31 August 2012
ON HITTING SIXTY
It was the sound that seduced me. I’d be tucked in there in my bubby bed, in a silent timber house full of Bibles in the Strzelecki Ranges, and the sound would come through the whispering pines and across the bull paddock to my window.
Artie Bagnara and his boys, Aldo and Flavio, had built a bocce piste in their back yard. The Simcas and Zephyrs and utes would arrive, Mr Panozzo in his spaceship Citroen and Mr Moscato with his giant guts rubbing on the steering wheel of his two-tone Vedette. Always with his flagon of grappa, Mr Moscato. The sound would commence as a low hum of measured and studious northern Italian dialect: Po Valley men discussing line, curl and spin, interrupted by the clink and chink of the steel balls and the thunk of those knocked out hitting the wooden boundary beams.
It had a rhythm like the sea at Inverloch. The hum of discussion; the hushed pause as the player took his stance and aimed her up; the sharp crack of the impact; the thunk; the resultant exclamations.
This calm musical form would gradually build as the womens’ laughter began, and what had seemed no less holy than a prayer meeting as far as noises went soon became a chaotic symphony of shouts, whoops and hollers and the clink of glasses would enjoin the chink of the balls and that exotic rabble of extreme naughtiness, deep into the night.
In the morning when our grumpy Protestant men had disappeared with the dogs into the milking shed, just as the hungover Bagnara men were busy in theirs, I’d steer my little dimpled knees up the drive, cross the Leongatha Road, and sidle quietly to that mysterious bocce ground beneath the cedars.
It was the infant gourmand’s paradise: there’d be crunchy-crusted bread with giant holes in it, and salami stubs on bits of string. There’d be jars half full of giardiniera, and funny cheese. Hundreds of cigarette butts there to savour, and the dregs of many beers.
And red wine. Lots of lovely red wine.
Mrs Bagnara was never angry when she found me. She’d pinch my chubby cheek and giggle in Italian, tuck me under her big perfumy arm and carry me into her kitchen. It may be a dream, but I reckon she had an ear ring and a bit of gold on her tooth, and where we had a bland bachelor’s sleepout on our veranda, the Bagnaras had a wooden room full of curing salamis and meats hanging there around a single naked light globe. We drank white tea with buttered scones and ate white food: Vienna slice white bread, cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, radishes, boiled cabbage, corned beef and white sauce. The Bagnaras ate the darkest range of aromatic meats and beets. Black olives, for Jesus’ sake!
On our side of the road, the only things that smelled louder than our porridge pot was my grandfather’s woollen long johns and the rifle cupboard. Once you’d got past the incredible peat-n-meat aroma of the Bagnara’s sleepout, you’d be in that kitchen with its vinegars and oregano, its cheese and pickled fish and the utterly devilish smell of coffee.
Mrs Bagnara would set me up on a chair with the little wooden coffee-grinder with its dainty drawer at the bottom for the ground coffee. That tiny drawer had beautiful dove-tail joints. I’d sit there clutching it between my knees and grind away, pumping that exotic air into my fresh pink lungs.
Artie would clump in from the dairy, kick off his gumboots and sigh as the coffee hit his tiny cup; she’d pop the grappa bottle and before he dribbled a teaspoon in his coffee, she’d let me taste its brilliant fire from her juicy farmer’s fingertip.
The smell of tobacco.
I reckon most of our aroma vocabulary is set by the time we’re about eight years old. As I hit sixty, I’ve spent a lot of ponderance in my eyelid cinema, watching these grainy images that have somehow survived their soggy storage. The sound of the bocce has much more clarity than the vision. Perhaps it’s because I had to imagine the vision in the first place, and do the movie to match the soundtrack. But another step up is the smell division: those aromas have never dimmed a flicker. They remain as crisp and reliable a reference section as I have: they retain much more vivid clarity and colour than any of the other senses.
And they shit on the internet.
Praise Bacchus and Pan for that. Not to mention a handy touch of synaesthesia to counterbalance the slydexia.
Anyway, I’m here to thank Italy for sending me the Bagnaras. I’m here to say that given the general conditions lately my principal aerobic exercise at the beginning of the day is the grinding of my coffee, and confess that suck I developed over the cedary Bagnara grinder has sometimes been wasted on more nefarious compounds. I’m here to say I have an abiding love for a good moscato grappa. I hurl the balls of steel. I can’t keep out of Tony Marino’s butcher shop. I smoke my meat. I want to go to Enzo’s on Port Road and let Damiano caress my ears with threats of incredible flavours which are on the table before me just before the first bottle is done. Every time. All the time. And I crave Settlement wood oven pizzas. While my cigarette butts connoisseurship was never needed much after the student years, I’m sure it’s still in there waiting should the days turn hard.
And the wine addiction? Blame it all on the sound and pass the bottle. Grazie.