gall and gumption

Monday, June 22, 2009

buckner: Town Gossips

One of the villages where I work in Sardinia, called Siligo, is a very small and isolated place in the country. To reach it each day I have to travel with Marco, who is a school administrator, from Sassari, and at the end of the day Antonia, one of the teachers I work with, often gives me a ride back to town. Sometimes if the schedule doesn’t work out I have to take a bus.

I don’t mind taking the bus. It weaves around through the hillside villages perched above the superhighway. Sometimes the roads are so narrow and hair-pinned it amazes me that the bus is able to make the curves, and the driver generally uses whichever side of the street he prefers, which can be momentarily thrilling when cars suddenly show up coming from the other direction. Sometimes the bus has to slow down to let a flock of sheep cross the road.

The villages all have multicolored buildings—pink, orange, yellow, sky blue, and ultramarine—and sometimes there are strange murals done by local artists. One mural is particularly odd and disconcerting: a psychedelic scene with devil figures floating around amid pointy phallic objects. It’s difficult to imagine what the old women dressed in black who walk through the streets carrying their plastic bags of groceries make of this.

Siligo is a village where everybody wants to know everything about everybody else. Like most small towns, it is full of gossips. Nearly everyone in town has lived there since birth, and feels entitled to all information about the others. A stranger like myself is a curiosity. People stare at me openly, without restraint, even when I’m just passing by in a car. They look at me with dark eyes, as though trying to absorb as much information as possible from my appearance alone. From the very beginning my students started grilling me with questions: Where am I from? Where am I staying? Where do I sleep? Where do I eat? How old am I? Am I married? When I told them I am divorced they even wanted to know who cheated on whom! (They didn’t ask me this question, they asked somebody else.) I imagine they carry this information home to their parents.

I don’t mind answering the questions, but they’re insatiable. Sometimes they ask me the same questions over and over, as though they think eventually they’ll trip me up and I’ll betray something more interesting. This line of questioning infuriates Antonia, and she gets very angry with the kids when they start. Antonia is not like the other people in this town. She is more private and reserved. This might be because her family is not originally from Siligo—they are from Sicily. Her father, a policeman who specialized in Mafia crime, moved the family here when she was very young to hide them from possible assassins seeking revenge. When she was a child she had a bodyguard who went with her everywhere and her family was very protective. Naturally she is sensitive to prying questions. She is also trying to teach her students not to grow up to be village gossips.

Apart from the people I work with, the other teachers at the school are mostly unfriendly. They are suspicious of me, and treat me with cold aloofness. They are irritated that I’ve become somewhat of a celebrity with the kids. Not only do my students enthusiastically greet me with “Ciao Maestro Jeff!” every time I walk by, but their students, who I don’t even know, have started to do so as well. The other teachers are envious that my students are enthusiastic, and doing interesting work. This project was made possible through a grant proposal written by Antonia, who they also dislike and treat poorly. These are the kind of people who are threatened by the achievements of others and want to discredit them. Like the students, they think if they dig deep enough they will find dirt to spread around.

One day Antonia and I drove to her house to have lunch before returning to work in the afternoon. As we were getting out of the car we looked up the street and saw the car of another teacher—her name is Maura, she teaches in the room adjacent to Antonia, and is especially spiteful—zipping off around the corner. She had followed us to see where we were going. Perhaps she suspected we were going off to have an afternoon affair. In Siligo, a single woman taking a man to her house, where her mother and brother also live, is still apparently scandalous.

Marco and Antonia often talk about how much they dislike these village gossips, yet they also gossip about the others. Consequently I hear lots of stories. They talk about the zealously pious 5th grade teacher, also a priest, who wears the same yellow pants for days, and is known for his passionate displays of devotion in church, his eyes thrown up like a Perugino painting. They also talk about the English teacher, who learned to speak English after she converted to Mormonism, and visited several families in the US and Britain. When she first met me she said two words in English and then ran away like a rabbit. Later she became quite nice, but she never tried to speak English with me.

But the stories about Maura are the best. When Antonia first started working at the school, she began mid-year, and took over the class of another instructor. Maura was given the task of helping her to get oriented, but her method was unusual. Antonia is a large woman with a round face, and beautifully expressive eyes. She has a great full laugh, and loves to find humor in things. She is very perceptive and curious, and we have good conversations about many subjects. She would be the first to admit that she does not have slim, model good looks. She is attractive in the ordinary way that most people are—she has character and good-natured presence. Maura is slim, with narrow features and long black hair that she wears in a braid. She has some of the characteristics of model looks, but she is coy and seems vain, with suspicious eyes and an unpleasant manner. She wears exaggerated clothing—long elaborately patterned dresses (Marco says they look like his mother’s tablecloth), spider web-like shawls, and lots of jewelry.

Maura began the first day by pointing out to the kids how unattractive the new teacher was—“che brutta,” she said. Then she waltzed around the room showing off her trim figure and beautiful clothes, particularly in front of the young boys (these are 3rd and 4th graders!), and pointed out how, by comparison, she was young and beautiful—“che bella!” I dropped my jaw when I heard this, but Antonia said she did this repeatedly, day after day, for several days, and started to make the children uncomfortable. Eventually Antonia told the kids to not look at Maura when she came in, and instead to continue their work, and after a few days of no response Maura gave up coming over.

At one point Maura and Antonia had an assistant they shared for half a day each—a young woman who specialized in mathematics. The day she first arrived she worked with Maura in the morning. When she came into Antonia’s room in the afternoon she was a little abashed. Maura had introduced her to the class, and then pointed out that, although the assistant was a young and pretty woman in her early 20s, Maura was still in her prime, and she proved it by hiking up her skirt, hoisting her leg, and landing her high-heeled foot on the desk, Mrs. Robinson-style. Antonia and the assistant couldn’t understand why, or how Maura could do this. In the solitude of the empty classroom, they both tried to lift their legs onto the high teacher’s desk, and couldn’t manage it.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Susie sent me another photo she took in St. Kitts this past April. Don't mind the mysterious object in the foreground, there's nothing there but more sugar cane anyway. This is the view from the northern end of the island. If you look at it on a map you'll see the island is in the shape of a chicken drumstick. The southeast peninsula is the thin end and the thick meaty end points northwest. You can see from the direction in which the cane leaves are bending that the wind is coming from the southeast--it always does. At the far edge of the cane field, you see a dark rough cylindrical object with some bush around it--that's one of the old windmills that were used in the 18th and maybe early 19th century to crush the cane to get the juice out. These are a common sight in the Eastern Caribbean small islands. Later, the sugar producers switched to steam-powered sugar mills, and from these around the island you find these tall tall chimneys rising from ruins. There's nothing inside the windmills. A few of the better preserved ones get rescued and turned into nice vacation homes. Some of them disappear because people steal the stones from them to make goat pens or retaining walls or for whatever odd job a free supply of already cut stone comes in handy for. There are places in the Caribbean where people have had to be educated into a sense of the value and meaning of their own history and its artifacts. The governments are a lot better about this than they were, say, thirty years ago. And the people are better about it too.

The nearest island is Saba. Beyond it is St. Eustatius, known all over as "Statia." Statia is actually the bigger of the two though this does not appear in the photo because it is farther away. Small as they are, both those islands have people living on them. To get an idea of how small they are, it takes maybe an hour to drive around Nevis. Nevis is about 36 square miles; Statia is 8.1 square miles. The bit of Statia that you can see sticking out to the right has a dormant volcano on it. From where you are standing, there is another dormant volcano a few miles behind you up in the mountains of St. Kitts. Nevis has one of those too.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Leeward Islands

This photo looks southeast, down the length of St. Kitts' Southeast Peninsula, an arid, scrubby and almost empty stretch of hills and salt ponds. The distant land mass stretching from east to west across the frame is the lower slope of Nevis -- you are looking directly at its northern coastline. It's only a couple of miles between the two islands and there is, or used to be, an annual swim, from Nevis to St. Kitts (swimming with the current). You can't see it but a little southeast of Nevis is Montserrat, with the plume of steam from Soufriere Hills always visible. When the volcano sent up a cloud of ash in July 2003 I was staying at Margaret's house, and the ash blew to St. Kitts and settled on every horizontal surface. It blew silently from the south all night and in the morning there was this layer of fine gray dust on everything. All flights to and from the Leeward Islands were canceled for about 24 hours. In St. Kitts the Southeast trade wind is called the sea-blast. If you live on the windward side of the island salt air constantly blows hard off the sea: your stereo will have a shorter life, metal objects get corroded and crusty after a while, and you can feel the grit of the salt on surfaces.

From high above, like if you were maybe in a low-flying plane, you would see that Nevis and St. Kitts and Montserrat make up a sort of chain of mountains with Nevis furthest south, Saba and St. Eustatia (Statia) and St. Martin to the North, and even St. Bart's. From any one of these islands you have a view of at least one other, across the lovely lovely blue sea.

This picture is by my friend Susie, Margaret's daughter, who visited SKN last month. Margaret lives in Barbados now, where Susie also lives.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Mysterious West: Revenge of Mr. Chin

Some years ago, on a visit to Jamaica, I was waiting at the airport in Kingston for my two younger brothers, who were coming from the U.S. to join my father and me. At that time (I don't know how it is now) travelers would exit customs and travel down a long, wide, windowless corridor that ended out on the sidewalk. If you were waiting for someone you waited at the exit from this corridor, doing a little sort of sparrow hop to peer into the depths of it for your first glimpse of whoever you were waiting for. I call it a sparrow dance because it's like the way sparrows sort of come in closer until some thing happens to make them hop away a few feet till they decide it's safe to come close again. With sparrows, maybe you shook out your newspaper or crossed your legs or stood up; at the airport exit gate what made you hop back was the police who would sort of shoo you away. Among those doing the sparrow hop at the gate was a group of Asians--Koreans was my guess and, based on not much more than the way they were dressed, I supposed they were missionaries. They were waiting for some more of their brethren and chatting away, taking turns peeping down the corridor from which, at long last, passengers had begun to appear. Uniformed redcaps pushed handtrucks with enormous stacks of luggage. One petite missionary lady found herself with a towering redcap with an equally towering stack of luggage almost bearing down on her. "Watch out, there, Mr. Chin" said the redcap.

Because among some Jamaicans, if you look Asian your name is Mr. Chin. Mr. Chin is Chinese, speaks Jamaican patois with a Cantonese accent (the effect beggars all description and can only be heard on the stage anymore and it's rarely done well even there), and runs a little grocery shop in a small country town. Even if you are a four-year-old boy from Japan, a 92-year-old Mongolian grandmother, or a pair of newlyweds from the Phillipines, your name is Mr. Chin.

Mr. Chin usually has a bit part on stage, he's not at the center of the action but his little shop with the soft drinks and the tins of sardines is over to one side. Somewhere about the middle of the action he will make an appearance there. The last time I saw Mr. Chin on stage, which was here in DC late last year, he was played by a Black actor whose makeup gave him a sort of greyish, putty color. He had applied some sort of tape to make his eyes look like they had that fold; it was not convincing, and neither was his hair. But in the middle of the action when it looks like the hero will never solve his troubles he has a confab with Mr. Chin who always has some long convoluted piece of Oriental wisdom, delivered in the Cantonese-Jamaican patois, and whenever I encounter him I pray he gets through his little scene without mentioning that "Confucious say..."

I'll tell you what makes me think of Mr. Chin. I was in the dollar store and I came across the happy Rasta with his giant spliff:

It was among the less spectacular Jesus things, the smaller virgins who aren't attached to gilt rococo clocks or Cinderella carriages or small waterfalls. And there was this, too: the happy Rasta couple getting it on in a hammock suspended over an ashtray that says "Legalize."

I believe Mr. Chin has got his own back now.

Monday, June 01, 2009

buckner: A Sardinian Toothache

The day I left for Italy I was preparing my luggage about five hours before the plane was scheduled to depart when I received a phone call from my friend John asking if I’d like to get a quick sandwich for lunch. There seemed to be plenty of time left, why not? He picked me up and off we sped to a small bakery that serves good sandwiches on crusty thick bread. We got our sandwiches and sat down at a small table in front of the big picture window. It was a beautiful day, my bags were for the most part packed, and I finally felt some relief from all the rushing around that always accompanies the final days of preparing for a trip—especially one like I was planning. I was headed for Sardinia for five weeks to work in several schools teaching Book Arts to young children.

I started doing this last year, through the referral of an Italian friend who lives there, and it’s turning into a regular yearly job. We write stories in Italian with some English translation, and then illustrate them with pen and ink drawings, watercolors, and relief prints. Then I teach the kids how to bind these into various book forms: Japanese stab bindings, accordion books, Coptic stitch books, etc. Each year I come I meet new teachers who want to use my services, and the number of workshops I teach grows. It’s partially due to my extensive experience teaching Book Arts for many years to kids at Interlochen Center for the Arts, an international art camp in northern Michigan, and also the novelty of having an American who speaks Italian come to the remote cities of Sassari and Thiesi in northern Sardinia to teach.

So, I was eating my sandwich with John, and suddenly the unthinkable happens—crunch!!—I break a tooth! A big piece of molar cracks off in my mouth and I spit it out in a wad of half-eaten sandwich. Oh no! This has got to be my worst nightmare ever! Four hours before stepping on a plane for the other side of the world, and I’ve got a broken tooth. We rushed home and first I called my dentist—who was out to lunch, of all things! Then I called the airlines to see if I could delay my flight, and discovered they won’t charge the $100 cancellation fee if I have a note from my dentist, but then if I wanted to reschedule for another day I’d have to pay the difference of the current ticket price: an additional $1000! How nice of them! Finally I got through to the dentist and discovered, luck of lucks, someone else had cancelled his appointment at the last minute, and they had an opening if I could get there right away. I crammed the rest of my stuff into the suitcases, threw them into the car, and raced out to the dentist.

As soon as I walked in the door they ushered me into the chair and started taking x-rays. Then the dentist, who is really a great guy, came in to take a look and administer the Novocain. The problem was that I had less than two hours before I needed to be at the airport, and the Novocain usually takes a half hour to start working. He told me to lean my head back and relax to help it take effect, and walked out of the room. So I was sitting there thinking—numb, numb, numb—and also started to wonder if, when he came back to ask me if it was numb yet, if it was not completely numb, I could just say yes and then put up with it. This was not a pleasant thought.

Fortunately the stuff took effect quickly and the dentist got to work. He and his assistant started putting tubes in my mouth, filling it with water and then sucking it away, blowing air, picking, tapping, scratching, and finally drilling (with that awful burning smell). Then he squeakily packed the temporary filling material in. Several times during the operation he asked me if I needed to take a break. No, I said, with several fingers still in my mouth. I’ll take a break when I get on the airplane. He finished the procedure in what must have been record time, and as I passed the front receptionist she thankfully told me to run—that she would send the bill later (I can’t wait to get home for that!) I made it to the airport with about ten minutes to spare.

After arriving in Italy the tooth was fine for a while, but gradually became more sensitive to hot and cold, making it very difficult to eat. There’s my second biggest nightmare: being in Italy and unable to eat! So, last week my friend Antonio took me to a pharmacy to find something to help with the sensitivity. Italian pharmacies are different from American ones. Almost like doctors, the pharmacists consult with you at the counter and tell you what they think you need.  Since it was rather late in the evening, Antonio took me to the one late-night pharmacy located in the center of town. As it was the only place open we arrived to discover a long line snaking out the door.

Standing in line in Italy is always an interesting affair. Lawrence rather exaggeratedly describes it like this:
Some thirty men all at once want to get at a tiny wicket in a blank wall. There are no queue-rails, there is no order: just a hole in a blank wall and thirty fellows mostly military, pressing at it in a mass. But I have done this before. The way is to insert the thin end of oneself, and without any violence, by deadly pressure and pertinacity come at the goal. One hand must be kept fast over the money pocket, and one must be free to clutch the wicket-side when one gets there. And thus one is ground small in those mills of God, Demos struggling for tickets. It isn’t very nice—so close, so incomparably crushed. And never for a second must one be off one’s guard for one’s watch and money and even hanky.
Well, this line wasn’t quite that bad. But always in Italian lines you have to be on your guard or someone will wedge his way in front of you. They don’t have the same social contract of embarrassment that we have. In the US if you cut in line it’s a major sin, and there’s even the chance that someone will speak up and reprimand you. In Italy when someone cuts in front the others frown and shake their heads, but the cutter can easily put his nose in the air and ignore it.

As we slowly made our way toward the front entrance I suddenly became aware that a thin scruffy fellow was anxious to force his way in front of me. Later, Antonio explained to me that this was a drug addict who was there to purchase a syringe and sterilized water. Since this is the only pharmacy open at night all the addicts come to buy paraphernalia. However, I noticed him too late and he wedged in front, and then even more boldly walked into the store, found his way into a corner where he paused for a minute, and then inserted himself in line six people in front of me. Very crafty! People exchanged looks but no one said anything. A few minutes later the guy’s cell phone rang, he flipped it on, spoke some words into it, and then shot out the door. Perhaps it was his dealer. We continued to stand in line. After five minutes the guy suddenly showed up again, weaved his way back to the front of the line as though that was his original place, and continued to wait with a great deal of impatience. He made it to the front, bought his merchandise, and scuttled out the door. We continued waiting.

In the meantime another addict found his way through the line and was standing at the front entrance. This fellow was different. Whereas the first one was thin and fidgety with darting apprehensive eyes, this guy was large, slovenly, and gregarious. He leaned up against the counter with satisfied sang-froid and surveyed the other customers in the room. Suddenly he addressed the woman behind the counter in a loud voice. “So tell me,” he said, “when are you going to retire so we can get someone who works more quickly?” The customer who was being waited on asked, “You want her to retire before you get to the front of the line?” He smirked at this. Then the pharmacist replied, “I’ll retire as soon as you stop coming here!” This caused everyone in the room to burst out laughing. I’ve never seen anything like this before; usually Italians are so serious in these situations. We stepped to the front of the line and purchased our medication from the pharmacist, who was still smiling.