The Manscape: The Language of Food
Despite my name, I speak very poor Italian. You see, my parents grew up in the Australia of the 1960s. A time when it was frowned upon to take a big fat panini to school, let alone be proficiently bilingual.
My Mum, Santa (saint in Italian) often tells the story of the special revenge she took on a group of girls who called her Salami Sister – a retaliation involving a handful of carefully directed cold meats. It was these sorts of childhood experiences that lead my parents to shelter me from my family’s past and to… Australian-ise me.
When the time came, my own experiences growing up played a part in the decision to Italian-ise my kids. We Capomollas put our Melbourne life on hold and went off to live in Lucca, Italy.
Our landlord for the year, Gina, was taken aback when we arrived and could not speak the language. “Perché?” she scolded me (“Why!”), waving her hands frantically back and forth with her fingertips clinched. In an effort to help integrate us into the local community, she quickly reached for the phone and called her friend at the language school for new Italians. A week later, after a personal introduction, as is the Italian way, we were enrolled.
The class was made up of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sri Lankans, Chinese, Romanians, Albanians, Puerto Ricans, Brazilians, Iraqis and some token Queenslanders. We took it in turns to introduce ourselves in broken Italian. When my turn came, Sara the teacher asked, “Cosi fai?” (“What do you do?”). “I am a gardener,” I responded. “Perche qui e Lucca?” she followed (“Why are you here in Lucca?).
To eat and to garden… What else is there?” I said, with a broad Australian grin.
At the end of the lesson, Sara told me of a friend who ran a local community garden. She organised for us to meet the following week, as is the Italian way. Sara explained that I will have to ride along the Via Francigena, an old pilgrim route, on the outskirts of the city walls winding along the Serchio river. “If you follow the river, you will come across some large albogatti trees, and a sign saying “Riva degli Albogatti. Here you will find an old football oval that has been converted in to an urban farm.”
I later learn that albogatti is Lucchese dialect for black poplar (Populus nigra). Commonly these trees are also referred to as cottonwoods, due to the appearance of their seed tuffs, resembling cotton. However, to the Lucchese, these seed tuffs must bear some resemblance to hair balls, and hence the name (gatti, meaning cats).
A week later I am personally introduced to Nicola, one of the full-time staff employed by the local council or commune as caretaker and educator for the farm. In broken English, he informs me that the the majority of the garden is maintained by a group of so-called “high school drop-outs”, so they can gain skills to work in the local agricultural industry. A group of intellectually challenged adults also spend time there, allowing them to interact and socialise away from their families. Over summer they offer a school holiday program for Italian children on their 3-month long holiday (which I learn about the hard way).
Nicola explained that they didn’t tend to give out individual plots, but because I knew his friend… I wasn’t quickly learning the Italian language, but I was fast learning the Italian way.
From this point on, every second day I cycled about twenty minutes out of the walled city, along the back streets and through farmed fields, to find myself attempting to establish a new veggie garden. The experience proved itself to be more challenging than I expected. My skills as a gardener had to be adjusted to make way for different weather patterns and new pests.
Somedays, I would find myself arriving to my garden plot, to see the ants thieving my seeds, and the moles having dug up my newly planted beds.
In Italy there is no big green shed, no place to buy your tools, mulch, fertiliser and plants. I had to lean on the community to obtain such resources. In my broken Italian, I communicated with others at the garden often pointing to veggies to explain. For the tools, Nicola came to the rescue and allowed me to use his. For the mulch, I was able to score cardboard boxes from the city retailers who left them outside their shop doors every Tuesday morning. The fertiliser came from a local farmer who kept horses, and would dump their manure in the forest. It was often a battle between me and the wild boar though, I would often find them digging their noses in the stuff.
As for the plants, these were sold at the local farmers’ market, by local growers, for a fraction of the price paid in Australia.
Even though my language skills were limited, I was able to not only grow food… but friends and a sense of community around that Italian veggie patch.