own steam, leaving him a step ahead of his peers on the Italian growth curve. Seeing his smile as he takes off up the driveway in his own vehicle tells its own story - methinks he's happy with the whole situation. I guess we'll now have to start saving for that Fiat Panda ...