Saturday, August 31, 2013

La Dolce Vita

La Dolce Vita
There are moments in one’s life when you look around and marvel at how you got there; what odd circumstances coincided to put you in that one place at that moment and, whether for the good or the bad, those times are not easily forgotten.  Since my retirement and subsequent part-time move to Italy, I have had more than my share of those moments, most of them for the good.  I’ve found myself gazing up at rocky cliffs as I bobbed in the Ionian Sea, marveling at my good fortune.  And I’ve found myself ready to slit my wrists in frustration as we try to deal with Italian bureaucracy, which is the most byzantine of wacky disorganization as you can imagine.  And I’ve found myself thinking that this must be a movie set, because places so beautiful and unique really can’t exist. This week, it was the “movie set” moment, and all that was missing was Federico Fellini.
We were up in Formia, enjoying our annual visit with a life-long friend of my husband’s, his wife, and their best friends.  It has become a tradition for us to go up there and enjoy a few days of good company, great food and wine, and lots of laughs.  This year was no different.  We had spent the day touring around the area, visiting a sanctuary and the towns of Campodimele and Lenola, both of which boast of having the longest-living population in Italy.  We had a lovely stop off in Sperlonga, a beach town set on a cliff, overlooking the sea and a string of lidos miles long.  Its whitewashed buildings and narrow alleyways provide lots of photo ops.  All in all, it was a wonderful day.
That evening we went out for dinner at a small restaurant right on the water.  The sound of the waves slapping against the sand was interrupted by a nice jazz trio, and the food was fresh from the sea.  We didn’t think it could get any better.  Then, we were told that we were going to another friend’s for gelato.  Their friend Patty’s mother was born in Hartford, and she was anxious to meet the Americans from that town.  The descriptions began: Patty is tall and statuesque.  She was considered one of the most beautiful women in the area.  Men came all the way from Rome to court her.  Now in her 60’s, she was still a striking woman.  She loved to entertain.  Every night at her villa was a party.  The stories went on. 
And so, we left our restaurant and headed to Patty’s, anxious to be introduced to this fascinating woman.  We drove through a narrow “cancello” (a wrought-iron gate) and into a curving driveway lined with palm trees that were over 100 feet tall.  The villa came into view as we entered the parking area.  It was classical in design, with detailed moldings both inside and out.  It was in a sad state of repair, with the fa├žade still pockmarked with bullet holes, scars of WWII fighting.  The villa, only lived in for a few weeks each summer, was like a beautiful woman left untended for way too long.  Its beauty shone through the ravages of time, but it would never again be what it once was. 
As we got out of the cars we saw that the side yard was illuminated with dozens of lights strung from tree to tree.  True to her reputation, Patty was hosting a party; about a dozen people were gathered around a big table, a  grill was being manned by a young fellow and all sorts of meats were sizzling on the fire, wine was flowing like water and conversations were flying back and forth. It was well after 10 pm and they were just getting started on their evening meal.
Patty came flying over to the six of us, arms outstretched in warm welcome.  She was dressed head to toe in white linen, and her long black hair curled around her shoulders.  Her makeup was impeccable and her mani-pedi obviously recently done.  We were brought into the fold and given seats, drinks, and snacks.  The other guests were a hodge-podge of fascinating people; a renowned surgeon, an author, a couple of teachers, a salesman….each one offering a unique presence to the evening.
That is when I looked around for Fellini.  Among the huge palm trees and the flowering oleander, as the meat grilled and the jokes were flying, as the cigarettes were smoked and the desserts brought out, I could only wonder at the odd circumstances that brought this descendant of Pilgrims and Puritans to this place and time.  Each guest was a character, each palm tree a set prop, and each story a piece of dialogue that coalesced into entertaining scenarios. 
I will never experience such an evening again.  There will never be the same set of circumstances where this American, warmed by good friends, good wine and good food, would step into such a unique setting and be able to sit back and listen to the repartee and funny stories.  If Fellini were still alive, he would have appreciated the setting and the scenario, and would have written it into a movie about La Dolce Vita that I am living. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Familiar Faces

Familiar Faces   
Coming back to Cervinara year after year has made us part of our little local community.  It is expected that we will be present at the various functions and festivals that are scattered throughout the summer months, and when we weren’t here for most of them, people began to ask where we were.  Today while having my first cappuccino with my husband at the local bar, several people commented on our long absence and how  they were glad to see us in our usual spots.  For some, the wrinkles were a little more pronounced, the bellies a little bit bigger, the hair a little bit whiter.  For others, their weight loss and poor color marked health problems that are worrisome.    But the biggest changes always come with the little ones.
Last night was the Festa dell’Immacolata, where the statue of the Madonna comes out of our church and is paraded through the streets all through the town.  She is accompanied by dozens of people, young and old alike, dressed in costumes and representing everything from angels, to wise men, to the Holy Family.  Unlike other processions, this one covers all the neighborhoods, not just Ioffredo and Castello.  It starts at the church and proceeds up the hill to the end of the inhabited area, taking detours down small alleyways and into dead end corners, then back down the hill into Valle, then downtown into Salamona and back up through Ferrari, and into the church again.  This is a slow march that takes over three hours and it is a challenging one that I don’t do.  

But I was out to view the removal of the Madonna, and I joined the procession for the first two legs of the walk, and it gave me the opportunity to see all the children and how they have grown.  The first ones I noticed were the angels.  They were all children from four to sixyears old, dressed in shiny white robes with garland wings.  I knew all of these little ones and had seen them grow from pacifier-sucking toddlers into sweet young cherubs.  The little girl who used to flirt with the bar customers by peaking out through the Venetian blind slats, chubby little Salvatore who has strung out some as he’s gotten taller but who still has bowed legs from carrying around so much extra weight, little Ilaria with her black pony tail looking so proud to be following the group….they all made me realize the passage of time and the years that I have spent here.
Then there was Marta, who was dressed as a young Mary.  Last year she spent hours coloring in the tiles of our courtyard with sidewalk chalk; last night she was a dignified young lady.  And there was Margherita, who last year danced around the piazza at the concert, unconcerned about what anyone else thought of her; she was a bit more reserved this year and it made me sad that she was more concerned with her “image” than with her love of the music.  And there was the blond boy, whose first communion I saw two years ago.  Last night he was kicking around a soccer ball and I swear I could see the first sign of a mustache on him!  I don’t know all their names, but I know their faces and their changes, and it makes me feel good that I am able to see them grow and progress year after year.
I have had a hard time being here this year, away from my first grandchild.  He’s four months old now and I am missing him terribly.  The daily photo updates help, but when I look at how quickly my little friends in Cervinara are changing, I realize just what I am missing.  We will continue to come here; it is our home away from home.  But I don’t think we’ll be staying for quite so long in the future.  I always love to see the familiar faces, but there is a special little one back in Connecticut now that I just won’t be able to stay away from for long!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Under the Bridge

Under The Bridge
In most instances, “under the bridge” is not where you want to be.  Wasn’t it under the bridge where the ogre lived in the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale?  And who hasn’t seen, either in pictures or in person, tent cities set up under the bridges of major metropolitan areas, places where the homeless and hopeless gather for shelter and community?  But here in Santa Maria di Leuca, “sotto il ponte” has a whole other meaning.
Today I went with cousin Rita and her husband Angelo, our gracious and generous hosts here in Puglia, to their favorite swimming spot.  In Leuca, there is a long road that hugs the shoreline, with beautiful views of blue water, white sailboats, and yellow sun.  In one area, there is a bridge that spans a rather long gap in the coastline.  It is a typical Roman style bridge with five big arches that support it.  It’s less than a quarter mile long, but it’s an impressive bridge.  I’ve driven over it before, but never noticed all the activity that was going on down below.
Just like in the old song, Under the Boardwalk, “people walkin’ above, people havin’ fun, people fallin’ in love”…..all the good stuff is happening under the bridge.  There is a long but gentle staircase that leads down to the water and once there we found a whole world lazing and relaxing under each of the arches.  There are broad steps that go under each segment of the bridge on which people were spreading their towels and opening their beach chairs.  We found our spot and got ready to dive in.  “Dive in” isn’t really what I should say, because there’s no diving here.  Getting into the water is always a bit of a challenge because the Puglia coastline has so many areas of rocky outcrops and slippery spots.  But the town thought of wobbly folks like me and provided us a sturdy steel stairway with four steps down which we could ease ourselves into the water.
Once in the water, it’s a short walk across rocky ledge to find deep water, perfect for swimming and floating around.  I’m cursed with a very buoyant body (would that I had the heavier muscles that I’ve always wanted), but I’m able to float and tread water with no effort at all.  I bob around and flip from belly to back at will, never covering lots of territory but always enjoying the relaxing water and sun.  Since I had slathered myself with sunscreen, I was able to spend an hour or so just floating and bobbing around, feeling very lucky. Getting out is another challenge, with those same slippery ledges awaiting the unwary swimmer, but fortunately there were no unfortunate mishaps with that end of the operation either.
 Relaxing under the bridge is an insider’s game here in Leuca.  Those who come down for a week spend their time on the sandy stretches of beach, basking in the sun with no shade to cool them and with grit in their crotches.  But under the bridge it’s clean, cool and social, where the elite come to meet.  Of course, we ran into an old friend and his buddy, and we spent a nice time chatting and catching up.  When the fellows decided to go back into the water, the buddy asked if I were going in too.  I said no, that I had to stay out of the sun.  “Ma devi andarci, signora.  Altrimenti rimani una donna tutta bianca.”  (Oh but you should go signora.  Otherwise you’re going to stay a very white woman.) 
Yes, I am a very white woman in a sea of bronze and burned bodies.  Because even under the bridge, there are places for people to lay out in the sun and get a George Hamilton tan, and I was definitely the whitest of all the bodies there.  But I choose to shield my old skin from the hot Puglia sun and that is why “sotto il ponte” is where I’m going to stay!