Octopus Hunting (Part 1)

octopus

Southern Italy was a good place for a long weekend alone, away from the smothering heat and relationships of Rome. Exams passed, ties civilly severed, I was ready to breathe again.

After the first night of drinking cheap white wine (you can’t go wrong with $2 a bottle) and smoking cigarettes on a patio overlooking the Mediterranean, asking the moon over Capri what in the hell I was going to do with my brand new degree in theology, I got up early, packed two oranges and a heel of bread for lunch, and hiked down through the lemon and olive groves to the Bay of Ieranto, a fjord right under the kneecap of the Italian peninsula. I knew I was going to have the bay pretty much to myself since it was still June and Italians can’t fathom the idea of swimming in the sea outside of the the months of July or August: Ma non fa freddo? they exclaim in horror as you as you climb out of the sea, and you would have to explain in broken Italian that where you are from, the Atlantic never gets any warmer than the Mediterranean in March, much to their amazement.

And besides, what I was planning to do required some stealth. The Bay or Ieranto is a natural preserve: limited beach access, no motor boats allowed, and NO FISHING! In America, when you are tempted to break a law, you look right, look left, see no one, and decide not to do it anyway, because IT’S THE LAW! And even if you don’t get caught you still know what you did. The wages of a dying tradition of government transparency are a perpetual guilt complex. In Italy, where everything is a racket, things are only illegal if (1) you get caught and (2) you are not related to the mayor. Kinda like Chicago only friendlier.

I was going fishing, dammit. I was going to catch myself an octopus.

I had watched people catching octopus on the beaches near Rome with snorkeling gear and little tridents. They would dive down among the ruins of Roman ports and poke around the rocks and caves where the octopus (polpo, in Italian) reside. I am usually a little shy, especially where a second (or in this case third) language is involved, but when it comes to fishing I am always full of questions, especially since I’d never seen a live octopus before.

Based on my questions and the eagerness to talk (but not share secrets) typical of fishermen, I had built up a mental image of the habits of the octopus. They are voracious predators, ambushing fish, catching crabs and even prying open clams with the suction power of their mandibles, a feat beyond the strength of human hands. They are largely nocturnal, but can be found out and about in the morning and early evening. During the day they sit in their holes, which may be a burrowing in the sand under a rock, or an actual cave. If the octopus had dwelt there a while, there will be a ring of shells around it, grim trophies of vanquished clams, which we euphemistically call an “octopus’ garden”.

It is best to spear them with a trident, but a dogged fisherman can dig them out of their holes with his bare hands. That was good news because I neither owned a trident nor knew where to acquire one. Once caught, the octopus can be quickly and mercifully dispatched by turning his head inside-out like a sock, and while most fishermen prefer to cook them in a stew or (of course) pasta, some just like to chop them up into a seafood salad. Any way you eat one, you had to boil it for a good long time or it would be like eating rubber bands.

Reaching the bay I stashed my backpack in the cleft of a rock, put on my face mask and snorkel, and jumped in.

The Bay of Ieranto is a magnificent place: high cliffs of volcanic rock plunging down into the sea, but still terraced here and there with abandoned olive and lemon groves.  It is speculated that Odysseus fought the Cyclops near here, and four or five half-submerged caves around the bay were once thought to be inhabited by nymphs not unlike Calypso. From a port just around the bend, Tiberius Caesar used to sail to his summer home in Capri where he would toss his enemies from a cliff in the morning and hold orgies with school children in his swimming pool after dinner. Saracen pirates stole a bronze church bell from the village back in the sixth century only to have a storm blow up and sink ship, bell, pirates and all in an act of Divine Vengeance, and the spot has been called Punta Camponella ever since. A millennium afterwards the Spaniards constructed a watchtower on Punta Camponella to guard against the the Moorish descendants of the Saracens, building it right on the foundations of a temple to Minerva that had been erected when the ancestors of the Saracens were still working for Hannibal.

In the 20th century Mussolini blew up a good third of the bay to make a rock quarry in the name of PROGRESS.

napoli_ieranto

The flat area to the left is Mussolini’s work. Punta Camponella is to the right, and Capri is just beyond it on the horizon.

I could see clear down about thirty feet, and was instantly absorbed into a new world.  Sea bass and rainbow wrasse darted about, picking the rocks for food. The snails, urchins and thin-limbed starfish took a slower approach.  I sucked in a deep breath and dove, blowing the pressure out my ears every few feet. On land I could never hold my breath more than a few seconds, not having a good reason to attempt it, but in the silence under the waves, among the seaweed and corals, I could float and watch for a rapt minute, a minute and a half, and more, strangely at peace with the weight of thirty feet of water compressing every muscle and vein, before an urgent little voice would say “Ahem, excuse me sir, but I believe now would be a really good time to…”

And I would burst up out of the surface, into the light and surf and screaming gulls, gasping for air.

I explored every nook and cranny for octopus sign. I watched “tiny purple fishes run laughing through my fingers” and followed a little flounder around.  In one crevice I saw something move, the smooth brown skin of a marine animal. I plucked a bit of seaweed and poked it. It began to rotate, uncoiling for a horrid minute until it finally brought its head around and I saw the round pale eye of a moray eel. The eye of a cold killer, unafraid. It must have been four feet long. I backed away.

eel

I covered at least half the bay, but I saw no octopus that day. Not one.

Come afternoon I was worn out by diving and overwhelmed by beauty. Sitting on an outcropping of rock I ate my oranges and fed bits of bread to the minnows beneath. I hiked back up out of the bay and since it was Saturday afternoon I figured I might pop into the parish church, Saturday Vigil Masses being a Catholic fisherman’s best friend, freeing up his Sunday mornings, thank you Pope John XXIII.

Early for Mass, I popped into the confessional. Bless me father for I have sinned, been a couple of weeks… sono stato seminarista finché una settimana fa…  sono certo che non e la mia vocazione. Me trovo arrabbiato con i miei superiori, spesso con i miei confratelli… along with the usual qualche pensiero impuro de una ragazza… but non credo che sia un’ peccato grave. I hemmed and hawed a bit before coming to non so che cosa fare adesso con la mia vita, ho paura del futuro… spesso non credo che Dio ancora me ama. Non capisco come mai Dio me ha lasciato soffrire cosi… forse me manca fede.

I honestly don’t recall what the priest said, but he seemed to understand where I was coming from and to tolerate my abuse of the Italian subjunctive. He gave me absolution. I stayed for Mass, after which there was a little sunset procession around town in honor of one of the innumerable feast days of the Blessed Virgin, complete with all the Catholic stuff: rosary, candles, hymns, statue and, in an Italian variation on the theme, fireworks. The littlest altar boy, who must have been about seven years old and was tripping all over his cassock, leaned over backwards to look at the fireworks bursting directly overhead and shouted “Ma che bello!”

Which is the noblest compliment you can give anything in Italy.

 

UPDATE: I am surprised that no one ever noticed the fitting classic rock reference in this post!

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2 comments

  1. I’d like to be, under the sea
    In an octopus’ garden in the shade
    He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
    in his octupus’ garden, in the shade.

    Got it right away. 😉 Merry Christmas, David

    1. Whoops! I guess it was two classic rock references. “Octopus’ Garden” was playing in the back of my mind when I wrote this, but given my violent intent and I did not feel an explicit reference would have been appropriate. The one I was referencing explicitly would have been “Tales of Brave Ulysses” by Cream.
      Merry Christmas.

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