Sunday, February 1, 2009

I'm so Boar-ed!

I'm so Boar-ed!
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, May 2008)

There is an Arab proverb that states, “Upon entering Paradise, one smells the perfume of the jasmine flower.” Seven years ago this month, May 18th to be precise, I smelled that perfume for the first time. And coincidentally, it was also the first time I set foot upon Italian soil. As I stepped down from the train, at the Trastevere station in Rome, I was instantly intoxicated by this rich, delicious scent. Although I had never heard that proverb before, and I didn’t even know what a jasmine flower was, I did have the distinct feeling that I had just landed in Paradise.

And for the most part it’s turned out to be true. Despite the occasional “real-life” problem, that catches up with you wherever you are on the planet, I have never been happier in my life than I have been these past seven years. Italy’s beauty, both natural and that created by her inhabitants over the centuries, makes it nearly impossible NOT to believe you’re in Heaven when you’re here. And then, when you get invited to dinner, and you taste “Nonna’s” handmade pasta, and wash it down with a glass of “Nonno’s” homemade wine, you discover what Paradise really is!

However, despite all the evidence for the argument, Italy is not Paradise. There are creatures that live here…horrible, nightmare creatures, whose very structure, whose very essence could only have been designed by an evil, evil mind somewhere deep in the bowels of the Great Eternal Inferno.

And no, I’m not talking about pickpockets, but beings much, much worse.

There is for instance, an enormous, supernaturally psychic spider, that knows when you’re about to squish it, jumps six feet, and then runs under your bed, miraculously becoming invisible. You will also find scorpions living here, fiends so vile that I’ve seen even grown men shriek like little girls in their presence. There are also vipers, snakes that have the dreadful reputation of intentionally dropping out of trees, biting you on the neck and killing you in less time than it would take you to go get help. (It must be noted here, that although I have seen psychic spiders and sinister scorpions on numerous occasions, I have never seen a viper, nor do I know anyone that has had one fall on their head. Nor do I know anyone that knows anyone, that knows anyone, that knows anyone that has suffered such a fate.) But there is a monster here that I have encountered a few times, that makes all of those look as frightening as a Teletubby. Giant, lumbering, grey and black beasts, with long tusks and beady eyes, that look as if they just escaped from Jurassic Park.

Wild boars, or “Cinghiali,” are massive creatures that will make your blood run cold if you happen to meet one and you are outside anything but a tank. The first time I saw one, I was riding along at night, on my trusty Piaggio Sì, a moped that is basically constructed of a few metal rods, two bicycle wheels and a lawn mower engine. I came around a curve, and standing in the road was this huge, saber-toothed pig on steroids, that thankfully seemed not to take much interest in my existence, but nonetheless, was in no hurry to be moving along. I had been told that their eyesight is terrible, and that if you don’t move they can’t see you. But as I was sitting astride a motorbike that made a rather loud purring noise and shined a light directly into his eyes, I decided to take my chances by gunning the throttle, maneuvering a lightning fast u-turn and making my get-away. In good horror film fashion, I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see those terrifying, yellow, lower-jaw fangs of his to be just inches from my back as this prehistoric porky gave chase. Instead, he was still just standing there, watching me go, not really caring that I had been there at all.

They say that the males are like that. They have a terrifying appearance, but rarely cause any trouble, as they simply just can’t be bothered. However, the danger comes if you happen to run across a mother with her babies, and just as with many other species, maternal instinct will turn her into a killer. Last summer I had the distinct pleasure to meet a mamma and her baby while hiking in the woods. Ahead of me on the path, I saw what appeared to be a plump, fuzzy teddy bear out for a stroll. For a moment I couldn’t figure out what it was, I thought perhaps it was a lost dog or something. Then I heard that inimitable sound off in the bushes, a mix of snort and growl, that only a Cinghiale can make. And it certainly didn’t sound like a happy snort-growl, but rather a “I’ve picked up on something out there near my baby and I’m going to go rip it to shreds now” kind of snort-growl.

Those of you that have read the book “Watership Down” by Richard Adams, will be familiar with the term “Tharn.” In the language of the rabbits in the book, it means when one becomes so taken with fear that they cannot move. Their eyes glaze over, their muscles freeze, and whatever predator has spotted them, has no problem gobbling them up. I admit here and now that when that big mamma came bounding out of the woods and stood defiantly between me and her baby, I completely understood the word “Tharn.” I couldn’t have run even if I had been capable of thinking about running. I just stood there, not moving, not breathing, looking at this four-legged angry female, and wondering to myself “Just how much is this going to hurt?”

I stood there with the light summer breeze on my face, seeming to kiss me goodbye. The mamma boar lurched forward and looked to my left. She snorted again and then looked to my right. A thought fizzled down through the porous cement that was my brain in that moment…”She can’t see me.” Then it hit me, that with the breeze coming at me, I was downwind of her, and she couldn’t smell me either. All I had to do was stay still and fight the growing urge to scream and run, and I just might be alright.

After seven hours (or what was realistically more like a minute and a half), my would-be assassin turned to her little fuzzball baby, nudged him with her snout, and they both waddled off into the depths of the woods. I listened to them as they moved farther and farther away, until finally I risked taking a breath. As that had no negative consequence, I decided to take another. That went well, and so I tried moving. I took a slow step backward, then another, then several more, finally turning and got myself out of there as quickly as my shaky legs would carry me.

Although Italy might not be Heaven on Earth, I think that if one can avoid the monsters that live here, it’s still the closest thing we’ve got.

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