Drinks wine every day.
Doesn’t know a damn thing about the stuff.
I just had rounded a stunningly-beautiful corner when Gaspare saw me looking at my map. He threw one leg over to the side of his bicycle and rode up, stopping perfectly, something a show-off teenager would do. I was endeared immediately.
What’s the best way to Trapani, I asked, fingering the tangle of spaghetti-like roads on the map.
Take the 187, he said.
How do I know which is the 187?
Well, it’s not marked but when you arrive in….or when you see the…..just take the…well, I’ll show you.
And we were off, to what would eventually turn out to be 45 kilometres together.
We rode over what is certainly some of the most breathtaking natural beauty Italy has to offer, a nation with more than its fair share. The countryside was an explosion of wildflowers of every colour, the intensity today, jarring. Blood red poppies streaked the blonde grassy fields, as far as you could see. The blue sky was supercharged, somehow bluer than blue, like it had just recently been cleaned. The lemons were so yellow that they seemed to burn right into my retina, leaving lasting images that I almost had to shake off. The fields of knee-high fava bean plants were green-green, the heavy and pendulant pods contrasting against the irony, red soil. Even the whites today were disturbingly-white, whites that don’t seem to appear normally in nature, like that magical, billowing clothes lines in detergent commercials or that teeth-against-the-tan of your average Hollywood star. And the entire time, the Tyranian would reveal itself ever few curves, in an afternoon-long game of a hide and go-seek, each time, a different shade of blue. Only bluer.
As we rode, Gaspare gestured at it all, employing that characteristic sign of confidence indicative to Southern Italian males, that absence of any body space, coupled with the need to constantly tap the other to reassure oneself that the listener is paying attention or to add a dramatic flourish, a sort of corporal punctuation. Some men even tuck in an arm, making the act of two men walking together as intimate as a tango. Others rest a hand on a shoulder for an entire conversation. Gaspere does all of this, only on bicycles, mine so heavily-loaded that my body often shakes just trying to stay up right. He ran me off the road more times than I could count, he ran me into mud puddles and into tall, Prince-purple-flowered thistle bushes, whose needles coated but thankfully didn’t penetrate, my neoprene pant leg.
He pointed out the bridge that his father worked on, the town where his wife was born, the place where he bought his last washing machine and a small obelisk erected to honour fallen police officers, gunned down by the Mafia.
They were colleagues, he says a few minutes later, tears rolling down his cheeks. Good boys too. The Mafia had always been a sign of a bigger problem, he said. His hand on my shoulder made his words seem all the more sincere. If the government wouldn’t give you permission to build a house, to fix your garage or to get a mortgage to buy your children their houses, what could you do? You had no choice. But that was before drugs. After drugs, the Mafia changed and started to become a parasite on good, decent people.
When did those men die, I ask, thinking that the government couldn’t be that slow if it had already erected a monument.
1977, he said, and then we rode in silence for half an hour or so, the stunning panorama seeming to lift him.
I never bring up the subject of the Mafia with Southern Italians and was a bit shocked that he discussed it so freely. For most Italians, the subject solicits the same feeling as if a visiting guest wanted to know about all the junkies at your local bus station or how likely was it that your local parishner was actually molesting a child this evening.
We rode through several small towns that had a row of nice, simple, family houses to the left, and then a row of dilapidated monster villas on the other, blocking the sea. He explained that everything on the beach was illegal (abusiva) architecture, there because the owners, aided by the Mafia, had successfully solicited building permits, albeit for public hotels, rather than private villas. Town after town, the copious beachfront was nasty, garbage-coated sprawl, left to swelter while most of the villas had clearly been abandoned for years if not decades.
So why solicit a contract, build a villa and then not live in it, I asked.
You can only live in so many of your villas, he said.
The rolling and expansive conversation was something that I’ll never forget and it was a turning point in my understanding of the Southern Italian view of government, society and anything that is ‘ours’ as opposed to ‘mine’ or ‘yours’. I grew up believing that the government, however misguided or even inept, existed for the betterment of the lives of the local people. My neighbours, staff, friends and colleagues in Southern Italy see government as the opposite, as a weapon of the few, aimed at crushing anyone gullible enough to go along with the plan. It’s living in a land where conspiracy theory is the true state religion. But talking with Gaspere, I didn’t have to put myself in someone’s else’s shoes for very long to understand what it would be like to live in a sea village (where the sea is everything), to be constantly denied the ability to provide for myself or my children, only to see access to the sea itself being taken by the government and given to someone that already has more than he can use in a lifetime. He was not an ex-cop talking, he was someone that understands the south, or least how it used to be. I hadn’t expected him to be sympathetic to the whole system.
That the local government no longer functions like this means little: it takes a long time to change minds, especially when so much is involved.
Gaspare and I talked about other changes as well, the flip-flopped proportions of young women to young men in Italian universities, the role of New Europe in Southern Italy and the importance of Northern and Central Italian wineries investing in Southern Italian wine.
Wine in Sicilia has changed more in the last 15 years than in the last 2000, I said.
Really? I wouldn’t think so, he said.
What sort of wine do you drink?
Normal wine, he said.
You mean sfuso?
Yeah, normal wine. Half a litre with lunch and another with dinner.
I had suspected that sfuso, or bulk, unlabeled wine was what most Sicilians were drinking in Sicilian wine regions, for the same reason that I live in a wine region and drink sfuso at most meals myself. Only I tend to do it in defiance, to be one of the people. What I can’t imagine is to be living in one of the most dynamic wine regions in the history of the world, and at such a pivotal, self-exploratory-time and not knowing or caring about it. My guess is that Gaspere is the former, that anyone still so in love with his wife, that rides a bicycle that hard just for fun, that is so generous with complete strangers and one loves his birthplace with such sobriety, it seems impossible that he wouldn’t sit down to a bottle of Cusumano Alcamo Bianco and not feel something close to breast-feeding, right from the earth itself.
We shook hands and kissed, gave earnest wishes and separated, and a few kilometres up the road I stumbled onto a parade in a small village, where Jesus was reliving key moments of his life, re-enacted by local farmers, mechanics and beauticians, only this time in ‘living paintings’ pulled by big red tractors. Everyone talked on cell phones as the procession passed. Folks smoked. Kids wiggled. I snapped some pictures of the crowd, how intent they were to be at the social ‘thing’, whatever it was, and I scratched this question into my new Moleskin: Could it be that Southern Italy’s patina-thin sheen of religious tradition is really just the desire to gather, the desire to behave socially, just without the presence of government, which, historically, has always let them down?