August 18, 2021
ITALY IN LAYERS: Tourists who come to Italy, most of them, are taken by car, bus and train to places that have been spectacularly cultivated and curated over a very long time to fulfil a “dream” of Italy that Italy’s tourism promoters have already installed in their minds. I know. I used to promote tourism to this country, and deliver people to its dream locations.
The tourist arrives, ironically, at the brutal edges of these beautiful places, at dilapidated train stations or bus terminals, or in potholed parking lots at some distance from the cobbled streets, invariably within the historical center – the “centro” – of the town or city they are visiting.
This outer edge is almost unseen by most tourists even as they pass through it. It is something to be got through both coming and going, and so it is a disregarded ugliness. Not many stop and take pictures, here. No one dallies to take-in the noisy, busy, unkempt reality that surrounds the post-card world they’ve come to see.
But there is a kind of beauty here too, in the rusty nuts and bolts of the stuff that hold this country together, not just for the tourist’s sake, but for the sake of the 60 million plus souls who live in Italy and must, perforce, make a life.
Before the pandemic, the number of tourists who made it here numbered about 95 million per year. Think of the human and material infrastructure needed to accommodate them, move them around, to feed and water them, to dispose of their waste and to give them such splendid things to experience.
Tourists — especially North Americans — complain vociferously about the inefficiencies and difficulties they encounter here. However, almost all these bitches arise because of language difficulties, or because too many travelers expect to find the frictionless, affluent, always comfortable environments they are used to at home.
In fact, what one encounters in the “real” Italy, is a miracle of efficiency. They do what they do as well as can be done to make this country work, especially considering they do it with an unshakeable reverence for their history, landscape and culture.
It is not just for tourists that everything must be fitted and retrofitted around Italy’s ancient and medieval remains and routed where the least damage will done. Italians, the incorruptible ones at least, demand it on their own behalf and they do it very well indeed in their continuous efforts to mitigate the impact of tens of millions of demanding, sometimes intolerant and uncomprehending guests, most of whom who shift from place to place and blithely scratch famous Italian sites off their bucket lists.
Aug. 21, 2021
THE BLAZE: At the top of the road, which is to say, at the uppermost point of the hamlet I live at the moment, is a small, homely church, Catholic. It has a small bell tower that rises over the roof of the sanctuary. The bells within it will start clanging in an hour or so to call out the faithful. It’s Sunday. The same thing will happen throughout Italy, in thousands of towns and cities.
The temple, synagogue, the church, the basilica, the Duomo have occupied pride of place for hundreds of years, wherever humans, before the advent of the motor car, organized their urban habitations.
In the larger towns and cities of Italy, other prideful architecture flanks the Holy edifice and the square that fronts them all is the main piazza. Here you will find the building that was and in many cases still is, the seat of government and you will find the palaces of the long dead rich and powerful, now made into hotels, apartments, cafes and shops.
These buildings, even now, pay one another mutual respect, as they have through many centuries, but back before our time, it was their now long dead occupants, in support of one another, who together ruled the roost, paying scant attention to the cluckings of the people.
I have oft wondered how this came to be, and my uneducated musings always take me be back to primeval times, to a time when the landscapes we now occupy — be they forests, grasslands, the seas’ littorals or on the lands that edge our rivers or in some large oasis in a vast desert — those landscapes where the small tribes of our stone-age ancestors settled — had as yet been untouched by human hands.
In these tenuous circumstances, these people made a fire pit girdled with stones. Here, while the men hunted, the women collected at all hours of the day to gab about their lives, make things, and raise their children.
But, sometimes when the season was thus or the moon was this, after the sun left the skies and the tribe, but for the glow cast by the fire on all their faces, was left in utter darkness, they got to their feet and danced. Danced to call out their inner fires – the fires of hunger and thirst, the fire of sex, and, if need be, the fire of war – the interweaving forces that must be roused to ensure survival. They would honour an elder and call that man or woman a chief. They would make a misfit a shaman.
And they would watch the wood they had taken from their surrounds (so that the space of their habitation expanded) — and throw it on their fire and watch its consumption in flame, spark and smoke, all but for the banked embers and the cold ash to be found the morning after. A metaphor for the passing of all life, a profound and holy thing of vast inexplicability and, therefore, one vital source of human curiousity.
In my musings, it is the fire pit that becomes the altar in every temple, synagogue, church, basilica and Duomo ever built in every place you know.
But, alas, as human population expanded, as humans learned agriculture and invented property and means of exchange beyond simple barter, as language elaborated and laws were written, the acceptable, consensual arrangements of these primitive tribes ramified into social hierarchies. The chief become a complex government, and the shaman a priest who bowed to a Cardinal who bowed to a Pope who bowed to a God that humans invented to justify the new dance — the minuet of power, the few ruling the many.
And in time, those who once gabbed over the important issues of their day around the fire pit, or returned to it from the hunt or war, in victory or defeat, or who sweated the frenzy of a dance, came to follow a liturgy, and came to stuff down their primeval instincts for survival, so the chance for consensus about anything became an impossibility.
And in time, I have come to sit in a cafe in a lovely town or city here in Italy. I sip my drink and watch the mask-wearing crowds dodge a pandemic, while they snap pix of the wonderful, alien world they have paid good money to travel to see. And, I know, if they go into a church, they will hear, if they are astute, the echo of a near silence, for here only a few believers still mutter their prayers.
August 24, 2021
THE WEB WOVEN: Towns and cities in Italy are called “comunes”, most of which embrace a town or city center, but also a surrounding rural area where there are farms, but also other villages and hamlets, called “frazione” – or “fractions” in English.
I live in one of these hamlets and from my window I can see a vast swath of the area inside the boundaries of my comune. In its entirety this comune is home to some 17,000 souls.
All of these people, in the town and in the surrounding area are endowed with the kind of services we all expect: water, electricity, natural gas, waste disposal, ambulance and bus service, telephone coverage, TV and radio broadcasting and, of course, the Internet.
There are many new-ish buildings, but a great many are old, some ancient, particularly in the centre (centro storico) of the principal town. In that town, as in the hamlets and villages, the streets and roads, and the alleys between clumps of houses, were built long before the advent of the motor car. They follow the original paths where people and horses walked, where herded livestock may have, on occasion, flowed through on their way from winter to summer pastures, or, poor them, on the way to the abattoir.
The older buildings were built before whale oil, kerosene or gas lighting, and therefore, obviously, before electric wires were strung. Indoor plumbing, even stoves are inventions of the modern era.
But, as each new invention debuted, they were inevitably retrofitted into these ancient habitations, not easy, considering the stone, bricks and mortar the renovators had to work around. If you want to move a plug socket, even today you have to argue with a rock.
Italy is so incredibly impressive because, instead of being a heap of ruins, the wired, applianced, traffic-dense modern world exists here as vibrantly and as powerfully as anywhere on earth. However, it has all been built upon the medieval, which was built upon the Roman, which was, over the course of centuries, built upon the worlds of the Greek, the Etruscan, the Umbri, the Sabine, the Enotri and the hundred (thousand?) other tribal societies and primitive pioneers who came before, all of it beneath ones own feet, as it were.
That 17000 souls have worked together – and taxed themselves – to accomplish what they have so clearly accomplished within the ambit of my own eyes — astonishes me. Should astonish anyone.
August 28, 2021
THE BURN: A twinge of conscience is a glimpse of God the old saying goes, and though a non believer, I’ll quote that maxim from time to time. It is, in the end, a call to recognizing one’s social responsibilities.
My wife and I amassed a huge pile of cuttings by pruning back the manifold trees and shrubs that grew wild around our new house here while it sat empty for the last fifteen years. But, the local town does not send trucks to gather garden waste and carry it to some place where time and weather will reduce it all to soil.
The farmer’s hereabout burn all of this kind of stuff and, except for a small mound of grey ash that is left when a fire goes cold, it all ascends heavenward.
And so, I was twinging with woke regret a couple of mornings ago while Aldo, my son-in-law’s father, and I stood back from our burn pile and watched its smoke drift into the breezeless Umbrian sky.
Considering these fires are common practice throughout Italy, the amount of carbon dioxide that floats up from its fields is massive. That I would be concerned about it all, would be laughable to those whose immemorial practice these burnings are.
That’s the point, isn’t it? Old habits — which is what traditions are — are hard — really hard — to break. It’s why we can’t be too optimistic about meeting the challenges of atmospheric warming and the devastating changes it is bringing about to local weather and global climate.
There I was, stranger in a strange land, knowing full well the consequences of my actions (I also drive a car that pollutes and consume all manner of things from industries that are part of the problem, not the solution), and my conscience is niggling at me while I threw more stuff on the fire.
Niggling. Not causing me to find a different solution to a not very big problem. I mean, what’s one little fire?
August 29, 2021
THE STRANGER’S EYE: When I was a very young boy growing up in North York, that sprawl that sits on top of Toronto the City, a man would come up our street on a warm Saturday or Sunday morning, pulling a cart, a cart like a high, four-legged stool. But this cart carried a pedal-driven grinding wheel.
He was a dark skinned Italian, a leathery looking man, whose kit was made to sharpen knives at a few pennies per. The little English he spoke sufficed.
Now I am in his country throwing a few newly-learned Italian words and phrases at Italians who sometimes stand before me with a baffled face, but eager nonetheless to engage in the kind of banter that almost always leads to understanding.
As newcomers my wife and I are usually in need of commonplace things and so a lot of effort goes to that. But, those acquisitions made, what I would really like to tell my Italian friends and neighbours is that I see massive opportunities here that someone with an entrepreneurial state of mind could exploit. But that would involve discussions way, way beyond my linguistic capabilities.
Therefore, I am rendered mute, which is just as well, I suppose, being a not particularly good businessman myself, and being of an age where I could not sweat a start-up even if I wanted to.
But, that Italian knife grinder is often on my mind. Also the Italian tinker who found a weekend business in our neighbourhood fixing pots and pans. They probably earned a pittance at their regular jobs and did not have the capital, when they first arrived, to set themselves up for bigger things, which no doubt they would have, if they had had the means.
With their alien eyes they saw a market for the services they could provide once they’d made their carts — post-war housewives with drawers full of dull knives and sparse cupboards containing a few dented or fractured cookinh wares that, in those less affluent days, had to survive another year or two.
I wouldn’t be surprised if both these men found ways to thrive in their new land and, in time, grow prosperous. Their alien eyes could see riches that natives were blind to and were willing to stake what little they had to leverage their insights into better lives, to work the overtime that those who want to rise in life must work, tired or not.
There is no need for me to pull a Sunday cart to fund my life in Italy, but still, these alien eyes can see things I know the natives hereabout can’t see.
The inner voice mutters – but in the Anglo tongue – give me back by wonton youth and all my long-gone foolish dreams – and the discipline necessary to their fulfilment.
September 3, 2021
WAS A TIME: I have done my share of hollerin’ on this platform; not much now, but way back in the old days when in 2015 Trump began his run for President, and for a time after. Incredulity and fear in equal measure made me vomit up words that required a lot of exclamation points to carry their message.
Climate change deniers got my goat and so I threw harsh words at them, too. I still think they’re nuts, but they are a spent force, so I don’t waste my increasingly precious time engaging with them.
So-called Progressives, who like to find bad intentions under every brick in the wall make me shudder, but mostly at their Boomer parents (I’m one of them) for breeding too many thin-skinned, self-righteous, and frankly stupid and undereducated children.
Whoa…I’m yelling again. I don’t mean to say, Boomer, that yours or mine are like that.
And lately, the anti-vaxxers. I mean, c’mon.
And now, to tell you the truth, I am a little pissed off at the folks who railed at Trump and still do, but who now dump cans of vitriol on the head of Mr. Biden because he can’t save a people who clearly did not think they needed saving until — of course — the armed Mulahs of the Taliban walked out of the stone-age backdrop that surrounds them and marched into Kabul clutching a Kalishnokov in one hand and a few self-serving adages ripped from the Koran in the other.
Or because he can’t do an end run around the Supreme Court. Or get the mad GOP governors of the States to stop trodding the path to facism. Or because he can’t stop a hurricane from ripping up his country’s innards. Or because he doesn’t gather up a few guns and force the idiot non-vaxxers to roll up their sleeves.
Well, I may not say much any more about any of this stuff, but I sit here most mornings thinking about such things. Then, having learned the hard lesson of my personal powerlessness, I do my goddamndest to wrangle my herding emotions into a state of sedate and ruminating detachment so they don’t stampede through my prefrontal lobe and force me to take refuge in my amygdala. For, once there, I am certain that various and sundry vituperations will erupt and fly out of my mouth like thunderbolts out of Zeus’s right hand.
And the problem with that is that exactly none of the things I might say — punctuated with exclamation points — will produce any of the changes I would like to see. Cause you really can’t change human nature, can ya?
I mean, that’s the change we’re all hoping for, right? Do that and we can all return to the walled garden that was paradise, and maybe this time, not take the fruit proferred by the serpent.
Scribbles from Italy is a series of articles from Vian Andrews in which he reflects on his experiences of life in his new home in the Umbrian countryside.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.