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, hang 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….