Tag Archives: Noepoli

Festas, fiestas, and a little Italian heat

One effect of Boston’s summer heat is that it makes me feel like I’m on vacation. Delft’s seasons don’t run as hot and cold, and there weren’t many genuine shorts-and-tank-top days (by my reading, not the TU Delft undergrad-girl reading) per summer. I like the hot-hot days, and for the last four summers I’ve associated them with the Mediterranean: Ostuni. Dubrovnik (lord, it was hot in Dubrovnik). Barcelona. Ventimiglia.

The places where everything shuts down in the afternoon because it has to, because the only thing you really can do is swim or siesta after a fresh lunch with a glass of white wine. The places optimized for that thing you always heard about as a kid where you could cook an egg on the pavement.

With our warmest days peaking around 90 F, OK, it hasn’t been Mediterranean hot. And as I look out my front windows to a suburban leafy street where cars and the occasional rogue cyclist rush by, the atmosphere is rather altered as well. But this past Saturday, sick of unpacking boxes and sorting through old photos and files and whatnot, I went online looking for weekend activities and found another Italian echo: the St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, MA.

I have memories from growing up of the Catholic church in our town having a carnival every summer. (A kermis, we’d say in Holland.) But when we were in Italy it was my thrill to stumble several times upon Italian saint festivals: lights on cobbled streets and men in their suits in the evening heat, somber-faced as they carry a gigantic statue through the town, while women behind them bark prayers into megaphones. The local band follows with a march. Gelato is scooped late into the night and the saint eventually retires to the church for another year.

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Last summer while in residence at the lovely Palazzo Rinaldi, I was taken by my hosts to a small nearby village for an event known as the Festa della Pita, the identifying feature of which is that men hoist a tall stripped tree trunk, and then try to climb it to earn prizes.

This perfectly primed me for the Pita’s horizontal cousin in Gloucester: the Greasy Pole competition. During the five-day tribute to the patron saint of the seaside town’s fisherfolk, a thick wooden pole is stuck out over the water, slathered with grease, and given an Italian flag at the far end. We made the one-hour drive to Gloucester on Saturday with greasy-pole viewing high on our agenda.

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

We headed to the beach after a quick stroll through the town: quaint and pretty, with some tempting Italian cafes, and gift shops selling over-priced sea-themed trinkets. The pole and platform had been erected a short distance out from the beach, nearby a massive conglomerate of boats: a floating party, of everything from kayaks to speedboats, with swimsuited people moving between. It was a hot day, but the water was still cold.

The opening act for the greasy pole was the Seine Boat Race—three rowboats labeled the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, each manned by about ten guys, racing each other to some point on the horizon and back. The race was fun enough, but heavily negated by the long maneuvering of the boats into position and a ridiculous string of false starts. A cheer went up when a large, pontoon-style boat ferried all the contestants out to the platform for the greasy pole, where I can only presume they took some time to sober up in the hot sun and remember why they had agreed to do this. As the crowd on the beach grew enormous, the first man stepped up onto the pole, promptly fell off, and the action was underway.

A greasy pole contender

A greasy pole contender

The objective for these men–some in bathing trunks, others in everything from superhero costumes to a suit–was to get that flag. As each man’s effort tended to last between zero and four seconds, the line cranked right along. After a half-hour, only one man had made it past the halfway mark, but had tumbled into the water before grasping the flag. We began seeing repeat contestants and wondered how the rules were defined: does the event simply continue until a) everyone quits or b) the flag is won?

Although attempting the greasy pole seemed fairly unsafe (some contenders fell straight to the water, but others smacked various body parts off the pole en route), the local police, fire department, and Coast Guard were all represented on the water–I suppose in case anyone were to become seriously injured. This struck me as an American touch.

Beachside crowd

Beachside crowd

Around the one-hour mark, our interest began to wane, and we were making our way along the beach when a roar from the crowd turned our heads. A man made his way half, then two-thirds the length of the pole–he was within arm’s length of the coveted flag–and though he fell into the water before grasping it, he managed to dislodge the flag, which fluttered down after him. Does that count? I barely had time to ask myself before the entire beach surged. People went wild with cheering; the contestants on the platform all began jumping into the ocean; “Who was it?” a stranger asked me eagerly–“Did you see who it was?”

I confessed that I did not know any of the contenders. The whole group swam toward shore, the champion with the flag held high, and as soon as they reached land, he was pulled up onto others’ shoulders and whisked away into the streets.

Carnival, Gloucester

Carnival, Gloucester

We had intended to drive home and make dinner, but the lure of the seaside atmosphere became too strong; so we wandered the town while the sun sunk and had seafood at a restaurant. Probably two hours after we’d left the beach, through the restaurant windows we saw the champion pass by, still clutching the flag, flush with celebration. The entire place cheered, and to me, it felt like summer.

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A week is too short in a small town.

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Noepoli is small, but I wouldn’t say you couldn’t get lost, at least initially. The streets wind like a multi-level maze, connected by stone steps and improbable alleys. There are only a handful of shops: a butcher; two bakeries; a couple “bars” (which I think  means coffee, beer, ice cream, wine); and one tiny tabacchi/alimentari–a small supply of nonperishable foods and basic household products. The church is at the top of the maze, and so is where I am staying.

If you take a walk around 17:00, you can hear the sounds of the mass: prayers being chanted, voices in song. My hosts drove me the first day to the grocery store in nearby Senise (15 minutes by car). When we returned—in the midst of an unexpected, pounding thunderstorm—all the parking spots in the square were taken. “There must be a mass on,” someone remarked.

A town this small identifies a stranger instantly, and the first time I took a walk I felt a little self-conscious. I went out when the world was awakening from siesta. I could hear women chatting behind beaded curtains, and see the men of the village sitting in clusters, supervising the town. Later in the evening, children raced around the little squares, and a few teenagers lingered on steps and corners. Nearly every person gave me the look that clearly asks: “But who are you?”

People are curious, but not unfriendly. Trying to be polite, I would smile and murmur “Ciao” or “Buonasera.” (A few people continued to stare as if I were some kind of apparition.) The best phrase I learned all week was Io sono un ospite a Palazzo Rinaldi. The key word is ospite: guest. These words were usually all it took to produce a knowing “Ahhh!” and a smile. A few times I’d pick up the word for “artist,” “writer,” or simply again: “guest.”

One older man stopped to watch as I took a photo of his valley with my digital camera. He commented (at the level of Italian I understood) that the view was beautiful and I agreed, molto bella.

To my eye the majority of the village’s inhabitants are elderly Italians, but right behind them comes the substantial population of cats and dogs, somewhere between wild and fed. A particularly adorable cat mewed around my door all week, becoming so bold as to try and sneak in after I fed her once or twice. Certain parts of the village on my walks would remind me of a Highlights puzzle (a magazine my grandmother sent us when we were small). There would be an image, perhaps of a small village street, and the instruction: How many cats do you see?

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Many doorways sported a plastic bottle full of water. To water plants? I wondered. For thirsty laborers? After seeing this several dozen times, I asked my hostess about the purpose. “It’s about the cats,” she said. People say that if they leave these bottles in the doorways, the cats will not pee there. She added that she is “not sure this is true.”

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On my last morning a man’s voice over a megaphone announces fresh veg and produce; he parks his truck in the square. A friend and I wander over. The farmer is from nearby Senise, and he has piles of the most beautiful tomatoes, as well as eggplant, long braids of garlic, and a green the women tell us is good for the stomach. Your health is everything, one nonna instructs us. My Italian is flimsy so I confirm with my friend that the man is really saying that the long braids of lovely garlic are only five Euros. Yes, she tells me, and the women are haggling him down to four.

I look at the perfect, dirt-stained garlic, and think of the factory-precise, weak-flavored heads I pay a Euro each for at the grocery store.

Terrace view of Palazzo Rinaldi

Terrace view of Palazzo Rinaldi

A week is too short in a small town. It’s a superficial, in-and-out-tourist mentality that says you’ve “seen it all” in a day, or that there’s nothing to “do” here. The more you’re willing to engage, the more the town opens up; the more you look, the more you see. Less than an hour before I left, a man was showing us barred openings at cellar-level, which lead or led to a network of tunnels under the town. Intended centuries ago as an escape route in case of siege, the tunnels were still being played in by adventurous kids when this man was a boy. But his grandmother would chastise him that the tunnels were unsafe, and today they are blocked to keep children out.

Inside the town hall lies a massive stone carving of a knight, an ancient piece of funerary art. The wealthy man had died while on pilgrimage to somewhere, I believe the story went. The sculpture had sat outside until recent years—plain, just another stone in a town of stone stories. Perhaps  people thought it was odd to choose this one to move inside and protect; there isn’t exactly a reverential concern for the fragment of church art mounted nearby. A workman’s sign is propped up against it. (“This is Byzantine!” my host exclaims, moving the sign away.)

Towns like this speak in their stillness, as well as in their movement. A week goes by before you can blink, leaving a collection of snapshot, uneven memories, piled around you like the stones.

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Bookmarks from Noepoli

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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:

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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.)

someone’s television

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

View of Noepoli (manmade reservoir providing the gorgeous blue water to the left)

View of Noepoli (manmade reservoir providing the gorgeous blue to the left)

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.

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Noepoli in rain

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.

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