“What would you like to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“In life, what would you like to do?”
“I don't know.”
“Let's try it this way: what is it that you could do for hours, for days, for your whole life without ever stopping or feeling tired?”
I thought about it for a while that day because it was quite a difficult question. I was a child but old enough to understand its importance. The person speaking to me was wise, experienced and, I realised even then, led a happy life. In other words, one could say he exuded happiness, contentment with the way his life had been and the way it still was. “Play”, I finally replied. ”I would love to play”.
I don't know if that day I passed his test. Probably not. We were out in the open, on the crest of a hill bathed in the Italian sunshine. The person who was talking to me so patiently, with a sly smile, was my father's brother. A man who had devoted most of his life to understanding grapes. “I understand the grapes”, he would say when people asked him what he did, when they put him in the spotlight and pointed their cameras at him, or when foreign guests arrived at the estate and, after tasting the wine, would say to compliment him: “How did you do it?” “I understand the grapes”, he would reply, almost as a joke.
On those occasions, on the advice of his daughters, my uncle would dress well. He would put on his wool jacket, his pair of good trousers, his hat, and he’d make a good impression. The bright light in which they photographed him would smooth out the wrinkles that marked his face, making him look younger.
But that day, the day of our conversation, his wrinkles tightened into thick creases around his eyes as he looked out over the rows of vines and onto the land that slid down the plain. He had a slim but strong body, gnarled hands, his back was arched. His movements had slowed over the years but he’d still wake up at dawn and go out to work in the fields. There was no need for him to do it by then, my father said there was no reason to wear himself out like that anymore. The estate was well established, there were employees there. But my uncle, in his old, shapeless clothes, would let his shadow grow long as the sun was passing over his head, and would come back home only for lunch and for dinner, like an ordinary worker. He would leave the vineyard on some occasions but very reluctantly and only if he really had to.
When he looked at me again, I asked him, “So, do you like doing what you do?”
“I couldn't live without it.”
“Isn't it tiring to work all the time?”
“This is how I live.”
“It's what you like doing, right?”
“Yes”, he said, pulling a dry leaf off a branch and holding it in his hand, “It's what I like doing.”
Chatting with my father, I had learned a saying which seemed to fit the situation so I threw it in right there, saying, as if I was a grown-up: “Yes, it takes passion.” My uncle’s long strides stopped and he stood still with his old shoes sunk in the turf. Looking at me he said, “Passion, yes, passion is a job that never ends.”
“Like seeing if the grapes grow, wondering if it rains tomorrow, if they can be
harvested, if they have to be pruned. This work grows every day, again and again.
And even if it feels the same, it’s always different.”
“And it doesn't weigh you down?”
“It does and it doesn't”
“It's what you like to do.”
“It’s what you can't help but do.”
“But you're good at it, Uncle.”
“You must become good.”
“And what if you don't?”
We had arrived at the beginning of the olive grove, on the other side of the orchard. My uncle put his hands in his pockets, still holding the dry leaves he had torn off along the way.
He looked at the villages whose outlying houses appeared on the
horizon and at the lights playing on the rooftops. We had a great view, and the clear
air allowed us to imagine the hills that reached the sea and the rising mountains
behind us. He shook his head as if to invite me and see what was there, the place
where we were, where we happened to be born, and then he said:
“The land lends you a hand.”