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Italy 5 – Salty Sea and Peanuts

June 14, 2009 by Kimberli, under espresso, father, Italy, Osmizza, photo, Slovenia, Uncategorized, Wine.

…continued from Italy 4.  The Old Man of Ternova

Part 5 – Italy italy-1340

The light filters in through the fly-proof-velvet front door as the old man from Ternova sets a heavy silver pot on the stove top and lights the flame.  It percolates as we are directed to sit at the lace-covered kitchen table.  He shows us the room, one of two, one piece at a time.  This is our new stove, this is our refrigerator.  He draws our attention to a beautiful antique hutch containing the small espresso cups and saucers he will offer up for our coffee.  Passed down through his family, he says.  He hands me a small spoon and bowl of sugar.  The coffee is strong and works to counteract the glass after glass of red wine.  It’s a high percentage of Terrano grape mixed with whatever else he grows on his small farm.  Black or white wine here.  Not red wine or white wine, as we would say.  Not a specific vintage, just black or white.  Whatever grows on your land.  That’s what you can sell during your ten days.   It’s some of the best wine I’ve ever tasted.  My mouth puckers as the tang bites at the back corners and makes my molars twinge.  Again, the red clay has served its true purpose.

I think of how my father told me, in his final year, that he wished he had gone to war with his three older brothers.  He says this as we try to figure out where he will live and how my siblings and I will pay for his care.  My father, who was twelve years older then the man of Ternova, could have been the soldier who needed his own shoes and denied them to a child.  He could have been the GI who taught the boy to say, “cunt.”  Instead, he was forced to stay behind on the Washington state dairy farm and manage things for his newly widowed mother who was short three sons.  I imagine my father milking cows and making cheese that this man, as a boy, was dying to have.  My uncles sending the kid to town for prostitutes, not knowing if they would make it home to wives or perhaps not caring after what they had done and seen.  When my father says he wished he could have been there what he means is that he wishes he could have the health care in his old age and not burden his children.  My father was not a man of many words.  He seldom talked.  Period.  Perhaps his brothers were the same.  Did they ever really tell him about the war as this man was telling me?  Or did they protect their younger brother from the realities of WWII?  Was it left behind or lived out in silence the rest of their days?  My uncles were welcomed home as heroes, but I wonder if they were ever heard as men.  What they must have seen.  The stories they must have held close. The boys from Ternova they must have met.

My camera clicks away as we enter the back of the house, the cellar, where the smoked ham legs and long, thickitaly-1339 sausages are hung. The smell is overpowering, but the light is perfect. The youngest son of this man is my age.  His wife-beater undershirt and cigarette give him the look of my cousin Steve who, in the ’70s, rode with a motorcycle gang.  This son, however, winks at me as he tries to speak Slovenian with an English accent.  He wants me to take pictures of him and his dog.  It’s a big deal, these photos of his dog.  It occurs to me that these 10 days of life each year are their experience of the world.  They don’t own a camera.  I ask them if I can email photos back from America.  They don’t have a computer, or a phone.  I tell them I’ll send them prints.  They gather around the makeshift bar, everyone in the yard – cousins, girlfriend, dog and discuss what their address might be.  The postman has finished his lunch and wine and vanished.  They finally bring out a slip of paper with all the information written in the wrong order.  Elisabetta corrects it for me when we return home.  I ask why they don’t know their own address.  “Didn’t they have to give it to the water company or someone?”  “Yes, probably originally.”  Then I remember, the old man from Ternova saying, “This farm has been in our family for 300 years.”  It’s been a very long time since they hooked up the water.


Salty Sea and Peanuts

Groups of children are equally noisy wherever I’ve been.  They likely all say the same types of things in any language, “Ah, he has a booger!  Look at his booger!  You farted!”  The children of this bus must be on a field trip, I think.  Perhaps to a prison, as they look like aspiring convicts.  Rough little Italians, even at the tender age of five and six.  I’ve finally figured out how to buy a bus ticket, boarded my first bus, unraveled the mystery of validating the ticket and then this!  Baby felons.  I’m off for a cultural excursion to Miramare Castle.  Something about Maximilien, Emperor of Mexico, and a summer home.  I’m sure it’s all very interesting and would make for beautiful photographs, but what I’m really about today are the beaches I saw when I passed the castle on the way in from the airport.  It’s hot. I need cool water and silence.  I want salty water and peanuts.  Maybe I’ll make it to the castle for some culture later, I think.

As the bus lurches away from the station the prospective criminals begin their assault.  They are pushing and teasing as their schoolmarm-ish teacher-guards watch with practiced resignation.  If they riot, will the marms react? I’m sitting in my little seat minding my own beeswax, my face resting on my hand so I can plug at least one ear, trying to block out the chaos.  I think of my happy-place on the beach.  I’m like this around groups of small children.  I don’t have the “off” switch that most parents have for babble.  I hear everything.  Everything.  All the time, everything.  Children one at a time work best for me.  Preferably with a muzzle, in case of an emergency.  Then only if they are related to me.  Then only on Tuesdays.  I can say that because I’m in Italy.  Many things happen only on Tuesday.  Or Wednesdays after 1pm or every other Friday.  That’s just how it is.  Try to buy fish here, for example.  Only Thursdays mornings on the north facing side of the street.

So we’re on the bus and these miniature jailbirds are caw-cawing away and gyrating like actors in an Indian musical.  I’m plugging my ears and thinking, “happy place, happy place,” when I see the one in front of me pointing to someone or something in back of me.  He has huge brown Italian puppy dog eyes that would be lovely in a soundless photo.  I’m imagining him in print when I see his terror on his face.  “Ragno, ragno,” he yells and points.  I catch myself before I turn to look behind me at what must be no less then Freddy Kruger himself when I realize that he is looking directly at me.  Ragno, I’ve heard this word from Elisabetta’s grandson.  Ragno, sounded like Arachno to me.  Arachno, Arachnophobia… SPIDER!” the translations runs through my head.  Spider in my hair.  I fly off my beeswaxed seat and shake my head.  The ragno falls to the floor and the children scurry out the door as their stop arrives.  I swear I see their black and white striped shirts disappear through the gates.  I turn to the people behind me who I’m sure say something like, “You go girl,” though it’s in Italian.  The bus is silent the rest of the way to the castle.

italy-2007I see the castle over the hill and through the woods, and turn and walk the other direction.  The water is, indeed, clear and cold and salty.  I take out my peanuts, as well as my borrowed red towel, and look for a place to sit here on this “free beach,” i.e., a concrete pier.  It’s right next to the “pay beach,” which is the concrete pier a few feet away, but costs ten Euro and includes a lounge chair.  As I’m reaching for my book and getting myself situated a chorus of voices says, “Ciao, Luca!” I look up to see the wide-mouth smile of Luca.  This young man with Down’s Syndrome soaks in the welcome and then jumps straight off the pier into the water.  His mother, lines running deep in her sun baked face, pushes back her flowered headscarf and slides out her clothes down to her thong bikini bottom.  She is received as warmly as Luca.  It’s obvious that this group of fifteen or so people know one another well.  A petite woman with curly blond/brown hair and a killer body looks up at me as I adjust my sunhat and apply more sun block.  She asks in Italian if I want her to move her blue jeans and bag.

Thus begins another friendship here in Italy.  MariaPia is somewhere closer to my age then the young newlywed couple and gregarious Sara-of-the-red-dress that I met the first night of my stay here in Italy.  Though they also play an important part.  She is old enough to have her PhD in mathematics, but young enough to still be doing her post-doc work instead of a full-time position.  She is old enough to have lived abroad for a number of years, but young enough to want to again.  And me?  Am I older or younger then that, I wonder. MariaPia speaks English and shares my peanuts – good enough reasons to be friends.  We make a plan to meet again – perhaps Croatia?

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Italy 4 – The Old Man of Ternova

June 7, 2009 by Kimberli, under father, Italy, love, Osmizza, photo, Slovenia, Uncategorized, Wine.

Part 4 – Italy

I stare intensely into the side of his face as he speaks to Italian to Elisabetta. She translates, but I’m not hearing what either are saying, his words float around my head like clouds of cotton.  I’m almost dizzy.  I want to reach out and touch him like I did my father, that last morning nine months ago – and I do.  The palm of my hand reaches across and settles on his cheek.  His brilliant blue eyes, as clear as my father’s were, turn to me.  I can feel the stubble of his morning shave and see the patches of white whiskers on the creped skin of his neck.  His wife of fifty years must have recommended he swipe his nose with the blade for this special week as well.  Dark, empty pockets hold fast on the fleshy mound.  When my father could no longer reach up to pull the skin of his neck taunt to one side, he too would cultivate plots of whiskers like winter wheat.  Long, thick hairs grew from the cartilage of his ears and ridge of his brow.  I imagine his mind, as it wandered at the end, picturing tiny combines mowing down these crops and bailing them into little rectangles to be stacked for the fall feed.  Not the rounded bails farmers roll out today.  Like this sweet man, my father had a better memory for the far faraway past.

Someone recently sent me an email.  If you get a second chance, grab hold of it with both hands.  So for the two and a half hours I spent drinking wine, eating homemade prosciutto, fresh bread and taking photos, I held tight to my second chance.  In some way this old Italian-Slovenian man became my father – a little visit, if only in my mind.

Here in Northeast Italy there is a very special exception to the normal food and alcohol laws.  Families can, for ten days or so, italy-1262hang a tree branch outside of their family winery or farms, and sell whatever they themselves produce. These once a year outdoor “restaurants” appear and disappear as quickly as you can find them.  They are called Osmizza, in Italian, or Osmica, in Slovenian.  I call them absolute heaven.  A peak inside the gates of country life in Italy.  I want to follow every branch and sign down every country road into every little farmyard.  But today, we found this Mr. Alberto Skerk on the side of the road and followed him home to his family in Ternova Picoola.

I studied his face and listened to the singsong rhythm of his stories.  There in his old blue pants and stripped suspenders, his face was a dried lake bed.  I could nearly see where the water had traveled then disappeared.  How the childhood he described were the cracks and crevasses.  How drawn and gaunt must have been the face of the ten-year-old boy, once supple and plump.  I imagine the elasticity of hope that gave way to texture of hunger as WWII took away his father, uncle and food.  “We had nothing to eat,” he said. “My mother left us four children with our grandmother as she walked the countryside looking for flour.”  I imagine what cold comfort the grandmother may have tried to give them.  Here where the limestone rivers run deep into the earth with only a thin film of dirt at the surface.  No gardens of rounded eggplant leaves.  No lines of cherry trees crisscrossing the land then.  Rock and water.  “The Germans took my uncle to a concentration camp.  He came home a skeleton.  They rounded people up off the street, no reason.  Just there, in the street,” his large, callused hand point beyond the wooden gate to the cobblestone, “bodies all over.”  His shoulders fall forward and his face is dark.  “Germans,” he curses under his breath.  The war is tactile here.


We sit quietly for a while.  We pour more red wine into small glasses.   He tells about the first troops to come after that.  3000 New Zealand men in this small village, spilling out over the hillsides.  They set up their kitchen, “There…” he points out the same place he did before.   Sometimes they had extra food and fed the children.  Eggs, bread.  “We had no clothes, nothing.”  After that the Americans came.  “We asked them for shoes. But, no.” He waves his hands in a sweeping motion and the dog scurries from under the picnic table.  “Get outta here!” he yells, remembering their words.  Did I really just hear that?  I’m dumbstruck.  This 74-year-old man who wears his years like he’s 90, just opened his mouth and shouted in the perfect nasal-twang of 1940’s American vernacular, “Get outta here!”  Jimmy Stewart couldn’t have said it better.  The vowels ring with a Brooklyn “ou” and the hard “e.”  Then he gets a wily smile and says to no one in particular, “Cunt!”  His face crinkles in on itself and he giggles like the schoolboy he would have been when the American soldiers last spoke the word.  He wants to know what it meansh but from his reaction I can see that has spent the past 64 years with a pretty good idea.  There’s more wine as the postman walks through the gates and has his lunch with the small group of relatives who stand around the makeshift bar.  The Americans didn’t give them shoes, he recalls to us, but they did give them a way to make money.  The GIs would pay him and his young cousin to go down to the town, Trieste, 15 kilometers, about 9 miles, and bring back the prostitutes.  There was no shame, everyone needed a way to make money.

A tiger-striped cat runs though the open farmhouse door.  1898 is carved into the limestone frame.  My family has been here for 300 years, he says to us.  The old man walks to the entryway and pushes back the coconut husk ropes that feel like velvet and keep the flies out.  The cat has come for lunch, he explains.  He motions for us to come with him.  I grab the camera and adjust the setting for the lowest light I can.  Some opportunities don’t come around twice…..

To be continued….


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