Sunday, April 29, 2018

Lost and Found

Donato's climbing roses

It may not be immediately obvious what this post has to do with terroir, but I think it will become clear in the end.

On my first trip to Italy, I came to meet "the family".
I was a little nervous. My Italian was rudimentary [Yes, yes. I know. It still is.]
But my partner's father, Donato [I've changed his name for this post], put me at ease, much to my surprise.

I had the impression he would be the gruff and quiet type. I didn't know what we would talk about even if I could have attained eloquence in Italian.
But he was warm and open with me. He was endlessly patient with my poor language skills and seemed to enjoy teaching me new words.
He even, miraculously, seemed to get my jokes when no one else did. Humor doesn't always translate well across language and culture, and not only when the joke is a poor one (but of course, my jokes are always exemplary).
This man listened with more than his ears, and he just seemed to "get" me.
He still does. Nine years later, I can still make him laugh.
Sometimes even intentionally.

Some of Donato's lemons

It turned out, we shared a love of growing things.  We walked around his garden, and I would learn obscure Italian vocabulary like "pruning," "grafting," "germinate," "innoculate," and others.
I would learn Italian quickly with him as my guide, but I would only be able to talk to farmers.
But that's OK. I happen to love farmers.

Donato's grafting handiwork

We had different things to share depending on the season of my visits. In summer, he impressed me by climbing to the top of one of his fig trees like a 70-something-year-old monkey to snatch the last fruits from the highest branches for me.
He and Luisa set me up at a table in the yard to can their tomatoes and basil with them.
In September and October he'd hand me pomegranates bigger than a softball.
At Christmas, there were oranges fresh from the tree to run through the juicer.

It will be a good year for figs.

But on this trip, things are a bit different.
By now, the end of April, there should be many green, leafy things in the garden. But there aren't. At least, not like in previous years. There's a lot of blank space in his agricultural canvas.
Because now, Donato can't see.

A little bit of lettuce, but usually this is full of green in late April.

He has always had one lazy eye, and one good eye.
But a recent surgery on his good eye went awry, and the doctors say that eye isn't going to get better.
So Donato can't see.
And, naturally, he's feeling very down about this.
No more driving. No more of many things he used to enjoy. Including sunlight. Including the garden.
Donato has lost his sight.
We bought him some wraparound sunglasses in the hope it would encourage him to go out. Slowly it seems to be working. Perhaps it helps that I've taken to calling him "Hollywood" when he wears them.
But I think even the thought of working in the garden makes him sad. He can't really see what he's doing. We remind him he has grandkids, and this is what they're forGarden Guides.

One gift amid the current crisis is that I get to witness my partner's reaction to this sad state of affairs. I have often noted some difficulty connecting between father and son. But now I'm moved as I watch my sweet partner dive into the thing he knows besttechnologyin the service of his dad.
He scours the web for information about devices and software to help the visually impaired. He tests out a tablet with Donato, trying to teach him to use it with special large fonts and synthesized voices. He envisions audiobooks and Google assistant in his dad's future, when he can no longer see even vague shapes and patches of light and shadow. He wants to teach him how to use this now because "it will be harder to learn when the sight is completely gone."

There are so many ways to love people. It's a beautiful thing when you find your way, but just as beautiful is the willingness to search for it.

Roses and rosemary

I try to strike a balance between encouraging Donato and giving him space to grieve this very personal loss.
Loss of sight. And the loss of countless other things that go along with that.
Loss of security. Loss of freedom and independence.
This is huge. I can't imagine how I would handle a similar situation for myself. I like to think I'd have equanimity, and maybe I could eventually achieve that. But not right out of the starting gate. Nope.
Intense grief is what I imagine.
And I feel some of that on his behalf as I walk through the garden, without him.
I miss my garden companion.
But in my mind I have the conversation I would have had if I'd been able to coax him outside.
I imagine myself in his shoes, trying to find his way through this new terrain.
It is something of a walking prayer for my friend.
I close my eyes.

There are birds. Lots of them, which I hadn't noticed with my eyes open.
One seems to be auditioning for American Idol (or Italian Idol?), and not the early stage tryouts, either. This bird is good. This bird is, as they say, "tearin' the roof off the sucka;" bringing down the house. I smile.

The lemon and orange trees Donato has so carefully tended over the years are bursting with blossoms, surrounded by clouds of fragrance, pulling me in. Pulling the bees in, too. I hadn't heard their buzz and hum with my eyes open, but now it's a chorus, blending seamlessly with the birds. Who is this genius conductor? I feel so grateful.

Orange blossoms. I wish you could smell them, dear reader.

Part of the world is shrinking for you, Donato, but come out here and remember the things you already know from years working in harmony with the natural world:
Green is more than a color. It's a scent. You will remember this after the music of spring rains stirs that green into the air, to mix with the orange blossoms, with the basil, mint, and oregano at your feet.

Bend, slowly if you must, but bend to touch that soil you have understood so well throughout your life. Feel the little stones, sharp or smooth. Touch the roots. Take your grandchild's hand and make your rows. Feel that sun on your back, your arms, warm and life-giving.

Find, too, that sixth sense that sees all, without need of the eyes. That sense that knows all is well in this very moment.

Future grapes for the table.

You are still here with us. Thank heaven you are here. We are glad, and so is this world that calls out to you, seeks to contact and engage you in ways you may have forgottenthrough these humming bees and raucous birds, these puffs of jasmine from the trellis.

July and August will arrive, arms laden with delicious, soft figs for the tasting. September will replace them with pomegranates, plump jewel boxes ready and waiting for you. You might not see the gems so clearly, but these juicy rubies will fill your mouth with as much delight as ever.
In this way, the world will be returned to you, I swear it.
Oh Donato, how I pray this dark cloud might disperse for you.
Then may you hear, and feel, and smell, and taste every sweet color you have missed.

Future olives for the table.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Naming the Wind

Naming the Wind

There is something heroic about a people
who will give a proper name
to a force as ephemeral as the Wind.
I would know such intimacy of place.
I want to know them; those winds
and the people who named them.

The Scirocco wind bursts forth
From the Sahara and Arabian deserts
Lifting particles of colored sand to
make the Blood Rains fall on Italy.

The Tramontana thunders across the Alps
like Hannibal and his elephants
On their way to the Trebia,
Destined to vanquish Romans.

Where they know the Bora,
heavy ropes line the streets
for the people to hold on.
Bora winds of Trieste have the power
to knock you down.

But how should we name
the wind that comes
without warning, with nothing to grasp,
The one after you've already fallen, that blows out the flame
in the heart?

And what of the one that rises
as if out of Charybdis’ maelstrom, to encircle you,
To seek the dying embers and
Revive them?
I would know that wind.

Tell me its name.

Triestini battle the Bora

Friday, October 27, 2017


Italian is not my language.
I don’t mean that in the sense of "I'm not Italian" or “I wasn’t born into it,” though both of those are true.
I mean that it’s not mine yet. It doesn’t move across my synapses with the ease I hope to one day attain.
At home, with my mother tongue, I’m used to being generally considered an intelligent, educated, and articulate person.
In Italy, in Italian, I sound like an academically challenged five-year-old.
Which is difficult in some ways (mostly for my ego), but I find when people think you’re not very bright, they don’t expect much from you.
I’m just saying, it has its benefits.

As I say, I hope one day Italian will be “my language.” One of them, anyway.
I hope to relieve my Italian friends of the burden of assembling into something coherent the linguistic puzzle pieces that currently spew forth from my confused face.

But there is one phrase I hope I never integrate into my brain like an Italian. I want to keep my non-native understanding of it. I like it better.

The phrase is “venire a trovare.”
For Italians, it simply means “to come visit.”

I didn’t know this until my dear friend, Isabella, corrected me. I had been using the word “visitare”, to visit.
They were dining at my house in the Cilento (see La Divina Commedia post), and I asked her three-year-old daughter, who already speaks better Italian than me, if she would come visit me when I return to the Cilento in a few weeks. I used “visitare.”
Isabella gently corrected me, “Vieni a trovarmi,” come visit me.

I try to remember to use it now as I invite nearly everyone I know in Italy (and friends in other countries) to come visit me. I'm eager to share the joy of discovery with friends, new and old.

But even as my Italian improves, I will hold fast to my more literal English translation:
“Come find me.”
"Trovare," by itself, means "to find," "to discover," among other things.
I wish I could convince Italy to adopt this sense of the phrase.

This is beautiful to me. It goes deeper than a visit.
It goes much deeper than any social media network.

Confidences, by Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1878

Come find me.
Let’s find each other.
I’ll cook for you, and take pleasure in your pleasure.
Tell me your stories, I’ll tell you mine.
Tell me about that book you read, and why it moved you.
Tell me about your greatest teachers; the sharp and painful ones, the soft and kindly ones.
Sing a song for me. I'll sing for you, too. We'll compose something bright and new together in the offering.
Tell me about the time the birds rose en masse from the fields and trees, and their circling above brought you to tears of gratitude.
Tell me about the smells and sounds of the place you call home.
Tell me about your travels, in the world and in the mind.
Tell me about the one who broke your heart.
Tell me of the one who repaired it.
Let us make messy mistakes in communication, and survive them together.
Let us irritate and appreciate and challenge and inspire each other.
I will weep for your sorrows. I will celebrate your victories.
I promise.

Come, find me.

Come, be found.

Talking It Over, by Enoch Wood Perry, 1872

The Pride of Dijon, By William John Hennessy, 1879

Saturday, October 21, 2017

La Mia Divina Commedia

La commedia illumina Firenze--Domenico di Michelino

Dante has nothing on me.
Let me tell you, Friends, about my Divine Comedy, complete with many circles of hell, purgatory, and finally angels that show me Paradiso.

Dante had Virgil as his guide.
I have Maria, but more about that in a moment.

It starts with one of my deadly sins, Laziness.
But no . . . wait . . . it’s gluttony.
That’s where it begins, with gluttony.
I’ve taken on the task of cooking for Italian friends, which is always terrifying for this American.
But these are Italian friends who run a restaurant in the summer. So it goes beyond terrifying to potentially traumatizing (for both of us). I think they’ve only agreed to come because I promised cheeseburgers would not be on the menu.

Not only am I *not* cooking cheeseburgers, I’m going into extreme overcompensation, which is one of my specialties. I’m representing my country, after all--my country which has heretofore won the gold medal in the Obesity Olympics and has Paula Deen as one of its food ambassadors. The woman fries butter. Need I say more?

I labor under my nation’s bad culinary reputation, and seek redemption on this night through eggplant/roasted garlic/rice/orange zest polpettine;
cauliflower with garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and lemon;
cannellini beans with carrot, fennel, sage, rosemary, and parmigiano;
and my simple but delicious homemade tomato sauce.
I also want to make homemade gnocchi and a vegan chocolate-orange cake for my friend Isa’s birthday, but my journey through hell will take a lot of time and prevent me from the full expression of my food obsession (she gets the cake a few days later, though, on her actual birthday. The gnocchi are a lost cause).

So, as I said, my trip through hell begins with gluttony, followed closely by laziness.
I have sliced and diced the eggplant and garlic and placed them in the oven to roast. Easy enough.

Then, I decide to take the overflowing compost bucket down three flights of stairs to the compost bin in the garden. The laziness comes into play because the voice in my head says, “It’s warm out. It’s right downstairs. And those boots are soooo hard to zip up. Socks are fine. Just wear the socks. You’re doing laundry later anyway . . .”

I carry my compost bucket and other recyclables downstairs, and leave the key in the door, which I have also left ajar.

The breeze from the terrace has other ideas, though.

The misadventure begins as I descend these stairs.
When I reach the garden, I realize walking barefoot on this terrain isn’t a great idea. So I trudge back up the stairs only to find the door is now closed.
This door doesn’t have a knob that you turn. It only opens with the key--the key that’s in the door, on the inside.

Enter first circle of hell.

I have a rapid series of thoughts as I see that closed door and try to push it open, to no avail:

I must call my landlady.

But your phone is in the house!

I must walk to the neighbors to ask for help.

But you have no shoes!
But you have no neighbors except goats!

I’ll drive to . . .

The car key is in the house, idiot!

I’ll just open the automatic gate and . . .

The device to open the gate is in the house!

I’ll climb over the wall.

Remember the part about having no shoes?

Now, when I write, I should tell you that I often have a cinematic vision in my mind. It’s thorough, complete with rapid montages, panning, close-ups, lean-outs, and even a soundtrack.

As the scream escapes my lips and echoes off the hillsides and cliffs, I can see the people of the Cilento stop everything they’re doing. The goatherd looks up from his flock toward the heavens. The shopkeeper steps outside the front door to investigate the source of this unearthly howl. The farmer harvesting his olives stops combing the branches, and gazes out toward the Gulf of Policastro. The barber holds fast to his razor, should the need for defense arise.
They all ask the same thing: from whence cometh such a sound of suffering? Is the apocalypse nigh?
The force of the breeze that carries this shriek smacks the broom from the housewife’s hands. As she bends to pick it up, the breeze lifting her apron, she knows.
Oh, she knows.
It’s that American up on the hill. That American has done something incredibly stupid.

They will likely write songs and poems about this day, the day The Sound shook their land.

Keep all that in mind as you now hear my pained screams. You can listen to a reenactment below, but use headphones if you’re at work.
And make sure the headphones are NOT at full blast.

If you can’t play the audio for some reason, here is a transcript:

“Oh no . . . no . . . no, no, No, NO, Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck no no no no no no no . . . . “

At this point, I pace a lot. I pace on the upper floor by the door. I pace in the driveway.
I am swearing.
A great deal of swearing is happening, in fact.
An extraordinary amount of swearing that is most unbuddha-like.
I am also talking to myself, and scolding myself, and picturing the eggplant in the oven burnt to a crisp and possibly burning down this beautiful house if I don’t find a solution soon.

When I travel, out of respect for my landlords and hosts, I typically try very hard not to burn down their houses. It’s a matter of principle with me, really. I guess I’m old-fashioned like that. I think it would also ruin my prospects with future AirBnB hosts if the current landlord’s review read something like “She was very punctual, and respectful and quiet . . . except for that scream that scared the entire region. Oh, and she also accidentally set fire to our house, which was very beautiful, but is now a pile of ashes. She is an American--they elected Trump, so really what did we expect? Making the Cilento great again, my ass.”

OK, so this whole burning down the house thing weighs heavily on my mind. I race down the stairs again and begin frantically searching under every flowerpot, stone, and bench (there are a bunch of them) to try to find a spare key. Italians hide keys in obvious places, just like Americans, right?
I try every shutter and window and door on the first floor. Yes, Italians have shutters and they actually use them to shut things up. They aren’t simply decorative like in the States.

Walked all around the house and yard searching for a non-existent key.
I then find a work shed that’s open, and imagine myself a criminal. I’m going to take this wire and this metal-whatever-it-is and poke around in the keyhole and it will open the door.
As I start jamming the wire in the keyhole, it occurs to me that, given my luck so far, this wire will break off in the keyhole and render it useless even with a key. I run downstairs, take off my socks and put them on the roof of the Fiat for some reason (seriously, I don’t know why I did this except that maybe I didn’t want to rip them as I did the next stupid thing).

Driveway below, and the Fiat that held my socks for me.
I head toward the stone wall by the gate and look over. It’s not too far to fall. It would suck to fall, but I won’t die from it. Maybe just sprain an ankle. Over the wall I go, with my bare feet, and head up the unpaved white gravel road, to the next “house” on the road, which really can’t be called a house. It’s more like a shack. I rarely see anyone there. I think some people come to work the garden occasionally, but they don’t stay.

The impenetrable gate and wall I had to climb, barefoot.

But today’s my lucky day. There’s a blue car parked in the driveway. I call out “Salve!” and hear “Hello” back. This is a deception, because the woman I’ve just encountered, Maria, doesn’t speak English. She doesn’t seem to speak Italian, either. She speaks the local dialect.
Luckily, she also understands Italian. She can understand me, but I can understand only about 10% of what she’s saying.

The paragraph above that begins with “When I travel” has just over 100 words. To increase your empathy for my situation, try reading only every tenth word and see how clear it is.

I try to explain my situation, as I stand there in a panic. I do the best that I can in Italian, but I suspect what she sees and hears is a crazed, barefoot stranger, blathering almost unintelligibly:

“Good day, Madam. I rent tall house there behind trees. I am idiot american with no keys and have no shoes. You are knowing the lady of that tall house? You are knowing her phone? Things in oven make fire soon.”

Miraculously, she seems to understand. She hands me her flip-phone and seems to suggest I can use it to call my landlady.
She doesn’t realize this is 2017 and my “smart phone” has made me very dumb. I haven’t remembered a phone number since 2009. My landlady’s number is in the phone that's in the house.

Maria gets this and, after bringing me a pair of garden clogs for my feet, begins an hour of flipping through her handwritten phone book and trying to decipher her own handwriting, while admitting that many of the phone numbers are probably no longer in service. She can’t reach anyone. No one is answering.

I ask if she has a ladder. Because “Eggplant Fire” might be a great band name, but it’s a lousy way to lose everything, including your passport and your phone. I tell her that the door to the third floor terrace is open. We could climb up one storey at a time. But I’m mostly acting this out like a very unskilled and annoying mime.

We carry the ladder down the road, and when I begin to pass the ladder over the wall, she points out a gate that opens without a key, next to the driveway. A gate that could have prevented the need to climb barefoot over a stone wall if I had seen it earlier.

The ladder doesn’t go very high onto the first floor. It’s flimsy, frankly, and a bit precarious. I get halfway up, and freeze. My brain will not let me lift a hand or a foot. I’m looking at the concrete below and thinking how much it would hurt to land on it. Especially head first.

The flimsy ladder made it *just* to the first floor balcony.
Meanwhile, Maria’s phone is ringing every five minutes with someone returning her call. I couldn’t find a sample of the exact ringtone, but it was nearly as ridiculous and incongruous for this situation as the song below, only bouncier and more . . . I don't know . . . just really, really stereotypically Italian.

As I took down the ladder and waited with Maria in Purgatory, her phone rang for the 5th time and blasted that bouncy song. I had to laugh. But thankfully, this time the call was from Assunta, the house's groundskeeper. She'd be there to help us in ten minutes.
This is the part in this Divine Comedy when the angels arrive, when redemption is not just an elusive dream.

Assunta speaks dialect and Italian. She is kind and sympathetic, and finds me hilarious, whether I intend to be or not.
She opens the one door I hadn’t checked. To the garden shed.
In it, there’s a key to the first floor apartment (which extends to the second floor, where there is a terrace below my terrace).
We carry the ladder up to the second floor, and Assunta shimmies up like an Italian monkey, without batting an eyelash. Completely unruffled. She says it’s a good thing I left the terrace door open, too.
I call up to her to ask about the oven and the eggplant.
She responds diplomatically that perhaps we should have a different plan for dinner tonight.

Sad, burned eggplant.
I thank her and Maria profusely, and offer to carry the ladder back to Maria’s house, but Assunta will not hear of it. I tell her in Italian that the good news is the house is very secure. She laughs heartily. Did I mention she thinks I’m hilarious?

The night before, I had made tomato sauce and over-salted it.
I had to throw it out and start again today.
I have now been to the local market to buy the same things twice. I will need to go again, and explain to Ralph From-Brooklyn-50-Years-Ago, who owns the place, that I am not stockpiling tomatoes and eggplants for the End Times. I’m just a careless American twit.

After I clean up the burnt vegetables, I realize how little time I’ll have to complete this dinner before my friends arrive. I take it as a challenge.
I GRAB MY KEYS. ALL OF THEM, and run down to the car for the 10 minute drive into town.
But on they way up to the main road, I pass Assunta. She’s opening a garden gate.
I dangle my house keys next to the car window. She sees them and laughs again, but tells me to stop. She says she thinks she has some eggplant ready to pick.
So, I go into the garden with her. She fills the bottom edge of her large shirt with small eggplants and beautiful tomatoes. I think she’ll hand me a few, but she puts the whole lot into my car.
“Wait. . . that’s all for me? I thought you were picking some for yourself.”
“No. It’s for you. For your dinner.”
“But . . . really? OK . . . thank you so much. You’re so generous.”
She doesn’t miss a beat before she says matter-of-factly, “It’s not a gift from us, it’s a gift from the land.”

Gifts from the land (and Asunta)

I can’t argue with this, and wouldn’t want to. Of course, she’s right. It’s a good reminder. It makes the last few hectic hours seem worth it just for that.

In the next couple of days, I’ll have a chance to get to know Assunta a little better, and be grateful for it. She is small in stature, dark-skinned, with hands that have clearly worked hard for a long, long time. She is eager to laugh and quick to offer a smile, and I have never heard anyone so clear about their place in the world, so grateful for each day, each moment, even when you have to help fools who leave their keys behind locked doors.
I invite her in for some cake a few days later, and she happily obliges. She’s not much for technology, she says. She likes to talk face to face.
She points to a nearby hill and tells me she was born “right over there.” She’s lived elsewhere, but has come back here. “This is my land. This is my world,” she says, smiling. “I love my land. It’s the most beautiful in Italy.”

Surely the fates are wiser than me, and can use my carelessness to send a living Buddha into my frazzled sphere of existence. She moves through the static with ease, ascends the ladder without fear, smiles and laughs at my Divine Comedy.
It’s all happening here, now, in her land, her world that she loves.
She will not pick and choose. She will love all of it.

She drags me out of purgatory, into the bright blue Cilento day.