I have never been to Africa

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I am a cultural anthropologist and I have never been to Africa. I have to admit that this has always caused me to feel inadequate as far as being an anthropologist goes. I have no stories of terrifying plane rides, recurring malarial symptoms nor do I have a wall full of tribal masks gifted to me by important chiefs. You have to understand that these are the standard trappings and tales that all of my Africanist friends have acquired. At anthropology cocktails parties, I am often the odd woman out. Perhaps only the North Americanists who don’t study Native Americans have it worse than me.

You see, I study Italy and France. No, this wasn’t a ploy to find a way to travel and live in two countries with amazing food and wine. Really, I have always been drawn to Italy and France and food and wine have been in my blood (figuratively) forever. While my work is interesting and gratifying, I often feel guilty because I am not helping save the world like many of my colleagues. I used to think that they were drawn to Africa because   of its exoticism, because Africa is the field par excellence.

Lately, I can’t shake the feeling that Africa is calling my name, and, no, my name sounds nothing like Florence Nightingale. Africa is seductively whispering to me: it is telling me to come and face myself, to figure out who I really am in relation to the world. You have to understand that part of my motivation for becoming an anthropologist (not just studying the academic discipline) was to face all the awkward, uncomfortable social situations I could possibly encounter. I have a feeling that going to Africa will cause me to lose myself and question my points of reference. Through this process I think I will gain a better understanding of my place in the world.

Now, I just have to find a way to get to Africa and do something useful there.

Returning to the field

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Michele and some lovely uva nera

When I was in Turin last month I returned to the field where I did the research for my PhD dissertation, the Porta Palazzo market. I was very anxious about going back after many years and only a few sporadic visits. I was going to find out what had happened during my absence, to find my old friends and informants and to see if I could salvage the manuscript I had written about this magic place.

As I approached the market from via Milano, I felt the same uncertainty I initially had when I first started my fieldwork: would I be accepted by the people at the market, would they remember me, how had our relationship changed from when I was here each day working next to the vendors doing my shopping and living a large portion of my life in piazza? What personal questions would they ask me (because they always do ask personal questions) and how would I tell them about the changes in my life? How would I recount all the places I had been and lived? How would I bring our worlds together again?

The first people I encounter were Luigi and his family at the candy stand. They were possibly the hardest people to get to know, with their guarded Piedmontese manners and closed family circle. As the shy smile rolled across Luigi’s face, I knew he remembered me. The whole family began to ask me where I had been? Where did I live now? We fell into our old prattle about life, health, relationships and happiness. Everything had changed but everything had stayed the same. I would soon learn that this largely held true for most of Porta Palazzo.

That week I went to the market each day. I spent time with my old friends. I drank wine and ate salami with Oscar and Walter. I went to Said’s house to break the Ramadan fast and catch up with his wife Naima. I even got to meet one of their beautiful daughters, who is a new edition since I first met this young Moroccan couple in 2002. At the farmers’ market, Pier let me mind his vegetable stand while he went to fetch his truck and his uncle Michele made me taste each type of grape he had brought to market as I waited. Andrea still looked as much in love as the last time I saw him selling bananas and pineapples. He told me about what happiness his relationship brings him. While there was some joy, there was also the usual storm clouds: everyone lamented the poor economy (like they always do) and talked about the impossibility of going forward in such a depressed state. No one except Piero had left (and that was family feud) the market. We are all a little older. There are more children. Most importantly, the market marches on as it satiates the city’s hunger.

For an anthropologist returning to the field can be one of the hardest things to do. However, it can also been one of the most interesting and fruitful activities. Returning to Porta Palazzo after a five-year break I had new questions to ask about the market. I saw more continuity. I could grasp long-term changes and trends. Yes, it was all the same but all different as well.

The trouble with bottled water in Italy

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When I first moved to Italy, I was fascinated by the culture of bottled water, a beverage that seemed to prevail at the table. In North America, drinking bottled mineral water is usually a sign of affluence and often an outright show of status when dining out. Products such as Bling H2O take this to new extremes. In Italy, however, conspicuous consumption is not necessarily the case; families of all social classes now regularly purchase and lug bottled water home for daily consumption.

When I moved to Umbria, home to many of Italy’s most popular mineral water springs, I began to study the historical and popular reasons for drinking bottled mineral water. Although most Italian tap water is perfectly potable, Italians insist on clinging to the bottle. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, Italians have a long history of using mineral water for medicinal and health purposes. I recently published an article on the rise of the mineral water industry in Italy in the nineteenth century: “Acqua di Sangemini: The Italian Mineral Water Industry Finds a Place at the Table” Journal of Modern Italian Studies. Vol. 14(2): 184-198. In this article, I argue that part of mineral water’s popularity in Italy is still connected to popular beliefs about health (calcium & minerals) & medicine (digestion & disease). In addition, many of the Italians I interviewed claimed that they drank bottled water because the tap water in their area was too rich in mineral content, causing kidney stones and other urinary tract disorders when consumed on a daily basis.

Secondly, in connection with the first point, most of the water supply (municipal aqueducts and private wells) in Italy was largely unsafe and a major cause of disease up until just after World War II. In addition, in the not-so-distant past there have been many cases of municipal mismanagement of mineral water that have done very little to build public confidence in tap water.

Lastly, bottled water can historically be considered a status symbol in Italy. During the 1960s & 1970s, having recently moved to cities from the countryside, Italian housewives proudly had glass bottles of water delivered to their homes and later lugged home packages of plastic bottles. Having enough money to buy water was not only a display of affluence, but also a show of one’s modern lifestyle, which emphasized hygiene and the health of the family.

This morning there was an article in the New York Times, “City Known for Its Water Turns to Tap to Cut Trash”, which looks at how the city of Venice is trying to encourage citizens and tourists to drink tap water, l’acqua del sindaco (the mayor’s water), instead of buying water in plastic bottles which clog up the city’s beautiful canals and over-taxed waste system. Venice has created a marketing campaign for this initiative that even attempts to create a brad, Acqua Veritas (which literally translates as Truth Water). The city is even offer free carafes to encourage the consumption of tap water at the table.

Although I am hopeful for a plastic bottle free future, I believe that Italian attitudes towards tap water and daily habits will be difficult to change. Municipal governments generally have poor track records for managing drinking water and this is perhaps the biggest hurdle in this battle; there is a long history of distrust towards the government as well as many scandals and tragedies in handling public health that must be overcome. The historical and cultural contexts of going green mustn’t be overlooked in the case of Italian water.

Peaches

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Bobby stood up in front of the table after he had finished serving us a breakfast of French toast with raspberry goat cheese and Italian sausage. There was one beautiful, ripe peach placed in the corner of everyone’s plate. This was fruit that held greater meaning: “I was given a peach and it was perfect. I bit into it and the juice ran down my chin. There was nothing better and I knew I had to move to the Okanagan where this wonderful fruit was grown. I needed to go there to learn more about food and be closer to where it is produced.” The peach was Bobby’s Madeleine. It had brought him to this fertile valley between dessert and mountain to elaborate his ideas of terroir in the company of Cam and Dana at Joy Road Catering.

I ate my delicious breakfast and saved my peach for last. Closing my eyes, I brought the peach close to my upper lip. I could feel its softness as I breathed in its ripe scent. As I bit into my peach the juice ran down my chin and a grin spread across my face. I got it.

Peaches were now on my mind. British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley had indeed once been famous for its fruit and in particular peaches. Everywhere I looked along the lush Naramata Bench there were orchards being displaced making way for vineyards. I can see the challenge of farming fruit and the advantages of making wine. On one hand, fruit does not command much of a price in these days of global markets. It is also difficult to find cheap manual labour to harvest the fruit, not to mention the tricky business of delivering these perishable goods to market in pristine condition. Fruit is difficult business. Wine, on the other hand, is made from grapes that are generally processed on site and made into alcohol. It keeps for a goodly length of time and the fruit has value added to it as it is turned into a prestigious form of alcohol. How could wine but win out in this practical economic argument. I guess my main fear is about biodiversity: I have seen so many wine regions that had turned their sunbaked hills into one monotonous sea of vines. Where any monoculture exists there are the obvious problems of pest control, soil depletion and water. As the demand for local fruits and vegetable increases in Western Canada, I hope that local farmers will be able to keep up with demand and earn a decent living.

There has been a great deal of talk about eating local in Canada over the last few years. With rising fuel prices, food security issues and a desire to cultivate a sustainable way of life, I think we will move further in this direction in the future. In this vein, I recently came across a newspaper article on canning. I don’t know many people that preserve fruits and vegetable for the winter. My mother and I always make jam but we have never done much canning or freezing. Times seem to be changing. I must say I was surprised when the other day my friend Grant told me he had plans to do some canning. What has brought on this renewed interest in an old domestic practice?

When my parents purchased the old farmhouse where I spent most of my childhood, I recall there was a rickety pump house that had shelves stocked with jars (the contents were of a dubious age and origin). This was the most terrifying place on the entire property and I was sometimes called upon to run out there to reset the pump when the tank ran dry–a task to be dreaded. I would carefully enter, avoiding the cobwebs, and get the job done but I could never help but gaze at those lines of jars and wonder what mysterious concoctions they held. Now my adult mind thinks back to the pump house with slightly less imagination and a much more critical eye.

All of those old fermenting preserves remind me now that there was a time when people thought ahead to the winter when you could not just go to the supermarket to pick up some cherries shipped in from Chile or some organic beans from Mexico. Opening a can of carefully laid away pears was a special treat prepared in the more abundant summer months. It was women who were often in charge of doing the canning and making preserves. Although there is a renewed interest in this type of culinary conservation, many recipes and the know-how have been lost; mother’s no longer spend long sweltering hours in the kitchen working alongside their daughters to assure their family’s winter provisions. The relishes, jams and syrupy peaches no longer break the monotony of the meager months. With all of the abundance that is available to us, have we lost our appreciation for special gastronomic moments and treats?

The lady down the dinner table heard me talking about peaches. She piped up and shared her method for pealing them: cut the fruit in half and pit; then bathe them in warm but not boiling water for a minute. On the way home I bought 10 pounds of peaches. Once back in my kitchen, I followed the woman’s directions. As the peach skins easily fell off like elegant velvet gloves, I thought ahead to the pleasure they would bring me this cold, gloomy winter.

Lanterns versus fireworks

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I don’t like the fireworks here in Vancouver. You might think I am a killjoy, but I don’t see how the city benefits from this corporate celebration. Let me explain: each year there is an event in Vancouver (for no particular reason or holiday) called ‘Celebration of Lights’  and huge amounts of money are spent on four nights of pyrotechnics. Masses of people drive in from the burbs to see this showy display of fire put on to sappy music, they spread garbage all over the place, get drunk and fight. A lovely evening out on the town. This is what is called a cultural event in Vancouver.

Last Saturday, I decided to forgo the firework and attend the Trout Lake lantern festival instead. Formerly known as Illuminaries, the lantern festival was canceled this year–a victim of its own success. It started off as a community get-together where children and adults from the Trout Lake area would build lanterns, where amateur musicians came out to play and ladies put on fairy wings and carried wands. What could be more entertaining? Well, everyone agreed it was a lot of fun and so people started to come not only from the nearby neighbourhoods but from all over the city. The event got so big that it no longer had the budget to ensure the safety and organisation of the festival without a corporate sponsor. This year, after the announcement of its cancellation, there were only a handful of renegade lantern lighters but the festival was just as magic as ever. We danced in the moonlight like wild pagans, lanterns bobbing and drums beating.

What I like about the lantern festival is that it is about people, creativity and community (even if that concept ran into problems of scale). What I don’t like about the fireworks is the consumption, waste and anonymity.