A Puglian Journal
“Four kms to the northeast of Candidasa lays Bugbug, a sizeable rice-growing and fishing village that is the administrative center for the sub-district. Along the way, the road climbs the unexpectedly steep Gumang Hill. ‘Nir is a beautiful panorama from the top of the sea, the Buhu River, rice fields and Bugbug, with the mountains of Lempuyang and Seraya in the distance. On a very clear day one can see Mt Rinjani on Lombok from here.”- page from a tour guide to BaliThe first organized bike tour I took, some 20-odd years ago, was in Bali. Going bicycling in Bali, especially, and above all on an organized tour, was about the last thing I had imagined doing. The quisbness – the unwelcome group activity – of a group of bicycle riders, most of whom one would not know, seemed like an abomination to me. At the time I was doing a good deal of climbing, hiking and bicycle riding with Bil Dunaway. He had taken several of these tours and assured me that they were not that bad. In fact, he was going to Bali with a bicycle tour company called Back Roads. I had always wanted to visit Bali, so in the end I signed up. I have no regrets, but in retrospect it was kind of mad.
Biking in Bali is like biking in a sauna. The tropical temperatures are accompanied by something like 100 percent humidity. On one occasion Dunaway and I were pushing our bicycles up a hill in midafternoon. Riding them was out of the question. Every hundred feet or so there was a stand that sold multicolored drinks. God knows what they were. I think we stopped at every one of them. This may have been the day when Dunaway was nearly decapitated by a coconut. We were riding under some palm trees when there was a sound on the sidewalk like the explosion of a small bomb. Stopping the bicycles, we realized that a coconut had fallen from a tree and missed Dunaway by inches. It had about the weight of a bowling ball. This was a few days after we had had our disagreement over routes.Back Roads, unlike some companies such as Experience Plus, does not put chalk arrows on the road. Instead one gets multi-page route instructions, which neither of us could follow. They contained directions that involved, for example, turning right after a mile and a quarter at a Hindu temple. The problem was that there were several closely spaced Hindu temples, all of which looked identical. Sometime in midmorning we had our disagreement and went our separate ways. It was hopeless. All the road signs were in Indonesian script. We were supposed to be heading for the fishing village of Bugbug – yes, Bugbug. I tried to ask directions of anyone with a modicum of English. Each time I asked how to get to Bugbug I was told that I was there, something that was manifestly untrue, but which my informant was sure would make me happy to hear. It had gotten to be late afternoon, and I had no idea where I was. I was biking down a long, straight road when, in the distance, coming in the opposite direction, I saw a bicycle rider. It was, of course, Dunaway. I explained that one of us must be wrong and proposed that we simplify our requests for directions. We would simply ask for directions to the ocean. Once there, we could follow the coastal road. This worked and, as the sun was setting, we showed up in Bugbug.
When I came back from the tour I realized that I had caught the bug. I began immediately planning with Dunaway for our next bike trip. He wanted to go back to Italy. He had already done bike tours there, especially in Tuscany and Umbria, and had spent a part of the Second World War in Italy with the 10th Mountain Division. I had never biked in Italy, so I let him chose our itinerary. He decided on a tour in Puglia run by an American company called Ciclismo Classico, which specializes in Italian tours. Puglia was at the time not a very common tourist destination. It was a relatively poor agricultural district in the south. If you look at a map, part of Puglia forms the heel of the boot. Its eastern coastline is on the Adriatic. “Puglia” is the Italianate name for “Apulia,” the name of a warlike tribe that occupied the area prior to the arrival of the Greeks and then the Romans, who built a road connecting it to Rome, remains of which can still be found. Since then it has been occupied by Normans and Swabians and various others. It was only annexed into the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. It was, and still is, an agricultural region known for its olives and wine and little industry. It was a relatively poor part of the country, and its principle cities, like Brindisi, were noted for their crime rates. I do not think there were many companies, if any, that offered bike tours in the area. Hotels did not have many stars. Nonetheless, I have memories, a bit dim, of a pleasant tour that, among other things, featured a boat ride into some grottos. I also have a memory of an experience I had that illustrates why I like so much biking in Italy.We stayed four nights in the town of Vieste. One day we did a loop ride. Ciclismo did do arrows, so getting out of town was very straightforward. At the end of the loop we were to follow the arrows back home. But I missed an essential arrow, which I realized after consulting the map. It seemed much simpler just to cut over to the superhighway, rather than trying to retrace my steps. This worked, and I soon found myself in the outskirts of Vieste. Then it dawned on me that I could neither remember the name of the hotel where we were staying, nor how to get there from where I was. I did remember that if I could get to the center of town – il centro – I knew how to navigate from there. I pulled up to a house where a distinguished looking silver-haired man was mowing the lawn. “Dove il thentro?” I asked, mispronouncing the “c” in “centro.” He stopped his mowing and looked at me kindly and said, ” Dove il chentro?” After I repeated this a couple of times he gave me the directions. And now, 20 years later, I am back in Puglia on another bike tour, the putative subject of this journal.
Otto, make that riff staccato.Choppy is the moto.Don’t play it obbligato.- Duke Ellington I have now taken something like 10 bike tours in Italy. There were several in Tuscany, including a Venice-to-Pisa and a Florence to the island of Elba. I took two on the Tuscan coast with Vermont Bicycle tours, which operates this tour of Puglia. There were also two to Sardinia.Before each of these tours I have tried to improve my Italian. While I did study French and Spanish, I never took a course in Italian. People sometimes say that if you know one Romance language, you know them all. People who say this usually do not know any Romance language. It is true that if you know a language like French you are prepared for the fact that nouns have genders. Oddly, in all the languages I know, the word for “war” is feminine. But there are traps. In French, Spanish and Portuguese the word for “if” is “si.” In Italian it is “se.” Go figure. My technique, such as it is, is to listen to Italian language tapes and CDs. By now I think I have listened to nearly all of them, and they are mostly awful. The ones that purport to teach you “travel Italian” have dialogues that contain phrases like “Signor Rossi, dov’è la statzione? ” If I hear one more person ask Rossi where the station is I will scream.The one set of tapes I really like was put out by a company called Passport Books. As far as I can see they are no longer making these tapes – a pity. It is a soap opera featuring two young women called Luisa and Susana, who share an apartment in Rome. Luisa has encountered in Brazil a young Brazilian named Ramon on whom she has a crush. The first few tapes have to do with the maneuvers the two young women execute to get Ramon to Italy on some sort of student deal. He lives with them until he can find his own digs. The fact that Ramon might be a bit of a porco reveals itself when Luisa goes off to spend the weekend with her parents, and Ramon tries, unsuccessfully, to hit on Susana. There is a narrator who comments things like “Povera Luisa.” It gets worse. Ramon is not really a student but a political radical who is hauled off by the police. All of this is recounted in idiomatic Italian. There is an accompanying script with the English translations. There is no grammar. No horrible irregular verbs to conjugate. It is bliss, but at the end of it you really don’t know how to say anything.For this trip I tried a new set of CDs. The are the product of Michel Thomas, “language teacher to the stars.” Woody Allen claims to have learned French from Mr. Thomas. I had no idea that Mr.Allen spoke French. In any event, I bought the deluxe edition of Mr. Thomas’s Italian course, which consists of eight CDs. There is no text and the student is supposed to learn everything effortlessly by listening to the CDs. There are two “students” – a man and a woman with British accents- whom Mr. Thomas frog-marches through the course. It is almost the exact antithesis of Louisa and Susana. There is almost no vocabulary. Mr. Thomas explains that the important thing is “to get the ball over the net.” By this he seems to mean that if you can say something that is grammatically correct, you will be rewarded with a return of serve that will contain the necessary vocabulary. Thus the students are drilled in sentences like, “I would have had dinner with my aunt except that when she was riding her bicycle she broke her arm.” As they try to disentangle the grammar, Mr. Thomas keeps barging in with corrections. By the eighth CD the students are beginning to babble. I thought I would go crazy myself, but I stuck it out partially because I was intrigued by Mr. Thomas’s accent in English which is sort of Germanic. What was his story?This is not entirely easy to come by, nor was his age, which he concealed. After his death in 2005 it was revealed that he had been born in 1915. For many years he gave his birthplace as France, before finally confirming that he had been born Moshe Kroskof in Lodz, Poland. He was sent by his wealthy parents to live with an aunt in Germany – hence the accent. After Hitler came to power, he moved to France. When the Germans occupied France he changed his name to Michel Thomas and moved to Nice which, at the time, was neutral territory. What happened after that depends on whose account you believe. Thomas informs us that he joined the Resistance and was captured and sent to labor camps, from which he escaped. He once again joined the Resistance and was once again captured, this time to be personally tortured by the notorious Klaus Barbie. When the Germans retreated, Thomas claims to have become associated with the American Army and to have been with the first troops that liberated Dachau, where he helped to interrogate guards. What of this is literally true was the matter of a celebrated lawsuit that Thomas initiated against the Los Angeles Times when an investigative reporter published an article challenging much of it. Thomas lost the suit, which went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. Meanwhile, Thomas had set up his phenomenally successful language school in Beverly Hills, where he charged people like Barbra Streisand and Grace Kelly up to $25,000 to learn one of his several languages. I hope they had better luck than I did. Listening to these CDs was like having one of those bad dreams from which you cannot wake soon enough.
Tua madre si da per niente (Your mother gives it away for nothing.)I love Italian insults. They have an operatic quality about them. The French are pretty good too, but it is more brass than violins. Ciclismo Classico offers language classes during their tours. “Offers” is a little weak. One is expected to show up at these classes even after a hard day’s biking. On my first Puglia tour these classes were offered by a very amusing young woman, who was one of the biking guides. After a day or two of biking in Italian traffic, she thought it might be useful to give a class in insults so we would understand what was being said to us and could reply suitably. She graded the insults, which ranged up to the nuclear options that would almost certainly start a fistfight. The milder ones were things like imbecile, cretino, stupido and maleducato (ill-reared). On the next level you had, for example, bastardo, sta zitto et vai all’inferno (shut up and go to hell), puzza come il cane salivadigo (you stink like a wild dog). On the nuclear level you had la sua mama è come una bicicletta, tutti prende un giro (your mother is like a bicycle, everyone gets a ride). There is also one that is accompanied by a hand gesture in which you fold over your middle fingers and hold up the other two while saying tua moglie ha le corna – meaning that your wife is being rogered by your neighbor Mario. On this trip I was interested in learning if there was an Italian equivalent to one of my favorite French insults, which is et ta soeur, which means your sister is another one. I was told that the Italian equivalent is – a sorita – which I am sure will come in handy on a future trip.
In cielo tutti santi, bevano di chianti (In heaven all the saints drink chianti.)I have not lived in Italy enough to know many Italian jokes. I don’t mean jokes told about Italians. I mean jokes that Italians tell on themselves. An Italian physicist once told me a joke that dated back to the Mussolini period. A man goes into a restaurant and is assaulted by a swarm of flies. The man says to the waiter, “I thought Mussolini said that we had declared war on the flies.” The waiter replies, “We did, but we lost.” Having lived in France I know a lot of French jokes. This one is fairly typical. I heard it in a nightclub in Paris. A man goes to his doctor for his annual checkup. The doctor finds that everything seems OK and asks about the man’s sex life. The man says, “I make love about twice a month.” The doctor comments, “That is not very often.” The man replies, “It is not bad for a country priest – un curé de la compagne.” I got a hint that there must be Italian jokes like this when we stopped for a breather in a seaside town. I saw a poster that advertised a magician – apparently a mentalist. At the top it said “Habemos capa.” This puzzled me. I of course knew “Habemos papa.” Who didn’t after the death of John Paul? I asked one of our tour leaders. “Capo”, as all of us mafia fans know, is “head.” But the colloquial meaning is “brains.” We have brains.
“In the civilized state of the Roman empire, the wild beasts had long since retired from the face of man, and the neighborhood of populous cities. To surprise them in their solitary haunts, and to transport them to Rome, that they might be slain in pomp by the hand of the emperor, was an enterprise equally ridiculous for the prince, and oppressive for the people.”- Edward Gibbon, Volume I of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireI have a confession to make. I don’t much like the Romans. I mean the ancient Romans. The modern Romans are fine. I think of them as mainly being Etruscan. I like the Etruscans. Much of what we think of when we think of Italian culture – wine, women and song – seems to have come from the Etruscans. No one quite knows where they came from, but by the eighth century B.C. they had created the towns in Tuscany that become places like Orvieto and Bologna. I also like the fact that no one has yet deciphered their language. It has an alphabet which they no doubt got from the Greeks who, in turn, got it from the Phoenicians, who invented the notion of an alphabet, as far as we know. The Etruscan letters do not look like modern Greek letters, but what they are has been worked out. They had a number system in which “C” stood for 100 and “X” for 10, which the Romans took over. The problem is that we do not know what the underlying language is. What do the letters spell out?The reason is that most of the Etruscan writing we have is from gravestones, and it consists largely of proper names. This is also true of the wonderful engraved metal mirrors with their often erotic imagery. I have an Etruscan dictionary with a couple of hundred words, most of which have question marks beside them. For example, nuranthur seems to be a group that practices nurth, whatever that is. What struck me was the Etruscan word for “lion.” The dictionary tells that it is leu – leu the lion. I was so astonished by this – especially since there were no lions in Italy then – that I looked into it further. The evidence is this: One of the art forms the Etruscans were good at was making scarabs. This is a gemstone in the shape of a beetle on top with a flat surface on the bottom, on which things can be engraved. They seem to have been invented by the Egyptians and adopted by the Etruscans. Many of them have engraved lions, but one is unique. It shows a lioness suckling a cub. Above the lioness are three symbols in the Etruscan alphabet. When deciphered they stand for l-e-u – “leu.” It was probably taken from the Greek. Etruscan normally did not distinguish in its words between masculine and feminine. “Leu” must be the word for both lion and lioness. It is a little puzzling that the word did not end with an ‘n’ as some Etruscan words did. The Greek is leon, but there it is.As far as I know there was no Etruscan civilization in Puglia. The Romans took it over in the third century B.C. They built one of their roads through the province, some of which one can still see, especially in the site at Egnazia – the ruins of a Roman city. It is an inevitable stop on any Puglian bicycle tour. When we stopped there, herds of kids, given the day off from school, were running all over the place. They had even less interest in the ruins than I did – remains of the Roman empire. For some reason I kept thinking what would it be like if in a thousand years someone excavated Los Alamos. What would they make of it?
The trullo – plural trulli – is the signature form of Puglian architecture. The classical trullo – if that is the term – was built without mortar. Square stones were stacked to make a square base, out of which the rooms are constructed. The roof is also constructed of square stones. What makes the construction unique are the circular spaces on the roof. On these, concentric circles of stone are laid with decreasing perimeters. When this stacking is done you have something on the roof that looks like a stone haystack. At the apex of the “haystack” is a sort of stone pinnacle. This seems to serve only a decorative function. On top of the pinnacle there is a stone symbol. These take a variety of forms, most commonly a ball. Later versions have Christian symbolism but the balls may simply represent the sun and are the oldest. The landscape in Puglia is dotted with Trulli. These reach a crescendo in the town of Alberobello.There are various explanations for both the origin of the Trullis and why they were constructed in Puglia and why in Alberobello. Whatever the reason, a visit to Alberobello is inevitable on any bicycle trip to Puglia. On my first trip we spent two nights there and on this one a couple of hours. I have done my time. On this trip the heat, although it was May, was leaden. I had forgotten what a tourist warren the trulli quarter of Alberobello is. There are trullis from which model trullis are sold and trullis from which actual trullis are sold. Every other trulli sells soft drinks. I found a cool one and ordered a small bottle of mineral water. Maybe it was the heat, but as I drank my water around and around inside my head went:There are trullis large and trullis small,And trullis that have no balls at all.No balls at all.No balls at all.Very small pinnacles with no balls at all.
“Some say you look like your father. Some say you look like your mother. Whatever you look like I still love you.”- From a letter from my grandmother.On this tour there are four women of, as the French say, a certain age. I guess they are in their late 50s. They are old friends and have made several bike tours together. They shop. They talk affectionately about their absent husbands, whom they call daily. They plot as to how they can introduce a single daughter or niece to the younger of our two guides, who is handsome, intelligent and also single. They are terrific bike riders and are having a wonderful time.When I ask, I learn that two of the four are grandmothers. This makes me think of my own grandmothers. They were both born in Eastern Europe and came to the United States as young women not speaking the language. My father’s mother was born in Poland, or at least in a geographical entity that was from time to time Polish. In the shtetl where she grew up, women were not meant to be educated. But she taught herself to read and write Yiddish, her mother tongue. By the time she left she was acting as a scribe for the less-literate members of her community. A brother had preceded her, and he settled in Rochester, N.Y. So did she. My grandfather was a traveling salesman – a peddler, not to put too fine a point on it. I have no idea how they met. When I knew them, he seemed to be more of a boarder than a husband. He had a small tailor shop in which he made awful clothes. It was the Depression so I got some.”They wear like iron, ” he would say. I think they were made of steel wool. They were thick and scratchy and I hated them.He was a great walker and socialized with people in the railroad station in Rochester, where he spent a lot of time. I think they were the people who ran the station. Maybe he liked trains. He once took me on what used to be called “Decoration Day” to a picnic of war veterans. I have no idea why, although my father was a war veteran. That family, which consisted of three sons, was pretty poor. Somehow they all were college-educated. Habemos capa. Two became university professors and my father, a rabbi.My mother’s parents came from Russia. When their kids were young they used to say, “Ma is from Minsk and Pa is from Pinsk.” My grandfather was smuggled out of Russia hidden in a farmer’s cart. He did not want to serve in the czar’s army. He was a craftsman and had a small factory under the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, where they made plumbing articles for ships – faucets and the like. He and my grandmother were pretty well-off by the standards of the day. They took vacations with their five kids. I do not think that my paternal grandmother would have known the meaning of the word “vacation.” All the daughters were beautiful, especially my mother. She was a camper in a summer camp where my father was a counselor. They got married when she was 18. Just after the war, my father went to Germany to advise the army on displaced persons. The Holocaust had a profound effect on him. He often said to me, “You only escaped because your grandparents caught the right boat.” I stayed in New York to finish high school and lived in a room in my grandparent’s four-story brownstone, which was near my school in Manhattan. Unlike my paternal grandmother, who was an Orthodox Jew, these grandparents had no interest at all in religion, or much of anything else besides their family. It was hard to have a conversation with my grandfather. His stock answer to most questions was, “Who can tell it a thing like this?” This has often come to mind when I listen to lectures on the Theory of Everything.
“The grape Americans call Zinfandel, and the grape Italians call Primitivo, are both Crljenak Kastelanski (pronounced tsurl-YEN-ahk kahstel-AHN-ski), a Croatian grape that’s nearly extinct in its homeland. The difference between Casa Girelli’s wonderful Primitivo and its American counterparts is there’s no way you’d get this much character from a $13 California Zinfandel. Look for plush berry and spice aromas and black cherry and earthy menthol flavours that are also common to Old Vine Zinfandels from Amador. The structure is on the whole leaner than those Amador monsters, but this is by far a better food wine. Its bright acidity makes for a great partner with pasta arribata or spicy barbecue ribs.”- Christopher Waters – Vines – October 2005I have no interest at all, apart from eating it, in olive oil. I do not care if it is hot-pressed or cold-pressed or if the olives are harvested individually by vestal virgins dressed in white.On the first few bike tours I took in Italy I suffered through some excruciatingly boring lectures on the making of olive oil. Basta – non di piû. I would skip the whole experience of stopping at a place that makes olive oil except that the bike tours cleverly correlate these visits with lunch on the farm. I would skip that, too, except that these farms are located miles from the nearest trattoria. I now simply go under a tree and wait for the lecture to be over and lunch to begin. I also know nothing about wines. I can’t verbalize my feelings about any given wine without sounding like a pretentious idiot. However, I must tell you that in Puglia I fell in love with Primitivo. This seems to be a class of grapes which produce a variety of red wines you can practically chew on. After two glasses I am beyond good and evil. I wonder if any of these wines went north to the Etruscans. They had their own Tuscan grapes, but maybe they enjoyed a bit of a change-up from the south. From what we know of these admirable people they liked to drink. I keep thinking of Christopher Marlowe’s wonderful lines:My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,Shall with their goat feet dance an antic hay.That is what I shall do. I shall go back to Puglia and sit on a sward overlooking the sea. I will drink Primitivo and then dance an antic hay.Jeremy Bernstein, a physicist, frequently writes about his travels in the Aspen Times Weekly.
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After falling through a trapdoor in his Telluride home a couple of weeks ago, Chris Busbee wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep his streak going. He had run in every New York City Marathon since 1998 and was going to run it virtually this year in Aspen before his spill put all that in jeopardy.