Sottoterra.

On Art and Culture February 1, 2011

31 January 2011, Giorno di San Geminiano,  Pontremoli, Italy

Monday felt like Sunday.  Of course, three-day weekends are always disorienting, a disruption in the rhythm of the daily grind we have grown accustomed to.  Patterns are the most addictive of habitual practices and an extra day of weekend has illuminated the topic.  In just under three weeks I have fallen into the groove of the farm’s ebb and flow, the tides primarily adherent to the children’s daily routines.  They were home all day again, and after a proper Sunday of dancing in the disco and playing instruments to accompany M.C. Yogi, Monday was full of possibility and promise, a full day to invent new games and amusements.

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Apparently San Geminiano, the Patron Saint of Pontremoli, had plans for the children so traditional that they awoke ready for action, and to show me how the village’s Saint’s Day unfolds every year.  After dinner, that is.  Until then, it was a typical day at the farm.  You know, picking and cleaning thyme, making fresh herb frittata, sanding walls, painting doorways, changing fuses, running hundreds of euros’ worth of porcini mushrooms from the broken freezer to the frying pan in an effort to save them from the tragic defrost, manning the caldaia (furnace room) with firewood every hour… all the things we take for granted in urban life where grocery stores and canneries have completely extracted the mystique of the land.  The slow life does wear thin at times, the draw to consumerism and need for excitement rearing its ugly head from time to time… a challenge to the discipline I have committed to, in the interest of bettering the lives of myself and others.

I am convinced, however, that there is more to the land here in the borga di Macerie and Pontremoli than meets the eye.  I am certain there is magic in these hills.  How can I be so sure?  Because each day the wisdom of the ages is availing itself to me, however pleasant or uncomfortable I may receive it, and it is perhaps the greatest challenge of my life to keep focused on my work and learning to balance the needs and waves of others on a path toward inner balance.  Perhaps the image of the magician, the wizardess in the hills, is one I can ponder, to adopt into my psyche the one who juggles all and still maintains the neutral gaze.  But truth be told, I fall more than shy of the mark, my desire for order and control popping in around every corner and causing me the sort of subliminal suffering that one can only examine when there is space to do so.  Travel is that environment, for a traveler confronts his own prejudices and unforeseen challenges abroad, a perfect way to truly know himself.

Porcini dinner and a sneaker explosion, the usual hustle and bustle.  Three anxious boys waiting to see fire in the center of the medieval village, a father delighted to do something fun with them, and a traveler in search of today’s theme… leaving one small boy with his mother for a few restful hours, free from competition.  In downtown Pontremoli there was also much excitement, stone bridges across the river crammed with spectators chanting “San Geminiano… San Geminiano…” in anticipation for the annual spectacle of an eight-meter high fireball set ablaze by a group of responsible townspeople in honor of the Saint.  We perched on a stone wall garnished with Mother Nature’s greenery, with a clear view of the floorshow.  Medieval masonry more than had its place as a backdrop, for what we were about to see was so deeply rooted in lost customs of secret societies.  The scene riveted me.

Uber-Catholic imagery entered the dirt arena, drums pounding with the authority of proper church-going teenagers, in a marching sequence banded by flags of flame-patterned fabric tossed by similar youth.  The headpieces were like nothing I’ve ever seen.  Cotton sheeting in pointy patterns, shades of societies of centuries past, the ones theorized to still meet in underground hovels and/or mainstream disguise, unearthed only on this sacred of days in full regalia.  Colorful clansmen, esoteric clergy, the legacy of Masonic elders… my imagination wild with wonder, I was hypnotized by “what if…”

The teenaged-Masonic-Uber-Catholic-Clanlike uniformed band filed out of the arena and the drumming ceased.  Nearly to the final single beat, a modest, un-choreographed fireworks display erupted and a line of adults with fire on a stick filed in to circle the 24ish-foot Christmas-tree-shaped effigy.  In unison they inserted their sticks to the straw base, and the bonfire shot up to throw flames high into the air instantly.  The outpouring of villagers having tumbled out of well-lit riverside apartments were dwarfed by the ravaging flame shooting into the air over their heads while orange ashes cascaded upward, dipped, and gracefully floated to the ground below, dimming at touchdown.   Elaborate planning for a deliberate blaze amused me and I began to drift into centuries past again.  I imagined a ruler and an argument, the modern fire emulating the ferocity of a survivalist’s intensity in days when each event could be the difference between life and death.  And I got lost in time travel… until the festival was deemed finished by the sudden thumping of the familiar “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor.  Returning from Pontremoli in the earliest recorded date of it’s life (1000 B.C.) to Pontremoli tonight (2011) was not a direct route, for I was transported for a split second into a nightclub in L.A. where I used to go dancing with my Italian friends Alessandro and Franco, then plopped back to the bridge with Corrado and three children.

I am aching to go exploring on my own, to roam the catacombs and cellars running wild like a child suspended in an endless summer fantasy play, the sort that only ends when the sun disappears into the late night, after splashing the walls and tress with ghosts of ages past.  I long to listen to Pontremoli, to feel her story in my bones and to seal my fascination with intuitive sentiments, to breathe in the life force behind the masonry.

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