Sunday, April 08, 2007

Wild Figs and Ancient Chants

Fishermen from Calabria, Italy - Alan Lomax

I turn on the music, and Albanian chants from Calabria flood my jet-lagged skull. “We’re not through with you yet. Take this back with you. Forget about filling up your suitcase with brochures and bottles of wine. Forget about the ties and the shirts and the sox. Do not forget us.”

“We are the ancient, the local, the thread in the core of the soul of this land. Get out of bed. You’re not sleeping anyway. Wake up and hear the clarions calling like so many souls from inside you.”

I was sitting in a palace near Lake Garda talking to a woman and her husband. They had been living in Istanbul for the better part of their adult lives. Her childhood home was just downhill from the villa, but she, like me, had found another way, another place to call home. While we all come back to visit and stay, there are those of us who must return to a place not where we came from.

“You must come to Istanbul and visit me and my husband.” Their invitation was mentioned more than once. But I hesitate. Were they offering a politeness shown in a social setting such as ours? Was it like my friend in New York who, every time I see him or talk to him, says, “We must get together for lunch sometime.”

At another time in the Veneto a large party was going on, bottles of expensive French and Spanish wines were being opened. I didn’t come to Breganze for Burgundy or to suck up to a Pingus. So I walked outside by the fire. A roasting area for all kinds of meat was the staging spot for the meal. Everyone had eaten, and now the workers were talking by the still-warm coals, drinking a little Italian wine, a little grappa. Their talk switched to dialect, and the sing-song lilt of the Veneto became an animated chorus, my Albanian-Calabrian singers giving the stage over to the locals. I couldn’t walk away, though I didn’t understand a word of their dialect. But I felt more connected to them than to the well-dressed partygoers inside the warm and well-lit hall.

Two gatherings in the Veneto, all fancy and fine. And I seek out the folks who wander the souks, and the farmers who walk the hills, with their dogs and their flutes.

A bottle of wine is opened up in the palace, from a time when my wife was still alive. For a moment, I can touch a time when she is still alive. This is madness, but I fill the glass more than once. I cannot let her go; I cannot force myself to walk away from the little hill in Assisi where she rests in the cold ground.

More than once she caught up with me on the streets: once in Verona, once in Alba, once as a baby, once as a teenager. “Yes, I am here,” she could only say with her eyes as she passed by in a stroller or with her group of young friends.

Another bottle opens amidst talk about Istanbul and Palermo. Her presence flows into the glass. How am I going to explain this to anyone? Inside the glass she winks at me. She is red and clear and juicy and fresh despite the years the wine has. “Drink me.” Of course. The room disappears and all the people in the room with it. We are sitting on that hill in Umbria on a blanket with a little basket of bread and cheese. She is dressed in a light sun dress, yellow and green with slight accents of magenta. Her perfect nose and her perfect smile and those bright, shining eyes smile at me while she lifts her glass in a toast. “It’s not so bad here on this side. You’ll see someday. Don’t worry. Nothing ends over here. The wine always flows.”

It flows in a different way. You can pour a glass of red wine, and in the middle it can transform into a sparkling wine, and go to a deep rich white, and finish as a light rosato. All the while, the seasons change and the weather changes along with the music, the music, the chanting of the Albanians lost in Calabria, the Turks lost in Breganze, the singers and the chorus of voices from all generations of one’s family, now concentrated like a rich passito.


The sun is bright but not too hot, and all the while the wine is evolving, now to a Prosecco. Over the hill, a shepherd and his flock stop and look at this lost couple drinking wine. A lone sheep prances over and whispers something in her ear and she laughs. She says something in Greek, and the animal goes back to the shepherd. The shepherd pulls back his hat, and my 17-year-old father grins and bows and starts to play his clarinet in a dirge from the Peloponnese. And we haven’t even gotten to the grappa yet.

My neighbors are complaining about coyotes. Fig branches smuggled from Sardegna sit in my kitchen, waiting for the cold front to pass. In my yard, bees huddle in their confiscated cabin waiting, shivering.

Bring back the wild, and bring it back strong. Let the coyotes eat the strays and the weak; let the wild figs push their roots deep into the cold, hard soul of this place. Let the ancient voices sing loud and constantly in this head until it cracks open. What do I care?

My new acquaintances are back in Istanbul with their connection to something ancient and wild, with a foot in the old and an eye to the future. My back yard fills up with lost bees shuffled from the overly poisoned farms in the South, looking for a little clover, a little patch of wilderness in which to go about their business. I think I must make this quarter safe for the bees and the coyotes and the figs. So be it.

Roll back the stone, let the light in.



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