Thursday, July 9, 2015

My Great Italian Adventure: Roughing it in the Land of Permits and Pasta

Calcata Vecchia is a land that Time didn’t so much forget as exempt. You won’t see satellite dishes here, although there is a forest of antennae and wind turbans glittering from its red-tiled roofs. You can spot them from the path that wends its way up to Calcata Nuova, the new town, that one that isn’t medieval and doesn’t sit on a rock that stretches out of the Treja Valley like an odd, clay-colored mushroom.

No car other than the occasional three-wheeled Piaggio is allowed to pass beneath Calcata Vecchia’s sacred arches, so you march—laden with heavy groceries in flimsy, environmentally-conscious bags made of corn husks—up wet cobblestones that have been made yet more treacherous by pigeon droppings. You stop halfway, wondering if it’s really that hot, that steep, and that difficult or if you’re just that woefully out-of-shape. Then you press on, hoping the bags hold up so your acqua frizzante doesn’t go rolling down the hill with you chasing after it.

You’re always happy when you get to the piazza. To the right is a 16th century church with an outrageously flamboyant priest who observes all the Catholic saints days, usually with a bullhorn. There was a situation a few years ago where a young woman stripped off all her clothes and wandered naked through the borgo. The priest was furious. Words were exchanged on the church steps—those same steps that a year later, as part of some bizarre Halloween ritual, a woman the locals referred to as “ham hock” stripped down to a bustier and 18th century farthingale. I guess it’s all in the context.

But in the piazza you will see artist Constantino Morosin’s legendary thrones, three of them, sculpted out of the indigenous stone called tufo. Sometimes a cat is there, licking its paws before pausing to stare at you as though you are stupidest person on earth for carrying groceries in this heat. Both Calcatas, vecchia and nuova, are abundant in cats. In many cases, a cat will attach itself to you, and then you are obligated to feed it, worm it, and buy it shots. Fortunately, the vet lives two houses down and makes house calls.

Calcata Vecchia has restaurants, art studios, bodegas, shops and bars. The one you see as you first lurch into the piazza while your heart rate levels out is called Opera, and since they have wifi, you might even see me lurking there in a suspicious manner with my iPhone clutched in sweaty desperate paws. Il Gatto Nero (the Black Cat) is a feline-themed restaurant behind a charming red-lacquer door. Neo is the mascot, which is fitting since he is a black cat, and a woefully misbegotten one at that. He snuck into our house one evening and sprayed a first edition George Orwell. There was hell to pay, believe me, and I ended up sprinkling the book with corn starch, tying a plastic bag around it and then shaking it like I was coating a chicken leg. Worked, too.

No one in Calcata (that I know of anyway) has air conditioning. This forces you to live a greater percentage of your life out of doors. But it sucks when you sleep in the attic with your boyfriend who tends to starfish the entire bed and you’re so sweaty and sleep-deprived you actually grab a pillow and try dozing in the clawfoot bathtub. If we owned a refrigerator, I would have stuck my entire head in the crisper, but as things are, the best I can do is the tub or the kitchen floor, two ladders down, where I sprawl comatose on an orange blanket. When we make coffee in the morning (on a hot plate, by the way—no oven here), the whole room rises about eight hundred degrees and you curse your tragic addiction to coffee, but at the same time you know that nothing in this life or the next is going to keep you from making it, especially the Italian stuff, which pretty much ruins you for anything else.

What you are left with when there are few televisions, sketchy wifi, no cell reception, no cars, and no air conditioning is each other. The Calcatese are a passionate, wildly opinionated lot, given to altercations in the piazza. There was one last night. As a local theater group came streaming up the hill after their performance, with no agenda more Machiavellian than wishing to dine al fresco in the piazza, they were treated to their own private performance of two locals punching the snot out of each other. One of them, bloody and with his shirt torn, gave a bravura performance of his own, yelling obscenities at everyone for twenty minutes until the carabinieri showed up.

For the record, the carabinieri view the Calcatese with sneering contempt. We’re artists, writers, actors, and musicians, you see. Calcata Vecchia is actually known as paese di fricchettoni, or “village of freaks.” To the local constabulary, what happened last night is just further proof that we are, without exception, moral degenerates. And to be fair, that’s not entirely untrue. Heroin was a problem here once and perhaps a couple thousand parties might have turned into one big orgiastic fuck pit. But in the severest terms I will maintain that your average U.S. Senatorial kegger is far more debauched, especially now that the American public is too busy watching Backstrom to concern themselves with the character of their elected representatives.

Is it true that from time to time someone’s car gets torched? Yes. Do the carabinieri do anything about it? No. Do certain members of the local communist party occasionally get their pricy new chompers knocked clean out of their skull by put-upon fascist youth? Yes. Do the carabinieri do anything about it? No. Do local farmers sometimes come up to the piazza to sell fresh mozzarella, grapes, and honey? Yes. Do the carabinieri do anything about it? Absolutely. They drive those poor bastards off with a stick. Why? No permit. Italians adore permits. Permits are the god and sovereign of the Italian legal system—although those three words together may constitute the biggest oxymoron of the free world, right after United States democracy.

In many respects, life is lived here much as it was five centuries ago. And it has taught me in the most uncomfortable ways that every problem that humans create a solution for just creates other, different problems. Television, cars, air conditioning and freely accessible wifi = isolation (plus air pollution and lack of exercise, etc.). Yet all that togetherness = fighting. At least it does when you’re Italian. But even the days, and there are plenty, where I could really use a little more climate control, I never lose sight of the gift that’s been given to me as a stranger in a strange land. I am living life out loud—overheated, vitriolic, and always teetering on the edge of disaster. But there’s laughter (mostly at myself) and appreciation of what is best about the old ways and what is truly essential about the new.

Which compels me to ask: what’s the one modern convenience you think you could live without? I’d be curious to know.


  1. That made me laugh out loud. The one modern convenience? Got to be a cell phone, because I don't have one. Also, didn't have central air conditioning until this year. I had a window unit, but I didn't turn it on until the temp hit 90 degrees inside the house. I would say I live like an Italian, but the neighbors all stay inside, so, no.

  2. Air conditioning, she said dreamily.