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O brother

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

An olive grove in Assisi

Taking our friends round Assisi, I was intrigued as ever by the well-tended, dense olive groves which grow around the walls of the old town. This time I decided to find out something I’ve always wanted to know.

I approached a Franciscan monk who was standing in front of a group of Italian women seated on the parapet of the Piazza Santa Chiara.

“Excuse me,” I said respectfully, “Who owns this olive grove?”

The monk recoiled. The instinctive movement made me think of someone defending themselves from a persistent beggar.

“I don’t understand,” he muttered, his back still turned.

I repeated the question, this time pointing at the olive grove.

One of the ladies chipped in. Apparently I’d used the wrong word for olive grove.  She gave me the right word which I repeated back to her, but she corrected me yet again.

“That’s what we call it in Italian,” she beamed, settling back on the parapet.

“Does it belong to the brothers?” I persisted.

The monk, embarrassed, mumbled: “I think it might belong to the brothers.”

He turned away. There was relief in his shoulders when I moved off.

As far as I was concerned, he was a representative of those brothers and yet he didn’t know. More significantly: the whole group had treated me like an alien species.

The episode sums up for me the nature of Assisi which I love, and where I would otherwise want to live. Those who belong there, if only through their nationality, have a very particular attitude towards their visitors: they don’t quite see them as people, and they don’t really want them there. They resist them.

There is a skin – a coating – on the place which foreigners cannot penetrate.

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