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"Dolce Far Niente"

By Frank Gruber

"Il Progresso Tecnologico fa 'Boink'" -- the Italian translation of the Calvin and Hobbes book title, "Scientific Progress Goes 'Boink.'"

Twenty years ago, when my parents and sister bought a farmhouse down an unpaved bumpy road from an Umbrian village, most farmhouses here, including theirs, didn't have telephones.

In those days I worked for a high-powered law firm and when I visited here, I spent much of the time between six and ten in the evening (9 a.m. 'til 1 p.m. in L.A.) in a house in the village making business calls on a public phone that was in the living room. The family that lived there was more than patient.

The road is still unpaved and bumpy, but not only do we have telephone service, but we can dial up the internet with a local phone call. That's how I can file this column.

But connectivity is a mixed blessing. For instance, now I know, 8,000 miles away, that Midnight Special is losing its store on the Promenade.

(Memo to Craig Jones: Here's your chance to get a good tenant for some of the under-utilized first floor retail in one of your downtown buildings.)

(Memo to City Council: How about making it easier to build retail downtown, for instance by scaling back the ridiculous parking requirements, so that stores like Midnight Special and Hennessey & Ingalls, and restaurants, can relocate downtown and draw people off the Promenade.)

(Memo to everyone else: Why is the city council so concerned about providing downtown with more parking when business is so good property owners keep jacking up the rents?)

Not far from the house that used to have the public phone, which is owned by Aldo and Pierina, two of the locals who were most helpful to my sister and parents in the years after they arrived here, is a three basin fountain where the local women, including Pierina, used to do their wash. The water entered at one end, and would overflow from one basin to the next. The women washed their laundry in the third basin, farthest from the source of the water, and the water there became quite sudsy.

They would do a first rinse in the second basin, which was a little sudsy, and a final rinse in the first basin, which remained fairly clear of soap.

I thought the system was fairly ingenious. My sister, who lived in the village year round, thought the whole idea was ridiculous. She told me that the women all had washing machines and only used the fountain in the summer. They said they used the fountain "by habit," but when it was cold, they used the machines.

Whether the women did their summer wash outside at the fountain to save on electricity or to socialize, I don't know, but in any case, water no longer runs through the three basins and the village women use their washing machines year round.

Romantics might bewail this as a loss of community, or tradition, or just want the country to remain quaint for goodness sake, but washing clothes by hand in cold water is hard work and now Pierina has more time to spend with her grandchildren.

On the other hand, not everything around the village has changed. There is still a shepherd who mows my parents' fields and bales the hay. The big round bales, at least six feet in diameter, add a Van Gogh touch to the landscape. We always buy a wheel of the shepherd's cheese to take back to Santa Monica, but the shepherd doesn't give us a discount even though his sheep eat hay from my parents' fields. Perhaps that is why he drives a Mercedes.

Most people these days are familiar with the Italian phrase "dolce far niente," -- the "sweetness of doing nothing."

We far niente a lot around here. I'm not complaining -- as I wrote last week, I know that I'm a lucky stiff to have family with a couple farmhouses in Italy, but in the summer it's hot, and, let's face it, in the village there is niente to do. For every "culture" day that we manage to defeat the inertia and accomplish -- this year we took day trips to Rome and Florence -- we need three days to recover.

It's not that difficult to convince oneself that under the right conditions -- a hot afternoon, crickets sawing rhythmically, wine at lunch -- even a nap can be a touristic experience. After all, it's what the Italians do -- or used to do.

We walk a lot, and cook, and joke that whatever we do here is touristic. Walking along dirt roads, past ancient scenery, and cooking with great ingredients in brick ovens and in kitchen fireplaces -- well, for sure that's why we come to Italy.

Of course, the biggest difference between any vacation and real life is work, and when you don't work, you have more time.

Time to take walks, or time to make a fire and wait to cook until there's a good bed of coals.

But still I wonder, when I get back home, to Santa Monica, maybe I can spend more time taking walks. There is the beach, after all, and Palisades Park, and my neighborhood. Maybe I should fire up the barbecue more often, even if it's just to roast a chicken. I could spend less time reading the paper, or watching television, or doing whatever.

Maybe what's so good about doing nothing on vacation is that you realize that you don't have to do everything back home.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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