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Overhearing Americans at a restaurant in Italy.
Her (reading the olive oil bottle): ' Obtained from supreme olives. Hmm!'
'Do you speak English?'
'A little bit.'
'Very poco! We'll have... what will you have?'
Him (pointing at my plate): 'That. I want that.'
'All that bread?!'
'Ok, he'll have that. And... what's the best salad?'
Waiter: 'They're all nice.'
'They're all nice! Ok, that. (points) You want wine?'
'But you'll fall asleep! We can go back to the hotel and sleep, I don't care. Want wine?'
'Yeah, I want wine.'
'We'll get wine.'
The last day of autumn. They are burning leaves in the dry river bed, the sweet smell travels the narrow streets. Shadows are long. Old women already wear their fashionable winter jackets, although it is still warm enough to sit on the balcony and enjoy the sun. The breeze is warm, and it carries the sound of church bells. It is dry, and the plants and trees explode with colour; they shower the streets with yellow, cover the fields in orange and brown. From the top of the hill, the view is hazy and unreal, the valley seems asleep already.
'The problem is the young people don't want to stay, they go and look for work in the cities; only old men remain.'
On the top of a hill above the village I find a house, abandoned, half-collapsed. There is still hay, and a few chairs visible through the glass-less window. Under the collapsed roof I read on the wall: 18 Marzo 1926. It's windy and lonely in the strong autumn sun, and I take some pseudo-artistic pictures, and pee in the long grass. It feels completely alone. Finally the old walnut tree makes me feel sad.
He comes in, sees me, sits down and starts talking. And talking. About everything. About his life, his house in Turin, his job, his failed marriage, his search of a new sense, his philosophy, his jogging, his car accident. I look at him incredulously; I was working and he did not ask if he could interrupt me. He just won't go away. Rigid as a nun, I fold my hands in my lap, so as not to strangle him. I watch his face as I think 'die, die, die!'. He keeps on talking. My forced smile feels like rigor mortis.
I wanted to make a good impression on him, not of me, but of the company I'm working with. I showed him around in the morning; it was misty and cool, but the vineyards looked beautiful. It did feel deserted though as I took him around the farm. Going to see the little pigs seemed like a good idea; we had to walk around the dung heap to get there. Just outside the net, three dead piglets stared at the sky with milky eyes. There were files gathering already. They guy gagged and turned away. So much for good impression.
How do I describe this place, the cooperative? When I was talking to Henry, unloading the grapes, he said they were all black sheep. I guess he is right; this place is a safe heaven for people who feel different, it's a chance for those who are not accepted outside, or those who don't accept the outside. It's a place to experiment with your life, with other ways of perceiving and being. A place to have something that is yours, but that you can share. So many stories, so many people, with such different lives, all here, the black sheep.
It has been three years now, three years with the cows. Every morning and every night they need to be milked. I always do it myself, I don't like other people touching them, and they don't like it either I think, especially men. The first milking is before dawn, when it is still cool. The second late at night, when the farm is already quiet, and I sit with the cows, listen to them eat, and slowly prepare the utensils. It's been three years now, and I have not missed a milking, not one. I also have a son.
I like images, for years I was obsessed with images. They were my drug. I was a photographer, and when I stopped it took me a year to start seeing things properly; for a year I went around taking pictures without a camera, lots of pictures, in my mind. I want something of my own. There are a few sheep; and the chickens, I don't know how many, a hundred maybe. And the bees, I make my own honey, I really like working with them. But it's not enough. I'll see what I do. The cooperative likes my bread.
I am not part of the cooperative, but I've been working with them for many years, twenty years, things have changed a lot. I mean, at the beginning the wine we made, it was shit, all the vendemmie in the fog, rotting grapes, really, really difficult. The weather has changed now, the quality is much better. I have times when I go back to Holland, I feel I need to reconnect, and there is my sister there, I feel bad not being there for her. But I've got a house here now, where I can paint properly, paint more.
I was married once, and lived with someone three times. My marriage lasted very long. Twenty days! Well, I was in love like an idiot. I've had so many jobs, at least thirty. Driver, carpenter, painter, cleaner, farmer, the list goes on. This is ok, but I want a place of my own by now, a house. I lived in Milan for a long time, but I'm done with that now. I like to be in the forest, on my own, looking for mushrooms, thinking. Most of the paintings in the house are mine. Can you see the saxophone?
I've not slept the last two night, I know it's completely stupid, I am, but what can I do. They just have no respect for my work, for their own work. I have been here for years, from the beginning, and I know how things should be done, and they are not done right. My brother knows I'm right. If you want to do this job, you have to really love it. My daughter and nephew are coming tonight, I will cook some dinner, peppers and sardines. I know the dog stinks, but you just can't not love him.
This is a place so far away, so secluded. It's only a ten minute drive to town, but in the hills, in the vineyards, all else feels very far away. I have not seen an advertisement in days. I have not eaten packaged food in weeks. Working in the vineyard and the cantina, picking apples and chestnuts, always busy, always alive. Occasional phone-calls home, and all I can tell my dad is I'm well, no big news reach me. Only when I popped to England was I told 'the world' was in an economic crises. Which world is that?
He is like rolling green hills under gentle sun, and little streams flow and bubble, and we sit at the riverbank in the sweet, long grass, and watch the sheep drink, and listen to the insects humming. He is like a high plateau, bathed in pure light, in pure air, with a gentle wind blowing. We walk the stone path in exhilaration, and than I see the precipice, and it's a long way down. He is like an ocean, gentle waves caressing, salty taste on the lips, the big water below, the big sky above, rocks me sweetly, carries away.
I feel like I'm cheating a little bit. I mean, here I am, doing my big anthropological fieldwork, being immersed in the world of the locals, whatever. But in fact I have wireless internet, fantastic organic food, good wine and interesting people, comfortable budged, trips, interesting work... Quite far from the wooden shack in the antipodes! And, of course, it is not about the where but about the how, so I can only hope that I will be able to get a lot of 'academic' stuff out of this experience. But mostly it does feel like a great working holiday.
We went to the part of the cantina where wine matures, and it is a dark, dirty, unpleasant place really. There are dead spiders and spider webs all over the place, and rats that nibble on the silicon corks and die in the corners, and mould on the barrels, thick and grey like wool, and horrible, anti-mould stuff on the walls that took on a life of its own and became a jelly-like substance that sticks to clothing, and there is a broken pipe coming in from the flats upstairs... And yet this is where it all happens!
It's a strange place, all the stranger for producing grapes biodynamically. The grounds are massive, 23 h of vineyard and all around the winery, so the building is standing in a sea of vines. The winery itself is super-modern, mechanised and computerised, and ran by a single smartly dressed cantiniere, who does not work full-time exactly either. The grounds around the winery are manicured, with trimmed lawns, swimming pool, pond, even a park! And in the middle of all this there is Tom, in his loose overalls, patiently dynamising his horn silica by hand in a wooden barrel.
We're already late leaving from the winery at eight in the morning, five of us in the mini-van, the back full of bottles, off to the massive Slow Food exhibition to sell the salamis. Fifteen kilometres down the road Ottavio slaps his head – we forgot the meat! I can't stop laughing. Quick phone call, quick turn around, and half way back we meet Cesare who drove the salamis to us. This is not the end of the trouble though – the bar where our passes were supposed to be is closed. We bang on the door and look around helplessly.
Finally we get the passes and we're off towards Turin – and we take the wrong turn on the crossroads! At this point I just give up and watch in amazement as we arrive, an hour late, to an empty stand, without table cloth, without scales, without a knife even! No decoration, no info, just us with a cardboard box full of salami. Incredible! As usual everything works out fine and with borrowed goods and a bit of luck we pull through. Slightly less annoyed I speak English to potential costumers and find myself being complemented on my English. The cheek!
Terra Madre meeting looks like an Indian train station, or a refugee camp. People squat and sit on the floor in small groups, exhibiting their goods on blankets and scarves – jewellery, sculptures, foods, bits and pieces. Colorful, dressed up in traditional costumes, smiling, bored, talking, serious. Some stare into space, some dance and sing in groups. I watch in disbelief. What's this supposed to be? How are those people supposed to participate in the global debates? The two Amazonian farmers with their bag of dried fish and a basket, without the language nor knowledge, are they here just as symbols?
But then, perhaps, there is another layer. This visit is funded by Slow Food, and the people here can have a look around and make their own minds up about this event. The year later they can hire a stand and sell their products to the public, independently. The free floor space can be seen as a space to perform, an open square where people can be met and opinions exchanged. Still, I found it hard to imagine my couple of Amazonian farmers with their dried fish participating in a debate about food security, relevant though it is to them!
Another misty day, it does not lift for days at end, it seems like we are floating in a sea of nothing, the fields, the cooperative, us, just being carried away. The sun broke through later on, and I went walking with Nilo, found some mushrooms, but mainly talked. We harvested some kakis, me on the tree bending the branches down, and he catching the soft, stupid fruit, so prone to splitting. The chickens waited hopefully. We made a lunch of cheese, bread and radishes, and sat talking, him too talking too much, in the sun, killing flies, drinking coffee.
How surreal to walk in the forest in the mist. It is not wet, all the same, and there are few mushrooms, but what joy to pick up their light bodies, smell their white flesh. The vision of Danilo and Giovanni feeding the hairy horses fallen apples, in the leaves, in the mist. The failed truffle dog, but so beautiful, with its shiny brown coat, intelligent eyes, pink tongue. And than the mushroom risotto, and a long evening of watching films and talking.
When I come home Carla is nearly crying, but will not talk. There was a meeting tonight.
Failure to communicate. There is a gap, of time, of experience. I talk, and he listens, but the gap is there, undeniable, more serious because based on lived, fleshy experience, not intellectual pursuits. And it will grow as I go away, it's scary. A lot of work, I will need to do a lot of work to stitch it together, so that my experiences become his, so that what I have lived becomes relevant, so that I can talk about it with him and with others, not put it aside, I cannot put it aside, it is me by now.
A strange honking is coming from outside, from the mist. It takes a while to realise it's that stupid bird, the peacock. Carla keeps a couple of them, although bef6re she used to have up to five. It's just they are so completely dumb, they die too easily. At least two were stolen by people, which is fair enough. Another female was killed by dogs, Carla saw it from the window, the bird did not even attempt to escape, just sat there and let the dog kill it. Finally, another killed itself by flying into a crossbar. I mean, really.
I can get no serenity. There is no work to be done. The cantina is silent like a grave, just an occasional 'pop' tells you there is still a fermentation bubblig away in a dark corner, or maybe a malolactic starting in some barrel. The weather is cold and wet, and everything has this drab, autumnal quality. Feeling pointless, I travel to other wineries or invent projects for myself, but mainly I just want to get going. Stop waisting time. Start using my brain. I get nervous about how detached I am from academia, and from my life in England.
There is nothing mysterious about it, but it is all a mystery. That look over the table, or when picking up the plate, you know it's there, you feel it, it's intense, hot on the skin, hot in the heart, and the heat travels. Eyes down, like an embarrassed teenager, cannot help it, just cannot hold it, too much weight in that look, too much past in those eyes, feel so small. And the more you talk, the less you hear, the more you hear, the more you open to the other. The neon sign is visible for miles, flashing.
When I walk back, the wind has picked up. The trees sway, and houses stare with blind eyes, shutters tight, straining against the blows. The enormous wing of the cloud folds away to the east, and suddenly I look into the emptiness, the well of the sky filled with stars. The sky is strange, alien, clean black, no moon, I cannot recognise a single constellation, it is all warped. I hear the maddened wind chimes, all tangled and confused. A change, continuous change in the skies. Transparent, wind blowing through me, I stand in the middle of the black road.
That night, I cannot hope for sleep. The wind is too strong, it penetrates me, gives me goose bumps even under the layers of duvets and blankets. Curled up in the darkness, I feel the house straining against the blows, I hear the trees in front yelping and wailing, branches cracking, a mad, angry orchestra. Ever so often the wind mellows ,and I tense up hoping for the end, when it takes off again with fury, makes windows bulge and explode, sends chills down my spine with its blind, mindless violence. I shake and turn unable to break the spell.
That is one thing I did not expect to see in the eternal city. We raised our heads, wondering at the sound. The sky was black with birds. A huge, chattering river, kilometres long, stretched from the west and ended over our heads, at the Tiber embankment. Starlings, in thousands, were circling and turning, grouping and exploding like slow-motion fireworks, trying to settle on the trees lining the river. The plane trees seemed to sway, and every time the birds took off it looked as if the leaves themselves took flight and turned into black arrows in the sky.
The lights of the restaurant were dimmed, white candles flickering at every table, air smelling of wine and expensive perfume. They leaned over the table gently, like trees over a stream, and talked in a low murmur, and laughed, holding hands. When desserts arrived her eyes were sparkling with promise, all was perfect. She took a bite of the walnut biscuit smirking, in the middle of a cheeky comment – and spew it all out, spitting all over the table, expression of disgust on her made-up face. He, started, looked in surprise at what has become of his elegant date.
From among the moist crumbles a white maggot wiggled, and started its vigorious passage across the expensive red tablecloth. The waitress, immediately at the table, yelped in horror and scurried away with the offending plate. The atmosphere was pregnant with remorse and shame. The waitress, followed by the cook, kneeled in front of the couple and begged for forgiveness.
This has actually happened to me at an expensive restaurant the other night, but there was no remorse or shame, only laughter and a slightly adjusted bill. As ever, living things have an amazing capacity to enter life unexpectedly. Har har.
The Tip Jar