Mar 2011

Columbus Day


Oct 16th, 2010,

“Columbus was a delinquent you know.” Graziano Cremesini said, with eyebrows raised to assure me that he knew what he was talking about. He had just watched a special on television the night before and so was ready for any disagreement.

“He used to cut of the noses and ears of the Indians or even his own men if they did not do what he wanted.” Graziano’s unruly white hair moved in the breeze as he shoved his hands into his thick green corduroy pants, challenging the narrow leather suspenders that held them up. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head…“a real delinquent.”

He told me this while we all stood in his garden, a lush, eclectic oasis he had carved out of the scruffy
campo, the same field as ours.. It was the first time I had entered this garden or had more that a momentary conversation with this couple, even though they live just a few meters down the road. Anna Maria was standing a bit away just out of ear shot, talking with Graziano’s wife, a large woman with a cigarette in her strong fingers. She had a narrow belt equipped with a small pouch strapped around her waist …I wondered if it was for her cigarettes.


I found myself in this garden as a direct result of another incident earlier in the week. As is often true, events on our little street are difficult to keep up with, and one thing of course leads to another. Last week as I reluctantly pulled out the vacuum cleaner, an ambulance screamed past the front door. This changed everything. An ambulance on our street was personal and with Giancarlo and Anna Maria out for a drive and Luciano away, I needed to get informed. Plus it was an excuse to drop the vacuum.

But as I peered down the street I saw paramedics working over someone lying in the street, furiously administering CPR. I was not completely prepared for this. It could not be our neighbor across the street…she never left the house. Could it be a car accident? I saw a bicycle, but no car… I walked down a bit closer to Paola, the doctor’s wife who stood in her garden.

“What is happening?” I asked. It was clear that someone was fighting for their life before us. She glanced over at me and, swatting at Spot and Benny the dogs who were yelping in all the confusion, and came over to fill me in.

“It’s Mr Ulliana from the house near the winery.”

“You mean the one around the corner who made those sculptures with the little rocks?”

“That’s right. He was coming back from the market and had a heart attack. Fell right off his bicycle.”

I could see Paola’s husband the doctor walking briskly among the suddenly still paramedics. The doctor, a gentle, bespectacled gardener, stood ramrod straight in his professional capacity as the pace at the scene slowed. Something had happened…something had ended. Paola put the dogs in the kennel and they became quiet.

There was silence for a moment. I noticed the gravel under my feet.

Signora Cremesini from the house down the street suddenly sailed by on her bicycle. I did not even see where she came from and I can’t quite get the notion out of my head that her appearance changed a scene, or flipped a page in some enormous script somewhere. She spoke in rapid fire dialect with Paola so I did not get it all, but it seemed that the subject was fruit trees. Fruit trees. A neighbor lay dead under a green tarp a few meters away and the topic was fruit trees. There is sadness in death here and life is valued, but it also moves on.

They both turned and looked at me. “No,” said Paola. “I don’t think she knows what they are.” Still focused on the paramedics, carabinieri and emergency vehicle milling around the green tarp, I glanced over at the women and smiled the way I have learned to do when I don’t really understand the path of the conversation. Signora Cremesini barked out a laugh, climbed aboard her bicycle and disappeared.

I went for a walk, unable to concentrate on housecleaning. An hour later all the emergency vehicles had left and poor Mr Ulliana was still under the tarp next to the road, his generous belly creating a small mountain under the green plastic. Two young carabinieri leaned on a small truck nearby, chatting while waiting for the coroner’s van to show up. I crossed the street to avoid being too close to it all.

“What are you afraid of, us?” One of them called to me, laughing. I just shook my head no. I suppose if you pull body-watch-duty, a little levity is understandable.

A week later Signora Cremesini knocked at Anna Maria’s door to deliver a plastic bag containing graceful branches, studded with date-like fruit.
Giuggiole. Signora Cremesini had enclosed a yellow bit of paper with the name in dialect and Latin. I tried one. It tasted like a tiny little apple, a little drier and more fibrous. Now, while this was not a fruit anyone would pay for in a store, they are clearly in the category of s-ciopet, or the wild grasses gathered in the fields. In times of dire need, foods were found growing wild. And still are.

I nibbled a few of the small, mostly pit, fruits and then, after admiring them for a week, walked across the street and threw the rest into the campo. Anna Maria, watching me over the fence, told me that the neighbor had stopped by again asking why I had not come down for a visit to see this fruit tree in question. Maybe I was afraid of her?

“I did not even know she was expecting me!”

“I can’t explain it Serena. She wants you to come see the tree. She speaks only dialect though. Maybe I should come with you to translate.”

Giancarlo joined us in the garden. The Sunday afternoon sun was warm, the air October crisp.

“Why don’t you go now? Are you wearing the right shoes, Anna Maria?”

She glanced at her slipper clad feet, “I couldn’t be more comfortable. Should I go like this?”

“Sure, why not?”

So off we went down our little street to the looming house at the end; the house with the mottled tile roof, soaring barn and the tidy garden, where we found the couple furiously at work. They dropped what they were doing to give us a tour of the garden and orchard. The giuggiole tree is indeed beautiful, with weeping willow branches and dark green, olive-shaped leaves. We saw their caper, almond and pomegranate trees. Graziano brought me a bag of almonds and hazelnuts that they had gathered.

“Take more
giuggiole, please!” Graziano produced a ladder constructed of weathered, bent poles held together with twisted wire and handed me an ancient bent twig basket. Knowing that these giuggiole would just end up in our end of the campo, I was reluctant to take any more, but they all seemed so pleased to see me climb that ladder. Anna Maria was delighted.

“Look, there are more over here!” She was being helpful.

It turns out the Mr Cremesini is from Friuli, a region from the northeast and so speaks Italian, not dialect. As translation from Anna Maria was not necessary, she drifted over to the wife as I climbed back down the ladder. He began telling me more about the history he knows.

“King Solomon ordered his people to eat potatoes. If they refused, they would be tortured. So you can imagine potatoes became pretty popular.”

He pointed out his date and palms tree, the rosemary, licorice plants as he talked of Columbus and I basked in the passion of a fellow gardener.

“And this, do you know what this is?” He pulled off a broad leaf from a low branch. I shook my head. With that he wadded up the leaf and reached into his shirt to rub it under his arm.

“Roman soldiers used this to eliminate body odor. It is citronella!” he cried triumphantly.

I carried the citronella home to Luciano who may not have appreciated it as much as the Romans had, but he enjoyed the stories. I understand now how I missed the invitation that had been extended to me as we stood watching the end of poor Mr Ulliana’s last trip to the market. What I don’t understand it how I have become the go-to-girl for
giuggiole consumption. Yesterday Graziano delivered a basket filled with even more of the fruit, along with bottles of homemade puree, jam and brodo (a dark mysterious liquid with perhaps hallucinogenic properties?) all made from giuggiole. But I guess I don’t really care. This seems to be the start of an interesting friendship with this couple, throwbacks to an ancient connection with the land, who are channeling Martha Stewart and Alistair Cooke.

I think I need to bake some bread.

brodo di giuggiole