September 4, 2021
THE WINDS DO BLOW: Near the summit of Monte Cucco, just a little north of where I now live, there is a brave metal sculpture perched on a small pedestal.
She breasts the immense space that spreads below. She sails even when the air is hot and still, but she soars when the wind blows, blows with such force it will lift mere mortals off their feet and toss them into the hinterlands behind.
In the valley beneath the mountain, on scorching summer days, not even the browning tips of the barley stir. The hayfields lay inert and birdless, though the cicadas in their redoubts buzz.
The stillness is an absence of something; not a presence. It is like a short-lived peace in the world of human commotions – an anomoly.
One does not have to be patient for the cooling breezes to come. Just sit in the shade. They will arrive. The heat itself causes them when it rises out of the hot dirt and draws the cooler air into the vacuum it would otherwise leave behind.
So too a soft, pushing wind will come and sometimes confused winds will arrive that gust from all directions at once in some strange competition played here upon the ground.
In these parts too, a strong, dust-filled, irritating wind – the Sirocco – will come out of the Sahara hundreds of miles south and press for days at a time on the valley bottom and on the mountain slopes in equal measure.
If the west wind comes it comes off the Tyrrhenian Sea porting a moist heat. If from the Adriatic to the east, by the time it reaches us, it has been cooled in the peaks of the Appenines. Somedays it will carry high stacks of white, billowing clouds, but on other days it transports clouds in which a myriad of greys swirl above their black bottoms. Sometimes, those clouds are so heavy they tumble down the hillsides enveloping the bald grasslands on top, the mid-slope forests, then the olive groves. They will come to rest on the valley bottom as a palpable, wet fog.
If one were an ancient Greek, one would give names to all these winds because each has its personality, all of them complicated, some malevolent, some benign, but some in placid guises that mask their truer nature.
Some days and nights the valley is overcome with wind-driven turmoil; with storms so violent you feel in peril for your life. Trees bend and groan; their branches crack and break, human stuff that is not anchored or tied down lifts and scatters. Lightening splits the heavens and the thunder that emanates from the shattered sky peels the layers of one’s amazed detachment down to the fearful core of the human animal we are.
But, these are the storms that scour the air, clean it of dirt and smoke and ash and the stultifying carbon that humans make and leave the land dazzled and fresh. They clear the path for the overarching sun, which like the winds themselves, could not care less about life below, especially life that has the capacity to conjure metaphors, or gods.
September 9, 2021
ORGASMS AND ANTI-VAXXERS: There is nothing as exquisitely personal as the electric moment of sexual consummation. A starlit blackness; the mind emptied of all and everything. But…
But, there being almost 8 billion people on the planet and only 525,600 minutes in a year, many thousands of orgasms are popping like bubbles in a flute of champagne every single minute.
And thus, an example of the human paradox: even the most personal thing about us is universal across the species. We are individuals, but only one among the billions, all of us who are mostly the same.
The orgasm was donated to us by the gods of evolution to ensure our domination of this planet by making fucking such a pleasure, and all the other stuff, determined by the manner in which mothers and fathers each contribute but half of our own genetic code, give us ways and means to create a cloak of individuality so we do not feel as insignificant as we would otherwise feel inside the human herd.
Gender, hair colour, shape of nose, height, skin tone, basic intelligence, manifest personality at birth, and all the rest, give us what seems to be a necessary emotional ingredient to living happily or unhappily, as the case may be, as but one of the crowd of crowds in which we are immersed.
Our social nature has been (and could still be) our saving grave. We attach ourselves to others. We are members of families, groups of friends, people we work with, neighbours, social groups, fan clubs, churches, political parties and other groups, almost all of them consisting of small numbers in comparison to the human population. We get a sense of belonging; but, especially in the smaller numbered groups, we also can express our individuality, more or less that is.
The anti-vaxxers you know are not driven by common sense or intelligence. They are conforming to the implicit and explicit expectations and demands, the liturgies, dogma, ideology of the social groups they belong to. As do we. The intellectual clap trap of the group lies on top of the emotional stuff that really binds us to it.
It is a rare individual who will break ranks. Why? Fear of excommunication – of expulsion. What goes on in the coffee room at work, in one’s congregation, in one’s club, around one’s family table… is far more determinative of attitude, outlook and rationalization than the far-off, abstract promulgations of experts.
For the sake of customers, the hyper-capitalistic businesses that we humans have also evolved, will manipulate and cater to the worst – for they lack all conviction, except to their bottom line, and in that they are full of a passionate intensity. The self-destructive – social destructive – behaviour of which we are all capable, but exemplified by the anti-vaxxers, is, in consequence, amplified, exaggerated and reinforced. Ditto our latter-day political parties. Venality and mendacity are their watchwords.
Our DNA? Drives the mating game, which drives the overpopulation of the world and the destruction of the habitats and other life forms that sustain the human race.
Our DNA allows us, also, to generate a sense of righteous individuality that puts society at risk because it disguises our absolute need to belong to groups, even those that have adopted essentially anti-social stances such as those taken by anti-vaxxers.
In short, our DNA ensures we will fuck ourselves, but in the end, there will be no orgasmic payoff. A whimper, not a bang.
September 12, 2021
SETTING THE TABLE: A friend has admonished me for not writing about “food” here in Italy, food meaning what Italians eat for breakfast (colazione), lunch (pranzo) and dinner (cena), and in between too, I guess.
Writing about food does not appeal to me, mostly because I am a vulgar eater, but also because there’s enough of such writing on FB that I can’t add much. However, I was among a dozen who lunched yesterday – a birthday celebration for my son-in-law’s father – and so I should at least attempt to satisfy my friend’s insatiable hunger.
We drove a winding road up to Agriturismo Villa Dama, high above the Val di Cucco in eastern Umbria. Our table was set upon the Villa’s gorgeous terrace.
I went skinny and came back fat.
I can share no picture of any of the dishes that were served because none were placed upon the long sturdy, beautifully set table where we mostly sat (one is allowed to get up and roam) for the four hours we lunched. Instead, a be-masked waitress of excellent humour and barky voice marched repeatedly from the kitchen each time a new course was presented. Each time she shouldered a heavy platter from which she would tong or fork our individual portions to our plates. Then she’d make an operatic exit and wait for everyone to finish the last course before returning.
This is the way it’s done.
Bread baskets first – squares cut from a flat of rosemary-sprinkled focaccia and sliced bread sawed off an unsalted, crusty loaf. Cleans the palate.
Next, drinks for the table – bottles of water, some “normale”, some “frizzante”. More palate cleaning. Wine next – bottles of red and white, uncorked and available to all (except i ragazze), to take as much or as little as they desired to pour in their glass.
Now, the antipasti. Cheeses to begin with – two of them firm to the teeth, but also a ricotta so fluffed and fluid it was like a cloud in the mouth.
Then cold meat – salami, prosciutto, lardo, and…. hmmm… can’t remember. There was a pastry roll stuffed with spinach – ah a vegetable! – and other wonderments that appealed to most in our party, but not to me, so fearful am I of new tastes and textures.
Now begins the serious eating. The mains, served in an immemorial order bordering on ritual.
Primo: pasta, of course, but two of them served at judicious intervals. The first, a rigatoni with a delicate white sauce dusted with rosemary. The second, tagliatelle with a smooth basil pesto into which were stirred herbs from the field, thyme and a bit of wild oregano and wild fennel.
Secondo: meat — sausages, chunks of guanciale on the bone (from the cheek of wild pigs) and slices of veal so tender you had to fold them double before forking them into your grateful gob.
Insalata — green salad — for those who wanted to brag about their veggie intake. Include me in that small number.
Dolce — dessert: A candled birthday cake decorated like the Book of Kells around its margins, staked with candles the birthday boy and our shared grandchildren blew out on the count of three, then relit to huff and puff again.
Coffee: Espresso for two or three, a couple of machiati for a gentleman and a lady, and for we Canadians, cafe Americani. No such thing as cafe Canadensis.
All of the foregoing immensely delicious. All of it, but for the coffee, grown or produced on the agriturismo itself. They call it 0 kilometer eating. All of it cooked to perfection. I think. But I wouldn’t really know.
What is important about dining like this — where it achieves perfection for a person of untrained palate but of big appetite- is the group thing. The experience of happy togetherness. In our case, a family at table for hours.
Mid meal, the sometimes bored ragazzi were taken off to the villa’s fabulous pool to wade ankle deep, or they wandered the terrace, or they dived under the table to undo shoelaces or tickle the knees of the gathered. Adults strolled the terrace to shake their bellies until they were ready to admit more food. Various and sundry changed seats, the better to talk to someone other than those originally seated beside them.
The sun shone but did not boil our heads; the breezes blew; the smell of food from other tables all around wafted with the smells of the food served to us. People who were unfamiliar with one another got more familiar, others got caught up on family gossip.
The overworked translators in our company conveyed the humour and deeper subtleties of the two languages spoke around the table, and so the good natured hours passed as our conversation flowed throughout the Holy communion of an Italian Sunday lunch with no misunderstandings that love and friendship could not correct.
You leave such a table with every sense sated beyond measure. You drive home smacking your lips while you recite the menu in your head. You don’t pretend to stifle a yawn; you think about the pre-dinner nap you most surely deserve.
And you ponder dinner.
Did someone say dinner?
September 18, 2021
THE STINK OF MODERN LIFE: None of you will like hearing that when, on all too many mornings, my wife and I awake in our Italian apartment, the smell of shit hangs in the air. Kid you not.
Open the windows, make the coffee. Problem abated. (I learned from Law and Order — the original series — that the smell of coffee will dissipate the odor of rotting corpses, so…)
Thing is, in these hillside villages and hilltop towns the pedestrian problem of dealing with human waste is a tricky one. Many houses still distribute theirs into septic fields, but most now drop it into sewers. Sewers of a sort. Alas, the technical limitations of sewer systems here are such that during the night the gasses produced in them can percolate up the drains of one’s sinks, bidets and toilets to inhabit your waking life like the tail end of a nasty dream.
It is amazing what you can get used to, and no, my ardour for Italy is not dimmed by this methanic disagreeableness.
Other things one gets used to here:
One endures far too many trips to the food emporiums where one’s daily bread is bought along with the carne, pesce, pollo, verdure, latticini, e le dolce that fill out one’s quotidian diet. Why? Small refrigerators. Appliances here, more often than not, are retrofitted into small places and therefore are half or one third the size of those we North Americans are used to. We wash and dry our clothes more often than we did “back home”, although by “dry, I meany hang the wet clothes in the sun on a foldable rack whenever weather permits and avoid the use of the machine.
A small refrigerator a problem? Oh yes, because the need to shop frequently propels millions of people down the highways and byways of the country on an almost daily basis. Consequences: wear and tear on roads; huge volumes of polluting emissions that drift upward into the blue, blue sky and do their significant bit to warm our atmosphere and poison our bodies. More accidents and more road deaths for man and beast, too.
Another issue that no Italian I know gives a damn about – not that there aren’t a few who’ve been screaming about it for years and years – is the vast amount of plastic that is used here.
Supermarkets still let you bag your groceries in plastic sacks, tons of the food they sell — grams at a time — is spooned or forked into plastic containers. The packaging of everything that isn’t bagged, boxed or contained in aluminum cans is plastic.
Common household items — brooms, mops, dustpans, kitchen utensils, garden furniture, garden tools — name it, and if it’s not all plastic, as much of it as possible is. Kids toys? Plastic. Playground equipment — slides, swing seats, climbing gyms — yep. Car parts, of course. Name an object, chances are it’s entirely or partially made of plastic.
These things are all very breakable too during normal use, which ticks me off, but more importantly let us consider that fossil fuels — the bete noire of civilization — are the necessary ingredient of plastics so Italians use more than their fair share.
And…side note…Italy has no domestic sources for oil or gas so all this junk, as well as the fuel one puts in the car, the tractor, the truck, is marked-up to reflect the costs of importation. Cheap shit raises the cost of living for all.
Italy is a beautiful fish caught in a net of very bad habits, otherwise called systems. People made.
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.