Generosità

I think the Italian people are inherently a generous bunch. Over the past four weeks I’ve been showered with no end of free things. My builder has brought me bags of De Cecco pasta, croissants and pizza. A neighbour dropped by to welcome us with a bag of fresh eggs and I’ve had two litres of home produced olive oil given to me, not to mention my lovely handmade olive wood hanging basket. All of these things have been greatly and graciously received. One thing I have noticed that the Italians are very generous with is advice. Everyone has the answer to any little problem, and despite everyone’s answers being different, theirs is always the definitive one.

I’ve had advice about foraging and had the results for dinner, I’ve been directed to shops that will save me money rather than using the large supermarkets and even had three different people ask if I’d like to buy their house for a very good price. Because I already live here, I am entitled to get it at a discount unlike a foreigner who’ll have to pay more for it. I’ve politely declined all three offers, much to the sellers amazement; Why wouldn’t I want a second house a few kilometres away, Italians have more than one – I really am a pazzo straniero, (crazy foreigner)

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Last night I was watching a DVD when at 9.00 there was a knock at my door, at first I was quite shocked, as we’re so remote you don’t expect visitors to arrive unannounced. I open the door and its Nicolo from the farm down the lane. “Genziana, un regalo per te.” (Genziana, a gift for you). I take the little bottle from him and thank him, he squeezes my hand and wishes me a good night, calling me his new friend. I close the door and say to my other half, “See it pays to be friendly with the locals.” Genziana, is a straw coloured liqueur made from the roots of the gentian plant. It’s drank as a digestivo after dinner and has a bitter, herbal taste. This gift is obviously homemade as it’s in an old beer bottle with a plastic stopper. As I’m not really keen on it, I shall save it for visitors and stick with grappa and my own homemade limoncello.

I was waiting in line today in the post office, when a young girl came in and gave everyone that was waiting a small polystyrene cup with a shot of espresso inside. Now she could obviously have looked at me and assumed that being a foreigner I’d not want a shot of the rocket fuel, but no, she didn’t even enquire if I’d like one, she just handed me my cup and along with the Italians in the queue, I thanked her and enjoyed my mid-morning coffee, feeling very much an accepted part of village life here in Abruzzo.

Later, in the afternoon, a car pulls up and its our builder’s wife, she arrived with dolce (sweet.) So we all tuck into a slice of soft brioche style cake and munch sugar coated almonds as we stand around gabbling away like turkeys, while the iPod shuffles and fortuitously Mac and Katie Kissoon sing Sugar Candy Kisses

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04.05.13: Last night I decided to post this addition to my blog when there was a knock at my door, I opened it to find Michele there with another handful of wild asparagus for me. I’ll have to think of a way of repaying all this kindness.

Hanging Baskets and Ancient Cat-Flaps

Last week I took a trip over to Fara San Martino to visit my friends Vivienne and Seppe. Fara is a town renowned for its exceptional pasta and being the only place that produce the pasta destined for the Vatican. I wrote an article for Italy magazine sometime back about this: LINK HERE But I wasn’t in Fara to talk about pasta,

Vivienne, teaches English and had a lesson booked so Seppe took me to see the mountain town of Civitella Messer Raimondo. His fiat panda climbed higher and higher up the mountain past empty bars and vacant shops, “It’s a shame,” he said, “so many people have now left.” For many years, with dwindling work prospects many of the people from this hilltop town have boarded up their homes and moved away to the cities. We park the car and walk through streets that are silent, no footfalls can be heard but ours. “Years ago,” Seppe points to an empty house, “People were selling these houses to foreigners. Many made a healthy profit, but those times have gone, and the foreigners don’t come as often as they once did.” This of course has a knock on effect, with no tourism the shops close as do the bars.

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We walk through a narrow vincolo (alley) and are treated to a view down to Fara, the late evening sun is cutting through the mountains, spilling over the red rooftops creating a magical effect. We wander along streets with empty narrow properties, three storey high, I peer into an empty cantina and it’s almost like looking back in time. It’s unchanged, a piece of living history. Seppe points out the ancient feeding trough, telling me this would have been for the family’s donkey, over in the corner is an old cage, possibly where rabbits or chickens were kept. We continue along and see where water over the years has caused damage. Looking into one house we see the upper floors, having fallen years before, lying derelict upon the lower one. It’s a haunting image, knowing that years ago the walls would have contained the clatter of family life. We pass a door with a plaque upon it, “It’s where the old Alpini would meet and talk about the old days,” Seppe tells me, “I’m not sure if the old mountain soldiers remain or still use their club.” 

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The visit to the town is tinged with a little sadness but when I look up and see flowers growing in the cracks in the brickwork above my head. I feel hopeful as life will always find a way. Seppe points to a neat little square in the bottom of a cantina door, I look at the cut and it’s definitely man made, the house next door has one as does the one next to that. “Do you know what that’s for?” asks Seppe, I shake my head, I’ve not a clue. “For the cat,” he tells me. I laugh, an ancient Italian cat-flap. Of course it makes sense, if you keep animals and feed in the cantina beneath your house you’re bound to get rats and mice, so a cat is a necessary part of the family and therefore must have its own door.

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Our visit over and we return to Fara in Seppe’s Fiat, and I’m treated to a trip along streets as narrow as the car and with almost impossible right angle junctions, as he’s an experienced Italian native this is normal for him, but to me it’s an amazing feat of navigation. Back at the piazza opposite his house, like all Italians he squeezes the car into what looks like an impossibly small space and we go back to his house for a cup of tea. Vivienne’s lessons have finished and we all sit chatting as the light begins to fade. I leave with a portion of Seppe’s local history embedded into my consciousness and with one of the amazing olive wood hanging baskets that he makes. Below is a photo of the hanging baskets he makes and his amazing handmade olive wood strawberry planter.

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That Crazy Foreigner

At the bend in the lane, before our house, sits an ancient stone fountain. The fountain isn’t a decorative one but a practical one, it served the small community here before mains water was piped in. Sadly it now lies decommissioned and nature has started to claim back the space. An old elder grows to the left, it’s knotted branches shadowing the trough where women would stand washing the family’s clothes. The right side, the animal drinking trough is slowly becoming engulfed in brambles, the thorny, limbs providing green lizards with a safe haven from the feral cats that hunt them. I look at this structure with its weed covered façade and an idea surfaces. “I know,” I say to myself loudly: As I’m alone, no is going to think, who’s the nutter talking to himself. “I’ll clean it up.” So I set too with petrol powered brush cutter and I’m attacking the brambles like a man possessed, when out of no where appears a small Italian man. He’s no more than 5’3”,  leathery from years in the sun and nut brown. Now I may have said before that Italy has an omnipresence about it. You could believe you were alone in the countryside and feel the call of nature and pop behind a tree and I can guarantee that by the time you’ve got home two-thirds of the village know that you’ve not only peed behind a tree, but the grid reference and who owns aforementioned tree.

“What are you doing?” asks my companion, intrigued by my toil. I explain that I’m clearing the weeds around the fountain and he smiles, a broad smile revealing teeth as white as Italian plaster. “Why do this,” he says, “it doesn’t benefit you?” I try to explain that I’m doing it because it would look nice, but he doesn’t understand why I’d waste energy on such a task. “Pazzo,” he says, a phrase I’ve heard before, meaning, crazy: My friend Allessio calls me, il pazzo straniero, the crazy foreigner. I tell my new friend that I may be crazy but the fountain is a piece of history. He likes this and begins to tell me how this stone utility was an important part of village life. He explains how the women stood two abreast, chatting as they washed clothes, by hand and how the men would bring the family horse to drink water before it was harnessed up for a days labour in the fields.

IMGA0164The conversation changes and he tells me how the water was turned off when the village was connected to the mains water supply, “the community started to change, people didn’t spend time at the fountain discussing the important things anymore.” I ask him what the important things were that would be talked over. “ Who’s olives are first at the community press, who makes the best pasta orechiette, who’s ill and who’s died, All of these things are important in a small village.” He then points to where he appeared and tells me it’s his family’s land, I make out an Ape* camouflaged among the olives, he then tells me that since he had heart surgery he’s been unable to use a petrol strimmer, he laughs as he pretends the vibrations are causing him to suffer a heart attack and then with one more “pazzo.” he disappears back into the countryside.

I then set to with hedge clippers, I’m not going to trim the greenery within an inch of its life; just enough to neaten it without making it look artificial. I turn on my iPod and X-Ray Spex play Highly Inflammable, it’s hard to imagine that the charismatic, yet reclusive singer Poly Styrene past away a year ago, this month. Their single, The Day the World Turned Day-Glo, is still one of my all-time favourite songs and holds many memories of the emerging punk scene in Britain. I take a break from clipping and with a pair of secateurs begin cutting back the elder. Several hours later and the stone fountain is revealed in all its glory. Time to retreat from the midday heat and have that well earned cold beer.

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The following day I shift all the earth that has accumulated around the base, fight against the brambles and even come under attack from a gang of black ants, the size of golf balls: okay a slight exaggeration, maybe the size of half an Oxo cube. I beat the ants into submission and as a particularly sulky one waves its fist at me in anger as his comrades retreat I stand back to survey my work. I’m happy with the transformation from overgrown ruin to restored glory, and as the iPod shuffles and Kasabian play, Fire, I walk the few steps home.

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Later, after a trip into town I return to find the old guy standing with another looking at the fountain. I hear them say, “good work,” and “nice job.” They both spot me and give me the thumbs up and my friend from yesterday says, “Thank you, many memories.” I wait, but I don’t hear ‘pazzo straniero’.

*Ape, meaning bee (pronounced App-ay) is a three-wheeled hybrid of a scooter and pick-up, made by the vespa (meaning wasp) manufacturers, Piaggio.