Sunday, July 19, 2015

Some Tips for Croatia Travel—or "That Time I Mercilessly Teased The Country I'm Falling In Love With"

This post won't deal with Terroir so much. I'm not WWOOFing at the moment. I'm just traveling independently in Croatia, and actually getting some of my own work done during the day.
But if I had to write about the Terroir of my current location, Rovinj (Rovigna in the region's other official language, Italian), it would probably say something about how the land here must make for some pretty tough feet or a booming podiatry business. Read the following Croatia travel tips to see why.

You won't see cute little plastic pails for sale at the beach-side shops. But maybe wheelbarrows?

1) Do enjoy the beaches, but do also buy the extremely dorky water shoes to protect your feet from the rocks. If you're worried about looking cool, remember that you will not appear cool when you cry like a baby as the stones dig into your tender American feet.

1A) Also remember that if you are an American, we are generally never as cool as we tend to think we are, anyway.

1B) And when the guy selling you those dorky water shoes (perhaps the lead singer of a Zeppelin cover band out of Zagreb, as mine was) tells you to give him 40, make sure he's talking about Croatian Kuna, not dollars or euros, and rest easy. Because 40 Kuna (currently $5.41) is a bargain for something this useful.

2) When you enter the water (which is the perfect temperature, as you would expect in Paradise), remember it's a natural environment with living things in it. Some of those things might be curious about you, perhaps wondering where you got those dorky water shoes, and how much you paid for them.

When those little bastards. . .I mean, delightful sea creatures start pecking at your pasty-white legs (in my case) like piranhas at an all-you-can-eat buffet, don't shriek. This will mark you and make you a target for snickering from other, more experienced Adriatic beach-goers. And don't try to tell me the fish are just bumping into people.
They're attacking. Slowly and gently, like underwater butterflies, but they're attacking. They have all the time in the world, and they know it. Mark my words, they will devour you, slowly.

2A) If you forget the shoes and you also let a shriek escape, might I suggest, as a face-saving measure, you begin to audibly sing to yourself the theme song to "Team America" (the chorus of which is simply "America, f**k yeah." You may add a fist pump if you so desire) just to remind onlookers of your status as a member of the world's [overly zealous] police squad, as you make your way quickly, but oh-so-nonchalantly toward shore.
Maybe this will make you feel better and less humiliated.

But probably not.

3) Though Croatia is famous for its long and beautiful coastline, do not imagine that you will get a boat to the next place you want to visit on the coast. There are a gazillion islands here. They want tourists. But you are either going to take a very long and meandering bus, or rent a car at rates that would make Citibank blush (Ha ha. Just kidding. Nothing makes those guys blush. But, on a good day, it might make a mafioso blush). 

Oh, you wanted transport to make sense and be efficient? Then you clearly forgot that this part of Croatia (Istria) used to be part of Italy. 

Rovinj's old harbor, by night

4) Also, under no circumstances allow yourself to succumb to homesickness or nostalgia when you see the sign at the concession stand that says "American cheeseburger".
Do not do this.
Simply, do not.
Because I can promise you that the proprietor of this establishment has never been within 100 miles of an American cheeseburger (perhaps why he's still alive, but that's beside the point). You are going to be made very sad if you do not listen to me about this one. This is especially important if you've ever had a 5 Guys or Shake Shack burger.

The Horror. Do not let sentimentality cloud your judgment.
I mean, will you look at that bun, for crying out loud? No. No. No.

5) Do not for a moment imagine you can escape from or defeat a Croatian sales person in the market or tourism center of town. Just like the Highlander, in the end there can be only one.
And I'll give you a hint: it's not going to be you or your wallet.

Oh, you'll just pretend you don't speak the language, you say?
Unless your native tongue is Inuktitut or Basque, good luck with that strategy. 

Because somewhere among these Dalmatian islands is a secret school where they clearly send every Croatian child at the age of five to learn how to say, in fifty different tongues:
"Come in, I give you good price "
"That looks good on you "
"Don't worry. I have very small jar that will fit in suitcase".

If words don't work, they will give you a witheringly sad and disappointed look to rival
a golden retriever puppy; to rival even your grandmother's Precious Moments figurines. 
That's right —they'll guilt you into a purchase, because dammit, how is this well-dressed polyglot going to eat if you don't buy that adorable wall hanging made of painted Adriatic stones? (At least, I think it was paint. It could be blood from tourists too cool for dorky water shoes. See above).

Charming, but very slippery stone streets in historic center.

5A) Leave some room in your suitcase for a lot of crap you don't need, or avoid areas where jewelry, clothing, truffles, souvenirs, postcards or even fine dinners are sold.
Because in this battle, you're going down. Just learn to say "hvala" when they finally release you from the grip of their mesmerizing charm and impressive command of virtually every language known to mankind.

6) If you find you suddenly need a popsicle, an ice cream, a cold Fanta, or a Hello Kitty purse, by all means stop in the post office. Because that makes perfect sense.
Oh, and if you maybe want to mail a letter, you could do that, too. Rather inexpensively, I might add.

It's so hard to choose the perfect paving stone.

7) As you ride along the shore on your very inexpensive bike rental, which you got from a blue-eyed, smiling man who said, "you bring it back whenever, and you pay me then, no problem" make sure you breathe deeply to catch the scent of lavender and rosemary that grows everywhere here.
You'll be breathing more deeply anyway—and contentedly sighing a lot —as you let the beauty of this place and these people sink into your own lightened, softened form.

Don't let the Adriatic piranhas screw it up for you.

Passionflower and passion fruit grow along a stone wall.

Grapevine grows over a narrow street

Rovinj, from the sea.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Good Fight

The town of Monticello, collectively saying "No."

I thought the season for cherries had just passed.
But as we walk down this road from Monticello, the trees are heavy with them; garlands of bright, plump rubies catching the midday sun. I'm wishing I was taller or had a ladder with me so I might capture some of this sweet abundance, let the juice run down my chin with abandon.

It's a beautiful road, lined with vineyards and olive groves, oak trees and more wildflowers and grasses than I can count or identify. In a few sqaure feet of roadside growth, I can see clover, thistle, yarrow, dandelion, plantain, ginestra (you might know it as Broom), and others in blue, purple, yellow, pink, white. There are also the ubiquitous cypress trees that scream “Tuscany!”.

This area where we're walking is adjacent to the world famous Val d'Orcia, a place shaped by man to reflect Renaissance ideals of harmony and beauty. This is one of the reasons the area was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 2004. It's the landscape you've seen in every coffee-table book about Tuscany, and in many art museums around the world that feature Renaissance painters, especially of the Sienese school. Though certainly not untouched by man, it is still largely unspoiled. From where we walk, we can see Montalcino, a town of the Val d'Orcia world famous for its wines, especially brunello.

I'm out for this walk with 300 new friends.

But this is no ordinary walk. It's a walk with a purpose—to make a statement of dissent.
The people of Monticello, in the Comune of Cinigiano, Italy, are walking from their town, through a landscape of unique and profound beauty, to the place where a geothermal power plant is proposed.

They follow this road, at the moment closed to vehicular traffic, through the heart of the place they love, the place they seek to protect.
They are young and old, male and female, Italian, British, American, Kurdish immigrants, and maybe others—I didn't get to talk to everyone there.

Traffic is stopped on the road as the people march.
Young and old, and all walks of life.
"This is not the future we want." The gathering continues back in the main piazza.

The hill upon which this road unwinds is steep.
And it's mighty hot out here. Mighty, mighty hot.
There's not a cloud in this Tuscan sky today.
I'm thinking about the fact that, once we reach the bottom, we'll have to go back up.
Which I'm also thinking will be much less fun.
But it doesn't stop anyone here.
[Later it turns out there will be cars and vans giving rides to those who want one. My friends and I decide to walk, but nearly every one of the many cars that pass us will ask if we want a lift.]

I'm moved by the spectacle. I am moved by people who organzized and gave a damn, enough to show up. Facebook is a nice way to spread the word about a cause, but a post on Facebook isn't enough. Not even close to enough. In fact, without further action, it doesn't amount to much.
So they show up. They bring their children. By example, they teach these children that this is what it means to be part of a community, to belong to a place, to fight for the things that matter. This is "love", as a verb.

My hosts in Cinigiano have brought me with them to this protest, along with their children. In the car on the way to the gathering, they explain to them what it is we're about to do. I'm happy for these children; happy that they'll know that the problems of the world are not mere dinner-table conversation. They are not mere abstractions and concepts, not mere opportunities for intellectual acrobatics and posturing.
They're real, not virtual.
They require our participation in learning and in finding or creating solutions.

That part where I said there are 300 people. . . . that probably doesn't sound like much.
Maybe you're used to reading about massive movements and protests in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
But consider this: Monticello has a population of about 400.

Are you doing the math? I'll help you out—it's 3/4 of the town.

That's Monticello, up on the hill there. Small, but if you lived there, you might call it "the world".

Imagine for a moment, if you will, what we might accomplish in the United States and other places if we could get 3/4 of the population to agree that something mattered enough to show up.
I don't even mean getting them to agree (I'm not nuts. I know my people), I just mean getting them to show up.


Now, there is a very real dilemma here that I don't want to ignore.
Geothermal energy, we're told, is one way to reduce our negative impact upon the global climate.
It's true. 
But why here, of all places?
Why take one of the remaining unspoiled landscapes of Italy, and of the world, and stick a power plant right in the middle of it?
It would be seen and heard and felt by people living next to it, but also people across the valley in Montalcino—part of that protected UNESCO heritage site I just mentioned. It would have a negative impact upon people who've tried to preserve and live in harmony with this place—for hundreds of years, engaged in the same activities.

It's relevant to mention here that, after my time in Cinigiano, I went to Siena. In its town hall, I viewed frescoes painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti around the years 1338-39. In his Allegory of Good and Bad Government, guess which part of the equation shows a beautiful and agriculturally thriving landscape? In that room, I choked back tears when I saw the scene of peasants, in a landscape that looks very much as it does today, working in a vineyard. Just like I had been doing the day before. 

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good and Bad Government, 1338-39.
Hard to see here, but on the lower left, they're tending the grapevines.
I knew those people, at least in some small measure. I knew the aching back, the sweat, I knew the camaraderie in the fields, the banter. This farm, where I first sat at my laptop to write this, shows up in the 16th century records of the castle across the valley, which used to own this land. The vines here now were planted by the current owner, but there were also vines here then, in the 1500s. This winery is thus really a piece of living history. The activity here, and all over Cinigiano, connects us to the past. It helps us to better understand who we once were, who we are, and who we might be.

The power plant would have a negative impact upon those same residents who've tried to build the local economy by bringing people from around the world to this place; people who seek out its beauty and solace; its deep silence; its night sky heavily sprinkled with stars; its healing balm for the insanity of modern life.

I try to be thoughtful in forming an opinion about this. But I keep coming back to this very basic principle—that in trying to ensure our survival, we should be careful not to lose the things that make us feel truly alive.

If you want to try to convince the Italians (or me, for that matter) that there is something more worth fighting for than beauty, good luck with that. They might say, “family”, but that's just another form of beauty. Go watch your child sleeping peacefully and tell me I'm wrong about that . . . go ahead. Try it. Besides, for whom do we seek to preserve this world if not them?

I do not believe we must choose between survival and the beauty of the natural world. Not yet, anyway. 
And if this were my choice—to survive in a world devoid of the beauty of natural places—it would be better if Hurricane Sandy had swept me out to sea. Better that I should evaporate along with all the water in California, or drown with the polar bears as the ice disappears.
There is survival, and there is living.
And they are not the same.

When we marchers reach the spot where the geothermal plant is proposed to be built, I'm stunned. There are rolling fields; the nearest one appears to be planted in wheat (and I just heard my gluten-free friends say “build the plant!”). Along the edges there is forest that divides it from olive groves and other farms. In the distance is Montalcino, and a wide vista of agricutural land and forest, peppered with small villages.

The spot where they want to put the geothermal plant.

Very near to the proposed plant site.

There are a few speeches in this place. One of the organizers of the march addresses the crowd, her voice choked with emotion. She notes the turnout I mentioned above—3/4 of the population of Monticello. She says this is wonderful, but it is only the beginning of “this fight for our land”. Two local politicians also speak, using a slightly different tone, but meaning the same thing: “This defense of the territory”.

The menu after the march. My hostess tells me with a wink, "In Italy, all wars end at lunchtime."

Monticello is fighting for not only the land that sustains our bodies, but that which sustains our collective spirit. As battles go, it doesn't get more prodigious than that, does it?

Do this for me, will you?

Imagine you're someone who works the land here—olives? Grapes, maybe? Grains? Grazing sheep or cows? Take your pick.
Imagine that this work was perhaps also done by your father and your mother, and your grandparents, in this very place.

You spend your days hard at work, but sustained by—and proud of—this continuity, this legacy.
You understand your father more deeply now as your hands work that same soil he worked, or drive the tractor along the rows he established long ago.
You look out at the same rolling hills and forests and castles that your grandmother saw when she paused from her labor beneath this same hot sun.

Imagine living so close to this place that the rivers and streams flowing across the land, the bedrock beneath your feet, are as blood and bones to you. As essential as the air you breathe. Inseparable from who you are and from life as you know it.

You've taken pains to follow the rules while building up your farm and your agriturismo business (For my American readers, an Agriturismo is a farm that hosts tourists, kind of like a B&B, only cooler). And there are plenty of rules. But you did it, and the tourists come. And they never forget it.

But then,one day, it happens. You wake and go out to the fields, and you see it.
The work has begun on the power plant.
You watch each day as it grows like a tumor on the land you've loved since the day you were born.

Not too long after that, where once you looked out upon a view that was the envy of the world, there is now the completed power plant.
Its smoke stacks rise high where once raptors soared on updrafts, carried on waves of blissful silence.

The tourists are upset that the view doesn't match the pictures on your website from a few years ago. They write nasty reviews. They stop coming.

Imagine this—really—everything you've worked for, evaporating like the smoke from those stacks. The private owners of the plant get richer, as the local economy goes into free-fall. Because, make no mistake about it, the beauty of this place, these farms and valleys, is its bread and butter.

Now, do this—feel your spirit contract as fiercely as once it opened and expanded with joy at the sight of this place you call home. Feel depression roll in like thick fog.
Imagine the sweet silence, shattered by the buzz or hum of the utility they said would save you.
Feel your spirit contract in the presence of this false savior.

How did that feel?

As bad or worse than a heat wave, I'll bet.

Basile Winery, Cinigiano, Italy, June 2015

You might say, “But this is not your fight. You're an American.”
Ah, but that's where your wrong.
This piece of the world, though small, is still part of The World. The one to which we all belong.
Any one of countless travelers from around that world will tell you how wines and oils imported from this place fed the celebrations of their lives.
How paintings of this landscape pulled them across oceans to see for themselves.
How the spirit of this place entered them and never left.
How they carry it with them, still.
How it weaves its way into their dreams, still.

For at least 16 years, the terroir of this place has been a part of the family who now hosts me.
For their two children, this is the only home they've known. There are, no doubt, grapes and cypress trees, the fragrance of ginestra, starry skies and sweeping bright pink sunsets, swallows and boars, capriole and hares bouncing through their dreams, too.
Daily I've been a witness to the ways in which the spirit of this place moves within this family, and daily have received gifts of incalculable value.
It's not just in the wine.
It's a beauty much larger than that. Too big for any bottle.

This is our fight.

Ilaria's fragrant and colorful treasures from the yard.

A neighbor's spectacular view.
A stone house and cypress trees. You know where you are.