All posts by Ben

The Harvest

The original impetus for this trip to Italy was the grape harvest at my grandfather’s friend’s small personal vineyard. I had been hearing my grandparents and cousins tell me over and over what a wonderful experience it was, and this year I finally decided that I wanted to try it myself.

We came to the villa (formerly a stable, now rebuilt in high style) on Friday afternoon, and had dinner at a snazzy local restaurant that was formerly an ancient monastery. The harvest was all day Saturday, from 9:30 to 5:30 with a long break for lunch.

The harvesting crew consisted of about 10 snippers with gardening shears, plus the logistics crew who swapped empty baskets for full ones on the tractor and carted the grapes away. I was a snipper, cutting off bunches of grapes and dropping each bunch into the basket. It’s not rocket science, but it’s sometimes tricky when the vines have tied themselves in knots around the support wires. It’s easier with a partner on the other side of each row, which leaves plenty of time for conversation, but it’s also a fine, meditative solo activity.

The baskets of grapes are taken by tractor to the destemmer, which uses a spiral blade to separate the grapes from the stems. The grapes, crushed, go into the tank for fermentation. The grapes in question are of the sangiovese variety required to make Chianti: smaller, darker, and sweeter than table grapes, but also full of small bitter seeds.

The grape vines are planted exactly one tractor width apart, so when you hear it coming you must limbo under the vines into the next row. Also, there’s something about grapes and hillsides, so one is often dragging baskets up or down a slope, or ducking under a vine while stepping up onto a higher terrace. It’s exercise.

In 6 or 7 hours spent working yesterday (plus 3 or 4 spent feasting), our crew of mostly senior citizens managed to harvest grapes that, when crushed, amounted to 5000+ liters of juice and mash. This was not such a small vineyard after all!

Il Gattopardo

Sicily’s size and population are somewhere between Connecticut and Maryland. Imagine, if you can, an epic, three hour costume drama about the people and culture of the State of Connecticut, shot unmistakably on location. (To a Connecticutian, the idea is laughable.) If such a thing somehow came into being, it would certainly be a cultural touchstone for generations.

This happened in Sicily. The movie is called Il Gattopardo, and it was released in 1963.

By the end of the film, the characters are exhausted, the audience feels exhausted, and one has great sympathy and admiration for the actors. It is a tour de force, or at least a marathon.

The film doesn’t really have a narrative arc, which is fitting because its central thesis is about constancy, with Sicily as a beautiful time warp where history flows like the tide, in and out but always the same on average. There are, however, lots of beautiful scenes of countryside, battling cavalry, dancing noblewomen, etc.

The movie’s imagined culture, where the color of the flag changes but the guest list at the ball stays the same, was ending in the decades before the movie was made. Since World War II, Sicily hasn’t been invaded, traded, or conquered. There is no longer hereditary nobility, and the great palaces are now tourist attractions.

Some things can go on for a very long time, but nothing lasts forever.

You can take it on the chin

I may have been putting off writing this.

On Tuesday morning I decided to bicycle to work for exercise’s sake. After leaving the West Side Bikeway, while riding East on 16th St. toward the office, I got doored by a passenger exiting a car that was in traffic, waiting for the light.

Only my left hand grazed the door, but it caught my handlebar, stopping the bicycle dead and sending me flying over. I landed on my hands, left knee, right shoulder, and chin. Everything was fine (thanks to bicycle gloves) except the chin.

To make a long story short, I walked over to the office wearing a band-aid helpfully provided by the bicyclist behind me, took a look at my status in the bathroom mirror, and then walked a few blocks with a friend to the nearest urgent care clinic. I got 4 stitches in my chin and a tetanus booster shot, and then walked back to work.

The doctor tells me I’ll have a scar, probably a straight line less than two centimeters long. He also suggested that if I don’t like how it looks, I can wear a beard.

Tuscany and Sicily

If my cadence here seems to have skipped a beat or two, it might be because I’ve been helping my parents plan our family trip to Italy, which will be from October 8th to 19th. As usual for our family’s vacations, we already have a jam-packed schedule lined up for almost the whole duration, to make sure that we see absolutely everything there is to see.

The great thing about traveling with my parents is that they handle all the logistics, reservations, and responsibility, so I’m just along for the ride. Well, almost … this time my name is on the car rental. I hope I don’t have to re-learn manual transmission driving in downtown Palermo.

At least it’s on the right side of the road.


A few minutes before sunset, the water glowed smooth like molten glass.  We put away the sails and drifted with the tide.  I closed my eyes and dove off the back.  It was cold and clear.  Mom joined me, and we held our toes out and pretended to be a pair of sea otters in the orange light.

Now it’s night, and the Milky Way stretches firmly overhead.  If someone had told me you could have a night like this, in my own home town, I would not have believed them.