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Monday, July 29, 2013

Montecchio Precalcino, and the Official Start of Cycling to Syria

About a year ago, when I was walking across the north of Italy, a friend and I stayed for a few days with a family in the village of Montecchio Precalcino. In the short time that we spent with Sabina, Roberto, and Sabina’s sons, Alessandro and Christopher, we felt we had each gained a family. Indeed, over the next eight months, as I walked through the Balkans into Turkey, then travelled on to Egypt, Sabina was always there for me as though she were family. When overwhelmed by doubt, Sabina always sent an encouraging word. One night in my tent in frozen Bulgaria I was overcome by a feeling of utter desolation. I sent out a few SMS messages, hoping for any kind of a response, and Sabina was the only one who answered, all the way from Italy. When faced with financial difficulty Sabina helped me out with money; I never had to ask for it. The last donation I received while on my ‘peace walk’ was from Sabina; I would have arrived in Italy absolutely broke without it.
It’s no wonder then that Sabina and her family have been here for me in getting started on this new journey. While I was still in Egypt Sabina invited me to stay in Montecchio for as long as I needed to should I return to Italy. When I asked her if there was any short-term work available there, she said she’d look into it, and she did. As a result, for the past three weeks I’ve been living with Sabina and her family and for the past two weeks I’ve been working on a nearby organic farm, earning enough money to get me cycling and back on the road.


I’m up before seven, but not for the farm work. I meditiate for 30 minutes with Roberto and Alessandro before having breakfast. Roberto seems like a guy who would meditate; he’s softspoken and spends much of his day quietly working in the garden and tending to household chores. Alessandro, Sabina’s 18 year old son, does not seem like a guy who’d be interested in meditation; he’s a heavy metal guitarist. But there we all sit each morning, in a little semi-circle, focusing on our breathing and trying to detach ourselves from our thoughts.
I set off for work at a quarter to nine. It’s late in the morning by farming standards, but Pierluigi is merciful to his short-term migrant laborer. I cycle up a steep hill from Sabina’s house, and within ten minutes I’m at the patch of land where Pierluigi and I have recently planted lettuce and cabbage. It’s not quite nine o’clock when I get there, and as I stretch the hose out from the water tank that Pier has brought in with a tractor, I admire the view from the hilltop. Then for the next hour and a half, I carefully and quietly water the seedlings until the water tank is empty. On this particular morning, I sing a bit, and I feel grateful, and I am consciously happy for the first time in months.  I’ve been brooding since Cairo, but that heaviness is gone. The feelings of loss and disappointment at the end of my last journey have vanished. The past is finished. New horizons lie ahead, but my renewed happiness comes from the present moment, and not from an overly optimistic view of the future.  Whatever the future brings, I’ll take.
After stowing the water hose I hop on Knulp and cycle down the steep hill to Pierluigi’s organic farm in the village. But for one stretch of rough asphalt, I let Knulp fly down the hill without braking, feeling the wind in my face and enjoying the silence of motorless speed. At the bottom I cross the road leading into the village and onto a perpendicular lane that borders the farm. A right turn puts me on a grassy lane taking me past rows of tomatoes and beans where three white chickens congregate every morning. As always, the chickens sprint directly away from my bicycle, and as long as they keep in front of it I keep up my speed, relishing in the brief chase. They finally break right or left and only then do I slow down to coast into Pierluigi’s driveway.
Before I’m able to get to my late morning work, which today will consist of stacking firewood and digging up potatoes, Pierluigi’s mother shuffles out of the house. I always hear her before I see her as she likes to chat, and as always she’s chatting about how hot it is and that I should have something to drink. Though it is only 10:30 in the morning she offers me a choice, water or beer. For now I choose the water. I’ll be driving the old Fiat tractor to load up firewood, and it’s best that I have my wits when I back into the narrow garage to unload. As I thank Pier’s mother for the water and walk away towards the Fiat, she’s still chatting.
For the next hour and a half I drive the tractor back and forth along a 30 meter stretch, loading the firewood piled outside, throttling past a half dozen bee hives, then backing carefully into the garage where I neatly stack the wood. Nearly every time I back into the garage, there’s Pierluigi’s mother again, chatting away despite my lack of comprehension, and offering water or beer. With thirty minutes left in the morning’s work I park the tractor and head to the potato patch with a wheelbarrow and pitchfork. Yesterday I was digging up red potatoes, which were small and scanty because of the winter’s excess of rain and the summer’s lack of it. But today I’m digging up yellow potatoes, which, though small, are surfacing with every turn of the fork. In just a few minutes I’ve already got a small load of them in the wheelbarrow, and when I push it back to the house, there is Pierluigi’s mom, a bottle of water in one hand and a big beer in the other. She looks at the potatoes with a smile and chats away. I’m sitting down to gulp the beer when Pierluigi arrives from his morning at the organic farmer’s cooperative. He gulps a beer down himself, rolls his eyes and laughs a bit as his mother shuffles about, talking, then he asks me to be back in a couple of hours. We’ll be working with the bees this afternoon.  But before I go Pierluigi’s mother gives me an ice cream, which I wash down with the last of my beer.


I am as grateful for the employment Pierluigi has given me as I am for Sabina’s having asked for it on my behalf. The work that I am doing for him, he normally does on his own, or with the help of one of his sisters. He wants to help me to get to Syria though, and he doesn’t mind paying me to lighten his heavy work load. I enjoy working for him, as he is easygoing and intelligent. And though he is an organic farmer who is open to new ideas and theories, he’s got both feet on the ground. He works hard and his farm is productive. I’ve seen too many pretentious New Age permaculture or organic farmers whose farms are covered in weeds and producing very little because they spend more time on the djembe chanting for fertility than getting their hands dirty. Pier gets dirty though, and I get dirty with him, and when the work’s done we have a beer and a smoke and a few laughs. No subject is taboo, and our conversation will range from that of the typical laborer’s bawdy talk to the finer points of beekeeping to esoteric Tibetan longevity exercises to Rudolph Steiner on education or organic farming.


I cycle back up the hill to Sabina’s, where the youngest son, 15 year old Christopher, has prepared lunch for the family. Sabina is back from work, Roberto has come in from the garden, and Alessandro has returned from his on-the-job training as an accountant. Just as one would never guess that Alessandro meditates, one would never guess he’s training to be an accountant with his long hair, sunglasses, knee-length shorts and Converse All Stars.  He prefers playing with his brother in their heavy metal band to the thought of being an accountant, but he also prefers the idea of having some kind of meaningful work to a life dedicated soley to heavy metal. But it won't be accounting, he says. 
Afterwards I race down the hill on Knulp, again speeding down the grassy lane at Pierluigi’s and chasing the white chickens. Pierluigi is already putting on gloves and his beekeeping hat, which looks like a Spanish equestrian’s hat with a net. It is hard to imagine Pier as a Spanish equestrian though. He's a bit too heavy for that. 
Pier has already trained me in the basics of honey extraction, and I follow him out to the hives which are only some 15 meters from the house. As he pries open the top of the hive I shoot a little smoke into the opening with a bellows to calm down the bees. I am unprotected but not very worried about being stung as I’ve found Pier’s bees to be as easygoing as he is. My first time watching Pier do his work I kept well away until Pier’s mother arrived, chatting away and marching up to the hive to pick up two honey-laden frames. Bees zipped around her but she kept chatting and ignoring the bees as she brought the frames into the garage. Since then I’ve felt cowardly not to march up to the hive as she does. I try to be quiet though, and a little slower in my movements than Pier’s mom.
Once we’ve got the first two frames out of the hive I carry them into a room to slice off the edge of the honeycomb so the honey can be extracted in a centifugal drum. As I slice, honey oozes out onto a tray and I can’t help but use my fingers to gobble it up. Parts of the honeycomb fall on to the tray as well, and I shove them into my mouth. The last time Pier was doing this job I had the honey and wax all to myself until some kids came in to compete with me. I’d found myself shamelessly consuming the honey as fast as I could to keep it from the boys. They’d been eating ice cream, so I’d thought it only fair. After slicing off the wax from the frames I put four of them into the centrifugal drum and turn the crank handle to get them spinning. In just a few minutes I reverse the frames, then a few minutes later remove them. They are feather light now, revealing empty honeycombs. The honey they contained is at the bottom of the drum. I then empty the drum to fill a large honey pot and repeat the process several more times. As a bee has entered the room, enticed by the honey, I close the doors and windows. Pier had warned me to do this as the bee will tell his buddies about where the stolen honey’s been taken and they’ll all return to take it back. I’m mischievously curious, and I’d like to see all the bees swarm into the room for their honey, but I’ve done my job and the lone bee will have to do his best to carry the honey back on his own.
I spend the last few hours of my workday in an open field, planting fennel and more cabbage. Pierluigi and I have measured out the distances between rows, and he’s given me a tape measure to measure out the distance between seedlings, in this case 50 cm or more. I’ve got several hundred to plant, and it’s nearly 40 degrees (C) so it’s the hardest work of the day. Unlike the little household garden where planting is slow and leisurely, this planting is done quickly or it will never get done. Every once in a while I have to stop to stand erect though. I may not feel 53, but I am. Other small breaks occur when Pierluigi’s mother makes her way from the house to the middle of the field where I’m planting. She’s got a cold bottle of water and a glass, and her chatting is never annoying. It is always a harbinger of refreshment.
Once the work is finished, Pierluigi and I sit in the same room where I did the honey extraction, drinking a beer and talking some more. His sisters arrive, and some nieces and nephews, and his brother and some in-laws, and there is some argument about what to plant next and where. Pierluigi’s mother and the oldest sister are ganging up on him. He looks at me and rolls his eyes.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes… si mama! Mama mia!” he says laughing with exasperation. Apparently his mother and sister have got their way.

I’m digging the whole scene, and I’m happy to be in Montecchio Precalcino. 


But I'll be leaving this little paradise in two days. I'll hop on Knulp and speed down the hill before turning right towards Vicenza, then Mantova, Piacenza, Milan, Como and into the Alps, to Basel, and to Paris, hopefully by the 20th of August or thereabouts. Then to Syria. 

As I'll be officially starting my cycling trek to Syria from Sabina's house on Wednesday morning, those of you who would like to donate 10 or 20 dollars or euros to International Rescue Committee, or to Polish Humanitarian Action are welcome to do so. The money will not go to me, but to those organizations, and the money will help victims of the war in Syria. These people have suffered unimaginable loss through no fault of their own; they're caught in the middle of a sectarian war, so let's do just a little something to help them. 
To donate just look to the right at 'How to donate', select the NGO you prefer, and the NGO's page will take you from there.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Shady Hamadi: 'Why is the world not outraged?'

Last night I went with my friend Sara to an event in Milan featuring Italian/Syrian author Shady Hamadi. We spoke briefly, and he was concerned about the indifference he encounters regarding Syria in Milan. 

I found an interview with him that I found interesting, entitled, 'Why is the world not outraged?'

As I didn't have much time to speak to him, I didn't get much information other than that his family is in a village near Homs, where there is ongoing sectarian violence, and that he has recently lost contact with them. 

I've lifted a short biography from Wikipedia about him, and tried to edit the English translation:
Born in Milan to an Italian mother and a Syrian father, until 1997,he was banned from entering Syria following the exile of his father Mohamed, belonging to the Arab Nationalist Movement who was  repeatedly arrested and tortured while in Syria. Shady studied Political Science in Milan and began his career as a novelist with 'Voices of Souls'.
In March of 2011, at the outbreak of the Syrian uprising against the government of Bashar al-Assad, he took a stand against the regime, becoming an activist for human rights and one of the main figures  of the opposition in Italy. He participated in numerous television and radio debates, including 'the infidel',  "Mediterraneo", "One Morning", Radio Three, and Radio Italian Switzerland.
In 2011, his work as a supporter for the Syrian uprising became more intense, resulting in intimidation by the Syrian regime. In Syria the secret services threatened his uncle and, during a raid in his village of origin, Talkalakh, they seized his cousin. In October he was invited to a forum on 'the Arab world', with particular attention to wing Syria, organized by the Party of European Socialists in the European Parliament in Brussels.  In December he was invited by the Third Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Parliament as the only speaker for a  hearing on human rights and democracy in Syria. [6]
In December of 2011 he began working with "The Daily", where he has his own blog.
In February 2012 he wrote a letter-appeal published by the newspaper "Corriere della Sera", to start a campaign for Syria, proposing that people wear a black bow for the termination of the killings in Syria...
On 8 March 2012, being from a Christian family, he wrote a letter of appeal to the Pope on the position of Christians in Syria.
According to the website Avoicomunicare he is one of the most famous second-generation Italians in Italy. 

 Shady Hamadi's blog (in Italian) can be found at: 

 Shady's books can be found at

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Knulp, the Hybrid

In David Lynch's film, 'The Straight Story', an old man decides to drive 240 miles to visit a brother he hasn't seen in a long time. As the old man can't get a driver's license because of his bad eyesight, he decides to make the trip on a 30 year old rider mower towing a travel trailer.
I happen to love these kinds of stories, where a journey is made with the traveller, or his equipment, or transport, or his companions not quite suited for the task. The story of Don Quixote is a perfect example of this kind of situation; neither Don Quixote, nor his companion, Sancho Panza, nor his horse, Rocinante, are suitable for knight errant adventuring.
And so it is that I have acquired a bicycle, certainly the biggest part of my preparation for cycling to Syria, that is far from being the ideal bike for making such a long-distance journey. It is a bicycle, though, and not a rider mower. Nor is it a Penny Farthing, which is what the first man to cycle around the world rode. Tom Stevens rode this contraption out of San Francisco in 1884, with socks, a shirt, a raincoat and a revolver.

'Knulp', as I've named my steed, is a used BTwin Daily, a hybrid bike made by Decathlon. Hybrids are a sort of town and country bike, useful for the city or off road. They're not generally used for long-distance touring. I think only those who can't afford a specialized touring bike would even consider them for a journey from Western Europe to Syria. But I like the idea of being on my very own hack pony, even when an Arab would be more suitable for the job.
And Knulp isn't really such a hack. The bike's in very good condition, actually. For 150 euros I don't think I could have done much better. It's just not going to be the most comfortable bike for 100+ kilometers a day, nor will it carry even as much as I carried on my back for the past year and a half. But what is comfort to me, really? I've done without it for a long time now. And it's about time I dumped a few things I've been dragging along. And having cycled my first 30 kilometers on Knulp, from the spot in Milan where I handed over the money to the village of Albairate, I am growing fond of the bike already. It got me to where I was going without any complaints.  Most importantly of all, 'Knulp' is ready to go, chomping at the bit, with panniers and other accessories.

I bought Knulp with exactly the amount of money I was paid for working as a teaching assistant last week. The work was difficult, as being around lots of 7 to 10 year olds all day long makes me want to run away to hide somewhere, but for the pains I've got a machine that will take me far into the countryside.

I have called this black pony of mine Knulp, after the character in Herman Hesse's book by the same name.
Hesse's Knulp is a real vagabond, also not quite suitable for the task as his health is failing, but very much loved by everyone he meets along the road. Knulp brings out a homesickness for freedom in his hosts, which in the end is his real purpose in life.

In the present story, Knulp's purpose will be to carry me to Syria for the serious business of raising money to help the victims of the war, but that doesn't mean Knulp will have to foresake being a vagabond of a bike which creates in people a longing for a freer life. Knulp is not only a hybrid town and country bike, after all, but also a hybrid serious business/vagabond bike. In the end many of us would do well to become hybrids; to temper our self-righteous, serious business side by finding a way also to be vagabonds on our life journeys. As Antonio Machado said, the road doesn't make the journey, the journey makes the road. And so it is I have hybrid Knulp-- made for a Saturday jaunt into the countryside, or a ride through town to the ice cream shop-- to carry me to the Middle East.

Finally, many thanks to Lorenza, my host in Albairate, for taking on the role of a sort of 'cycling to Syria' manager, for giving me a week's employment, for helping me to find this bike, and for being a good host for the past ten or twelve days. Lorenza hosted me here last summer too as I walked across Italy.