Monday, 25 March 2013

Italian Superstition

We're not really as sophisticated as we'd like to think.  A little over a century ago my great grandfather was contemplating the biggest decision of his life. Whether to take a risk on and take the family on a journey to an unknown destination or stay and live in poverty in 19th century Italy. How did he make his decision?

It is a tradition in northern Italy to build and set fire to an enormous bonfire on the feast of the Epiphany in early January. It has its orignins in pagan roman rituals. Its surrounded by superstition. A figure of a witch is burnt atop the bonfire symbolising the end of all the bad luck of the past year and clearing the way for the next. The direction in which the smoke blows is also a portent of things to come. Blow one way and it will be a good year. Blow the other and it heralds disaster. 

Here's an excerpt from my story. The night the decision is made.

The men have separated into two groups now. One group is highly animated and deep in conversation the other drifting off towards the tables. I approach my father and take his hand. He looks at me and smiles and then looks at the bonfire which is now a raging volcano cracking and snapping as it accelerates towards its climax.

‘Look Dominic. Which way are the sparks flying?’ I look to the peak of the fiery mountain and see a spray of sparks explode from the top.

‘Which way is that?’ I ask pointing to the far side of the square. They are blowing away from us, neither towards where I know the mountains begin nor towards the sea and Venezia which I know lies to the south. ‘Is that Milano and the River Po?’

I have learnt the geography of my country from maps on walls and views out my classroom window. Signor Batistuzzi takes us out into the school grounds and has us first face the mountains. This is north he tells us. Then we pretend we can see Venezia to the south. He teaches us north and south and then tells us that even further south lies Roma and the ancient civilizations of the Romans. And further south still the islands of Sardegna and Sicilia where the Italians speak another language, eat different food and have black skin.

To the north lies Austria and beyond the mountains countries with many cultures and many languages until there is nowhere left to go. Only ice and frozen wastes. Signor Batistuzzi does not tell us much about the east except to say that if you go far enough you reach the lands of China and of silk and mystery. And even further lie the islands of the Pacifique, undiscovered islands of mystery and magic.

He has never been east of Udine but of the west he has many stories. Many sound like another country and some are. He tells of getting lost in the richest streets of Milano, of travelling on steam driven trains between cities, of lakes a large as seas and of his own home, once part of Italy, now France.

‘Milano is West?’ ‘ Yes’ confirms my father. ‘So the sparks must be flying…’ and here I stop and face the invisible mountains and repeat my learnt by heart compass points mantra. If I raise my right arm it points in the direction of the disappearing sparks. ‘It’s east papa. They are travelling east.’ My father hesitates.

‘Another unproductive year with another poor harvest’ my father observes. ‘The signs are clear. We will not be here to see another summer Dominic.’ He says this quite calmly. We both look towards mama and Marietta whose aprons swirl as they move between tureen and table ladling out portions of hot soup. I wait but there is no more information forthcoming. He pats me on the shoulder and pushes me towards the feast.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Marine biologists call this work - PNG

Julian Pepperell working hard in PNG.

The fruits of labour.

Julian actually working.

My kind of work.
The rewards of other people's work.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Spirit World - PNG

Johnson and Johnson in the remote islands of Vanuatu
When I was in Vanuatu on an AusAid project on   Pentecost I participated in a farewell celebration. The night began with a mock confrontation between the custodians of the village and the visitors done as a dance. This was enacting and reinforcing the Kastom protocols which all villages abide by. Outsiders can't just walk into a village and presume to be welcome. In previous times you risked death and perhaps became a main dish at the evening meal. The ceremony on Pentecost climaxed when the women of the village doused all of the visitors with white powder. I couldn't place what this familiar smelling powder was. I presumed it was a traditional scented concoction made from some secret ingredient from the jungle surrounding us. Turned out it was Johnson's baby powder no less. I never quite understood why this remte village would want to shower me with talcum powder. The significance escaped me. And I wondered what would have been used before the coming of Johnson & Johnson.

My recent interest in Papua New Guinea has shed light on this.
Malangan mask
  New Ireland has one of the most complex ceremonial traditions of all the PNG islands and regions. The Malagan festival is a multi-purpose ceremony where the dead are honoured and where many parallel traditional transactions take place and conflicts are resolved. Villages can only afford to stage the ceremony once every few years.
Coral ready for transformation
Masks, singing, fire, feasting and frenzied dancing all mix together over an extended period of ceremony. A century ago this might have continued for as long as a year. These days, work, school, government and the rising costs of all things dictate that a weekend is preferred.
In Vanuatu, Johnson & Johnson has replaced lime. Its another example of the encroachment of westernisation on these rich traditions.
Lime, mustard seed and betel nut
Lime is still used in PNG where it is a vital ingredient in the betel nut habit. Mustard seed, dipped in Lime and chewed with betel nut creates a mild 'high' and a mouth full of red saliva. The streets run red with spit. It's common in India and Malaysia and many other Asian countries.
The lime is produced from dead coral burnt and then crushed to powder.
Lime at the market
Betel nut enthusiast
In traditional ceremonies Lime has powerful symbolic qualities. Pigs, slaughtered as part of the ritual have their snout marked with a stripe of lime to indicate that they have entered a higher state. Dancers are sprayed with lime to drive away any evil spirits which may be around and guests are sprinkled with lime to indicate that they have been accepted into this sacred ceremony and to ensure they don't bring bad spirits with them.

Now I get it.

Source Michael Moran "Beyond the Coral Sea"


Thursday, 7 March 2013

Big fish, adventures in PNG

My mate Julian is in Papua Nui Guinea as we speak. He's my advance researcher for my trip to the beach on which Lorenzo and his shipmates were abandoned in 1881.

Julian has no Italian blood though he loves cooking and does some spectacular Italian dishes. Julian's passion is fish. Not catching and cooking so much as catching and releasing. He's a Marine Biologist and works across the nation monitoring and tracking the lives of the BIG fish of the open oceans. In fact "Fishes of the Open Ocean" is the title of his beautiful coffee table book.

He is New Guinea for three weeks cruising around the islands and dropping in on remote villages to meet villagers who have contacted him over recent years having caught some of his tagged specimens and written to his address on the Sunshine Coast giving him dates and times for his research data. What a great job!

Julian will be taking heaps of photos and keeping a detailed journal with the intention of turning this trip into a book.
So Julian if you read this I hope you're having a great time. Don't forget to ask a few questions about Port Praslin and the southern coast of New Ireland.

I'm reading Michael Moran's "Beyond the Coral Sea" at the moment and its fabulous. He spent three months in the early 2000s moving around the islands of PNG researching the early colonial history and turning his journey into a fascinating book. It's only a little over 100 years since the German empire was making its presence felt and only in the 20th Century did the British and Australians take a strong and active interest in this country which contains something like a third of the planets languages and immensely rich bio-diversity.

When Lorenzo and his 250 peasant comrades were dumped in New Ireland they would have encountered locals who had had no contact with white culture. They, the locals, were quite happy to eat them in fact. And this, it's presumed, was the fate of those who left the settlement to make contact with missionaries who, they believed, were based on the eastern coast of the island. It was a forbidding landscape and remains so.The only remnants of the 1881 settlement are likely to be crosses marking burial sites and these have, more than likely, become driftwood.

Actually standing on that beach feels like a powerful way to connect with my ancestors - it has already captured me though I am as yet over 1500 kms distant.