Wednesday, October 31, 2007
The human body is amazing in its ability to rid itself of invasive organisms and slalom through the ignorance of its bearer. The drastic processes by which the body accomplishes these things are not usually pleasant. So it was that I spent the last 3 days in bed, as close to the bathroom as possible, while my body slapped me around for being so stupid – never drink spring water flowing from a rusty pipe in the mountains even if they tell you it's pure – mostly because it's flowing from an abandoned church named Ave Maria after the virgin. The water was blessed alright... no pizza in Napoli, no summiting Vesuvius... all my body would let me do was sleep in the sun on the veranda.
Luisa's philosophy about eating when sick is emphatically different than mine, “It's only prosciutto and cheese, have some pasta with only oil on it! Vegetables! It's only vegetables!” When I agree to just rice, she heaps a full pot of it on my plate, “Eat it all. Your body needs fuel.” I can barely look at or think about food without losing it before I even get to it. She makes me stay yet another day because I'm too dizzy (no blonde jokes here...) to navigate the trains to Roma and tells me to stop drinking so much water because it will bloat my stomach. Rehydration is not part of her therapy, only food and little vials of clear liquid that will supposedly put back the needed bacteria in my body. The bacteria is already flourishing but I drink it anyway hoping for a botanical miracle.
I rarely get sick but Luisa tells me that as we get older, our bodies will get sick more frequently. She tells me that I have not accepted this fact but she accepts this along with her age, grey hair, wrinkles and the inability to do things. There is an Italian saying which concerns aging – “every year is a misfortune” – because we get older, but I think getting older beats the alternative. Most of the population smokes and there doesn't seem to be the realization of the connection between smoking, health and all the cancer. Most of the people I've met have no exercise program or activity other than walking to the store to get more cigarettes and food. Resigned to their fates, I haven't heard anyone talk about changing life patterns.
Locked into archaic and unhealthy fates and customs, tradition and history is wonderful but only if it enhances life. I realize the chasm of cultural differences between this country and the lives the Italian Americans made for themselves. I want to live where I can ski, hike, bike, travel, dance, get costumed up and play with no age boundaries. I no longer desire to become like Italian women... but I WILL take the shoes. Tomorrow, come the Feast of the Dead, I leave for Roma alive to spend my last 4 days free to visit museums, shops and plan a future without boundaries. I bid my ancestors arrivederci.
Monday, October 29, 2007
In the morning Luisa and I walk to the graves of my ancestors. She does this every day after going to church. My family has been in Baiano on the same land since they built the first house in the 1600s so there are quite a few Belloisi in the cemetery. Without going into the entire genesis, a couple of the more enchanting historic aspects of the family involve political exile on the island of Lipari in the 1500s and a murder to avenge the killing of my great grandfather in the 1890s... outed skeletons.
At the far end of the courtyard and garden, the family donated land to build a church whose doors are dated 1779, and not coincidentally about the same time the house was given palazzo status (small palace), which probably meant more tithing. Baiano is silhouetted by the tall foothill mountains of the Apennines – there must be some sort of collective inherited memory residing within that makes me want to live in vertical landscapes. Stefania tells me that when she works in the garden here, if she is very quiet and her mind is still she can hear the voices of the ancestors. She didn't say what they were telling her.
At the cemeteries everywhere throughout Italy, new flowers are being brought in, candles are being replaced along with the electric lights that illuminate the little crucifixes on every grave and the marble crypts are cleaned in preparation for the upcoming holidays. November 1st and 2nd are reserved feasts for the dead. Lights, prayers and of course afterwards, food. I'm not sure how this is different from every Sunday when the entire family troupes out to see their deceased except maybe they sit longer at the graves chatting with the spirits and each other.
At the church of Santa Filomena in the province, the actual skeleton of the medieval martyr's body is in repose, elegantly dressed and on display in a glass casket. Fragments of bones from a hundred other saints are displayed in an ornate wall of glass reliquaries that reach to the ceiling. The knuckle of Santa Cecelia, the kneecap of Santo Stefano, the finger of Santo Carlo and an exceptionally small skull that was either a baby or a shrunken head... maybe it was one of the sheep from the manger scene.
Santa Filomena's claim to fame was that she couldn't be killed. Try as he did after she spurned his marriage proposal, the king found this woman to be almost invincible – even after he had her shot through with arrows, then beaten and then attempted to drown her – she was unsinkable... until he decapitated her, which always seems to do the trick. What I really wanted to know is why she refused to marry the king. How easy life could have been. But here she was, on display and worshiped for hundreds of years for losing her head (which I'm not sure was part of the display as she was adorned with a special painted mask and she wasn't holding her head in her lap which would have really been impressive.)
Out in the streets fireworks are exploding day and night but it has nothing to do with the dead unless the pyros are trying to wake them. There are no fire ordinances or air quality control – the smoke haze from agricultural and home fires is thick enough to obscure the vista and burn the throat and eyes without respite. Most likely the locals don't notice this since everyone already has a cigarette hanging from their lips. Apparently there is a high cancer rate and most of the women I've met are widows, which means the cemeteries will be filled with wailing wives and serious-faced heirs for the next couple of days. When I die, I want a party, a parade, loud music and a formal black tutu for all eternity. This way, when the Day of the Dead comes, I'll already be dressed appropriately and in party mode.
Dogs are howling at the hourly ringing church bells. Women make the sign of the cross every time a bell chimes within earshot, either to remember the dead, the risen or that they themselves are mortal. The ritual and tradition, especially in southern Italy, is as thick as the smoke. The veil to the underworld is thinning. Stanca morta, I fall into a dead sleep by the open window in the afternoon sun.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
It always begins with the unmistakable burning, the hot tingling of skin progressing into an insatiable itch. Was it that last seedy hotel? Or sitting in the catacomb-like cat sanctuary with 250 felines while interviewing the director? Maybe it was the towel the young, handsome Italian handed to me, retrieved from the basement when the maid forgot to leave toiletries in my room? There's no telling – but now, somehow before getting on the train for family in Naples, before checking out of my hotel room in the morning, I was going to have find head lice shampoo and quickly rid myself of the desire to scratch my burning scalp. I certainly couldn't risk the shame of spreading the little chiggers in the ancestral home. However, I have to leave tomorrow or risk uncertainty of traveling at all since another transportation strike had been announced for Friday.
This is a common occurrence in Italy. There's a strike and a protest almost every day. This one I'm told is huge and people are traveling from all over the country to arrive in Rome to participate. I have no idea what the strike is about only that busses, trains and planes will not be operating. Which also means I could get stuck in Baiano although typically the strikes don't last long. I expected to encounter Italy on strike at some point in my travels but never considered needing an insecticide. The last time I had to kill colonies of parasites that set up house on my head was in Laos, phonetically ironical, where hordes of Euro-trustafarian kids with long dreads frequently infected the cheap hotels.
But it was more than just my scalp itching. After leaving the cat shelter, and later that night in bed, I noticed a creeping crawling sensation on my skin and horrid itchiness. I Google scabies and freak out. Sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite was suddenly becoming a credo and I had not planned on researching my stories on that level of involvement. I look up bedbugs and think I have all three types of bloodsuckers colonizing my body and wonder if I should just buy a can of Raid.
I rise early to quest for the holy grail of riddance, waiting for the Farmacia to open at 8:30 a.m. Rushing back to the hotel I pour 4 of the anise-smelling vials on my head, massaging for 20 minutes while trying to remember the instructions the woman gave me in Italian sign language. The oil runs everywhere – the cold clench of the fingers of death for the newly flourishing microscopic communes. My southern Italian vendetta persona emerges and is joyous. I have squelched my enemy and I can now return home victorious. On the way to the train station, I buy the insecticide shampoo as an insurance policy for the future.
When packing a bag for travel to Naples, especially through train or bus stations, you must carefully consider the position of your valuables. The important items must be packed between other things to make it more difficult for the thieves to get to when they slice your bag open. You won't feel a thing. The first time the robbery will be noticeable is when you see light coming through the side panel of your bag when trying to retrieve your wallet. There is a Napolitani saying that the thieves in Naples are particularly so adept at their profession they can steal the socks from your feet and leave your shoes. Having lived in NYC, I knew how to put on the tough face, “Don't mess with me, mister, I'm crazy and a bitch.” Sometimes it worked. The live white rat (little “Roo-rat”), who hung menacingly out of my front waist-pack, was more of a statement and deterrent. Nobody messes with you if you carry a live pet rat. Since I didn't have access to or space for a rat, I scurried through the Naples station looking as though I knew where I was going... which I did. I knew how to get to the Circumvesuviano train line that would take me up to my family's mountain town of Baiano.
The Ferrari of tin cans rattles and tosses around Vesuvius, through industrial areas and finally into the mountains and small towns. No one seems to take notice that they live under a volcano that is overdue for an apocalyptic pyroclastic show. The ride only takes about 40 minutes and I have time to think about the antiquity of my family in this town and what they will think about the cultural differences of my lifestyle and appearance. I'm not the norm for my age even in America – I don't think I ever was at any age.
But as I look around at the scenery, realizing that this area actually has it all – mountains, sea, moderate winter climate, history, and only a short ride by public transportation to Naples – a major city and airport – I begin to get excited. It is truly beautiful here and I understand why the people in this explosive region don't think about the impending volcanic doom or the earthquakes that rock the region from time to time. I get so excited that even though I've been counting the train stops I mistakenly get off at the wrong one and by the time I've realized it the doors have shut and the tin cans clank down the track to the next and last stop only 3 minutes away in Baiano. Fortunately another train shows up in 15 minutes to rescue and carry me to the ancestral home where my cousins, Luisa and Stefania, have made a meal fit for a queen instead of a second cousin. Tonight, I sleep with the spirits of my ancestors.
Friday, October 26, 2007
My friend Barbara picks me up on her Vespa in front of Termini train station, where several men on motorbikes stopped to see if the blonde waiting on the corner was for sale. Evidently, women, especially ruby-lipped bleach-heads, don't wait for a friend alone on the street and certainly not in that section of town. In a residential neighborhood, yet another Italian mom feeds me an incredible home made meal to the point of gluttony. The conversation runs from genetically pre-conditioned brain cells to why Americans eat so much – which I found pretty amusing since all the Italians seem to eat multi-course meals at least twice a day (but they do, for the most part, seem to stay thin.)
I'm told by several friends that Italian women don't have the independence that American women have. Because of cultural and family mores in place for lifetimes, one 70-year old friend tells me her uncle would not let her marry as a young woman because she was required to stay in town and work for him in the family business. When they marry, the Italian woman moves to her husband's town, which could be halfway across the country. In that generation, women were not allowed to disagree. She finally married at the age of 45 when her uncle died. Her husband passed away after only a decade of marriage. After that, dating is impossible in such a community, she explains,. She confessed that her life was very depressing and I felt saddened as this intelligent woman was forced by archaic obligations to concede to a life of basic slavery. I silently acknowledge how very fortunate I am as a product of the 60's revolution which kept me from a life of permanent domesticity and gave an entire generation the ability to leap over the edge of the expected.
I pour another glass of red wine from the carafe and order the ossobucco and cooked chicory greens. The waiters and tables of old Italian men wonder why a women is eating alone. Tomorrow, I train down to Naples to visit the small part of the family which remained in Baiano when most of the town emptied into ships for the new country of America from the early 1900s on. My 30-year old cousin, Stefania, tells me she is marrying in September next year. Things are changing in Italy. Youth can't afford to marry these days and many have lengthy engagements, even a decade, before leaving the family home. Stefania lives in the house built by our Belloisi family in 1704 on the ruins of a yet older and larger house the family owned. She tells me that I will sleep in the ancestral home (or maybe it was that I was sleeping with the ancestor ghosts?) I hope they're ok with independent blondes traveling alone.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
When in Roma...
Not that I ever need any justification to buy shoes, but after falling down full out flat onto the street twice and twisting my ankle countless times in the inadequate half-boots I had brought I figured new boots would be far cheaper than a hospital trip and I was up for the quest. It's Sunday and hordes of people, scads of tourists, are on the streets making it even more difficult to navigate the dips and holes of uneven stones joined together with only crevices of cigarette butts and trash.
Annoyed husbands sit in shoe stores, used to the routine by now they wait for their wives to try on half a dozen shoes. There is no self service. You must wait for a salesperson to get your size after dragging them to the outside window, where all the merchandise is displayed, to point out the ones you want to try on. Your personal Prince Charming then dives into the basement, up stairs or into closets to retrieve the boxes. Possessed by the demon spirit of shoes, I float from shop to shop. The variety of boots alone is staggering. I have to dodge crafty salesmen who try to sell me boots that are neither the color I asked for nor the style when they're out of my size. I remember a small shop by the Pantheon from when I spent several weeks in Rome 4 years ago. There are no less than 5 pair I would love to buy but fortunately there's only one in my size. I wear them out of the store.
Instantly, I am transformed into an Italian women. I walk like an Italian. No one thinks I'm German anymore because people now address me in Italian, tourists ask for directions, traffic stops to let me cross the street and my Italian cell phone rings with invitations to dinner (“Pronto!”). Only 24 hours in Roma and I have evolved into that Italian creature. I remember my way around all the streets and piazze because my boots know the way.
I have since moved to another hotel called Papa Germano – cleaner and not so close to the train station. Papa Germano must have known I was missing out on the pre-ski conditioning classes at home and so gave me a room on the 4th floor of his building with no elevator. Either that or he thought my new boots needed to be broken in more. It's a very European experience – even though I have a private room I share a bathroom with a shouting Italian couple, a German family of four, a strange Japanese duo and someone I only hear slam the door after midnight. At 7 a.m. Pavarotti's ghost walks the hall singing in full bel canto and the sink in my room makes bubbling noises when someone uses the bathroom next door.
Today I walk to the Vatican... just to see what the Pope's been up to and to make sure the Tiber is still flowing. Everywhere on the street Italian couples are in passionate embraces indifferent to the public. The Japanese tourists must find this interesting and the Germans don't seem to even notice or care. But the world stops for these lovers who, in their entwined kisses, are like Bernini sculptures. I head off toward Saint Peter's Square, looking for absolution and a larger suitcase.
Photos below: Vatican Priest; Pantheon Warriors; Glorious Shoes
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Photo: Rita and Rosa in Matera
I knew that saying goodbye to Rosa and her clan was not going to be easy for either of us. Food, travel and language barriers make tight bonds. The actual process of leaving took 2 days. Cousin Rita had accidentally left her bag on the Magic Bus, which I was supposed to remind her not to forget at midnight after two days of nonstop tourista bliss. So, it was logical then that I was responsible for getting her bag back to her when I passed through L'aquila, where she lives, on my way to Rome – although how I was going to schlep an extra bag, find her house and get back to the bus terminal was questionable. In my now infamous Italian interpretation bungling, it turns out that Rita was coming to Santo Stefano to get her bag and give me a ride back to L'aquila.
It had taken me the better part of the morning to extract myself from the little homey room, pack and try to avoid Rosa's efforts to serve breakfast... which she finally just brought to my room on a tray since I wasn't cooperating. I was forced to eat more chocolate torte and biscotti. Rita arrives with her brother and sister-in-law at 1 p.m., just in time for lunch. You can't leave without eating lunch which is always a huge ordeal. First there is the fresh gnocchi, after which, plates are cleared and a tray of grilled meats is brought in – sausage, lamb, chicken and pork– all locally grown. More plates are cleared and the salad is last for digestion. Just when you think it's over, the fruit platter comes out with homegrown grapes, apples, pears and although wine is served throughout the meal, now the brandies are poured. Espresso is brought with Sambuca but we are waiting for a daughter in law, who shows up with the grandchild and a large cake with a sweet, cooked grape topping. A sturdy meal to tide a traveler over for a few hours.
The round of hugs, double cheek kisses, “buona fortuna”, and “ciao” goes around at least twice. Rosa's son, Lucca says he will look for a house for me. Rosa is trying to distract herself by kneading pasta dough. Having been told that I am family, I'm trying to hide tears most of the way down to L'aquila. It's now 4:30 p.m. and Rita decides it's too late for me to leave for Rome and so I am eating dinner at 10 p.m. because Rita refuses to let Rosa be the only one to cook for me.
I am resolved to leave in the morning so I can take control of my food intake and get to Rome for the city fix I now need. Rita finally accepts that I must go but only if I eat breakfast first – ricotta coffee cake, biscotti and fruit, with coffee of course. She stuffs the rest of the cake into my backpack, and I'm now having to say goodbye to my teacher and travel buddy – who follows me into the bus station and makes sure no one takes my luggage once it's loaded onto the bus and I'm aboard. This is the way things are here.
Less than two hours later, I'm lugging bags around Rome looking for a hotel by the train station, the shady but supposedly cheaper section because everything else is booked. The walls are scuffed up, the pillows feel like they are stuffed with socks, a roach stops by for a visit... the room is small and expensive for what it is... nevertheless, outside my 4th floor window Rome is seething with people and bustle. A huge political demonstration is dancing down the street and in the bars Italians are losing their minds screaming at soccer playoffs. I walk out into the night to find favorite old haunts, panini, gelato and search for boots.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Magical Mystery Tour
I boarded the magical mystery tour bus after schlepping half a mile down a steep hill in a starry, clear black sky at 3:30 a.m. with Rosa, her cousin Rita, their luggage and the two dogs who were trying to herd us back to our senses and into the house. I wasn't sure where we were going or what the agenda was. Rosa had told me only that it was “beautiful, beautiful places.” The excited chatter at the bus stop escalated as more villagers arrived. I, of course, was in a stupor since that time of the morning is when I'm usually just heading to bed. But these people were in party mode, having worked long and hard all their lives they were finally getting to see the national sites of their country. The average age was probably 70 – only because two teen kids in tow dropped the stats way down. The chariot arrived already half full from neighboring towns, all jovial with hands talking and smiles flashing... not a word of English was to be heard. It was a joyous sound and I fell into a blissful coma.
I am sitting next to Rita, who is delightful in her traditional Italian ways. I point out Venus to her, which is low in the sky and she tells me there are no planets, only satellites... I think that's what she tells me since I have limited, flawed comprehension ( and my Italian is even worse...) and she mentions something about men and machines. Later I realize she's college educated, an accountant and well read. The back of the bus becomes a full blown party after the stop for coffee (espresso) and pastries at a truck stop that has everything – walls of toys, novels, gourmet candy, gallons of wine, bags of beautiful pasta, olive oil and paninni on cibatta bread with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto... all the stops are like this. The Adriatic suddenly spreads dark blue across the vista in the morning mist. Fishing boats are cruising out for the catch.
My name in the Italian tongue sounds like “down-nay” and just doesn't work so both Rita and Rosa have renamed me – Rosa calls me Aurora, her daughter calls me Donna and Rita calls me Alba, which roughly translates into “sunrise.” I don't know how to introduce myself anymore. The women are far more patient with my floundering language skills and Rita is more than willing to take over the role as my teacher. “Get the book,” she points to my dictionary so frequently that it lives in my lap now.
The satellite sets somewhere in the west and the landscape waxes flat as we roll south into Pulia. It is Florida without the alligator farms and congestion but apparently has its fair share of mini Disney, Italian style. Expanses of vineyards and olive groves, the temperature is noticeably warmer and occasional palm trees and cacti dot the scape. Our first stop is Castel del Monte just outside of Andria in the province of Bari. Volumes of studies have been written about this UNESCO World Heritage site, (I suggest Wikipedia for a summary) but it is a major point in history and feat of architecture. Construction was started in 1240 by Federico II and finished in 1250, the year the king died. The building is octagonal in shape with eight towers, also aligned astrologically and of several influences – including Gothic and Arabic. Left in ruins for centuries, the Italian government started restoration in 1876. To walk through this massive castle with its marble and 3-story vaulted stone ceilings is compelling enough, but to think that it was never really used is overwhelming.
The bus stops frequently for food and espresso. It is a 36 hour non stop eating and chotzsky extravaganza with so much cheerful chit chat that I can't tell if the Italians are talking or singing. We motor into Grotte di Castellana for a tour of the caves. If you've ever been to upstate New York's Howe Caverns, you'll have childhood flashbacks of cheesiness. Although the Grotte at Castellana are considerably larger and more beautiful, there's that same universally bored tour guide with a laser pointer showing you the stalactites that resemble a ballerina leg, a Mexican landscape, a couple of camels, a sheepherders stick and, naturally, 15 Madonnas (the Virgin, not the singer...). They make big money on the Madonna. They don't allow photography since they make money on that too. The caves are impressive without the silly imagery interpretations.
It's been a full day already but still we travel to Alberobello, a small town inland between Bari and Brindisi, the only region known to have trulli – conical ancient houses made of non mortared stone. There is a small preserved village of connected trulli (trullo is a single house) in the heart of a larger town of no historical significance or beauty. Most of the south I've seen so far on this trip is unappealing in both landscape and feel and I'm glad I decided to go for the mini-sampler before actually taking time to visit the area solo. I love the idea of a hobbit house but the southeast just isn't as pretty as the hills of Umbria, or the mountains of Santo Stefano, or the city of Rome. Outside each trullo shop are barkers who will say anything to get you to come in and buy their cheap tourist trinkets which are certainly made in China. Groping at passersby shirtsleeves, “Come in, come in, please come in...” the begging was reminiscent of Laos and annoying rodeo carnies. The merchandise and the vulture culture was not conducive to a pleasant atmosphere and detracted from the historicity of the trulli village. Understandably, the south is quite poor so when a busload of captives pulls up, it's a feeding frenzy. The light was failing for photos as evening dropped and dinner call was at 8 p.m. with a 6 a.m. wake up call for the following day. My inner ultimate tourist was ready for horizontal mode. Rosa and Rita share the big bed with the crucifix hovering over them on the wall. I'm tucked into the little corner single for heathens.
The morning brings the top 40 together for sustenance to start the day and espresso that no one likes because it's not brewed properly – made in one of those instant machines to which the troupe makes scrunchy faces at and murmurs of “It's not made good” circulate with an emphasis only the Italian language could perfectly express. You would know what they were saying even if you had never heard Italian spoken before. On the way to Matera, the final stop, the busload of women make the sign of the cross on their chest every time we pass a cemetery, which I'm sure the dead must find amusing. We are heading to an ancient city built on and into the tufo rock. Cave dwellers, really, and the supposed shame of both the town and region since there was no running water, sewer facilities or heat – other than fireplaces carved into the curving walls. After WWII the dwellers in the grottoes were forcibly moved into new buildings in town, above the valley gorge of caves. Neighborhoods hundreds of years old were displaced and the caves were closed off until several years ago when someone decided that heritage tourism might be a worthy economical boost for the impoverished town. Restoration is in progress and busloads of tourists are stared at by the puzzled locals.
Engorged by dinner, the merry chatters board for home, which takes 8 hours... enough time to watch 3 movies dubbed in Italian and flip through the dictionary on demand so many times that my head is spinning. The journey was wonderful, for the most part the sites were interesting if you looked beyond the obvious tourist aspects... the architecture and the history. But most impressive and interesting was spending time with these warm and incredible people who took me in to share their Italy. It may well be the best time I've had traveling.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Apparently, it's an insult to the older generation Italian male if you try to put your seat belt on since it reflects on their driving skills, even though most of them hardly ever drive on their side of the road especially around blind curves. Rosa's husband, Matteo has determined that the roundtrip hike from Santo Stefano to Castelvecchio is too long for a woman to take and has graciously offered to drive me there. The idea of hiking for the fun of it may not register for hard working local people. Moving sheep is not considered hiking for fun. With my walking stick and backpack for the return hike, Matteo drives me to the small village about 4 miles down the road but when we arrive he decides that the town is not as pretty as others and it would be better if he just drove me around the valley, which is sort of a large, multi-mile wide circular loop that winds up to every town on top of a mountain. He seems to know everyone in every little town and honks the horn at all of them.
Through beautiful countryside and villages, occasionally stopping so I can get a photo, we stop at his buddy's farm in one town and then his daughter's cafe in another where he tells me to leave my leather cap in the car... I think only men wear them here – but then he hands me a comb. I haven't been able to get a comb through my hair since 1965 and besides, my hair was pulled back in a braid. So I can only assume that rural Italy may not understand my wild platinum-ness. So I'm not Donnatella...
The tour took over 4 hours, all the while there is non stop conversation... maybe conversation isn't exactly what it was since I understood every 5th word and not in context. After an hour of intensely focusing on trying to understand Matteo's dialect, he assumed I would comprehend and speak Italian fluently so sped up his speech accordingly. I was in a frenzy thumbing through my dictionary, futile in my efforts to keep up and Matteo getting frustrated and so spoke louder thinking that would somehow help. I've never been able to read in a moving vehicle and a car winding around Italian mountain roads, on which I preferred to be walking through instead of in a car on a perfect bluebird day, was making me quite motion sick.
We stop at his garden farm ( in yet another area) where he has watering and chores to do. Rosa and Matteo grow all the produce for their restaurant – and without pesticides. I sit under a tree at a table he has set up in his little paradise and breathe in the tranquility of the surroundings. Beans, pepperocini, lentils, potatoes, a deep golden corn for polenta, tomatoes and peppers, chard, cabbage and broccoli rabe, there are grains that I don't recognize, berries, fruit trees and several miles away he has an olive grove (we visit this too...) I appreciate his sincere and genuine interest and I have learned so much and seen at least 7 towns as we breeze through the landscape. It is now late afternoon and I'm exhausted without even hiking.
When we return to their pensione (a sort of B&B), I sit on the balcony and collect my breath and brain cells before heading into the dining room for solace in a plate of Rosa's pasta. Tomorrow, Wednesday, at 4 a.m., I head to Pulia by bus with Rosa on a whirlwind tour of 4 attractions in 30 hours – 10 of those traveling on the bus. This is something Italian grandmothers might do... visit the famous grottos, a castle and see the trulli (uniquely cone shaped houses in southern Italy) with a night at a hotel and returning the following night (Thursday) at 11 p.m. There are 40 villagers going, probably none of whom speak English. I'm sure it will be an experience, which is why I committed to go. It will help with my language studies and maybe I'll actually get to see some interesting sites... if I can get my nose out of the dictionary long enough.
The photo below is of the farm, and the bottom one is Matteo raking the beans while Rosa sifts them through a sieve.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Not a cloud in the sky, an Italian bluebird day and the best clear views I've seen since I arrived in Santo Stefano, as though the ancient gods decided it was ok for me to be here. After Rosa feeds me the caloric catastrophe of chocolate torte and orange coffee cake for breakfast (it would be impolite to refuse... ) I set out for Rocca Calascio... with my stick, of course. Half a mile up the road a shepherd is crossing his flock as his dog sees me and starts barking fiercely, running towards the presumed thief of his sheep. Fortunately for me, the dog is well trained and returns to his master's whistle.
The views are wide and layered with farmland, foothills and mountains. On hillsides in the near distances there is the occasional walker – going to their farms or flocks or towns – using the grassy sheep trails cutting across high up. I find the dirt trail that leads to Rocca Calascio, a castle in ruins on top of a mountain, the tiny village directly below it. It all looks a lot like the set for the cities in Lord of the Rings.
Another mile down the road two dogs are barking and running straight up the hillside toward me. I am frozen, petrified. The dogs are frantic and crazed. I remember that I have brought bribe food, my meal ticket in a way – so that I don't become their next meal as I'm sure they're starving out there all alone for months. I tear open the kryovac package of organic buffalo jerky hauled from the Butte and in a panic try to think of dog commands in Italian when several yards before the wailing dogs break the road, a large rabbit, as panicked as I am, is running for his life. The rabbit glances at me with the same thought that I have ... “Please, please chase her instead.” Poor bunny... the dogs barely give me a glance as the hare bounds up into the rocky terrain and the dogs charge up in the opposite direction. “Lucky rabbit,” I think and haul myself out of there before the dogs realize I'm also an option.
Another mile and I find the smaller, third cutoff up a steep trail and rounding a curve I catch view of the castle commanding the mountaintop and its views. Minutes pass in the sun before I realize I've been standing slack jawed and in awe. This is really what I came for – to see the non tourist Italy. Sadly, it's only a matter of time before this semi-isolated region of Abruzzo is fully discovered. The German tourists must have already found it because everyone here seems to think I'm one. Either it's the blondness or the hat but the Italian heritage that I want to manifest is escaping me for now.
After wandering the ruins and soaking up the antiquity of the grounds, the mountains and the rocks, I come across the tiny foot path that winds into the village. Rosa has directed me to her friend's restaurant for lunch. More ravioli, grilled vegetables and a glass of wine (and none of it even closely compares to Rosa's cuisine mastery) and I'm ready to fight off the canines. The village is very small – a fraction of Santo Stefano but there is much restoration going on here as well. The waiter says that four American families have purchased houses below in the lower village. As we chat, a German family with three kids walks in. I don't look anything like them.
Following the same trail back there are more sheep on the move with their masters – but no dogs. Still, I'm glad for Rosa's stick... and Mountain Earth's organic buffalo jerky.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Carry a big stick... or meaner than a junkyard dog
Rosa says it's very important to take a walking stick with me when I hike. “Always,” she reconfirmed that I understood. She went on to explain the stick wasn't so much for balance or crossing creeks but to stave off the diligent sheep herding dogs who tend flocks in the mountains. They get a bit territorial if they think you're out for their flock. These dogs are isolated for months with their sheep while their master is off managing other flocks and chores. Rosa then shows me a book with the local flora and fauna which includes deer, bear and wolves. Without dumpsters to keep them from getting the pre-hibernation munchies, encountering a bear could be an entirely different experience here... and do they speak Italian? What would I say to a wolf?
Rosa hands me a walking stick from the yard and points somewhere up a distance mountain, “You go up there until you come to a big curve, then turn right and take the dirt trail.” This is how she, as a young girl, walked to the neighboring village and ruins of Rocca Colascio, which should be about an hour and a half hike if you don't have to run from bears and dogs – then it takes less time. Basically, it's an old sheep trail. Santo Stefano was an important crossroad when it belonged to the southern province of Naples and livestock was moved south for the winter months. The journey is still taken, on a far smaller scale, and is called transumanza.
In the dining room I have my very own reserved table and my own bottle of wine on it for the length of time I'm here. It's almost as good as owning Italian real estate. That evening I am fortunate enough to befriend Francesco and Barbara, a Roman couple who also have a house in the village – and who hike, ski and speak English. They invite me to hike Piana di Campo Imperiatore, part of the Gran Sasso range only a few kilometers from the village. The day starts off perfectly blue and sunny so we're out the door by 9:30 a.m., before the clouds bizarrely and with astonishing speed drop down onto the mountains as though alive and possessed by strange spirits. It's quite unearthly to watch.
The base of the trail, also a small ski area, has the hotel that Mussolini was brought to under arrest. Francesco says there are still many fascists coming to pay homage. There is also one of Italy's best observatories but it's not open to the public. The wind is blowing at gale force and it's cold... I wasn't prepared for a frigid hurricane. The views are amazing – sheer and ragged rock peaks thrusting into blue sky, white furls appearing from hidden places and attaching to crags and scree fields. The landscape is lunar-like and void of trees. The trails are dangerously narrow with a steep vertical drop off and the wind now feels like a category 5 storm. I can't hold my camera steady to shoot as the gale threatens to push me over the edge. Fighting our way to the summit, we enter a warming hut. Always check the water bottle you take with you to ensure that you haven't accidentally grabbed the one that says, “Frizzante” because all the tiny little bubbles will explode when you reach the summit. Of course, the wind will dry your soaked backpack pretty quickly... Barbara says we're taking the easier way down because the face will be too dangerous now. Thankfully, it always takes considerably less time to descend.
Back in the car and toasty, we stop at an unusual grill that had been built as a spaghetti western movie set during the heyday fascination with the American west. You choose whatever meats, cheeses, breads you want and cook it yourself on long, wood fired open grills. Francesco and Barbara buy skewers of lamb, pork sausages and cheese, I have salami and fresh pecorino cheese (which I don't have to cook). The wind is still cold and nasty but the companionship and sun make it more than memorable.
We say goodbye, hoping to meet when I get to Rome sometime in the next week. Back at Rosa's the place is crazy – everyone and their family is crowded into the dining room and spilling onto the outdoor patio for Sunday lunch. I head to my room to study the map for my sheepless transumanza to Rocca Calascio tomorrow morning. Later when the crowd leaves a I pass the kitchen on my way for a short village stroll. Rosa reminds me, “Take a stick...”
Friday, October 12, 2007
After winding up through the beginnings of Gran Sasso National Park, the bus drops me off at a fork of a steep crumble of a road. From this point, everything is uphill and after a short walk I find the quaint B&B recommended by the L'aquila hotel I was staying at. The door is locked and there are two indifferent hounds at the front to greet me... at least they raised their heads from the sunny snooze they were deeply into. Italian dogs are quite autonomous. I go around to the side kitchen door where Rosa, the innkeeper and cook, lets me in. The rich aroma of her kitchen transports me to my grandmother's house. Rosa's sauce is simmering in the pot and wide strips of dough for the ravioli are laid flat on a countertop – already heaped with tablespoons of cheese spaced about 5 inches apart awaiting the folding and cutting process. Out her window, the mountain tops are dipped in grey-white billows. I am almost moved to tears by what seems too good to be true – to be standing in front of this magnificent woman with her broad, genuinely warm smile, who is making ravioli for me in paradiso. Surely, this must be an asylum for the insane and I am crazy. The first thing Rosa asks me is if I'm hungry and now there's no doubt I have chosen the right place and it already feels like home. But I'm anxious to drop off the luggage and go explore.
My room is dark but as I open the shuttered door light pours in and the vista unfolds with such force that I'm almost knocked off my feet. I am 3 stories up on the top of a mountainside steeply falling into a valley with squares of still green small farms. In the distance the higher Gran Sasso mountains scream upwards to 10,000 feet. My balcony faces west where the sky is now spotted blue but a storm is encroaching from the east. I hope there's thunder and lightning because that would just make this day even more surreal.
Back in the kitchen, I ask Rosa for a map. Throwing her dark hair back she laughs, “Map? What map? The village is tiny-tiny! There is no map!” I laugh at myself and set out to find the village center. Santo Stefano di Sessanio is a fortified – walled – village. There are no streets for motorized vehicles – only one or two that encircle the outer and inner walls. There are no streets within the village, only a maize of steeply stepped and ramped stone walkways that snake through stone archways and narrow, sometimes dark, vaulted corridors that will suddenly turn and burst into sunlit grottos or potted gardens. It's off season here and the flurry of tourists have gone back to mostly Italian cities, so the walks are practically deserted but for a few locals. The village has recently gained notoriety as an historic destination. Everywhere there is restoration going on – plasters, painters, carpenters and stone masons working on buildings that had been abandoned for a century up until 50 years ago. Because Santo Stefano was so completely abandoned its historicity remained intact, although in decay. So there is a new pride as people move into the tiny paese, repopulating it and restoring it. Unfortunately for the few locals that have remained or returned, and like Crested Butte, Santo Stefano has been discovered and with that the real estate has recently exploded with foreign money and investors making a fortune marketing to non nationals and the new tourism. However, unlike Crested Butte, the taxes probably won't increase for the real locals.
When I return, there's a briskness in the late afternoon air and now I'm hungry. Rosa and Roberto are eating their lunch at the family table in the kitchen and invite me to eat with them. I'm overjoyed since it's the real thing... lunch with an Italian family, much like my own. While Rosa watches a slideshow on my computer of the 200 photos I took of her village, I delightfully lose myself in a plate of her ravioli and a glass of red wine.
In the north, the alpenglow rises up the Gran Sasso and shafts of light comb the southwest range. As the clouds move I catch glimpses of taller mountains further away. The viewscape changes constantly as clouds roll across the face of the mountains, opening up a different scene every moment. Everywhere is the sweetly pungent smell of wood stove fires. Old men's songs echo off the hillside while masons' trowels scrape new life across the ancient walls, dogs bark, birds chatter jubilantly, crows are cackling in a distinctive local dialect, somewhere chickens are happily clucking and in the very distant past, I think I can hear the bells of the sheepherder's flock coming down the mountain trail.
Whatever you do, don't pull the string in the bathroom. It's positioned either over the shower, or the toilet so logically it would appear to be a vent. It's a thin cord with a plastic end bauble that looks like a shade pull. Which is what I thought – I'll just considerately open the vent to let out all the moisture from the shower. The word for embarrassed in Italian is embarazzare, which is what I was when the desk clerk pounded loudly on my door while I was slathering my hair with shampoo.
“Signora! SIGNORA! Are you ok?”
“Yes, why?,” I sputtered from my towel, water and bubbles pooling onto the carpet, “What's wrong? Is there a fire? Earthquake? What?”
“You pulled the alarm! It rang in my office!”
“Alarm? What alarm?” I was thoroughly confused until she pointed to the vent cord. “Oh... that's not a vent fan then?” She looked amused and annoyed in a friendly sort of way that read “stupid American.” After all, she ran up 3 flight of stairs and had plenty of time to think about what not to expect from a society that doesn't even have bidets in their culture. How can they be civilized?
It took me 11 tries before the man outside the bank lobby at ATM machine started to look a bit impatient. Still unable to figure out why I couldn't get the curser on the screen to move or register, confirm and give me cash, I was getting pretty frustrated with myself. I unlocked the door and pleaded with the nice Italian man for assistance. Had it been properly lighted in the room I could have seen that there were 2 other rows of command buttons hidden along the metal frame on both sides of the screen to activate the functions, in addition to the keys and arrows on the main board. I was just happy to have been shown how to do it and grateful that the machine didn't keep my card on the 13th attempt.
From the people that perfected the aquaduct comes the genius pedonale – like the people movers at airports only these moving walkways are on an incline that would be a black diamond expert ski run if there was snow on them. It's not for beginners or the weak of knee. The city of L'aquila is on top of a mountain foothill and the bus terminal is at the bottom. To get to the station without thumping luggage (ladened with all those shoes locals must own) down cascading medieval steps for a quarter mile, the planners devised a series of descending moving ramps. Ascending from the station back up to the city is like climbing the Matterhorn... but descending with bags – the trick is not to let your luggage run over you on the way down. Better to have it in front to pull you faster down the ramp than face the embarazzano of getting knocked down and mauled by your own bags. I arrived at the bus for Santo Stefano di Sessanio somewhat bruised but a far wiser traveler. (in my dilemma, I didn't stop for photos of the pedonale... )
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
I want one. I think if I take out a couple of shirts, dump the jeans and half of the electronics, I just might be able to fit one into my very small suitcase. I might have to buy another bag but it would be well worth it. The Fiat Cinque Cento is the smallest and cutest damn microscopically tiny car I've ever seen. I tower over its roof by at least two feet... It could double as a coffee table in the living room and you wouldn't need a garage. A mere trinket. I would absolutely have to have one if I lived here. It would be the equivalent of having a vintage VW Bug in the States, probably without the cultural implications.
Although I doubt having a Cinque Cento (say: “Cheen-qway chain-tow”... no, not like that... say it like you mean it) will make me anything like the Italian women with their incredible fashion sense, high boots and the faces of goddesses, the confidence in their walk (probably because of the amazing shoes they wear...see Ruby's Road: If the Shoe Fits at http://www.cbweekly.com/page.cfm?pageid=8660 ) it would be like a fun bumper car to drive, although I'm not sure the boots will actually fit into the car.
Italian women are out shopping here every night. I think now that the evening passagata (stroll) is only a ruse for a nightly spree. After three days, I'm seeing the same faces in stores. There is a plethora of shoe stores, clothing shops, specialty cosmetics, lingerie and stores dedicated entirely to socks and hosiery. The only constraint I have is knowing none of the things I may buy here in a vacation fashion frenzy are going to be suitable once I get back to the Butte's eight feet of snow (yes, this is a wishful affirmation for this year's ski prediction...) With the euro strongly higher than the U.S. dollar, everything I see becomes a choice... those awesome Dolce & Gabbana glasses, or those amazing knee high leather boots for the next month traveling here. Shoes pretty much trump anything (except maybe the Fiat) and I salivate over every pair. The boots I wanted to replace are no longer available anywhere because the Italian Fashion Police would never let a woman wear last year's style let alone a model from four years ago. As the shoe clerk said to me, "Why do you care if you can replace the sole? You will not wear these next year." She would snicker in that Italian snarly way if I confessed to keeping favorite shoes for twenty years.
Nevertheless, I cruise the streets gazing into shops and dodging cars. Let me explain why it's so difficult to avoid cars. The sidewalks are practically up against the buildings, only one and one half foot wide virtual lines painted on both sides of the already harrowingly narrow streets where cars zip by at warp speed. Italian women are skinny and can navigate these straits with grace even in heels. It's almost like ballet or tight rope walking. I don't know how Italian women stay so thin since the typical cuisine is very rich and heavy and the population eats late into the evening. Restaurants don't even open until 8:30 p.m. or later.
The Hotel had recommended a restaurant of local flavor. The young waiter actually spoke English and took pity ( or disgust...) on my attempt to butcher his beautiful language. The menu read like a romance novel to me. I ordered the papardelle with porcini and trufalo (yes, truffles) and grilled eggplant and zucchini, and of course, a glass of the house red. So much for the gluten intolerance... I was willing to suffer for the thick ribbons of homemade pasta, grated truffles and fresh porcini with olive oil so rich you could drink it as a fine wine. Life falls into place. The waiter brings another glass of wine which makes me believe I can think in Italian. Language through osmosis. Everything is a song. It doesn't matter that the dollar to euro exchange is at 1.45 (or that the money changer at the Roma airport charged you 1.58 euro for your dollar...) It doesn't matter that a pair of boots will cost about 45 percent more or that you have no travel agenda. Hey, wine is cheaper than water, what more do you want from life? Besides, as a young archeologist I met today commented about the earthquakes that devastated his city of L'aquila, three times over a couple of centuries... “What can you do about it?” Nothing. You enjoy life's sweetness (la dolce vita).
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker)
or... Let's do the time warp again
L'aquila is not difficult to get to, unless of course you've gone through the wormhole of trans-Atlantic flight, countless airports, plane and time changes, body contortions in a 2 ft cubical space next to strangers, trains and busses and have now arrived in medieval Italy. In a stupor, my computer says its 8:30 a.m. somewhere in the Colorado Rockies and my Italian cell phone reads 6:30 p.m. My mind is desperately trying to talk my body into just laying down for a minute – but we've heard this line before – and the light reflecting off the siena and gold stucco buildings, bouncing in shafts across narrow cobblestone streets that climb and wind into delicious little hidden piazzale is too inviting to just fall into drooling slumber. No, better to be sleepwalking... la sonnambula. Tangled in sleep depravation of 2 or 3 days, I'm no longer in my body. I'm not sure who is but I'm hovering somewhere ahead, looking for that first espresso. In the main piazza, the street sweepers are cleaning up after the daily market. It's mid day, when the Italians close up shop and restaurant to eat with their families. The town has about 60,000 residents but it feels smaller. The Apennine Mountains surround the valley, high and dry this time of year and occasionally topped by clouds – even more dramatic framed from the height of streets that dive down to reveal the panorama. I'm told this isn't the prettiest of cities but it seems the perfect combination of size, antiquity and that impeccable Italian fashion sense.
Since most businesses are closed until 4 p.m., I wander the streets, happily aimless, noting restaurants I want to taste and churches to check out for the art and architecture (because you know those are the only reasons that will get me into a church... ) The Hotel Castello, where my window partially faces a windowless stuccoed building perfect in its acoustics to bounce off the excruciatingly loud construction pounding going on in the front. But I don't even really mind this (yet... tomorrow morning may be a different story.) The hotel is on a roundabout with a tall statued fountain in the center that miniscule cars circle. Tiny as they are, and semi-conscience as I am, the only real challenge is getting out of the way of cars, but the drivers here seem far more polite than in Rome although they race through the tapered streets just as fast.
Before I completely lose all sensory perception, it's time for an early dinner (by Italian custom) and let the sing song of the language in streets below my window lull me to sleep as the city takes its nightly passagiata (the evening stroll).