Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Places and people: what makes us richer

Recently, I've read a post on Grantourismo blog on how meeting interesting people makes travelling more pleasant and worthwhile. I couldn't agree more with this statement, as a matter of fact I think meeting people is one of the best aspects of the whole experience of travelling.

Unlikely history books seem to imply, I think the most important characters of mankind history are ordinary people, and not presidents, kings or prime ministers. Now that I've spent a couple of months in my hometown in Sardinia, after having left almost twelve years ago, I'm looking at the community where I grew up with a different eye.

Idiosyncrasies that maybe before bothered me, now amuse me, peculiarities that I used to find boring, now have become extraordinary. In a nutshell, I'm discovering my island all over again, this time not only going after its beautiful panoramas, but especially rooting out lost traditions and abandoned local crafts, and asking older people to tell me the stories of their youth and the ones of their parents and grandparents, for as long as their memory can go back in time.

In Sardinia there is a very rich oral tradition, so I didn't find this a very hard job: everybody was willing to share their memories with me. I can stay hours listening to old people, I never get tired, I find their tales an invaluable source of information about my past able to help me understand how we got here.

This is why in this blog I like publishing about quirky traditions and hidden places. Of course I'm aware that every country in the world has their own idiosyncrasies, but it's by no means easy to find them out. We need to live in a place for long time to be confident and fully understand even the slightest nuance of some local habit, and for obvious reasons, although I've lived in different countries for quite a while, I don't have there the same confidence I have here.

In the latest few months I've spent in Sardinia, I've been discovering an ancient land, where globalisation hasn't affected every aspect of life yet, where locals are keen on keeping old mores and crafts that reconnect them with their ancestors, a land inhabitated by proud people who have constantly fought to claim their territories and independence back from foreign conquerors.

This stormy past has inevitably affected Sardinian character: friendly but suspicious, hospitable but rarely willing to forgive an offense. It is now an ancestral legacy, and sometimes we even struggle to identify it, and this is the very reason I'm so determined on researching and understanding it.

I'm not much into series, but I've collected so many quirky stories that I'll be publishing one every month. Each story, be it funny, unpredictable or weird, has a deeper meaning beyond the surface, and it's that hidden message that makes them so precious.

Most of my tales will come from a small town that lies on the slopes of a mountain, near the sea of Sardinian western coast. The legend says that Craziness stopped in Seneghe and never left, and this would explain why Seneghe's inhabitants are all crazy. In every legend there is something true, and I have to say that Seneghe's natives are at least peculiar.

After all, however, Craziness was not that crazy: Seneghe is, in fact, nestled within beautiful surroundings, produces the best olive oil in Sardinia (oil that for many years has won the first prize among all European countries), can boast an excellent wine, be it red, white or rosé, and women have a special knack for textile crafts and for making the best cakes and pastries of the area.

The stories I'm going to publish here are a small glimpse on the past human conditions in the island, and a patch on the candour that beyond a superficial look reveals tough times and a desperation we find it hard even only to imagine. Some other stories, on the other hand, are actually funny, like this one I've chosen to be the first "pearl" to celebrate Seneghe with.

My stepfather loves talking about Seneghe, his hometown, and, lucky me, he has an excellent memory, both from his own experience and from the tales he's heard from someone else. I'm wondering if he realises I take notes every time he goes back with his imagination. The first anecdote is, by chance, travel-related.

"One day, quite recently, I happened in Seneghe," he told me, "I entered the grocery shop and I found the shopkeeper and her nephew busy in a sort of argument about Australia. I knew this was going to be beyond grotesque, so I tried to avoid participating," he continued after a pause

"'You happen in the best moment!' - told me the woman, 'I'm trying to explain to my nephew that Australia is not in America, but he keeps insisting I'm wrong. You have travelled a lot, tell him where Australia is!'"

"So what could I do? I started telling him that first of all Australia was a continent itself, it was very big, had nothing to do with the American continent and that it was actually very far from America."

"He stared at me in a very attentive manner that I was almost convinced he understood. Only at the end of my explanation I realised he didn't: he snapped at the sandwich he had just bought and darted out the shop nodding: 'I have no idea what you are talking about!'"

"This," my stepfather went on, "has reminded me of other two funny facts: a woman who, after acknowledging I lived in Brasil, kept insisting I go visit her uncle in Argentina because 'I was around anyway!'; and a friend of mine who, in the late 1970s sent me a letter from Sardinia to Borneo, where I was working, by writing in the envelope only 'To fellow Domenico'. Guess what? I got it. My manager couldn't believe his own eyes to the extent that, after showing me the letter, took it back and still exhibits it as the evidence of an incredible event!"

Travelling hasn't always been so straightforward, and sometimes, even today, is seen as epic. By all means, in Seneghe we will find a representative piece of humanity.

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