One thing I like about Noepoli is that you always know what time it is. On my first day here, another resident told me, “You’ll get used to the church bells. They ring every fifteen minutes.” And in truth, they do: every fifteen minutes we get a sequence of chimes for the hour; a pause; and then on a lower-pitched bell, one, two, or three chimes for :15, :30, or :45. I like this because I have no appointments here: I am free to enjoy the time simply passing. When things get hectic, time can feel like an opponent I have to subdue, someone who works against me. Noepoli reminds me that time can be an easy companion.
The church bells, as they have been through the ages, are a communication system unto themselves. A sustained sequence of ringing means there’s a mass. A slow, somber sequence means there’s a funeral. A sustained, eager sequence early in the morning accompanied by what sounds like cannon fire– means it’s a festa.
I’ve spent a week in this quiet town—and as I type quiet I stop myself because just this moment as the sun is setting and I’m sitting on a terrace overlooking the mountains, I can hear:
barking dogs (many)
the voices of three Italian ladies who have been sitting together talking in the alley below me literally all afternoon. I am dying to know what they’re talking about, but they haven’t used any of the seven words I know. (So we can safely assume that they haven’t been greeting each other for half a day.)
the occasional boom that my hostess tells me is part of a mechanism local farmers use to frighten wild boars
swallows cutting through the air, so fast that I can’t believe birds are making these zooming noises
A working definition of quiet is far more complex than the absence of sound.
When I found the website for the artists’ residency that led me to Noepoli for a week, I was ecstatic. I’d had two experiences in southern Italy (though in Apulia, not in Basilicata) and found the area inspiring (also delicious) and full of new images that spark things in my mind. The idea of spending time there working on my book seemed brilliant.
When I was accepted, I was suddenly a bit intimidated by how distant the location seemed. “Italy’s largest national park” sounded enchanting—five-hour bus ride from Rome, get off at a tiny rest stop where someone will meet you—slightly less so. One night I decided to reread Harry Potter (no. 1) (I know: this is not in itself unusual, but you know how sometimes you pick up just the right thing at the right time without knowing why?) and when I opened it, the stub of a plane ticket fell out. It was marked Frankfurt to Delhi, and it was about eight years old. It had since become a bookmark. I could see myself getting on a plane with a group of eager Christian volunteers having really no idea of what I was about to experience. I could see—images like this you can call up years later—the swarming crowds at the train station in Delhi at night, and my luggage being carried on a porter’s head to a sleeper train. I could see the girl who didn’t sleep, but stood in the doorway of the car in the hot summer night just watching with strangers the blackness go by.
When did you become afraid of a bus ride? I asked myself.
I arrived in Rome late on a Monday night and stayed for approximately 9 hours at a B&B just near Tiburtina Stazione, where I caught the bus early the next morning. I was so anxious about finding this bus that I am a little embarrassed to tell you how straightforward it was. It was even a comfortable bus, with air conditioning and a little toilet. Halfway south, we stopped at a rest area that was selling fresh buffalo mozzarella.
The reason it takes so long to get to an isolated area is that it is worth it. (I suppose that’s a weird sentence, but I’m going with it.) There were no tourists on that bus. There were students, shuttling between Rome and their families; and there were Italians making summer visits to family in Basilicata. “Parla inglese?” gets either a straight-up “no” or the finger-pinch “un poco…” Throughout my week in Noepoli, I had experiences where I itched to take out my digital camera and didn’t, because I knew that these were not “tourist” moments, and turning it into a spectacle would have been the wrong thing. (Don’t worry—there are photos all the same.)
I’m going to write more about this town and my time there, but today I’m going to take my plane stub, and stick it in a book. (Maybe the old Italian copy of Basilicata writer Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli that I impulsively bought in a used bookstore in Rome?) I hope it falls out when I need its reminder.