Friday, October 23, 2009

Calabrone! [Or: Toxic in Tuscany, Part II]

Ammazzacavalli, horse killers, that's what they call them in Tuscany. People not allergic have died from their stings. They are big. And they're just behind vipers on the venom index.

Being built mostly of brick, stone and clay tile, few Tuscan buildings actually burn, so the local fire department is even better known for something else: when you’ve got a calabrone nest in your chimney, that's who you call.

Because it’s steep, Sally calls our property "Stairmaster." Because our olives are near the top, my leg insists I have to wait till next year to make oil. Because of this summer's record heat, Giovanni’s trees yielded half what they ordinarily would, so I gave him our trees to harvest as well. He’ll get a full quota and maybe we’ll get a few liters of oil.

When he went up to our grove for a preliminary check, Giovanni saw them in the boca, the hollow bole of one tree. I knew exactly what boca he was referring to. On my personal pain index, right behind getting "messengered" and "tracked," is calabrone sting.

Once, while picking blackberries in the Pacific Northwest, I bumped face first into an American bald-faced hornet’s nest. I thought I'd been shotgunned in the face. That was nothing next to a single Italian hornet.

Just after buying the property a year ago, I was clearing suckers and weeds from the bases of the trees to prepare for harvest when something the size of a hummingbird slammed into the side of my head and latched onto my ear--the queen matron of the hive I hadn't noticed on the other side of the trunk. In a furious fuzzy frenzy, that honey-colored flying hypodermic repeatedly injected the side of my face with so much venom I couldn't see, I couldn't think. It was like the dentist had administered way too much novacaine, but with the opposite effect. Time became an amber I was stuck in. It seemed to take forever to get down the hill and drive to Villore to press an ice tray against my head.

My ear swelled like some kind of mushroom and rang for 2 days. The side of my head burned intensely for a week. The next weekend I sat 30 feet away from that nest until well past sundown on a half-moon night, waiting for the air traffic to die down. Then I hit that boca with a wasp fogger.

It didn’t work. The next day during harvest we gave the tree a wide berth.

Giovanni insists the answer is to throw gasoline into the hole. But only first thing in the morning on a cold day. I haven't mustered up the courage yet.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Molta Terra

A warm siroc out of Africa has brought rain in the night. This is why for the last 3 days, Giovanni and his son Arnaldo have done nothing but disc and harrow and seed the wheat fields with grano, winter wheat. They like to sow just before it rains to help the seeds germinate, and so crows and ants won’t steal them.

What you can’t tell from this picture of Giovanni about to do just that, is just how cold it is from the Siberian blast we got beforehand.

The soil is so poor here that they have to plow as much as two feet deep in some places. In English, to my mind at least, this is why toil rhymes with soil.

[earth by Sally]

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How I Broke my Leg: Part II -- "Tracked"

It was a near death experience, that explosive impact and resultant dynamic headstand. I could have so easily broken my neck. Or ruptured something vital in my head. Or gone into a concussion induced coma. Lack of medical care at St. Vincent’s notwithstanding, I survived my date with the Messenger of Boom.

Afterwards, I walked around the city for 3 days, dazed and amazed that I was alive. But I had to knuckle down and meet a deadline. Which I did. Once I had the staples removed from my scalp, I could return to Italy to finish healing and to stain and seal the cement floor the Brandini’s helped me pour.

This is Russell & Eileen, the friends who’ve given me and Sally refuge so many times at their beautifully restored farmhouse, Villore. Without their friendship and generosity, I would not be doing this blog. More about this later.

No sooner had I landed in Italy, when I was hit with more work. Thankful, given the economic freakout I was undergoing along with everyone else in the world, I buckled down. 2 weeks later, exactly one month from embracing the messenger, I went on a bike ride with my friend Russell Wilkinson. Below is the long and short of what I wrote to a few friends that evening.

Beautiful, hot, Sunday morning in Tuscany. Terriers coasting down from Montalcino on bikes. Jack leads peloton. Russell right behind. They are pushing an easy 18 mph when, crossing diagonal railroad track, a freak of track grabs Jack's rear wheel. Jack goes down on left hip and shoulder. Splat. Russell runs over Jack's right calf and goes down. Splat. Great embarrassment all around. Jack scoots off road on butt, Russ gets up and straightens handlebars. Jack uses signal crossing light to stand up. Russ helps him back on bike. Jack and Russell ride 10 more miles, mostly uphill, to car. Back at Villore, ice and ibuprofen. Jack determines leg is broken, fibula, but not tibia (at least not bad). In case of multiple fracture, and to keep tightening muscles from forcing fracture out of alignment, he performs yoga stretches for the achilles tendon and the hamstrings of increasingly tender leg. This actually feels good. Painful clicking from leg stops, but calf and shin suddenly balloon with swelling. Gardener happens to have a cane handy in garage, so with long-scheduled guests coming for lunch (Dana and Don from Gubbio, Umbria), Jack grills two chickens as planned. Guests arrive and a lovely outdoor meal ensues. After 3 or 4 glasses of wine and a cooling swim in the pool, Jack says "time for hospital." On the way, he and Sally show their nearly completed Tuscan home to Dana and Don who are inspired and full of praise. Adieus. And Sally drives through Montepulciano to Notolla hospital, closest to the new house. Amazingly quick admittance and X-ray take about 10 minutes. Radiologist announces the leg is fine, perfectly straight. But as Sally starts to wheel a very relieved Jack down the hall for ordinary first aid, the radiologist exclaims "Madonna!" Sally goes back. Higher magnification has revealed the bone is broken, a complete fracture, but perfectly set and aligned. Jack is less than relieved, but still happy it isn't worse, not compound, didn't need surgery, hadn't wrecked the bone on 10-mile ride plus barbecue. Off they go for a plaster cast. But first, a nurse comes at his belly with a needle--heparin, they're told, to avoid thrombosis. He blanches. Nurse says he'll need such injections every day for a month, no problem he can do it himself. Jack blanches, Sally recoils. Nurse injects "povero bambino" with sinister-yet-compassionate laugh....

Read the complete story in my upcoming essay, "A Tale of Two Emergency Rooms: On the pleasures of socialized medicine and the need for health care reform in America."

Needless to say, I would not be making wine, I would not be finishing floors, I would not be making olive oil, I would not be living as planned for the next 2 months.