Monthly Archives: March 2012

My Italian village

The sun pressed its face against the glass so I wound the car window down to let it in as we hurtled over a gravelly country road. A smile rubbed across my face. The sunshine was liquid and sitting in the backseat was like falling asleep in a bath of melted chocolate. The sky was a dazzling and perfect shade of summer blue. My father’s village, packed into the spaces between hills in southern Italy, was called Pago Veiano but it was known more simply and affectionately as ‘Pago’. 

I’d been waiting to see my father’s birthplace for years. He, my mother and I were staying with his cousin. From the balcony window the tiny village had a cinematic air about it; dogs lay yawning at the side of the road and crusty men in worn jackets gathered around wooden tables in doorways playing cards and arguing. Grey stone buildings slanted at alarming angles and streets dipped into impossible slopes. The ‘main’ road hugged the side of the hill, skirting the village instead of ploughing through it like regular main roads. Which said a lot about the village.

In the street a tiny old lady in the requisite black beckoned me from her doorway a few houses away. She spoke in a toothless southern dialect, ‘Simme’ paesani’, (‘we’re related’) and gave me a satisfied smile. Then, ‘Anchio sono una Morganella’ (she had the same surname as me). I gave her a friendly look of surprise. I wasn’t sure what else I should say as she lapsed contentedly back into silence and looked past me, out over the hills. So I left her sitting outside her low doorway, hands folded in her lap. I turned instead to look at my father standing by the side of the road. His dark face was creased and aged but his expression was full of stern strength, his dark brown eyes focused very successfully on nothing at all. The ever-present cigarette trailed smoke in his callused fingers. His neat little greying moustache covered his very small smile.

My father’s face was a well full of rippling water, each time he passed a significant corner or saw someone he recognised. I felt a crumpling, inexplicable sadness each time it happened though; at the thought of time smashing along at speeds which we fail to recognise until it’s too late, and at the thought that this was all ‘for the last time’. Each familiar face took my father back to a place he remembered with nostalgic but somewhat bitter fondness. He smiled as he told me how desperately hungry they were when he was a little boy growing up after the war, but he couldn’t have smiled then. Pago drew my father away into an era where I couldn’t reach him. But it also gave me a sense of ‘why’ in the present.

Another auntie and uncle were down from the north. They decided to ‘rescue’ me from the ancient grey houses for a while, taking me to visit a friend in the country. Zia Clementina filled the front seat of the car comfortably, her lively brown eyes crinkled kindly as she craned her neck round to look me over again. Her smile spread across her face generously, brown arms straddling her enormous bosom as she clasped her pudgy fingers together. She turned to frown at her husband, Zi’ Eufemio, as he sang along to some indecipherable tune from a long tormented cassette. At her look, he sang louder. Zi’Eufemio was the exact opposite to his wife – thin and spindly as a cricket. His silvered hair framed his gaunt but friendly face.

‘Ferma la macchina!’ Zia ordered the car to be stopped at once. She told us with mock shyness that the tablets she was taking for her blood pressure made her pee all the time and she needed to go right now. She opened the car door and squatted.  She squealled as she picked out the unmistakable noise of traffic before we did. She tumbled hopelessly backwards into the open car pulling her pants up as she fell. Her husband, roaring with laughter started to engage the gears again but she slapped him playfully on the arm and told him to stop again because she hadn’t finished.

Eventually we drove on. I thought about Pago, with its small windows, guarded faces at the watch, its binding tradition and stifling air, and realised it was one of my foundation stones too. It was alarming how I felt connected. It was almost disturbing, the sense of familiarity when I took in the rich and sometimes musty smell of earth. My father spoke so little about the place in which he was born and raised. He gave so little of himself generally. Everything I learned about him was deduced over time and patched together from mental notes. He rarely offered anything simply in the spirit of sharing. Last night, he stood brooding in one of the low ceiling houses ready to be demolished and said, ‘This is where my auntie lived. This is where we used to play, my cousins and I’. His cigarette smoke framed his memories. That’s all.

We turn into a driveway and park in front of a low stone cottage.

Zio beeped the horn and climbed out of the car. An ancient looking man in denim overalls battered by earth and time came forward to greet him. His smile was a drawl, slow and pleasant. He swiped the cap from his head and rubbed his closely cropped silver hair. Zio was enthusiastically shouting at him – a mixture of insults and salutations; something like ‘It’s fantastic to see you, you cranky, stingy old bastard’.

His wife, a tiny gap-toothed woman with brown hardened skin, also came forward grinning and squinting hard against the sun. As she welcomed us she said ‘I was just killing a rabbit – the damn thing just didn’t want to die. Eventually I had to stand on it and wrench its head off!’. As she spoke I noticed her wiping her slightly bloody hands on her apron. Her gold bracelets and ring winked at me. She offered me the same hand. I took it without cringing. Her eyes crinkled kindly at me and I was inclined to like her a lot.

We all chatted inanely, wandering about in their garden. They crushed leaves for me that smelled like lemons and told me the names of trees and plants. Fields of maize faded away to the left of the house and in front was a patch for themselves. Fat, lazy tomatoes, plump figs, fragrant celery and basil and even flowers ­– perfectly formed miniature roses dwarfed by sunflowers. I sat contentedly, watching bees crash lazily into petals and listening to the hum of conversation. A scrappy dog chased pigeons into the air and a litter of kittens mewed noisily.

I watched Zio disappear into a profusion of trees to the right of the house and emerge a minute later holding a bottle of red wine triumphantly above his head! The old man laughed at zio who said ‘It’s so hot and you hadn’t offered me a drink so I had to go find it myself!’. His friend gave a short laughed and praised his audacity. When I smiled questioningly at him, he beckoned me to follow him down a short grassy path that led to a small stone well. ‘Vieni qui’ he said. He pointed down the well, dark and foreboding and full of water, then showed me the string the bottle had been tied to. ‘In the old days, this was better than a fridge!’ I laughed and followed him back to the others.

My father taught me how to observe. It seems that asking questions wasn’t the way to get answers in this village, and it wasn’t the way I would come to really understand my father either. Observations counted for a lot, they were lengths of string that you pulled out of wells, with surprises at the end. I had stopped forming questions and started defining answers that afternoon by staying silent. My father deals in silences. I could take silence as a sign he didn’t care. But here I was – silent.  Discovering layers of silence that had nothing to do with not caring. If words are everything to me, they are only well considered to my father.

The afternoon drew to a close and we skipped gingerly over the hot vinyl seats of the car. Everyone was quiet on the way back, tired and lulled by the sun. We rode back into the village and I saw my father sitting in a small circle of men, his dark skin glossy in his trousers and light shirt. One hand casually rested in his pocket, the other held his cigarette. I saw my father jerk his head at us almost imperceptibly as we drew up beside him. I saw my father. And I smiled.

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Gallery and museum etiquette 101

A gallery or museum visit lurks in almost every holiday and at that visit you must follow the prescribed etiquette. You didn’t think there was a gallery and museum etiquette? Of course you did – you don’t burst into song, cartwheel or tell dirty jokes at the gallery. You’re quiet. Respectful. Sombre. Whether it’s a tin shed with dusty perspex shelving, or a state of the art, kid-friendly monolith with flashy interactive monitors,  these institutions are serious and wrapped up in a web of etiquette we can only begin to unravel right here and now.

To do or not to do?

Do not go to a Post Impressionist art exhibition if you have a respiratory tract infection. Gazing fondly at a Monet  my gentle reverie was rudely interrupted by a hawking, guttural noise. Ok, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a gallery purist… a snob, if you will. I actually stopped to turn around and give that person a dirty look. I stared coldly at this tall giant of a man, from my height of five foot nothing, and gave him an eyebrow raise. Satisfied I’d made my annoyance known, I stared fixedly at a Degas. Again, the snorting, throat scraping, gurgle. What? I actually tutted then and looked at this man in disbelief. Really? What sort of Neanderthal, lunk of a man would even bother wasting the entrance fee on an art exhibition if all he was going to do was hawk mucus like a 19th century, southern plantation owner. The third time, when it sounded like a dog was trying to cough up a fur ball, I spun around to catch…. the man’s petite, cardigan dressed wife, resettling her glasses and wiping her eyes. She smiled meekly at me in apology.

Do not step back unexpectedly. The gallery dance is a subtle and complex movement, full of nuance and delicacy. Step in front of the portrait. Sigh. Tip head thoughtfully to one side. Narrow eyes. Murmur ‘mmm’. Put hand to chin. Lean forward to look at brush strokes. Straighten. Step gracefully to the side and, gently now… whoosh. Tilt chin back, mutter ‘oh my’ and raise your eyebrows at your companion. Prepare to whirl again, but don’t step back – unless you and the person behind you practiced this in the car park beforehand, you’re not in sync. There will be inappropriate touching. If it’s peak hour – Saturday afternoon on the opening day of a special exhibition – you’ll witness a lot of foot stepping, ‘oh, excuse me’s and even a couple of narky head shakes and ankle rubs. The dancing will be less like a waltz and more like a mosh pit.

Do follow instructions. If you go to the Sistine Chapel, be silent. Not quiet – silent. This is what they ask you to do. In a myriad of languages piped through a loud speaker as you creep forward in the inevitable long, long line you’re asked to respect this holy place by refraining from talking. Of course, the moment you step into the Chapel it’s like a market day cattle call. There’s not just talking but shouting, wild gesticulations, mutterings of ‘I don’t see what the big deal is’ and even a little bit of praying. I confess, I also spoke, but it was only to ask my companion if they could spot the famous finger pointing panel painted by Michelangelo. The ceiling is an awfully long way away.

Do get excited. At the Treasures exhibit in the National Library, Canberra. I had to smile at a mother striving to get her kids interested in the ‘old stuff’. Suddenly, she squats down and pushes her face right up against the glass cabinet and gasps. ‘Oh my goodness!’ she mock whispers. ‘Kids! KIDS! Take a look AT THIS.’ They duly walk over and stare at an old gun. ‘Do you know what that is?’. They looked only a little impressed. ‘That there [finger poke] is a gun used by a genuine bush ranger’. Her eyes were wide open and she pulled the kids a little closer. ‘Imagine that! That might be Ned Kelley’s!’. The kids looked at the gun with new awe and respect. ‘Did it kill anyone?’ the little one asked. ‘Maybe!’ mum replied excitedly.

They stood there for ages chatting about it and she even managed to cram in some genuine Australian history that had them enthralled. She gave an astonishing and award winning performance. Those kids are probably still talking about their visit to the museum and the cool gun they saw. 

And that’s the point, after all – a memorable but incident free visit!

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