The Top 25 Italy Moments #10 - Man of Le Marche, continues our series of The Blissful Adventurer's most compelling events in 20 years of Italy travel and reveals the true story behind yesterday's post: The Legend of Boomie Bol
The Scene: Juliet and I had just arrived by train from Venice to the port town of San Benedetto del Tronto in Italy's Le Marche region. San Benedetto is Italy's second busiest seaport just behind the mighty Genoa. Le Marche was once a papal state and is replete with palaces, fortifications, theaters, and very few people. I was consistently mesmerized by the beauty of the place and at the same time how empty the streets were in every stunning hilltop town. I imagined this was what Tuscany might have been like in the late 1940s.
David Parish, a wonderful man of British and Italian descent met us at the train station and suggested we see the port. David is one of my favorite people in Italy and his wicked dry sense of humor played right into the hands of 2 very jet-lagged travelers. Little did any of us know, including David, that his sense of humor would be on full display in the first 30 minutes of our journey.
The Action - We arrived at the port and immediately David suggested he go into this shop and ask for a snack. Forgetting all my Italian in an instant my brain went straight for the English cognate and to the gutter. I thought this was going to be one hell of a town till David reminded me that this was simply a cute way of saying the shop specialized in raw seafood (crudo) and without condiment or impediments (nudo). Asporto means to take away or takeout in American English. Sadly, the shop did not open for another hour so we made our way into the little market to see some of the day's catch.
Typically, Italians love having their picture made much like children on Christmas morning. I have so few photos of the fish market because the women working the counters there shooed me away or covered their faces immediately when I tried to photograph them. Weird, and an odd start to an odd day. The seafood looked lovely and the people told David that the boats came in earlier that day and that one more round would be coming later. The fish on hand were clearly from that day even if the ladies working were looking more than a little haggard.
I decided I had seen enough of the market after about 6 minutes and went out into the huge parking area of the shipyard. There were fishing boats under repair and dry-docked on cranes.
Playboy here was getting a lovely face-lift but the machine holding it was so much cooler than the boat.
David disappeared off near the water and appeared to be checking his phone while I took shot after shot in the blindingly bright and pretty damn hot sun. When we found David he asked if we would like to go on a fishing boat. I was nervous as I knew fishermen were private and often spoke only in dialect but since I had David with me I said sure and he proceeded to seek out a boat to explore. As he went along the docks he was frequently denied his requests to board. I could see him pointing to Juliet and me each time he met a captain and I could then see the rustic captains shake their heads "no" as David moved along. After almost 10 minutes he found us a willing boat.
This boat captain looked at us, made some gestures to David suggesting, "well if they really want to" and then he invited us into the small door there on the side.
Not 20 minutes before we received our dubious invitation to board I snapped this photo of one of the many retired fishermen offering advice to the captain of "The Millenium Falcone"
I climbed through the tiny door in the side and helped Juliet onto the deck. I looked back out the portal and saw David back on his cell and clearly not coming aboard. The young captain in the grey shirt and the protruding gut looked me over and asked me in Italian what I wanted to see. I understood him clearly but I was a bit preoccupied staring down into the engine room and seeing there was NO ENGINE! The captain assuming I did not speak Italian at that point asked me in decent English "what you want to see?" I told him in Italian, anything, I am a writer and want to talk about fishing boats in Le Marche (a small lie). He told me the boat was not working (no shit!) and then pointed to a man sitting on the railing. This man will show you around, he said.
I looked at the rustic and ruddy man smoking a cigarette and asked if I could take his photo. He obliged and then he put out the cig and I when I raised my camera again he broke into this somber pose. I told him my same lame story in Italian and he answered me "non capisce bene" (it/he/she does not understand good). I knew these guys spoke dialect but I had no idea that their Italian grammar would be this egregious. I heard the boat captain snicker and as I turned around to see him climbing off the boat he pointed his thumb at our new tour guide and said "he is Albanian".
My new Albanian buddy who spoke no English, bad Italian, and I am guessing only so-so Albanian began to lead us up to the bridge. He kept making sounds that I assumed were words and I turned on my best nods and enthusiastic wows, cools, and right...OKs. We climbed up into the bridge of this total shit boat and began to realize that if this was a fishing boat it was a damned nasty one. Could this ship have been for other purposes?
Fucking David was out there in his sporty clothes, cell phone, and elegance while Juliet and I were experiencing conditions not seen since the last boat people from Havana landed at Disney World.
We climbed down from the bridge and our smoky guide (who was also pretty damn dirty) said to me "Sono Albanese" , I am Albanian (another, NO SHIT!) Then he fired off "volet veder la coozheen?" Effectively, would you like to see the kitchen. I knew better, but I agreed.
As we rounded the corner from the main deck the Albanian suddenly realized the presence of the giant pornographic calendar on the wall of the galley. I could see the buxom blonde was big-bushed and air brushed as he carefully removed the calendar from the wall just as Juliet came into his view. Juliet feigned being fooled by our guide's gesture but she saw the photo and knew all too well that this boat would have been a lonely and oh so very sketchy place on the open seas. The soiled bed linens on the bridge bed were now all the more repellent and yet it got worse.
Notice the stacks of empty cheap cigarette boxes on the wall and the color of the wood wall underneath. Now look at the color of the wood in the kitchen. This was not bad lighting (although it was bad) this was layers of pure fish grease. As our man went into the kitchen he quickly grabbed what looked like a dog food bowl and turned to Juliet and me with an offer.
Pesce Freddo? (cold fish?) At this instant with the bowl of bony, cold, fried anchovies and other grubby little critters sitting in a pool of grease (not dissimilar to the oil pooled on the bottom of the engine housing) right in our faces, Juliet turned and without a word proceeded to exit the boat. "Juliet has left the fucking building" I thought as it was now only me, the chef, and this bowl of carcinogenic scales and tails. I actually would have rather licked the ashtray as I considered it far less likely to send waves of faux-ebola through my bowels. When I did not immediately take a piece of the aging fish my guy began to toss them in his mouth like popcorn while pieces of flesh, skin, and bones popped and crunched in his open mouth chew and fell across his soiled t-shirt and onto the ancient layers of grime on the floor.
For some reason I still cannot explain I took the cleanest piece of anchovy I could find (not the smallest mind you) and slowly bit into it. It tasted immediately of cold ground meal, greasy in texture and less fishy than I imagined in taste. I could taste the last two days and I could see immediately where the boat had been. It was not a vision, it was real. I saw my guy cooking, while the occasional sailor took the calendar into the head and pressed his bare ass against the door to prevent hosting a show. I saw rotten vegetables cooked whole in their skins in the same pan where the fish were cleaned. I saw the captain take a look a into the cargo hold and siphon off a little of the poppy product and shoot his vein full while pressing the accelerator harder. As I chewed on my situation I thought of the sad parents in Albania and the goat milk cartons displaying artist renderings of their lost children who had made their way into Bavaria via this boat and now worked as sexy porn stars for German autocrats. I knew their was crime on this boat equal to its filth, but there was no crime greater than serving a stranger this filthy fucking fish. I tasted most of all the pain of this Albanian man and the misery in his soul for his crimes. He was likely younger than his looks I imagined and somewhere he had a mother who loved him and he very likely left someone to come on this boat. Now it was broken down in Italy, the cargo sold, and no way to get home. I swallowed the cold fish and knew I had likely just finished my first satanic communion when I changed the subject.
What is your job on this boat? I asked in Italian. He responded with a word to this day I cannot spell and will try to describe.."guhzzz" I tried numerous ways to phrase my question, both in English, Italian, and pantomime like shoveling, fishing out nets, driving, and cooking. He just kept saying "guhzzz". He led me through a hatch in front of the galley and once topside he pointed to anchors, ropes, and various other deck-hand shit and continued to say "Guhzzz" He then said "la barca e Albanese" The boat is Albanian...OK, so?
I climbed off the boat and waved goodbye to my Albanian Amico. I knew that if this was indeed a fisherman's life it was an awful one. I told David and Juliet the rest of the story where Juliet had likely left off and David asked that if I had to throw up on the drive to dinner that I please let him know and he would pull over so I would not vomit in his car. David and Juliet both thought that "Guhzz" was in fact Girls and that the guy was making a joke. I was not sure but I did see this photo today and perhaps this is "Guhzz"
I never got sick from the fish. David told me that fishing is so competitive and that fish are mostly gone from the Adriatic so fishermen now have to go further and further with enormous fuel costs to find a catch. At the end of the day a life living in squalor aboard a boat might indeed be better than the alternative of no life whatsoever.
The Conclusion - On the way back to David's car I spotted this ancient auto in the lot and wondered which of the retired men who gather at the port owned this vehicle. A once noble Italian profession was now left to ambitious immigrants with little to lose and only stories to gain. In only 1 hour at this port in mysterious San Benedetto del Tronto my memories of this experience carved their way into my Top 25 Italy Moments and all the way to #10.