We live at the end of a longish gravel road, so coming or going we pass parcels of land belonging to various families; small garden plots, lines of olives, wheat, and oranges. Often the owner is out working his plot and so we salute each other as we pass. If for some reason it is a day of errands, we may pass by the same person a number of times in a day, yet never would we dream of failing to repeat the gesture each time. This ranges from stopping to chat, a wave, a beep on the car horn, or the characteristic poker-faced upward nod of the chin. The gentleman who pruned our olive trees, who has since passed on, would station himself regularly near the road, observing every passage. We dreaded seeing the palm of his hand which meant, “Stop! A word with you.” A “word” being an intricate tale of horticultural intrigue, accusations of obscure doings on the part of those sharing a boundary, or just a chat about the weather. We called him the dogana, or customs agent, and we would breath a sigh of relief on the days when he was absent. I might even have gone so far as to hunt furiously for something under my seat or fake an urgent cell phone call to avoid having to stop. I miss him, sometimes.
Another man, older and a little strange in his ways, never failed to confer his greeting even if involved in activities better observed in privacy. One morning, glimpsing the top of a bald head above the wheat stubble, I prepared to greet him as I passed. It was only as I came upon him that I realized that he was answering the urgent call of nature, pants around his ankles in the trampled hay. Hardly had the realization kicked in and I, in shock, turned my concentrated attention back to the road, then I realized he was cheerfully waving and yelling out an enthusiastic “Buon Giorno!” As I, as we, passed.
A different morning, as I drove past this same man’s plot between the olives, I heard my name. As I proceeded I saw in my rear view mirror that someone was gesticulating frantically from the upper branches of the tree, calling me back with the characteristic wide downward arc of his arm. Lord, I thought, he has accidentally kicked his ladder down and needs help to climb out of the tree. So I threw the car in reverse and backed quickly to place myself under the tree to see and hear him better. He continued to wave his arms at me and yell, until I managed to make out clearly that he was saying, “Sandra! Hurry, move out from under the tree, the branch I am cutting is about to fall!!” Thinking to myself, “We live in the same place but in different logical universes,” I agreed and went on my way, thanking him for calling me back to warn me.
At the beginning of our road, years back, a retired carabiniere commander bought a large parcel of land and planted an extensive orange orchard. His trees were just getting started, robust and dark green with growth, when one night someone went in and systematically cut each one off, leaving a foot of forlorn trunk. Someone with which he had interacted in the past apparently had nurtured a grudge. But rather than succumbing to discouragement, he regrafted a better stock onto the trunks and today they are wonderful example of the lemonade one can make with lemons, or oranges. His greeting is always unassuming. We appreciate the fact that he is the only person we have seen who will repair a pothole on the public tract of road, even though this action might benefit others as well as himself. Most folks around here would never dream of making a reparation which others might enjoy vicariously.
A good cristiano (which means god-fearing person, of any religion) always greets another that he knows, even if the number of greetings to the same person in a morning verges on the farcical. I am not so fond, when navigating my way through a big American city from supermarket to mall to sidewalk, of adapting my behavior to avoid creating ripples in the flow of everyone’s anonymity. Eyes downcast and small device in hand, an electronic crutch to lean on when pressed too close together, everyone tries to avoid unnecessary contact with one’s fellow humans. Here, the greeting is vital. You know when someone has been seriously offended because they will “togliere il saluto” which means” take away their greeting.” When this happens, and it does sometimes, everyone notices the vaccuum created in the comforting, and human, flow of things.
painting: “La Strada per Montescaglioso” pastel on paper, 2001