Monday, November 29, 2010

Saying goodbye

This morning, Frances left for a few days in Milan to see friends. I'll be gone by the time she gets back. She knocked on my door at about 10 am and we said our goodbyes with me dressed in pink pyjamas.  She left me a surprise in the kitchen, though: a signed black and white print of one of the olive trees she photographed with a pinhole camera and which she printed in a darkroom at the Accademia delle Arte the old fashioned way.

Around 3 o'clock, Barbara came knocking on my door. I was taking a nap. She said, how can you sleep on your last day here? Well, I was so excited after such a busy day yesterday; I didn't get to sleep till after 4 am. 

She, too, had a little surprise for me. a little bag contained a lovely neck scarf -- striped with a few silver threads, cause she knows I like bling -- and a tiny, perfect pannetone in a tiny perfect little Tre Marie box, wrapped with an orange ribbon. When I open it, the fragrance alone will be enough to propel me back to the kitchen here in Martignano. (We went through two full-size ones.)

A little later I headed out to Calimera. Roberta's mother had invited me for coffee. I stepped out, and Uccia, who lives two doors down from us, told me she'd come to the exhibit at Piazza Palmieri the other night and had heard me read my 100 word narrative. She said it had touched her and threw her arms around me. I stopped across the street to say goodbye to Maria and Rosario. Maria's eyes were moist, and Rosario asked me for a copy of the narrative.

In Calimera I had a couple of lovely hours with Roberta and her mother, Maria, and Francesco, her boyfriend, came to see me off. (He’s also one of the key people in this 100-word New Page project.)

It's feels strange to have so much to say to people that I met only weeks ago. It feels good. I feel enriched.

My young friends, Roberta and Franceso

Frances, me and Barbara and our hostess Paola introducing us during our exhibit at Palazzo Palmieri

Busy last days

As I prepare to leave Italy, more and more things to do crop up.

This morning, for example, Stella and Elio took me to Bar Danilo for coffee. Then as Barbara and Frances and I sat in the kitchen around 1 pm, some friends of Frances' stopped by to invite us to take a drive with them to Giurdignano to see ancient monoliths, enchanted massi (rocks) and crypts used by the Byzantine monks that fled Greece to escape persecution.  

The generous couple, Stefania and Luigi, know the legends and stories of the Salento intimately. In fact, Luigi has written a book on the subject. But although this is their shared passion, they make their living as teachers. Their usual charges are school children but they also work in a prison, work which is partly paid and partly volunteer. They use drama as a vehicle for getting insight into their behaviour (they're working with people imprisoned for sexual crimes at the moment) and for improving self-esteem.

We spent an enchanted afternoon with them. Our hands touched Bronze Age stone Dolmen (two vertical slabs with a horizontal one on top) and Menhirs (a single vertical tower of stone) -- Puglia's version of Stonehenge. Unlike Stonehenge, however, these structures are scattered in Giurdignano and stand along dirt roads in the countryside. Needless to say, they are not protected against vandals or thieves.

The Dolmen were likely used as sacrificial altars. Some of them have buried recesses in the stone where human remains were placed. The Menhirs honoured the Sun god. Their orientation and the way they were arranged in relation to each other in a neighbourhood suggest they formed a path marking the position of the sun. 

We visited the Massi Della Vecchia, gigantic slabs of limestone that erosion over millennia has turned into sculptures. So impressive are they that legend infused them with magic:  witches guarding treasure who'd release it only if the person could answer certain questions or risk being turned into stone. We got home at 4:30.  

At 5 pm I went with Elio to a book fair near Lecce.  I wandered up and down publishers' displays with as much pleasure as if the books had been in English. I came across one little gem: the smallest book I've ever seen. The publisher told me it was written by a clockmaker. The story was written on a single sheet of paper in a way the clockmaker with his facility for making tiny things could fold the sheet over and over until it formed a book. The display had a whole row of them lined up on a miniature bookcase.

The editor told me the book tells a real story -- but not a very good one.  The author is a clockmaker, after all, not a writer, he said.  

How much, I ask? Twenty Euros.  He said, It’s a lot for a little book but the high price will prevent buyers from throwing it away. (No, I didn’t buy it.)

A Menhir in the town of Giurdignano
A Menhir along a country road with a crypt or grotto of San Paolo beneath it

The grotto's interior is decorated with frescos

Stefania (in white) leads our little troop up to the top of an enchanted massi

More enchanted limestone sculptures created by erosion

La Grotta di San Giovanni, once used by Byzantine Basilian monks was restored in 1990

Gorgeous fresco and within the grotto of San Giovanni

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ladies that Lunch

Shay left today but otherwise it was the best time I've had since arriving in Italy almost ten weeks ago.

Frances, Barbara and I went to Lecce and spent some money. We bought purses and espresso coffee makers, glassware and Christmas gifts for family members back home.  We bought things in jewellery shops and underwear in outdoor markets. We bargained -- well at least I did, and everybody I asked reduced their prices by a few Euros.

Laden with bags, we ladies lunched at a lovely place near Santa Croce called Volo. We were the only patrons there and got the proprietor’s and waiter's fullest attention. Lovely pumpkin risotto for Frances, penne with asparagus and potato mousse for Barbara while I had menu #1: orechiette in tomato sauce followed by an eggplant mousse. We didn't even have room for coffee.

Back in Martignano, Barbara and Frances got busy putting up their respective photos and paintings for tonight's exhibit at Piazza Palmieri, while I sat at my computer and tried to write. Those two put together a stupendous repeating slide show of their work and Shay's, which projected on the palazzo’s gigantic and beautiful exterior wall. It was fantastic to see the work writ so large.

The original work was exhibit inside the palazzo’s exhibition hall.

Everyone who came to the show, about 50 people, including my young friends Francesco Aprile and Roberta Gaetani, and our MIRA hostess Paola introduced us. I read my 100-word New Page submission in English and in Italian. Elio Coriano, a poet who lives in Martignano read from his work in progress, and then his wife, Stella Grande and her band, got up on stage and did three pizzicata numbers, folk music from the region. Some of the older folks got up and let loose. The dance, pizzica, is a courtship ritual. (The attached video gives a taste of the music's high energy.)

Then a bunch of us went to Alle Calende Greche for pizza. Nothing like starting dinner at 11 pm. What fun.

The exhibit hall in the Piazza Palmieri palazzo where Barbara's & Frances' works were shown

Stella Grande and her band presented several traditionl lively pizzicata folk songs

Couples got up to dance the old-fashioned courtship game

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Day 60 Breaking up

Our little group of four starts breaking up tomorrow morning when Shay leaves for Israel. Poor guy has been hen-pecked by three women for two months. He has the patience of Job.

We had our last dinner together in town at Alle Calende Greche. I grossed them all out again by ordering tripe while they shared spinach and ricotta pizza, a sagna with meatballs and a salad.  We had rose wine before we left for the restaurant, rose wine at the restaurant, and amaro and many little cakes when we got back home.

These people have been very kind and very supportive about my work. Two nights in a row now, they insisted I read them excerpts from my novel in progress. If they are to be believed -- and I don't imagine Barbara, particularly, would be capable of telling a lie -- I'm on the right track with this murder mystery.

We all hugged Shay a good night. They'll be more hugs tomorrow, Saturday, when he leaves, I expect. The three of us remaining will be going into Lecce in the morning, Frances to print more of her film photographs of olive trees in the Accademia's old fashioned darkroom and Barbara and I to spend a few more Euros before we exit. I leave on Tuesday.

Good god, how quickly ten weeks has flown.

Here we all are, including our hostess Paola, at Shay's birthday dinner at Arete

Friday, November 26, 2010

Day 59 Birthday party

We celebrated Shay's birthday tonight by going back to that marvelous restaurant just outside Cavallino called Arete. The second visit didn't disappoint.

We wanted to sit in the room on the left, where the roaring fire beconed. But alas, all those tables were reserved. In fact, we arrived about 8:15 pm. Only one other table was occupied -- a family with a baby. By the time we left just after 10 pm, people stood in the cool night air, smoking and waiting for their tables. All of them had reservations, otherwise they'd neve hope to get a seat.

We asked, no we begged the waiter to please give us only a few antipasti. We didn't want to fill up on them, we said. We wanted to leave some room for the primi (pasta) and secondi (meat).

Si, si, va bene, he said. We were five at the table and he promised to bring appetizers for two. Just to get a taste. Out came a ball of buffalo mozzarella and another called a burrato, which has an outer shell of solid mozzarella but inside contains both mozzarella and cream, the size of a grapefruit, each resting on a leaf of radicchio. When you cut into it, the concoction inside oozes thickly onto your plate and very soon around your tongue.

They also brought a plate of hand cut prosciutto some slices of lightly cooked, lightly steamed and dressed orange squash and a few small wedges of soft pecorino. Allelulliah, we thought, the waiter really heard us and we started discussing what we'd order for primi and secondi.

Then the kitchen released their hot antipasti. What? Little eggplants parmigiana, a couple of small zucchini frittatas, tiny balls of fried bread dough, miniature balls, and I don't even want to remember what else. Because we had ordered other dishes to share among us: two primi (ravioli with tiny fresh tomatoes and butter, and a risotto with spinach and truffles) as well as  stuffed chicken leg with a white wine reduction. And, of course, there was also the insalata mista.

We refused fruit, dessert and even coffee. Impossible.

Shay drove us home, the whole lot of us stuffed to the gills -- until we got to Calimera and some wise guy in the back seat (I think it was Frances) suggested we go have a look in the piazza to see whether Vittoria's might be open. It makes the best gelato I've had in Italy. That gelato is Shay's favourite thing, so on the occasion of his  birthday and since he's leaving in two day we voted in favour of going.

Unfortunately, it was open.

Ravioli with tomato and ricotta was luscious

The waiter brought a small table to divide for us the food for dishes we had ordered to share

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Day 58 Women and Men

I heard a story a while back about a woman, reputed to be a strega (a witch), who lived in Martignano at the turn of the 20th century.  Everybody knew she was a witch except her husband. As the story goes, the woman would wait until her husband slept before sneaking out. Then she’d turn herself into a horse and carouse with others like herself in the piazza.

At some point somebody got up the nerve to tell the husband, and he concocted a plan to catch her in the act. Pretending to be asleep when she slipped out, the man followed his wife to the piazza, walked right up to her (as a horse) and smashed her on the head with a stick of wood, which he'd brought for the express purpose.

The blow immediately turned her back into a woman, a bloodied one. The next day the big gash in her head remained so that everyone knew her carousing days were over.

When I heard that tale, I nearly spit. What a convenient story for a wife beater living in a time of superstition.  

The house where the couple lived is abandoned now, its stones crumbling and its innards filling up with weeds.

The story came to mind because November 25 is the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. There will be demonstrations in Rome, Bologna, Brescia and Napoli, organized by 400 Italian women's groups under the umbrella of

I haven't been able to ferret out any activities taking place in Canada on Nov. 25. In fact, the date isn't even mentioned on the Canadian government's events 2010 calendar. This despite the fact that its own agency, Statistics Canada, said in a 2008 report there had been 38,000 incidents of spousal violence in 149 police services during 2006 -- accounting for some 15 per cent of all reported violent incidents in the nation. 

No one will be surprised to hear men were responsible for eight out of ten of these assaults.

Stats Can also reports 49 women were killed by a current or former spouse in 2009, four more than in 2008. Fourteen of them had already left their killers when they were cut down.

Here's another good number: Women continue to face three times the likelihood of turning up dead at the hands of an intimate partner than men do.

American Bar Association’s numbers indicate in recent years intimate partners were responsible for about a third of female murder victims, and the number one killer of African American women 15 to 34 is death at the hands of a current or former partner.

I started wondering whether in a supposedly macho country like Italy whether the statistics on spousal abuse would be better or worse. The news isn't good.

In a news release by, the organizing agency for the Nov. 25 marches, and published by, it cities some fierce figures: Italy's statistics agency ISTAT found more than 14 million Italian women have experienced physical, sexual and psychological violence from male partners or relatives during their lives.

A whopping 1.4 million women reported having been raped before they were 16, mostly by boyfriends or male relatives.

The controviolenza news release also has this to say: "Shockingly, over 94 percent of violence endured by women (in Italy) is never reported, and just 18.2 percent of women consider it a crime."

On-line broadcaster quotes Sabrina Franca, director of the Maree antiviolence center, in Rome who said that until 1996 Italy had no laws against sexual violence, and men were not punished for abusing women.

"According to an old Italian legislation, a man could kill his wife, if she was cheating on him,” Franca said.

The story polled men on the streets of Rome on the subject of violence against women. Each and every one of them insisted they could never lift a hand against a woman. Some even blamed immigrants for Italy's appalling statistics. Rt said almost 7 million women were victims of domestic violence in Italy last year.

The numbers haven’t suddenly shot up. It cites psychologist who say it's just that  women are now less afraid to turn in their partners.


But in some Third World countries, up to 70 per cent of their female citizens endure untold indignities. Have a look at the World Heath Organization’s web site.

The house where the strega is supposed to have lived in the early 1900s as seen from the street

A door immediately left of the entrance leads into what must have been a kitchen

What went through that poor woman's mind as she lit the fire for her husband's breakfast?

The kitchen fireplace?


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Day 57 Explaining Italians?

I write about this place as though it were Paradise. I know it's not. My young friend, Francesco Aprile, a writer and philosophy student, described it as "mean."  He says the government's right-wing policies; especially more and more cuts to education grants will cripple Italy. Many of the young people I've talked to sound hopeless.

Although I’m Italian born, I don’t always understand their behaviour. They’re not straightforward, not with foreigners and not with each other. I complained about this yesterday to the Accademia di Belle Arte di Lecce's, director Giacinto Leone. He told me a story that clarified things for me, a story told to him years ago that his entire outlook, and the way he dealt with his own people.

Here's the story: A bony fin slid into the palm of a fisherman while he emptied his nets. He went to the village doctor, who put an ointment on his hand, wrapped it in gauze and told him to come back in a week.  The doctor did this regularly for years, telling him each time that things were progressing as they should. For years, the fisherman paid the doctor in kind, giving him fish or cheese or whatever else he had that day.

The fisherman called thought the doctor a grande dottore.

After some 20 years, the doctor retired and his son took over the practice. When the fisherman came for his regular treatment, the junior doctor took one look at it and exclaimed, "But you have a fish bone caught in there." He immediately removed it and told the patient it would heal in no time.

But when the senior doctor heard about what his son had done, he despaired: "My son," he said, "what have you done? This is not the way to ensure you will continue to eat."

Giacinto Leone has had many jobs in his long career. He's an architect by training and inclination. He has taught. He has done administrative work in the private and public sectors. He's held public office. During the 60s, his activism forced corrupt politicians to give people housing, which they’d withheld in exchange for votes. He led a sit down of 500 families to the housing ministry office, which later earned him to elected office and an appointment as minister of housing for eight years.

Mr. Leone says that story about the fisherman explained a lot about what motivates his people. It has made him able to work with them. It has made him patient.

But you also have to be smart, he said, his mischievous eyes gleaming behind glasses, or risk everything blowing up in your face. When he marched at the head of those 500 families, he made sure the women, with babes in arms walked immediately behind him, and the more hot-headed men at the rear.

Giacinto Leone during an earlier visit to the Accademia

Here's most of the wildlife I've seen since coming to Puglia:

Seen during a visit to a working masseria...

Spied on one of my trips to Calimera...these buggers were hard to photograph, had to use stealth

Ran into an unexpected visit by Kujo during a passegiata around Martignano

Lovely Dog, who followed me home from a walk back from Calimera. Sweet creature.

Some guy breaking a wild stallion on Calimera old road?