Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Five Excellent Things About Aosta

I promise that there are even more excellent things to this little town than the ones I list below.  The nuance of a place, its particular beauties, reveal themselves over time, and with a month behind me and a month still ahead.  The sights—the traditional streets, pedestrian and cobbled, with the ancient ruins among them, the churches and the historical record of St. Anselm of Canterbury, the daunting and bedazzling Alps that wall in the town on every side—all are certainly attractive to someone who would want to visit.  Living here, on the other hand, you notice other things: the patterns of daily life that are and are not home.  Having awakened in Italy, I have been learning to follow the life in a quiet, remote part of that country.  And I love the experience, the schooling it gives you about who you are, what you value and assume.
               So here is a list, off the top of my head in no particular order, of five excellent things about the little town of Aosta, which is my current home.  Before I begin, though, I still have to honor the Alps, despite saying above that I would focus on daily, “non-touristy” things.  In my defense, the Alps are the daily backdrop for the Aostans, who awake to the mountains encircling them, green to a height, terraced with vineyards until the soil gives way to the slate-grey rock and above that, so high you have to tilt your head up from wherever you stand in the town, the white peaks, as in the photo from the balcony of my flat.  Mont Blanc is on the northwest horizon, and Shelley was no less impressed with it 200 years ago, although he said it a lot better:

         Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
                   Mont Blanc appears--still, snowy, and serene;
                   Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
                   Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
                   Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
                   Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
                   And wind among the accumulated steeps.

It’s beneath that kind of spectacle that the Aostans live, and from what I can tell, they don’t take it for granted, because who could?  But here are elements more everyday, that upon leaving here, I won’t take for granted myself:

1.      The town is extraordinarily clean.  Each morning the shopkeepers wash and mop down the cobblestones in front of their stores, a dusty stream trickling into the central gutter of the street, like it did in medieval times, then flowing down the sewer grates, leaving the streets not only clear but also scrubbed.  This is by nine in the morning, and though litter may gather on the streets by the end of the day, it’s kept in check by the merchants’ watchful eyes: like good chefs, they know part of the appeal is the presentation, and for someone who comes from the American mid-South, this kind of upkeep is almost glamorous in contrast to home.
      The children are unfailingly fascinating to watch.  Like at home, they come in all shades of hair and skin—slimmer, more groomed, though, and even if the clothes are not expensive brands, they wear what they have attentively, without the high fashion you would find down the road in Milan, or the bourgeois conformity you get used to seeing around town at home, but a simple, elegant mindfulness with a few American-slogan T shirts thrown into the mix.  And it’s remarkable to watch the swagger of the little boys when they’re about ten or eleven: they seem to be waiting for Scorsese’s accelerated frame-speed to slow down the walk, to give it a comic version of the menace and drama of the guys just walkin’ along in Goodfellas or Casino.
      For a town where little English is spoken (as opposed to larger cities like Florence or Venice), the world is surprising easy to negotiate linguistically.  If I say “scusi” or “mi dispiace” enough, people begin to see that I’m sorry, I can’t help being a virtually monolingual American whose feeble grasp of Latin will take me only so far down their road before, if they are kind (and almost all of them are) they have to extend a hand and guide me.  There’s a great passage in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that it reminds me of, where Marco Polo, newly arrived from Venice, begins to talk to Kublai Khan, the great Emperor:  Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks: ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes--which he arranged in front of him like chessmen. Returning from the missions on which Kuhlai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret.  I negotiated my laundry with an able, brilliant woman who had not a shred of English: with my dozen or so phrases of Italian, pantomime, pointing to calendars and clocks, we arranged what I wanted done to the clothing (nothing needed dry-cleaning, grazie), how much it would cost, and when I would pick it up.  After which, we stared at one another, sighed deeply and laughed, as though we had carried a piano up a flight of steps together.  Throughout the town, kindness and good humor have met my sparse and damaged Italian, and thanks to laughter and resourcefulness, every job has been done.

4.      At the University, on the other hand, the level of fluency has been a great relief and a godsend.  I knew from preliminary correspondence that my colleagues at the University of Valle d’Aosta spoke English like natives, but it was a great delight to discover the skills of the students.  The conversations were sophisticated, they got my jokes (except for one of them, and I’m thinking it was far more likely that the joke was bad than that their comprehension failed them) and their writing, aside from a few little quirks in phrasing and idiom, might easily be mistaken for that of my own students back in Louisville (and this is not a dig at my Louisville students—the Aosta students were really that good).  I spent two pleasant afternoons walking around town with these young people as I helped them devise and focus the subjects of travel articles I’d assigned them to write: it was discussion, question-and-answer, and undergraduate banter without gaps in communication and interpretation.  I think it was that much more pleasant because I was hungry for English, for good old-fashioned casual talk, and the students I had were bringers of that joy.

5.      Fifth on my list has been the personal joy of new colleagues.  With a small faculty for the English classes, the university has managed to cover a wide range of instruction and do it well.  It’s obvious they work hard, and at a number of universities, and yet it’s all done with good cheer and enthusiasm.  Excellent conversationalists and dinner companions, they all know how to live the life of the mind while having a fond acquaintance with just plain living in general.  So my thanks for hospitality extend to Carlo Bajetta, Anna Anselmo, Rosie Crawford, and my friend the incomparable Allesandro Stanchi, who has kept me from imploding with all the practical matters involved with living elsewhere for two months (those of you who know me well, know that practical matters and I don’t readily mix).  It’s an extension of this town’s kindness, and a pleasure to be taken in immediately and without question as a colleague.

6.      I said five things.  But here’s a little something extra.  Also, alive and well in the culture of Aosta is the concept of what’s called lagniappe in New Orleans.  A custom where the shopkeeper gives you something extra in your purchase.  The most famous example of this is, of course, the 13th item that makes up the “baker’s dozen”, but examples in Aosta have been an extra pair of oranges from a fruit shop, extra portions of fontina cheese, some really decent spreads of food with aperitifs at a restaurant called Ad Forum, and, at a Chinese restaurant off Chanoux Square in the center of the city, an after-dinner liqueur, home-made, that would send Marco Polo packing for the East with “cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings” Of course, a lot of this generosity might come because Alessandro knows everyone…or knows someone who knows someone who knows someone…and it’s that connectedness, that spirit of community, that ties so many of these things together and has become what I love most about Aosta, about the part of Italy I’ve seen in general.   ©2014 Michael Williams

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