Category Archives: languages

Era una casa, molto carina

I wake with the children’s rhyme resounding in the voices of innocence, the simplicity of intonation and of the ditty’s sentiment seem so perfectly attuned at this moment to the earthiness of being here.

There’s a dear little house, standing in the corner of two vineyards and an olive grove. It’s not quite without a roof and has a charmingly basic kitchen. We have yet to work out the issue of bodily functions. But it is our sanctuary, standing, small but perfectly formed, solidly at the foot of the Monte Amiata. Incomplete though it is, it already feels like a bolthole. My sliver of sunshine, actual and metaphorical. My still point in the turning world.

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I have escaped there for solitude. Time to think and to be.

The leaves on the fig tree curl in acidic yellow edged with brown, sharp against the gentle grey of the branches. The vines are almost bare, knotted and woody arms edged with gnarled nodes from which shoot russet brown sticks. Here, bleak winter is modulated by memories of the year’s seasons: delicate ever silver green leaves of the olive tree soften the barren season. Late autumn sunshine seeps through the peace of hearing a single fig leaf fall crisply to its counterparts on the ground. These indeed are:

‘Visions flitted Guido

Titian – never told –

Domenichino dropped his pencil –

Paralyzed, with Gold –’*

Paralyzed with Gold. I am in this still point and I am paralyzed by the gold of being here. Paralyzed by endless skies, crisp colbalt blue in the sun and the precision lines these draw in nature. Even with clouds the extraordinary effect of the expanse of sky bestows a light which is inexpressibly arresting. A light which sharpens the landscape into an awe-inspiring intensity. 

I am standing rooted in my still point and the apparently infinite wealth of nature is a panorama before me. 

But the world is turning and turning…. life seems both so inexhaustible and so precariously finite. I am in this still point. 

I can turn from the world’s pain, at this moment so acute and widespread; this is an extraordinary and humbling privilege, felt more profoundly as we move into our last weeks here.

Our little house will stand firmly here, embraced by the mountain, joyously open to the valley. A disparate reality. I stand, absorb and dance with this beauty only to turn to the grey pages of other realities. The streaked faces of the children of Syria juxtapose excruciatingly and pitifully with the children’s song in my head.

I take this moment to fathom my fortune and feel gratitude. I take this moment to fathom my fortune and make small promises to myself, promises to remember these disparate realities, the bella and the brutta of the world, to remember these realities and my good fortune in relation to each, now more than ever in the crushing reality of the world stage as we move into the last days of 2016. 
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*Emily Dickinson

Transitions

As those of you familiar with some of the best of Italy’s wines might expect, the drive from our house to Montalcino is populated by an exceptional number of vineyards. As we head down the hill, the patchwork of olive trees and vines of our panoramic view is gradually replaced by increasing numbers of perfectly pruned, immaculately kept vineyards, the precision rows of which appear to stand sentry, proud custodians of the finest Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello di Montalcino, makers of which smile benignly down on the Val d’Orcia inferiore: the Sangiovese grape grown where we live will apparently never be capable of producing such a taste.

 

I am coming to love this drive with its infantry of vines, a guard which seems laced in a fragile irony, its grapes at the mercy of the elements. As a friend of mine said to me yesterday, he is playing a waiting game heavy with nerves. It’s a protracted game, against a powerful and unpredictable opponent. The crop looks excitingly good, but until the grapes are ready, they cannot be harvested. And until they are harvested, anything is possible.

 

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Daily the drive is taking us longer, as more and more vineyards decide the time is most propitious and cars succumb to tractors and camions preparing for, or coming from vendemmia*. We slow down to a mild 20 miles per hour (mind you, we are still overtaken by those Italians insistent on taking the racing line and overtaking simultaneously, those who will not be slowed down by anyone’s vendemmia), and daily take stock of the status quo. At the week’s start, red crates appeared at intervals along the rows, anticipating the cutting of the grappa, hanging tantalizingly above. Today, driving home, many vineyards looked curiously barren and I realised how accustomed we have become over the last few months to turning our eyes subconsciously to bunch upon the bunch of purple grapes. The great cycle of life turns again; the end and the beginning and I feel supremely fortunate. This is what harvest means, this is what autumn signifies. Somehow my usual mixed September emotions, as I reluctantly let go of sultry summer days and yet revel in the burning beauty of autumnal richness, make more sense. The end and the beginning. The bringing together of a year’s labour, the excitement of the fruits yielded as the revolution is completed, only to start again.

P. conscientiously preparing to start school - his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

P. conscientiously preparing to start school – his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

It resonates particularly now as I consider how far we have come since September 2015. It resonates as I stand in the kitchen at dinner time and prepare dinner, while the children sit together, building coronets from tiny bricks, chattering away in their mother tongue, intermingled with Italian phrases aplenty. Last night, disturbed in my sleep as I often am with three children, I couldn’t help but smile – P., who so often talks in his sleep, was muttering in Italian, ‘non, lo facciamo cosi’!’. It resonates as I hear H. in the bedroom giving S. her own private tutorial, the result of which I experience shortly after, ‘Mamma?’, ‘Yes, S.’, I reply, ‘non, Mamma, say, “si”’, she insists. S. sat with me at lunchtime yesterday and picked up the lemon, ‘Dat, “limone”‘ she pointed out to me, in precision perfect accent.

 

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

It resonates as I pick up the phone to negotiate a deal on taking our own grapes to be pressed and take stock that I couldn’t have done that a year ago – neither in terms of owning the grapes, nor in terms of conducting the negotiation. This but one conversation in the many negotiations concerning our tiny casa rustica, standing on our hectare of olive trees and vineyards; conversations convoluted in Italian bureaucracy  which generally leave me exhausted less by translation and more by the absurd idiosyncrasies of those translations.

 

 

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Changes to our tiny casa rustica – gone are the rats and cobwebs…

 

It resonates personally as I stop for a caffe’ with our Italian neighbours and share a joke in Italian or as I feel the glorious delight of culture and communication when the owner of a local agriturismo comes over to chat to us at the village’s ‘Festa della Bruschetta dell’Olio Nuovo‘.

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Later, all five of us – la principessa included, eagerly taste the freshest green olive oil and all five of us give our opinions, coughing slightly on its coveted bitterness.

A ‘mastery’, for want of a better word, of some sort of the language is fundamental to my autumn harvest, all the richer because I know this is but the beginning: the bounty of language is endless. But harvest this year feels rich beyond language and beyond words. It cuts to my heart with that beautiful pain reserved for the most precious of bonds when I look at the children and remember where we were a year ago. I think about the ‘salto nel buio’ we took in coming here. A leap into the dark which was, on reflection, fairly brazen in its naivety and from which we are now reaping our harvests. As with all harvests – particularly of farmers with a variety of crops – there will be fruit which we would rather not keep. It is, naturally, far from perfect but it is plentiful and, right now, as the winegrowers of Montalcino revel in their purple grapes, I too am taking a moment, to pause, to reflect and to appreciate. To feel fortunate and to thank – whoever and whatever we believe in – the freedom we had to choose and the choice we made. I want to bottle the richness of this harvest, I want to lay it down with the best ‘riserva’, to be brought out in that intangible future, when memories will give succour to tired minds.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest

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A Film and a Festa

I’ve written before about Italian bureaucracy, but it really is as bad as everyone says. And worse. Barely a day passes here without someone saying to me, at some point, ‘Ah…. questa Italia…. Beh, siamo in Italia…..’ , usually accompanied by a shoulder shrug which reads to me as a cross between resignation to absurdity and badge of honour.

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ready to bake – biscotti salati

It affects every walk of life, from procuring a loyalty card at the supermarket to taking food into school on birthdays. Indeed, at birthdays, children are only allowed to take into school a cake bought at a shop, accompanied by a receipt, to celebrate with friends. Despite the fact that Italians are so proud of the cooking of ‘nonna’ or ‘mamma’, so protective of family recipes and the correct ways of making dishes and eating food, the law (I have yet to find out whether this local, regional or national) would rather decree that children eat shop bought food, no doubt loaded with excess sugar or glucose fructose syrup, than a home cooked treat. The irony is that at gatherings outside school hours, such as the merenda we shared yesterday after the children’s end of year performance, the table is heaped with a sumptuous array of homemade crostata, biscotti salati, pane, et cetera et cetera. At such events, everyone enthusiastically contributes something and everyone enthusiastically tastes everything.

 

 

We came across the same problem recently when we made our film for a competition run by Social Business World, which asked schools to contribute, through film, stories from every day life about living together in an ethical, sustainable and ecological way. I wrote the short film script, (we were restricted to five minutes) and a friend translated it into Italian. A dynamic Italian mother here found someone to film it, and we were ready to shoot.

Ready, that is, aside from the Italian hoops we had to jump through.

Of course, the school had to seek permission even to be involved in the project from the Dirigente (the director of schools in the area, a sort of head of education for the area).

The Dirigente decreed yes.

The Dirigente then cut a whole section of the script which involved inviting the materna school and families in to eat together. In doing so, she cut one element of the film, the intention of which had been to show community building and collaboration.

The Dirigente allowed parents to come in and prepare with the children food made with ceci (chickpeas, the small village is known for its cultivation of chickpeas, particularly its specialty, black chickpeas).

But she forbade the children from tasting the food once it was made.

Obviously the fact that it was not pre-prepared, shop bought food, accompanied by a receipt, meant it was a potential danger. This despite the fact that the teachers were there, watching the parents prepare it. The children would be allowed to eat it off site, and out of school hours, however. I have yet to understand quite whether or how these two things join up: if a child is going to become sick from eating something, this will happen whether they eat it in the school grounds before 16.30 or outside the school grounds at 16.31, and surely in each instance there would be the same possibility of litigation. Surely, I said, if it is a matter of parental consent (at 16.31, parents are present to consent to their children eating the food), we simply have to ask them to sign a form before we prepare it and taste it?

Apparently not. Given that Italians love signing pieces of paper and disclaimers in all their forms, I was surprised by this.

Nevertheless, we parents had something to sign simply to allow our chidren to partake in the film.

So, with a heavily edited script, we went ahead anyway. The children enjoyed making the film celebrating as they did so something of their community, the local livelihood and the international make up of the small school. You can watch our little film here.

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Cherries – eaten and enjoyed…. after school hours

 

The competition was small, albeit nationwide, but we were pleased to win and be invited to a three day festa in northern Italy.

And then came the process of organizing the trip. I lost track of the number of missives flying between parents and teachers regarding travel arrangements. We seemed to waste several of the four to five weeks we had to organise it discussing whether to go by train or coach, with very little resolution. But finally, with two weeks to go, the Dirigente decreed that it would be impossible, in such a short space of time, to pull together the paper work to procure permission for the trip. (From whom? From where? This I don’t understand – surely as the Dirigente, she can procure and sign the relevant papers…. ).

As with (virtually) all things I have experienced here, there is a block. Then there is a ‘gira’. I honestly think Italians revel in the blocks in order that they can come up with the circuitous way round it. The way round it is for it to be a trip organised by parents, this is naturally a neat absolution of responsibility on the part of the school or the Dirigente. And thus we continue to organise it in exactly the same way as we were organizing it before, but this time, without the need for the mysterious additional paperwork the Dirigente felt unable to deal with. We still had to sign a form, however, saying that we as parents take responsibility for our children on the trip that we are organizing for them, as parents.

Apparently the coach is booked and we leave in a week’s time, for the village of Montello, Treviso, for the Festa of Ritmi e Danza dal Mondo. As with many idealistic celebrations of peace and diversity, there will, I am sure be much talk, all of which will be fabulous, stimulating and aspirational. But if the talk is to turn into action, there will, of course, be a series of bureaucratic hurdles and caveats as well as several reams of paper…

Aspirationally, however, we are excited. Aspiration and small steps are important… After all, the raging fires of revolution start with small flames.

 

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A Key with a View

We are the proud owners of this key.

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The hand over of the key, in exchange for a cheque, was a ceremonial process at the end of a five hour meeting, involving a mere twelve people who each signed their names some 22 times between the hours of 11 am and 4.15 pm.

We can only be in Italy.

Yes, this is how one purchases property and land in this country which relishes bureaucracy with the same attention to detail as it does a simple bowl of pasta. The translator (one of the twelve people involved in the meeting), seemed intent on making sure I was absolutely clear about this, when she phoned me three days after The Purchase Meeting, apparently to make sure that ‘now [you understand] what we mean by things taking time and having to be done properly in Italy’.

I cut the conversation short, (she would happily have spent an hour talking me through the various idiosyncrasies of existing here), assuring her that I was quite aware that we are in bureaucracy heaven. Where else would you pay for land and property with a cheque book? Yes, at the end of The Purchase Meeting, the notaio (notary) started tapping numbers into the archaic receipt printer on his desk and a ream of receipt paper curled its way towards the floor. After about two metres of receipts were printed out, he announced the final figures and we wrote out cheques for land, property, translator’s fees, notary fees and taxes. One has to celebrate the fact that there’s a great deal of trust involved on the side of recipients that cheques will hold good. Apparently CHAPS payments do exist here. But how much more fun it is to sit through a five hour meeting than simply to wait for an impersonal phone call to assure one that payment has gone through and the key can now be collected from the agent’s office?

Strictly speaking, actually, we had not quite reached the end of the meeting: the translator was painstakingly editing the translated contract, typing with two fingers, to include the few extra words and phrases the notaio had altered during the reading of the contracts. Having laboriously hand written the changes after the notaio had read the contract for the first time, in Italian, we spent the next hour listening to the translator re-read the document, in English, a responsibility which afforded her the stage she so obviously craved, revelling in the utmost precision, pausing frequently for rhetorical effect. Given that Tom and I had been reading the English document as the notaio read the Italian only two hours before, we didn’t feel this second reading in our language was strictly necessary. Even the notaio was spotted dozing off in his leather chair at the head of the table.

It was as the vendor went for another cigarette and we reached the 30 minute mark waiting for the translator to finish on the computer, that we heard that she’d had a personal crisis: her mother had had her bag stolen, so she was fielding calls on this. Given she was typing with said two fingers, I didn’t think we stood much chance of her multi-tasking phone calls to mamma with completing the electronic document, so I suggested to the notaio we move on to signatures or cheque writing. Or something to move us towards being home before sundown. Our dear friend and witness to proceedings (in Italy, one needs someone to witness the notaio witnessing the translator translating into English, witnessing us understanding the English, a convoluted multi-check process which exemplifies an inbuilt reluctance by anyone to take responsibility for anything), was whispering to her four year old daughter that it would be better to eat merenda (afternoon snack) with Daddy, than wait for mamma to come home for it.

Signing the documentation, was of course, not straightforward. There were five copies of the contract in Italian, (to be accompanied later by five copies of the contract in English), together with five additional sheets. Tom and I had already had our knuckles rapped at 11 am, when we had signed the privacy and identity documentation (at least three times apiece) using only our first and last names, and in my case – illegibly. I wasn’t aware that it was a requirement of signatures to be legible? Thus we were primed to write our full names – middle included (I have two, this was a source of some consternation, but fortunately I am capable of writing four words in a row) – and in a clear style. Anyone who has tried to read a card written by me, will know that a requirement of legibility demanded a change to my writing, but it was Tom who was pulled up this time: he had to repeat his first five afternoon signatures. Apparently they looked too like print, and he needed to write them in ‘corsivo’. This slowed the process down only a little, however; far more time consuming was the way in which the notaio asked the first signatory to sign all 15 sheets before re-stacking them into their original order to move them all onto the second signatory. Fortunately the vendor’s three adult children were as keen as Tom and I were to speed the process up, and lined themselves up, pen in hand, ready to sign, move sheet on, sign, move sheet on. Of course, there was a strict order in which signatories were to sign, which was no doubt connected to some unspoken hierarchy: naturally, the notaio signed last in a  ceremonial process conducted in the final minutes. Incidentally, his signature, large and sprawling, was entirely illegible. It was, however, in corsivo.

Thus ended The Purchase Meeting. We left with the key, five cheques fewer in our cheque book. And not a single piece of paper. Apparently we will be summoned at a later date to collect documentation once it has been made official.

 

And the key with a view? It’s the key to this piccolo fabbricato rustico, standing amongst cherry and fig trees and looking over our vines and our olive trees. A key with a view, holding our dreams.

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La Burocrazia Italiana

Ah, La Burocrazia Italiana, I come to understand it in different ways, each day.

I have decided of late that Italians wear this bureaucracy as something of a badge of pride. “Ah, questa Italia….’, ‘Ah, questa la burocrazia Italiana’… ‘Ah, benvenuta in Italia….’

Incredibly, manifestations of Italian bureaucracy find their ways into every part of Italian life… it almost seems to influence la lingua. Now, I like language and I love grammar. There, I’ve said it: I actually really love knowing how words fit together into sentences, I enjoying debating the use of the predicate of ‘to be’ in written and spoken form. But I digress. Even as a grammar-loving would-be linguist, I find Italian grammar archaic and faintly baffling. Italian verbs exist in 14 forms: seven simple tenses and seven compound tenses. In reality, Italians probably use only a handful of them on a regular basis in speech. Nevertheless, they exist and children are taught them rigorously in school, alongside a variety of verbal moods and intentions. While to get along happily speaking Italian on a daily basis is no different from learning any language by immersion, even I am tempted to set Italian grammar aside for a very rainy day. Or make that month. Teaching the correct use of the possessive apostrophe in English seems chicken feed by comparison.

This labyrinthine obfuscation is manifested beautifully in Italian law. I’ve been told that whenever new laws are passed in Italy, rather than replacing or revoking existing laws they are simply melded on, the effect of which is that for every law in Italy, there appears to exist its opposite or a contradiction. (Very possibly this is not actually that dissimilar to English Tort, but – to the outsider at least, it seems that Italians wear this obscurity with some pride.) To this end, it’s impossible to get a straight response to anything. The answer depends not only on whom you ask, but when you ask him or her and I have found, whether you ask again… and again… and again.

By way of illustration:

I went to procure Tom’s codice fiscale. Now, when I went to get the children’s and mine a while back, I was asked whether my husband needed one. No, he didn’t at the time so I didn’t get it (an oversight on my part, but I do seem to specialize here in creating extra work for myself in these situations). Thus it was, a month or so ago, that I returned to said office – and, by chance, to exactly the same officer who had served me last summer – to procure Best Beloved’s codice fiscale. This, by the way, is a computer generated reference without which it is impossible to do anything here – even, as I found out – buy a pay-as-you-go mobile phone SIM card. Seated in front of said officer I pulled out all our documents – and I mean all of them, I had gone prepared, with every certificate, passport, driving licence, proof of address we had between us. ‘Ah, non e possibile’ because he’s not present. I stalled him – hang on a minute – this had been perfectly possible just six months ago when you asked me if I wanted to generate his codice fiscale at the same time as those of the rest of the family, when he had also not been present. Apparently, on this next visit, it was absolutely not possible. The stand off began. It continued thus: me explaining that he recalled the last visit (I stand out somewhat here in this un-touristy region of Italy, being English, with three children, two of whom are very bionde, all three of whom are pretty noisy; people tend to recall us); me pointing to the three children before me (all of whom were conveniently getting hungry), reminding him that I have travelled an hour to get here… me wondering if it really was impossible to generate this code now? It’s amazing what happens when you ask the same question several times over… miraculously, I could sign Best Beloved’s name for him and procure the coveted codice fiscale. There’s something to be said for this bureaucracy then. It’s a sort of ‘computer says no, but actually I could try to find a way if I feel sympathy for you’.

There’s actually a reason for this, it seems and it’s rooted in the Robin Hood-esque behaviour of underclasses rebelling against the feudal system which strangled Italy for so many years. Herein lies the reason that to call someone ‘furbo’ – slightly cunning, is said with a slight hint of admiration. And it’s something we might need to learn, as we are about to embark on a whole new step in our Italian adventure…

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