Last year I helped my lifelong friend Barry Sweet plan a trip to Italy. He and his wife Joan returned with tales of wonderful trip. They said they had the trip of a lifetime. Some time later, Barry sent me a story he'd written about one of their adventures. They had a day that most of us fantasize about when we set out to travel. It is a story that embodies everything I believe about the spontaneous, serendipitous nature of unfettered, cultural connection travel. With Barry's permission, I'd like to share it with all of you. Enjoy.
Vernazza, a tiny village on the Italian Coastline, population 500, steep vineyard covered hills cascading down to the Mediterranean, down to a little cove, with a hand-cupped water breakwall, sailboats bobbing inside the cove sitting right beside the little town piazza, pastel colored buildings, in almost an amphitheater shaped crescent around the cove, with people drinking wine and eating pasta underneath shade umbrellas and in the shadow of the castle tower that is perched above the village on the hill. Vernazza is a hillside village and part of the Cinque Terra, five little towns along the Ligurian Sea. The charm of the village is that one can hike between the villages along a romantic footpath for miles along the coastline. Vernazza is the middle Village of the five villages. I got up early before sunrise to walk down into the village and get Joan a coffee but as the coffee shop was not open yet, I decided to hike to the first town north called Monterosso.
With stunning views back to the village of Vernazza, I enjoyed a peaceful morning along the romantic trail. Just after sunrise, I noticed a group of men about in their 60’s, lifting heavy crates onto what appeared to be a small single-rail cog train. The single rail went almost straight up the hillside, I supposed, to the road way above the town. It was a small engine cart that appeared to be like a mechanical mule that would haul their heavy load (whatever it was) up the hill for them so that they wouldn't have to carry it by hand. I wondered in my mind, what it was that they were loading in the crates… it then dawned on me that it was September, and they were probably loading their harvested grapes from their vineyard! The crates would go on to the mechanical mule, and then be hauled up to the top of the hill to be picked up by the truck… “Wow” I thought… “I wonder if they would let me help…” I ran across the hillside. In broken Spanish, because I didn't speak Italian, I said,"Ayudate” “Huh?” They said. "Can I help you?" “Huh?” They said. "Me. Lift. Grapes. On. Cart.” I said, flexing my arms in front of my body like a muscleman. "Yah! Yah!! Come on!!” they laughed. So I began hoisting full-to-the-brim crates onto the mechanical mule, while they arranged the heavy load. In broken English, they asked me my name. When I told them my name was Barry. They called me Barry Brute flexing their arms in front of them like musclemen. The family patriarch introduced himself as an Enrico. I was also introduced to Mario Brute (the strong Mario), and Mario Bella (the beautiful Mario or handsome Mario) to which we all laughed. After 15 minutes or so of loading grapes onto the cart, the women of the family came up the hillside from the village. I could tell that in Italian, they asked the men, “Who is this blonde American guy and what is he doing loading the grapes??” Through a bunch of laughter and quick discussion, I could tell that they said, “Well… he offered to help… and we said… SURE!” Enrico told the women my name, and they hailed me - “Barry Brute!!” I quickly added “Brute y Suavemiento…” (meaning Strong and Smoothe…) They burst out loud with laughter and kissed me on both cheeks in classic expressive Italian style and we became instant friends. I was introduced to Elisa, Marcia and Barbara. Together, we all went back to work, joking, laughing and talking in general-all-purpose hand motions. When the crates were all loaded onto the mule, Elisa looked at me and in half Italian and half English, and said, "Do you wish to come with us and cut the grapes?” She used the scissors sign with her fingers. Now, here is where I thought "I've been gone for an hour and a half. Joan is probably wondering where I am and she is alone in an unfamiliar village in Italy not knowing a word of Italian, and this family is asking if I would like to go and harvest grapes with them on their family vineyard. Am I going to say no to THAT? Trusting that Joan has always said, “When adventures come your way. Go for it. I never want to stand in the way of your freedom…” I turned to Elisa and said… “SURE!!” The whole little clan adventured up the hillside, up and up through the vineyard, through gates, past fences, around barbed wire, up terraces and under vine archways… finally arriving at the un-harvested section of the family vineyard. All along the way Enrico warned me not to trip on the guy-wires that held up the trellises. The vineyard grows along stair-stepped terraces, three foot tall posts are anchored in place by guy-wires and wires are stretched across the tops of the posts to make a canopy on which the grapes grow, hanging down underneath. When we arrived at the area to harvest, I was given a burlap sack and instructed to lie down on the ground underneath the canopy reaching up, and with pruning shears, cut the stems of the perfectly formed clusters of purple grapes, green grapes and white grapes, while placing them in the crates beside us. When our crate was full we would push it down by our feet, which was picked up and placed on the mechanical mule, which hauled them to the top of the hillside to be picked up by the farm truck and taken back to the village. Three of us would work side-by-side moving along the length of the terrace. The first person in line would take the Lion's share of the grapes, the next person sliding sideways beside them would get the grapes that the first person missed, and the third person would "sweep" and get all the remaining grapes, so that none of the harvest would be left behind. We joked and laughed in a blend of English and Italian for over an hour as we harvested the season’s grapes in the family Vineyard. Now mind you, I was wearing white surfer pants and a blue button-down oxford shirt, both of which were now almost completely brown. After a lot of work and laughter (honestly, I don’t know which was more fun), I finally uttered to the group. "Okay. I gotta go. My Joan in town is probably wondering where I am!” They all laughed and said "Okay Barree!!...Bye Bye Barree!!! Grazie, Grazie and Ciao Barree!!” Enrico walked me down a couple flights of terrace and said "Be careful Barree of these wires that steady the trellises, sometimes the pigs (snort, snort), wild boars trip on these and tumble down the hill and break their neck. It happens to humans too. When you get to the bottom of the hill and you are safe, call up and let us know that you are okay… Okay Barree? “Okay Enrico” I said and thanked him for the wonderful time. It took me a full 20 minutes to get down the hillside back to the trail to the village, down steps, down ladders, down dirt chutes, jumping down from terrace to terrace, through people's land, getting stuck and having to backtrack… Finally, safely at the bottom and back on the trail, I turned around, cupped my hands around the edges of my mouth and yelled back up the hillside… “Enricooohhh…” The whole hillside erupted with voices,“Barreeee!!!” “Grazie and Arivaderci” I yelled “Grazie!! and Ciao Barreee!! Grazie!!!” Came the response. Happy, I jogged back down the trail to town. I Picked up a coffee on the quaint cobblestone streets of the village and headed back to Joan. I came in the door soaked in sweat… and brown. Joan’s eyes sparkled as she said “Wow, do you look like you have a story…” Zero Guilt. Just like she had assured me. We laughed out loud as I unfolded the morning's adventures.Later that day, down in the village as Joan and I walked into one of the village squares, I heard a yell… “Barreee!!!” There was the whole family after their day's harvest, standing around talking in the little center of town. As we approached the group and were greeted with hugs and kisses, I introduced Joan. "Everyone… this is Joan-a-Bella” “Joan-a-Bella!!!” They threw up their hands and kissed her on both cheeks. Joan sparkled with delight.
After chatting for a while, Elisa said “Now follow Mario Bella. He will take you to the Wine Cantina.” “Wine Cantina?” I thought… “What is a Wine Cantina…?” Elisa must have seen the quizzical look on my face and she said "Just follow Mario" while motioning us away with her expressive Italian hand. We followed Mario up through the charming cobblestone back streets of Vernazza. It was everything you would imagine as a beautiful small Italian village. We reached a tall wrought iron archway gate in the side of a stone building. Mario inserted a key and the gate swung open… inside was an arched room built & shaped completely of stone. A huge oak wine cask on the right, and a grape press on the left, covering and hanging from the ceiling were clusters of plump juicy grapes… “Dolce” grapes. “Sweet” grapes in English, Mario said, “for making the dolce wine… the sweet wine”. Mario broke out some common glasses and tapped the oak cask for some wine and a toast. We toasted in Italian and English, drank wine, and then pressed the grapes. The stone shelves along the edge of the room were filled with huge Chianti shaped bottles. Even huger Chianti shaped bottles were on the floor standing about waist high. As we pressed the grapes, the beautiful juice poured out the bottom lip of the press into a bucket, the leaves remained crushed in the bottom of the press, we poured the bountiful juice through a funnel into one of the waist high Chianti bottles to let the juice “settle”. From here, a hose was placed down into the settled juice, and we siphoned the juice into another big wine bottle (just like we used to do with gasoline as kids). Into this bottle of juice, an antibacterial agent was placed, which caused the juice to fizz. After all the bacteria was killed, we again siphoned that juice into a bucket, which was poured through another large funnel into the great oak cask, which would then ferment for four months and then become the family wine. Onlookers tried to peek through the wrought iron gate to see what all the wonder was, but Mario was a bit bashful about this family winemaking and quietly kept to his business. We toasted, laughed, and drank more wine. In an attempt to make deeper conversation, I used my little one page Rick Steves’ English Italian dictionary to ask such questions as. “Do you own this Wine Cantina or do you rent it?” But all I could find to ask from my dictionary in Italian was: “Is there a cover charge here?” to which Mario burst-laughed out loud. We discovered together that the phrase “Man Cave” in Italian, was “Cantiniera”. Mario got full delight out of his American friends knowing this. We toasted and drank more wine. Mario showed us on the Italian calendar posted on the wall of the Cantina that the grape harvest is every year the third week in September. Joan told him that we loved the wine and delighted in his company. I pulled out my driver's license to show him that my last name was “Dolce”. He laughed and pulled out his driver's license and showed us that his last name was truly “Bello” so it wasn't a joke after all… he truly was “Mario Bello.” We laughed and drank more wine. Joan’s eyes sparkling all the time.
Next year, we are invited back in third week of September for the grape harvest in Vernazza. We are going. I’m wearing brown clothes.