Monte Argentario

August 29, 2009

monte argentario vineyards

Some friends are currently visiting from DC. Yesterday we rented a little yellow car — unfortunately called a Fiat Panda — and drove a couple hours up the coast into the southern part of Tuscany. The Roman heat has been unrelenting in these last days of August, so we decided to dip ourselves in the refreshing waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Once an island, Monte Argentario is now a promontory connected to the mainland by two long sandbars. The landscape is rugged and arid, yet covered with vineyards and olive groves and dark forests stretching down to dramatic coastal cliffs. Here’s a scrap of its history, from Wikipedia: “The promontory, probably already inhabited by the Etruscans, was a personal property of the Domitii Aenobarbi family, who obtained it in return for the money they lent to the Roman Republic in the Punic Wars. The current name stems probably from this origin, since Arganterii was the name of money lenders in ancient Rome. Later an imperial possession, it was ceded to the church by Constantine the Great in the 4th century AD.” Spain owned it for a while in the 16th century, then it came back into Italian hands in the 1800s.

We first stopped in the town of Porto San Stefano for a lunch of frutti di mare (mmm, sea fruits) and local white wine, then drove the Via Panoramica until we spotted a steep, half-paved road descending into the trees. After some admirable maneuvers by the Panda, we found a pull-off just large enough for the car. A few wooden steps led to a rocky trail that followed a dry stream-bed. We hiked and slid downhill until we reached a pebbly cove. There were groups of Italians lounging and swimming, and many more anchored just offshore.

monte argentario beach

You can imagine that it’s hard to feel cool when you’re driving a car called a Panda, but I started gaining confidence after we saw this boat named “Chocolate Dream.”
chocolate dream

The water was exactly what you’d expect in the sparser stretches of the Mediterranean coast — cool, blue, and shockingly clear. It made for a nice afternoon of floating around.

monte argentario cove

We returned to Rome after dark, just in time to grab a late dinner at one of my favorite trattorias.

In Memoria

August 25, 2009

As I mentioned in my previous biographical note about the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, he joined the infantry when WWI broke out. He was in his mid-20s, full of fire and idealism, surely unprepared for what he would encounter in the Northern Italian trenches. Most of his early war poems, which comprise his first collection, are expectedly dark. There are several that refer to the suicide of a friend, seemingly caused by the horrors of the war.

The poem below was likely written during a lull in the action of Ungaretti’s service. That seems to be true partly because of the poem’s length — most of his war poems are short — but also because of its narrative structure and tone. This is not a fleeting moment, like so many of Ungaretti’s early works, but rather it is a poem that includes a broader passage of time, character development, and even plot.

I haven’t found any biographical information about the subject of this poem, if he is in fact a real person. But considering that Ungaretti grew up in Egypt and lived in Paris before the war, “Mohammed Sheab” could possibly be the poet’s alter-ego, although the character is most likely based on a friend who took his own life.

In Memoria
Locvizza il 30 settembre 1916

[poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti; translation by Dan Stone]

Si chiamava
Moammed Sceab

di emiri di nomadi
perché non aveva più

Amò la Francia
e mutò nome

Fu Marcel
ma non era Francese
e non sapeva più
nella tenda dei suoi
dove si ascolta la cantilena
del Corano
gustando un caffè

E non sapeva
il canto
del suo abbandono

L’ho accompagnato
insieme alla padrona dell’albergo
dove abitavamo
a Parigi
dal numero 5 della rue des Carmes
appassito vicolo in discesa

nel camposanto d’Ivry
sobborgo che pare
in una giornata
di una
decomposta fiera

E forse io solo
so ancora
che visse

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In Memoriam
Locvizza, September 30, 1916

His name was
Mohammed Sheab

of the emirs of nomads
a suicide
because he had lost
his Fatherland

He loved France
and changed his name

He was Marcel
but he was not French
and he no longer knew
how to live
under the tent of his people
where one hears the incantations
of the Koran
while sipping coffee

And he did not know how
to release
the song
of his abandonment

I accompanied his remains
with the mistress of the hotel
where we lived
in Paris
from number 5 on rue des Carmes
a wilted alley sloping downhill

He rests
in the graveyard of Ivry
a suburb that seems
on a day
that a wild animal
is decomposing

And perhaps I alone
still know
that he lived


August 18, 2009

L'Aquila, before April

On my way back from my recent adventure in the mountains, I took a train to L’Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region. You might remember the name from the news — it’s the medieval town that was devastated by an earthquake on April 6 of this year. Before the earthquake, it had a population of about 100,000, but more than half of that number became homeless due to the disaster. More than 300 people were killed, and as many as 11,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. I figured I would spend a couple hours there, walking the streets and checking out the impact of the earthquake, and then find a place for lunch before returning to Rome. I liked the idea of supporting whatever restaurants or businesses remained open.

At noon, I arrived at the dismal train station, which is situated west of town, a bit too far to walk. There were a dozen or so people hanging around. As I entered the station, the woman working the ticket window dropped the shade and closed down. I stood outside for a while. From my vantage, I could see that the stone walls of the medieval city had collapsed in places and were supported by temporary structures of 2x4s in other spots. The way into town was guarded by a pair of police, a man and a woman, standing in front of a road-closed sign. The woman from the ticket window exited from the side door, and I caught her attention and asked, in my limited Italian, if there were any taxis available. She laughed, shaking her head. How about buses? She shrugged and asked where I was trying to go. I named the town’s main piazza, the Duomo, and the woman laughed again while ducking into her car, then drove away.

I leaned against the station wall for half an hour, considering what to do. A pick-up stopped at the police barricade and the driver started arguing with the cops, which quickly escalated into one of the most emotionally charged scenes I’ve ever witnessed. No exaggeration. The man in the truck was screaming at the cops in a rising voice, almost operatic, on the verge of a meltdown, angrier than I’d ever heard a person. He crawled halfway out the window of his tiny truck, threateningly shaking a fist in the cops’ faces. He seemed to have snapped, to have really gone mad. Another car stopped and a guy rushed over to try to calm the pick-up driver before things got worse. But the man couldn’t be controlled. Finally the male cop lost his patience and screamed back, which only incensed the guy further. He threw his truck into gear and stared doing doughnuts, all the while shrieking out his window. It was such a surreal moment that it actually crossed my mind that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the cops opened fire on him. That seemed to be the logical progression of the scene. But finally the man tore back through the barricade in his pick-up, returning to the forbidden side, and peeled away, still screaming out his high-pitched rage. I couldn’t comprehend what they were shouting about, but the devastated walls of the town were a fitting backdrop for a display such raw and untamed emotion.

I waited a few minutes before approaching the cops. Trains don’t run directly from L’Aquila to Rome, but there are frequent buses, so I knew that if I could get to the bus station, I could find my way home pretty easily. The problem was, the station was about a mile or so up the road that the cops guarded. They did allow a few cars through, mostly work trucks, so I shouldered my pack and headed in their direction, figuring that I would try to walk to the bus station and maybe find a chance to check out the town along the way. The male cop had a kind and tired face — gray stubble, sunken eyes, bald head. He was surprisingly tranquil, even after the episode with the pick-up. I told him I needed to get to the bus station. He said I could only get there by circling L’Aquila in the other direction, which would be a walk of several miles. I asked about the town itself, and he told me that it was closed. Not just damaged, not just under construction, but completely closed. “There is nothing,” he said, gently slicing his hand through the air. “Niente.”

I took a last look at the crumbling walls, then returned to the tracks and caught the next train back to Sulmona, from where I could transfer to a Rome-bound train.

Since I didn’t make it into the city, here are some press photos from after the earthquake:

L'Aquila rubble

family in L'Aquila

State Funeral for L'Aquila victims

When I first arrived in Rome in July, Obama was touring Italy. The G8 summit started that day in L’Aquila. I stepped off my plane and saw photographs and footage in all the international press of Obama touring the rubble with Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Obama and Berlusconi

Obama and Berlusconi 2

Tens of thousands of people are still living in tent villages outside L’Aquila. The billionaire Berlusconi incited protests when he had a let-them-eat-cake moment during an interview with a German TV station: “They have everything they need, they have medical care, hot food… Of course, their current lodgings are a bit temporary. But they should see it like a weekend of camping…. Head to the beach. It’s Easter. Take a break. We’re paying for it, you’ll be well looked after.”

When Obama visited in July, the refugees erected this sign of protest, reminding the world that they were still homeless after three months.

"Yes we camp" in L'Aquila

Buon Ferragosto

August 16, 2009

Carracci's "Assumption of the Virgin Mary" in Santa Maria del Popolo

As you may know, yesterday was a Christian holiday and an official day of rest for many Catholic countries, including Italy. It was the feast day for the Assumption of Mary. For the heathens among you, some info is to be found here.

In Italy, the holiday is called Ferragosta, which “derives its original Latin name, Feriae Augusti (‘Holidays of the Emperor Augustus’), and even the entire month, from the emperor. The holiday was related to a celebration of the middle of the summer and the end of the hard labour in the fields.”


Most Italians celebrate the holiday by eating and drinking together. Yesterday I was invited to the small town of Soriano, where the couple who is renting me their Roman apartment have a summer home. They live out in the sticks, with a small orchard of pear, plum, olive, and apple trees. There’s an ice-cold swimming pool, in which we spent the hot hours of the afternoon (imagine plenty of speedos and chain-smoking). About fifteen of their friends were there, including some delightful animals: a cat, a dog, and a couple of kids. We ate a delicious feast — ribs and sausages cooked in the outdoor wood-fired oven; salami and cheese from Corsica; potatoes roasted with fennel; and pasta with tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic. It was a bright, lazy afternoon. Someone pulled out a guitar and sang Italian songs and Beatles covers. Later they taught me to play the classic Italian card game Tressette. (I’ve been invited to join a weekly Friday-night tournament here in Rome.)

As the Italians say, Buon Ferragosto!

old ferragosto record

a trip to Abruzzo

August 14, 2009

sulmona saints

Yesterday I returned from a couple nights in Abruzzo, the mountainous region east of Rome.  I spent most of my time in a town called Sulmona, an ancient village that predates the Romans, probably founded by Solimo, a buddy of Aeneas. Sulmona is most famous for being the birthplace of Ovid. The town’s central square, Piazza XX Settembre, features an impressive statue of the poet, and many of the roads and buildings [and even a line of locally-made liquor] are named for him. Yeah, I picked up a couple samples.

ovidio liquors

Ovid grew up in a wealthy family in Sulmona and was sent to Rome to be educated, with the expectation that he would forge a career in politics, law, or rhetoric. But he fell in with the wrong crowd and started scribbling verse, eventually writing his most famous work, Metamorphoses, and becoming recognized as a master of elegiac verse. At age 51 he was banished by the Emperor Augustus under shadowy circumstances and died a decade later in modern-day Romania. [While tomorrow, August 15, is the Christian feast day of the Assumption of Mary, it was originally an ancient Roman holiday named for Augustus. I don’t think that Ovid, if he were around, would be participating in the pub crawls and togas parties.] There’s a cafe on the Piazza XX Settembre — you can see it in the photo below, just behind the Italian hipster listening to his iPod on the base of the statue — where they’ve printed a quote from Ovid above the bar: “et Venus in vinis ignis in igne fuit”; “Wine turns the heart to love and sparks it into fire.”

piazza xx settembre

ovid and moon

Sulmona is secondarily famous for supplying confetti for many an Italian wedding.  No, I don’t mean the sort of confetti that one chucks at newlyweds or tosses down from balconies during parades. Around here, “confetti” refers to a candy of almonds with a hard-sugar coating.  They’re typically given to the bride and groom in hopes that they’ll have a fertile marriage, although what almonds have to do with fertility, I’m not sure.  Maybe they’re an aphrodisiac.  Anyway, these candies drive the local economy.  There are little sacks for sale in every store, but the confetti industry in Sulmona has also taken over the kitschy-household-decorations market niche. The flowers and other colorful things below are actually made of almonds. Sadly, I didn’t buy any of these.

confetti fiori

By a stroke of luck, my first night in town was the Danza Sportiva, an annual event held in the largest piazza. My camera ran out of juice as the event began, so you’ll just have to imagine all the Cuban salsas and paso-dobles performed by locals from ages 8 to 40. The crowd-favorites were Luca and Esteban — every brightly-colored cotume in which Luca appeared featured a fluorescent tail of feathers; all of Esteban’s polyester shirts were v-necked straight down to the navel, and his chest hair made even me envious. They had some severely impressive moves, at least as good as any on those new TV shows. The kids and teenagers were talented, too, and even though their routines were often surprisingly inappropriate, the audience [mostly elderly] loved it. The real highlight for me was a fifteen-minute surrealist tribute to Michael Jackson, performed by an overweight twenty-something Italian who wore a fake headset so he could lip-synch the lyrics. He’d stitched together a medley of all the hits, and he was flanked by a team of dancing wardrobe-assistants who speedily helped cram him into a series of classic MJ outfits between songs.

This is the edge of the piazza just after sunset.

piazza garibaldi

If you’re ever in Sulmona, get a meal at La Cantina di Biffi. A delightfully nerdy young guy runs the service on the small patio, while his mother cooks up regional specialties in the kitchen. There are no menus, just a handful of dishes that he rattles off — he begins by saying, “Today my mother is cooking…” — and the selections change daily. The restaurant also features delicious local wines. I ate there twice, once for lunch and once for dinner, and definitely had a couple of my best meals so far in Italy. Here’s my lunch dish — homemade green tagliatelle [the noodles infused with spinach], with an Abruzzo summer sauce of local tomatoes and spices and a touch of lamb.

biffi tagliatelle

On the way back to Rome, I tried to visit L’Aquila, the town that was devastated by an earthquake in April. Interesting experience — more on that later.

Here’s a pair of angels from the facade of a 16th-century palazzo on Sulmona’s main street. One of them is wearing a pigeon-hat — a very popular local fashion.

sulmona angels and pigeon


August 10, 2009

[poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti; translation by Dan Stone]

La linea
vaporosa muore
al lontano cerchio del cielo

Picchi di tacchi picchi di mani
e il clarino ghirigori striduli
e il mare è cenerino
trema dolce inquieto
come un piccione

A poppa emigranti siriani ballano

A prua un giovane è solo

Di sabato sera a quest’ora
portano via
i loro morti
nell’imbuto di chiocciola
di vicoli
di lumi

Confusa acqua
come il chiasso di poppa che odo
dentro l’ombra

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


The vaporous
line dies
at the distant circle of the sky

Heels clack hands clap
and the shrill arabesques of the clarinet
and the ashen sea
trembling sweet and restless
as a pigeon

Syrian emigrants dance at the stern

A young man is alone at the prow

On Saturday evening at this hour
down south
carry off
their dead
into the snail’s funnel
of alleyways
of lights

Churning water
like the racket from the stern that I hear
within the shadow