The Beauty of Silence

beauty of silence, Italywise

A river in the Veneto at sunset.

I am grateful to be “stunned” into silence by the many beautiful scenes that present themselves here in Italy. And, given this post is about the beauty of silence, I will attempt to be brief in my reflections.

Silence and beauty can be experienced anywhere. Yet, sometimes a change of scenery, and a change of life can wake us from our hamster wheel thinking minds and conditioned selves. Italy has done this for me, again and again. Perhaps this is because I left the rushing torrent of a busy work life where I had little opportunity to really pause and see.

Italy has been a gift that keeps on pouring out her treasures. Thankfully, my artist-teacher-mother trained me to always have my eyes open, and to take in the quality of light, the composition of a scene, and the underlying emotions of the experience. The genes that my nuclear-engineer-father gave me, which give me abilities in analysis, deconstruction and problem-solving, often can be at odds with the aforementioned artistic training. In other words, my analytic brain sometimes yanks me out of the immediacy and “feltness” of the moment, into a noisy intellectual violence that seeks to hold prisoner the scene and the memory. Having awareness of these machinations of my mind has been a breakthrough, and more and more I am able to accept these gifts of beauty with hands willing to receive, and not closed to possess. The by-product of this is a deep, rich silence. Words cease, and even though I am not able to articulate it, I sense that my true self resides in that vast space of quietude.

I close now with a short quote from my (and my mom’s) favorite book of inspiration and comfort…

Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.  – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Preparing for Winter in Italy

Italywise, winter in Italy
Just a few winters ago winter bit hard in Umbria, and left people homebound in rural locations.

Autumn is firmly entrenched here in the hills of Umbria, the smell of wood smoke dominates all other smells, and colder weather is just around the corner. Winter in Italy, especially when you reside in the rural countryside of central to north Italy, can be mild and it also can be harsh, therefore calling for a change in one’s day-to-day living strategies. You’d best be prepared…

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Italian Life is “The Cat’s Meow”

This is the story of Francesca and Oscar, our two cats, and how I imagine they view their lives in Italy. Oscar is an Italian native, Francesca is an American transplant, and they have distinctively different personalities. But, at the end of the day, I think they would both say that Italian life is “the cat’s meow”.

Oscar is almost 3 1/2 years old. Born in the hills of Umbria, to a feral mother, we gave him a decidedly un-Italian name because it fit his unique, mischievous personality. But, he has decidedly Italian traits and preferences.

For starters, he communicates passionately. He just puts it all “out there”, and doesn’t brood. He is very direct and clear about what he wants. I’ve never had a cat who vocalizes with so much emotion. (Read more about cat vocalizations in this online article from Catster).

Oscar also uses his hands to communicate. For Italians, the hands are almost as important as the mouth in fully expressing oneself. Oscars stands on his hind legs and whips his paws up and down the surface of a closet, door, or a window, to let you know he expects your attention (while also expressing his displeasure that you would dare to be otherwise engaged). In the kitchen he artfully employs his little cat hands to snatch his favorite foods. Tops on his list is arugula.

Oscar makes himself at home in a sea of pomodori.

Oscar makes himself at home in a sea of pomodori.

Yes, arugula. His wild, greedy nature comes out whenever he sniffs the presence of arugula. It’s a real head-scratcher. You would think he was eating the treat to end all other treats.

He also loves other salad greens, and he loves to nestle himself in my summer harvest of tomatoes (pomodori).

Life in most Italian households centers around the dining table and the kitchen. Oscar loves to camp out in both places. It is as though he is watching and studying to be the next Italian Master Chef. I’ve given up on banishing him from the kitchen. He is just too intent on being part of the action.

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What do you think? A viper or something else????

Yes, just outside our back door, the dreaded Italian viper makes his way up the stone wall.

Is this indeed the vipera aspis, or a European Cat Snake?

My most recent post was about what I thought was the appearance of a viper, just a few feet from our back door. I admit, I was thoroughly freaked out, being a complete wuss since childhood when it comes to snakes. And, I haven’t been able to quit obsessing about it.

I was certain it was a viper after viewing the attached YouTube video, and my neighbor Elena, who has been working this land for more years than I have been alive, saw the photo and concurred it was a viper.

After my good friend Jill suggested it might be another type of snake – one that is harmless, I was eager to believe I had made a mistake. Plus, there were two glaring inconsistencies with nailing this as a vipera aspis. From the eye, down to the body, the vipera aspis seems to have a black stripe, which makes the face/head even more menacing. “Our” snake is missing this marking. Also, a vipera aspis usually tops out at around 33″ and “our” snake looks to be at least a meter long – and more tapered than the usual fat body of a viper. However, from the neck down this snake looks a lot like the one in the video.

Now what?

I hopped online and looked up “snakes of Italy” and went to a website that listed every snake you might find here. I went through every one, looking at pictures and reading descriptions. Then I came across what, to me, seems to be the leading candidate for identification – the European Cat Snake, which matches almost all the criteria for “our” snake. It has the same markings, it can be 1.3 meters long, it loves rock walls, and it is readily found in Italy, and many other Mediterranean countries. Bingo. Our photo doesn’t get close enough to the head to provide more information, but the European Cat Snake, like ours, doesn’t have the stripe emanating from the eyes and going down the body.

I thought that the viper is the only venomous snake in Italy. The European Cat Snake is also venomous. However, it’s fangs are rear-facing and constructed in a way to deliver venom only to small prey. Supposedly, this snake is not a danger to humans because it has no way to bite and deliver its venomous and this larger scale. Is this supposed to make me feel better and safe? I don’t think so.

So, my obsessive compulsive nature has been driving me to identify and catalog this snake – and to know the identity of all of my neighbors here in the country. Maybe then I’ll accept the facts and move on.

I’d love to hear your opinions and if anyone has expertise in snake identification, I’m all ears. Let me hear from you!

 

An Italian viper appears…

Yes, just outside our back door, the dreaded Italian viper makes his way up the stone wall.

Yes, just outside our back door, the dreaded Italian viper makes his way up the stone wall.

Reading that Italy has only one poisonous snake, the viper, is one thing. Seeing one making its way up the old stone wall adjacent to our backdoor is another thing altogether. Until I had seen one for myself, I was able to delude myself into thinking “Yeah, they’re around, but they’re shy and they rarely come out.”  Indeed they are not eager for an encounter or a fight. But, when they are big (like this one) and close to the house, I’m compelled to take steps to protect ye ole homestead.

I did an internet search, hoping the results would assure me this merely was a large non-venomous snake, but something in me (probably ancient survival programming) knew this wouldn’t be the case. Sure enough, the online description and photos confirmed this was a vipera aspis. Check, check, check. Dam, it all fit. And, I was irritated that the description said an adult male would top out around 32″. This fellow was at least a yard long.

Yuck, yuck, yuck. I know I’m supposed to take the higher, more enlightened perspective of what a magnificent creature this is. But, I can’t. I just hate snakes. My fear of them robs me of peace of mind. I’m certain this guy has a family lurking close by – probably up in the piece of my land that houses long-abandoned chicken coops and a giant, overgrown pile of terra-cotta roof tiles.

Am I supposed to take solace in the fact that only 4% of untreated viper bites are fatal? What about the aftereffects of a venom that causes tissue necrosis, nerve damage, and possible renal failure?

On the positive side, I’ve learned that the sweet little hedgehogs I see scurrying about, love to kill and munch on vipers. They provoke the snake, prompting “strikes” in which the viper damages itself on the quills of the hedgehog. The confrontation continues until the snake is sufficiently wounded, at which time our little hero moves in for the kill, and a dinner that takes a few hours. Bravo little hedgehog.

Oh well. Life in Italy has its dangers. Thinking I could create some type of Utopia of complete safety and security is just major self-delusion. I made the choice to settle down in a remote corner of Umbria, which is ripe with all sorts of wildlife, and even the viper has its place in the cycle of life. I will endeavor to respect that. Still, I will dust off the knee-high snake proof boots that I purchased several years ago for this very possibility (never imagining I would really need them), and get to work securing the areas close to the house by eliminating tall grasses and other hospitable conditions for the viper. Time to reclaim my peace of mind.

Learning the ways of the contadini italiani

My neighbors, a brother and sister, hard at work in their large vegetable garden.

My neighbors, a brother and sister, hard at work in their large vegetable garden.

“Contadini italiani” is most often translated as “Italian farmers”. Our Umbrian home  is smack dab in the middle of a community of hardworking farmers. These aren’t farmers operating a large-scale business. Mostly, they are growing for their own needs and households. This means they eat well as the growing season begins hitting its stride in late May and early June, and by summer’s end they also have replenished their cellars and cupboards with root vegetables, and countless jars of preserved fruits and vegetables. And, most of what is produced here is done “bio” – the Italian moniker for “organic”.

This is my third year of having a garden. When I moved to Italy in May 2013 I was swamped with countless logistics associated with the move and getting residency,  so I planted a very small garden which, in retrospect, was an embarrassing attempt at basic gardening. I was doing everything wrong, and I was lucky to harvest a handful of green beans and tomatoes. My neighbors, skillful contadini, didn’t ridicule me. They simply made some suggestions as to how I might do it differently “il prossimo anno” – the next year.

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My Italian Stone Wall is Finished

The wall repairs are complete. Beautifully and meticulously built, and ready to handle the next deluge.

The wall repairs are complete. Beautifully and meticulously built, the wall is ready to handle the next deluge.

Saturday, February 28, 2015. I slept so much better last night. My stone wall is finished. I arrived in Umbria yesterday, after taking the train from Rome (immensely less stressful than trying to drive from the center of Rome on a Friday afternoon). I picked up my car from the Cortona-Terontola train station and made the drive from there. When I pulled into the driveway, a handsomely finished wall greeted me….and one that indeed will hold the land above the house, even when rains are unrelenting.

I also have a nice area above the wall to plant lavender and/or rosemary. Before it was a jungle of brambles.

An added bonus to the completed work on the wall is a slightly wider parking area next to the house. You see, the old wall was “bowing” outwards, making parking, and being able to get out of my car, impossible.

If you’ve been following the previous posts about the initial collapse and the work in progress, you’ll appreciate that this particular trip was not laden with other challenges. This time the heating and hot water system worked beautifully, and I was able to have a celebratory hot bath, and a long, restful sleep.

This morning I met with the workman to make another installment payment on the wall, and I’ll be back in a few weeks to make the final payments. Also, my next trip will include a massive deep cleaning and paring down of all of the stuff I’ve collected. This is in spite of having purged many things prior to the move here. Simone has been reading, and singing the praises, of a recent bestseller called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I plan to download the Kindle addition and become ruthlessly dedicated to exemplifying “less is more”. Stay tuned for more about paring down and the freedom it can bring. Let’s see how I do embracing this strategy to have more space – literally and emotionally!

The “New” Old Italian Stone Wall is Under Way

The "new" old wall is reinforced and is being carefully constructed in the best possible way (including new drainage). And what a handsome wall it will be!

The “new” old wall is reinforced and is being carefully constructed in the best possible way (including new drainage). And what a handsome wall it will be!

This past week, after yet another week of intensive Italian classes, I raced home, grabbed an overnight bag, and began the three-hour drive to my home in Umbria. The sole purpose of this short trip was to see the progress being made on my Italian stone wall adjacent to the house, which collapsed after heavy rains just three weeks ago. If you want to follow the journey from the beginning of this saga, be sure to see the photo and read about the initial collapse in another post.

Again, I have to salute my dear neighbor Carlo, who made calls and orchestrated getting the work going (a bit of a rarity to be able to initiate work so quickly here in Italy). When I drove up to the house at dusk I saw a cement mixer, piles of sand and large stones (mostly reclaimed from the collapse of wall). And, I saw a beautiful new section of wall about 2/3 of the way to completion. Setting aside internal calculations as to what this would set me back, I marveled at the amazing craftsmanship and structural integrity. This was a wall under construction that would mesh beautifully with the existing wall, while providing me assurance that heavy rains wouldn’t bring the land above me crashing down. I could sleep with greater ease.

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The Ebb and Flow of the Feral Cats of Italy

During a Thanksgiving trip to Italy several year ago, this was the scene that greeted my friend Nicole and me upon rising the first morning. That's Oscar's mom left to the center (tawny with the green eyes) before she embarked upon a life of pregnancy after pregnancy.

During a Thanksgiving trip to Italy several year ago, this was the scene that greeted my friend Nicole and me upon rising the first morning. That’s Oscar’s mom left to the center (brownish grey fur with the green eyes) before she embarked upon a life of pregnancy after pregnancy.

On a sunny Saturday February afternoon in the hills of Umbria, my next door neighbor Amalia and I have followed Micia, the mother of all mother cats, from inside Amalia’s house, where she has been resting (even though she is a feral cat) contentedly by a nice fire. Micia is now in the middle of the gravel drive, yowling in “those” tones. The sounds are desperate, insistent, and deeply disturbing. Yes, this is her provocative mating call.

Two tom cats we’ve not seen before in our little hamlet have heard the call and are circling Micia in the driveway. Both are tabbies. One has grey tones with a white chest, the other is a ginger boy. Micia continues her call, and the grey fella moves in, bites the back of her neck, and the “act” is soon completed. Yuck. Cat sex is never pretty. I’m disgusted with myself for even watching. Amalia and I look at each, shake our heads and start calculating when to be on the lookout for this new litter. Let’s see, 65 days from now takes us into the middle of April. At least the bitter cold will be past, and the kittens will have a fighting chance.

And so the cycle keeps going. Even though I remember when Micia was just a kitten about five years ago, I’m sure she already has had at least eight or nine litters of kittens. Last year she had back-to-back pregnancies, with barely three months in between (the second litter of four died because she couldn’t produce milk). After this upcoming litter we know we need to talk to a local vet who volunteers to neuter feral cats – especially in a community of cats that can and does occasionally get out of hand. When our feline population has boomed a couple of times, weather, other wild animals, and an occasional car speeding along our tiny road have knocked back the population. Even so, we always become attached to these wonderfully entertaining personalities. We all feed then (hence the “camp” outside my front door in the attached photo). They keep the rodents and snakes at bay and we all get along famously, in spite of their using the gravel path and sitting area in front of our house as one giant litter box. It’s never fun to have guests over, sitting in the garden admiring the view, and unearthing a cat turd while inadvertently repositioning one’s foot. Again, yuck.

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La frana del muro – the collapse of the wall.

Three days of non-stop rain caused a breach in a very old wall next to our house.

Three days of non-stop rain caused a breach in a very old wall next to our house.

“Sempre qualcosa” is a phrase I have come to use with greater and greater frequency. It means “always something”. And, because I have an old Umbrian home there is indeed “always something”…

Early last week, Simone and I were having a nice lunch at a favorite place here in Rome (in Trastevere), when I received a text message to contact Piero, a neighbor in Umbria. Simone called him, since Piero only speaks Italian, and because I’m not quite fluent (yet). I watched Simone’s eyes widen as he spoke rapidly with Piero, and I heard the word “muro”, which means “wall”. I knew this couldn’t be something good. After the call ended, Simone looked at me and asked “Do you want to know?”. I’m a big believer in steering right into addressing a difficulty. I was informed that the old (at least 200 years) stacked stone wall adjacent to the house and on the other side of the drive had partially collapsed, due to incessant rains just a few days before. I felt the familiar surge of adrenaline (and probably the stress hormone cortisol) I experience when faced a situation that ignites my mind to rush towards dark imaginings. That’s the flip side of being very creative. I think Simone saw the color vanish from my face, and he quickly added that Piero said it wasn’t terrible, and that there was no need to rush back to Umbria. Still, I knew I had to see for myself, either to allay my fears or accept the reality and deal with it.

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