Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sunshine, Ivo, bread and chocolate

Saturday, March 16, 2013
Sunny weather arrives at last, at least for today! With the valid excuse that I forgot the cable to connect my camera to my computer, I leave my work behind and hop on my bike at 10 a.m., having waited for the sun to dispel the cool night air. I am in no hurry, so when I see Ivo and Sergio talking outside Sergio’s home, I have to stop. It is the first time I have seen Ivo this year, other than a quick drive by when I had an appointment to meet Elena.

Sergio goes back inside, but Ivo and I have a lively conversation—well, lively on his part, as Ivo does 90 percent of the talking. He has a handful of small lumache—snails—which keep crawling out of his hands and require periodic repositioning as he describes how he will prepare them for cooking by soaking them in salt water. These are just the right size for eating, he says, but bigger ones are good for his ducks.

Ivo Seghieri trims his peach trees from the roof of
his shed.
I realize as we talk what a treasure Ivo is. He is part of a way of life that will pass out of existence in not too many years. He has been raised in the old ways of the contadino and is still very comfortably embracing them. I recall the first time we met; he had just returned from an excursion into the hillside and had a bag full of wild mushrooms, which he showed us with pride. Last year he gave me a short discourse on foraging for nettles and other wild plants. Two years ago he took us on a tour of his little farmyard, where we saw his chickens and ducks. We saw how he grows corn and then dries it and strips the kernels off to provide year-around poultry feed. Every spring we see him preparing the ground for his orto and tending to his vines, which provide the grapes for his homemade vino.

I sometimes read books written by people who had fond memories of traveling to Italy during their younger years and, upon returning when they were older, found it had lost some of its special qualities. In many ways, the Italy of the early 1900s was similar to the Italy of the 1800s and even much earlier. Those who were lucky enough to have experienced Italy in the early 1900s lament how modernization has ruined the country, how Italians now live fast-paced lives inside their apartments or fenced-in yards of single-family homes. They hardly know their neighbors. They shop in large supermarkets, drive to work instead of walk and sit home and watch television at night.

When I read these things, I am tempted to lament as well—that I was born too late, or at least I came to Italy too late, to see the country the way it was for so many centuries. And then I think how lucky I am, because if I had come 20 years later than today, there may be no more people like Ivo, Sergio, Mario and Dante, at least not in San Salvatore. Ivo is a little younger than the others, and that means he is still outside every day, actively living the life of a traditional contadino. The others certainly share Ivo’s knowledge and experience, but they are no longer so active. It’s true there are more remote communities where the skills of the previous centuries will still be passed on and practiced for many more years, but in this more suburban area, people like Ivo will vanish all too soon.

As an added bonus, Ivo is always outgoing and friendly, and he speaks clearly enough that I can understand him reasonably well. He seems quite comfortable carrying the main load of our conversations, and each time I pass by and see him tending to his farm, I count myself fortunate to know him.

I'd have to be starving to destroy these works of art.
I continue on and pick up the cable at Trony, and then I realize the day is too beautiful to return to the solitude of my apartment. It’s only another 15 minutes to Altopascio, so I ride on and buy some pane integrale; unfortunately the panetteria is sold out of my favorite, pane delle Dolomiti, but this is the next best thing. It’s just another minute to the centro, so I walk my bike up the hill, turn the corner and find a couple dozen vendors in the final stages of setting up their booths for a chocolate fair. The smell is intoxicating and the artful products a delight to the eyes. However, after wandering around and admiring the displays, I realize that I would feel terrible destroying a work of art just to satisfy my sweet tooth, so I decide to buy just a plain square of rich, delicious chocolate.

As I ride back in the sunshine, I reflect that in this simple two-hour outing, I have experienced much of what I have come to love about Italy—the warmth of the people, the comfort of the food and the knowledge that something unexpected is always just around a corner.

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