07 June 2008

More Sardinia

It's been a rainy, cold, rainy, gray, rainy week in Brussels. The kind of week that makes me want to hibernate. My mind protests--it's June!--but my body shrinks in on itself, my eyelids droop, and I am uncapable of tackling that sinkful of dirty dishes.

As an avoidance measure and a dose of escapism, I'll allow myself to revisit Sardinia for a while, to travel back to its stark landscape and think of the sun... (For part I, go here. For musical accompaniment, go here.)


The morning after the wedding we managed to tag along with our friends from Naples for a bit of sightseeing in Alghero. She: a petite but formidable Italian political science professor. He: a French professor originally from the Congo, who always wears fabulous powder-blue suits. They've been married for thirty-eight years--yet another example of the many multicultural couples we meet in Europe. For me, the best part was that we could speak in French; thus, at least while we were with them, I didn't have the frustration of understanding much of what was going on while not being able to muster complete sentences in response (as with Italian).

En route, we found out that it was his birthday that day, and that the main goal would be to find a great place to eat seafood for lunch. Besides a momentary pang of worry that we were intruding on their celebration, I was delighted with the plan. And the pang quickly disappeared as they insisted that the celebration would be even better with us along.

Alghero is a beautiful seaside fortress town (most of the fortresses having been built by the Catalans) and that day it its sandy stone walls were sun-drenched, the water glittering. After a brief stroll at the port, our friend spotted a restaurant terrace with perfect balcony views of the sea. We were shown to a table perched on a little bridge crowning an arch of the city wall, and thus we had views in two directions: the boats and water portside, and the stone alleyways leading into the town. We committed ourselves into the restaurant's care, telling them to bring an assortment of antipasti and the freshest fish of the day. What issued forth: a huge array of delectable plates of seafood. I especially remember a fish that was paired with fresh peaches, and another version of the octopus and potato salad we had eaten the day before. And the main dish, a magnificent spigola (sea bass) was just what we had been looking for: delicious, fresh, simply prepared.

We asked our waitress about Catalan speakers in Alghero, curious to see if we would find any. She herself didn't speak Catalan, and told us we would have a hard time finding someone. Nevertheless, as we strolled the city after our long lunch (a stroll that was enhanced by refreshing homemade gelato), we saw signs everywhere that Catalan was actively spoken and promoted: all street names and tourist information signs were in both Catalan and Italian, and many shops sported stickers indicating that "Aqui es parla CatalĂ " (Catalan spoken here).

Soon it was time to re-traverse the island to somewhere in the vicinity of Tula, a tiny town smack in the middle of Sardinia, for a party at the bride's sister's farmhouse. Earlier that morning, I had mused aloud as to whether we would see any of the nuraghi, prehistoric conical towers whose ruins dot the landscape. These towers are over three milennia old, and still are among the most prominent man-made constructions to be seen outside of Sardinia's cities. Despite a lot of driving, we hadn't glimpsed any, but as we followed the ribbons tied on the corner of country roads leading us to the party, suddenly looming up out of the hill was an impressive nuraghe, which the bride's nephew later told us was one of the most well-preserved examples.

Thus cheered and awed by the sight of such a formidable piece of history (mysterious, too; they don't know for sure what they were for), we drove into the farmyard. Inside a walled courtyard the family was busy setting up snacks, including homemade wine (in big soda bottles, labeled either AM--which somehow meant fruity/sweet--or secco), cheese made from the family's goats, and fresh olives, plus leftovers from the reception the day before. We admired the sweeping views, watched as the sheep were herded out to a far pasture, the shepherd accompanied by four dogs of amusingly different shapes. One of the little nephews found a scorpion somewhere, put it in a jam jar, and delighted in waving it under the nose of all the women. We went to see the goats and pigs, and visited the milking room and watched the sister (they couldn't stop work even when the party was at their house!) and brother-in-law wrangle 150 goats into the milking machines.

Sometime before the steaming plates of pasta were brought out of the cavernous barn of a kitchen, Stefano the guitarist showed up and someone got out an accordion, a harmonica, and a tambourine. As dusk fell, they traded Sardinian songs and Neopolitan songs, and little kids danced around them. At about this time, I found myself sitting next to the bride's mother, and even though my Italian was rather more like pidgin Spanish with an Italian accent, we had a long conversation about the house that she and her husband had built, what it was like to have six children, to give birth in a house with no running water...

Here are a couple of videos of the music, including glimpses of the matriarchs of the clan:

Sardinia accordion from Robin from Cant d'ocell on Vimeo.

Sardinia harmonica from Robin from Cant d'ocell on Vimeo.

When finally it was time to drive to Olbia, where we were staying before flying out the next morning, we made the rounds to say goodbye and give our thanks to our hosts. That's the thing about Italians: by then we were sent on our way as warmly as family, even though we had known most of them just for a short weekend. When I told the bride how beautiful her family was (that was a sentence I could muster in Italian), she impulsively squeezed me tight in her joy that I had seen it too.

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