Il Cantastoria (part one)

My husband, who was born just four months before me, grew up in a different century.

Bernalda, or Vernall’  in dialect, in the  late 1960s.   The post-war economic boom is roaring in the north of Italy, and while  this small Lucanian town is seeing the arrival of new technologies,  new products and ideas,  its main participation in the “boom” consists of packing family members off to work in the factories of Torino and Milano, Bergamo  and Verona.  In previous generations families gave up their most intrepid to the Americas.   So while a  trickle of  letters containing  wages earned up north has begun to change the outlook slightly, traditions still  persist, resolutely, and the town is unaware of the changes to come.

The Amazing Flying Millers, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, 2012

The streets of the town are unpaved, with the notable exception of the main Corso, newly asphalted and a focal point of town pride.  Most secondary streets are covered with embedded round river stones, or gravel, or a muddy mix of these.  Most people get around on foot, for after all the town is not large, with a population of about ten thousand.    An occasional small car can be seen, and bicycles, or  small  carts drawn by a mule or a horse.

My future husband, as a boy,  may have  the pleasure of  drinking something cold,  not from the refrigerator, but thanks to ice which has been purchased  fresh daily for the “ice box.”  ( My own father, in the late twenties,  followed the ice wagon and carried a chunk of ice home in a cloth bag, and so did my husband.)     His mother utilizes  a tin wash bucket filled with rags, and cuddles some bottles and jars around the ice.  There will be  cool wine with lunch, slices of watermelon, or fresh milk to drink for breakfast the next day.  Refrigerators will come later, in the seventies.

Milk arrives on wheels as well.  A bicyclist will pass each day with a couple of tin jugs balanced across the handlebars, and housewives hurry down with glass jars to buy a few ladles of fresh milk to replenish their supply.  No pasteurisation here, and the milk is often still warm when it arrives, as you can be sure the cows are not very far away.

Farmers breaking in a new field, builders excavating for the foundations of a house, will invariably find antiquities.  These are everywhere, and the cause of much consternation, as the authorities “must be informed” and work is immediately halted indefinitely.  Practicality advises one to keep it to oneself.   There are children in Bernalda, today’s adults, who pass their time after school at target practice, lining up small votive cups and vases to be knocked to pieces with slingshots.   Cups and vases from 2500 years ago!

People still live with their precious animals, and some still literally “live with” their mule in the second room, the one which houses the huge bed where often an entire family sleeps.  Chickens will come and go, and cats.  (Even today houses in the older sections of towns have a tiny, low door which served to allow the hens in or out of their nesting area.  I laugh when I think of  urban hipsters in US cities, discovering the pleasure of keeping a few chickens for eggs, and think how these “trendsetters” are  only now beginning to catch up!  Will they soon be keeping their chickens under the bed as well?)   These houses will be restructured in later decades, and the mule in the bedroom will disappear, although many will still keep a mule or horse in a converted stall, a few doors away.  Later still the “stalls”  (ex-family dwellings)  will be used for the family automobile, and organizations will be formed to “save” mules and donkeys typical of the region, once plentiful.

Near my husband’s house, in the town center, one homeowner is the proud keeper of serial pigs.  And as such, every so often he needs to make room for the new “pet.”  (That good sausage and prosciutto doesn’t just magically appear, after all.)  The spectacle of a murder victim screaming and then being dismembered is a recurring neighborhood trauma which the children won’t soon forget.  Salzizz!*

“Chorus Line” oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches, 2002

Most families have washing machines.  But soap is not often purchased at the store.  Another passing truck offers a bartered exchange;   used household oil, such as from frying, or old oil no longer suitable for consumption.  He gives these customers the bars of soap he makes with this oil.  Of course not everyone has old oil to offer, and he makes a good living this way from selling his homemade soap.  (You can still buy soap here which has the same appearance as the old bars, although of course it is industrially-produced.  Many women swear by it.)

Every so often, a visitor will appear in town driving a small truck sporting a collapsible set of panels.  The vehicle chooses a strategic point where  a crowd can gather, and set up shop.  The panels, usually four or six, are mounted on top of the truck so that everyone can see them.  They appear  almost as giant tarot cards, colorful and filled with dynamic figures in various exaggerated poses.  This is  the “cantastoria.”**  When a suitable number of folks have gathered, he starts  to tell a story in song.  Indicating the pertinent panel, he weaves an intricate tale involving (inevitably) love and hope, tragedy and  betrayal.  Cuckoldry and murder are ever-popular subjects, and the helper working the crowd  will  find his basket filling faster in accordance with the passionality of the tale.    All of this sung loudly over about half an hour, acapella.  It is a distillation of  Opera down to its essential elements.  Kids and adults anticipate  the arrival of the cantastoria, and when he arrives it is always a treat.

(end of part one)

“Time Line” oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2009

*salzizz‘,  meaning literally salsicca, or sausage, “known as “sal-cheech” in dialect.  When pronounced “Sal-zeets!”  it can also be used as a snide greeting.  It can be substituted for the acceptable “Salve!” and is invariably muttered under one’s breath.  It is obviously a reference to the  body part it resembles.

** Literally, the “Story-Singer.”

Advertisements

Spend wisely

If you are going out to shop, you will have to make a decision;  stay in town where the shops are smallish and local, or head out to the big city where some supermarkets are so large that their workers get around on roller skates.  You  may save money at the big box centers, but you will have to calculate the gas and the aggravation.  Keep in mind that I am talking about my small area of Italy, and of course Rome, Milan, and even Bari are probably a different matter.

I have never figured out why many items cost what they do.  Plastics, everyday items such as washing basins, all manner of molded colorful utensils are incredibly cheap when compared to typical American prices. Someone wrote a song once about Italian Plastic, maybe this is what was meant.  Some of the most beautiful laundry baskets, lawn furniture, and kitchen utensils I have ever seen anywhere are here.  Why plastic should be so cheap and gasoline so expensive, well, it tells a story about how easily prices can be manipulated.

Bathroom rugs are incredibly expensive.  They are ratty and badly-made, ready to fall apart at the first washing, and yet they are costly.  Things like band aids, hair bands, brushes, demitasse cups, faucets, door knobs, office supplies, insect repellent, and lamps are all incredibly expensive.  Why is this?   There are two levels of commerce, the very nice  (places where I will not easily be found)   and the kind of crappy.  It is either custom-made-to-order bookshelves or shrink-wrapped and assembly-required.  There really is no middle ground of decent quality and modest price.  There is a third option, the market on designated weekdays, which is made up of traveling vans which set up and then leave in the course of the morning.  But if you don’t know how to haggle and bluff, or if you have a face like mine, blond and foreign, this might cost you dearly.

In the past few years one area which has benefited greatly from the influx of foreign-made merchandise is doors.   The doors which were so lovingly made for our house twenty years ago, no two exactly alike, cost about four hundred dollars each.  I can remember having to sit down when I heard what our modest (compared to other houses) component of  seven doors would cost.   Now you can get very nice doors and frames for about seventy five dollars if you look in the right place.  They are made in neighboring countries to the East, and they are now in every new house and building.  Walking into a charming old remodeled house and seeing these doors can be disconcerting.  It creates the same feeling of melancholy that peeking at  a kitchen in, say,  Japan produces.  You see your exact chairs and table, cutlery and clock,  and you understand that we have paid with our identity for our Ikea world, where everyone can choose the same items.  And they do,   because they are so irresistibly cheap.

However, there are some bargains!  Wine  flows and flavors most meals at  negligible expense.  When I first came here there was a Cantina Sociale where you could buy red, white, or rose–these were the categories–by the case.  Twelve full bottles for about seventy five cents each.  Many areas still boast their wine cooperatives, which is what these are, where all the farmers can pool their grapes with generic but decent results.   Unfortunately our cantina sociale is a thing of the past, a victim of in-fighting,  location,  and the boutique wine industry.  But lest you should be forced to stay sober, you can pick up all manner of hard liquors at your local supermarkets.  A bottle of Russian vodka will set you back about five dollars and a decent single malt whiskey, imported from Scotland, will cost no more than about nine dollars.

Do you want to buy a nice carpet?  It might be very expensive.  There are a few televised infomercial sellers who have been around for many years, and one can only assume they do sell their Iranian and Indian-made rugs to someone.  From what I have seen, they are four times as expensive as the equivalent in the US, and nowhere near as attractive.  Even in high-end shops offering antique hand-woven carpets, red and blue are the colors offered.  Unless of course you prefer blue and red.  Tradition is a powerful beast.

Strangely,  it would seem that television has cornered the market on art sales.  All those channels at the high end of the dial, presenting their line-ups of paintings by “quoted” artists, and will they constitute a bargain?  Not hardly. I have seen pieces offered, horrendous kitsch and pitifully awkward abstracts,  for upwards of fifty thousand dollars.   The median price will be high, and never are there pieces of original art offered for less than a month’s salary. Sadly, while purchases are being made in this fashion, galleries are gasping for sales with no hope in sight.   So I always wonder, who can be buying this art?   Are they satisfied when the pieces are delivered and displayed?   Who in their right mind would happen on a station, some afternoon with nothing better to do, and telephone to order a fifty-thousand dollar painting, plus shipping?

Everyone here complains about the inexorable advance of the Chinese in all commercial areas.  But there is an almost total disconnect when it comes to consumer behavior, and if anything at all can be had at a cheaper price, then it will be had.  Every small town has its  storefronts with those red Chinese lanterns hanging out front, popping out like mushrooms after a rain.  They are a regular stop on everyone’s shopping trip, mainly to see if that item seen down the street can be bought at a cheaper price.  Usually a cheap imitation can be, and so another Italian shoe factory, fabric weaver, button-maker,  or small local shop  continues its  decline into bankruptcy.  Yet some hyper-protected areas of national pride are still safe, such as cheeses and olive oil, but you will be well-advised to read the label before you buy.  There are always alternatives to the real thing for the unwary.

Today, March 12, 2012, gasoline is going to cost you almost exactly ten dollars  a gallon.    As far as I see it gas prices are a lot like skin;  they both have the capacity to expand almost indefinitely.  Over-eaters and drivers  have to adjust their intake in order to cope.  My car, a relative gas-guzzler at 27 MPG, is used only when absolutely needed for hauling a trailer or lots of friends.   After all, there is another solution to high fuel consumption:  drive less.  In a small town in Italy, this is still possible.  I might note, however, that even at this price, the roads are still packed with cars.  Sometimes the very thing that we think can be manipulated with pricing will cause unexpected results.  Cars are still swarming over the roads, while local economies are suffering the slow death caused by shoppers going elsewhere.  In their cars.  There is a lesson there somewhere.

“Conspicuous Consumption”   mixed media on paper, 2005

Critters, chapter three: Buster.

Sometimes things happen in different places, for different reasons, and move  inexorably along an invisible line toward an unexpected conclusion.   We had this experience, with a horse, and a dog, and two open gates, far distant from each other.

Buster was our first Maremma sheepdog, a large, sweet-smelling snowball of an animal,  who was  maturing,  healthily,  towards his retirement.  He was an excellent guard dog, most of the time, but if there were female pheromones in the air he could climb an eight foot fence as if he were Spiderman.   Always attentive to any changes in his surroundings, we counted on him to alert us to arrivals, especially those people, animals,  or automobiles that were not included in his repertoire of acceptable objects.   We were his flock.

My son attended an elementary school far from here, on the opposite side of town.  It was the same building to which my husband had trudged every day as a child.   There is a distinct possibility that  some of the desks  were the same ones he  sat behind on those  days when the classroom windows mocked the children with  their tempting views of grass and sunshine.   At the back of this school building, there was a fenced area on the edge of the valley below.  Even now, the fenced area is used to keep livestock; sheep, goats, the occasional cow.   On this day, a horse.

A moment of distraction, a latch not properly closed, and this horse found it was suddenly free.  But freedom in town has a different countenance than  freedom in the country, and the streets are in constant movement.  Cars, people, bicycles, motorbikes, and above all asphalt and noise conspired to alarm the horse to the point of panic, and it began to run through the streets.  It galloped away from the school, around the road which rings the town, and on towards imaginary pastures, despite the best efforts of some to slow it down.

Two kilometers, four, six, and the horse continued its gallop until it came to the long gravel road leading eventually to our house.   Our yard is fenced, and we have a large gate which normally keeps the dogs in and intruders out.  This day,  because we had been  doing yardwork, it was standing slightly open.  I heard frantic barking, and inside the house I felt a pounding rhythmical vibration.  At the window there was  an incredible sight, a large horse furiously throwing up divots of earth as it raced around and around the house in circles.    Buster was close on its heels and the animal was becoming more agitated, spooked  by his attempts to nip its lower legs as it ran.   It continued to circle madly, ignorant of the open gate by which it entered, and which  would allow it to tear off down the road, away from the dog.

I used to be a horse owner, so I know a little bit about how to behave around them.  But a panicked horse is anything but rational, and it is dangerous.    Not having the means to calm it, I opted for guiding it out the gate by creating a diversion.  I ran to grab a hoe, a towel, anything to wave in the air and cause the horse to change trajectory.  Suddenly I heard a crack, the unmistakable sound of  a bat hitting a baseball hard enough to send it hurtling out of the park.   But this was not going to be a home run for the team.  I turned, dodging as the horse ran straight toward me and the open gate, to see Buster sitting, dazed, pawing energetically at his muzzle.  Blood poured from his mouth.   It was one of those moments when disbelief gives way to knowledge that things have changed, and for the worse.

As the horse pounded out of the gate and back up the road,  I prepared myself for what I would see.  The horse had kicked Buster with such force directly in the teeth that his entire boney upper jaw,  teeth included, had been detached from the front of his mouth. It was still attached by the muscles and some of the gum, but it was no longer a viable part of him.  The vet was called, antibiotics and pain relievers were administered, the injured area was removed, and we waited.  At the time our small town vet, who was occupied primarily with livestock,  made housecalls only.  He did not have any walk-in facilities, so we had to do without major operations on our animals.  Buster had been neutered in our own garage on a picnic table, with the aid of some kitchen utensils and a massive dose of horse tranquilizer.

After a time, poor Buster healed.  He required softer food, and his fighting days were over, but he got along comfortably enough.  I keep one of his enormous canine teeth as a memento of that day.  He has long since passed away and moved on to that other place where good dogs dwell.   We never had any contact from the owner of the horse, assuming that an unhappy accident is no grounds for exacting any payment or apology.   Another horse has never arrived here unexpectedly, thundering down our road with evil intent.  But I often think of Buster when casual circumstances  seem to align, improbably, and give rise to a  momentous event.

“At Pasture”, oil on wooden block,  4 x 6 x 2 inches, 2011

(above)  “Rusty Gate. oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2010

My double life

I never intended to stay here, but my less-traveled road led me 
to divide my time between two countries on different sides of 
the Atlantic.   It is a path that many with ambition plan to 
follow, eventually coming to a new home where they will live
out a life filled with beautiful scenery, art and excellent 
cuisine, leaving behind  others with more mundane aspirations.  
Italy has often been the imaginary view from a corner office,  
a measure of personal success.  It has also been relentlessly 
stereotyped in books and film, and I would like to offer another,
and possibly truer, perspective.

I have lived in Italy for over thirty years, coming here on 
a whim and staying year after year,  marrying and raising a 
family, creating a world here near a small southern town which
has never failed to interest me.   But if you are thinking of
the many stereotypical accounts by ex-patriots who have made 
a new life here and enthuse romantically about all things Italian,
I assure you the real story--my story--is different.  Of course
it is rich with olive trees, blue sea and stone towns, but there 
has been so much more that is wondrously strange, terrifying, 
indecipherable, and marvelously funny.   
My life here hasn't been what you might imagine at all.

painting:  "Il Vinello"  oil on canvas, 11 x 30 inches, 2010