Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bumpy Beginnings

Well, here we are back in the good ol' US of A, feeling fuzzy with jetlag and waking at ridiculously early hours. Is it just me, or does jetlag always seem to hit worse when traveling westward?

We had a fabulously easy check-in at Fiumicino, thanks to a guardian angel, who we met while purchasing mozzarella di bufala some months back. He works at the airport and, when we told him our departure date, he pre-arranged for a streamlined check-in so that we would not have the headache (or backache!) of juggling our seven large luggage pieces (plus carry on bags) through the snaking line. Wonderful! Afterwards, he wanted to buy us coffee; after much insistence we got him to relent and allow *us* to buy *him* a caffe. He also gave us a piccolo pensiero (little gift) in the form of chocolate. How I'm going to miss these Italiani! Their amazing hospitality and thoughtfulness are what have made these past three years so incredible for us.

So, here we are in Cleveland, Ohio at my sister's where we feel pretty comfortable...due in large part because half of the furniture scattered about her house is ours! We are sleeping in our own bed, relaxing on my Ekornes chair, and dining at our Mission-style table. We've explored the boxes in the attic, having forgotten what half of our stored possessions were. It seems so long ago we stashed them away. They'll remain up there a while longer, since we still don't know where we'll eventually end up.

Meanwhile, Bryan threw wide the door to the garage to reawaken Arnold, my sleeping Mustang, from his three-year slumber. He reconnected the battery, tinkered around, and pretty soon the motor was purring. Bryan called the Ohio DMV to ascertain the steps needed to get the car licensed, as the plates expired shortly after our departure for Italia. Turns out, Ohio has a bureaucratic system reminiscent of Italy. Go to Point A for an inspection; take inspection slip to Point B for an Ohio title; proceed to Point C for registration and license plate.

Off he went to Point A, or more accurately, a nearby car dealership where the vehicle inspection could be completed. No problem, car passed the test, and Bryan was ready to ride off to Point B. That's when the bump occurred, in the form of a very stupid woman driving a very large truck and towing a very large trailer behind it. Woman turned wide, trailer swung out, Arnold suffered the blow. Seriously...the first minute he emerged from the garage in three years and gets creamed in a parking lot?! Unbelievable.

Fortunately (blessedly!) the newly-purchased insurance kicked in at midnight, so it was active a whole 9.5 hours before the assault took place. The adjustor has already been here and he took quick action, so Arnold is now on his way to the metal hospital to be repaired. But, I have to say, it doesn't seem a very auspicious beginning.

The next two weeks will be busy, but as jetlag wears off and culture shock sets in, I'll be posting along the way.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Departure Day arrived all too quickly. We are almost on our way back to the United States after a crazy week of sorting, piling, weeding and packing our belongings. Actually, by the time you read this we will probably be somewhere over the Atlantic, misty-eyed and exhausted.

We took over our friends’ taverna, which we divided into sections of “to take” and “to store”. We mounded up clothes, started stuffing them into duffel bags, then retreated for a little perspective before returning to the piles and yanking out other non-necessity items so as to lighten our very heavy cargo that will accompany us. I hate packing for even a two-week trip; trying to decide what to pack after three years’ residence has been a miseria. Not knowing exactly when we’ll return has made it more difficult, since we know we’ll be back il piu presto possibile and will need certain items. {Sigh.}

Thursday we took a sanity break and spent the entire day in the centro storico of bella Roma. We love our friends but they live so far from the centro that I wouldn’t call this area Rome. In fact, their house is just a smidgen from the GRA, the ring road that encircles the city. It is nearly as opposite the charming centro as you can get.

We visited some churches and museums that we had never seen, despite our many visits to the Eternal City. We learned long ago that it would take an eternity to see the treasures there. As anyone who knows me knows, I am a Caravaggio fan, so we were able to take in some other paintings I had previously missed. We were most impressed with the astounding art collection, opulence, and narrative at the Palazzo Doria Pamphili. Exhibition lighting and arrangement could be better, but…wow! I had no idea. The place is packed with paintings. We enjoyed a caffe at their pretty coffee bar and tea room, wondering how we had missed this place through all our trips.

The Corsini Gallery was much smaller with some less impressive displays, but in what has become typical of our experience in Italy, we had a spontaneous surprise opportunity open up for us. One of the exhibit rooms was occupied by the academia for a lecture. I asked one of the security guards when it might wrap up so we could plan whether we had time to wait to enter or should just shove off for lunch. He shrugged broadly, voiced his displeasure that they were overstaying their allotted time, mumbled something I couldn’t make out, then hurried along a corridor.

I spotted a restroom and popped inside. When I exited, Bryan and the guard were motioning me to hurry my way down that hallway. He opened a broad wooden door and hustled us through, pulling it quickly shut behind us. Then he flipped a few switches which illuminated the sala, and we were flung into beautiful heavenly scenes as we gazed at lovely paintings (unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to really read and internalize the names of the artists). I don’t know why the room was not open to the public, nor why he singled us out from the handful of others waiting to see the occupied hall. He gave us a few minutes to take it in, then peeped out the door, gave us an all-clear signal, and we scampered away whispering tante grazie to our benefactor for the sweet serendipity.

We huffed and walked and sweated our way all over historic Rome, capping the day with an aperitivo at a lovely, quiet, panoramic roof-top terrace before finishing up at the Fontana di Trevi where we plunked in our coins for good luck and a speedy return.

We bought a few little souvenirs, as well as a larger keepsake, but I'm going to keep you in suspense before revealing more about our impulse purchase.

I can’t really believe we will be leaving, and yet the accumulated luggage tells me it’s true. And while I was weepy and melancholy all week in Ascoli Piceno, today I feel lighter and more positive then ever that we will be returning to Italy before too very long. The Trevi won’t let me down!

Wanna read more? This month's column The End is Nigh details our Farewell Tour.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Time Marches On

Time really does keep on ticking, ticking, ticking into the future! I can’t believe how quickly this month has passed. Where does the time go? Seriously. When we left the comfy agriturismo after two weeks of residence, we felt like we had barely just arrived. How is it that when we were kids the two weeks until summer break ticked off like an eternity, but as adults the same 14-day period soars past us like nobody’s business?

The only drawback to our beautiful mountaintop hideaway was the lack of reliable internet connection. I’ve saved up notes about all the wonderful places we visited and kind people we encountered, but haven’t been able to post them yet. Ah well; as they say in Italy, “piano piano…con calma”. I’ll get them posted someday in the near future.

Meanwhile, we arrived back in Ascoli Piceno with a week-long calendar chalked up with appointments to meet friends, have rounds of dinners and drinks and coffees. We have been walking around marveling yet again at the wonderfulness of this place we have called home, wondering why its still so undiscovered, but yet a little glad it is still all “ours”.

We have been taking photos of people and places that, somehow in more than 2 ½ years, we managed to not capture on film (or digital, as the case may be), and eating our fill of the local specialties.

The place is the same, yet it has changed. Sadly, we have noticed that several shops have closed in just the few months we’ve been away, and we’ve been told that several factories and small business operators have shuttered as well. Several of our friends are reporting difficulties with their businesses. La crisi economica is on everyone’s lips and worried minds.

And yet the spirit remains the same. The passeggiata is still paraded, the piazza is still packed every evening, and the caffes have their usual flow and rhythm. The bands and flag-throwers are practicing, readying themselves for La Quintana, which starts in July. The girl who hits up everyone for cigarettes is still on the prowl; Rita is still circling town on her bicycle yelling who-knows-what at the passersby; the Don King look-alike is still hanging around. All the personaggi (town characters) are in their predictable places, as much a part of the landscape as ever. And so are we. We are back in our usual haunts, feeling right back at home.

Which may not such a good idea. It may make it harder to leave, not knowing exactly when we will return. Everyone is asking us for a date, a time frame they can count on when they’ll see us again, and we are unable to say for certain. We are only able to say definitively that we’ll be back again. Hopefully the months of our absence will march on and pass as quickly as these past few months have. Time’s a tickin’.

Monday, May 11, 2009

La Citta Morta

Craco, Basilicata.

The first sight of Craco is dramatic. The dead city rises from a jagged rock pinnacle like an ominous vision. Twisted eroded spires jut up in front of the ancient stone edifices, whose windows and doors have been replaced with gaping openings. It is like looking at something from a ghostly Gothic novel or a carefully constructed movie set.

The old town is encircled by weeds and wheat heads that sway in the breeze. Entering the former centro storico, we found abundant physical and olfactory evidence that a flock of sheep have been the town’s only living residents for quite some time, penned up at night in long-abandoned rooms.

The medieval street pattern remains, winding and climbing up to what had been the main piazza. Palazzi, homes, and shops once lined the ancient lanes but are now empty and eerie. Roofs are caved in, paint-bare shutters smack in the wind. Time, neglect and the elements have wrought more destruction than the tremor that emptied the town. A thousand lizards scampered around, a dozen falcons glided up above. We saw a few other curiosity seekers like ourselves wandering about, their voices and presence made it less creepy.

The well-worn stone walkways and rock walls have not deterred the weeds and trees that have taken root and prospered, while the city has slowly been crumbling and returning to the earth. The nearby cemetery is neatly tended, a stark contrast and irony of the dead, decaying town it serves.

Craco died in 1963 when an earthquake rocked the residents’ peace of mind and drove them to the safer plain below. The new Craco they constructed is a depressing square of concrete apartment blocks, as devoid of spirit as the old town is devoid of life.

Ironically, we saw as many people wandering the abandoned city as we saw in the new town. The old centro storico has become somewhat of a small tourist destination while the new town, lacking a definitive centro or anything at all of interest, is passed by without much more than a glance. Craco is lifeless – above and below – but the ghost town is a fascinating, peculiar, place to visit.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well

We peeled ourselves away from Matera to perch ourselves on a mountaintop in the Motherland, where we are back to using a dial-up cell phone connection for internet access. We have been near my ancestral village for a week and will remain here through this week. It was a bittersweet farewell; we really do adore Matera, but also wanted to spend more time in “my” area of Basilicata, too.

Our time in the City of Stone got off to a rocky start. We had booked two weeks in a rental apartment. The residenza where we normally stay when we travel to Matera didn’t have a suite available for a two week sojourn. Neither did my second choice, but then I found a cute little apartment and corresponded with the owner, who gave me a little discount for a long stay and booked it immediately. The owner assured all was reserved, no deposit or prepayment needed, tutto bene.

I arrived with dizzying headache and hacking cough from the cold that besieged me. I was tired from the six-hour drive. I wanted nothing more than to make a cup of tea and go to bed. The signora cheerfully greeted us in the Piazza del Duomo and directed us to the place, pointing out where to park our car nearby.

It wasn’t until we passed through the gate into her courtyard that she revealed the news that she had taken a booking for the weekend and we would be sleeping in her comodissima taverna for a night. Tomorrow, she chirped, the apartment would be all ours.

The taverna was located below their home, but was spotlessly clean, was equipped with a kitchen, a bathroom, a table, and a bed. La Signora was then plying us with plates of home-baked goodies and I was thinking how I just wanted to hit the loo and then lay down. I really should have paid more attention during the whirlwind tour instead of being diverted by the sweets, because then I would have noted that the “bathroom” didn’t have a bath. Or a shower. Just a half-bath. Fine. Whatever. One night.

Tomorrow dawned clear and warm. We would soon be able to move to the apartment for our two-week tenure. We rambled around in the Sassi and went to enjoy a cappuccino and cornetto while we waited for the cleaning to be completed. The place was cute, it would do fine. We unpacked and started to settle in.

That’s when La Signora decided to tell us that, oh by the way, she had also taken a reservation for the last four days of our stay and we wouldn’t mind returning to the taverna, right? Huh? What happened to two weeks? No problems? Less than happy about the prospect of spending four nights in the Italian equivalent of a basement (without shower), and upset that she took another booking while assuring us a two-week stay was no problem, we debated what to do.

The first morning we both awoke stiff. The second and third mornings we were moaning and creaking like geezers. The bed was absolutely the most back-wrenchingly uncomfortable we have ever encountered. Which may have been just an annoyance had it not been for the six o’clock awakenings we were enduring from above. Scraping chairs, clunking heels, banging around in the owner’s house above us. Every morning.

We had roamed town looked for other accommodations, but on last-minute notice for a long-ish stay it was difficult. We had already cut our stay shorter than anticipated to avoid the taverna nightmare and adjusted our booking in the mountains (no problem, the agriturismo owner told me, which gave me grave cause to worry!).

We toughed it out a week in the apartment before saying ‘basta!’ We ran to the residenza and begged for a room, any room. Mercifully, they had a suite available for the last few nights of our stay and we snapped up the cave dwelling with glee. We packed and fled as fast as the swallows that dart above the Sassi. Ahhh…utterly quiet. Comfortable bed. It felt very homey.

Our last few days in Matera were perfect; even the weather mostly cooperated. We continued shopping in the daily vegetable market, enjoying the barista in “our” coffee bar, and tramping all over the various sections of the Sassi, which just continue to unfurl in different directions. Whenever we think we’ve seen it all, we discover another fold in the terrain that reveals more walkways and ancient churches or cantinas hewn into the stone.

We arrived in high, rural, central Basilicata, an area known as the communita` montagna, to find that the owners here really did mean it when they said ‘no problem’. Our apartment really was ready and waiting (just for us!), and we’ve been plied with homemade ravioli, sweets, and freshly-made ricotta cheese from their farm. They are so very sweet, and we have come to adore them and their beautiful farm with stunning views. We met the mayor of their village who gifted us with two lovely books about the town, and we have been breaking up our time in my ancestral village by exploring other hamlets in the area. There are some real gems around here, and I’ll be sharing them with you in the future…when I can find a normal internet connection again.