Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Food and Wine Part

All roads lead to great food and wine.
The food.  Wow, I don’t even know where to begin to look for the words that describe the quality of the food found in and around Guardia.  And, I am saying this while being fully aware that I have not yet begun to fully explore all the food options there.  I know of at least half a dozen fine places to eat, but only ate in one – a great pizzeria in the Piazza Mercado called La Meridiana.  I had the best Pizza Margherita ever!  Amazing, fresh mozzarella, succulent tomatoes, fragrant basil and a perfect, soft crust along with the best olive oil (another great local product) I’ve ever tasted made this a memorable experience.

Most of the food-related experiences I had surrounded fresh food, bought locally.  Not only are there full time local shops that have just about anything you’d need, but on the weekends there are large open markets on the streets of Guardia and nearby Telese Terme.

At the Sunday market in Guardia, I tentatively approached the cheese vendor.  As I marveled at the selection of cheese I was greeted by the lady who either wanted to know what kind of cheese I wanted, or was complimenting me on my great hair.  I can’t be sure, but it was probably the former.  After determining that the idiot before her spoke not a lick of Italian, we digressed to a sort of cheesy sign language.  At that point, the lady’s son stepped up and also complimented me on my hair.  Or something.  Cheese Lady quickly informed her son that he shouldn’t talk to me, because I didn’t speak Italian, and then at that point the three of us started speaking cheese-sign to each other and I ended up with a kilo of some superb local cheeses. 
Formaggio spoken here.  
Buoyed by this successful bit of commerce, I strode over to the nearby grocery store where my mission was to capture one loaf of bread and a dozen eggs.  The bread was easy enough – in the corner, next to the butcher counter.  The eggs were more elusive, however.  They were not located in the refrigerated section where I expected them to be.  After lapping the small grocery a couple of times, I engaged a young woman of child-bearing age who was stocking shelves. In perfect English I asked “Where are your eggs?” (completely oblivious to how this could have been construed in any other setting).  She looked at once intrigued and befuddled at what was before her – an alien being speaking a language rarely heard in these parts.  We exchanged awkward grocery-store-sign language (apparently, I speak cheese-sign more fluently than grocery-sign) and then after I chose the nuclear option of clucking like a chicken, she got the picture and pointed to the pile of eggs not 3 meters behind me in the middle of the aisle.  As I walked out of the grocer, smiling at my chicken-clucking conquest, I was relieved that I didn’t have to employ the last resort – going all Michael Jackson on her and grabbing myself in order to give her an anatomical approximation of what I was looking for.
The seafood table at the Saturday market in Telese Terme.
I know less than you about wine.  Really – no matter who you are, I guarantee I know less than you.  If your 4 year old is reading this blog (I hope not, actually), I’m sure I know less than her, too.  I once bought a bottle of Fat Bastard wine because I liked the name.  I’m not much of a drinker at all (I mean, a drunk Irishman is soooooo cliché, no?) but while I was in Guardia for two weeks, I did sample about ten glasses of the fruity goodness.  Of the ten glasses, only two were commercial wines.  The remainder were all homemade.  EVERYBODY makes wine in Guardia.  Two notable homemade wines were a white wine I tried at the Tanna Del Orso (two glasses!) and a really amazing bitter orange liqueur(?) made by the extremely talented artist Salvatore Troiano.  I have spoken to several of the ex-pats about wine and, to a person, they rave about it.  Since they are all brilliant and talented people, I have to assume that they don’t have their heads up their asses when it comes to wine grading.  So, you know, based on their recommendations and what little experience I have, I’d have to stamp “incredible” on the wine, too.     

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Days Just Happen

This is the part of the story where cataloging each day’s activities would be fruitless.  The residue of my first two weeks in Guardia is more like great, warm blanket than a grocery list of things seen and accomplished. 
Priority one was Decompression.  To me, this meant creating an atmosphere of little or no expectation by or of me.  No schedule, no “must do” or “must see” or “must eat” for me.  Just breathe.  Live the life. Every day I woke up with only the scantest of plans for the day, or, in most cases, no plan at all.  Every day took care of me by laying before me a beautiful, warming winter sun, a Centro Storico which begged me to deliberately explore it’s eon-old self, the friendly, if not bemused, faces of the Guardiese and the smells of fresh food prepared over hours for the families that eat together during the typical three hour lunch time or the untimed, but equally social, connected evening meal.

Inside the Ave Gratia Plena

Even without a plan, the days just happen in Guardia.  One morning, I left Clare’s to explore the old Central Historic District, armed only with my Nikon D90 and only a vague idea of what I wanted to shoot.  Mentally flipping a coin, I chose “left” and headed downhill (there are no flat places in the Centro Storico, only up or down).  After about ten paces, I saw several people heading my way and recognized Roberto and Carlo from the house-warming at Laurie’s.  They greeted me like I was already family and since he knew from Clare that I was interested, Roberto spontaneously decided to drop whatever plan he had and give me a private tour of the Ave Gratia Plena, a 17th century former Catholic church.

Following Roberto and Carlo, I snaked my way through a side entrance, dodged a few sheets that were probably related to the ongoing renovation, then through one more doorway and there it was – a treasure chest of photographic opportunities.  The guys left to fetch an easel from Clare for a town meeting that was to occur that night, waving their hands as if to say “go – take pictures – knock yourself out” (which they probably did say in Italian).  So, for about twenty minutes, I was left alone to take any picture I desired.  I had only natural light to work with, which is the way I like it and, to me, made the experience more authentic.  The daylight shone through the windows, the air was still and cold and the only sound in the old church was the sound of my Nikon’s shudder, the shuffling of my feet and the sniffling of my nose, as I was too entranced to bother searching my pockets a tissue.

"Hey, Joe - you wanna see the old church?"

Roberto and Carlo returned with the easel and were in mid-conversation as they re-joined me in the AGP.  I had just about finished shooting everything in the AGP, when Roberto said something to me in Italian.  I looked at Carlo for a translation and he said “he wants to know if you want to see the old church”.  I was confused and pointed out what I thought was obvious as I spread my hands and looked around – “I’m already in the old church.”  Carlo explained “No, the old church.  The one behind the secret panel.  It was built in 623, A.D.”  I blurted out “Sure!” as I tried to process this:  The other, old church was 1000 years older than the one in which I was standing.  The time scale that is “normal” in Guardia takes a while to grasp.  Obviously.

A sealed off passage in the old church. 
Roberto insists that the area pointed to by the
arrow is made of rocks and human bones.  Cool. 

In a side alcove, Roberto pulled a panel out of place to expose a completely dark, wet mystery that was the early-medieval church. The only light in the cave/tunnel was from the flash of my camera.  I had no idea what I was shooting, I just knew that I had to shoot whatever I could, and then figure it out later.  I gathered from my miserable command of the Italian language (and the occasional assist from Carlo) that this was an area in the process of being unearthed and that no one really knows the full story of this amazing discovery.  I later learned that the “old” church tour was something that not many locals have ever seen.
The only clothes I had were now cold, wet and dirty after this completely unexpected experience and I was thrilled.  It’s really trite to talk about how humbled I was by the whole thing, but that’s the word that keeps pushing itself to the front of my mind.  I was humbled.  Also, even more pissed off at Delta and Air France for holding hostage the collection of random laundry that I slung into my suitcase.  But, mostly humbled.

One thing I saw repeatedly was that once the residents of Guardia see that your interest in the area is genuine, that you have a real passion for the “art” of the place, and that you’re not some asshole who wants to take advantage of them, doors open, toasts are given, invitations are extended, backs are slapped and proclamations of adoption into the Guardia familia are made.
It’s a beautiful thing.   

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mission Statement

As Clare and I emerged from the terminal at NAP, I soaked in the reality that I was finally in Italy.  As I dragged on my smoke, I absorbed the people, the color, the noise, the warm, humid air and the Mediterranean winter light that Napoli was throwing at me.  It was good.
The HHI show, naturally enough, brought out the house hunters.  I differed from the rest of the crowd in that I wasn’t going to Guardia with the primary thought being to buy a house.  In order to trick myself into ignoring what can, at times, be crippling shyness, I blast into new environs with a mission objective.  More than one objective is always a good approach, that way if my primary mission fails I have one or more fall-back upon which I can rely.  Yes, of course, buying a remarkably-priced house was an attractive reason to go to Guardia, but it wasn’t a mission I could control and so, therefore, had to be eliminated as my Prime Directive (for all you Star Trek nerds).

My brother wanted a picture of an Italian
plug because...I really don't know why.

Here are my (repeatedly) stated mission objectives:
1.       Decompression – remove the weight of the WYE that was 2012.
2.       Photography – I’ve done photo expeditions of my own making before and they have always worked well.  This place was a natural.
3.       Reading – Like, an actual book.  Made of paper. 
4.       Writing – Not sure what, I just know it, along with Photography, are my passions, so it seemed like it deserved a place on the list.
5.       Buying a House.
See how the whole real estate thing is way down the list?  Being an American over there kinda makes people forget the first four on the list.  But, not in a bad way.  The best way I can describe it is that the beautiful woman that Italy was smiled at me from behind her sunglasses and said “yes”.  I kept saying “no, well…maybe..no, really” and she kept saying “yes”.  So, I fell in love and said “yes”.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As we toddled away from Napoli in Clare’s “wee car” with the steering wheel on the wrong side, I couldn’t deny the feeling that this was what I signed up for.  The elevation grew, the temperature declined and Italy washed over me.  The closer we were to Guardia, the more relaxed I became, not really knowing or caring how much of what I was feeling was attributable to the beauty of southern Italy or the charm and unadulterated Scottish brogue of my host.

Guardia street near the Piazza Costello

The uncanny thing about my experience in Guardia Sanframondi is that everything was as I expected it to be, or, in many cases, better.  Intellectually, I had been almost preparing to be let down since nothing you see on TV can be that way in real life, right?  Guardia is just as I imagined it would be, I thought, as we arrived in what would become a familiar landmark, the Piazza Costello.  It was just a short walk down the cobble stoned streets from The Piazza Costello to Clare’s B&B, Arthouse Guardia.  The Piazza, the streets and the B&B were all featured in the TV episode and were all as presented!  This was starting well.
Along the way from the airport, Clare stopped by a local grocer to enable me to stock up on local toiletries, since mine were undergoing what was undoubtedly much-needed scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Defense, you know, for national security reasons.  Can’t just let any old collection of shampoo, deodorant and the ever-dangerous twin blade razors leave the county all willy-nilly, don’t ya know?  And, all that plaid flannel – obviously a security threat.
By the time I landed in Clare’s lovely B&B, I had been up for something like 28 hours – about 10 hours past my expiration date.  Even Clare’s cats mocked me as I attempted to make social conversation like someone who had just taken two hits of speed after drinking a quart of vodka.  It was only after an hour that I realized the cats didn’t speak English.  I think they were just being polite as they nodded their heads.
I was a nobody 6000 miles from home, but I had already been invited to my first social event in Guardia – a house-warming party for Laurie and her partner, Francisco – Americans from Los Angeles who had just purchased a place in the Centro Storico.  I wasn’t going to pass that up, but I needed sleep.  In the clothes I was wearing, of course, since Delta Airlines was throwing a lumberjack party with my favorite flannels in Detroit.   I just knew I’d get my beloved plaid friends back with stains from the pirogues and Faygo Redpop.  Bastards.
Light switch off.  Light switch on.  Just like the movies.  That was what a three hour nap was like as I awoke to a Scottish bird singing my name, alerting me to the scheduled social event.  It was odd that I was in Europe, but probably even stranger that I was attending a social event, but I felt completely comfortable just drifting on the river of life in Guardia.  It was not familiar to me, but felt right.  It was as if I fit immediately.  That feeling was only to grow over the next two weeks.

L to R: Clare, Me, Pasquale, Laurie, Francisco and Carlo.
Photo by Roberto

We exited Clare’s place and made the short walk to Laurie and Francisco’s to-be-christened house.  A really wonderful place with great bones, as so many of the Centro Storico homes are.  The magnificence of the house was only outshone by the warmth of those inside, not the least of which were the homeowners, Laurie Agard and Francisco Durazo.  They welcomed me like I was family, which was only the first of countless similar greetings I would be the beneficiary of during my too short stay.  In addition to Laurie and Francisco, I met Roberto Adame, Carlo Di Lonardo and Pasquale Orso. 
After a great discussion about the wonders of the new house, some champagne, some pictures and video, Clare and I made it back to the Arthouse Guardia, where I threw myself into the waiting arms of a comfy queen-sized bed.  In my clothes, you know, because…

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Who Does That?"

Not only did that August episode of HHI spotlight a really cool town that was a natural for someone with escapist desires like me, but during the episode it was revealed that Clare turned her home purchase into a B&B.  Thinking that I was very clever, I googled Clare Galloway and in an instant, I was connected with her Arthouse Guardia website.  I wasn't as clever as I thought, however, since I was about the 200th person to contact her, but I did manage to secure her B&B room for a two-week block in late December/early January.  I wouldn't be able to go to Ireland, but I was definitely not going to have to spend New Year's Eve on the left side of the Atlantic.

I told a friend what I had done and her response was the first indication that this could be a pretty unique experience.  She said: "So, let me get this straight - you watched a TV show, then contacted the person in that episode and now you're planning to fly halfway around the world and stay in her house?"  I replied: "Um, yeah, that's a fairly accurate summary."  With a look of bemused admiration, she blurted: "Who does that?"  "Well, apparently I do."  It never occurred to me that what I was doing was anything out of the ordinary - you know, everyone talks to people on the TV and goes to stay in their house, right?

Finally, departure day arrives.  The last week before my December 26th launch had been especially stressful, making sure everyone that needed a Santa got one and reading the copious number of postings that were now coming from my sister, brother, Step-Mom and Dad in Ireland.  I Just. Wanted. To. Go.  NOW!  After "Who Does That" dropped me at the George Herbert Walker Bush Number Forty-One International Intercontinental Airport (IAH), I started to feel the beginnings of a good, old-fashioned decompression.  My soul had started to dips it's toes into the nice, hot bath that this trip represented. Until Paris.

Another beautiful evening in Detroit.
The route was Houston-Detroit-Paris-Naples.  Extra points if you spot the one U.S. city you do NOT want to fly in or out of in December.  Yeah, my hometown, Detroit.  Leaving Houston was easy, but getting into DTW was a challenge, since they were still cleaning up from 6" of overnight snow.  And of course, what comes down with difficulty, goes back up with even more difficulty, so we were just about 90 minutes late leaving DTW for CDG.  No problem, since I had a reasonable almost-two hour layover in Paris and we were flying east, which meant a 150 mph tailwind, right?  Yeah, no.

I was actually looking forward to the DTW-CDG portion of the flight.  I had paid an unconscionable extra amount of money to get the first row in the cabin and after I brushed the snow off my seat and while we all waited for clearance to leave Detroit, I settled in to watch two the goings on amongst the stewardesses who were making a bit of a production out of the fact that two of their own would be making their final voyage.  There was the ceremonial presentation of the embroidered silk air sickness bag, pinning of a rather enormous rose, fashioned out of the finest 1-ply airplane bathroom tissue and of course, one bag of peanuts each.  That's one!  No more.  Not even for retirement. 

Except for the fact that I didn't sleep more than nine minutes on the trans-Atlantic flight, it was without any notable occurrences.  Even the old stewardesses took off their support hose, grabbed their afghan (which can also be used as a flotation device) and curled up with the Reader's Digest.

CDG Airport in Paris and the back of the Marquis De Air France.
I was nervous when we arrived at Charles Degaulle airport in Paris.  I knew time for my connecting flight to Naples would be tight and, of course, I had no earthly idea where to go when I bolted from the plane, but I was thrilled when I saw an Air France guy looking bored/almost annoyed holding a sign that said "Naples", presumably because he believed that Americans would walk right past him if the sign said "Napoli".  So, I was the first person in the "Naples, stand there" group and slowly our little band of Napoli-bound Detroiters grew to about ten.  When Bored Air France guy was satisfied that all of the Americans who were intelligent enough to figure out how to leave the plane had done so, he began to lead us through the airport.  And, when I say "lead", I mean he began walking as fast as an Olympic, um, really fast walking guy.  Keep in mind, that I am the guy that all my friends and family get mad at for "walking too fast", and yet I couldn't keep up.  I get why the 20-somethings in the group could keep up, but why, oh God why, were the old women keeping up better than me?  What kind of bizarre, alternate universe had I been transported to?  I wanted to hobble those smug old women as they power-walked further and further into the distance, knocking over orphans selling apples as they went.

Finally, the Marquis De Air France stopped at some sort of collection of glass-encased other bored French people.  He motioned to me to give my passport to one of his bored colleagues who looked at me, took a drink of wine, then stamped my passport with the traditional "go home" stamp.  Another short sprint and we finally arrived at the plane to Napoli.  I have a vague recollection of animal sacrifice and other general malaise on that flight, but, frankly, I was too traumatized to recall much of it.

Arriving in Napoli, my greatest challenge was in establishing contact with Clare, who had graciously offered to pick me up.  Numbers were exchanged, texts sent and that part of the plan was actually going well.  I texted "I'm here", she texted back "Trying to find parking", and I thought all was well.  OK, by now, you're waiting for it, aren't you?  Here you go:  Until it wasn't.

Some combination of Delta Airlines/Air France and/or Homeland Security acted alone or in concert to ensure that my suitcase would not arrive from the left side of the Atlantic to the right.  I, along with most of the other victims of the Marquis De Air France, now tried to communicate with a very nice Italian-speaking only lady the fact that all of our bags were missing.  When it was my turn, I started to make slogging progress.  She pointed to the form with the pictures of the different types of bags, I picked out mine and then somehow figured out that she wanted to know where I was staying in Italy.  I said "GUARDIA Sanframondi".  She looked puzzled.  I then showed her Clare's address on my iPhone and her eyes lit up: "Oh, GWADIA!"  And as if she had said the magic word, at that moment, inexplicably penetrating airport security, appeared Clare like a super-heroine, who blasted a few sentences off in brilliant Italian and we were done.  I sauntered through the door, met Clare and we stepped out into the midday Napolise sun.  Ahhhh, Italy!

No Ireland for you, Old Man!

Do you know how to tell that you're having an amazing adventure?  One way is that you don't have time to write about it!  I am a bit tardy starting this blog, but I've been having one hell of a time procrastinating!

In order to develop a full appreciation for how cool this all has been, I need to rewind a bit to last year.  Ah, yes, last year - 2012.  Worst. Year. Ever.  The more donkey manure that was thrown at me, the more I was positive that the Mayans had it right.  It's a drag to burden you with all the details, so let's just concentrate on two important events:  

First, after years of secret calendar checking, web surfing and conspiring with her big brother (me), my lovely sister finally put together the trip of a lifetime that involved taking my Dad and Step-Mother to The Motherland (Ireland).  When she called me in April and said that the plan was now rolling forward, I was excited to tell her that yes, of course, I would join them on the December trip. 

Now, it was my turn to surf the interwebs in search of that perfect flight, along with throwing suggestions to Sis about where we should stop along the way to our ancestral home, Sligo, County Sligo, in Free Ireland.  Since it doesn't take much to entertain me, I thought all of this was great fun.  Until it wasn't.  Around the 4th of July, I happened to look at the calendar for the rest of the year and realized that I was on-call at work through the 26th of December, meaning there was no way that I could board an international flight on December 20th, which was my sister's plan.  After uttering every curse word I knew in English, French, Spanish and Persian, I put on my best French accent and surrendered to the inevitability that I was not going back to Ireland this year.

Given the undulating, festering pile of guano that 2012 had become, however, I, like most mature adults who have a bad go of it, still had an irresistible urge to run away.  Somewhere.  Anywhere...

This is where we fall over Important Event Number Two.  There's this TV show called House Hunters International.  The premise is simple - each episode follows one person or family as they search for housing in a new country.  I love the show because of the high degree of escape-fantasy it fulfills in me.  Even though each show is basically the same formula, I love almost every episode.  So, here I am, relaxing late one night on a lawn chair in the garage, watching the contents of my DVR while flicking the ash from my cigarette into my forest green ashtray which was supported by extending the ratchet drawer of my Craftsman tool chest, when a new episode of HHI comes on.  This one featured a Scottish painter named Clare Galloway, who was relocating from Edinburgh to a little town in southern Italy so that she could improve the quality of her life - better food, better weather and cheap housing.  That little town was Guardia Sanframondi, in the Benevento region, not far from Naples.  I watched the episode intently.  Several times.  It was all there - architecture, food, great people, history, culture and no fat Americans wearing fanny packs and black socks with their sandals.  BAM!  Off to the internets go I!