Wife’s away, and so, as befits children and bachelors, I sit at the breakfast table reading labels. Here in Europe, labels are quite entertaining for someone with a semantic cast of mind, as many are printed in all the languages of the Community states, plus a few odd ones, just in case some of these member states go broke and are only allowed tinned spam from British Army supplies. If you want to learn to say “polyunsaturated fats” in Albanian, or “traces of nuts” in Greek, have your wife go visit her mother and get cracking on them labels.
This morning I had something of an epiphany. I was reading the label of an Italian mineral water originating from a Sicilian spring at Santa Maria Zappulla, near the town of Modica in the province of Ragusa, marketed primarily here on the island. I should’ve known, as James Bond murmurs in one of the films after a villain orders red wine with fish, when I saw that the name on the label slyly changed from honest “Zappulla” to the more euphonious “Roverella,” but I read on. The Sicilian oranges, now in season, of which my breakfast is composed, take time to peel.
The label had all the usual mineral-water stuff on it, like chemical and, hell, why stop at chemical, chemo-physical analysis. This, by the way, from the Department of Hygiene and Public Health at the University of Catania, which is an even more devastating proposition than the job being done at the University of Naples, where most of the hundreds of mineral waters sold in Italy are evaluated. “Hey, Tone, they brought the pepperoni pizza yet?”
“Yeah, bud, it’s on the table, next to that new brand we’re giving the old chemo-physical heave-ho.”
No, at Catania there would be no such jolly exchanges. “Professore, Don Alfredo send you this-a paper to sign. Is chemo-physical ’nalysi. Grazie e buonasera.”
I pondered for a few moments the question of why somebody who’s thirsty would want to know the specific conductivity of the water he’s about to drink. Is general conductivity not enough? And, frankly, what does it matter to him that the water, which like most people he keeps in the kitchen fridge, is disgorged by the spring at a temperature of 19.7 degrees Celsius? “What’s that? 19.7?! I can’t drink that!” But the best was yet to come.
Of course the water was microbiologically pure—I long to see a label that says “May contain bacilli Vibrio cholerae and cause an electrolyte imbalance, with vomiting, convulsions, and death in some cases”—and gloriously oligominerale. Now, this last is a kind of Italian mineral-water buzzword, ubiquitous and writ large on every bottle of bottled water bottled in Italy. Nobody knows what it means, apart from a general feel-good sense of oligarchic, or perhaps oleaginous, minerality, though technically the term, I reckon, describes a medium low in dissolved salts. Then came the coup de grâce: “Natural.”
In Italy the word naturale, in reference to drinking water, means “without bubbles.” So, had that bottle from Modica said “Naturale” on the label, I wouldn’t have given it a passing thought. Bubbles, no bubbles, what does it really matter in the grand scheme of things. But the label did not say “Naturale”; absurdly, it squeaked “Natural”—in English.
I imagined the scene. The proprietor father, who probably goes by the moniker Shorty, and his son and heir, with lanky long hair and a moustache, fresh from the university at Palermo, or perhaps even abroad, at Perugia or Bologna. “Dad, you’ve got to get with it. Just look at what’s happening here in Vigata. The TV has brought us into the twenty-first century!”
Indeed, Modica, long known to connoisseurs of chocolate for its production of old-style, grainy, brittle bars, as they used to be made before the invention of emulsifiers, has over the last few years become the setting, under the fictional name Vigata, of a popular series based on the detective novels of Andrea Camilleri and featuring Inspector Montalbano. This has caused a tourist explosion, with TV boffins coming to Ragusa and the surrounding countryside en famille from all over Italy.
“Let’s take the label for starters, Dad. Now, what’s this naturale garbage? Everybody in the world knows the English word natural, so why aren’t we going with that?”
“Oh, yeah? An’ whatchya wanna do with oligominerale, meathead? Put ‘oligomineral’? An’ maybe also ‘Zappull’ instead of ‘Zappulla’?”
“No, Dad, that’s the thing. “Zappulla” is no good at all. We’ve got to have a name that’s easy on the tongue, that’s good for all the people coming here, like . . . Like there’s this kind of tree, called Roverella, and I thought . . . ”
In the good old days, this would be the juncture in the narrative where the father produced the strap to beat all that stupid education out of his son and heir. But, alas, the boy is right in insisting that the 21st century has arrived in the Ragusa province. And I have to sit there like a fool and admire the result.