After staying with Bridget in Tuscany, my next stop was in the province of Viterbo, in the small medieval town of Vetralla, littered with waterfalls and caves. When I arrived, Rita had trouble finding me at the train station, but I’m not sure why, as there are several obvious reasons why I’d be not so difficult to spot.
Rita and Mauro are probably some of the nicest people I know; it’s surprising how at home you can feel while moving into the home of a random middle-aged couple in central Italy.
Their daughter and her friend arrived that night for an excellent welcome dinner. And when I go to bed after the first night, I find these two quotes carved into my room wall:
ogni uomo doverebbe conoscere i propri limiti
(every man should know the proper limits)… but I ask limits for what, set by who, and how?
la vita ti chiede ciò che sei in grado di affrontare
(life asks only what you can bear)
Rita was also a huge fan of Siddartha by Hermann Hesse (of which my attempt to read in Italian was an utter failure), while Mauro likes Per Una Vita Migliore Ovvero il Libro della Autosufficienza (the English translation that is used is ‘The Guide to Self-sufficiency’) by John Seymour,
…so from these alone, we had some interesting springboards for conversation — not to mention the vertiginous times where we had entirely too much wine and dipped into slippery squabbles, about the unintended byproducts of cheap labor, or how Italy is becoming the ape of America in some way through adoption of ‘gym culture’.
Their main business is an agritourismo, doubling as a small hotel and a farm, and they hold courses on beekeeping for children.
Spring was not yet arrived, so the work was very preparatory in nature: clearing the garden, hauling manure, which is mainly why they keep the donkeys — which we mostly put in the asparagus garden, which is more fun than you might think. Before hauling, you have to make sure it’s not too damp or else it’s too heavy, but you also don’t want it to dry out — so it’s a delicate balance. But you collect it in one place and let it rot down for about 1-2 months, to let all the bacteria and germs do their thing. Hauling manure downhill is not easy, and as the maggots and beetle larvae multiply, the load can get quite heavy and intimate. (I’ve learned quite a lot about manure at this point, but I’ll save it for my time in Cherni Kamuk, Bulgaria) I bet the donkeys don’t know or care what we do with their manure. While I slave to haul their dung, they lazily graze by the wayside, and the dog chases them occasionally, playing, ducking.
There is also fencing to keep the donkeys out of the asparagus garden, not because they eat the asparagus, but because they trample over them. Generally, they eat grasses (but trees and bushes, if they are desperate) they can see or reach, and whenever we come near them, they expect us to have a handful of grass or hazelnuts. They wait for about 2 minutes, then if they get nothing, walk away. In the summer, during the day, they stay in nearby caves for shade, and feed at night, as Italian summers can be very hot and dry.
The donkeys were actually one of my favorite parts; watching them graze is quite peaceful. I think they already know how to live in the present without being taught. But I doubt such a thing can be taught, but only realized — in the same way that poets don’t live their experiences, but are merely swept up by them, buoyed up onto the crashing waves of surrealism. I try not to transform or meddle with the experience, but surrender myself to it.
We dig up the weeds — ‘waste not, want not’, we feed them to the donkeys instead of discarding them — which are unwanted plants in the garden, but it wasn’t for vegetables or herbs, but so we could plant specific flowers that Mauro wanted for the bees, of which one of my favorites was rosemary.
As soon as I get my hands in the dirt, I feel so much life. Spiders, worms, millipedes, ants, bees, aphids, everything else, there is so much life all around us, that we never see. As soon as we are truly aware of life, the reaper smirks with eyes twinkling: dying leaves signal autumn; clothes were plants once, as was paper. Every time we eat, a life is being extinguished so another life can continue. Aren’t plants alive, too, vegetarians? Life lives on life. We are all murderers or conspirators with murderers — either way, we roam at large.
Worker bees can only sting once, and die shortly afterwards. The male honeybee dies as soon as he mates with the queen: his mission is finished! I mean, aren’t insects are the most varied and probably most important species on earth? So many things that crawl have been doused with bad press: spiders, cockroaches, flies, and other “pests”. Many agricultural pests are just nature’s way of dealing with overgrown monocultures. Insects should be allowed to write opinion pieces in our papers if we truly had “freedom of the press” — But then again, their views are written all over the earth, only in a language that we neither understand nor respect.
There are many types of honey in Italy listed here (le miele da castagne is chestnut honey, spicy and pungent) being the most expensive, and the type of honey is whatever flower the bees are pollinating. Most honey in American stores is clover honey or miele millefiori (multi-flower honey), the latter meaning that the keepers don’t care which flowers the bees are visiting. Funnily enough, what the flower smells like is totally unrelated, and sometimes completely opposite, to what the honey tastes like. Mauro likes to tell of this one flower that everyone was raving about, but when they tasted the honey the bees made from it, it was awful.
Also, the worker bees generally make more honey than they themselves need, and we just take the surplus. The other part of the work, which was really time-consuming but worth it, was shelling hazelnuts to make butter, which is the base ingredient for gnutella (but I doubt gnutella in the store uses real hazelnuts). We made massive amounts of delicious butter, and the oil naturally rises to the top, so you know it’s the real thing.
As a parting gift, they gave me a jar of honey and butter, which I am (unsuccessfully) trying to send home, along with the oil I got from my very first farm in Monteleone Sabino.
They also use their honey, instead of cane sugar, to make jams, which is healthier and tastier. Sugar is added more for preservation than sweetening, because without added sugar, most marmalades won’t last past a few days, as the fruit ferments quickly. And most fruits are cooked and then sugar is added, and both of these processes harm the intrinsic vitamins — so the less sugar you can add, the better.
Luckily, these hazelnut trees were on the land when he purchased it, so all he has to do is pick them. The “first come, first serve” harvest is in September, and you have to wait for the nuts to drop from the tree and race to get them, before the squirrels do — and squirrels wake up at 4-5am.
Rita and Mauro have agreed to speak only in Italian with me from now on, which is great, because I feel like there is no true cultural exchange without making an attempt to learn the language. Which is why I despise common tourism, because it makes no attempt to actually talk to a person, or suggest that you might have a conversation with a local beyond how to greet and ask for things, but merely insists on teaching you “standard phrases” so you can “get around” and get exactly what information that you need. Yes, the locals may be pleased that you can say basic things, but you cannot actually engage any further with a person unless they speak a little of your language. And since the whole ‘civilized world’ is on the fast track to English fluency… motivation is not widespread among Americans to learn another language.
I like to help my hosts improve their English; obviously they express themselves much better in Italian. I see them suffer and grasp for words in English, and I picture myself doing the same thing in Italian, and the epiphany comes: either they stumble and fall, sometimes succeeding, while trying to speak my native language, or I do the same while trying to speak theirs (invalid in cases where one person is fluent in both languages). The least I can do is meet them halfway, and we can split the embarrassment evenly.
What’s most disturbing about this is how we judge intelligence by articulation and pronunciation: if someone doesn’t enunciate correctly or spell words right, we count them uneducated and look askance at them in amusement or pity — and conversely, if someone articulates very well, they are assumed smarter. (Because if you sound smart, you are halfway there. Appearances appear to be more important, so they are.) And sometimes, however wrong and absurd, this is the first thought I have if this person stumbles over basic things in my language, as the ancient Greeks thought that every foreigner was somehow subhuman. The Greek barbaros, from which barbarian was derived, literally means ‘foreign’, which essentially means anyone with different speech and customs. Although now, we take the word to mean primitive and uncivilized, which are very loaded concepts — that ultimately are relative, and objectively, mean nothing, in and of themselves. — And Montaigne’s references are pointed (Book I, Ch. IX, “Of Liars”)–
An ancient father says “that a dog we know is better company than a man whose language we do not understand.”
“Ut externus alieno pene non sit hominis vice.”
[“As a foreigner cannot be said to supply us the place of a man.”
—Pliny, Nat. Hist. vii. I]
No matter where we go in the world, if we speak the language, we are automatically more human to the local people than someone who doesn’t.
I think language is the first way people identify with others, “OK, this person is one of us.” — or for immigrants who speak the language — “This person is trying to be like me, like us. Let me help them assimilate.” — and perhaps all other ways (race, class, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality) we have used to limit and divide ourselves are only as influential as the words that buttress them. — Word choice, and the subtler use(s) of silence, is the most important choice, the bane of our existence, but Solomon was more poetic, for,
“death and life are in the power of the tongue, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” Proverbs 18:21
…and how do we know if there is any truth in the words we choose, or even how and why we choose them?
“Words lie in our way! — Wherever primitive mankind set up a word, they believed they had made a discovery. How different the truth is! — they had touched on a problem, and by supposing they had solved it they had created a hindrance to its solution. — Now with every piece of knowledge, one has to stumble over dead, petrified words, and one will sooner break a leg than a word.” The Dawn, Nietzsche, s. 47
or from the spacey and ethereal view, a wee Wilde, from The Portrait of Dorian Gray,
“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”
Language is the original philosophical problem, to which all others succumb, but which all happy religions must overcome.
Wine consumption here is so indulgent (I hear, there are some 350 varieties of grapes in Italy): we have at least a bottle or two with every meal, because, — well, why not? Mauro claims it’s because he’s from Trentino (a northern region of Italy) where they drink in much larger quantities, and Rita is from Umbria — Every time, Mauro takes a 5-10 minute break from working to roll some tobacco, he occasionally drinks a glass of wine also — it seems to prepare his palate for the ensuing never-ending Italian meal? 🙂
And we have the typical vino, formaggio, salumi con il pranzo e qualche volta la cena se non siamo troppo pieno
And we actually get some massive (decent) boxed wine for 10 euros that’s fairly excellent, beside which is some home-brewed hazelnut liqeur.
And we even listened to opera or (squabbling about Italian politics), and Mauro mentioned once when it was in German instead of Italian. So picture listening to opera while gorging yourself on wine, cheese and oil, then entering a half-serious debate on whether opera should really be sung in languages other than Italian, then realizing you are drunk and need to take a nap… but there is donkey manure to be shoveled later that day!
Olive oil and wine are considered ‘high-brow’ things in the US, which just shows there really is no true culture for either in the states. (Mauro is an official olive oil taster, so we had had some excessively detailed conversations about oil.) In the US, to be a wine connoisseur is deemed a plea for sophistication. If you care excessively about olive oil, you are so rare and so faux-European, that you can probably can afford to care. It’s funny to me how America looks up to Europe (esp. France and Italy) in terms of food and wine. Even so, at all the ‘serious’ culinary schools in America, French cuisine has yet to be dethroned from her lofty, contemptuous stance. And because of the way the US looks up to these countries, in our quest to produce olive oil and wine, we are merely trying to imitate the best oils in Italy and the best of French and Italian wines — just as many artists and writers can be obsequious disciples of their greatest influences. What a pity that so many seek mastery by imitating previous masters, when true mastery lies in the honest and unbridled attempt at originality. ‘But’, we think to ourselves, ‘tis better to be a copy of a renowned original, than to be an original.’ — And the whole world approves by honoring our pursuit only of what posterity has deemed great. Because others are more likely to recognize and praise the copy of a famous iconoclast, than someone who is unique on their own terms, in spite of the dominant prejudices of their time. It is not so difficult to be original, as to avoid imitating past originals. An acute historical sense is both rare and costly: if you are too filled up with your education and what you have been taught to know and cherish, then how can you give to your contemporaries what is really you? A refined and cautious ignorance has its uses. ‘Tis better to peek, sigh, and glance at what is commonly revered in history — and not try to surpass them, but merely seek to be different — but beware that the world only respects certain flavors of ambition.
Is a path that can be followed worth following? Can we only go farthest when we don’t know where we are going? The competitive urge often defeats its very purpose: we want to conquer this one game in this one field, and forget that there are a thousand fields, each with a thousand games, right over there. We want to be better by setting other’s achievements as our goal, surpassing them, and then looking around at the world and saying, “Hey, look at me! I beat them!”, while it has always been more admirable to simply differ — to stop comparing oneself to past, present, or future greats. How can I have peace until I stop comparing myself to others? Money, status, prestige is only one type of rat race — there are a million others (re: the so-called ‘hipster’ culture) in which people are doing nothing but comparing themselves [to death] with others on the same path. Every ladder of comparison has infinite rungs, each of an infinite length…
And some rainbows have pots of dung at the end, not gold, and maggots churning, no leprechauns.
After morning work, we stop for a 1 hour lunch at 12 or 1, and afterwards take a 1 hour riposo (literally: repose) in the Italian style (Spain is apparently well-known for its afternoon siestas, where the shops close and everyone naps — or does whatever they want except work — after lunch). There are whole towns that essentially “go to sleep” in the afternoon here, especially in the summer.
Isn’t it obvious you definitely shouldn’t go back to work right after eating? — for digestive reasons, and also because meals should never be rushed for stress purposes (it’s not like we have to guard our food from predators or vultures) — but that is what most do in America. Whether you are on the clock or on salary, to take “too long” of a lunch break consistently may get you fired — you may be seen as lazy and unproductive, abusing the system, etc. I’m not saying that Americans should have a 5-course meal like Italians and the French, but just that we enjoy our food, slowly, succulently, whenever we eat. Gratitude never rushes: some African proverb says, “A man in a hurry is already dead”. I joke here that if I had wine with lunch every day in the US, eyebrows would be raised, suspicions of borderline alcoholism would be in the air. And even so, my American brain is having trouble adjusting… wait? you mean we just nap in the middle of the day, every day, no matter what? Even if we didn’t work that hard in the morning, we still deserve a bottle of wine for lunch, then an hour’s rest? And don’t confuse siesta with a “power nap”, those hideous progenies of time management. Why can’t a siesta be an end in itself? Why must a rest be a means for more work? I think vacations and retreats have that function: if some people didn’t need to rejuvenate to go back to work, they wouldn’t even go on vacations, because they only see time off as a means to perform better at work. Leisure should be an end in itself; I think we, especially Americans, work entirely too hard — I once confused someone by saying, “my most idle moments have also been my happiest” — and forgot to add that ennui is the mother of art,
Quiet fruitfulness. The born aristocrats of the spirit are not overeager; their creations blossom and fall from the trees on a quiet autumn evening, being neither rashly desired, not hastened on, nor supplanted by new things. The wish to create incessantly is vulgar, betraying jealousy, envy, and ambition. If one is something, one does not actually need to do anything–and nevertheless does a great deal. There is a type higher than the “productive” man. Human All-Too-Human I, Nietzsche, s. 210
They let me borrow a bike, to roam through the meandering Viterbese countryside
We say bon appetito: they share a kiss before every meal, and Rita always sits on the right of Mauro… so it’s essential that I don’t accidentally sit on his right, or else he’ll go in to kiss me, simply out of habit. [I should have tested this theory]
Mauro left home when he was 18, he told his parents he wanted to travel alone, without them, and they were vaguely offended and horrified: but one night, he planned a trip to travel with his parents, but later that night packed his bags, snuck out alone, left for the south of italy, and his parents called the police, and they said something like “Well, he is 18, there is nothing we can do, he is his own man now”… So he came back after spending the whole summer hitchhiking in Italy, penniless — and being a young traveler, strangers invited him back to their homes and was curious to know who he was and his story. (You can’t make this stuff up)
Mauro hates cell phones, hates being connected all the time, and is OK with people waiting for him at the landline if he is not available at the moment. He thinks people work too much to buy things they don’t need or things they think they need because everyone else has them (and he counts a cell phone among those superfluous things). Living is only as difficult as we make it and we probably don’t need to work as hard as we do. — And the concept of merit in the work we do is vastly overrated: to deny the role of chance is hubris; pride and gratitude divorced when Lucifer fell. One could almost say that people can be less grateful for things they feel they deserve, in the case of relationships and friendships especially — because they feel they are entitled to them. The concept of debt has always ran rampant in friendship and love, for,
If our friends do us a favor, we think that because they are called friends they owe it to us, and it never occurs to us that they do not owe us their friendship. – Vauvenargues
.. and what is this “You are entitled to your opinion”? This actually gives others license to defend their opinions with little to no argument, for few defend what they feel they are entitled to — why should they?
We work hard and so think we deserve only good outcomes, so because we expect to be duly compensated, we forget that chance is often a more powerful force than merit… so are we more likely to be grateful if we give credit to chance instead of merit? Is believing “I deserve this” incompatible with humility? The earth is indifferent to my wishes, as it is towards those of the human race — so, why should the human race be any less indifferent towards me, and the things I deem worthy in this life?
But anyway, they read ‘Il Fatto Quotidiano’ (the everyday facts), one of the few independent newspapers in Italy, that is not supported by public funds, which of course means that it can say whatever it wants, while the other newspapers are beholden to the opinions of public officials, the shareholders of this thing we call ‘the world’ — or are ‘we, the people’ the shareholders? Not quite sure how this whole capitalism thing is supposed to work.
Funnily, another part of the cultural exchange is watching American romantic comedies dubbed in Italian — foreign films and tv shows are always dubbed in Italy — with English subtitles (if the film happens to have them).
I would never have watched “P.S. I Love You” or “A Cry of the Heart (or whatever it was called)” in the US. The reach of American pop culture is, unfortunately, very far. But I learned vast amounts of vocabulary like un stronzo, “a piece of shit”, and “ti voglio bene”, which is how to say “I love you” to family or relatives, as “te amo” is usually reserved for romantic situations only.
Lastly, Rita made some awesome food, which I would be remiss to talk about.
We had two types of very tasty octopus, with fennel, oregano, and red pepper.
Slow-roasted artichokes with potatoes, rosemary, olive oil and parsley, and cauliflower baked with gorgonzola (or pecorino, I forget?)
Rita’s brother came down from Umbria (we talked and listened to blues and soul for a bit), bringing some prosecco.
They trade some of their honey for good homemade sausage; also, we get a nice cut of pork to butcher up ourselves.
And last, but not least, Mauro understood and appreciated my addiction to olive oil, so I could indulge myself freely :-O