Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The View from our Balcony

Photos by Giuseppe Lambertino

Giacomino is the gardener where we live. There are just 3 floors to our apartment building with each of the three apartments taking up the entire floor. There is a balcony that surrounds our home uninterrupted on 3 of the 4 sides. Our view on one side is of the Mediterranean and the islands of Procida and Ischia. But it is the view from the other two sides that I wish to tell you about. These two sides look out onto the vineyard and vegetable garden. It is from this vantage that we have learned the habits of Giacomino. Giacomino in Italian means “little James”.

If you could imagine living where I live, and if you could conjure up in your mind a portrait of a stereotypical Italian “contadino” gardener, you would undoubtedly come up with the image of the man that greeted us on our first day in Italy. He’s a difficult person to describe because he is a man of few words, but our entire family, and each of our many visitors are immediately struck by his beauty inside and out upon meeting him. I will try to tell you what I know about him, but my words don’t come close to capturing his qualities or the reasons why he has so enamored us.

He is a mere 5 feet tall, with gray-blue, gentle eyes. He always has an easy, kind smile and greeting with a little bit of neighborhood gossip or news thrown in because Giacomino is always “in the know” in this town. He doesn’t however, like to talk for long….he’s all about work. He wears gray wool pants tucked into black rubber boots, and a plaid shirt opened at the neck to reveal his undershirt.

The vineyard and garden that he tends take up the space of about one acre, and Giacomino, tends every plant, every day, by hand. There is a garden hose, but to Giacomino that would be a waste of water…so he uses a rain barrel and a watering can. Right now it is the tender shoots of the tomatoes that he is watering. In the dry heat of a the Neapolitan summer, his arms will fill the watering cans innumerable times to water each and every plant in the vineyard. This is a garden with over 500 grapevines not to mention the fig, lemon, orange, grapefruit, loquat, pomegranate, walnut, laurel and willow trees in the yard. He feeds the chickens and the cats and does not like it when the owner asks him to kill a chicken for him. He confided in me once that he would always get his wife to kill the chickens because he didn’t like to do it. When he’s finished he scrubs his hands with a lemon cut in two to get rid of the smell.

Giacomino is sometimes difficult to understand as his Italian is colored with a lot of the local Montese dialect as it is known in our little pocket of Campania. He walks at a brisk pace, and he makes a“whoosh-ing”sound from his mouth to call the cats at 6am in the morning. They come from all parts of the vast garden for their morning meal, which usually consists of leftover fish skeletons and some sort of pasta. I once tried to imitate the sound when he wasn’t around, but the cats never came. It is not surprising that these contented felines follow Giacomino around as he meanders about in the vineyard throughout the course of the day. When he’s gone, they wait very close to their feeding dish for his return, sniffing around for reminders of their last meal. These cats are content.

The first day I met him, he told me his story. He’s worked all his life…since he was 9 years old, he boasted with great pride. He was the chief engineer on the ships owned by the same family who owns our apartment building. When he retired from the ships, the same family hired him on to tend the vineyard and vegetable garden. He has 4 daughters, 2 sons and he lives downstairs from his youngest daughter in the home where he raised his children, one street over from where I live. His wife died in 1982. This December he will turn 82 years old. He attributes his good health to the fact that he doesn’t eat meat, or pizza—only fish and I think a healthy amount of red wine. Sometimes he tells me about relatives or friends who have died. His tone is mournful and respectful, but I can’t help detect a sense of glee that he has so far escaped illness, retirement, idleness, and can still get up and put in a good days work.

At 1:30 he goes home for lunch and a siesta. I sometimes see him late in the day, all cleaned up, hair combed, in the piazza with some other men his age. Even though I see that he is involved in animated stories with them, he always stops to say hello. I also see him at church every week, looking rather polished. He doesn’t sit in the pews…he stands at the back of the church with the other men. This isn’t particular to Giacomino however. Few men accompany their wives to church, and most who do, don’t sit with them. I can only guess at their reasons but it could be out of politeness, reserving the seats for the women, or it might be that it just isn’t cool, or maybe a little of both.

Giacomino informed me this week that he won’t be coming back in the afternoons to work anymore, and he won’t be planting as many tomatoes this year. He just learned that he has dangerously high blood pressure. He adamantly refuses any help in the vineyard but I can see that he is scared. I know that he couldn’t bare living life as an invalid. I see how he still loves his life.

These days, I make my way around to the other side of the balcony a little more. It is a view I hope to see for many more years: the vineyard, the garden, the cats, the chickens and Giacomino. This gardener has become part of the ground that he labors, part of the view from my balcony. They say that grapes offer more succulent juice if the vine has had to work hard and dig deep for its nutrients and water. Like the vine, Giacomino has had to work hard and struggle throughout his life, and all who know him are enriched by his presence.

A year ago, I had a taste of Giacomino’s wine. He buys Aglianico grapes from Puglia and makes his own. It was not bad. However, the bottles he gifted me this year were difficult to swallow. I have seen Giacomino’s winemaking techniques and he’s a staunch promoter of quantity over quality, pressing, and squeezing every last drop out of the grapes. What follows is a description of what I tasted this year.

1 comment:

ksandy said...

oh Cathy ... reading your blog I am there I am transported