My Travels: Summer in the Appenines

Yesterday I arrived in Roca di Mezzo, on the Altipiano of Abruzzo, a large plateau home to five quaint mountain villages set at 1350 metres above sea level. Rocca di Mezzo lies between the capital city of the region, L’Aquila, which was recently devastated by an earthquake and Avezzano, a medieval university city to the south.

The weather was gorgeous. Warm in the high twenties with no wind and bright sunlight. I had an awesome lunch with the family cooked by Zia Luciana. The meal was exquisite and  it was rounded off by her homemade straciatella ice-cream and a liqueur, crema di limone. She had made this a few years ago, with alcohol infused with fresh lemons then mixed with boiled milk. The end result was a liquid creamy lemon scented drink that smoothed the path to my bed for a siesta. I lowered the shutters leaving enough space between the slats for the bright afternoon light to filter through into the shadows like some lanquid lazy waterfall in slow motion and fell asleep.

When I awoke the house was deserted but I heard low voices from two sides of the garden. I walked downstairs past Zio Franco’s museum, which houses old agricultural and military implements. The large metal garage door

Zio Franco’s Key Collection in his Museum

faces the afternoon sun and in winter is frozen; ; now it emanated a haze of heat. I opened the small factory type door to get out and saw the men sitting under the shade of the gazebo next to the vegetable garden. Tomatoes were training on simple bamboo poles while spinach flourished, some recently harvested. A variety of herbs released subtle fragrances into the warm still air. An old friend of my father-in-law, Italo, was sitting with Zio Franco. I knew something was wrong when Italo did not recognise me. I had only met him once but my previous experience with the villagers was that they had memories like elephants and never forgot. Then the second time he asked me if I was from Rocca, I knew he had lost it. By the end of the half hour visit he had repeated four verses of his favourite poem perfectly five times, each time not realising he had just recited it a few minutes ago.

It was a lovely poem, something to the effect of “the road is long but I’ll take it anyway, and if my soul needs a rest I will stop.” And it ends “and when I leave, I will be fortified with wine to continue”. Italo has a beautiful voice and in the quiet of the mountain the words resonated against all the mountains around he had climbed with his youth. The men had climbed all the peaks in their youth: the hills around like Monte Rotondo and Monte Canio, the mountains behind, Sirente and Velino and across the L’Aquila valley, the highest in the Appenines, the Gran Sasso. This peak forms part of a high ridge whose skyline forms a silhouette of a sleeping beauty, la bella dormentata.

He left and we moved to the other side of the gardens under the shade of plane trees and drank some beer and spoke and laughed and played with the children.

That is just a few hours of summer in the Apennines. Imagine a whole summer!

Afternoon light over the geraniums of my room

Conversations about May Day

I wanted to start this by asking “crisis, what crisis?” but it is unfair. There is poverty and suffering, but there is still a whole lot more living happening in Greece than in most places.

Take May Day. Sure, it is Worker’s Day worldwide, including in Greece. People protested in groups, there was certainly aggravation around the political party stands as they built up to elections in a few days. But May Day was also the day to celebrate spring. My cousin, Panayiotis, invited a few friends and cousins around for lunch. It had to be an early lunch as I was leaving for the airport at that time.  I am not sure if he has ever celebrated his birthday before, because none of his friends knew it was his birthday. But I am sure on the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, on 15 August, his name day, they all call to wish him.

On May Day his wife, Olympia offered me coffee when I walked into the kitchen. She was busy stuffing peppers to be baked. As an aside she told me it was his birthday. Other than my mother and father who celebrated their birthdays while in Greece on holiday, this was my first Greek birthday party. But it was really just a great warm spring day to get together in an Athena garden.

Panayiotis has enough olive trees in the garden in Athens to harvest 120 litres of olive oil. His own to use on salads and to cook with. He had a lamb on the spit by the time I woke up. It was turning slowly over the charcoals, looking like a vestal virgin cloaked in white baking paper. When the paper eventually came off it revealed a small lamb expertly tied to the spit, with an intact head with baked with bared teeth. He had sourced this lamb from a shepherd in the mountains. There were no butcher’s stamps on this carcass. He told the story of some Athenian family that held a baptism in their village in the mountains of Epirus. The bought ten sheep to take up for cooking on the spit for the party. They were city butchered sheep. None of the shepherds ate the meat. To them it smelled off, or otherwise they were mortally offended that the rich Athenian family did not ask for their sheep.

He did nothing to the lamb other than rub it with olive oil and some pepper before he wrapped it up in the baking paper. After three hours he took the paper off and an hour later the lamb was cooked. He removed the lamb from the fire and let the spit and lamb rest against the nearest olive tree for 10 minutes, for the meat to firm up. Then he held the spit over a large dish and cut a few wires, allowing the lamb to slide down the steel spit into the dish. He expertly folded the body into the dish and took it to the table for carving. It was an absolute work of art.

As a snack while the lamb was cooking he had prepared his own kokoretsi and was happily pulling off brown bits of the intestine used to twine the offal to the spit. These spicy crispy bits of meat were so tasty that I could not thing about the offal as I savoured them Bits of heart and lung and kidney and even brain peeped out through the roughly twined intestines.

The table under the shade of the veranda amongst the olive trees sat 20 people. Three salads appeared, a platter of tiropita, baked melanzane, tzatziki, bread and stuffed peppers. Local retsina in plastic bottles appeared and one of the ladies poured  a light home made rose from a jug. The wished each other a hearty meal and tucked in, slowly devouring the food, choosing tasty bits to colour  their plates and slowly demolishing the food. I left halfway through, but by that time the second lamb went on the spit and I knew they would be there the whole day, eating with passion and living through talk and actions.

The really special thing about May Day in Greece is not the fact that it is spring, or a worker’s holiday. Or even that it was the first Greek birthday party I had attended. It is the fact the everyone greets you, and wishes you with “kalo mina – have a  good month” the same way we wish each other at New Year. Each month holds something new for them, and deserves special hope and treatment. As each day should.

White lamb and kokoretsi below