Tempus Fugit

I have been away from writing for  a while, some might say I had been “busy,” and I have been, but mostly I have been distracted by the daily to-and-fro-ing of life.  My life especially, half here, half where?    And there is too much entry-level information swarming around;  in two languages it is very distracting.

Has anyone else practically given up reading books as I have?   We should all shed a tear for what we are missing, even with our Kindles and our  constant connection to the cacophony of Nothing-really-important-but-all-very-interesting-indeed!”   The equation “more info=less knowledge” is terrifying.

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There are a lot of people in Italy who don’t read much, if at all.  It is not coincidental that the most extensive initial market saturation of cell phones was in Italy, or am I drawing an unscientific conclusion?  In the area where I live, finding a reader is rare, and even these few have lamented that their electronic connections have all but extinguished the activity  of reading for them, too.  You can leave your spare books on the curb, but nobody will take them.

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I titled this collection of small paintings the “Fugue” series, because the scientific definition of the word seems to describe our current predicament poetically.  Not in the musical sense, but in psychiatry, it means “a period during which a person suffers from loss of memory, often begins a new life, and, upon recovery, remembers nothing of the preceding amnesia.”  Or “a dreamlike altered state of consciousness, lasting from a few hours to several days, during which a person loses his or her memory for his or her previous life and often wanders away from home.”   

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How will we know what we are missing?  Is what we know inevitably less important than what we don’t know?  The Italian verb for “to escape” is fuggire.   Tempus fugit!   And since it does, why do we suddenly feel that our lives are as full or fuller than they have ever been, simply for the presence of exponentially-increasing electronic pleasantries?  And Italians are feeling the effects more acutely, I imagine, as their entire incredible history evaporates before their eyes, a  mirage of fading greatness which, like water, is leveling out into a flat, expansive, colorless sea of…nothing much.  It is finding its lowest point, for sure.
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I had intended to write about archaeology, and the dig which shaped my early years here.  But in remembering the thrill of digging down through history, I began to wonder if people in the future will repeat it, as the famous saying goes?   If we are too distracted to read through a written account, a book, a few pages, one article…how will we arm ourselves in order to avoid repeating our blunders?   What will we miss?
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Will the harpies come and carry us off because we wandered away from home, not caring anymore about what was happening outside of our tiny  corn-fed cosmos?
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Bits of useless information

Cultural differences, aside from creating consternation, can be amusing,  Thank goodness.

A wedding!   People on wedding days seem to be filled with excitement and pleasure, jockeying in their cars, honking loudly up and down the main street, dressed to the nines, smiling and laughing…  Of course!    But did you know that these people prepared themselves mentally for this day thinking, “Oh god, another expensive gift to buy,  another day lost in an excruciating marathon of  eating,  seven hours or more at a huge table with people who are mostly strangers,  milling around aimlessly in the parking lot…How many minutes until we can leave?”   It is the dark side of Italian weddings.  The day the invitation arrives is when the dread begins.

There is a chain of supermarkets which are called “Conad.”

Italians eat healthy, slow  food!  But there are entire stores dedicated to huge bins of  frozen things, where you can buy bargain amounts of  things like frozen pasta and breaded anonymous fish products, industrial crepes, frozen chopped onion, eggrolls, and  kebab filling.

A guarantee for a new hot water heater, loudly proclaimed on a huge orange sticker,  offers service during the warranty period.  It is called the “Pass Gas.”

An instant cappuccino-type coffee drink which used to be available  in most markets in the U.S. was called “Cappio.”   This is the Italian word for a  hangman’s noose.  No wonder it failed!

When you stop for a fill-up, you might find yourself in the cryptic  “Self Area.”  Sometimes you may even end up in the the “Hyper Self Area,”  a mysterious zone which conjures images of  egotistical types milling about, frenetically  gesticulating  while mumbling  their existential motives for using gasoline…

Shopping in a department store  in the U.S. with my husband, at the escalator we discuss where to go next.  People look askance at us hearing the words “die” and “jew” over and over.  “Dai, andiamo giu’!”  (C’mon, let’s go down!”)

Why do people have little dangling red pepper clusters on their rear view mirrors, I wonder…  Do peppers bring good luck?  No, these are supposed to be horns of the bull, red I suppose is a masculine color… and they represent protection from generic evil forces, not membership in a mysterious vegetable sect.

My sister, who doesn’t speak Italian, often laughs at our conversations.   She hears the words “fart”  and “fat” over and over, and wonders what on earth we are talking about!  (“Farti,” to make you something, or make you do something, and “fatto” which is the past tense of the same verb “to make or do.”)

Once a year here in Metaponto,  the folks who consider themselves religious follow a strange ceremony.  They send a saint out to sea and back.   But a standing saint could never balance on a choppy sea, which is the reason, I assume, that they send out half a saint, the upper half, and wave him off, gently bobbing toward the horizon.  After a short time  he returns safely  to shore after a bargain cruise of half an hour.  The seashore is once again a safe and blessed place.

It took years for my relatives to relax around my family here.  They were convinced that we were fighting almost constantly, and would huddle in corners waiting for the storm to subside.  They have since realized that no,  loud vocals and gesticulation are simply what constitutes  normal conversation.

A new addition to the traffic flow:  roundabouts!  Unfortunately, however, the rule is that one always gives way to the car coming from the right, so folks here cannot grasp that in the roundabout they must yield to the car coming on the left.  Beware a roundabout in Italy!

There are dumpsters all over for garbage, as there is no residential garbage collection.  So why, if you have placed your precious garbage in a nice tidy sack, tied and compact,  do people carry it in their car for a few blocks and throw it out the window?  Did it suddenly become an unbearable burden, a concept so overwhelmingly unacceptable, that a few more yards became impossible  to bear?

A famous maker of automatic gates and doors is called “Faak.”  Given that the soft “A” has a phonetic sound similar to the sound in the word “luck,”   this commercial where the gate squeaks the product’s name over and over has given me many solid moments of hilarity.  Say it!

If you live outside of town, your electricity and phone service arrives via lines on wooden poles.  Your service will be  regularly interrupted however, due to two causes:  1) The roving groups of Romanian opportunists have taken all the copper wire again during the night or 2) some farmer has burned his wheat stubble, and also the bottom halves of the poles.  It is a common sight, a line sagging to the ground with a foot or two of wooden pole hanging at intervals from it, like a necklace of blackened toothpicks.

“Wheat Field on Fire”  oil on canvas

Keep an eye on teenage parties.  There is always beer, and there often are plenty of hard alcoholic products.  That is simply how it is done here.  You can fight but you can’t win.

Everybody loves gelato!  It is good.  My husband makes gelato in his beach establishment.   And it is excellent.  But I know that the “fresh” ingredients of the stuff come in big white bags and industrial steel canisters.  The milk does arrive fresh daily, however.

Why do women, so exceptionally stylish and  composed, the height of world-famous fashion sense in the winter, dress like hinterland  prostitutes in the summer?

It is not a good place to be a snake, any kind of snake.  Snake equals bad.  Hide!

You will have to study hard and pass the exams to get yourself a gun.  It will have to be kept in a locked, dedicated safe in your home.  Once bought it can be kept with no problems, as long as you don’t use it.  But if you buy any bullets, each one will have to be accounted for, and the authorities will come down hard on you if they discover that one of them is missing.

“Bernalda,” an unfortunate name.  Every time we have business dealings with other parts of Italy we have to explain:  “No, not BernaRda, BernaLda, with an “L.”   You can almost hear the smirk over the phone line.  You see, “Bernarda” is the slang name for the female genitalia.

“Benevolent Dysfunction,”   mixed media on paper

What did you say?

I always think it is incredible when someone asks me if I speak Italian, forgetting that they might not know that I have been here for  thirty years.   Of course I speak Italian; I had to learn it to get along when I first stayed behind in 1982 after the excavations group flew back to the States without me.  And then I remember that there are people living here, people who claim to adore the local culture and society, who after almost as many years still do not speak the language.

How can you live in a place and not learn the language?   I know the answer.  You form your own small comfortable ghetto comprised of people just like you and continue to live in the bubble.  The culture “outside” is a cinematic illusion, to be sampled on outings, a kind of  resident tourism.  You are able to conserve your romantic views of the culture without getting your hands dirty, and without truly understanding what the hell is going on around you.  Good luck with that.

"Castello di Oriolo, Isolato" pencil and metallic pigment on paper

Down where we live, they proudly speak a dialect.  “V’rnallese” is its name, or “Bernaldese” in Italian.  It is one of hundreds, each uniquely-evolved on top of  crowded hilltops  in tiny anthill-like communities over three thousand years or more.  And yet these dialects are sprung from common roots:  Greek of course, as this area was Magna Graecia after all,  and Arabic.  Neopolitan, the “real”  Italian language, not that flat and colorless version spoken in Florence, which, thanks to television and the Republic, is today considered the standard version.  And smatterings of other languages as well.  Near us there are towns which conserve their Albanian language, including their street signs.  There are also towns which still have strong Aramaic roots in their dialect.  French, Spanish, even recent English contributions: In Bari they say “celery” for the Italian sedano, I am sure because of the second world war and the number of American servicemen there.   In Bernalda there are many oldsters who are known as “Shoomak” which reflects their experience as emigrants to the USA where they worked at making and repairing shoes to survive.   All these cultural contributions are smudged together in each small town to create a particular version unique to that town.

My learning curve was a little steep, because all my friends here typically spoke this dialect among themselves, although they could be prevailed upon to translate for me into Italian. If I had known Italian at that point I would have had it made!   However I spent many an evening laughing along with the group in utter ignorance of what was going on.  But I can be perceptive, and this saved me on many occasions in following the gist of things by observing body language and context in order to muddle through.   In the 1980’s, being young and blonde, it wasn’t hard to get along on nods and  smiles.

Notice I said “they” speak a dialect.  This is to say, while I understand almost everything (although I still encounter an obscure term every few days or so, and have to learn it) I do NOT speak it.  I think it.  So my cerebral routing procedure is as follows:  English to dialect, dialect to Italian.  The reason I don’t speak dialect I suppose comes from a sense of pride in my almost-perfect Italian pronunciation (people may or may not know that I am “not from around here”)…and it is also because I don’t relish the smirks and ironic comments which so often greeted my attempts at formulating thoughts in dialect.  OK, I learn.  In my mind, I speak it acceptably, but I still trust my Italian interlocutor to express my ideas.  And that Italian, in my case, is heavily-inflected with the southern accent of these parts, of which I am proud.  I ignore smirks from northerners as well.

I have spoken American English to my kids ever since they were in the womb.  They had to deal with the two most important people in their lives speaking entirely different languages to them at all times.  The conversations between myself and my husband are invariably in Italian, unless we are in the USA and he is required to use English, in which case he may surprise us all with his ability.   My kids and I speak English to each other, and they speak Italian with my husband.  It can get interesting at times, as we lapse into a strange patois  without realizing it!  “Ma!   Puozz’mangnia’ some of those biscuott’ you bought stamattina dal forno over by the ufficio postale?” *    The upshot is that my kids are truly native speakers, and by that I mean indistinguishable from natives, in both languages.  Of course we hope that this brain re-wiring will do us all good in some way.  We are flexible, and sometimes we are also confused!

I have my favorite examples, of course, of the incredible disparity between classic Italian and our jealously-preserved dialect.  My spellings are the best I can do to approach a phonetic  definition.  I enjoy following the town discussions on Facebook, where people’s attempts to write in dialect can be quite amusing.  Traditionally it has not been a written language, although scholarly types have published a couple of books on it recently.

Directly from the Greek is the orange, or arancia, which is the portaialla in Pisticci, the next town over, and l’ammaranch’ in Bernalda.   Need some wine, or vino?  Ask for “na zicca d’mieeruh.”  A napkin, or tovagliolo,  is “ooh shtiavruccula.”    Snails, or lumache?        “Cozzaiuffula.” 

Over in Pisticci, they came up with a relatively new expression–in the last century– to designate the mirage which sometimes forms over  asphalt, and I absolutely love it.   “Ooh marawall” means, roughly translating into Italian and English, “uguale al mare” which is, poetically, “the same as the sea.”    And it is!

In Italian, to ask, “If you are ready to go, let’s go, and if you’re not, we’ll stay” you might say, “Se dobbiamo andare, andiamo.  Se no, non ce ne andiamo piu‘.    In Vrnallese:  “Se ‘na ma shee, sha ma nneen.  Se nun a ma shee, nunn’ a shiamma shenn.”  It really does roll  musically off the tongue.

It is important to know which day you are speaking about, so “today,”  or “oggi”,  is ” iosh‘.”

Tomorrow, or “domani,” is “cra.”

The day after tomorrow, “dopo domani,”  is “p’scra,” and the day after that is “p’screedd.”     (The double consonant indicates a firmer pressure of the tongue against the palate.)

And the day after that?   “P’scruofula!”

"What (She Says) He Said" oil on canvas

*”Mom, can I eat some of the cookies you bought this morning from the bakery near the post office?”