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I follow the wide flat stones of the pier back toward Piazza Unita, the center square, in search of espresso. The majestic white courthouse and buildings surround the square on three sides, the sea closing in the final leg. It’s an impressive sight. The streetlights fade out and this town at the Northeastern end of the Italian boot begins to stir. Sunday morning, however, is not one for working. I check my favorite espresso shop but it, along with the others, are all closed. The newspaper vendor is the only open door.
The cloud of jetlag that wafts in and out over the next several days descends on me. There is a vague map of this town in the archives of my mind and I turn down a small walking street and take a shortcut to the apartment where I’m staying. I’m sure that my Italian friend, Laura, is still sound asleep. I reach her building by Braille and sleepwalking.
A man with a very well designed dog reaches for his keys and I follow him through the heavy wooden doors, many with amazing doorknobs I will continue to photograph, and begin ascending the stone steps to the fourth floor. I read the nameplates on each of the two doors as I reach the second floor and wonder how I missed them before.
On the 3rd floor I see a window outside of which laundry hangs and the orange of the upside down shirt flutters, repeating the color of the of the downspout across the courtyard. Funny, I didn’t notice that yesterday, I think. I stop and take a few photos. I hear a top lock click into place as the man and his dog retreat into the apartment below. I wonder why Italians need two locks in a place that feels so safe to me. I arrive on the fourth floor, huffing and puffing, and reach for the keys in my camera bag. I lift them to the lock and jump backwards as a dog begins to bark on the other side. Suddenly it occurs to me that Laura does not have a dog. I’ve followed someone into the wrong apartment building, taken photos of someone else’s laundry and almost tried to enter a random Italian’s apartment. I hurry down that stairs laughing. What would I have said when a sleepy Italian in his underwear, along with his angry dog, confronted me at his door? “I’m that photographer from America who was here before. Do you have espresso”?
I am the reason Italians need double locks!
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
The light filters in through the fly-proof-velvet front door as the old man from Ternova sets a heavy silver pot on the stovetop 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 thick 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 70’s, 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 fieldtrip, 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 ciaos. 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.
I 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 mothers, 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?
Part 2 – Trieste, Italy
This is my sixth trip to Italy and perhaps the fifteenth time to Europe over 24 years. Until the last few years I had rarely stayed in hotels while traveling. Fortunately I’ve always made friends easily. Friends with couches and spare rooms. Staying with friends has allowed me to temporarily “live,” if only for a few weeks or a couple months, in the places I’m visiting. When I was 16, spending a year in Denmark as an exchange student, my host family brought me with them to Italy for a business trip. It was the first time I was drunk in public. Not the last. Not even the first time I was drunk. That was one year before while in California at a family reunion. My liberal aunts and uncles kept secretly bringing the kids table bottles of cheap wine. I have a fantastic tape recording of myself and my cousin, Deanna, the only two actually drinking all that wine, with a guitar. It was long before I knew how to play. In the same way that passing by a bottle of Cold Duck at the grocery store makes me laugh, Italian food does as well. The part I remember most about the first trip to Italy was plate after plate of Italian pasta and glass after glass of Italian wine thrust in front of me. Eat, Eat! My host father’s handsome Italian business partner had the graciousness to ignore the host daughter, cross-eyed after the second glass, and kept pouring. To this day, the smell of pasta with clam sauce brings back memories of a night spent draped over a small Italian toilet. More on Italian toilets later.
This all to say that I love traveling and in particular visiting Italy. So, yes, absolutely, I’ve read the books, Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes and Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. The latter was high on my list of things to do a few months ago in December 2008 while sitting on the beach in Puerto Rico, just beyond the walls of our five star Ritz Carlton Hotel. After years of couch-surf-travel, I was fully appreciating the luxury of stars, especially several. My husband was next to me, his head covered by a towel to block the sun as he emailed away on his crackberry. Odd, I remember thinking. He has been working so hard these past few months – nights, weekends. He’s always stressed now and his fuse so short. Nothing I do seems to help. I think to myself this must be what they call a rough patch. My wonderfully attentive husband had suddenly stopped asking me to marry him again every other week. We had been together 5.5 years and most of it had been a honeymoon. I didn’t know I could be so in love. However, since he returned from a conference in South Africa three months before, his work has become all-consuming.
So it was, Eat, Pray, Love that kept me company that day on the Puerto Rican beach. I had seen the book reviews and heard the buzz. I love travel stories and had been looking forward to settling in with this one. I’m an avid reader but hadn’t picked up a book since my father had died four months earlier, then my husband’s God-father after that. I remember feeling grateful that I could concentrate again and that the sadness had finally lifted. Christmas would be upon us as soon as we returned home and this blue sky and beach was only here for the moment. It was snowing back in Portland, Oregon. As I sipped on my mojito and sank into the story I remember turning to my husband and asking if there was a problem back at work. “No nothing,” he said from under the towel. I tried to tell him about the crazy author who was sobbing on her floor because she needed a divorce. Even as I sat with my father’s body the day he passed I did not feel that kind of sorrow. I certainly cried, but I did not feel the gut wrenching pain this woman obviously did. Nor could I, quite frankly, relate to it. I continued through the book, noting to myself that the author was a bit nuts but I loved experiencing her travel adventure and her laugh-out-loud wit.
One and a half months later, back at our comfortable home, I suddenly understood her. Right there on my own kitchen floor. I couldn’t get up, could stop sobbing, couldn’t breath, couldn’t think. My world was turned inside with one phone call from South Africa.
It’s May ’09, four months later now and I’m here in Italy again – not with my husband as I was two years ago when we traveled to Santorini, Greece and then to Rome to visit Elisabetta. I’ve come here alone, avoiding the finalization of our sudden divorce. I’ve run away just like in the Italian TV news story yesterday. A bride from Trieste ran off with the limo driver right after the wedding pictures. She went to change out of her dress and jumped in the car with the driver instead. I wish I had been the photographer and caught that one. “Keep running,” I might have yelled.
I imagine all this as I gulp down espresso while standing, not sitting, in the café and begin my day.
I took a boat trip across the bay to visit the town of Muggia. With Google Earth you can be there too, although maybe not exactly in the same way I was. You won’t get rained on nor will you hear the gravelly voice of the old man who has likely smoked for seventy years. The small streets in the center are just as you might imagine them however. Narrow walking paths between buildings of raw sienna and ocher. Clothes strung outside the window shutters to dry in the fresh air. It’s 10:30AM by the time I arrive and a few locals sit in the cafes and bars. I wandering in and out of the streets looking for a good shot. I discover windowsills and doorways accented with stray cats and tall plastic bottles full of water. The bottles sit on the thin doorway steps, two or three per house. Water delivery? Water for outdoor plants? When I finally ask the reason I am assured that they are there to scare away the stray cats. Hmmm, not working.
On Packing: Never take my advice. I’m terrible at it. I always forget something, sometimes everything. For example, this time I forgot to bring my pants. Here I am, no long pants, no jacket. In my mind it’s always 80 degrees and sunny in Italy. In reality it’s been 91 and humid or 61 and raining as it was today. At least I brought good shoes, very important in Italy. You won’t believe the 4 inch purple heals I discovered on a woman yesterday. Yes, I photographed them, just for your viewing pleasure. Two weeks ago, when I was debating coming to Italy, I sent an email out to some of my girlfriends. Should I or shouldn’t I? Was I sane enough yet? Did I have enough money? Was it a crazy last minute idea and someone needed to bring me back to reality? My friend, Kim Brecko, replied with this, “What to think about except what shoes to bring?” I bought the ticket immediately.
On Photography: On good shoes, beauty and interesting faces. When you see it walking down the street – shoot it. You’re a hunter. Follow it, stalk it, run, skip or push a kid off of his bicycle to get to it. If it’s great and you need to have it in your little photographer hands – it’s almost always possible. Ask, don’t ask, it depends on the situation. I love shooting food and wine. I love it even more when I have something or someone interesting in the shot as well. For example, you’ll see two photos of the favorite local drink here in Trieste, “Spriz Apenol.” It’s a fabulous concoction of white wine or prosecco, mineral water, aperol or campari. Go ahead, try this one at home, kids. Here’s a demonstration. I’m already friends with the waiter at “Urbanis” sidewalk bar. Here’s how it works, he brings me a beautiful local drink and a wide variety of appetizers. I photography them wide open, meaning whoever is in the background becomes blurred, then consume them. Perfect! Then we start all over again.
Part One – Trieste, Italy
I awoke to the sound of a woman’s orgasm. Really, it was beyond impressive. The scream followed by rhythmic howls echoed around the courtyard and up through my open windows. It’s as if she were saying, “Welcome to Italy. We are so glad you’re here.” I look at the clock, it’s 4:30AM. I’m pulled back under by a jet-lagged slumber. I awake again, this time to the smell of espresso. I stumble into the small kitchen where my friend of 20 years and hostess, Elisabetta, is standing at the sink. “I don’t know if you’ll understand this” I say, “but last night I heard a woman….” She laughs so hard she knocks a bottle of wine from the counter and it shatters all across the kitchen floor. I sit still as she sweeps the shards from around my feet and tells me about the new neighbor. On hot summer nights like last night, when the all the windows of the courtyard open to the cool air outside, she keeps the elderly residence awake for hours. I wonder if they are as envious as I am. The smell of spilt red wine mixes with my espresso as I start thinking of the adventure this trip will be.
I’ve come to Italy to heal, to photograph, to shake of the numbness from my body and find joy in the details again. I’ve somehow missed the past four months of my life. Not that I wasn’t there, surely I must have been. It’s just that I can’t imagine it all changed so quickly. More on that later. Now, I am here, on the Adriatic Sea in the very corner where Italy gives way to Slovenia.
I finally get outside with my camera but I’ve missed the precious morning light. So I began scouting the nooks and crannies of the city. The narrow pathways between old buildings, the zigzag staircases leading up the hills to yellow houses and streets lines with scooters. I look at the sun, where is it now, where would it have to be for the photo I envision? I think of the woman who might walk up the stairs this evening, in her black dress and heals, heading to the cafes that line the sidewalk. I will return to this place several times during the days to come, as I will the other places I’m discovering, to watch the light, the colors and the people who pass. As I am walking by one of my small alleys at exactly the wrong time for good light I see an old man with a bag of groceries walking through the archway, he’s backlit so his body is a shadow. I put the camera to my eye, quickly adjust the settings and shoot three shots before he turns the corner and walks back out of my lens and into his life. I subscribe to the philosophy of carefully thought out shots but when the spontaneous moment occurs – grab your camera and shoot!
When the light is too flat and I am simply too hot I decide it’s time to take a break and head for the water. I’m on the Adriatic coast and from what I saw during the drive along the shore from the airport yesterday, the locals make the most of it. Especially during this May heat wave when we are all soaked with sweat. I’m told that Trieste is known for it’s separate male and female beach. The only one in Italy. Why would I want to go to a all woman’s beach in the land of Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome, I think to myself. Of course, that is exactly where I ended up today. It is also exactly where I needed to be.
Alone in Italy, surrounded by women. I don’t speak their language, they take no notice of me but as I watch them sitting there in twos and threes or alone, talking, laughing, connecting. Mothers, sisters, friends, lovers. I know I’m in the right place and that these women have as much in common with me as the women who have held me up during these past few months. The ones that have cried with me, made me food and brought flowers, as if someone had died. The ones who listened to my same questions over and over, the ones who came to pick me up off the kitchen floor when I couldn’t stop sobbing. No, I don’t try to talk with these women on the beach, all ages, all sizes, sagging, bronzed, scarred, beautiful in their aged and sagging bodies. I don’t have to. I sit quietly surrounded by and feeling part of them even though I am from the other side of the world. Somehow I know, they get me.
I don’t take my camera to this beach for two reasons. 1) water and Canon 5Ds don’t mix 2) my soul sisters are mostly topless and would probably not appreciate their boobs on the internet. I do, however, spend time thinking about how I would shoot. What would be the two most interesting shots? I go through the technical aspects as well as the composition in my mind then relax and enjoy. It won’t happen but it’s worth the exercise to think about it.
I sit on the rocky beach, stones the size of plums, observing the mass of femaleness from behind my sunglasses. I imagine my wonderful Irish grandmother alongside the 85-year-old woman I see walking out of the sea toward me. Her great brown breasts resting on her round Italian belly. I can’t help but compare my body to those all around me. I win the prize for being the whitest of the white. I even surpass the babies that sit with their mothers under umbrellas. Unlike this olive-skinned flow of women, I am a neon sign. The first purchase I made when arriving was a bottle of sunscreen. “To avoid cancer.” I tell Elisabetta. The second was a bottle of self-tanner. “To give you cancer.” She tells me. If I’m imaging my grandmother on this beach then it’s easy enough to bring my birth mother into the image as well. She would win the much contested, but justly deserved prize for the biggest boobs on the beach. I’m not sure of their size but if there’s such a thing a Z cup then she’s a triple. Evidently, I inherited mine from my birth father. It occurs to me that by the time I return to the US she will have been surgically altered to a C cup. Sometimes bigger is not better. I suddenly regret not having photographed them before I came here. I could have taped the photo between the wide-open space on my chest, “Really, I am related to these.” I could have said. In reality, however, no one on my beach cares about florescent skin or genetic misfortune. I lie back on my rocky towel and close my eyes.
When I finally open them there is a little boy, perhaps two, standing in front of me. In one easy movement he pulls down his swimming trunks and displays his wee wily. He proudly looks around at the sea of women and smiles broadly as if to announce, “Have you ever seen such a magnificent sight?”