A story from Natalina

My husband’s mother,  Natalina  (her obligatory name,  as she came into this world on Christmas day,  Natale)   was an exemplary  migghieruh verrnallese*.    She worked most of her life as an expert seamstress,  as well as carrying out all the necessary activities needed to live a dignified life  in a rural economy.  Putting food by, keeping a constant display of clean clothing strung across the terrazza, visiting with living neighbors in town  and  deceased relatives at the cimitero;  hers was a simple but full existence.   I fondly remember her daily phone calls,  asking me timidly if I could use “two” of some prepared vegetable or entree,  offered in order to round out my meager American lunch offerings  for my husband:    her only son.   I was always happy to oblige.   She made the best wild chicory I ever ate—–the kind that has to be gathered by someone rising early enough to beat the goats to the fields—– and I miss it now that she is gone.    Her travels, which were very few, once took her as far away as Rome, where she went for her honeymoon trip by train shortly after the war.    It was the greatest  distance she ever traveled away from her home.   Our swallow-like  habit of flying back and forth over the Atlantic must have seemed wondrous to her.

Of course a lifetime of living in a small town allowed her to absorb a repertoire of stories.    These were always delivered in hushed tones,  at times when we were alone and otherwise unencumbered by those who might have interrupted the telling, or suggested  that facts be modified.   I have since had confirmation from others that the stories are true, although each person has his or her own particular version,  embellished by additions from the grapevine.

She told me about a woman who, many years ago, gave birth to twins.   Obviously in those days, no ultrasound alerted the mother that she would have two new babies instead of one, giving her time to adjust mentally to the situation.   The babies arrived suddenly and were a  surprise to the family, and not entirely a pleasant one in those times of meager living standards.   The new mother just could not bring herself to feel maternal love for one of the twin boys in any way,   or bring herself to care for him.    She nursed and coddled one  twin, bonding with it thoroughly while ignoring the cries of the other.  It was a total refusal to recognize the existence of the second unexpected baby.   While the family went out to their work in the fields, she would stash the poor thing away in a cupboard  so as not to be bothered with it. ( In Natalina’s version this cupboard became a niche, which to me added a semi-religious aspect to the story, and  my mental illustration was icon-like, with a baby huddled in a Gothic arch with a gold background.)   I always wonder what the rest of the family thought while this was happening, or whether they asked themselves why only one twin thrived.   I suspect that some remnant of an idea  from ancient times, the possibility  of exposing an unwanted  infant to the elements,  might still have lurked in her mind.   She would never  be guilty of anything as drastic as infanticide,   but the power of neglect would carry out her wishes indirectly.

One evening, when the whimpers of the infant again reminded the mother that it was still a problem for her, she opened the cupboard to see a horrific sight.  The baby had been discovered  in its dark  recess by the  other occupants, mice.  They had begun to gnaw away at the baby’s nose, and had consumed a significant part of it.   I imagine that this was the day that her family recognized the mother as being infanticidal,  and the baby was immediately removed from her and given to relatives to raise.   I know that both babies grew up and are still living.    Perhaps not surprisingly,  the nurtured twin has remained in Bernalda,  while the neglected one has lived most of his life up in the north of Italy.   I have a special hope that the second  man has been  successful and happy.

I cannot imagine  living with these kinds of profound psychological wounds, especially the kind that are accompanied by physical scars.   The  members of the family in which these events occurred  have all suffered,  more so in a small town where the story is well-known and often repeated.   Another account  from over a century ago tells of a mother who chose a more direct route to ridding herself of her offspring, beheading the baby on the chopping block with an ax.     It bears observing that the clinical definition  of postpartum depression may be relatively new,  but the concept is as old as the hills.

I am sorry that my mother-in-law is no longer around, and I sometimes wonder how many stories she might have given to me if she had had more time.  It is a powerful incentive to remember that a story left untold is a story lost.   Natalina lives on for me in hers.

“Castello di Oriolo”  mixed media on board, 2010

*  dialect:  “Bernaldan wife,”   (Italian:  moglie Bernaldese)

Eat your veggies!

Here is a simple preparation for leafy greens that will stand you in good stead. It has enabled me to go from someone who was exclusively a salad person to someone who is always up for a savory  bowl of greens.  We eat them as a main course with bread, or mixed with beans, with or without grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano,  or mild aged Pecorino.

This is a basic preparation method which works for all kinds of leafy vegetables, from lettuce, to escarole (my new favorite), to turnip greens (rape), to swiss chard, to kale, to spinach.    Of course the first step is to clean the leaves thoroughly.  Whether they come from the market or the garden, this involves inspecting the leaves for bugs, slugs and snails.  Usually a couple of baths in water will do the trick, then I make a quick trip outside to liberate these hangers-on.   They either survive the adventure or end up sacrificed to the chickens, depending on whether or not I feel like playing God today.  If you miss some, don’t worry, they will float to the top of the boiling water and you can pick them out, and nobody will be the wiser!

Bring a big pot of water to a boil, enough to cover about half the volume of leaves, and add a generous handful of sea salt.  Don’t use the iodized kind or you will taste it, and you will regret it.  Stuff all the leaves down into the boiling water, and stand by to shift the mass in the pot while it cooks.  Regardless of the  variety of greens, you will want to leave them until they are thoroughly wilted.    Meanwhile, slice  up some garlic, about a clove for each cupful of cooked greens.

At this point, you want to drain the greens, but reserving at least a cup of their water.  I dip them out and into a bowl with this extra liquid.   Then I throw out the cooking water  and use this same pot to saute the garlic in about two tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil.    Fry the garlic in the oil until it begins to skate around in the pan but don’t let it brown!

There are two ways to go at this point:    Plan A is for greens with sweet red pepper, to be eaten as is.     Plan B is for greens mixed with beans for a hearty one-dish meal.

Plan A:    Get your peperoncino ready.  Now here is a problem:  We use liberal quantities of sweet red pepper powder at our house, but I’m not sure what the American equivalent would be.  It is similar to paprika, but if you can find a sweet red pepper powder that is not just generic  paprika, you will have the nearest thing to what we use.   I suspect maybe a Mexican market might have this?  If you can’t find it then I suppose paprika will have to do.     Now get ready!  At this point you can add your peperoncino,   about two tablespoons.  Be quick!   It will immediately begin to bubble as you stir it in, and you should dump the greens into the pan  immediately.   Bring the whole pot to a good simmering boil.     At this point it is up to individual taste how long you cook it.   I usually leave it on the flame long enough to evaporate most of the liquid.  Eaten hot with a sprinkling of cheese (my husband, a D.O.C. southern Italian,  scoffs  at this practice)   or at room temperature with a slice or two of good bread, that’s it.  Enjoy!

Plan B:   Get yourself a couple of cupfuls of cannellini, great northern, even pinto beans, and make sure they are soft.    Cook them yourself or use canned, either will do.    You want equal amounts of beans and greens.   In a pan, saute about three heaping tablespoons of a mixture of finely diced celery, onion, carrot, and garlic in two or three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.   ( I usually make up a huge batch of this vegetable “soffritto” mixture and freeze it in ice cube trays.  Just stick your nose into the freezer bag at any time thereafter for quick culinary inspiration!)  Dump  the beans with their cooking liquid into this mixture and bring to a simmer.  Add a bay leaf and one or two small, peeled and chopped tomatoes.  Cook the beans about forty minutes or so  and don’t let them stick and burn!    Add liquid to keep it soupy if you need to.      You are now ready to combine the two mixtures and serve.  Add generous grated cheese.   I like to add a few drops of really hot oil to my bowl, and a good crusty toasted bread will complete the meal.  Call it soup or stew, it is pure comfort food!

paintings:   “Another Summer Salad, oil on canvas, 2011

“A Vegetarian Courtship”  oil on canvas  2003

A note about editing…



“Impotence”  oil on canvas, 22 x 17 inches



I am learning the ropes of blogging, and I hope you will forgive me for being unable to resist hitting  the “Publish” button before my final edited version has been finished.   Sometimes the final version of a post shows up  on the site itself (after my tweaking) and is not necessarily the version that you got in the e-mail.    Up to now anyway.    I will try to control the urge to publish before I’m ready to publish!

And thanks!






 untitled, oil on canvas,  6 x 6 inches,  2011

Love is a Panda futon

The southern Italian society is organized, as are most, according to guidelines that are the result of economics.   In most families money is tight, and a newly adult child moving away to live alone in an apartment is unthinkable.  Of course remaining with the folks until age forty can lead to all kinds of unfortunate situations and negative behavioral consequences,  but that is for another post…a long one.

So most families will raise the children to the age of eighteen,  and then keep them around until they marry, with time out for college or military service. In many families the grown children stay even longer, and three or more generations will live together in one apartment.   Imagine getting married with loads of expense and fanfare, and the next day moving back in with Mamma and Papa’.   (I sometimes think that the concept of  “enabling” was born here.)    These spaces are low on square footage, so that means plenty of closeness and familiarity.  It isn’t surprising that much social interaction takes place outside, on the streets of the town.  Its a party every night out on the Corso, you just have to show up and meet your friends.  But what about those private moments,  the focal point of the evening for many a young couple?    Where can they find a bit of privacy?

“Tramonto, Bernalda”  pastel on paper

It is interesting to note that the English word “privacy” is used in Italy,  because there is no synonym in the Italian language!    There is also a verb for the act of taking oneself away from others to obtain privacy, which is “appartare.”   To draw apart, to separate onself from others.   Enter the automobile.   The most important changes of the last century may be attributed to the mobility provided by the automobile, but there is another reason these tiny mobile rooms have changed society around here: they provide a place to be alone…together.   When your house is small enough that it requires siblings to share a room,  and mom,  dad,  and grandma are always there,  there simply is no better place to go!

The slow crawl of couples in their automobiles on their way out of town begins at dusk,  and ends later when they return to pass the evening in restaurants or among friends in sidewalk gatherings.   Condensation on the windows is a universally recognizable sign that a couple is “fidanzati.”   The word is similar to our appropriation of the French “fiance,” but the interpretation is more open-ended,  and it refers only to the current significant other,  and is quite changeable.   Fidanzati come and go,   and they will only be considered serious if they are taken to important meals with  the parents.   One assumes their arrival to dinner is in a car with clear windows.   I often embarrass myself when,  after my vigorous evening walk in town,  the windows immediately fog up as soon as I get into my car.  I wonder if people think ill of me, a married woman with kids,  as I drive by?

At the end of gravel roads in the periphery of any city,  there will be small accumulations of white facial tissues and,  well, other items which have been tossed out of the fogged windows of parked cars.   It would not be an exaggeration to say that every country road has its “Kleenex” area,   and one would be wise to look the other way when hiking or biking.   Alas,  it is a tradition that small paper items never ever make it into a trashbin if they are used in an automobile.   The idea of keeping the countryside clean and attractive has not caught on everywhere yet.

There is a small Fiat called a Panda,   which is still in production today after thirty years,  although it has been souped-up and modernized.    In the days before the invention of the minivan,   it was unique in that it had a back seat which was pure genius,  and obviously designed with the couple in mind!   It was a kind of futon, actually,   a thin mattress hung on two horizontal bars,  which could be unhooked at will.   With the front seats folded forward,   the back seat of the car could effectively become a cramped but accomodating bed.   It was a very popular car both because it was economical and it had this added feature.  My husband and I both had Pandas back when we were courting, as did many of our friends.   It was a bestseller…no doubt due to its excellent mileage.

I can only imagine the comfort indulged in by couples nowadays, with their  fancy French minivans and Fiat Multiplas which are five times as large as the Panda ever was.   Things might change in the future,   but it will take tremendous economic growth before young couples can afford a place to go to be together other than an automobile.    I don’t see that happening anytime soon.   Models may evolve, and the number of doors may change, but as long as there are dark country roads, the phrase to be used here in place  of  “Get a room!” might as well be,  “Take a drive!”

“Behind Every Man”  pencil on paper


We live along the Mediterranean coast, so we consume a healthy Mediterranean diet, of course.   Well yes and no.  Visitors imagine the locals consuming a healthy diet of leafy greens, legumes, crusty bread and fresh fruits ripe and locally-grown.   This is all true, and yet there is another reality as well.

I have never seen people eat so  much meat!   Breakfast is the only meal that excludes it, so bacon and sausage are not acceptable choices for most in the morning.   Breakfast consists either of a coffee and nothing else, or some refined flour and sugar confection, usually industrially-produced.    Might as well eat nothing, I say.     (Yes, I know Italian coffee and pastry bars are the best in the world, but only the most un-thrifty types head there for breakfast every day.)     But then there is lunch, and there is dinner.    Plenty of animal offerings, red meat mostly.   A man will eat fish, but chicken is considered  a demeaning choice, a feminine choice!…for real men.     And cured meats never are far from any respectable table.    You will be offered sliced cold cuts and cheese for the antipasto, meat sauce on pasta, mixed grilled meats, roasted haunches of meat, meat stuffed with more meat and cheese for a main course.      Not surprisingly, Bernalda, which squeaks over the line with twelve thousand inhabitants, is rife with butcher shops:  there are at least fifteen boutique-type shops,  plus numerous supermarkets with their own butchers.

There are three butcher shops in Bernalda specializing—to the exclusion of everything else—in horse meat.    You can pick your cuts and they will cook them for you right there.    My sons are not unusual in their love of horse meat,  which is considered a more robust and nutrient-packed alternative to beef and pork.    Pregnant women and wimpified men, as well as sickly children, are encouraged to partake.    Young men and boys here have the regular pastime of getting together and going out for a huge meal of freshly-prepared carne equina, which they swear is more flavorful than any other meat.    My husband and I will not eat horse meat, but of course any explanation from people who freely partake of chicken,  pig,  and cow slices would be hypocritical.    It just feels wrong.     One visit to Calabria has provided me the stuff of nightmares.    I saw butcher shops with the heads of cows and horses hung up high in doorways so as to stare out at the sidewalk.    Their sad eyes looked out from behind those multi-string fly barriers which adorn every doorway,   a mute rebuke to every carnivore passing by.

Even these familiar animals can offer some daunting cuts for the table.    A very popular dish for festive occasions are the involtini  (wraps)  of organ meats, called niummurriedd.    These can be tiny and charcoal-grilled, or very large and slow-roasted in the oven.     The large wrapped meat roll–“u marro“— that my mother-in-law used to cook was absolutely excellent.    They are made of heart, lung, liver, and more, and wrapped in lengthy pieces of sheep gut.    They require hours of preparation time and are considered a great delicacy when made correctly.     Folks say the best ones are those which aren’t exactly scrupulously free of,  well,   extraneous matter.    Not recommended for the cholesterol-challenged.

“Homeopathic Diet”   oil on canvas, 2006

I have been offered tiny birds,  arranged on a plate with their startled eyes staring up as if to say,  “I was swatted out of the sky for this?”    Snails are popular,  not large ones served with garlic butter sauce, but tiny little gritty ones.   They are called “lumache” in Italian,  but here they are known as “varvaliesc.”    They are a very popular choice during the Spring,  and folks can be seen alongside the roads with plastic bags collecting them on any humid morning.    One unfortunate dining convocation had me refusing the main dish,  a large stewpot full of boiled chicken feet.   You should know that boiling them plumps them up and removes most traces of color,  but not the toenails.    The sounds produced by a table full of folks enjoying boiled chicken feet is similar to the sounds produced by people eating small garden snails in tomato sauce;   musical sucking sounds punctuated by loud staccato slurping.    I cannot deny that to a blind guest it might seem quite appetizing.

I have been served fox, without knowing it at the time.    A fox is close enough to a dog to be,   well,  dog.   Rabbits are popular,  and my first neighbor across the gorge had a large corral of them.    I always knew when the family was having rabbit for dinner,  because the accoustics were such that I could hear the screams the poor animals made.    There are wild hares,  and pheasants,  most of which have been added by the hunting associations for sport.    Often in their dazed confusion, freshly released from a crate into an unknown territory,  they are hit by cars.   My son’s friends have been known to improvise a barbeque if the victim was fresh enough.    Just the day before yesterday a boar ended up in the stew pot after being hit by a distracted driver.    They say that Italians have perfected the art of making do,   and this is prime evidence of the truth of that!    I once gave my husband a T-shirt with a Road Kill menu on it,   very amusing to some,   but not to all.

Years ago I participated in the making of sausage,   just pork mind you,   and I suppose I made enough snide comments during the session that the women never invited me back.    I will admit I am not sorry.   Making sausage is,  after all,  a lot like politics.    Another pork-related dish is sanguinaccio :   If you are served a dense chocolate pudding after the meal,  you might want to ask what it is called before you eat it.    It is just what it seems,  a chocolate pudding,  made however with a large percentage of fresh pig blood.    To my mind, one could leave out this ingredient and have a wonderful dessert.   With it, not so much.

It should also be said that people here are equally disgusted by  things like  peanut butter, fried rattlesnake  (this one never fails to earn me stares of disbelief),  root beer,  bottled salad dressing,  Spam, and Velveeta.  On the other hand, things do change rapidly in our traveling world.  My husband loves Pizza Hut pizza over the original Italian kind, and imported Budweiser beer,  pancakes and nachos  are all the rage here this year!  Do they sell chocolate Cornflakes in the U.S.  yet?  Go figure.

Of course the typical Mediterranean fare is available as well,   but I will leave that for other posts. Enough has not yet been said about the quality and variety of Italian cooking.    There are so many wonderful concoctions of beans, greens,  vegetable stews,   grains and fresh flavorful fruits,  that becoming a vegetarian would be an easy step to take.   We are almost there,  in terms of quantity, but we do like a little added flavor in the form of animal flesh once in a while.    But some will consider us cowards when it comes to adventurous preparation of animal parts. We keep to our safe ground,   or sliced, and above all,  recognizable,  culinary path.

“At Pasture”  oil on board, 2011

A sylvan saga

We have planted scores and scores of trees on our land.  When we bought the place, the first thing we did was to even up the periphery of scrub brush with a bulldozer, leaving a pristine and intimidating plateau of soil.  It was a  blank slate on which to write about my favorite subject.  Trees!

First we built a safe house for our tools, a tufo block potting shed.  It was our first attempt at a dry-stacked structure.  Mortar cannot be used to build without a permit, so dry sand is used to level out the heavy bricks, and there are many of these structures dotting the countryside.  Even after fifty years or more, many are still standing solidly.   Now we could begin the first really big improvement :   delineating the perimeter of the land with Arizona cypress.     We dug the holes taking turns with the hoe, a total of about 900 of these the first year.    As we had no irrigation water during the winter months,  I had to haul water in plastic drums from the nearest public fountain to keep the tiny trees alive as the weather heated up.  They are now, after twenty-five years, enormous and confident.

After these came others.  Orange and tangerine, loquat, plum, peach, cherry, persimmon,  filbert, some new olives to round out their numbers, and deciduous decorative trees as well as pines, eucalyptus and firs.  I lost count somewhere along the way, and even so I am always on the lookout for a place where I can insert a new tree without causing the place to become claustrophobic.  I love trees, and it shows, as the light inside our house fades and is blocked by foliage. Winter is our brightest season.

painting:   “Treeline”  oil on canvas, 2010

My younger son  has always been intrigued with weapons, cutting tools either home-made, bought, or imaginary.   These were used  to lunge and feint,  attacking  leafy foe and liberally carving up chips of bark.   He was impervious to my pleas to have mercy on the trees, and sword-slashes and nicks made by various blades would regularly appear at waist-level on their trunks.  Accumulations of buds and leaves might be seen in less-visible areas of the yard,  small ninja harvests.     The trees around the house have cuts dating from when he was as little as three, and the scars have deepened and become permanent features of the trunks of the living things which continue to bear them with grim and silent tolerance.  The bark swells and gathers itself in a hug around the wounds, and preserves the moment for future contemplation.    Thick and pouting,  abrupt to the touch, they  are the essential statement  of  “little boy,” written in braille.

Our house is now equipped with a wood-burning fireplace for heat.  We gave up using natural gas because it was so expensive, and now the house is rigged with what they call a “camino-caldaia” which pumps fireplace-heated water to all the radiators.  It is a job keeping it stoked, but it works wonderfully.  Our trees are providing a wealth of wood for the pile, as they lose limbs and have to be pruned.  It is my hope that I can replace the wood burned with new growth, and somehow be accountable for the smoke we produce by providing a forest of filtering leaves.

Trees are truly a renewable resource, as long as there is enough water to get them through their formative years.   It is incredible that a tree, when stressed, will shed its leaves not only to transpire less moisture, but to create a carpet to shade its own roots and conserve water.   The leaves provide an enormous surface area that traps humidity and drips it into the roots below.   Their roots will form a solid mat during the summer, and many times I have to hack flower pots free in the  Autumn because roots have discovered them and anchored them to the ground.  The story of our septic tank and roots is a chronicle of war, with many battles won and lost.

Each accidental lawnmower nick  to a root will create a new tree.  They are eternally hopeful.   There can never be too many trees, and the noisy concert  outside my window indicates that the birds agree.

painting:  “New Owner”   pastel on  paper, 2010

Critters, chapter two (speaking of pigs)

Years ago, when the wheat crop was too small to sell, we ended up with a small pile of unsalable  grain in front of our gate.  As night fell we found we had a visitor who was nibbling away at the pile.  I heard the dogs becoming agitated, barking furiously with that steady staccato rhythm which means, “Come and see, this is important!”  I got there just in time to see a black shape, the size of a calf, shambling off into the brush of the fosso.  I wondered how a calf might have found its way to our gate, but stranger things have happened.  The next morning I discovered deep prints in the soft soil of our apricot orchard that showed clearly that the animal had been a boar, and a huge one.  I was so impressed by the size of the prints that I mixed up some plaster and cast a mold of one of the prints, which I still keep as a memento.
These days, what was once a rare occurance has become commonplace.  We have boar!    And by this I don’t intend the usual feral pigs which have reverted from farm stock, but huge, unkempt and tusked porkers that have been in these woods forever.    Recently they have been augmented by the hunting associations which set free young boar during the  Spring into the woodsy areas.  The contadini* are not at all pleased with this development, as they often see their hard work destroyed by these rooting beasts during the night.  One evening I barely avoided hitting one one which galloped across the road in front of my car, slavering and wild-eyed in the moonlight.  It was as tall as the hood of my tallish SUV, and I am thankful we avoided impact as it would not have ended nicely for either of us.
                                    painting:  “Colline, Pomarico”  pastel on paper, 2011
When I go walking with my dogs, I often take pepper spray.  The woods are dense, and signs of the wild  boars’ nighttime activities are everywhere.  They can ruin a field of vegetables in a couple of hours, and will strip an olive tree of bark if it appeals to them to use it as a scratching post.  I once saw a Fiat 600—a smallish, but by no means microscopic automobile—-with a freshly-killed boar strapped onto the roof.  A hoof dangled over each window and its head lolled down over the windshield.  The tires on the car were flattened and it was stranded by the sheer weight of the creature.  Somebody had quite a barbeque that weekend.   I hope they invited lots of  friends.
On another occasion, I was summoned  again by frantic barking, and as I peered out toward the front gate I saw not one but five boar milling around.  My son and I immediately had the idea that feeding them dry dog food might be amusing. Never ones to let common sense interfere with our fun,  I gave him a bucket.  He climbed up onto our big iron gate and perched there, throwing out kibble as a king might have strewn gold coins.  Or was that pearls?  When the bucket was empty, we were faced with the fact that now they wouldn’t  go away!  From that day they would regularly return, of course, looking for more free food, and we could hardly get the car out of the gate for fear that they would come inside.   Luckily it was the golden age of  my  boys’ all-consuming interest in air rifles, so a couple of well-placed stinging shots in their nether parts  solved our self-created problem.  I’m afraid that particular group ended the Autumn season as spicy meatballs because we never saw them again.  I understand that I am  probably to blame  for having introduced them to the “nice” humans.  I can put my imaginary  “Hunter’s Friend” trophy on the mantelpiece next to the lump of coal that I earned from the scrofulous swine ranks for my dirty deed.
Sometimes  friends who hunt will bring us a cut of boar meat.  It is always a moment in culinary perplexity for me because the meat is very gamey and requires specific preparation which involves soaking in brine and such.  I did once manage to create a wonderful stufata di carne* with the meat, but I’m afraid it was a one-time endeavor.   I have to admit that most of it, after occupying a forgotten corner of my freezer for a couple of years,  has gone towards an excellent repast for the dogs.   But even though I’m not the most appreciative consumer of boar meat, I have a healthy respect for all things cinghiale* these days.   I can only hope they maintain enough respect for me to steer clear when I am out and about in the fields.
*contadini : small farmers
*stufata di carne :  meat stew
*cinghiale : wild boar

Another day another pig

Some families choose to work the land and they resist gentrifying themselves by moving to  town.   Over time and generations, these rural families can grow quite large and form veritable small villages, or in contrast,  the attrition rate of family members can be almost total, and the remaining “country” nucleus may dwindle to one or two people.  In the years since I have been here, the preference for city living, once very strong,  has shifted, and more people are moving back to their  farmland plots.  The life of the contadino, once  considered a necessary evil, is now looking better and better.  Although these days it requires a larger investment in money than in time.

A family I know of— and I will justify my sources only by saying that they are in the grapevine and therefore as believable as any—was preparing for the winter by slaughtering a pig.  The process is intense, as you know, and only slightly more traumatic for the pig than for the perpetrators.  This small family consisted of mother father and son, the others having moved back to town. The pig had just been divided into two parts and hung for  further division into butcher-sized cuts, when an urgent phone call arrived.  There had been a death in the family, and in a neighboring town a wake and a funeral requested their presence.  It was very cold, and the parents packed the car and headed off, leaving the son to guard the house and prepare for eventualities of bad weather.

The son was in his early twenties, and a healthy example of what fresh air and abundant food can do for someone, even with relatives averaging under five and a half feet tall.  In other words, he was a large guy, “nu frigoriforuh,”*  as they say here.  It snowed that weekend , a rare occurrence in this valley even in full winter, and the parents were unable to return for two extra days.  Upon their reentry they were immediately mystified by the disappearance of all things pertaining to the slaughter, and  quite pleased that evidently the son had carried out the  necessary conservation and cleanup in their absence.  But they were met with furtive eyes and a baffling lack of smugness in reaction to their praise.

As it turned out, the cold weather had whetted his vigorous appetite.  The son, foreseeing that groceries probably were not to be forthcoming that weekend,  had started in on the pig, sampling various cuts and preparations.  One serving led to another, and over the course of 72 hours the two-hundred pound carcass grew progressively slimmer.  A moral might be that  you can make your own bacon instead of bringing it home, but that won’t necessarily make you any richer.  Not when you are dealing with temptation and a large appetite.  Over the weekend the young man had eaten the entire pig!

painting:  “The Importance of Dinner”  gouache and   pencil on paper, 2004

Time in layers

“Vallata in bianco e nero”  pencil on paper, 2005

We built our house on the edge of a gorge, or fosso, which hasn’t really changed its topology in thousands of years.  How do I know this?  The ground is strewn with bits and pieces of stone and ceramic,  everything from  tools to neolithic pottery to Greek black  and red figure fragments.  Concentrations of shards, roof tiles,  and blackened areas filled with river stones still speak clearly of the habitations which once filled the countryside.   At least until the advent of large tractors, which have reduced many of these sites to vague concentrations  of smaller and smaller fragments, yet they are  still identifiable.   Down in the gorge below, an area where tractors are absent, there are deep trails through the woods which have been used for a thousand years by goatherds with their flocks, as they still are today.

Research has shown that the countryside hereabouts, from north of Pisticci to the sea, was divided up into parcels of a couple of acres per family.  The town of Metapontum, founded in 800 BC, was the central hub for an extensive farming community, and the countryside was even more populated back then than it is now.  The area was known as Magna Graecia and it was the breadbasket for the Greeks five hundred years before Christ. Wheat was the most popular emblem on coins of the time.   They also used the extensive deciduous forests as a source of wood for their ships, and the barren hills still testify to overuse of this resource.

Before the Greeks there were indigenous  populations, and before them there were paleolithic peoples who left stone tools and fragments from their creation.  A friend who is an expert in the area tells me that some of the lithics that I have found are up to twenty thousand years old.   I have  a collection of them, and my favorite is  a large, six-pound round river stone with thumb-sized twin indentations on opposite sides,  used for cracking almonds or hazelnuts.  I love to think that it has been migrating around the surface of the same field for ten thousand years, waiting for the day I stumbled upon it and moved it to its new, only temporary, home on my mantelpiece.  I have a crude, potato-like elongated stone that was some kind of knife, and loads of  chips and tiny sharp bits of stone, probably rejects from the day of their creation,  as someone tried to learn the art of flintknapping around the fire.  Each new plowing refreshes the possible finds, like a new set of numbers at the lottery.  A rain will dissolve the clods of soil and leave smooth flints balanced on small pyramids  like offerings.   It is like a never-ending Easter egg hunt.  Very few people around my area have any interest whatsoever in collecting stones, so I have them to myself and I suffer very little guilt about my prehistoric kleptomania.


We live at the end of a longish gravel road, so coming or going we pass parcels of land belonging to various families; small garden plots, lines of olives, wheat, and oranges.   Often the owner is out working his plot and so we salute each other as we pass.  If for some reason it is a day of errands, we may pass by the same person a number of times in a day, yet never would we dream of failing to repeat the gesture each time.  This ranges from stopping to chat,  a wave, a beep on the car horn, or the characteristic  poker-faced upward nod of the chin.   The gentleman who  pruned our olive trees, who has since passed on, would  station himself regularly  near  the road, observing every passage. We dreaded seeing the palm of his hand which meant, “Stop!  A word with you.”  A “word” being an intricate tale of horticultural intrigue, accusations of obscure doings on the part of  those sharing a boundary, or just a chat about the weather.  We called him the dogana, or customs agent, and we would breath  a sigh of relief on the days when he was absent.  I might even have gone so far as to hunt furiously for something under my seat or fake an urgent cell phone call to avoid having to stop.  I miss him, sometimes.

Another man, older and a little strange in his ways, never failed to confer  his greeting even if involved in activities better observed in privacy.  One morning, glimpsing the top of a bald head above the wheat stubble, I prepared to greet him as I passed.  It was only as I came upon him that I realized that he was answering the urgent call of nature, pants around his ankles in the trampled hay.  Hardly had the realization kicked in and I, in shock, turned my concentrated attention back to the road, then I realized he was cheerfully waving and yelling out an enthusiastic “Buon Giorno!”   As I,  as we,  passed.

A different morning, as I drove past this same man’s plot between the olives, I heard my name.  As I proceeded I saw  in my rear view mirror that someone was gesticulating frantically from the upper branches of the tree, calling me back with the characteristic wide downward arc of his arm.  Lord, I thought, he has accidentally kicked his ladder down and needs help to climb out of the tree.  So I threw the car in reverse and backed quickly to place myself  under the tree to see and hear him better.  He continued to wave his arms at me and yell, until I managed to make out clearly that he was saying, “Sandra!  Hurry, move out from under the tree, the branch I am cutting is about to fall!!”  Thinking to myself, “We live in the same place but in different logical universes,” I agreed and went on my way, thanking him for calling me back to warn me.

At the beginning of our road, years back, a retired carabiniere commander bought a large parcel of land and planted an extensive orange orchard.  His trees were just getting started, robust and dark green with growth, when one night someone went in and systematically cut each one off, leaving  a foot of forlorn trunk.   Someone with which he had interacted in the past apparently had nurtured a grudge.  But rather than succumbing  to discouragement, he  regrafted a better stock onto the trunks and today they are wonderful example of the lemonade one can make with lemons, or oranges.  His greeting is always  unassuming.  We appreciate the fact that he is the only person we have seen  who will repair a pothole on the public tract of road, even though this action might benefit others as well as himself.  Most folks around here would never dream of making a reparation which others might  enjoy vicariously.

A good cristiano  (which means god-fearing person, of any religion)  always greets another that he knows,  even if the number of greetings to the same person in a morning verges on the farcical.  I am not so fond, when navigating my way through a big American city from supermarket to mall to sidewalk, of adapting my behavior to avoid creating  ripples in the flow of everyone’s anonymity.   Eyes downcast and small device in hand, an electronic crutch to lean on when pressed too close together, everyone tries to avoid unnecessary  contact with one’s fellow humans. Here, the greeting is vital.  You know when someone has been seriously offended because they will “togliere il saluto”  which means” take away their greeting.”  When this happens, and it does sometimes, everyone notices the vaccuum created in the comforting, and human,  flow of things.

painting:  “La Strada per Montescaglioso”  pastel on paper, 2001