Thursday, October 30, 2014

Problem Dog

What insane creature would run away from here, I ask you?
Il Rifugio Del Contadino, Bosco di San Giovanni, Italy

Most of my friends know that I'm not at all what you would call a “dog person”. Really, I typically can't stand the things. I won't go into it, because I don't want to get hate-mail from the dog lovers of the world.

But I might feel differently about one dog. . . Maybe.
I can relate to this one. I admire his tenacity and his boldness, as he snaps at the heels of the horses, as though they aren't big enough to knock his head off with one well-timed, well-aimed kick.

His name is Esso (that's “it”, in Italian).
He lives on the farm where I'm currently WWOOFing, and is one of three dogs they have here. The dogs usually come with us when we do our work, whether at the barn or among the olives trees where we're harvesting. They'll torment the very timid sheep, or sit on the nets we've spread on the ground for the falling olives, and not budge, just soaking in the sun.

Same place, view in opposite direction. Monte Bulgaria, Italy

But Esso is always on a rope and chain, attached to one of the trees, while the two other dogs are free. I wondered about this.

Today, as we return from bringing the horses to one of the lower pastures, I realize Esso hasn't been with us today, making trouble with the horses.

“Hey . . .Where's Esso?” I ask Cesare, his owner.


“What do you mean 'gone'?” I say. We're speaking in Italian (or rather, Cesare is. What I'm speaking can only be called “Italian” if one is feeling very charitable), so I think I've misunderstood him. He seems very casual, very calm about this.

“He left,” says Cesare.

“You mean, he ran away?”

Again, very calmly, Cesare says, “Sì.”

This place definitely doesn't suck. 

I'm quiet for a moment. Trying to come up with the right words, and trying to sound sympathetic. Then I ask, “Well, where do you think he went?”

Very matter-of-factly, Cesare responds “al bar.” [to the bar]

I have to laugh, so I do.

The man knows his dog. But I also laugh because in the United States, the bar is where you go when you need a strong drink . . . stronger than espresso, which is what “the bar” serves here in Italy. So Esso has run away to go to the bar. A true Italian dog.

I find out, also, that Esso knows everyone in town. And let me just say that “town” is a little bit of a trek from here. He knows everyone in town, and everyone knows him . . . and everyone feeds him. Esso makes the rounds of the town, and makes out well. Again, true Italian dog.

I get the impression that he'll be back whenever he damn well feels like it.

Somewhere in these hills is a dog, jacked-up on espresso.

Meanwhile, we walk back to the stables from where we've taken the horses. We have to repair the fence where one of them, aptly nicknamed “Houdini”, has pushed through and escaped.

Perhaps he wanted to join Esso in town, at the bar.
Italian horse and Italian dog.

I picture them now, Esso with a cigarette in one paw, espresso in another, talking, endlessly talking. Then they make their way home. Slowly. A little late, as always, but content.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Napoli—an outsider's view

Side street, Napoli, Italia, 10/25/14

While Rome feels to me like an aging diplomat, with a superficial elegance but also a tendency to cling to past glories and triumphs, Naples is like an aged trapeze artist or a shriveled burlesque queen.

She's dressed in colorful silk and lace, but she smells of cigarettes and B.O.  Her corset overflows, even as she sags.  She's coarse, her lipstick smeared and too, too red, but she has a million stories to telland when she looks at you with that fire in her weary, heavy-lidded eyes, the mischief beaming through too much mascara, you want to hear it all.

Her laugh is the explosion of fireworks. 
She’ll scold you and teach you hard lessons, while implying you should have already known. 
But after you've been broken down by her scorn, she'll heal you and feed you.
She'll feed you like you've never been fed before.

Pasta shop, Napoli, 2014

She'll remind you that everything is growing old in every moment, and show you the beauty amid our decay.
She’ll demand that you honor what is old, and honor the profound quotidian details that have always made up our lives—she'll make you pay attention to the fluttering, bright laundry on the line, the blue delivery buckets hoisted on ropes to top floor walk-ups, the fruit-sellers, the beggars, the children kicking a ball while their nonne call from the balconies. . .

More beauty and decay, Napoli, 2014

She'll send you off satisfied, but will not invite you back.
She doesn't need to.
It's understood—you *will* be back.
Because you can't forget that booming laughter, that blush of color amid the decrepitude. 
That ancient vibration that animates her every artery. 
That pulse pulling you through her streets and alleyways.
You can't forget the buzz of endless motorini, like bees in the hive of the Spanish quarter, and that sweet, tenacious nectar flowing through the living streets.

She has a million songs, too: of wit and wonder, lamentation and love, of survival and resilience, of sacredness and vice. 
She must sing, or she dies.  
She sings them all to the beat of endless footsteps, motors, horns, and hawkers.

Her accent is Italian and French and Spanish and Arabic and Greek and unfathomable.
She has survived plague and political machinations, her scugnizzi have faced down Nazis (and kicked them out of the city).
She has lived and grown next to a hole in the earth that could explode at any moment (and has), 
so she has no use for hope, nor your sad stories—she knows well that the world is full of those. 

She will dance for you, but you can never possess her — many have tried. 
She'll teach you to dance, too, to that erratic, but ancient and persistent rhythm that is life, 
and this is what you will take with you when you go.

And this is what will bring you back to her.

Beauty and decay, street scene in Napoli, 2014

**I promise more photos as soon as I have a faster internet connection. The uploads take a long time.

Friday, October 24, 2014

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

Basket with wheat fronds, hanging near the garden.

I'm happy to report that I arrived safely in Napoli yesterday.
My brain and my biological clock have no idea what day it is, or what time, but other than that, things are pretty good.

There are lots of things that make me happy to be in Italy, and in Giugliano, specifically.  The first, of course, is the family.

Best to keep my pleasures simple when I'm jet lagged, so here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite things. And this is just Day 1:


I've had pomegranates before. But never one fresh from the tree, and bigger than a softball. Eating this one has been a two-day project. Would have been three or four days if Diego hadn't eaten half. My father-in-law has one of the greenest thumbs in Italy, I think. The man can grow anything. . . except the next item on my list.


Espresso, as often as you want it (and even when you really shouldn't), any time of the day, made in the little machinetta on the stove at home, not by a contemptuous barista in flannel, who looks like he just stepped out of a 19th century agricultural fair or Ken Burns' "The Civil War" documentary.


Müller yogurt. That's right. I'm plugging their yogurt without them asking—they don't have to. Every time I come to Italy I look forward to it.They've only just started selling the brand in the United States, but it's awful there. They make flavors that tell us they think we're little children who need sugary, candy-coated everything. Here I can get hazelnut, lemon, strawberry lemon, apricot and others. It's goooood stuff, People.


Then there's fresh Buffalo Mozzarella. I don't have a photo of it. That's because I couldn't stop myself from eating it long enough to take a photo. Impulse control, People. Never underestimate its value.


Persimmons, right off of the tree. That's courtesy of my in-laws again. If ever I should find myself in a post-apocalyptic hellscape (no, New Jersey doesn't count, but thanks for asking), living a real-life version of Survivor, I want these folks on my team. They know how to grow things, butcher things, cook things, fix things, and build things. They also have useful friends (see below).


Mysterious Wine "from-a-friend". I don't know who these friends are, and the in-laws aren't talking. But there it is, magically appearing on the table at every meal. How can I refuse, People? I ask you . . .


There's lettuce in the garden right now, next to orange and fig trees.
Pomegranates still on the tree. Yellowish skin, ruby red seeds inside.
Oranges will be ready in January.

The Garden, and everything that Diego and Luisa grow in it. Here's a not-nearly-complete list (though, they aren't all growing at the same time of year, of course): Pomegranates, persimmons, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, plums, olives, grapes, peaches, nectarines, figs, almonds and hazelnuts. That's just the trees. There's a whole lot more; herbs, veggies, flowers, that they grow annually, as well as palms and succulents. Oh, and chickens. They've got those, too. From within their little paradise, you can easily forget that just outside its walls are the Neapolitan drivers, just waiting to induce Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in you. Best to just stay here. You have pretty much everything you need, anyway.


Octopi at outdoor market, Villarica, Italy.
Fish monger's stall.

Nuts and seeds for sale.
Fruit stall.

The Outdoor Market. Sure, these exist all over the world. But there's something about an Italian market, and one full of Neapolitan hawkers that feels otherworldly. I love the colors, textures, sounds and smells.

Not bad for a first day, eh? Just getting warmed up. And as always, wish you all were here. . . but the fact that you're not means there's more buffalo mozzarella for me. I'm consoled by this fact. So sue me.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Not Even A Ray Of Light

I Soliti Idioti: Dica!

Kafka is alive and well, and most certainly running the Italian consulate.

Proof, you say?
Well, all right.
But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Me: Which sort of extended visa should I be applying for—study? Tourist? Artist? [I explain, succinctly, how each of these could apply to my situation]

Kafkaesque Consulate Worker: You cannot have a family visa if you are not married.

Me: Er . . yeah, OK. That’s cool. But I wasn’t actually applying for a family visa. I didn’t even mention it.

Kafkaesque Consulate Worker: Lei parla Italiano? [Do you speak Italian?]

Me: Does the Pope shit in the woods?

KCW: Er . . . cosa?

Me: Is a bear Catholic?

KCW: You cannot have a family visa.  And our office is open only until 12:30pm.

Me: Yeah. So you’ve said.

KCW: And we’re closed on Fridays.

Me: Just love me, ok? I feel like you’re pushing me away.

KCW: For any kind of working situation you need a work visa.

Me: Actually, no. Not in this particular situation. Here—here’s the text of the statute that says so. And here’s a link to it. 

KCW: [Silence. Shifts in seat, uncomfortable]

Me: And here’s a link to the charter for the social promotion organization I belong to that provides my insurance and everything that the law requires. They’ve actually been doing this for well over a decade, without the need for work visas. 

KCW: [Color drains from face. Considers calling cousin's brother-in-law's uncle, who got them the job at consulate.]

Me: And isn’t it great that I’ve done your job for you and provided you with easy access to the correct information . . .

KCW: [Looks at clock. Reaches for pack of cigarettes]

Me: . . . which is quite different from the information you presented to me, in the sense that your information was patently incorrect according to the law, and surely originated in some dark, bottomless orifice from which almost nothing, not even a ray of light, can escape? 
You’re welcome.

KCW: [silence]

Me: Hello? Oh, time for a cigarette break?

KCW: [Loooong silence]

Me: Hello? Time for an espresso break, now that the cigarettes are all smoked?

KCW: [silence . . . . for weeks, right up to the present. Now you know how to get an Italian office worker to stop talking—cite the law.]

I will spare you further description of their eminently hackable website for scheduling consulate appointments, and their hilarious website security measures. Truly side-splitting. I will also spare you our theories of why any of this should be so, within an office of supposed professionals (but I assure you the phrase ‘bribe seeking’ did not enter our discussion. No, no. Certainly not. Because that would involve stereotyping. And we don’t do that here. Not even the one of us who was born in Italy, and could get away with calling it “cleaving to reality”).

This consulate is often the tourist or business traveler’s first exposure to “the way things are done” [or willfully not done] in Italy. Is it any wonder economic development is stagnant? Is it any wonder that, after my 90 days in Italy, I’ll head out of the Schengen Zone for a bit?  Is it any wonder I’d rather Vesuvius awakened and swallowed me whole in Napoli than ever deal with an Italian bureaucrat again?

Vesuvius from Portici, by Joseph Wright (ca. 1774-6)

Do you have a consulate horror story? I've heard a number of them already. Please, share it. Maybe we can start a support group. I'll provide the espresso.

The 12 Tasks of Asterisk: The Place That Sends You Mad