Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Italian Experience: Volume 2

The sun in Italy is pretty dang hot. You would think that around midday, it might get into the seventies because at night it dips into the low fifties, but no; the heat is constant. I am no weatherman, but you can’t really trust them anyways. During an afternoon walk around the outskirts of town a couple of friends and I came across a sign in a yard that had “Santa Chiara” written on it. The name of the center we are staying at is also named Santa Chiara, so we decided to stop and see if there was a correlation. When we started to read the sign, the old man that lived in the house came outside to talk to us. Per usual, we tried to speak to this man in Italian, but our broken language presented an insurmountable barrier. The man did not seem to be phased by this linguistical chasm and ushered us into his workshop. Our fears of international death arose when we walked into his garage, passing the axes and saws affixed on the wall. We turned an eerie corner to be struck with unexpected awe. This little man (he had to be around five feet tall) had an immense collection of statues hand carved from stone. The intricate details in his work could not be reproduced by a machine. He then gestured for us to pick up a chisel and stone and try our hand at his trade. This was a task that is easier said than done. I have worked with a wood chisel before, but carving precise crags in such impenetrable material was something in itself. After the tutorial on stone carving, he showed us his gallery of stone art. The gallery was immense, containing several fireplace mantels, a chest-of-drawers, a chariot, bicycle, and the Guinness Book of World record longest chain made from stone. Apparently this tiny man who spoke no English, who invited five college students into his home, was internationally famous. There were hundreds of handwritten letters and cards in his workshop, praising his work. Once we finished perusing his collection, we walked outside and sat down. Alberto, the artist, had started carving the champion chain in 1989, after his wife passed away. He said that it was a symbol of their everlasting love. This man was such a loving human being. He had picked a basket of cherries and practically forced us to eat the entire thing. That afternoon could possibly be my favorite moment of the entire trip, as we had no plans whatsoever, but found ourselves on a grand adventure.
                Now on to the good stuff; the essence of life in itself: laughter. As a group, we traveled to Siena, once the largest and most powerful city in Italy. It is home of the oldest bank still active to this day, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, although it has been on the decline for many years.  I could go on about the historical value of the city in great detail, but let’s get down to brass tax: there are hundreds of pigeons in the town square. I was hell bent on catching one of these birds by the end of the day. After our tour of the city, I went to get a sweet treat and was surprised when I came across pineapple gelato. Of course it was the most delicious thing I had ever put in my mouth, so I devoured it within a few moments. We had tons of free time in the city, so we went and explored for a while, but got tired and went to sit in the square. Pigeons. Everywhere. The scene was comparable to Alfred Hitchcock’s, “The Birds”. Now was my chance to be the greatest pigeon master of all time. I used scraps of pizza crust as bait to attract the birds. It was only by happenstance that I caught my first pigeon, but by the second pigeon, I had devised a contraption analogous to a fishing pole. Needless to say, I was the only one in that plaza with a bird in hand. After all, it is worth two in the bush.
                Speaking of bushes, we walked to an agriturismo the other day. This term literally means, “agro tourism”. Basically put, it is a bed and breakfast that also is a working farm. This man grew olives to produce olive oil, grapes for wine, vegetables for cooking at the restaurant, and honeybees for honey. This was such an eye opening experience to see how small farms operate in Italy. Everything is much slower and there are more organic methods being used, not to say that these techniques aren't being used in the US. The honeybees were the most interesting to me. I have been a hobby beekeeper for two years now, and I also work with Texas A&M Agrilife research working under the head beekeeper at Riverside Campus. Although I did not get to peek into the hives, I did manage to get incredibly close to the colonies without being viciously attacked. There are races of bees, just like humans. There are Carniolan bees, German bees, Oriental bees, Italian bees, African bees, and plenty more. In Texas, we have been inundated with a strain of Africanized bees that are quickly spreading just like the fire ant. These bees have their ups and downs, but they are mostly known as the “killer bee” because of their strong inclination to defend the colony. Anytime I go out to check my hives back home, I must have all my proper clothing on, or else I will get stung without a doubt. Well the honeybees that they have here in Italy are… Italian bees! What a coincidence! The European bees are a much calmer race, and allow manipulation of the hives with minimal defensiveness, something that was bred into the bees a very long time ago when apiculture began to spread across Europe.
                Finally, I leave you with a picture of what looks like four separate olive tree trunks, but in fact it is one single tree. Apparently back in the eighties, there was a deep freeze across the land that lasted for a month that completely killed all the olive trees back to the ground. You can see the base of the trunk, as it is swollen. This trees root system is probably somewhere near 1,000 years old; a surreal fact that shoots chills down my spine.

For now, ciao and God bless from Italia!

- Keith Tamborello

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