Apr 2008

On The Move

sheep wo pj

Mr. B was bringing me up to date on the activities of the Rat Man of Treviso, a real character of our town who specializes in developing irresistible bait, laced with poison. Mr. B had run into him in Cortina, a posh mountain resort in the Dolomites. It seems that the Rat Man is in some kind of negotiations with a member of the royal family of a Middle Eastern country in order to rid the town of Desert Rats. Real ones.

“They are a little peculiar, Serena.” He carefully drew a rat with a pompom at the end of its tail. “We call this a
pompom in Italian. What do you call it?”

“Pompom.” It is always amusing to discover what which words our languages share and pompom, a word as enjoyable to say as it is to write, is one of them.

“Ah, well. The Rat Man needs to come up with a poison that contains the particular grass in the region. He is there now doing research and talking to people.”

I asked after his pigeon problem. Mr. B. sighed and shook his head. “They are still up there. He promised he would deal with them when he finishes with the rats. Do you have problems with pigeons?”

“No, I have sheep problems.”

“What? Oh, right. They are moving them to the mountains now, aren’t they?” Mr. B. lives in an elegant townhouse in the historical center of Treviso. He does not need to be concerned of the migratory and destructive nature of sheep.

Summer is coming and along with it, a heat that is impossible to abide, especially if you are a sheep. They spend the searing months of July and August, much like me, in a cooler climate, free of the mosquitoes and high temperatures that would lay me, and sheep, low. The difference of course, is that I get on a jet plane. The sheep walk. Thousands of sheep walk a hundred kilometers to their summer resort in the Dolomites. Why they don’t just put them all in a fleet of trucks, drive up there and call it a day, is beyond me. Instead, they walk.

Obviously these flocks of 800-1000 sheep cannot share the interstate and the herders, with a support staff of three or four dogs, a few donkeys and a small truck, act out a modern day cattle drive along the tiny roads, lanes, and side streets of the Veneto. Along the way the sheep annihilate any kind of vegetation in their path, disburse poop wherever they go and attempt to dodge the ire of homeowners, farmers and gardeners. And me.

Last Tuesday morning I looked up from my computer to see a wave of sheep slowly washing across our
campo or field across the street. Flocks of sheep truly move like water, ebbing and flowing in a mindless river. This dirty white mass was dotted with a few donkeys which are fitted with packs designed to carry tired or weak lambs. The herders slip the wilted babies into the pouch and the donkey continues to graze while the tiny heads bob along to the movement.

I turned to inform Luciano of their arrival and when I looked back the
campo was filled with sheep to the horizon. Worst of all, the front edges of the mass were lapping up against our fence, and more importantly, against Giancarlo’s grape vines. The parents were away for a road trip. The grapes were defenseless.

I ran downstairs and, grabbing a broom on the way, out the front door. Using my momentum I crashed against the fence with the broom. The nearby animal jumped almost straight up in shock and then, coming back to earth, looked back at me, annoyed. I patrolled the fence as they kept a grudging distance while the donkeys watched, unimpressed, and went on grazing. No amount of broom waving could move them, but luckily they were not eating the grapes so I let them be.

I stood in my pajamas with the sun on my back and listened to the crunchy dry grass shuffling and conversational human-like baaaa’s going out across the field. There are different voices, highs and lows, rich bass and tinny whines. The dogs, silent and agile, moved around the animals, shaping them like sculptors and enjoying a higher intellect. The donkeys ignored everyone, intent on eating. I protected the grapes. It was a timeless moment of simple gestures. Once again I was struck with the thought that if anyone had told me five years ago that this would be my life…

As soothing as this was, I had to go to work. So I left my post to get dressed. The sheep looked up at the opportunity, but I imagine, were pacing themselves, leaving the grapes for later.

That evening when I returned they were still there. As the sun set, an orange orb glowing psychedelically over the field, the cerebral dogs rolled the sheep into a single large ball and the shadowy herders put up a temporary fence around them. On cue the sheep dropped to their knees for the night. In the darkness only the occasional bleats of the insomniacs gave away the fact that more than a thousand animals were bedded down a few meters from our door. In the morning they stood and moved on before I had finished my coffee, leaving a wide swath of dirt and poop on the road marking their way to the Dolomites.

In the darkness I could not see what was left of the grapes. I asked Anna Maria if they had done much damage.

“I could not get the donkeys away from the gate. They were rubbing their backs on the gatepost. But I do that too. And I have never seen that field so clean. The grapes are ok.”

Quite possibly that flock is now arriving at the base of the mountains and the going is a little smoother, seeing as there is less traffic, and fewer gardens. By the end of May they should be installed in their summer digs in the Dolomites, undoubtedly not far from where Mr. B shared an afternoon aperitif with the Rat Man of Treviso.

sheep w pj

Ies Ui Chen

contrassegni elezioni
Thanks to Treviño for putting together some of the symbols
(from a total of 181 political parties).

What does this mean? ”

Anna Maria showed me a bit of paper from the stack she uses to jot down English phrases.

“’Ies ui chen. ’ Hmmm. ” Written as an Italian might spell it, I sounded it out, “’Yes…we… can. ’ Oh, this is the slogan for Barack Obama! ”

“Well, yes. Of course it is, but what does it mean? ”

I explained the words and the concept and then wanted to know where she heard it.

“Well, everywhere. Don’t you? ”

I had in fact heard it used in a radio program parodying the current campaign of Veltroni the mayor of Rome who represents a party named
Partito Democratico. Taking a cue from the US campaign, he alone is touring Italy on a bus, talking directly to people. In a mock interview we can hear the campaign workers chanting in the background, “Yes, we can, yes, we can” as they roll across Italy as this country, once again, gets ready for another election.

In land whose people are celebrating the 60th birthday of its constitution, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is now also working on replacing its 61st government. This decision was made at the end of January when the majority in Parliament fell apart, the Prime Minister resigned, whereupon the President threw up his hands and decided to toss everyone out on their collective ears and start over. The election will be this weekend with the campaign lasting about four months. Compared to the two year marathon we call the US presidential campaign process, this speed is downright dizzying.

As usual, I glean my understanding of the Italian political system from several sources: the newspapers, the television news, my students and Luciano…all with varying degrees of comprehension, creativity, accuracy, and attitude.

To embark on any discussion concerning politics I start with Luciano.

“Ok, Luciano, let me get this straight: Every time the prime minister loses a few traditionally supporting votes, he must step down? How do they get any work done? ”

“Yes, and they don’t. ”

“Did everyone get thrown out? I saw a few really old guys who didn’t look like they were going anywhere. ”

“Those guys have been there forever. You can tell ‘cause they are in the shape of a chair. They will never leave. ”

“You are a little grumpy about this aren’t you? ”


One of my students claims that most of the politicians now in office are products of the student protests of 1968 during which bogus diplomas were handed out to appease the demonstrators. He went on to add that “they do nothing and have done so for years! ” He is a beginner English learner and pretty upset about the situation so his words were a bit more mangled. These are in essence his feelings, which I have straightened out for him.

Mr B had other gripes.

“You know Serena, they call this government a geriatricy. No one in parliament is under the age of 70. Fer cryin’ out loud, the President is 82! And they were surprised when he was short of breath last week? He should be followed around with an oxygen tank. ”

Ok, well he didn’t say the last part, but he felt it.

It is no wonder that the youth of Barack Obama is a refreshing concept here. Veltroni is so taken with the American senator he has been accused of “borrowing” a little too much from one of Obama’s speeches. He explained it as having a similar philosophy on life. Berlusconi, the slick favorite of the center-right party, is 70 years old. He takes care of business by getting an occasional nip and tuck and maintaining a homogenous tan.

Finally Luciano had a question. “Tell me, Serena. You mean no matter what happens in Congress, the president does not step down? He cannot be voted out if he is unpopular? ”

“That’s right. Weird, huh? ”

Meanwhile, Berlusconi has responded to Veltroni’s bus idea by providing 1000 campers to the members of his party in order to move about the country. At first I imagined 1000 little kids in scout caps, armed with sleeping bags and bug spray. But Luciano cleared that up for me and I have been keeping my eyes peeled for the mini Winnebagos that should be touring Italy. I want to see those men, accustomed to BMW’s and Gucci, hooked up at an Italian trailer park.

Today I listened to yet another intelligent, ambitious businessman rant to me about the criminals in government, shaking his head helplessly when I asked him why he couldn’t do something. A sentence popped in to my head from the film Network. When Peter Finch threw open his window and bellowed

the sentence instantly entered into American lexicon as a rallying cry for discontent. Everyone knows that line. I haven’t even seen the movie and I know that line. As a pragmatic American, this is how I am wired. If something is not right, we stand up do something about it-whether it is the best thing to do or not. And now I understand something:

In one of Italy’s best loved movies,
Non Ci Resta che Piangere*, one of Italy’s most beloved actors, Massimo Troisi, is accosted by a sidewalk prophet:

“Remember that you have to die! Remember that you have to die! Remember that you ha-”

“Ok, ok. Don’t worry. I’ll make a note. ”

His dry, dismissive response is hilarious and everyone knows this line. Even I know this line. But the stoicism that it represents is apparent to me in every aspect of Italian life. Normally, this acceptance of the inevitable is a much healthier way to live... it will all work out in the end... nothing will change, so why fret?

It is true that little changes here, which is of course the beauty and the tragedy of Italy. So as Italians choose between the elderly evil they know and the elderly evil they don’t know, the only good news is that whoever is elected cannot possibly live too long. Rome, wallowing in corruption, nepotism, and fear of the unknown, lurches from one glad-handing politicians to another, knowing full well that they are all exactly the same. Northern Italians fume and Southerners point fingers.

Meanwhile, the garbage piles in Naples swell, the taxes go up, employment goes down, public services are tied in festering knots of inefficiency, and politicians get richer. The Mob, which last year generated an income equal to 7% of the gross domestic product, keeps its historic fingers on Italy’s throat. And Italians, people descended from such minds as Dante and Da Vinci, can’t seem to cut the powerful grip of the past. Or do they really want to?

But perhaps, just perhaps, as the village of Santa Lucia celebrates the 1347th annual Christmas Festival, could a new generation of Italians possessing a love of the past and a passion for the future one day carefully and lovingly transform this country one politician at a time, while whispering the words “

Ies ui chen!

*Nothing Left to do but Cry.