Thursday, April 05, 2012

an ode to illusions

If something you see pleases you and later you find out it wasn’t quite what you’d imagined, does it remove the pleasure you experienced earlier? It depends. If reality doesn’t offend (it’s simply different), then you should keep the sweetness of your memory. So much of what we see and describe in our minds isn’t that way at all and yet we move on, unknowingly, as if our perceptions were spot on.

It’s market day in Gargnano. A once every 15 day affair. I see a group of men standing, conversing amicably. One has an arm slung over the shoulders of another. I’m charmed by that because I think friendly, casual exchanges are hard to come by in our work-commute-turn on the TV lives. But what do I know? Maybe they’re plotting to kill their wives.


At the hotel, I witness a sweet scene: There is Valerio, one of the co-owners and proprietors of the hotel (this is a family business and the older parents have passed it on, along with its sister hotel down the street to their adult sons – Valerio is one of them). He is playing the piano with an old man next to him. Four hands. The old man instructs him, Valerio laughs, tries again. Ah – the familial bond beautifully unfolds here! Father and son, playing together. (Valerio’s father, grandfather and great grandfather repaired and made pianos long ago.)


Later, I find out quite by chance that the man playing with Valerio wasn’t his dad at all. I watch the older gentleman enter the dining room for dinner – he’s speaking German to his wife. Valerio’s father is not German.

How many times have I assumed someone was a ‘Valerio dad’ when in fact they were a German speaking tourist passing through (so to speak)? But does it matter? Had I written the post I was about to write about being happy at witnessing this father-son duet, no one would have been ill-served. Maybe poor Valerio’s dad, but I don’t think he reads Ocean.

I write this because I know that so much of our happiness is in our imagination, working overtime to create images that conform to what we want them to be.

Of course, reality could be finer, better than our best images. Back to the vignette where Valerio is playing the piano with the old man. By chance, I ran into this German speaking man again as I was checking out Thursday morning. He speaks as well Italian and English. The reality is that he is from Austria. Vienna. He comes here with his wife yearly, for eleven years now, because, as he tells me – my wife, she is quite disabled (she walks very slowly and with a cane) and Valerio is good enough to have us anyway. Valerio laughs and waves his hand at the absurdity of anyone turning them away. Me, I’ve smiled every time I encountered this sweet couple. I would ask the woman – come sta Lei? (how are you) and she would give it some thought, then answer – abbastanza bene. (good enough). As if she could expect no better than this in life at her age and still, she makes do.

As I prepare to leave, the older man takes out sheets of music he’s brought with him and waits to review it with Valerio.

My imagination runs wild with this lovely scene.

Wednesday. My last full day in Gargnano. Cloudy, with a threat of rain.


The market at the harbor isn’t a food market. At least not now. Clothing, tablecloths, soaps – and only the soaps are regional. (The tablecloths – very cheap, very functional, are Italian, but you’ll find the same anywhere in the country and indeed, even in France, where the olive theme in the designs appeals to the Mediterranean sensibilities.)


After spending just a few coins – the equivalent of a lunch out at home, I turn toward the hills for my final D.H. Lawrence ramble. It’s not ambitious at all, but again, I feel uncertain about the weather. This hike starts right in town...

DSC06041 - Version 2
(so many well tended flowers, even by houses that don’t lend themselves to plantings)

...then moves up – past trickling water spouts (water from the hills) and countless shrines. In past times, these were places for a quick prayer and, too, they served the practical function of being directional markers. As in – make a left at the Madonna.

DSC06046 - Version 2


....and now I am in the maze of terraced groves, bordered by the ancient stone walls that are so ubiquitous here. They’re beautiful and each one is different. Just a few fine examples, okay?

DSC06047 - Version 2

DSC06050 - Version 2

DSC06054 - Version 2


There are the old lemon houses here as well...


...and occasionally there'll be a view toward the lake, but it's misty now. So much so that you can't tell there's another shore not too far away.


The olives, too, are lovely, of course and since I am dedicated to demonstrating for Ed that the olive climbing poles are very common here despite the fact that he could find no mention of them on the Internet, I’ll put up two more photos of their usefulness.


DSC06082 - Version 2

This walk is hardly even a hike – maybe an hour and a half of rambling the outskirts of Gargnano.

 DSC06085 - Version 2

And so it’s early when I return to the harbor area. I watch the exchanges some more: the butcher who greets one person after the next.

DSC06087 - Version 2

...the older woman who passes through and has him and a number of others ask her about the health of her husband.

 DSC06093 - Version 2

I don’t quite catch her answer, but I know her name is Sofia because I hear it shouted out often enough – Sofia, salute al suo marito! I think about how Gargnano isn’t really a village, it’s a small town, but you can’t walk to the store without ten people inquiring about something so important to you as the (failing?) health of your spouse. I think how I can walk from one end of my work place to the next and we’ll all say hi and how are you and we expect nothing more than fine and you in return. Madison, of course, is a big place, as is the university. Still, work is for work and home is where you escape when you've had enough of it.

It’s really too early for a spritz – just 4 p.m., but the sky looks threatening again and I’m not sure I want to make the roundtrip to the harbor again in an hour or two. So I go to the Olivia and I have my farewell spritz and after, I go inside and thank the lovely couple for the pleasure that I have had all week at their cafĂ©. I explain that I am leaving tomorrow and they ask where have I been staying. I tell them -- the Albergo du Lac and they say – ah! Valerio! The Arosio family! Friends of ours! We used to work in their other hotel!

And I think how in these towns that are a mix of agriculture (olives) and tourism – with services supporting the local population but also and perhaps especially, the summer tourist business, your home is in the town of your workplace and that extra layer of overlap is what creates the feeling of community. My imagination tells me that it’s a good community of caring people. Happy people.

Because to me, people here appear content (with the exception of Sofia and others who are living through a crisis).

DSC06106 - Version 2
he fishes alone, but when he is done, the townspeople ask him about his catch

DSC06100 - Version 2
he was fishing with his dad

And I have one final comment to add to this: that contentedness may also come from the fact that in Gargnano, you can raise a family on the living wage you’ll get from being a waiter or a person who mends fishing nets. This is a place that doesn’t flash much wealth, but nor does it flash poverty. In the bigger cities of course, both are ever present and highly visible. But I am reminded of something a Sardinian told me two years ago, when I was passing through there, also on spring break: we care more about being here, in our community. We love it here. If we wanted to make big money we’d leave. Here, you have something else.

DSC06091 - Version 2

All towns and villages along Lago di Garda have their own row boat. Here’s the one belonging to Gargnano:

DSC06022 - Version 2

I’ve passed it daily and assumed it was someone’s private little number. But I asked Valerio and he told me that this is the town boat. It’s used in races that take place here once the season gets going. Villages race against each other. Valerio has a model of the boat in the hotel. It’s a source of pride here.

People from Gargnano like being from Gargnano. I like being from Madison too, but I’m not sure I feel a kinship with the place, even though I have lived there (or proximately close to it) for more than thirty years.

Just as I return to the hotel, the clouds open up and the rains come down.

I’m very glad to be eating at the hotel. Tomato soup with shrimp, and, well yes – the grilled Coregone lavarello. With lemon cake for dessert.

DSC06118 - Version 2