Some pictures from our 2009 trip to France.
I was editing photos last night in preparation for a project and noticed the similarities among these three.
Some pictures from our 2009 trip to France.
I was editing photos last night in preparation for a project and noticed the similarities among these three.
It was January, the end of the olive season and we had decided to work an olive cycle – from tree to oil – on a family farm in the hills above Nice. Marguerite, the matriarch, lived in the same room in which she was born 89 years before and worked the same trees that her father and his father had planted. Only she and her daughter still lived on the farm, so they asked for help each year when the olive trees needed tending.
The work was slow and peaceful on the terraced hillside overlooking the valley. We’d climb each tree, harvesting branch by branch with long poles, then trim those branches and remove any remaining olives on the ground. We loaded them from the nets into crates, which we carried by hand then sorted at night in the main room of the family home, talking while we sorted in front of the fire. The best of the olives would be cured for salads, the medium quality would be made into tapenade and the imperfect ones, crushed into oil by the ancient stone that Marguerite’s father had hauled up the valley and installed in what is now the regions only remaining stone mill.
Each day, it was the same routine, tree after tree needed to be tended, but we couldn’t have been happier. We were experiencing what happens every year on family on farms all over the region – we were being shown the pace of the olives.
After four glasses of wine, five courses of food and a limoncello, Az and I walked down from the restaurant and slept on the hillside, on the dirt, under a pine tree because you can’t sleep under olive trees (oil from fallen olives stains your clothes).
We slept for about half an hour in the sun, looking down 10km to the Mediterranean. It was so quiet. I thought, while laying there, “Why don’t we sleep on the dirt all the time?” I suspect the older people get the less they sleep in the dirt, but we’ll be different.
A few minutes later we brushed off our clothes and continued down the hill through the olive groves.
Ok, it only took me about 24 hours, but I got it – he looked at me and said, “I’m looking at the sinner.” Before I put all the pieces together I was planning on handing a piece of paper to him with my own personalized message, “I hope for the happiness of my enemies.” But then I figured it out. I had been walking around judging people and then he looked at me and judged me. Then I was going to impotently try to be holy. So I crumpled up the piece of paper and threw it away.
This whole business of passing paper back and forth reminded me of a short story I wrote in 2003.
There I was, minding my own business being judgmental about all the other tourists, and I walked past a guy I’d seen a number of times before on the street – he was a street performer, one of those statues that moves when given a coin. He was dressed in a long, baggy robe made of stitched burlap sacks. The hood hung low over his head and eyes. He held a wooden staff and had long hair and a long beard, and I suspected his outfit was a reference to either Jesus or a monk.
I thought to myself, this guy is the most genuine person here. I don’t even look THAT different than the Italians, and they stare at me everywhere I go. “What, you’ve never seen women’s sunglasses before?” Well, he’s even a step beyond me with his long beard and hair, and they aren’t even dreadlocks, which is the standard counter cultural uniform here. So, I had to give this guy credit.
Instead of wasting a couple Euros on gelato I’d give him the coin. Solidarity.
I snuck up beside him, out of sight because I didn’t want any attention. At the moment my coin his his basket he was down in my face, looking straight at me with intense blue eyes no more than a foot away. He said something I didn’t understand, and in his hand he held a slip of paper rolled like a cigarette. I took it, and he straightened up and froze again.
I walked away from him buzzing and excited. I had thought I would be the one giving the gift, but here he made it an exchange. And even better, he gave me a riddle: the paper said something I’m still struggling to translate. It says, “Riguardo al peccato. V.G. XVI” Riguardo means “to look again,” and peccato is “sin,” though I’m not sure of the part of speech…
Tonight I’ll go back and see if I can get any information from him.
It was so fucking great to get back on a scooter today – I went high into the hills at the base of Etna and then coasted back down all the way to the sea. Higher on the mountain the churches and walls and buildings were made of darker stone, probably volcanic rock. It was a charcoal grey and sometimes it looked almost blue. There’s a ring of clouds that’s been obscuring Etna’s peak this week – the whole coast can be sunny and warm then up there it’s dark and brooding.
It was nice to be away from the tourist culture here in Taormina – at places along the drive I could smell the smoke of vocation – farmers burning leaves and branches they had pruned, I could smell olive trees as well. Things I associate with actual place and culture. I didn’t have to strain to interpret life rhythms from pastries. Symbolism can be poverty, anyway. Think of how an adult puts out cookies on Xmas Eve vs what a kid thinks of that act. Symbolic gestures are a skeptic’s nostalgia – we lack enough evidence that we should probably consider our rituals literal. And by pushing together the literal with the unknown we create faith: simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs. Treating gestures as symbols cheapens that power. God I hate tourism.
At some point, as I got more comfortable on the scooter, I could ride up the hill and lean into each curve like I was flying. I stretched out both my arms like wings and leaned over the front of the scooter, putting my face out in the sun. Finally I lifted my body up behind me and was actually flying, eyes closed, arms out.
At 9:30 on Christmas morning I sat in a piazza with bells ringing. Octogenarians wearing black trickled down the narrow side streets toward me – toward the cathedral – for mass. It was sunny this morning, warm in the sun, and the piazza caught my attention from another street because its ground is checkered black and white, so I was drawn to it and I sat on a bench. When the bells finished I decided to follow everyone into the cathedral. The service was bland. It was very cold in there, dark, too. Part of the service was in Latin, and it echoed like you might imagine Latin would echo in a stone cathedral in Castelmola, Sicily.
But this is what I was looking for in an experience – this trip hasn’t exactly been a masterpiece of independent travel so far. I left the farm without a plan and became the kind of backpacker I was 10 years ago – someone who wanders the streets and consumes the product of a culture without seeking to understand the process and spirit of its cultivation. Drinking coffee at a cafe isn’t the same if you’re not on your way to a fishing boat, nor is a nip of liquor if you’re not exhausted on your way home. Buying olive oil gives you no understanding of an olive farmer’s rhythm of life.
So in the cathedral I was happy to participate in my own way (reconciling their religion with my own beliefs by considering them distinct cultural expressions of a more basic spirituality), kneeling and closing my eyes when they knelt and closed their eyes, shaking hands with the people around me, taking my turn closing the door when it was blown open by the wind. People were dressed nice. This is a prosperous town.
It’s almost as if the role of this church service was to remind me of the absoute buzz and energy of life outside, because when I stepped out the sun was hot and bright and the ocean so blue, and I found my way to this courtyard. It overlooks the sea. Old men talked, a bonfire from the night before smoldered, a cafe did steady but relaxed business while it played inoffensive xmas music for the men.
I ducked into the cafe for a cappuccino and an old man stepped up to the counter next to me. I had shaken his hand in church. He pushed a Euro across the counter and the bartender poured a half-cup of espresso and filled the rest with sambuca, then slid the Euro back to the old man, “Merry Christmas.” The guy swallowed his drink without ceremony, then stepped out into the sunshine. I got the bartender’s attention and asked for sambuca in my drink as well.
In the courtyard, in the swirling ash and smoke, a Fiat pulled up that was so small the driver filled a quarter of the car. His golden retriever took up the entire back seat, standing and wagging its tail at the line of old men dressed in black, the dog’s fur pressed against the back window. The driver got out and talked to another man, the dog barked, the driver got back in his car and drove off. We should all be so lucky to become old men in a small European town. I ceremoniously sipped my sambuccino and watched them enjoy each other’s company.
Azure says I need to write more about where I actually am, so here we go: I’m in Taormina, which is a very touristy-for-a-darn-good-reason town that rides a mountain ridge – as if it were on a saddle. East coast of Sicily, almost to the toe of the boot. There are places to hike here, so I’ll do that tomorrow, and probably the following day. For now, a picture of an orange tree. And why not another? You only live once.
Messing around with video. The song is “Rill Rill” by the Sleigh Bells.
I like this photo a lot. It’s taken from a platform of rock from which you can look back at the town.
Treatment definitely inspired by this guy.
From that big cathedral in the middle of Siracusa.
“This dog was voted the most beautiful dog in all of Siracusa! Isn’t he beautiful? Bellissimo!”
Here’s a closerup of his work.
At the wwoof house I self-medicated by going outside and peeing in that beautiful spot overlooking that valley and those hills. I have peed in so many gorgeous places over the years, and for that I’m thankful. Peeing is a bit like saying grace – an opportunity to bring your attention to your relationship with the present moment. In college I gauged my drunkenness and how much fun I was having at a party by how I swayed when standing to pee. I only noticed the buzz going through my body when I was stopped and silent for those moments.
If a person from 10,000 years ago (or a Parisian) showed up in our world, they would be confused by how limited we are in where we’re allowed to go to the bathroom. In nature we pee unleashed, we (men) can pee the circumference of a circle for which we’re the focal point, or we can shuffle back and forth in a line, which I supposed we could do at a row of urinals, but I’m sure it’s frowned upon.
Mostly, in nature you can gauge the beauty and be thankful for the waters that feed your body then carry away its waste, the stream that runs through you and back into the ground. I love peeing in beautiful places, it’s one of life’s major pleasures. I’m beginning to suspect that power, life, love and force have their sources in nature and natural places, and that going to nature to get reinvigorated is probably going about the whole thing backwards.
Anyway, think about me next time you pee.
* Formerly, Can anyone think of a snappy title for this one?
“There you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity… Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors.”
– John Ames writing to his son in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Back in Caltanissetta, exploring the side streets.
The day is over and the dusk is grey, almost blue, and it shows in the haze that turns the hills into shadows. There’s a warm wind that pulls small clouds across the moon, then over the hills, and I can see where I’m stepping by the moonlight. The sky shines. Tonight, we can see the reflection of the earth’s curve in the sky, and if only we could see around the curve we’d see the past happening right now in front of us, on a hillside. I’m satisfied with the cold and quiet valleys, though, and the smell of the dirt that nourished our olive oil tonight.
I heard gunshots this morning while walking from my room in a separate house to the farm. Because the shots were coming from right behind the restaurant my mind raced. A series of shots went off and I stopped in my tracks and scanned for a shooter. Was my life in danger??
Was it a disgruntled worker who might turn on an accidental witness? A murder-suicide to reach the afterlife? Sniper? Roof? Clear. Open windows? Clear. Maybe I should turn around and go back to my room… but I suppose I’d have to come to the restaurant at some point anyway… Nothing did come of the shots, so I assume they were hunters on an adjacent property. Bo-ring.
There’s a church on the property with a whole wall missing. I asked dude, “How old is this thing?” and he said, “Only three or four hundred years old.” I said, “That’s older than my country!” There are cacti and fennel in the hills. They grow olive trees and peach trees and grape vines, plus they have one of the most fertile gardens I’ve ever seen. Coming out of the garden my boots are caked with mud and I have to scrape them against a wire fence just to walk normally again.
I don’t like this farm much – it’s an agriturismo, which means it’s agricultural tourism, which means it’s a restaurant on a farm that can also be used as a convention space or whatever. I’m not doing any farming, instead I’m mopping (oops! I wrote, “moping.”) – mopping the restaurant and the wine cellar and the kitchen. The wine cellar took us half a day to mop. It’s about the size of a prison courtyard, I imagine. I don’t like that this isn’t an exchange of knowledge and culture, rather it’s an explicit work-for-room-and-board situation. It’s kinda not in the spirit of the whole wwoofing thing.
Today I told the guy that I’ll be leaving early – on Monday – and we proceeded to have a really interesting day. Thirty guests came for lunch, so I got to see the inside of a working Italian restaurant kitchen. The chefs were annoyed that I was there and miming questions and smelling their food while they were trying to concentrate, but whatever. She prepared a pistachio cream pasta sauce that made me black out upon reaching my mouth. When I came to the plate was clean. Good, one less dish to wash.
On my walk back to my room, tonight, I heard bells in the hills around me – so many bells that I thought I should record audio of it. I was absolutely surrounded by sheep or goats or something – it was too dark to see. So I got out my flashlight and shone it into the bushes and occasionally saw a pair of glowing eyes, but couldn’t really make out the animal. Then, ahead on the road, stood an enormous bull. I was in the middle of a herd of cattle. You know the expression, “My blood ran cold?” Well, my blood ran cold, so now I know what that feels like. The only thing I know about bulls is from Hemingway, and he seems to have more respect for bulls than he does for any man (or woman, obviously [not that I’m sexist; he is]), and he writes about their power with grace and poignancy, which at this point I wish I hadn’t read. I was terrified, and it happened so suddenly.
At first I pointed my flashlight at its eyes to maybe intimidate it, but it just started walking toward me. So then I shone it onto some nearby bushes, trying to distract it. Finally, realizing that it was best not to create a situation where there wasn’t one, I turned the flashlight off and I struggled to keep from sprinting/fainting as I walked past the bull to get to my house. My whole body was shaking. The bull stared at me the whole way, chewing menacingly, as cattle do.
So there you go. A day of busy work bracketed by feelings of “should I be afraid for my life right now?” I love traveling.
I stepped off the train from Caltanisseta and realized I’d have to act fast: the train station was shuttered and there were no payphones and all the other passengers were getting in their cars to go. The bus left. I walked toward a car full of old ladies, including a nun.
“Hai telephono?” I wasn’t sure if the noun was correct, but how could it not be? They didn’t seem to understand me, and drove off.
One more car, and apparently she wasn’t going in my direction, so she left too.
I was alone in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t know where I was going. For the first time since I can remember, I really, honestly didn’t know what to do. So I started walking.
I was delirious from jet lag as I thought it, but I definitely thought it: “I wonder if these people are my guardian angels.”
Sitting on a bus in a place you’ve never been.
It’s dark and it’s raining hard.
Ten Sicilian men sit on the bus who don’t understand you and you don’t understand them.
You’re going to a town you weren’t planning to go.
You’re not even sure if it’s the right bus or which cardinal direction it’s heading.
You don’t have a place to sleep lined up for that night because plans changed unexpectedly.
From home this is, like, terrifying to a lot of people. Even to me, from home, I’m anxious about this kind of situation. But when I was actually physically there I could trust each person because I could see each face was the fingerprint of a life. There’s really no way to intellectualize it – you just trust people more when you can see them. They become complex, and that allows good personality traits to enter the imagination. People, I believe, are basically good, but from home it’s easy to collapse others into a stereotype, like “mafia” or “terrorist.”
Recognizing I was foreign, the men on the bus were concerned for me. They tried to get me to my train transfer in time, but en route they called and found out the last train had already left. So they called and reserved a room for me at a bed and breakfast near the Caltanissetta train station so that the next morning I could take the first train to Villalba. Oh, and they wouldn’t let me pay for the bus. ”
The proprietor at the bed and breakfast noticed my birthdate: “My son was born on September 29th as well.”
“And you know what?” he continued, “September 29th is Saint Michael’s Day.”
“My name is Michael!” I said.
“Yes, and St. Michael is the patron saint of Caltanissetta!”
“Whoa.” That’s some serious Lost shit. Almost enough to convert me to Catholicism.
In the book I’m reading, “Gilead” by the brilliant Marilyne Robinson, the narrator writes about his practically-perfect grandfather, “These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice… Whatever we might say for ourselves, for our reasonableness and our good intentions, we knew they were trivial by his lights, and that made them a little bit trivial by our lights.”
That’s an important result of travel and spirituality – narrowing the gap between what you are and what you want to be. I know I still unintentionally collapse people into stereotypes, but I also know the best way to combat this is to test my beliefs and prove I was wrong.