Sunday, May 31, 2015


Giacomo Ceruti (1698-1767), Still Life With Roasted Chestnuts

We met on the train.
I never got his name, but I'll remember him.
For purposes of this blog, let's call him Santo.

This will be a little out of sequence, as I'm still writing reflections about my time in Ireland, but am now in Italy. I just didn't want to forget this meeting and this conversation.

I've taken a bunch of trains in the last few weeks. France to Milan, Milan to Bolzano, Bolzano to Padova, Padova to Venice and back to Padova, Padova to Rome to Napoli. 
Sometimes I like train travel, and this last train that landed me in Napoli is a good example of why.

We roast chestnuts over the fire at Fattoria Armonia, Calabria, Italy. Nov. 2014

Santo is probably in his late 70s and he's speaking in Italian to others as he watches his luggage in the hallway of the train. I'm doing the same—turning around to watch my luggage from my seat a little way down the hall. This train is the most crowded one I've seen, and there's no room for anyone's bags, it seems.

It's disconcerting to leave your luggage laying on the floor in the only available space when that space is right next to the exit door. I met a woman a few weeks ago whose bag was stolen under these circumstances. I'm hoping my inability to pack light might be an unexpected benefit here. To lift mine, you'd have to be one very determined thief. But at each stop the train makes, there we are, looking toward the back of the train car and watching very closely.

Mine isn't quite this bad, but it's close. 

To one person, the man speaks suddenly in English, with no discernible accent. His Italian had no accent, either. I ask him, “Lei e' Italiano, o Americano?” Are you Italian or American?

He smiles, and this is how our conversation begins, first in Italian, then switching to English. You're bound to switch to English when the topic turns to the American midwest, Indiana and Notre Dame's “fighting Irish”. He married an American, and in the late 1960's, in the middle of a blizzard, he and his wife got on a plane from Rome with their brand new baby.

There were delays everywhere from this storm, and the journey took one day more than expected. But he says that when they landed in his wife's home town in Indiana and the plane's doors opened onto a world cloaked in white, he couldn't believe his eyes.
“I wanted to get right back in that plane. It was months in Indiana before I ever got to see what the landscape really looked like. It was just covered in mountains of snow. Coming from the mediterranean, this was a shock.”

Indiana Snow, by Michael Kimble

Another shock was dealing with the judge who heard his request for citizenship. Santo had been back and forth to Italy a lot before the hearing because of a bad luck streak in his family that left a number of people sick or dead. The judge had apparently seen too many movies, and assumed his travels were related to mafia activity, and said so. Santo walked out of the hearing with a few choice words for that judge. Bravo, Santo. [He said his wife later went back and successfully tried to mend fences]

Anyway, there's a little terroir in that Indiana landing. Terroir isn't only the soil in and upon which we grow, but the climate, too. It shapes us in ways we may not realize until confronted with something entirely different (kind of like me in Ireland).

Santo was born in Italy. His father's family was from Puglia, his mother's from Sicily, near Messina. But his father was a doctor and during a mandatory service portion of his training, moved his family to Viterbo province, in central Italy. For a short time, it was nice.

And then came World War II.

If you're a history buff, you might have heard of Viterbo because about 70% of that city was destroyed by the Allies as the Germans made their retreat. My new friend on the train referred to it as “carpet bombing”. I'm not sure if that was the tactic used. I tried to do a little research, and could only discover that it was bad, not precisely how that badness was generated.

But when you're a kid, and the world is exploding all around you, this is probably splitting hairs. Carpet bombing? Regular ol' garden-variety bombing? Who wants to face either? Who could forget either? War leaves scars on the land and every living thing on it.

The trauma didn't stop there. Remember, I said this man is probably in his late 70s. He has grown children and a bunch of grandchildren. But when he talks of his life in Italy, this tragedy, at once public and deeply personal, is what comes to mind.

He seems wistful for a moment. He speaks about the landscape of the area around Viterbo.
“It was beautiful. Hills covered in chestnut trees.” He pauses, for a moment seeming to forget me, to forget even his luggage.

Then he says, “Those chestnut trees saved our lives. When the Germans retreated, we ate chestnuts for every meal. It was all we had.” Then he says again, emphatically, “Those trees saved our lives.”

Those trees saved our lives.

This is what stays with me.

As in a previous post, titled “Hunger”, I'll tell you this is the deepest expression of Terroir that I can think of.
And the even deeper truth is that the trees, the land, the sea do this every day.
Every day they save our lives.
And how do we return the favor?

Look at your plate the next time you sit down to eat. Or, if you're an American, don't wait to sit down. You're probably eating on-the-run, or in your car.
But either way, no matter what you're eating, if it's the kind of real food that's sustaining you rather than killing you, understand that this life-giving stuff doesn't come from a bag or a store. That's merely the end of the supply chain.

You know this already. I know you know.
But how often do you pause to remember?

Would it take a war to make you think about it; where all that stands between you and the cemetery is your ability to forage, or to make something, anything, spring forth from the soil?
Whether you eat so-called Paleo, or you're carb-loading, or you're vegetarian or vegan, every day, peace-time or war-time, the land is saving your life.

Every. Day.

So I ask you this: 
What have you done for the land lately?
While she gives and gives from her abundance, and we take and take,
How might you save her in return?

By the way, the next time you're on public transit, talk to a stranger. 
On purpose.

See what it does to your head.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mussels, Muscles Everywhere.

Mill Little WWOOFers take a beach excursion, near Mizen Head, Ireland.

The German Vacuum (henceforth TGV): “They were only serving mussels.”

Me: “Eeew. I hate mussels.”

TGV: “I know! Me, too. But I was so hungry! And that's all they were serving when the relatives came over.”

Me: “So what did you do?”

TGV: “I ate thirty of them.”

Me: [choking on my beverage and an explosion of laughter] “Wow. You were hungry. I mean, usually with something I hate, I stop with one. . . and you counted them, too?”

TGV: [Nodding in the affirmative, now she takes on both a worried and a confessional tone] “I even ate the funny looking ones . . . the ones you're not supposed to eat. I didn't chew. I just swallowed them and hoped for the best. I just needed food. . . I was so hungry!”

If I could, I would craft a trophy for my friend (who was affectionately dubbed “The German Vacuum” for perhaps obvious reasons) made up of a golden dish overflowing with thirty gold-plated mussels. Engraved on the base it would say, “Most Vacuumingest WWOOFer” or “Most Valuable Vacuum”. Valuable in so many ways, from her humility and good humor, her willingness to be teased by a smart-ass like me, and for making a pizza that had the words “I'm sorry” spelled out in vegetables (because she had 'vacuumed' the last slice the night before, when our host was still hungry).

A view from Mill Little's driveway (ancient stone circle on center right).

The Belgian Goddess of Chocolate leaves a sign for future travelers to figure out.

We brave the wild beasts to reach the cliffs.

I haven't written on the blog in a while, I know. There are multiple reasons for that, one being that Ireland's climate really worked me over. Frankly, it's taken a while to bounce back from the lack of sunlight and the moss growing where my marrow used to be; to feel my energy come back at all.

This is a good example of Terroir, I think. Now maybe I know how all those Vermont maple trees feel in March, when the sap starts to rise after a long and heavy winter. Only, it's taken me until May—and jaunts through sunny southern Spain, breathtaking Switzerland and France, and back to Italy—to recover. I'm still not sure I can turn that rising sap into anything sweet. Not yet, anyway. But I'm working on it. Anyone with a Vermont sugar-house will tell you, you have to stoke the fire a long time, and filter out some gritty stuff, before you hit that sweet amber jackpot.

Ireland was difficult, but there were some very bright spots amid the gloom, mostly in the form of people I met, music-making, and a little bit of tango dancing thrown in at the end, in Dublin. When the clouds parted long enough to see it, the landscape was breathtaking. The people, even strangers, unfailingly warm, friendly, and willing to go out of their way for you. I mean remarkably so. It really made an impression—enough that, in spite of the weather, I'm sure I'll visit Ireland again.

I just won't do it in winter. I'm weird, but not crazy.

The river meanders and pools at Mill Little Farm.

The brightest spot was a little place called Mill Little Farm, owned by a delightful and inspiring woman named Christine, who runs an English language school from the farm. It's set in a little piece of Paradise through which a clean and picturesque river wends its way through a mossy forest.

Panorama from Mill Little Farm

Dried Gooseberry pods, found at Mill Little, cast beautiful shadows.

I shared this experience with five other WWOOFers. One from Spain, one from Switzerland, one from Germany, one from Belgium, and another from my own country, a fun and fiesty Texan. I would wish for other WWOOF hosts to take note: you do yourself and your WWOOF volunteers a huge favor when you are well-organized. It would be easy (especially for me) to be quickly frustrated and disenchanted sharing a space for two weeks with a sizeable group of people you've just met. But at Mill Little Farm (where we did have a luxury that not every farm can offer—our own private bedrooms), things were so well-organized and clear that any potential stress was reduced to a minimum, and our work output was, I believe, more productive. We had time alone if we needed it, but our time together with others was enjoyable and focused on what needed to be done. Even our down-time with little excursions was well-organized, and our input was sought in decision making, our individual preferences respected.

We take a hike through Glengarriff woods.

It probably helped that among this group of women there wasn't a bad apple in the bunch. I found each person a delight to be with, considerate and helpful, and willing to work together. We enjoyed time by a campfire, singing and joking; time in the kitchen, planning and cooking meals (including Guilt-pizza); time in the gardens, planting, weeding and building; time in the pub, dancing and laughing and laughing and laughing.

Did I mention laughing?

Planting onions in the garden at Mill Little Farm

House at Mill Little and pond.

If you ever want to get an absurd amout of heavy labour done quickly, I'm convinced you should acquire the true muscle of a German Vacuum and a Texan. Two of the strongest, most tireless and good-humored workers I've ever seen. Not only did they lift and carry boulders that would make a grown man cry, but they did it without complaint, laughing all the while. Then, they'd go out set-dancing with the others.

Work all day, dance all night.

The trouble with Mill Little, blog-wise, was that it was too nice for anything truly awful or embarrassing to happen to me. What am I supposed to do with two weeks of contentment, for crying out loud?

I mean, sure, there was some free-style song-smithing about marshmallows that I should probably be really embarassed about, but I don't think anyone filmed it, so all's well that ends well there. There was a hollow tree trunk that tried to swallow my Texan friend, and all I could do was laugh like a total asshole, instead of gathering my wits and saving her from certain doom. There was enough dizziness from my first attempt at Irish set-dancing that I really feared I might barf, but I managed to . . .contain any possible damage.

A good sport from Texas reenacts the "Trauma of the Trunk"

Two weeks of good food and good company, in a beautiful landscape. It was hell for my blogging prospects, which is why I was glad to see The German Vaccum in Dublin, and hear about her somewhat bizarre mussel experience. That I can work with.

I'm also glad that, next, I made my way to a private island where a baron who does a fine impersonation of Woody Allen lives in a cold and (currently) torn-up castle, surrounded by beauty and wallabies.

None of that is a typographical error. Peculiar situations seem to find me.
And thank the gods for that.

Stay tuned and I'll tell you about it.