Sunday, August 14, 2011


I know it is possible to raise bees and make honey in America.  I even have friends that do it in Washington, DC.  But in reality it can't be done.  Just like we could flamenco dance when we go out at night.  It just isn't who we are.

But bee keeping and making honey, just like growing fig trees, frying zucchini flowers and taking a nap in the hot afternoon sun, is part of the natural rhythm here in Italy.  It is a part of our life here at our villa, in part because we are an agriturismo - a vacation farm house with a working farm.  We grow tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, basil, sage and more in our garden.  We have fig, apricot, date, walnut and other trees.  Each season we harvest some crops in our modest sized fields - onions, alfalfa, chick peas or tall fields of sunflowers.

But here in Italy everyone gets into the act.  Everyone has his own garden.  Everyone cures his own prosciutto, ages his own cheese.  Everyone, it seems, has his own hive and makes his own honey.

Perhaps that is a slight overstatement, but here in Umbria, at least, it seems everyone you talk to has his own hive or his own prized garden.  It is what they do.  It is who they are.

* * *

This was our second year raising bees.  One day a couple of years ago two wooden hives, two green painted, house-shaped wooden boxes, about a foot and a half high, appeared on the perimiter of the villa compound.  They were put there by Marco, the young Italian man who helps run the villa and who, growing up in Umbria has been steeped in the tradition of beekeeping, asparagus foraging and truffle hunting.  His father, our good friend Lodovico, a retired former pharmaceutical company employee grew up in the southern part of Umbria, where his brother still lives today, listening to and following the cycles of nature.  It is a way of life that he has instilled in his son, who is still in the process of developing this special gift, fighting against the tides of "progress" - Americanization - that would replace a lifestyle in sync with nature with one that values technology and isolation from the natural world.  It is interesting to daily watch how he reconciles the modern with the traditional.  He does a good job at it.

So two years ago Marco started our first effort to raise bees and make honey.  Every trip here I excitedly crept near the beehives, feeling them swarm around me even when they didn't, fascinated by the mass of buzzing bees that clung to the outside of their houses.  I had no idea what was going on inside, but watched with amazement as dozens of bees would enter the small passageway at the bottom of the hive and another dozen would emerge and fly off, presumably to collect pollen at some nearby favorite watering hole.

Our first season of beekeeping was entirely unsuccessful.  No honey was produced, or so at least I was led to believe.  One day when I asked Marco when he would collect the honey, he replied that there would be none this year.  He did not explain anything else, just cryptically saying the bees did not produce.  At least our luck was better than his father's, though, who suffered a colony collapse and ended up with an empty hive.

This year, then, I was determined to keep better tabs on the progress of our hive and honey.  Each trip to the villa I would talk to Marco about how things were going with the bees and my frequent visits to the hive confirmed that at least one of the two hives was thriving, a huge knot of bees sunning themselves on the front wall of their green chalet, non-stop activity in and out of the hive.  At the beginning of this trip Marco reported that they seemed to be working hard and making honey.  We were only a couple of weeks away from our first harvest.

Earlier this week when I asked Marco when he though would be B Day he replied later in the week and when we met at Lodovico's house for a lovely party later in the week he told me that I could borrow Lodovico's beekeeper suit if I wanted to help out.  I was already flying pretty high at Lodovico's party, but this sent me off the edge.

* * *

The next morning a rap on my window awoke me at 7am, announcing that the early morning honey harvest was about to begin.  I emerged a few minutes later, realizing I knew nothing about the process, showing up in shorts and sandals, which would not provide quite the level of protection as the thick shirt and attached mesh helmet.  I found some long pants and shoes, but was a little worried that I had only ankle socks, no long socks, hoping the pants would not ride up too much leaving my ankles exposed to the bees.

Slipping the beekeeper's suit over my head and emerging inside the screened in helmet for the first time was a feeling that I shall never forget.  You see the world in a different way when you are looking out through the screen, the world broken into a million tiny square windows not unlike a fly's eye.  As I approached the hive, the roof of which Marco had already removed, which raised the ire of the colony, the buzzing was palpable and time seemed to slow down.  The angry bees swarmed everywhere, landing on our arms and legs and walking along the screen of the helmet.  But Marco spoke in calm tones, telling jokes in his excellent English (I don't think the bees understood, but it kept my nervousness in check), moving deliberately but purposefully.

Throughout he pumped smoke onto the colony from a teapot like dispenser, a bellows on the back which would propel smoke where aimed.  This magic substance slowed down the bees and made them mostly docile, allowing us to work to pry up the vertically stacked wooden frames that were inside the top floor of the bee house, and which the bees had used to create honeycombs which had been filled with honey and sealed with wax.  Marco pried up a wooden frame, I would apply a bit of smoke to the mass of bees that covered the honeycomb and he would lightly brush them off of it and into the hive.  The comb was then placed in a plastic box that was covered to keep the bees from discovering it and re-defending it.

This process was repeated over and over until all of the combs were removed.  We then moved into the house where a large stainless steel cylinder, about two feet in diameter and three feet high stood.  We took the wooden frames and gently removed the wax covering from the ends of the combs with a knife, basically slicing off the cap on each side of the comb, and quickly inserted the oozing frames into the canister where they slid into place standing upright and radiating from a central core.  After each of the frames had been uncorked and placed in the canister, the top was closed and I cranked a handle which caused the entire core to rotate.  The canister was a large centrifuge and as the frames began to spin the honey in each comb was forced out and onto the side of the can, where it oozed down to the bottom.  In about ten minutes the honeycombs were empty, each frame weighing a fraction of what it had just minutes before, and the bottom of the cannister was full of honey.

We then put the cannister on a table and placed a smaller cannister below it.  Opening the valve of the centrifuge, honey began to stream in thick ribbons into the storage cannister, first passing through a seive to strain out bits of wax and honeycomb and, perhaps, the occaisional bee that had been trapped in this process.  By now all of the villa's guests were awake and watching this spectacle, dipping their fingers in the running stream of honey and oohing and aahing about the taste.  It was truly a moment of pure joy for all.

* * *

Several days later, as I write about this, our pantry is stocked with dozens of jars of honey.  Home made honey from La Fattoria del Gelso.  Even as the buzzing sound in my ears fades into memory, I still enjoy walking into the pantry and just look at the jars.  My jars.  Marco's jars.  Our bee's jars.  It is a satisfaction that I have never really felt before.  One I never got drafting contracts or writing legal briefs.  Not when doing well on a math test or even when having an excellent meal in a restaurant.  This satisfaction comes not from the doing or the accomplishing, but from the being.  From the connection.  I rarely feel it at home but often feel it here in Italy, here in Umbria.  A place where the bees helped put the be in human being.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Tavolo

And so we begin the ending of our Italian odyssey not exactly where it began, but in the center, in the place that always draws us back, that place that cast its magical spell on us and commands that we return.  We return to Umbria.

The days of food and wine, too late nights and too early mornings, of racing somewhere to slow down and see and the vagaries of the Italian internet have time shifted these reports from the live to the tape delayed.  We begin our fourth day in Umbria today, three days of nonstop activity, frivolity and excess, but of those three missing days there is only a single thing to report.

The table.

Our friend Marco once told us of a billiard parlor in nearby Foligno.  It described itself as being in Umbria, the center of Italy.  And in Foligno, the center of Umbria.  The parlor itself was in the center of Foligno and one particular table was in the center of the billiard parlor.  Here, then, was the center of Italy.

They got it just slightly wrong.

Each night here in Cannara, both on our first stopover three weeks ago and today, as we host two families whose sons used to go to school with our twins and another family whose daughter now goes to school with them, we dine under the stars at a makeshift table, an assemblage of small wooden tables pushed together to accommodate the evening's group, whether it be the three couples who studied together in Bologna supplemented by my college roommate and his wife, our expat friend from Rome, the chef of a nearby restaurant, our new close friends from nearby Castelnuovo, the gentleman who sold us this house, our twins and their friends.  The table is infinitely expandable to suit our group for whatever occasion.

And every night it is the same.  Three hours under the stars, platters of food, bottles of wine, plastic water bottles everywhere.  And conversations animating the night air, punctuated by laughter, shouting and heads tilted backwards, pointing skyward.  Over these weeks in Cannara old friendships became deeper and new friendships developed easily and naturally.  That is the way here in Italy and that is the way around the table.
Last night, the sixth installment of the grand meal since our new guests arrived ((lunch + dinner) X 2) was more of the same.  But as the evening wound down and I looked across to the other end of the table, to the "children's end" I saw the same thing.  Eight young adults deep in conversation, eyes wide open and fixed on each other, hanging on every word.  For three and a half solid hours.  It gave me hope and it gave me joy to see this generation so engaged, so at peace.  At home no one would make the time to do this.

If you ask me, we can't afford to not do this.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Monday, August 1, 2011

La Spiaggia e Aperta

December 7, 1941.  September 11, 2001.  The day President Kennedy was shot.  Everyone remembers where they were on these fateful days as the news broke that changed the trajectory of history.
Add to that list July 29, 2011.  I was walking down the main street in Ponza, looking for a souvenir of our visit when the tiny Italian cellphone that has been our constant companion on our trips here for the past six or seven years rang.  "They've reopened the Chiaia di Luna beach."
Chiaia di Luna beach - at beach level.

For a moment, words failed me.  I stopped in my tracks, my mind racing but not fixing on anything in particular and then the image began to come into focus.  The beautiful Chiaia di Luna, the half moon shaped bay over which our hotel for the past four summers was perched and down on which we had gazed every day for those four years was reopened.  The magnet which had originally drawn us to this island and to this hotel, that teasingly allowed us to look but not touch, was finally allowing us in.  This was indeed a date for the history books.

* * *

Ponza is a rocky island, a small speck of an island located an hour plus off the Italian coast from Anzio.  It is surrounded on all sides by water but despite that great advantage, it only has a small handful of sandy beaches.  Most of the island's beaches are craggy, volcanic rock outcroppings on which bathers set up chairs and tiptoe over painful, jagged rocks to ease into the crystal clear waters.  The major exception is Frontone, a mega beach close to the main port, but which, with its rows of umbrellas and chairs, looks (at least from a boat offshore, since we have never gone ashore there) like most other coastal Italian beaches.

Right in the middle of the island, however, is an enormous bay, a half moon shaped bay called Chiaia di Luna, which is enclosed by sheer cliffs that give shape to the bay and which shelter a tiny sliver of a beach.  While the beach is made from small stones rather than sand, it has the look of a typical beach.  Except it is deserted.
For as long as we have been coming to Ponza and to the Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna the beach at Chiaia di Luna has been closed.  Closed because the sheer sandstone cliffs that give the beach its unrivaled beauty decided one day, some years ago, to do what sheer sandstone cliffs have been doing since the beginning of time and which the cliffs here have been doing as well.  They caved in.

Unfortunately, some unfortunate bathers happened to be below the cliffs when they decided to do their freefall.

In the four years that we have been coming to Ponza and enjoying sunsets from the hotel's Ki Bar that is perched on top of one of those cliffs overlooking the Chiaia di Luna, enjoying sunset after sunset with electronic music, an aperitif and friends, we have been haunted by the Chiaia di Luna beach.   It was simply abandoned.  As if the police told everyone to get out after the collapse, removed the bodies and left everything else to nature.  The terraces of the couple of bars that once lined the beach still have tables and chairs sitting out, the chairs pushed away from the table as though they were rushed from as the walls came tumbling down, the doors gently swinging in the breeze.  Flotsam and jetsam has washed up on the beach, which has been closed to bathers arriving by boat by a rope with "No Entry" bouys stretched the entire length of the bay.  Despite the efforts of authorities, occasionally one would see bathers who swam under the rope to catch some sun on the deserted beach.

But the main barrier to entry was the closing of the Roman tunnel.

Ponza, it seems, was a favorite of the Romans, presumably both for defensive reasons and as a summer beach destination.  And being engineers with a little time on their hands (they had a thousand years to establish their empire, after all) they set to building a tunnel from the main port through the cliffs and to the beach.  History books and tourist guides tell us that the tunnel was built to permit soldiers to get quickly from the port to the beach, which is on the other side of the island.  But it is more likely that it was built for soldiers to get quickly from the port to the beach so they could enjoy a martinus (one only, please, while on duty) and the sunset.

* * *

So fo four years we walked past the sign trumpeting the Roman tunnel, only to find it fenced in, boarded up and overgrown.  We enjoyed the Chiaia di Luna from above, at sunset, and from the water, anchoring in the bay on numerous circuits of the island, swimming in its cool, clear waters, but unable to come ashore and experience what the Romans of ancient time as well as the Roman holidaymakers of more recent times (before the cave in) were able to experience.

* * *

Only two days before the beach's reopening, I asked our captain, Antonio, during our giro of the island, when the beach would ever be reopened.  This obviously is a sore spot among Ponzese.  There is either disagreement or simply a repressed memory among them, for no one can give a definitive answer for even how long the beach has been closed.  Some say 20 years, other say 4 or 5 years.  From our experience it must have been at least 4 years, as it was closed on our first visit to the island, a fact that the management of the Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna had failed to mention when we booked our room and which they failed to excise from their promotional materials.  At least until this year.

Last summer we observed a great deal of activity going on on the cliffs above the beach.  Enormous rolls of wire fencing were placed at the top of the cliffs and drilling and pounding was going on during our entire stay.  Ponzese workmen were doing their best Roman imitation, acting the part of the engineer that was going to make the beach at Chiaia di Luna safe for topless sunbathing once again.  By installing an enormous screen along the entire face of the cliff, to catch falling rocks and giving the bathers below enough time to put their tops back on and change into a dryer speedo before speeding away from the killing zone.

Upon our arrival this summer, it appeared as though the work had been completed.  Yet still the beach was not open.  That is what caused Capitano Antonio to go into a classic Italian rant, words spreeing forth from his mouth, hands jerking back and forth.  Chi sa?  Who knows?  They have been working on this thing for years, spending tons of money and they have nothing to show for it.  It is like a fairy tale.  It probably will never reopen.

The next day, Pete asked our hostess at the hotel when, if ever, the beach would reopen.  No so.  I don't know, but really meaning I don't even know.  Less than 24 hours later I received the phone call from Suzy that the beach had reopened.  Talk about little fanfare.

* * *

Upon hearing the news, I finished my shopping and walked back, as fast as my legs would carry me, toward the Roman tunnel.  I imagined myself a Roman soldier, hearing the sounding of the claxton that could mean only one thing.  Last call at the beach bar.  Or the arrival of a boatload of party girls from nearby Palmarola island. My heart raced.  Hail Caesar.

* * *

I arrived at the entrance to the Roman tunnel, which I had passed dozens of times on my walks from the town to the hotel.  But today the gate, which after a couple of years I had stopped even noticing was closed, was swung open.  I walked down the overgrown pathway and into the tunnel, which is now supported with scaffolding and lined with a wooden boardwalk.  It was dark and narrow and you could feel the spirit of departed Roman soldiers as well as the litter of more recent construction workers.  At one point the single bulb that illuminated the tunnel was burnt out plunging the walkway into total darkness.  But as it straightened out, a bright light from the other side drew me forward.  It was all eerily like a near death experience, but instead it was a rebirth experience.  As the light grew brighter and larger, I finally emerged onto a wooden platform poised a few feet above the stone beach.  Stretched out before me for thousands of feet was the sheer, smooth, slightly arcing cliff of Chiaia di Luna.  I stepped off the platform and onto the smooth stones and felt like I was not making history, but was one with it.

* * *

The beach, or spiaggia, of Chiaia di Luna is made up of about 60 billion small stones, each the size of a new potato or smaller, and smooth and cool to the touch.  About 80 percent of them ended up in my shoes.  With each step, at least for a grown man who has eaten and drunk his way through Italy for the past four weeks, I sunk into this expanse of stones and they were instantly attracted to the souls of my feet.  Never mind.  I was on the spiaggia di Chiaia di Luna, the very place where Roman centurions stripped their armor off centuries ago and lay in their togas (or less), enjoying the faint whistle of the wind and the lapping of the waves against the stones, as they gently crunched and rolled over one another, a glorious background noise that was less white noise than a beautiful symphony of nature.  It is a faint tune that we had been unable to hear from our perch above the beach at our hotel or even from our boat anchored within swimming distance.  But it is a celestial sound that I will always remember on the historic day that I was among the first to visit the newly reopened spiaggia di Chiaia di Luna.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy