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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

On the Ruins in Aosta

tempus edax rerum, tuque, invidiosa vetustas,
omnia destruitis vitiataque dentibus aevi              
paulatim lenta consumitis omnia morte!

My Latin is rusty, but it goes something like this:

Time, devourer of things, and you, jealous Age,
destroy all and, gnawing slowly with your teeth,
a little at a time, consume all in death!

It’s from Ovid, from around the period that the Roman town of Aosta was being built.  Beautiful lines, but nothing unusual in its sentiments about the doings of time.  Time devours, age wears away, and eventually nothing is left of what is built to last for ages.  It’s sobering enough to be no longer sobering, because we can’t think in millennia.  To me a month spreads out like infinite time when I miss my wife and family, and though I know intellectually how short a stint that is, within its span, feeling it with  heart and imagination, it dilates, becomes a small eternity.
               Even more so the stretch of two thousand years, and Aosta is both marked and undergirded by ruins that old.  From the Augustan arch at the eastern end of the central city, the still-dramatic theater closer to where I live, literally down to the tunnels and arcades beneath its medieval and Renaissance street plan, the city is a hive of ghosts. 
               Is there a way of looking at these ruins other than Ovid’s gloomy thoughts about the provisional, the temporary, the way all things must pass?  Probably not for any length of time.  Thinking otherwise must pass, too, and we are left with the transitory state of things.
               I do remember, though, the first Roman ruin I saw.  It was far from here: an aqueduct in North Wales.  I recall marveling that the Welsh narrow-gage train track that once had spanned the top of the structure—probably late in the 19th or early in the 20th century—had fallen to rust and decay, while the aqueduct, though worn and marked by rooted weeds, was still steady and upright.  There are degrees, I guess, of permanence.  There is a kind of lingering at the gate before you go.
               It’s basically common knowledge that all great Roman building depends upon the arch.  Nor are Aosta’s ruins an exception: the great defining structure of Roman triumph is everywhere, from the Praetorian Gates to the venturesome arches of the theater, through which these days, if the weather is clear, you can easily see the Alps.
               Which brings me to something about the ruins that I’ve thought about for several days.  The arch as support is one thing, but it is also a gateway, a passage.  Beneath the Augustan Arch is now a crucifix: the space it covers is now marked by the crucified God, inconceivable to the builders of the emperor’s original monument.  And of course the Alps through the arches of the theater, where the whole of nature can behold our little plays through the crumbling things we have made.  Both sides of the Praetorian Gate open into narrow, Renaissance city streets, so that the passage through them, in the footsteps of Roman legions, takes you from one beautiful road into another, equally beautiful but pretty much the same.

               Underground, though, is the cryptoporticus—excavated and restored over the last century—that is the monument to the liminality of these ruins, how they linger to suggest at a ghostly passage that underlies us all.  The arcade, as restored, extends for about fifty yards beneath the city, beneath the cathedral, then doubles back on itself, so that the wanderers emerge, like characters in a myth, pretty much at the stairs where they first descended.  Pockets of natural light, fractured through boarded windows, let you know that this passage was once ground level: a kind of “cloister walk” that framed the holy space of the Roman forum.

               And there is still a residual sanctity to the passage.  There’s a hush as you follow its long stretch beneath a city still occupied by Rome, its Christianity a colony of Catholicism, its holiness mingled with that of an earlier time.  It is hard to travel it unchanged: you welcome the light on your return, fully aware that what you have brushed against was a gate to the country of myth, but that lingering at the doorway, rather than turning back or passing through, is itself only a still point, a momentary stay against the maws of time.   ©2014 Michael Williams

Saturday, May 24, 2014

On Erbavoglio and the Lost Art

I admire chefs the way some people admire painters.  Adepts at a mystery that gives pleasure to the senses, they transform the ordinary—our everyday act of nourishment—into poetry.  It never surprises me to hear that they are sometimes painters as well, or novelists, or musicians.  Or that painters, novelists or musicians might aspire to be chefs.

What surprised me a bit more (and, indeed, it shouldn’t have) was the artistry of those who trade in the food and drink that is known for nuance and expert attentions.  Italy has a long romance with its food and wine, and it’s both the ignited passion of first love and the peace and subtlety of a long marriage, which hasn’t lost its fire, though it minds the flicker of the light now, as well as the blaze and the heat.  In short, they’re sophisticated in the palate, my current neighbors, as I discovered to my delight last week at Erbavoglio, on a little side street next to Aosta’s medieval Cattedrale de Santa Maria.

How could you pass a cheese shop, especially one just opened for the day? The sharp smells not always conventionally pleasant, underlined by the resonance of wine, for a bottle or two had been opened in the last several days.  The young man who stood behind the counter greeted me quietly in Italian, then, realizing I was pretty much lost after buongiorno, smiled and said, “We can talk in English, then.”

They know us by our confusion, my countrymen.  The deer-in-the-headlights look after the simplest of greetings says Indiana to the discerning Italian.  But Stefano was polite, and fairly fluent in English, and after a few minutes of small talk, less small and (to both of us) more interesting when the subject turned to his cheeses.

Then the moment of adventure came.  Like Vergil to my Dante, he beckoned, saying, “Things are slow this morning.  Would you like to see the cellars?”

It was “would you like some cheese?” to the second power.  He was offering a glimpse of where cheeses come from, the heart of the heart of the aging.

The downward steps could not have been more perfect: steep, narrow, and dust-encrusted.  Stefano urged me to watch my head, and it was a good thing he did.  Distracted by the sheer atmosphere of the place—both the smell and the whole Edgar Allen Poe gloom of the business (scary but only in a kind of moody way, not really frightening at all)—I stood a good risk of concussion, and ducked at the right time.

Finding myself on a dusty floor, in a maze of shelves.  Each cheese was given a wide berth: huge, encrusted drums that stank in that odd way of promising cheese, where you can’t imagine how something that foul-smelling could taste so good but it did, Stefano had sliced a small piece of fontina (the regional cheese of Aosta), so I knew that the fetid mask hid the musty amazements of the cheeses up in the shop.  Beneath these crusts were the quartz-like shavings of parmesan, the soft gorgonzola with the verdigris of veins, the green that tasted somehow moldy and spectacular at the same time.  It was impossible treasure, not a dozen feet below the surface of the town.

And Stefano knew the farms from which the cheeses originated.  It was almost like he knew the goats and cattle by their names, but that’s far-fetched.  But knowing the farms was somehow splendid enough, a kind of intimacy with food that had something medieval in it—something that hearkened back to an idealized version we have of a time when a worker’s regard for his craft was a romance rather than a task, whether he was a smith or a stonemason or, as in this case, a casaro, a formaggiao, a curutulu (see, Stefano? I’ve learned some Italian beyond “hello”).  It may not have been that way, or maybe only for a few.  But here in this valley I have seen it more than once: a colleague of mine raved about the wonderful smaller dairy farms in the foothills of the Italian Alps.  Carlo had talked of them as a kind of refinement of an old and honorable tradition—like allegory or stone masonry.  And he was right: this valley has a quiet and remarkable resource in its small producers of cheese (and of wine, for that matter).  And publicity, production, and distribution could spread wide and far something good, but not as good as I tasted in Erbavoglio—something that would sacrifice relationship to profit, intimacy to something that might well be worthy but would never be the same.  It’s precarious footing, like descending a steep dark stairway, and it is seldom that you’re aware of the steps that take you from manufacture to craft to art.  Perhaps we are unaware because sometimes all kinds of creation are narrow and dusty, straight down and stinky and with little headroom, distinguished from each other only by the love in the making.    ©2014 Michael Williams 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On Waking Up Italian

It’s different from waking up American, which is what I do inevitably when I travel. 
               But this time is different.  This time I’m living in another country, if even for a short, two months’ space.  And there is an adjustment in the psyche when you come to stay, instead of passing through.
               The schedule of the tourist is marked with high spots—hotel accommodations, notable (even dramatic) sights and sites that dominate your days in a place.  When you live there, you can notice a gradual shift in your attentions, until you are waking up in the rhythm of the place (in my case “waking up Italian”, even though I know I am not, will never be Italian).
               Those who know me, know I am a notoriously early riser, and right before sunrise, outside the window of our flat, a flurry of nightingale song lifts us toward wakefulness.  In the past, my European students (and Australian students, for that matter) have admitted to missing the sound, and it takes the actual hearing of it to understand their nostalgia.  Italians, it seems, do not rise so early, and it's odd to think most of them sleep through such elation.  On the other hand, garbage collection takes place (at least here in Aosta, at least in our neighborhood) between 11 and midnight, jostling us awake after new sleep.  Maybe you gain and lose in every daily transaction, so the disruption at the end of a day is richly compensated by the beginning of the next, the only problem being that sleep is lost at both ends of the transaction.
               But I don't miss the sleep at all.  In the hours following sunrise—what I have always considered “my time of the morning”—the streets of a town such as Aosta are pretty much left to the early riser.  Only a few shops are open, the traffic in the “pedestrian area” of the town is sparse and quiet.  It feels as though you have walked back three or four centuries.  The cobbled streets are narrow, and the muted yellows, oranges, and pinks of the buildings—particular hues I am sure you only find in Italy—brighten in the sunlight that here, at the edge of the Alps, is a disarming and unalloyed white, and by 8:00 or so, the walls shimmer and the colors waken into morning. It is, in short, a landscape a long breath away from the modern and still fully Italian.  
          Which means, among many things, that there is something unmistakably Italian beneath the technology, the mechanization, the years, that persists at the most quiet time of day in a kind of serene and expectant dignity.
And dignity, too, in the obituary posters at the gates of the churches—one of the first things you notice on a walk through an Italian town.  Here the notices of death are posted for a smaller, more intimate community—those in a church parish, those who might bask on a town square in the early afternoon when the rarefied sun intensifies and the shadows slide from one side of the streets to the other.  Death notices, the people invariably up in years, recording their passing in an old-school way that might be otherwise lost in the newspapers more central to our tradition, where the news of death is more impersonal, where it vanishes more quickly. 
Because an old vanished time is still apparent on the streets of Aosta before the day’s rush covers it.  Beneath a very modern Italy there is indeed a core, an essence, an ancient country whose rhythms still surface in the daily life of the people, from the aggressive, brilliant music of their language (which I do not know) to the smell of the bakeries, both of which are rising from the shops and side streets as I write this.  Somewhere among and above the images of the dead the city is awakening, moving slowly toward a resemblance to the American cities I know.  I begin to wonder if there is a kind of place out of time in the America I know, or whether we are too young a country or too overloaded a people to have developed that place and time to begin with.
The faint, tart whiff of cigarette smoke commingles with the aroma of bread and dark, magnificently strong coffee, until all kinds of enticements settle in the bright Italian air, the coffee the only temptation I will not resist, as the city and I awaken together.    ©2014 Michael Williams