Athena’s Gift, Part I

Whenever there’s talk about the 100-mile diet, I always say, sure, I’m all for it – as long as  within that 100-mile radius two things can be grown – vitas vinifera and olives.

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Insalata caprese drizzled with olive oil. Ravello.

Whether I toss olive oil with aceto balsamico invecchiato (aged balsamic vinegar costs more, but you only need a bit and it makes all the difference) on a salad, drizzle it over bruschetta (no shushing please! it’s broo-skate-tuh) or grilled vegetables, or use it in a pasta sauce – shrimp or broccoli with garlic is one of my favourites – hardly a day goes by that I don’t eat olives in one form or another.   And whenever I go to Italy, I always try to include the olive in my itinerary.  The olive groves in Tuscany are particularly beautiful.

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Vineyards and olive trees in the Val d’Orcia of southern Tuscany.

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Olive trees in the Chianti area.

The beauty of Puglia’s olive groves has little in common with the manicured groves of Tuscany.  Down in the hot, arid south the beauty comes from the fantastical shapes of the centuries-old trees.

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On a moonlit night it would be easy to imagine dancing spirits.

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Let your eyes wander over one of the behemoths for a few moments and you’ll start to see all sorts of creatures and faces.

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A creature from Tolkien emerging from the earth?

The photo below may give the feeling of a lovely warm day but I remember wishing I had packed warmer clothes when I took it.  It was December and this was my first trip to Puglia.  I didn’t really know what to expect, except that it was bound to be warmer than back home and I hoped would be full of interesting sights – a much-needed distraction from the frenzy of December in Toronto.  If I had to listen to ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ one more time …

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Where the trees lean precariously, rustic stone pillars keep them from crashing over.  Ripe olives scattered around the base of the tree are the giveaway as to the time of year.

It was warmer than Toronto, but not as warm as I had anticipated.  There were quite a few days when I envied the locals their winter jackets.  But it was interessante.  Molto interessante.  For starters, it was the season of the raccolta dell’oliva.  Olive harvest.  One day I was taking my time along a quiet, country road on my way to Castel del Monte, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the image on the back of Italy’s one cent coin (post to come), when I saw an olive harvest taking place by the side of the road.

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It was one of those narrow roads bordered by rough, stone walls.  There was only a foot or two of shoulder, but I hadn’t seen another vehicle for miles so figured it would be OK to stop.  Hoping they wouldn’t mind, I started walking towards the group.  They all stopped to stare at the straniera – a little unnerving – but I said Buon giorno and explained I was interested to see how they harvested the olives.  As usual, once they realized I was neither crazy nor in trouble, they were as friendly as could be.

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Hard to imagine that a bunch of olives like these could be transformed into liquid gold.

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One of them started up the ladder.

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He almost disappeared in the thick foliage.

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Then he emerged – ta da! – and posed for the camera before he set to work shaking the branches.

I’m always amazed at the rudimentary tools and containers many Italians use to create the most exquisite products.  Some of the most delicious meals I’ve eaten were prepared in a hodge podge of battered, old pots and pans. (Not always, but if I have a feeling no-one will mind – if I’m staying at an agriturismo for example – I like to go round to the kitchen after a day of exploring and visit with the cooks as they prepare the evening meal.)  For the roadside harvest in Puglia, they used not the lovely, hand-made wicker baskets we see in ads and coffee table books, but a motley assortment of beat-up, plastic crates to transport the olives to the frantoio (fran-toy-yoh) – olive mill.

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Plastic bins and all, I had a feeling the olive oil would be exquisite. A culinary treasure that would be savoured throughout the following year by family and a few lucky friends.

After the nets had been gathered up, the older gentleman – the father? – went around and gathered up all the olives that had been missed.

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Every last uliva.

The high regard – reverence even – in which the olive tree and its fruit are held goes back centuries and centuries.  Some would say all the way back to the gods of ancient Greece.   But before we go on, a word of clarification in case you’ve been wondering if I’m not sure how to spell ‘olive’ in Italian and have been hedging my bets by going back and forth between an initial ‘o’ and an initial ‘u’.  I have been hedging my bets, but not because I don’t know which spelling is the right one.  ‘Olive’ is one of those words that are described – with a lyricism only Italians can get away with – as an example of uso oscillante (o-shil-lan-tay). Oscillating usage.  So although there are regional preferences – ‘o’ is more common north of Rome – an olive tree can be un olivo (0h-lee-voh) or un ulivo (ou-lee-voh). Mercifully, whichever first letter you prefer, the endings for all words olive-related do not oscillate.  If you’ll just bear with me for a moment, the following may one day help you avoid ordering a tree instead of a few nibbles with your evening aperitivo.

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Roses grow up an ancient olivo near Ostuni.

The Italian word for ‘tree’ is  albero (al-beh-roh), which, like most masculine words, ends in ‘o’.  The Italian word for ‘fruit’ is frutta (frout-tah).  The final ‘a’ tells us it’s feminine.  It gets a little confusing when you factor in the plurals – masculine ‘o’ becomes ‘i’ and feminine ‘a’ becomes ‘e’, but apart from that it’s a beautifully simple system.  Trees are masculine and fruits are feminine.  An apple tree is un melo, an apple is una mela; a peach tree is un pesco, a peach is una pesca.  E così via.  And on and on.  There are a few exceptions of course. Like anything we humans use on a daily basis, the system has developed a few glitches.  Pompelmo is the grapefruit tree and the fruit, which leads to the question as to how it came to be that trees are masculine and fruit feminine, but that would be another digression. For now, the important thing to remember is that when you’d like some olives with your Aperol, don’t ask the waiter for an olive grove (olivi).  Ask for a few olive (oh-lee-vay).

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Olive flowers in May. Provided it doesn’t rain, the flowers will be pollinated by the wind and l’oliva will begin to grow.

Back to the ancient Greeks.  One day, maybe he was bored, the excitement of his latest exploit had worn off and even the head of the gods couldn’t go down to earth every day and wreak havoc. Or maybe he was fed up with the constant bickering among the gods and goddesses under him.  In any event, one day Zeus decided to hold a competition.  To ensure a lively crowd of spectators, he limited the contestants to two – Athena and Poseidon.   Zeus may also have been feeling magnanimous – or maybe guilty – one of his latest exploits involved flying down to earth disguised as a swan and having his way with a lovely, young mortal on the eve of her wedding night.  In any event, the challenge he set the two gods was to create the most useful gift to humanity.  The God of the Seas went first.  He hurled his mighty trident against a boulder and immediately water started to flow from the rock.  Impressive.  Then Athena went down to Earth and ordered her to produce a new and marvellous tree.  Seeking outside help seems rather a dodgy move on Athena’s part, but there was no rule against it.  Since the competition was Zeus’ brain child, there probably weren’t any rules.  In any event, Earth was happy to oblige – perhaps she had previously had some pleasurable encounters with the Goddess of the Hunt and the Forests – and from her depths brought forth a magnificent olive tree. Whether they got it right is debatable – fresh water would seem to be a pretty useful gift for us mortals – but in a rare moment of harmony the Gods and Goddesses of Olympus agreed that the olive tree was the more useful gift and declared Athena the winner.

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Building and maintaining Puglia’s dry-stone walls is labour-intensive and expensive, but no expense or effort is spared when it comes to the olive tree.

TBC…

 

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We’d Like Flowers Abroad for Dinner

There wasn’t a lot going on in Ostuni’s main piazza early Sunday morning.  The few tourists that were up and about were heading for the centro storico and the locals who weren’t checking out the goods at the antique market – which, as I’d found out, was alive and well (previous post) – were probably at church.

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Piazza della Libertà. Ostuni. It’s easy to tell the locals from the tourists. The locals are wearing jackets and long pants. The tourists are in short sleeves.

I had a quick look at the map I’d picked up at the local IT, which stands for Informazioni Turistiche, not Instant Teller, and then did what I usually do in places like this.  I put it away.

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Having visited quite a few of Italy’s medieval centres I knew that trying to follow the map through the twisting alleys and dead ends would be molto seccante (seck-kahn-tay). Very drying out of the spirit. Besides, no matter which alley I took, I’d eventually come to a wall, part of the ancient fortifications against invaders. If I got really exasperated, it was just a matter of looking up and using the spires of one of the churches to take my bearings.

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In Ostuni’s centro storico put away the maps and meander.  You’ll never really be lost.

People have been living here for a long time.  Since the Stone Age in fact.  During the tour I took of an olive grove on the outskirts of Ostuni (next post), there was quite a bit of talk about some ancient people called i Messapii.  The personable, young guide was so impressed by my knowledge about a rather delightful bit of trivia concerning the origin of the olive tree, I hated to disillusion him,  so I decided to look them up later.  I was relieved to see that although scholars are pretty sure the Messapians – I loved the meaning of their name  – ‘Between the two Seas’ – arrived in Puglia in the 8th century B.C., they don’t  know exactly where they came from. Whatever their origins – probably Greece – the original settlement was (as usual) destroyed and another group of Greeks arrived and built a new settlement, which they called Astu Neon (New Town).  Ostuni.

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As you stroll along the alleys you go from deep shade to brilliant sunshine.

Every Canadian who is lucky enough to have a cottage or lots of cottage-owning friends knows that there is one downfall to the season they have been longing for all winter.  Mosquitoes.  There are two main lines of defence against the wretched little vampires.  Mosquitoes prefer dark colours, so you can try wearing light-coloured clothes – not a very practical option at the cottage – at least not the cottages I’ve been to – or, assuming you can get past the long list of nasty-looking ingredients, slather yourself with insect repellent.  For those of us who spend most of our summer languishing in the city, mosquitoes aren’t much of a problem.  Instead it’s the vast expanses of asphalt parking lots and dark-walled office towers that suck up the heat, making walking along the city streets almost as unbearable as in the depths of winter.

And what, you might be asking, does any of this have to do with Ostuni’s historic centre?

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Is that periwinkle? I wonder who the stone step is for?

The answer lies in the dark days of the 17th century when one of the many plagues that regularly decimated populations throughout Europe swept through Ostuni.  To help the barely living steer clear of the houses of the soon-to-be-dead, someone came up with the idea of painting the walls of the infected houses in a colour that was easily identifiable and that there was a good, handy supply of.   As we saw in ‘It Doesn’t Exist!’ (July 17, 2016) one thing that is readily available in Puglia is limestone. The Ostunesi  took the limestone, ground it into a fine dust, added water to create a milky wash and started painting.  After a while of this practical, but perhaps ethically questionable practice, they noticed something strange.  Many of the people in the painted houses did not die.   They didn’t know it at the time of course, but their milky wash was calcium carbonate. Not the rock-dissolving type that creates lamas, but a form that is antibacterial.  And a natural insect repellent.

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Modern windows give a hint of the work involved in modernizing the ancient structures.

Now that fighting plagues has given way to attracting tourists as a prime concern, the walls of the town are still kept a pristine white by generous government subsidies – homeowners are refunded 50% of the cost of white washing their walls every two years. And of course, unlike the dark-hued towers that seem all the rage with architects these days, those white walls reflect the glaring rays of the Puglian sun, making the city much cooler.

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Who knows when this door was last opened?

I was trying to get a shot of the entire cathedral – a challenge in the narrow spaces – when I heard a vaguely familiar voice.  ‘Madame!’  I turned around and there was the French couple I’d met the day before.  I had been about to pour another stash of coins into the parking machine when someone called out,  ‘Attention madame! La machine ne marche pas!’  (The ticket machine isn’t working!)  Now if there’s one thing that gets me riled up when I’m travelling, it’s other tourists who act as if their language is some kind of lingua franca understood by everyone else.  English speakers are the worst offenders.  And just because English is the closest we have in our time to a world language, that’s no excuse.  When you’re in a country where your native language is not the language of that country, the least you can do is start off with the local version of ‘Hello’, or ‘Excuse me’, which in Ostuni would be Buon giorno or Scusi.  Sometimes I pretend not to understand and answer in Italian, but the poor fellow – he was probably in his late 60’s – looked genuinely concerned and more than a bit frazzled, so putting aside this linguistic bestia nera (black monster), I said, en français, figuring my account with my guardian angel could probably do with a top up – Comment? (Pardon?)

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He showed me the ticket the machine had printed out after he had inserted beaucoup de monnaie.  The expiry time was 9,35.  It was evening by now.  Italy uses the 24-hour clock. His ticket expired at 9,35 am.  Maybe he did have a point.  I looked at the machine again. The time showing was 17,57.  I didn’t have a watch on but that seemed about right.  I looked at his ticket again.  With all the attention focused on the offending 9,35, I hadn’t noticed another time entry at the top of the ticket – 17,55 – the time his ticket must have been printed.  I was already pretty frazzled myself with the whole parking thing in Ostuni, and switching over to French definitely put a strain on the circuit board, so it took me a minute to figure out what was going on.  After 20,00 (8 pm), parking in Ostuni, assuming you can find a spot, is free.  The machines do not give change.  However, any money you put in the machine that would cover past 8 pm goes towards the following day.  In smaller letters under the expiry time was the expiry date – May 23.  This was May 22.  When they caught up with me at the cathedral, they looked totally relaxed.  In fact madame had a twinkle in her eye.  ‘Il faut que je vous raconte ce qu’on a fait.’ (I have to tell you what we did.)  Before our encounter at the parking machine, they had driven up Via Cattedrale all the way to the cathedral, before it occurred to them they were in a pedestrian zone.  No wonder they were frazzled. It was hard to know which was more amazing – that they would even think it was OK to drive up the narrow, congested lane or that they weren’t spotted by one of the wretched vigili.

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Strangely, the cathedral wasn’t painted white. Had it enjoyed some kind of heavenly immunity during the plague?

The French couple and I were lucky we hadn’t decided to visit Ostuni in August when, according to an article in the Brindisi Report (Aug. 22, 2012), finding a parking spot is like finding un ago in un pagliaio (pal-yigh-oh). Christian Continelli, councillor of the Pdl – Popolo delle Libertà di Ostuni – was upset that his otherwise splendida Ostuni, the city with the largest number of tourists in the entire Brindisi province, could be so unwelcoming as to hit those tourists with hundreds and hundreds of parking fines, many of which were, in Consigliere Continelli’s opinion, of highly dubious merit.  He also made a number of  withering comments (which I quite enjoyed) about the ‘indisciplina stradale degli ostunesi (lack of road discipline of the locals) as well as the troppa toleranza (excessive tolerance) shown to them by the vigili compared to the tourists.  No wonder the owner of the B&B hadn’t shared my worries about all the NO STOPPING signs.

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In front of the cathedral the lane widens.  Taking advantage of the rare, open space, a bar nearby brings out tables and chairs when the weather is bello.

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As the sun began its slow descent, even narrow alleys filled with inviting places for the evening aperitivo.

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The pointy, purple bean bags looked terribly out of place amidst the medieval surroundings, but given how many there were, I had a feeling this would be a lively place later on.

L’Osteria del Tempo Perso looked like a lovely place for dinner, but I had other plans.  I was going to have dinner on the B&B’s rooftop terrace.

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The inviting entrance to the Osteria of Lost Time.

I had put a bottle of vino bianco in the fridge earlier that day.  The only thing left was to pick up dinner from the Friggitoria nearby. The ‘Frying Place’ was a combo fish market, deli, trattoria and take-out.   While I was waiting for my pasta alle vongole a British couple arrived.  They tentatively approached the counter.  ‘We want to eat,’ the Brit said to the young fellow, ‘all’estero, ‘(al-less-teh-roh) . ‘No,no, no!’ the woman interrupted, all’estero means ‘abroad’.   Complimenti, I thought.  She was right.  Then she turned to the young man and explained, ‘We want to eat fiori.'(fyoh-ree).  We want to eat flowers.  To his credit the young fellow didn’t show the slightest sign that anything was off, and even more impressively, rather than possibly embarrassing her by asking if they wanted to eat fuori (fwoh-ree), he used another expression. Volete mangiare all’esterno? (al-less-tair-no) You want to eat outside?  They did.  Now that where they were going to eat was settled, there was the matter of what.  They wanted fish, which I thought was very adventuresome of them.  There was an enormous selection to choose from.  They examined the various fish closely, finely agreeing on a big, white one.  Dorado.  The young man asked how they wanted it cooked.  Al forno?,  he suggested.  They didn’t have a clue and he apparently spoke not a word of English – not even simple terms like ‘baked’.  I was on the verge of helping out, when they smiled and said that ‘Al forno’ would be wonderful.  And Sì, sì, they also wanted some patate fritte.

It was such a pleasure to watch them navigate what can become a trying, daily ritual – I’ve seen many a couple who did not treat each other with anything remotely close to the patience and good-natured humour these two showed each other – that I was almost sorry when my order appeared.  It was only later, as I was setting up my dinner on the rooftop terrace, that it occurred to me what they had ordered.  Fish and chips.

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 Pasta alle vongole (clams), vino bianco and a view.  Buon appetito!

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La Città Bianca. The White City is still visible long after the surrounding area melts into darkness.

Next – Athena’s Gift

 

Trust is Tested in the White City

Travel is brutal, wrote Cesare Pavese, it forces you to trust strangers...’   Pavese was born in northern Italy in 1908, which meant that his formative years would coincide with two of the darkest periods in Italy’s long history.  An experience that no doubt exacerbated a natural inclination to melancholy.  Paul Theroux, the inveterate traveller and travel writer, has a much more sanguine take on the issue, but even he adds a sobering note.  ‘Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.‘ (The Tao of Travel, Enlightenments from Lives on the Road).  While I have never experienced travel as the brutalità Pavese wrote about, or been in a situation where I had to trust strangers with my life, my willingness to trust in strangers has occasionally been tested.  Most recently in Ostuni, my next base.

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Ostuni. The black specks are rondini (swallows). An old proverb warns that ‘una rondine non fa primavera’. (a lone swallow does not make it spring) but by mid-May it was more like summer and there were lots of them circling high over Puglia’s Città Bianca.  White City.

Ostuni is a short drive south of the garden in the lama. (previous post).  To be precise, according to Google maps, it’s either 41.8 k via the SS16 and E55 or, there’s Option B, which is 39 k via the SS16 and SS16 (?!).  The first will take 38 minutes, the second 39.  Like I said, it’s a short drive.   Però – (peh-roe) –  it’s one of those short/long drives that Italy has an astonishing array of.   They are all bellissimi and, depending on whether you are designing the itinerary, driving or enjoying the view, either exasperating or exhilarating.  The most notable (notorious?) of course being the SS163  along the Amalfi Coast where, if you are so foolish as to, for example, decide to drive from Sorrento to Amalfi, you’re looking at well over an hour of white knuckle, heart-stopping curves with the occasional oncoming bus – so be prepared to back up.  All to cover 31 km. In the off season.  And if it weren’t for the fact that most of the time there is hardly enough room for one lane in each direction, let alone room to pull over to give the driver an opportunity to see what the passenger is oohing and aahing about, it would take even longer.

But Puglia’s SS16 is a wide, flat, mostly straight 4-lane highway and the cars really zip along. Except when it’s a ponte (pon-tay), which usually means ‘bridge’, but sometimes, as in the weekend closest to June 2, which I had forgotten is the Festa della Repubblica, a national holiday, means ‘long weekend’.  At those times, as the signora at one of the B&B’s I stayed in warned me, the highway becomes un macello.  ‘Ma-chel-low’ is one of those words that seem rather harsh the first time you hear it – its primary meaning is ‘slaughterhouse’, but what she meant was that it would be bumper to bumper cars, packed to the gills with food, people and stuff, all heading for their favourite beach.

So what makes the SS16 a short/long drive?  The exits.  With all the beautiful and luxuriant oleanders along the highway, it’s often hard to see the signs for the exits.  But that’s not the problem.

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A photo from the highway would have been ideal, but wisdom prevailed so this photo from a country road will have to do. That thin, green line is the top of a huge tour bus pummelling up the SS16.

The problem is the sheer number of exits.  At 120 km, which, going by the number of cars that passed me, was slow by local standards, there seemed to be one every five minutes.  And through breaks in the oleanders near those exits I caught tantalizing glimpses of the coast and olive groves and wheat fields.

I didn’t take all of the exits.  But it was probably a good thing I was on my own.

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Later I would be visiting Alberobello, the site with the highest concentration of Puglia’s iconic stone huts. These ones are probably used to store farm equipment or maybe provide shelter from storms.

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Nearby, on a previous trip, just a few weeks later in the season.

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If I was the farmer this is where I’d take my lunch break. And what a view!

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Some of the exits led all the way to the sea.

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With many hours of daylight still left for these meanderings, eventually I decided I better head inland.  Ostuni is only 8 km from the coast, but I knew that once I entered the city things would get complicato.  Molto complicato.  I took the following photo on my previous trip as I was walking along Corso Vittorio Emanuele towards the city’s historic centre.  The round signs with the red ‘x’ against a blue background – if you look closely you’ll see there are three of them along this short stretch – mean DIVIETO DI FERMATA. NO STOPPING. EVER.

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Is one really expected to take in all these signs and drive at the same time?

Parking anywhere near Italy’s historic centres is always a challenge.  After I had driven around one town a few times without seeing a single parking spot – not even one that a local might have been able to squeeze into – I pulled over and asked a fellow that looked like a local if he had any ideas.  ‘Ah signora, he replied in an ominous tone, parcheggiare qui è un’impresa.‘  An impresa (im-pray-zuh) is un’iniziativa importante e difficile.  You got it.  Parking may be ‘an important and difficult initiative’, but Italian is easy.  And if you believe that…

If parking was an undertaking in that village, it was almost un’impossibilità in Ostuni. I didn’t even try looking for the B&B while I was driving.  I headed to a parking lot a few blocks removed from the centro storico that I remembered from my previous trip and walked back.

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Because of the heat, the sky was hazy. Beyond the town the slightly darker band of blue is the sea.

Outside the historic centre, la città bianca is not all bianca.

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There were many times during this trip when I felt I was back in Sicily. This palace would have fit right into any of the baroque hilltop villages of south-eastern Sicily.

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It even had the gargoyles that support the balconies of those towns.

The last time I had been to Ostuni was in December.  It was damp and it rained a fair bit – there is a reason why prices are lower in the ‘off’ season – but coming from Toronto it was astonishing to see plants that were obviously left outside even in winter.

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What we call ‘tropicals’ could apparently survive the winter outdoors. In small pots with no insulation.

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Even on a cloudy day the narrow alleys weren’t at all gloomy.

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The only sign that this is December are the heavy, winter coats…

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… and a few Christmas decorations.

I was looking forward to seeing the centro on a hot, sunny day.  But first I had to take care of lodgings and the car.  I found the B&B easily enough.  But when I explained where I had parked my car, the owner didn’t seem too pleased.  Why hadn’t I simply pulled up in front of the B&B to check in and drop off my suitcase?  He didn’t seem at all concerned about the NO STOPPING signs.   In any event, he trudged all the way back with me to where I had parked my car.  I thought I’d done a very nice job of parking, so was a little miffed when he suggested that he drive it back to a more reasonable location.  But hey, it would be a lot more relaxing to be a passenger for a change.  Besides I was curious to see how he would navigate the one-way streets and confusing piazzas I’d just driven through.

What I hadn’t anticipated is that he would squeeze past a barrier, drive into a tiny piazza  and then turn off the motor.  Right next to a sign that looked a lot like the ones along Corso Vittorio Emanuele.   The only difference was it was missing one of the arms of the cross.  This, I knew, was a NO PARKING sign.  There was even an image of a tow truck hauling away a car in case you missed the blue circle outlined in red and the red slash.  It was more than a little awkward.  I was the straniera, the one from away.  He was the local, the one who presumably knew how things worked here. Still, among the many experiences I hoped to have on this trip, having my car towed was not one of them.

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At the risk of appearing foolish again, I pointed out the wording below the image of the tow truck.  E’ vietata la sosta in tutto il piazzale per svolgimento mercatino dell’antiquariato dalle ore 6 alle ore 21,30 di domenica 22 maggio 2016.  (No parking anywhere in the piazza due to the antique market from 6 am until 9:30 pm Sunday May 22, 2016.)  It was Saturday evening.  May 21.  I knew this and presumably so did he because he had checked my reservation before we set out for my car.  Nevertheless he waved his hand, dismissing my concern.  ‘Non si preoccupi. (Don’t worry.) Non c’è più.’  This second phrase – It isn’t here any more – was a little ambiguous.  It could have meant ‘it isn’t here because the powers that be decided to hold it somewhere else and forgot to take down the sign’ or, and this is how I interpreted it, ‘it isn’t here because they don’t hold it anymore.’  My little inner voice was screaming ‘NO, NO, NO!’ but what more could I say without being – what? unreasonable? ornery? unfriendly?   After all, what person in their right mind would park the car of a guest who was staying in his B&B where she would be sure to get a ticket?

When I came by the next morning and saw the market in full swing and my car – the only one around – with a ticket under the windshield wiper I was, well, I’ll leave it to you to imagine how I felt.  I looked around to see if the wretched vigile who had written the ticket was anywhere in sight.  Then I walked over to a group of vendors who no doubt had been curious to have a look at the dimwit foreigner the car belonged to.  I tried not to vent too much – they weren’t to blame – as I told them how I had happened to end up parked next to the NO PARKING sign. They did a lot of tsk tsking, which helped a bit, but I was shaking, I was so upset – which is why the photo they suggested I take is partly out of focus.  Then they urged me to take the ticket to the B&B fellow right away and get him to take care of it.   Which I did. He was very apologetic, had mixed up the dates, of course he would pay the fine, but when I took the ticket out of my purse, he almost shouted at me, ‘But signora, they’ll give you another ticket!’   Now I felt angry and stupid.

There was no new ticket on my windshield when I got back to the car.  Had the vigile returned and the vendors persuaded him not to write a second ticket?  I don’t know.  In any event I moved my car to a spot nearby, put a bunch of change into the parking machine, put the receipt – right side up – on the dashboard and headed for Piazza della Libertà to have a cappuccino and recompose myself before setting off to explore the centro storico.

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With its view over the piazza and the narrow road that led to the centro storico, Caffe Trieste was just the place to recompose oneself.

Trust is a tricky thing.  Even at home with people you know, or who live in the same community.  When we travel among strangers, it’s an even bigger leap of faith.  Or maybe not.  I’m not sure.  On the road, we are just passing through. The stakes aren’t usually as high as with people we are close to.  In any event, it seems to me there are two types of travellers – without getting into the hornets’ nest of the travellers vs. tourists argument – the ones that are totally self-reliant, arm themselves with an array of electronic devices designed to reduce interaction with locals to the absolute minimum and then there are those who deliberately choose to rely on the locals for directions, advice and insights.  I can see the advantages of the first approach, but I always wonder, why bother going to a place if your goal is to have as little real interaction with that place as possible?  Why not stay home and watch a documentary?  There are lots of great ones.  On the other hand, as I had just experienced, there are definitive risks to the second approach.  Still, even though I could have done without the drama (and probably cortisol surge), my car didn’t get towed, the guilty party was going to take of the fine and, as they say, tutto è bene che finisce bene.  All’s well that ends well.   Besides, who wants to be like the cat Mark Twain wrote about?  ‘We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid.  She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.’

In my experience, getting burned occasionally on one of life’s hot stove lids vale la pena (vah-lay lah pay-nuh), literally ‘is worth the pain’.  It’s a risk I’m willing to live with.

Next:  Revisiting the White City