Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sicilian Wheels

Sicilian Donkey Cart
Sicilian Wheels
travel memoir
by Greg Larson
“What is this?” I asked as we strolled through the hotel grounds near Mt. Etna in Sicily. A large wooden cart with detailed carvings lay under a shade tree along the path.
“It looks like some type of donkey cart,” said Gretta, my wife.
I gasped at the carved detail, the painted panels, and the deteriorating condition of the weathered cart. “Whatever it is, I can’t believe it’s exposed to the weather.  This should be in a museum.  It’s so old, and the detail is unbelievable!” I exclaimed.
“Look at the carvings and hand-painted pictures,” said Gretta.
Intricate carvings and paintings
“Was this built for kings and queens?” I asked. “This looks like something you would see on Antiques Roadshow. I can’t imagine what it is worth. I pointed to the painted panels, “Look at the medieval battle scenes.”
The cart's resting place
Questions swelled inside of me.  What was the significance of the carved symbols and painted scenes? How many times had these wheels turned their circumference, making revolutions on the dusty Sicilian hillsides?  Why was the antique exposed to the harsh Sicilian climate? I touched the sun-bleached wooden frame which seemed like the relic bones of someone’s livelihood, and stared at the patina of the fading paint.
Gretta and I discovered the donkey cart while strolling along the paths through the green shady grounds of Villa Paradiso dell’Etna which is located at the base of Mt. Etna in northeast Sicily. A paradise it was to us, after spending several days in June of 2012 on a bike tour, experiencing the hot sun and the twisting, turning roads that rose and fell over the hills of eastern Sicily.  The three-acre walled estate was built as a resort in the late 1920s as a spot for tourists and artists to view Etna and experience the cool breezes at the base of the volcano.
Entry to Villa Paradiso dell'Etna

Front steps

The cart continued to reveal intricate details of carved spokes on the wheels, and multiple painted panels and carvings on the box and side panels.  Some strange metal ornamentation had been welded to the axle frame.  Although mostly hidden from view, the metal trinkets on curved tracery gave an artistic flourish to the undercarriage.

Metal trinkets near the axle
We asked our tour guide about the cart, and he explained they were used by everyday merchants for transporting goods throughout Sicily.  They have become an enduring symbol of the region, a slice of history about the hard-scrabble lives of the Sicilians.  The decaying cart is akin to the rusted model-T pick-up trucks which rest beneath elm trees in rural America.  Some of the carts have been saved in museums or used only in pageants or parades, but thousands have been left as outdoor relics to remind the Sicilians of their pride of ownership and their ability to overcome daily hardships. 
Antique details exposed to the weather
Cart-making and painting has quickly become a lost art, but when carts were the mode of transportation, the cart-makers flourished.  Carts of varying quality were available for centuries to carry the goods of Sicilian society, such as grain, wine, lumber, and fish.  A cart owner’s social status was quickly determined by a glance at the detail on their cart, just as we look at the differences in American cars today.  Cadillac or Chevy?  Ford or Chrysler? 
Today, only a handful of people continue the trade of cart making and cart painting.  In the book, Seeking Sicily, one of the last cart painters, Franco Bertolino, bemoans the fact that when he quits painting as his grandfather taught him, the art will be lost.  He said that some fine-art graduates have begun to do some cart painting, but the style and colors are not the same as those created by the old tradesmen.  

Details of a lost art
I'm back at home, sipping American coffee and reviewing the photographs of the cart.  I see a poignant symbol on the grounds of Villa Paradiso, where countless Sicilian wedding receptions have taken place.  It is a reminder of the island’s history to the new couples, a symbol which shows the strength and pride of the Sicilians as they went about their daily lives.
A man, a donkey, and a cart . . . all that was needed to conduct business on the Mediterranean Isle. 


Thursday, January 3, 2013

An Unlikely Partner

by Greg Larson

          It all started with a parting comment on an email I received from my friend George:  “You and Gretta should go English dancing with Bridget and me.  It is great exercise and lots of fun.  We really enjoy it.”  It sounded interesting, but I didn’t reply, and I said nothing to Gretta. 

          Then one evening, while eating pizza with George and Bridget at their house, Bridget brought up the subject again.  “I think the two of you are well-suited for English Dancing.  Gretta, you have dancing skills from your figure skating, and Greg, your architectural mind will allow you to quickly understand and memorize the patterns of the dances.  You are both in good shape, so it should be fun and easy for you.”

Gretta’s face lit up, and she talked with all the excitement of opening a Christmas present.  “Oh, that really sounds like a lot of fun!” she exclaimed.  Once she had spoken, I knew my options were limited.  

I pictured Gretta watching her DVD copy of Pride and Prejudice, especially the parlor dance scenes in the old country estates, with the harpsichord and violins playing while the gussied-up women flit about, sharing bits of gossip.  She’s a sap for all of that English culture stuff, and can answer any English trivia question, no matter how difficult.  She even has all of the Kings and Queens memorized in order of their reigns.

Whenever she fixes her tea and nestles on the couch to watch those English movies, I run to my man cave and turn up the Led Zeppelin.  Otherwise, I would just get her all upset with my sarcastic comments about the movie.

I hadn’t responded at Gretta’s excitement about trying out the English dancing.  My mind raced with lots of concerns and questions while everyone looked at me, anticipating my unanimous vote to go dancing.  I smiled back, and kept eating my slice of pizza. 

The idea of old-style English dancing seemed rather frightful to me. Was this going to cost a lot of money?  Would we be required to take dance lessons?  I remembered a friend of Gretta’s told us that he had taken up ballroom dancing, and the lessons were expensive.  The instructors waltzed away with a bunch of his money.

Would I have to grow sideburns and wear ruffled shirts with tight collars?  I scratched my neck.  I pictured uncomfortable outfits . . . you know, really hot and stuffy.

George and Bridget assured us the dances were very casual affairs.  No one was required to wear fancy clothes, and there was a 30 minute training session before the dance for the newbies who needed some instruction.

“Okay, I’m game.  Let’s go for it.” I responded with gusto, but deep inside I thought I had committed to something that was beyond my ability.  We marked our calendars for the next English Dance, which was to be held on a Sunday at the senior center in downtown Lawrence, Kansas.  In the back of my mind, I had an uneasy feeling.

The date arrived and I wondered if there were any valid excuses to back out.  No, I hadn’t come down with a sore throat.  The Chiefs would attempt to play football that Sunday, but I really couldn’t argue that I would miss something significant.  I looked at the forecast, and there was a possibility of freezing rain.  The highway conditions might be dangerous.  That was my only hope to cancel.  Alas, the temperature stayed above freezing, and only a light rain greeted us as we drove to Lawrence.

The woman instructor wearing a hands-free microphone invited all the neophytes out onto the dance floor to give us some basic instruction.  She turned, looked at me, and blurted out, “Turn me on!”

This was a whole new experience, but I didn’t think that “turn me on” was an accurate historical English phrase.  Then I realized she was requesting her musician/sound technician husband to turn on her microphone.  She then proceeded to give us a primer on English dancing.  It was suggested we switch partners after every dance, to allow the less-experienced dancers to be guided by the experts.  We learned of “proper” and “improper” places on the dance floor, and of “casting” and “leading” with couple number one and couple number two.

I’ve not participated in a choreographed dance since grade school, but this seemed like a genteel method of square dancing.  It was a more dignified approach to weaving through the group on the dance floor as opposed to a knee-slapping ye-haw version, yet it was invigorating and definitely kept the heart rate at a high level.  By the time the song ended, each couple had worked their way through the entire group.

The most shocking revelation that came from English dancing was the custom of direct eye contact between dance partners while going through the motions.  It is a form of flirtatious staring, a carryover habit from the Victorian era when the eyes spoke volumes, since touching was frowned upon.  It was a bit unnerving, but I got used to it, and by the end of the dance I was getting pretty good at looking directly at my partner’s eyes.  Sometimes when I held the hand of another dance partner, it happened to be Gretta, and we would smile and laugh as we looked at each other.

It was paramount to follow the caller’s instructions during the dance, so I gave my absolute concentration and focus.  I don’t remember hearing much of the music, but every now and then a musical phrase gave me a cue to complete the turn or crossover.  I was feeling pretty good about my progress until we danced in groups of six, near the end of the evening.  There were so many different calls and maneuvers that I got lost.  In most dances, if I missed a turn or a lead, someone would point or motion where to go.  But this dance was different.  Maybe my brain was getting tired.  I felt like a lost child in a big store, but I didn’t give up.  Finally, my partner pulled us out of the dance.  Oh, the shame.  Everyone else said it wasn’t a big deal, but I wished I could have kept dancing.

Gretta and I went with our friends to another English dance on a dark winter evening at an old church on Troost Avenue in Kansas City.  I could almost picture arriving at the side door in a coach driven by a driver wearing a top hat and holding the reins to the horses.  The quaint fellowship hall had large arched windows and a big wooden floor to dance on, and it was the perfect place for an English dance.  People brought snacks and hors d’oeuvres to devour when there was a break in the dancing. 

Each time we go to a dance, we relax a bit more and try to enjoy the ambience and the music.  One day while sitting at home on the sofa, Gretta mentioned to me that the date of the next dance just happened to fall on the day before her birthday.  She leaned closer to make sure I was listening and said, “I would really like to go to that dance.”

I thought of the invigorating dances in a warm room on a cold winter’s eve with happy people all around.  “It sounds like a lovely idea!”

We’ll join in the reverie and have a dickens of a time.