Memories of Ruoti

About two years ago I was asked by a young friend in Italy to send her some reminiscences of a summer spent in her home province some years before she had been born:

I spoke to a member of the cultural association of my town , called “Gruppo Folck” , with who I collaborate last year .

This year he is working on the excavation of San Giovanni , and he is seeing for the italian translation of prof. Small’s volumes.
We’d love to know about your experience about the excavation and about the passed time in Ruoti.
Is possible for you to send a little piece of text describing it? We’d love to have a valid opinion of a external person.
Make me know and if you want, I’d like to have more information about your professionale career. Are you still interested in archeology?
Thanks for your attention and your availability.
Maria

My Italian is abysmal, but I replied:

Sarei felice di scrivere un testo su quell’estate. Ho bei ricordi della valle e del Dottore Small. Scriverò qualcosa (in inglese) nei prossimi giorni. E ‘un onore per aiutare con il progetto.

And, in return:

Maria
I wiil enjoy about it.
Thank you very much!

So, I took a day and remembered and composed “a valid opinion of a external person” of the beauty of that Italian summer in the valley beside Ruoti . . .

Ciao Maria

Ho scritto un piccolo libro di memorie di quell’estate a Ruoti. Ho incluso particolari ricordi dei professori S. e. B. e alcune riflessioni su come Ruoti continua a influenzare me tanti anni dopo. Non sono sicuro se è esattamente quello che vuoi. Per favore fatemi sapere se vuoi qualcosa di più o meno lungo o disposti in modo diverso.

Il testo è di seguito in inglese:

Memories of Ruoti
John Richardson

In the summer of 1983, at the age of twenty-one, I arrived in Bagni di San Cataldo as a student in the University of Alberta Classics field class in Roman Archaeology at San Giovanni di Ruoti. I had just finished my B.A. majoring in English and Classics and was about to enter the Master’s program specializing in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Actually getting to “do” archaeology was a childhood dream come true.

I had not met Dr. Alistair Small before I arrived, but Dr. Robert Buck had taught me Latin. In my second undergraduate year, Dr. Buck had taken our class of raw Latin students from reciting “amo, amas . . .” to Book Six of the Aeneid. For driving us so hard, I will forever be grateful to Dr. Buck.

Reading Aeneas’ journey to the underworld in Latin left me fascinated with the very idea of Cumae and the Sybil’s Cave. One day early that summer, as Dr. Small was driving the project’s van with a number of students crammed inside, he called out that we had a free weekend coming up. “Is there anywhere anyone would particularly like to go?”

I immediately shouted out “Cumae!” from the very back seat.

I saw Dr. Small cock his head to the right and then he said “Really? Cumae? We’ll have to see what we can do.”

Dr. Small said to me later that he was glad of my suggestion as, when he had been an undergraduate, a visit to Cumae had been a transformative experience for him. And he did, indeed, arrange a weekend at the American Virgilian Society’s beautiful Villa Virgiliana in Cumae. I floated through the ruins and lounged in the Villa’s library, translating Aeneas’ prayer to Apollo into English verse. I look back on that visit as transformative as well.

I also look back and realize that Dr. Small was a bit of a force of nature, managing the complicated archaeology of San Giovani, wrangling the motley crew of students and teaching them with a quiet but undeniable authority. I was certainly not an outstanding student that summer. I was not a patient or meticulous excavator, but the experience under the tutelage of Drs. Small and Buck and of the dedicated staff is something I will be forever grateful for. It was an honour and a privilege to be a small part of that amazing project. The next year I was further honoured when Dr. Buck sat down across from me as a member of the examining committee which granted me the degree of Master of Arts.

On weekends, excursions were arranged for the students, but our weekdays were spent right there on that slope opposite that beautiful hilltop town, Ruoti. The summer was very hot — I can only remember a day or two with rain. Each day we could look up from our trenches and admire the town. Each evening we could look across the valley of the Fiumara di Avigliano at the lights of Ruoti.

At some point in our studies each of us was sent to Ruoti for a day or two to work in what was called “The Pot House.” This was a simply descriptive name — pot shards were classified there — but we were all amused that in English a “pot house” is a term for a house where one would go to secretly smoke marijuana. I remember the Pot House being a shady, cool relief from the heat of digging.

Our usual days would begin as the sun was rising, with some bread and jam and wonderful strong coffee ladled into cups from a huge cauldron. As each student finished, he or she would set off down to the dig site. We’d be a long straggling line, some walking alone, some in groups of two or three. By the time we reached the site and spread out to our assigned trenches, the temperature began to rise rapidly.

We would scrape and dig and document until about noon when a car would arrive from Ruoti with what I remember to be the finest lunches possible: fresh bread, Crema Bel Paese cheese in foil wrappers, juicy tomatoes and prosciutto. We would make ourselves sandwiches and wash them down with homemade wine from the farmer’s cellar. To young students from Western Canada in 1983 prosciutto was strange and exotic and a few always declined their share. This was to my benefit as I often had an extra helping or two and developed a life long love of prosciutto.

After lunch most of us would slowly make our way back up the hill. On some days some would brave the afternoon sun and earn a little money by staying on to work a few extra hours. Sometimes we’d stop at a restaurant in Zippariello for limonata and enjoy the breeze and the view of Ruoti from a balcony. Afternoons were spent resting, chatting, exploring the woods, and waiting for dinner.

Dinner was always wonderful, and our server, Donata, was a delight. In fact, our hosts — all of our hosts, the people of the valley — were warm and generous. I remember in particular a young boy, Sebastiano, who spent time with a few of us, visiting, smiling a lot, although he spoke no English and we knew vanishingly little Italian.

I carried a little Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera with me all the time, but, in those days of film, I took what now seems a ridiculously small number of photos. Most of them are blurry and grainy, but those photos, after twenty-five years, were the basis of a series of twenty-four paintings which I exhibited a few years ago in Edmonton.

Sometime after returning home I got to know a few old members of the Canadian Army’s Loyal Edmonton Regiment, veterans of the Liberation of Italy in World War Two. In conversation we learned that when they had been my age, forty years earlier, they had passed Ruoti, perhaps walked the same roads I had walked. The connection between Canada and Ruoti runs deeper, it seems, than just the memories of a few Canadian archaeology students.

After that summer, I got my Master’s degree, published articles and a few poems. I painted and spent twenty-one years working in the family business. I started a family of my own. I remain very interested in archaeology, but, unlike some of my colleagues that summer, I never pursued it as a career. Today I paint and write, translate Old English and Latin poetry, and spend a great deal of time visiting friends and neighbours. I think, in many ways my life today is much like those days on the hillside across from Ruoti. I have been shaped by those days. Today I excavate memories, my own and others, rather than Roman stones, but Ruoti still shines for me on its hilltop across that sunny valley.

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Pawâkan Macbeth

Pawâkan Macbeth is not 1870s Rupert’s Land period-dress Shakespeare, not a Red-Face Scottish Play. Rather, Pawâkan Macbeth is a breathtaking, entertaining, and timely (re)conciliation of Cree traditional narrative and an iconic piece of the European narrative tradition.

As I scrambled on a wet and icy Edmonton November evening to get to the Westbury Theatre in time for Opening Night I wasn’t sure what to expect of this co-production of Edmonton’s Theatre Prospero and Yellowknife’s Akpik Theatre. I knew through my own odd grapevine that this thing had been worked on very hard by a dedicated team and that it was intended as a touring production targetting smaller and/or indigenous communities. Beyond that I knew the buzz that was in the #yegtheatre air: Fusion of Cree tradition and cosmology with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Treaty 6 and 7 territories in the 1870s, and all that implies. 

And a lot is implied!

I rushed to catch up with a gentleman and his young daughter in the crosswalk on 104th Street, hoping to minimize pedestrian delays for motorists on a slippery night. Clearly the father amd daughter were also heading to the Westbury, which I could now see through the lobby windows was very crowded. Clearly the #yegtheatre/Treaty Six buzz had gotten word out that something interesting was happening in the Arts Barns.

I remembered something I’d read somewhere about how the production team had been very careful to consult with Elders about the protocols for presenting ceremony on stage and about how to deal with mention of the Wihtiko, which is at the vital centre of Pawâkan Macbeth. I couldn’t help thinking of the theatrical taboo on uttering the name of the Scottish Play in a theatre. And the friendly “break a leg” of Western Theatre. 

“If you tickle us do we not laugh?”

Pawâkan Macbeth is a (wonderfully sucessful) exercise in coherently fusing 1870s Plains Cree and Elizabethan English, but more importantly the play is about the reconciliation of contemporary peoples. That reconciliation will never be achieved through paternalism or patronizing, through the celebration of the “Indigenous” as something “interesting” to some flake of the upper crust of colonial society, through a continuation of Colonialism. 

You want reconciliation of peoples? Then send out the best of those cultures and let them go toe-to-toe and hand-in-hand in a friendly, honest fusion. Not looking for winners or losers. Just let’s see how things go.

The Westbury lobby was packed. I figured I’d make my way to the box office and probably try to buy a ticket for Friday night. “Oh, we’ve got a few donated comps!” the lady said. “I’m happy to pay for one, if I can,” I said. “Oh. Sure. I guess you can pay.”

!!

And I was in!

What a pleasant, friendly evening so far.

I picked out a seat, third row on the right, aisle seat and was about to sit down when the gentleman and his daughter from the crosswalk came right upnto me. “Would you like to sit in this row?” I asked, stepping aside to let them by.

“Actually, could we have these two seats at the end? I have to give a sort of speech at the beginning and then I need to kinda run back to my seat.”

“Okay,” I said.

Mark Henderson, the gentleman in the crosswalk and co-director of Pawâkan Macbeth and Barry Billinsky, the other co-director didn’t so much give a speech so much as a friendly welcome and reminders about cell phones and Treaty Six Territory. I’m glad I listened to the gentleman and his daughter and gave up my seat. This was all a moment of family time, sort of.

And then the drum started. 

Stuff just got serious.

A stylized opening battle-scene that was all Plains total warfare and far more effective than old Polanski’s gory 1971 opening. This material can go toe-to-toe!

So, it’s late now. Let’s get all reviewy.

Curtis Peeteetuce as Macikosisân is brilliant as is Allyson Pratt as Kâwanihot Iskwew (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth). In fact, all the cast ranges from very good to brilliant. There were a few technical glitches and a few line stumbles, but the thing was smooth and powerful. 

It was both Cree and Shakespeare.

Go see it.

I stayed for a moment at the reception after the play and then wandered off through Edmonton, to my home on Pappaschase and Treaty Six territory and I thought of the words of Big Bear, and of the Playwright, Reneltta Arluk, echoed by Klhcîkosisân (Malcolm) at the end of her play:

Now, in the time of reconciliation, we need to make good on the unity our ancestors agreed to. It is time to step out of comfort zones. To go beyond the blackbox of theatre. To Listen. Pawâkan Macbeth asked Shakespeare to do just that, listen. If Shakespeare can create space for Indigenouse voice, then I am hopeful we are in better days. Plains Cree leader Big Bear asked us to “Remember your ancestors. They had many hardships too. They prayed for better days.” Those days are now.

If we can kill our own individual Wihtikos.

Together.
Pawâkan Macbeth plays at the Westbury Theatre until November 27.

“Hadestown” at The Citadel

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora . . .
— Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book I

I just had to post a hasty note after seeing the first preview performance of Hadestown at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre this evening.

What a piece of work!

Anaïs Mitchell’s wonderful, powerful, poetic words and music, under the direction of Rachel Chavkin and in the hands of such a talented cast, band of musicians (that trombone!!!), and technical staff, have given new, timely form to the Classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Greek mythic world is here a mythic Great Depression America, a fusion of the Mississipi Delta and the Rust Belt, of the particular and the universal. The whole is made so remarkably topical: While Patrick Page’s Hades is nothing like the President to the south, he does pump up his indentured workers with praise of the Wall they’re building to keep the Enemy (poverty) out of their homeland; the destruction of Persephone’s natural world by unbridled industry can be nothing other than a reference to the environmental precipice on which we teeter; and then those oh-so-current resonances in references to “what happens behind closed doors.”

Apart from praising them to the sky, I don’t want to take a whole lot of time describing all the wonderful details of the production and performances — you should see, hear, and enjoy them yourself.*  What I was particularly struck by about Hadestown (apart from the glorious music and dance) is the play’s firm roots in the Classical myth. This is not a riff on vaguely remembered characters. Hadestown is the product of a deep understanding of both the myth and its profound meaning.

Just before I went to the play, I reread the opening of Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Orpheus and Eurydice passage is quite brief, only a hundred lines of verse or so. But so many images are shared by Hadestown and those hundred lines of Latin verse. The huge tree that dominates the first act of the play parallel’s the catalogue of trees that gather in Ovid to mourn with Orpheus. Orpheus’ awakening of hope in the Chorus of Workers in the play parallels the beautiful passage in the Metamorphoses in which the torments of the dead cease for a moment while Orpheus sings — even Sisyphus is able to climb on his rock and rest for a time. For a moment there is hope even in the depths of Hell.

Hadestown is a most intelligent and engaging retelling and reforming of an ancient myth. a joyous, inexpressibly powerful demonstration that the old stories continue to have profound messages for our lives, our societies, and our deepmost selves. And the biggest, most important and timely message of Hadestown is:

Hope.

 

Cos here’s the thing
To know how it ends
And still begin
To sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
— Hermes, in Hadestown

 

 

Hadestown continues at The Citadel until December 3, 2017.

See it.


*Audience members from Old Strathcona will likely find Reeve Carney’s Orpheus oddly reminiscent of our own shirtless, rollerskating, guitar-playing guy.

 

__

The Guavalhalla: a Tiki Drink for the North

I’ve been thinking about Tiki drinks lately, probably because I recently stumbled on some kitschy Tiki mugs and because I’ve long had a strangely obsessive nostalgia for the remembered exterior of The Beachcomber restaurant, long, long vanished from Downtown Edmonton.  In my researching (some say “hoarding”) manner, I began to gather what seemed to be typical ingredients and began to consider some Tiki Experiments.

For those who don’t know, Tiki drinks are an invention of the mid-Twentieth Century in America and they have all the naive, colonial, appropriating, and, most important, happy elements of that mid-Twentieth Century (White) America. They’re mostly tropical fruit juices and garnishes, usually rum(s), touched with exotic syrups, topped with paper umbrellas and other frills, and usually served in a faux-Maori, glaring-face “Tiki Mug”.  They can be intolerably sweet sugar drinks but ideally are intensely refreshing confections of spirits and essences of tropical holidays.

For some reason I had bought some Guava nectar although I found it hard to find a Tiki drink recipe that used the stuff.  So, I needed to invent something, didn’t I?

What did I have? Guava. What to do with it? Name the cocktail, of course! I needed a name that included the word “Guava” which I was determined would be the major ingredient of my Tiki drink. As I drove through Edmonton one afternoon last week, I rolled the word Guava around with the rest of the English language. The English language is, of course, a product of multiculturalism just like this city I live in and, inevitably, the name came from a fusion of very different cultures.

“Guava” is likely ultimately a Taino word, transmitted to English through Spanish. What to do with it? “Guava . . . Guava . . . ” I said “Aguava . . . Aguava . . .” I said. “That’s like Aquavit, the Scandinavian caraway infused spirit” I said to myself. “Aguavavit.  No.  Guava . . . Guava . . .  . . . Guavahalla!” At a stroke I had the name and the principal spirit for my Tiki drink, a Viking-Tropical fusion.

The rest was mere details.

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The Guavalhalla in a non-Tiki glass

The recipe for my Guavahalla (Guavalhöll in Norse)

In a cocktail shaker with lots of ice shake vigourously:

1.25 ounces Aquavit (I used Brennivin from Iceland)
0.5 ounce White Rum
0.5 ounce Jamaican Rum
2 ounces Guava nectar
1 ounce pineapple juice
Juice of half a lemon
0.25 ounce orgeat syrup
a splash of ruby red grapefruit
a scant splash of passion fruit syrup
a dash of pimento dram
a little coconut water

Serve over copious amounts of ice

Garnish with a pineapple wedge, citrus slices, cherries, lingonberries, cocktail umbrellas or whatever you have lying around.

Enjoy (responsibly) the northern caraway peeking through all those tropical flavours as our northern winter rises on our horizon and our wonderful Edmonton elms begin to drop their leaves again!

“Prophecy” by Jessy Ardern at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

Le vrai héros, le vrai sujet, le centre de l’Iliade, c’est la force. . .

La force, c’est ce que fait de quiconque lui est soumis à une sélection. Quand elle s’exerce jusqu’au bout, elle fait de l’homme une chose au sens le plus littéral, car elle en fait un cadavre. Il y avait quelqu’un, et, un instant plus tard, il n’y a personne. C’est un tableau que l’Iliade ne se lasse pas nous presenter . . .

— Simone Weil, L’Iliade ou le Poème de la Force

 

The second play of my Fringing this year was something called “Prophecy”, a one-woman show written by Jessy Ardern and featuring Carmen Niewenhuis. I had read something promotional about it that said something about it telling the story of the Trojan War from a view point we’d never heard: the Trojan Women.  Somehow Euripides thrust himself to the front of my memory shouting, “Waitaminit! Hecuba. Andromache. The. Trojan. Women. For Heaven’s sake! Don’t they count for something?”

Well, that’s marketing.  The play’s the real thing, isn’t it?

I was a little excited as I walked into Strathcona Baptist Church to be seeing something rooted in the Classics. I confess, however, I was a little nonplussed as I walked into the church’s gymnasium, a few arcs of folding chairs and a remarkable bare set to welcome me. There seemed to have been no effort at lighting. Everything was janitor’s storeroom and homespun cloth.

I don’t know why I was surprised or nonplussed. I love minimalist productions. This is the Fringe. The play is the thing!

Guess what. As soon as Niewenhuis turned on the little lights behind the homespun cloth in the pitch black gymnasium and became Cassandra and the God Apollo in dialogue, I was hooked. This is a play of light and shadow, of words and meaning, of flesh and force.

With respect to Euripedes, this is a view of the Trojan War we’ve not seen before. Niewenhuis takes on the persona of the victims, Briseis, Andromache, Hecuba, and most importantly, powerfully, and forcefully directed at our time, Cassandra.

The Trojan hero Hector is played by a string mop. Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, is an empty can. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, is an empty Ben & Jerry’s tub.

The force and the flesh of Prophecy are the survivors, the Trojan women, Cassandra, doomed-to-be-disbelieved Cassandra, most of all.

There were moments that I thought the script could have used a little more development, times when I wasn’t sure whether the tone should have been a little less comic. But when Cassandra stood behind the audience, the house lights up and the room again a church gymnasium on 84th Street in Edmonton, Alberta Canada — when Cassandra stood there in that room, warning us of what lay ahead for us, for us in the 21st Century, and shouted at us “Do you believe me?”

I wanted to yell, “yes!” as I thought of the cesspool that is politics in the age of “Social” Media.

But I didn’t.

 

But I think I nodded my head a little.

What a rogue and peasant slave I am if I didn’t.

 

 

The Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket: A Beverage

Many years ago I heard of an intimidating beverage called “The Hangman’s Blood”, ostensibly invented by Anthony Burgess. Burgess called the Hangman’s Blood “a beery concoction of many liquors and stout and champagne.” Sometime after hearing of Burgess’ “invention”, I was quietly and purely by chance reading an odd children’s novel called “A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. “A High Wind in Jamaica” was published in 1929, a month after Burgess’ twelfth birthday. I don’t know if young Tony Burgess read Hughes’ book, but . . .

Captain Jonsen, however, had his own idea of how to enliven a parochial bazaar that is proving a frost. He went on board, and mixed several gallons of that potion known in alcoholic circles as Hangman’s Blood (which is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter). Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so, once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort. (A High Wind in Jamaica, p. 64 in my Folio edition)

When I realized Hughes’ precedence over Burgess, I edited the Wikipedia entry on Hangman’s Blood to set the record straight. You’ll have to take my word for it that it was me.

But, I’m actually not writing about Hangman’s blood today, except as a prelude to my own variation on that drink which I suspect but can’t prove has a deeper history alluded to in Hughes’ mention: “that potion known in alcoholic circles . . .”

My Office

I was sitting in my office last week having a cold Pimm’s and Sanpellegrino following a hot afternoon of yard work. Apparently Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel was in the back of my mind because suddenly a drink recipe burst fully formed from my forehead like Athena from the brow of Zeus: The Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket. Tonight I mixed the first ever (as far as I know) mug of it. And here it is:

The Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket

Into a big glass place

Ice — lots of it — for the Antarctic
Navy Rum — one measure — for the seafaring life
Gordon’s Gin – one measure — for the hero’s middle name
Pimm’s No. 1 Cup — one measure — for the hero’s last name
Amontillado Sherry — one measure — for one of the finest of Poe’s stories
Bourbon — one measure — for Poe’s time south of the Mason-Dixon
Juice of half a Lime — to ward off scurvy

Top the glass up with

Arthur Guinness’ Stout — for the hero’s first name

Garnish with

A healthy pinch of Salt — for the sea spray over the bow in a Southern Ocean gale.

The ingredients and the finished product

I’m happy with it. Definitely an ocean flavour to it, and something mysterious and unidentifiable but pleasant. Unusual, but not a Poe Horror. The aroma may have a little something of the (watery) grave about it, but it’s strangely pleasant. And there’s a distinct earthiness about the flavour. The salt is necessary. This is certainly a drink to savour while savouring Mr. Poe’s writing!

A close-up view

A note: I did not make my Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket with the double measures Burgess recommends for his version of the Hangman’s Blood. Singles seemed adequate and more in keeping with the temperance Mr. Poe strived for but did not always achieve in his life.

Public Service Announcement

Please drink responsibly.
At home.
Alone.
Late at night.
In the dark.
Reading something by Poe!

I guess that’s a wrap.

I guess that’s a wrap for my little “Guenevere.”

I never imagined my bare words would or even  could be presented so powerfully!

Thank you, Director Eric Smith, Captain, my Captain, for being so ingenious, industrious, focused, silly, serious, distracted, and for so totally getting what Guenevere is!
Thank you Miranda Broumas, Erin Forwick-Whalley, Jesse Harlton, Derek Kaye, Austin Kumar, Kohl Littlechilds, Brooklyn Melnyk, Sarah Spicer, and Catherin Wenschlag for bringing a dying world to life. Each one of you gave “the best performance of the night” in the opinion of various people I spoke to,  which probably means you all made each other better.
Thank you to Karlie Christie for the exquisite lighting and to Nicholas Juba for the gobsmackingly evocative sound design!  And Jaimie Lievers! The costumes!  And to all the crew, thank you!
Thanks to Vlady Peychoff for midwifeing two such very different plays into being.
To Payem Saeedi Varnousfaderani a special thank you for reminding me that not everyone grew up with the tales of Camelot.
And to Brian Dooley and the Citadel Young Acting Company a terribly profound bow for that moment back at the beginning when you showed me in a flash what this thing I’d made so long ago could actually be. Thank you.
And, to the young fellow on Wednesday evening who told us we blew Guy Ritchie out of the water, and to the lady the same evening who mentioned “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (the greatest poem of Winter ever) and thereby spurred me to speak a bunch of West Midlands Middle English verse . . .
Thank you! I wrote “Guenevere” for the two of you.
Little did I know there were so many just like you!