Sunday, December 21, 2014


I'm on a farm in Sicily, right near the small town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, in the province of Ragusa. We are making the passeggiatawalking as evening falls, down a road that turns to gravel, then to soil, as it passes above a ravine, through hills of olive trees, stone walls, and abandoned stone houses. I thought Vermont had a lot of stone walls, until I came to Sicily. In some places, it seems there are more walls than the fields they divide. It's like they gave someone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder a shovel and a pick-axe and said “Heal thyself.” Or die trying.

There is a wildness to southern Italy, including Sicily—wildness in many forms. The way they drive, a certain lawlessness, fires burning everywhere, unbridled emotion, hands always in motion when making a point, like the flapping of wings.

But the best wildness here, I believe, is that inherent in the natural world. As we walk along this roadPaolo, Eva and megrowing on the hills and between the stones in the walls there is wild oregano, wild asparagus, wild fennel, wild thyme, even wild olive trees heavy with black olives that no one will harvest, the peasant homes long ago abandoned, roofs fallen, walls tumbling down. There's a wild pomegranate tree, too, but the birds have had the sense to harvest that one. Wild nature here just gives and gives.

Corbezzolo plant, from which we made marmalade.

Berries of Corbezzolo, close-up

Even the town's church bells I hear in the distance as we walk sound a little wild. It's not one simple tolling sound, but a variety of sizes and tones clanging haphazardly, but still beautifully.

Paolo and Eva talk as they walk, and I listen, stopping occasionally to examine plants more closely, or to try to capture with my camera that rosy, heart-stopping light that falls on these hills as the sun makes its descent.

It's good practice for me to listen. They are speaking as they normally would, not slowing down for the visitor from another land. I'm a silent observer today. I don't have to participate if I don't want to. I can just focus on the sounds, learning to separate words from phrases from paragraphs so it starts to make sense.

The conversation is essential. That is, it's about what is essential. And it's refreshing to my American ears. It's not about Paleo diets or carbs, mommy-wars, high tech devices, inept government (though, certainly everywhere there is a place for that conversation), or corporate malfeasance, or simplistic political labels, though there's a time and place for all those conversations, too.
Well, almost all (you can keep your diet advice, thanks. And mommies, how about you just start being nicer to each other?) Hmmmmm. . . seems I'm in a mood.

No, this conversation is: what will we plant? What will we eat? What can we sell once we grow it, and where? How will we make money?
Not, mind you, how will we grow our business beyond all reason, make obscene amounts of money and become Masters of the Universe and buy our second or third SUV.
It boils down to how do we live? How do we survive in this place, in this crisis. How will the land help us?

I'm not hearing first-world problems as we walk. Nothing about thread-count or which soccer camp will be best for Taylor's self-esteem, or which nursery school will most assuredly point Ethan toward the Ivy League.
It's about real-Life, with a capital L, stripped of the socially-mandated fairy tales.

I like this conversation I'm hearing. In an essential conversation, I can pick up essential vocabulary. I can talk about the things that matter to me, and shake my head and look apologetically confused when the bullshit comes up later on, because I haven't learned the Italian words for “butt implants” or “trending”.

Late afternoon light

I'm noticing the terroir of language lately. That is, how the land where we live shapes our language and the things we talk about, for good or ill. The other night, I had the privilege of sitting at the table after dinner and listening to my host, Paolo, read some of his poetry to me. He writes in both Italian and Sicilian. He reads both to me, though I don't speak Sicilian dialect, and he knows this. As it turns out, it doesn't matter.
He sits with his handwritten pages in front of him, his glasses pushed down the bridge of his nose, much like my own right now.

I listen, and the wildness of this place, of his life connected to his land, grows like a storm rolling in. He speaks of the wildness of the wind, the wildness of the rains, the wildness of love, the wildness of war, the wild desperation of poverty after the war.

When he switches to Sicilian, at first I go from understanding 80 to 90%, to understanding 5 to 10%. But I close my eyes and let poetry do what it does best . . . take us beyond the words and, through some inexplicable alchemy, turn sounds and rhythms into gold. With each phrase, sign posts go up, and the signs point to something ineffable, yet somehow felt and comprehended.

Many of the poems are sad. But there is within them a deep acceptance and even appreciation of this sadness; a deep knowing that this is the price of being alive and embracing wildness; and that the truly domesticated, tamed life is only half a life
If he will have rain, let it be torrents;
wind, let it be the Scirocco;
love, let it be untamed and intemperate;
and let rushing rivers wash him clean of all regret, all questioning of our wild nature.

I think of my own religion's teachings about finding the “middle way”. I think about how being the fulcrum on life's balance, its scale, doesn't stop the highs and lows all around. It gives a fascinating front row seat that remains steady, stable, no matter how much the wind blows. You can watch and listen from the fulcrum, and marvel at its power without being swept away.
I hope I get there some day . . .

The sound of sorrow in Sicilian and in Italian flits and flutters about me like a fragile, diaphanous-winged creature. I open my eyes and see that Paolo has gone someplace else as he speaks of the sea, of the passage of time, and of a missed opportunity for love.
I don't mean he's left the room. He's right there. Still reading.
But the words have come from someplace else. I can see this.
He's pulling the words down from something like his own, wild heaven.
He begins to move his hands as he reads, like a conductor before an orchestra. The words have not come from him, but rather through him.
They've emerged from his marrow, moved into bone and nerves and flesh, and the body must move, must feel its wild aliveness.
The body, itself, has become a poem as the wild words travel through it.

When he comes in for a landing, there is an audible exhale; that last, wild gust making its exit.
We are silent for a moment. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and looks at me.
He smiles, a wild ember still there in his eyes.
I think that, without words, he knows I'm grateful.

I am not Sicilian. This is not my language.
But there is nothing here that I don't understand.

Grazie, Paolo.

Paolo, teaching me to prune the olive trees.

500-year-old carob tree, one of a pair.

Other one of the pair of 500-year-old carob trees.

Roughly 600-year-old oak.

600-year-old oak tree.

1500-year-old olive tree.
Heirloom pears.
View of Ronnavona from the house's balcony.

Want to see for yourself when you're in Sicily?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Five Fingers

Pentedattilo, Calabria, Italy. November 2014

There have been some long posts lately. But not this one.
This is from Pentedattilo, in Calabria, Italy—a mostly abandoned town built into some interesting rock formations in which someone once saw the shape of five fingers. Thus, the name “Pentedattilo”.  The settlement was founded (it’s believed) as early as 640 B.C. There’s a link there if you want to read more, and if you trust Wikipedia [ahem].

I couldn’t stop taking photos of the place, so those will speak louder than my words.
I’ve never been much for ruins or archaeological sites that are basically piles of rocks or the footprint of foundations.
When too much is stripped away, for me anyway, it becomes an abstract and dead place.
But Pentedattilo is intact enough that you can still hear echoes of lives lived there.
Living spaces, spaces that still breathe, steeped in history, are what I love.

I was told about Pentedattilo by Luigi and Viviane at my last WWOOF farm. They have a friend, Rosella, and she would be my very generous and companionable hostess for three days, and I’d help her around the place. We’ll be the only ones in the town overnight.

Others come during the day—people who work for the Pentedattilo Association that’s trying to revitalize the place, the occasional busload of tourists—but they leave at day’s end. They leave Rosella and me to the quiet, the stray cats, and the rumors of ghosts.

The first morning, we’re out behind the house, talking to one of the daytime visitors. In the distance, though, I hear a woman on a megaphone.
It’s disconcerting to me. It’s coming from the new Pentedattilo town, just down the road and the hill. It’s too far away, and too much in dialect (they speak Calabrese and an ancient form of Greek here), for me to understand what she’s saying.
But a chill goes down my spine and I get goosebumps, because it reminds me of something from the movies—like Hotel Rwanda—where militants are using megaphones to foment civil unrest, to start a revolution or some other nightmare.
Times are tough in Italy right now. Every person I’ve met has mentioned to me, at one time or another, “the crisis”.
Man, have I come here at the wrong time.
My face is probably contorted with worry when I ask Rosella, “What’s she saying over the megaphone?”

Almost simultaneously, Rosella and Carmelo say, “Warm bread.”
“What?” I say, my face contorted again, but in a different way.
“She’s selling warm bread,” Rosella says, matter-of-factly, then goes back to her conversation about her almond tree, unperturbed.

A smile rises slowly on my face. I say, “Wait . . . warm bread?”
Carmelo nods in the affirmative.
“Warm bread?” I repeat, starting to laugh.  “In New Jersey, I dream of someone coming with a truck full of warm bread and calling out to me to come and get it.”
Though he speaks some English, I don’t know if he’s understood everything I’ve said, but my face probably makes my delight (and relief) clear.

Later, I meet Francesco [not his real name]. Pentedattilo doesn’t have a mayor—I don’t think so, anyway—but he seems the closest thing to a mayor. I think he’s with the Association. He comes around during the day. He tells me at least thrice over the course of my three days there that I am, in fact, in Paradise.
I believe him, too. A crumbling Paradise, but oddly, a genuine one. Even amid the decay, it’s beautiful. The rock outcroppings, the valleys, the jumble of stones and terra cotta roofs, the fruiting cactus plants overtaking the crumbling walls. The quiet.

The twenty-three cats.

There’s me, Rosella, and now a guy who’s a regular weekend visitor, and these twenty-three cats living here.  That’s twenty more cats than people. They leave little . . . gifts . . .everywhere, too. Francesco’s wife is a very kind woman, apparently. She feeds these strays; to the chagrin of others who spend time here.
I’m told, “Two years ago, there were five cats. Now, there are twenty three. How many do you think there will be next year?”

I guess that all depends on how randy those cats are.
But then, they’re Italian cats.
So, yeah. There could be seventy or eighty by then.
Especially if you let them make-out in your Fiat 500.
Don’t do that . . .

Later that evening, with the sun going down, I prowl around with my camera, peering into abandoned buildings, nooks and crannies. I pass one restored house where music is playing loudly over a stereo. A man (the weekender) comes out and is looking over the valley with me, toward the view of the sea in the distance. “It’s the magic hour,” he says, smiling.
I tell him that, as far as I can tell, every hour is magic in this place.
He smiles again, and nods in agreement.

Francesco walks by on his way out of the settlement and to his home elsewhere. He asks how long I’m staying. I tell him just a few days.
“We live in Paradise, you know.”
“So you’ve said,” I say, smiling.  
He bids me goodnight and starts to walk again, but stops and turns to me.
“When you go, would you like to take a cat with you?”
I laugh. “No, Francesco. I don’t want to take a cat with me.”
He pauses, thinking.
“Ah, then, maybe you prefer to take two cats?” he says.

I laugh again. “Good night, Francesco.”
He shrugs and continues on his way, felines darting across the path in all directions.
It’s no wonder they want to be here, those cats.

Each little “meow” says, “Look at that light on the stone cliffs. . . this is the magic hour . . . we live in Paradise.”

Here's a link to an album with many more photos I took of Pentedattilo, for those with an interest.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

WTF, Catania?

American Girl in Italy, by Ruth Orkin, 1951

This post started out as a letter to my brother, his young-adult son, and a friend of mine in Colorado—three of the most conscious and evolved men I know, though I know others, as well.  These are men whom, I believe, understand that their masculinity is in no way compromised by the recognition that there is strength in gentleness. I’ll maintain the letter format, so the spirit of what I felt as I wrote it, tears streaming down my cheeks, might be preserved. They were mixed tears. First of frustration and anger, but as I thought of these fine men, they turned to tears of gratitude.

I would also like to point out that there are, no doubt, many fine and evolved men in Catania, Sicily. I do not want to paint a whole population with broad strokes. My new friend, Giovanni, whom I met while dancing Argentine Tango in this city, is one example. He’s been generous with his time, taking me around on his motorcycle, showing me things I would not have otherwise seen. In all things, he’s conducted himself like a true gentleman, never seeking more than was offered to him. His mother would be proud.  So, here’s what I wrote to them today, which included the photo at the top of this blog post, and the mention that it’s what I felt like walking around in Catania yesterday:

Casey, Lloyd, and Chris,

This is long, I know. But please read it. It's from my heart, for three men who come to mind, always, when I seek examples to restore my faith in men.

It's truly unbelievable [the situation referenced in the photo above]. I'm sharing this with you to express my appreciation---to you, Casey and Chris, for taking seriously the raising of sons to be a new kind of man, and for being those kinds of men, yourselves, while not apologizing for being men. To you, Lloyd, because your dad has told me of your courage in speaking up for a young woman at an Ultimate match. I was so proud of you. . .

One guy actually slowed his car on a side street, driving alongside me while beseeching me "Signora, Signora" I turned to look for a second and he was winking, waving me to get into his car. Even as a truck behind him honked for him to move along, and I waved him away. Does he think that works with anyone other than a prostitute? Does he think such desperation is attractive to women? Besides that, there were elevator eyes, various comments---I counted 15 audible ones in a 20 minute walk to the historic center. And I'm a middle-aged woman. What is it like for the 25 and 30 year old women, their beauty better-preserved?

Two days earlier, there had been a man in the piazza, probably in his 50's, a teacher. He saw me with my camera and chatted me up and was very polite at first. He showed me around the center of town, as he was recently certified as a tour guide (plausible, because I knew a lot of what he said, and he wasn't bullshitting his way through it). I saw things I would not have seen otherwise. But then, after we stop for a bite to eat, he starts with his hands, touching my arm, then taking my hand for too long when making a point, then when we leave the place, putting his arm around my shoulder, my waist trying to pull me into him as I resist. Saying goodbye (I wanted out of there quickly) he goes to do the traditional double-cheek kiss that all Italians do, only he's clearly aiming for my mouth.
That's it. I'm outta there. He suggests we have lunch later in the week . . . blissfully unaware (I think?) of how many lines he's crossed. If this is what he does upon a first meeting, I don't want to know what a second meeting is like.
For the rest of the evening, I'm furious. Furious with him, and furious with myself for not rising above my shock to stop him cold right then and there; for not slapping his face, for not overcoming the conditioning of women that we must always be "nice", even in the face of a predator.
But always, always we must be so careful . . .
I want to go back out, find him, and twist his nuts into a knot. Presumptuous fucker.

It makes me angry as I feel my sense of freedom shrink. Why, why should I have to be on my guard just because I've left the house in broad daylight? Why should I be compelled to grant my attention to strangers, or consider so carefully whether I might dress to please myself, or dress to protect myself from unwanted attention?

Men whom I love dearly, Casey and Lloyd and Chris, what you do in life, what you champion on behalf of women matters a great deal. As my frustration threatens, at times, to steal the joy and wonder of travel, I am heartened and soothed by the knowledge of your energy in this world so desperately in need of change.

Thank you.
From the heart of my heart.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Matilde's Trumpet

Above Stilo, Calabria, Italy. November 2014

“They’re taking the car and going to Stilo. You should go with them and see it,” says Luigi, “The work can be done tomorrow.”

“Yeah? OK. I have wanted to see Stilo . . . “

So I climb into the car with Luigi’s friends who are visiting from Genoa. They’re delightful people, a father and his adult son and daughter.

I’m thinking they meant “We’re going to Stilo.” As in, the town. Which is why I wore what you’d call “walking-around-town shoes”. We did go into the town, but that was after we climbed the very rugged (in places) and steep (everywhere) Monte Consolino, on top of which sit the remains of a Norman castle.

The Normans did not want anyone all up in their faces, apparently. Because they made it really difficult to get to this castle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. . .

First there was La Cattolica. There’s a link there if you want to read what UNESCO has to say about it. Here’s a sample:

“Ever since the seventh century Calabria had been a refuge for Monothelite monks fleeing the eastern provinces of the Empire to escape the Arab and Persian invasions. . .Consequently Byzantine Calabria underwent a slow process of orientalisation of all forms of religious life (rites, cults and liturgy), which accompanied the remarkable spread of churches and monasteries, founded by Eastern monks, that preserved and transmitted the Greek and Hellenistic tradition.”
La Cattolica, 9th century monastery, Stilo, Italy.

The Cattolica monastery in Stilo is the most representative of the Byzantine Basilian monuments. At the time of its construction, Stilo was the leading Byzantine centre of the region and a magnet for hermits and Basilian monks, who found shelter in its caves, creating an extremely important rock settlement in the area. This is the context for the Cattolica monastery, built between the tenth and eleventh centuries - a tiny red-brick structure set into the mountain, which replicates a type of religious building common in the Peloponnesus, Armenia and Anatolia. The church has a Greek cross plan inscribed within a square and three apses symmetrically arranged around a central dome. The vaults are supported by columns plundered from ancient buildings in Magna Graecia, which rest on bases formed by upturned capitals.”

What? You thought I only talked about olives and over-sexed pigs? Sheesh . . . give me some credit.

La Cattolica di Stilo, Interior
I loved that little monastery. It packs a punch for such a small space. What I especially loved was the evidence of many stages of history built right into it. Those up-turned corinthian capitals, pillaged to use for the bases of columns, one of which had an Arabic inscription. Everyone wants Calabria at one time or another, and here's your proof.

After we leave La Cattolica, my new friends surprise me by beginning to hike up the path above the little church. It’s steep—quite—and remember those shoes I mentioned earlier? Along this trail to the top of the mountain there are stations of the cross (and an illuminated cross sits atop the mountain). It’s a good place for the stations; for someone who wants to understand suffering, especially if before they started the hike they really needed to find a bathroom.

Not that I’d know anything about that.

Rising above Stilo.

One thing I should have mentioned, perhaps, is that it’s approaching sunset.
As we start our ascent.
So, for those keeping score:
  1. Bad shoes for hiking
  2. Have to pee.
  3. Quickly getting darker outside.
  4. One might also want to add to this sad tally, “no longer 20 years old”.

BUT do not despair. In the other column of this accounting is:
  1. Incredible view of beautiful place.
  2. Good company.
  3. Something of a spirit of adventure.
  4. Woman with trumpet.

Yes, I said trumpet. The brass instrument. Matilde takes it everywhere, apparently, as she’s trying to learn to play it and says she should really be practicing eight hours a day. She has a point, but it’s surprising on a hike nonetheless . . . in a most charming way.

As we’re about half way up the trail, I’m panting like a ten-pack-a-day smoker running a marathon with a ball and chain.
I’m muttering to myself,  “should have . . . brought . . . water . . . . or . .  gran . . ol . . a . . bars.”

Don't trust the railing. Really.

How did I get this out of shape?
Oh, right—I sat chained to a computer for three years writing a book.
That’ll do it.

But then, near the top, it comes into view. The thing I couldn’t see from the bottom, and hadn’t known about.
The ruins of the 11th century Norman Castle.
And people, it is so worth busting a lung or breaking my leg. Seriously.

The place is beautiful, mythical in the distance.
We pass the remnants of a stone wall situated well below the crest where the castle is, and I have to touch it. I place my hand there.

You can call me crazy (trust me, you wouldn’t be the first), but when I do this, when I feel the stones, in my mind’s eye, unbidden, arises an image of a person. I can only say it reminds me of what I’ve seen in countless illuminated manuscripts. He’s a short guy. He’s wearing something like tights, woolen probably. Tunic, red cap. I see him clearly, but I don’t think he sees me. He’s bending beside the wall, working, building.
Who’s that?
Where’d he come from? The image disappears like the smoke from a blown out candle.

Well. That was weird.

The hike is tough, but I’ve done tougher. And it’s never made me hallucinate.

I shake this off, intrigued, but also still aware that we really don’t have a lot of daylight left and this late-day hike might not have been the smartest idea anyone ever had.

When finally we reach the top, Matilde takes out her trumpet, and blows. It’s the sound of victory. 

We explore the ruins of the castle, and gaze over a most vertiginous cliff. 
It’s a loooong way down. My companions speculate as to how many people met their deaths here, flying over the edge. Were there battles? Did anyone dare storm this place? Could any army be that stupid or determined? I get a little chill and a wave of nausea imagining it as I look over.

See what I mean? I felt my stomach flip over when I took this photo.

Me and Alessandro, the two oldsters of the party, start to encourage the others to begin our descent. The sun has now decidedly made its exit behind the nearby mountains. The last light is going fast.

Lights coming on in Stilo, way down below.

Matilde blows her trumpet again, and this time it’s not the sound of victory.
It’s the sound of Night In Tunisia.

This goes well with the vertigo, since it’s Dizzy’s tune.
I’m rethinking my rather boring pragmatism. I wanted to bring water and granola.
But now I’m thinking, if my foot slips on this steep trail, and another one of those few wooden railings gives way under my hand (yes, one gave way), there are worse things to hear on your way down to the bottom than a Dizzy Gillespie tune. In fact, I’m thinking that might be exactly the way I’d want to make my exit from planet earth.

We continue onward, and not once, but twice, Matilde chooses songs I auditioned for music school with. That’s wacky, no?

I’m singing along, and sometimes, when I call out a tune she doesn’t know—"Hey, how about Body and Soul?”—she asks me to sing it, so I do, without her, and without a trace of shyness. It feels good. I haven’t been singing much in recent years, but it’s really important for me. It’s kind of “my thing”. Or, it used to be. I'd like for it to be, again.
I’m forgetting my aching knees, my full bladder, my slip-prone shoes. I can also breathe again.
You have to breathe to sing.
Who needs water and granola when you’ve got a horn player and a voice?

She busts out “Round Midnight”, and it’s perfect, because that’s when we’ll probably get back into town. My feet aren’t sliding—the notes and phrases are. Right where they need to go.

I bet that apparition by the stone wall is tapping his foot, snapping, or at least bobbing his head.
I’m out in nature, absorbed in history and music and new acquaintances, and I’m not feeling any pain. Not now.
Knees are great.
Lungs full.
Heart full.
Mountain air full, with music.

It feels like freedom.
And it’s intoxicating.