Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rock Science

It seemed like such a simple proposition - replace two sets of rotting, broken-down French doors and a small kitchen window.  In my New World mind I envisioned them simply removing the old and installing the new.  I had met with the falegname, or woodworker, while I was in Lucanella in January, who gave me work quotes and material options.  We chose the color we wanted and gave the go-ahead to have the doors and shutters fabricated. 

The muratore (stone mason) was brought into the mix because it turns out that removing old doors also means adjusting old walls.  The three-feet thick openings are constructed of ancient stones, and peeling off the wood jams and frames revealed rubble and rotted lintels that would need to be redone.  Fortunately for us, our friend Tonino, a building contractor, knew the right person to call. 

Maestro Vito and his son showed up with the tools of their trade and shy smiles.  They broke into the stone and pulled out bits and pieces of "filler" that had, at some point in the ensuing centuries, been stuffed into the walls, creating a lot of rubble on my floor.  My first impression was, "What have you done to my house?!" but their constant calls of "calma, tranquilla" - and the fact that they were ever-so-patiently fitting stones just so into the cavities- calmed my nerves.  They pulled out an enormous, blackened, rotting lintel.  When I commented, "Gee, that thing looks like it's 200 years old," Maestro Vito responded, "I'd add another hundred to that number."  So, you're saying you yanked out a hunk of building material that is older than my country?  They were very amused by that thought.

They arrived early, worked hard, labored skillfully, and left sweaty.  They respected my desire to leave the great thick depth of wall that led to the door openings distorted and uneven even though they thought me a bit loopy for that.  It's a three-hundred-or-so old casa, I don't want it to be all perfect and even and new-looking.  I won them over on the first day with a snack of mortadella sandwiches and beer.  They won me over with their shy smiles and their amazing clean-up job.  Seriously, men who create a mess and then clean up after themselves?!  They even scrubbed the bathroom sink where they had been drawing water for making mortar! 

Then the falegname returned to take final measurements of the openings and finished the fabrication process.  He and his son came to install them, which, again, would seem simple, but was an operation that would consume twelve hours of their time.  He had a heavy accent and a soft heart, and at the end of the day he changed my front door lock, helped me unload some heavy items from my car, and gave me a little discount  on the price.  He brought a new iron railing to place between my living room doors and shutters, "the old one was all rusted and ugly," he stated matter-of-factly.  And he didn't charge me for it.

I was so impressed with these guys, all of them craftsmen of the old school who pride themselves on their work and their traditions, and who only reluctantly, shyly accept praise and thanks for their efforts.  I have a habitable house...and thanks to their careful labors it feels ever more like home.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Scenes From a Bar

I had barely disentangled myself from the seatbelt when I saw Anna's face in the bar doorway.  She had spotted me and was waiting, a smile spread broad across her face, arms raising to wave.  "Bentornata!"  Welcome back!  She pulled me into a hug while scurrying me into the bar.  In a flash she was behind the counter, her face beaming while she started preparing a cappuccino, and peppered me with questions about my flight and my plans, reaching across the bar to pat my hand every few minutes.

I spend a lot of time here.  This coffee bar, like countless others across Italy, is the main meeting spot and central diffusion point for all gossip in town.  It is in the main piazza, so all comings and goings are clearly seen...and discussed.  Everything starts here; when the stone masons arrived, we met up at the bar and had to have a coffee before proceeding, a preliminary courtesy.  At the end of the day, it is customary to offer them a beer or aperitivo to cap off their hard work. 

Bar owners of Lucanella

Old men always occupy a table inside, whiling away the time with cards and caffe corretti.  Their own conversations stop to listen to my comments, no matter how banal they may be.  At one point, a cappuccino-drinking patron asked me a casual question and a man from the table responded to her with my answer before I could!    

One fine morning a man initiated a conversation and we chatted for about ten minutes about all manner of things, after which another guy entered and bobbed his head in my direction asking his friend if I was a foreigner.  "No, la signora e' una paesana nostra," (she is one of our villagers) he answered, which told me clearly that I was accepted as an official resident.  Since my family heritage lies in a village nearby, I have been accepted as a local despite my far-away accent and my inability to maneuver my car into tight spaces in full view of everyone.

Another day while enjoying a cappuccino and cornetto, a man was passing through the piazza, glanced over and saw me in the bar, and made a bee-line for me.  "Mah!  You're Michele's cousin?  I saw you yesterday with Michele and asked around...I was told you're cousins!  E' vero?  Wow, Michele was the greatest soccer player in the region!  He's a legend.  Benvenuta...welcome.  If you need anything, you come to me.  I'd do anything for a family member of Michele's!"  Hmmm, interesting, since my cousin had never told me of these glorious victories of his. 

Throughout my three weeks, little by little, I met the majority of the townspeople while standing at the bar sipping my coffee.  And little by little, they got to know me and shed their initial wariness or curiosity about me.  After all, I'm just an ordinary villager like them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rest in Peace

I must be getting old.  Jetlag seems to hit me harder with each trip I take.  Four a.m. awakenings are just not something I enjoy, folks!  The three weeks passed so quickly and were so full of activity...and I have so much to tell!  I have been looking through my notes and debating about where to start.  Rather than begin at the beginning - which would seem so logical, no? - I'll start at the end and deliver the sad news.

There has been a a death in the family. Guido is no more. Or at least we think he is all dead and not mostly dead (to borrow the line from The Princess Bride). It happened on the evening before my departure from Basilicata. He died valiently after transporting me safely to Potenza and not leaving me stranded on the roadside. He managed to limp along until we cruised into an Agip station where he gasped his last breath. He suffered a rupture and resulting hemorrage that bled the engine dry of vital fluids, thus overtaxing and burning his elderly ticker.  All in all, it was quite a scary ordeal.

When I left Lucanella everything was normal. Birds were chirping, the sun was shining, all was right with the world.  I meandered my way to the highway...niente problema. Suddenly I heard a thud and thought I'd hit something in the road. Alas, I saw nothing. Strano, methinks, but whatever. Then a few minutes later the engine starts pinging. Hmmm...bad benzina perhaps? I make a mental note to get premium gasoline while I'm in Potenza.  I had planned on getting my oil and tire pressure checked anyway.

Then it gets worse and we start losing power. I notice the engine temperature gauge starting to rise.  Sharply.  There is nowhere to exit. The exits that do exist have nothing of service until you climb uphill to the nested towns. Must get myself to the first Potenza exit, so as not to be stuck with nada. Come on, can do it, I whisper.  We hit the exit, and cruise into the parking lot; Guido stopped.  Despite resuscitation measures, he could not be revived.

It all happened so quickly.  The water tube ruptured, which was the thudding noise. The engine was quickly drained of water, which was the pinging. The engine then burned..."E' bruciato" said the semi-mechanic who was on duty, while watching smoke rippling upward., devo guidare a Roma domani mattina, says me. I have to drive to Rome tomorrow!  "Not in this car, you're not," says he, as he pulls down the shutters and prepares to go home. Umm...but...crap! Wait!

Out comes the telefonino. Tonino? Auito! I pass the phone to the whatever-he-is who explains the situation to my friend. Gives the phone back to me and says arrivederci. "Valerie...e' molto grave. Vengo subito." Which he does, hero that he is, with his 11-year old daughter in tow who wanted to see just what the americana had gotten herself into this time. But while I am waiting I go into the bar and suck down a brewski. I'm not normally much of a beer drinker but I was shaking at the thought of being stranded along the road; of what if the engine had actually caught fire; of what would I have done if it happened the following day while I was driving to Rome.

Tonino arrives. He looks. "E' bruciato. Beh. Niente da fare a quest'ora....can't get a mechanic over here now, it's after 6:30 pm.  Thankfully it didn't happen along the autostrada somewhere between here and Rome, where you would not have had friends to call," he says.  "Allora, let's go grill!"  He and his wife had been planning a barbecue for my send-off.

Back at the ranch -or the agriturismo as the case may be- Tonino and Peppe go into salvatore mode discussing various options of getting me to Roma. Mannaggia, I have to be in the Tribunale in the morning or else I would drive you there myself, says Tonino. That is the last comment directed to me, as they put their heads together and talk amongst themselves as to what should be done. An hour later, they decide that at this point in the game it is best to get a rental car, as I can't possibly get a bus reservation at this late hour and the train would require a connection in Napoli then Roma Termini to get to Fiumicino...too much hassle with luggage and not much cheaper. Peppe knows a guy, will call him in the morning. Fatto. Now let's grill!  At this point, I am allowed back into the conversation.

I ate too much, drank too much (thanks to the never-empty glass they keep pouring), and couldn't sleep well from the excess adrenaline, but they give me a valiant send-off nonetheless.  Rest in peace, dear Guido.  You were brave and trustworthy right to the end.

Bryan and Guido in happier days

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Back in the Nest

Hey y'all, I'm back in the nest.  I have an inbox full of ignored messages, a head full of fog, a camera full of pictures, and a heart full of beautiful experiences.  I'll be posting about some of them soon, once the dreaded jetlag subsides.  I have to say that the flight crews on both the outbound and return flights were awesome.  Really, the best I've seen in years.  Kudos to United!  Now if they would just refund half my fare for losing half of my seat to the enormous man next to me...

Meanwhile, thanks to those who commented about your favorite -or least favorite- Italian words.  The winner of the random drawing is MaryBeth, who has garnered herself a sampling of Pocket Espresso, the liquid version of Pocket Coffee candies.  Congrats!  (Send me an email with your address and I'll get that right to you, MaryBeth.)

A presto!

Basilicata's version of Beltway traffic