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Part of the benefit of spending an extended period of time here in Civita is witnessing the ebb and flow of tourists and visitors to the town. Some days are busy; some slower due to weather or weekday schedules. What remains constant is the realization that whether 10 or 100 tourists walk up the hill on a Sunday in October, Civita will continue to go on about its business.
Jules Verne said, “Look with all your eyes, look.” The Surrealists painters recognized what they called “the potency of the everyday.” Writers and artists love details, but there is always a push and pull between the obsession with detail and the semi-conscious acknowledgement that everything will eventually vanish. Relief, essentially, mixed with dread.
It has been interesting to discover how much more there is to “see” when you really slow down and start to look. Glance around the piazza on a typical morning and you may think not much is happening. A few groups of tourists wander in through the gate…the chiesa door is open and receiving visitors…. La Tonna, one of the souvenir shops, is open for business.
Look a little closer in Civita and you might see: seismic workers heading out to the north cliff wall; a mason mixing the special pozzolano cement used here for tufo construction; Sandro making his rounds to collect and ferry Civita’s garbage to the Bagnoregio bins. Basically, you will see the life of the town in the process of being.
Much of Civita has been documented—its history, culture, architecture, and traditions. These things have been studied, talked about, described, inventoried, photographed, and analyzed. Documentation is part of why I am here on a NIAUSI Fellowship. But what about the rest?
The passing of a day in Civita—a mere 12 hours—includes, like many places, actions and events that are not usually noticed; things that have no real consequence in the grand scheme of the recorded history of this place. Does that mean then, that what takes place when nothing “important” happens is worthy of remembering or recording? My suspicion is that noticing the unremarkable might yield a different kind of map of Civita. And the process of noticing in itself could lead to a particular kind of subjective storytelling since the mind tends to question the whys and wherefores of what it sees. Observing the world in action, it wants to make connections.
The Italians have a wonderful expression: il dolce far niente, which translates as “the sweetness of doing nothing.” Too often in today’s jam-packed, work-driven, internet-powered world, it is easy to forget how to “do nothing.” Even worse, we wrongly believe that doing nothing equals uselessness. The Italians are wiser. They live il dolce far niente even when they are busy serving pranzo, mixing mortar, or ferrying wine bottles and plastic to the recycling bins. Perhaps it is the wisdom that comes from living in a culture with a 3,000-year heritage or simply an understanding that the sum of life is larger than what we can pack into an 8-hour workday. Regardless, life here is not something that can be spent, wasted, or passed. It simply is. Every moment holds possibility. In America, some of us, myself included, frequently feel that if something is not done with a purpose it is the same as doing nothing.
Of course, there is a downside to this observation that I will call the “grass is always greener” syndrome. Our perceptions of the world are formed through categories, genres, and classifications, many of them specific to the culture we come from. Idealizing any particular place happens when we remove ourselves from our daily routines and see new ways of living. We become attracted to the potential for change in our own lives. Yet as we all know, change is hard, but it is essential if we are to continue to grow. Travel speeds that growth process in many ways by simultaneously challenging and enriching us.
The people of Civita are called Civitonici. In such an ancient place, that self-definition may apply only to the handful of families who have lived here for five or seven generations. Can someone who has lived here for 20 or 30 years legitimately call themselves Civitonici? Does it depend on whether you are a full or part-time resident? Does it count at all if you’re a stranieri, a foreigner? You may have come here decades ago and know as much if not more about Civita than some locals. But…Italians take the long view of history.
The answers to these questions are ultimately personal. One solid fact, however, is that Civita is experiencing increasing change with each passing year. Invariably this will—this must—change the definition of who and what constitutes the Civitonici. For many reasons, the city has become a destination. The influx of tourism and rising real estate prices is bringing increased commerce for the merchants but also poses the risk of losing the essence of this city and turning it into an Italian Disneyland. So far that has not happened, but it is a fine line to thread. Everyone wants a piece of something they feel they have “discovered” and when they get it, they tend to not want to share it with the next newcomer. But to survive, Civita has to be shared.
The passing of a day here, like anywhere, has its own rhythm and increasingly that routine includes many tourists and the patterning of locals to cater to the needs of these visitors, both short-and long-term, myself included. Whether this means that a little bit of the ancient soul of Civita is lost in the process remains to be seen. The decision ultimately rests with the Civitonici, however broadly or narrowly they choose to define themselves.
This witch hazel tree blooms near our front door. This particular photo was taken last year… when snow rested on the pedals. I planted it a dozen years ago… true to form it grows very slow… come February it blooms scrawny long-pedal flowers. They smell sweet like jasmine. I wonder why some plants bloom in winter… what’s the design sense in that? Most flowers bloom in spring largely because they need to set fruit or seed and have it mature before winter.
In a nutshell… flowers first appeared on earth around 100 million years ago, Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been lamenting the end of summer. Well actually it’s more like building to a panic. Dahlias to the rescue! “It’s obviously not all over yet” they trumpet loud and clear… their pedals soft, lush and wild, shameless… with no fear. So many zany patterns and dahlia-dances in their specimen divisions. For near-sighted retiring bees they must look like the size of football fields. Read the rest of this entry »
Interested in a garden photography swap? Email me (stephen at pidseattle dot com) your best jpeg photo and I’ll post them in our special garden Picasa album. I promise to water and weed. At the end of the summer, they’ll be a prize for the best in show… your choice of a selection of Territorial Seeds or a spiffy watering can.
Feel free to attach comments and locations. To get started, here’s my contribution of a Oriental poppy… fading like a rumpled party dress at the end of a whirlwind evening. Visit the album... it’s just starting.