Carrara: adventures in quarryland

Torano, Italy below the Quarries of the Alpi Apuani
Torano, Italy below the Quarries of the Alpi Apuani

Back story:

In May of 2007 our family moved to the town of Torano in Italy. Torano is a quarry town, the last one between Carrara and some of the oldest marble quarries in Italy. There were two bars, a bakery, and a small convenience store that sold milk, butter, and a few dusty bottles of wine. It was a town that was, for the most part, empty of all but retired people. A few younger couples lived down near the bus stop. The top of the hill was reserved for houses scrupulously tended by stoop-shouldered women and gardens planted and puttered over by silver-haired men.

For the first two months I was recovering from the birth of our daughter and so stayed in the house except for a few brief walks. Later I would push the baby in her stroller to make the loop of the town on the one road that circled through it. At the top of the hill on the sunniest spot there was a bench across from some houses where I would stop and look down the hill at our town and the others below. It was here that I first met Carlito. He was carrying a bag of leaves down from his garden to the dumpster by the side of the road and stopped on the way back to get a look at little Robin. Italians are crazy for babies and Tuscan people are in some sense the quintessential Italians, falling right between the extreme hospitality of people in the south and the blinkered, work-horse mentality of the north.

When I was talking to Carlito I was looking into the sun and noticed only that he had a deeply lined face and spoke haltingly…a Da Vinci drawing of a slightly grizzled old man. Several walks later I noticed that while others asked new questions, he always asked the same ones: “Is it a girl baby or a boy baby?”, “What’s her name?”, “You live in Torano?” After this brief exchange I would head of down the hill to the sound of the 4:30 p.m. detonation of explosives rumbling down from the quarries as regular as the church bells ringing vespers.

The fourth time I saw Carlito, Matthew was with me as we took the baby for her afternoon stroll. Matthew’s Italian is fluent and so he asked Carlito if he had worked in the quarries. Carlito told the story of how he got the dent in his head in a quarry accident when he was 25. Now I saw it, the concavity of the left side of his scull…I suppose that 40 years ago in a provincial Italian hospital there wouldn’t have been much they could do. There may not be much more that they can do now. How do doctors treat accidents that happen between men and 8 ton blocks of stone that make giant drag lines and front-end loaders look like bright yellow Tonka trucks?

Later, Matthew pointed out to me how dented and battered the men of the town were. One missing a leg, several limping, many wearing thick, smoke-tinted glasses to save their eyes damaged from squinting at the brilliant white stone for years on end…and above the town the quarries were stunning, beautiful. At sunset the flat white faces changed colours like a magic mirror: silver, blazing orange, downy pink as a baby’s cheek. Down from these mountains had come the marble from which some of the most famous monuments in Italy were made; The Colosseum, Michelangelo’s David. Now it goes to make, the tourist-trinket sculpture sold down in Carrara, floor tiles, and pedestal sinks; the gravel paves roads, the dust goes into toothpaste. What remains the same? Quarry men have been taking take their bite of the mountain for the last 3000 years; and the mountain…

To Carlito di Torano

‘Lizzatura’, impossibility of scale.
The slipping of the lizard ton, slow heave:
Skittering run of started stones, pale
As the knuckles above a dust-rimed sleeve.

What chemic system drives the reptilian mind
Of these men, of you, to scatter with wet
And laboured breath the dandelion seed
Of your life across this osteal range
Of unrelenting, unrepentant, white?
White, heavy enough to burn you blind;
Grind bone and work-hard skin to paste and lard.

As Atlas’ report rambles down the quarry hour;
You turn your head towards the hard, square place
That men dented, limping leave
At twenty-five to tend their flowers.

-Bonnie McClellan

To see the poem published in the “Blood Orange Review” click HERE.

Quarries in the Bacino di Torano as seen from our old house.
Quarries in the Bacino di Torano as seen from our old house.

White Christmas: Part Two

The Garden of the White Prince
The Garden of the White Prince

This is the garden of the ‘White Prince’, the name given by Matthew’s younger brother Frank to our friend Philippe Bredael perhaps because he likes everything around him to be as beautiful and harmonious as his garden. Full of palm trees and sunset light it’s hard to believe that I took this photo in late December.  Philippe is the second person that Matthew met in Italy when he was on his vagabond’s tour of Europe in 1990 and one of the reasons that that tour stopped here; their friendship spans 19 years. It was in the palace of the White Prince that little Robin spent her first Christmas and slept through her first new year’s.

In December of 2007 we had been living in Torano for seven months (for more about Torano/Carrara see my post: Carrara: adventures in quarryland) and in this short time had made only a few friends. I never imagined how difficult holidays would be with no social structure to hold us up, no friends or family to visit, no one to attend a Christmas Eve dinner or a New Year’s Eve party if we planned them. Here we were face to face with a clean slate on which to write out our new family traditions, a nine month old baby and a toaster oven that was not big enough to roast a goose…it was time to ask for help.

Manger scene semi-submerged in Lago Maggiore
Manger scene semi-submerged in Lago Maggiore

Philippe and his large oven came to our rescue and so we decided to spend the week of Christmas and New Years a little closer to the North Pole. Many of Matthew’s ‘amici del cuore’ live near Lago Maggiore, he calls them ‘La Tribu’, The Tribe. Matthew has a slew of wonderful stories about Philippe and The Tribe, carnivals spent in Venice as wandering face painters, fantastic parties, summer afternoons by the lake diving from Sasso Galletto. These adventure stories are best heard straight from the horse’s mouth in our kitchen with a good glass of Refosco in hand. I mention them briefly in this context to try and sketch with a few light strokes the backdrop of Robin’s first Christmas.

With our friend Chemda and I illegally riding in the cargo compartment of Matthew’s van and the baby on the passenger side nested safely and legally in her car seat, we embarked from the relative warmth of the Tuscan seaside towards the cold grey north…Lombardy. I have to say that I felt a bit as if I were in the middle of a movie about an immigrant circus family on holiday. After a few hours on the road we arrived in Milan and stopped to visit with our friend Michelangelo and his friend Barbara. They gave Robin her first Christmas present, a ‘Piglet’ from Winnie-the-Pooh that burst into song when his tummy was squeezed. Robin’s fourth word after “Mama”, “Papa” and “Banana” was “Pag-lat”. I’m not much for electronic toys but I am deeply grateful to this magic singing Piglet and to Chemda’s mothering experience for getting Robin through the last hour in the van from Milan to Varese.

Bundled Bobbie Kay arrives at Zio Pippo's house
Bundled Bobbie Kay arrives at Zio Pippo's house

There was supper on the table, there were people smiling and happy to see us. Philippe is a consummate host and I immediately felt a sense of ‘home’ despite the fact that he was the only person at the table that I knew. We ate well, we slept well, we woke up and began the first of  a series of dilatory days involving eating, visiting, and sightseeing. The landscape was stunning, the white snow capped Alps in the distance, the placid surface of the lake, a profusion of evergreen palm, pine, laurel and magnolia trees interlaced with the black and white bareness of elm and beech. During the day the sun shone with a force equal to the cold, as it went down the air bit.

sun through the trees campo di fiore
sun through the trees in campo di fiore
Robin on Christmas Morning
Robin on Christmas Morning

On the 24th we went to get a fresh goose for Christmas day dinner from a local farm. On Christmas morning while Robin opened her second package (with a lot of help from Mama) and enjoyed looking at her new book about farm animals, the grown up’s started discussions about cooking.

Le chef
Le chef

Matthew went down to the van where we’d left our lovely goose overnight to discover that she was now frozen…we let her warm up on the kitchen counter while working on dressing and pie. Little Robin pulled herself up for the first time on the ladder back chairs in Uncle Pippo’s kitchen. Matthew had given me a copy of The Gnostic Gospels and I read the first story which was The Pearl, a sweet coincidence since he often calls me ‘Pearl’. Matthew cooked. The goose was perfect, even vegetarians were tempted to taste a bit of the stuffing. The house was full of people (with the exception of ourselves) who had been to India so exotic travel stories were exchanged as plates and glasses were refilled.

The Monastary of Santa Caterina
The Monastery of Santa Caterina

Between Christmas and New Year’s eve we went to visit the Monastery of Santa Caterina and a Buddhist meditation center across the lake above a town called Bee. We took walks in the national forest at Campo dei Fiore, went ice skating at a tiny rink in the Lakeside town of Laveno, and had dinner at the homes of some of Matthew’s other friends. There was an exhibition at a local museum with work by some artists Matthew knew from Milan. After seeing the show we went for drinks at a little bar in Caldana where some people were vigorously playing oom-pa-pa music on accordion, trumpet and tuba to the vast delight of our daughter who squealed and clapped when she wasn’t cheerfully jamming potato chips into her mouth. Despite the social whirlwind, or perhaps because of it, I often felt terribly lonely and exhausted. I was surrounded by people who all had an shared history with one another, a involved story that was communicated in a language that I was just beginning to speak among men and women who were not yet my friends.

Matthew, Robin, and Philippe by the Lake

My sombre mood probably had as much to do with homesickness as to my eternally cold feet and the lack of sleep. Little Robin was on the third week of her first cold and so she (and I and Matthew) woke up often durring the night. Durring the day she was her normal easygoing self, happy to see new people or to fall asleep in the car seat. Everyone was completely in love with her…it’s hard not to be. New Year’s eve was great fun, Matthew and I dressed up, he in his best suit and a red tie, I in a strappy red dress and heels (red is the New Years colour in Italy). We danced, we snacked, we drank good wine and bad. Robin fell asleep early and we tucked her safely into her travel bed moved to the relative quiet of Philippe’s bedroom and then obsessivly checked every 10 min. to make sure she was alright…the new parents’ waltz.

At midnight we kissed, first each other and then, in a secular version of  exchanging the peace, everyone else…hugs, kisses on both cheeks, the tapping of glasses filled with prosecco; “Buon Anno, Aguri, Aguroni, Buona 2008”. Finally everyone settled into the ancient ritual of eating lentils for good luck and the contemporary ritual of frantically transmitting one’s best wishes for the new year via text message to jammed satellites that would then deliver them at inopportune early hours to groggy friends not present. Guests began to shift towards home; we moved Robin’s little bed back into the room where we were sleeping and where a fire remained burning in the fireplace. She woke up and watched the fire, still sleepy and hypnotized by the warmth and movement.

The next day there was snow…a walk was proposed by the guests who had remained for the night but for once I said no. I loaned my hiking boots to a photographer who’d arrived for the weekend from Milan in suede flats and started the hot water running in the bath tub. The bundled crowd went out to walk in the falling flakes and I wrapped my little girl inside my coat and carried her out on the balcony to see the white filtering through the palm trees.

%d bloggers like this: