Roberto Trotta: Vintage 2020

TT Journal, Vol.1, ISSUE 1, 3rd November 2020

A reflection on the sensual universe that is fading away from us

September 2020. The bunch of grapes felt surprisingly ponderous as it fell into my cupped hand, released to the tireless pull of gravity with a staccato snap of my shears. The grapes were perfectly formed, with just a hint of velour over their smooth, young skin. A tiny black dot at the bottom of each, like a miniature eye, told even a beginner like me that they were from the Vitovska variety. One of the ancient local grapes, Vitovska is prized on the Karst because of its resistance to both the draught and the violent, cold gusts of Bora, the dreadful northerly wind that unpredictably sweeps the plateau, rattling windows and nerves alike.

In a few hours, the precious green-gold juice inside each little sphere would start its journey to become an elegant, dry white wine, full of mineral notes, pear and sage – if the bottles I had at home from last year’s vintage were anything to judge by. An assortment of insects buzzed around, drunken on the sweet smell of fermenting grapes in the few places where we had gotten to the clusters of fruits a few days too late.

Hearty laughter exploded further down the row: Andrej must have told another of his jokes. Once again, I regretted not knowing Slovenian and just smiled to no one in particular. A burly man was taking a swing at a bottle of white, fortifying himself for the work ahead, despite the fact that the morning break was still an hour ahead of us. We had been promised house-produced smoked ham, cheese, home made bread and tripe – the kind of breakfast that harvesting calls for.

The kids were playing on the bright orange tractor, pearls of laughter peeling away on the gentle breeze, which just swayed the leaves of the vines. A pale blue surgical mask dangling from the tractor’s controls was the only reminder that something was amiss in the wider world.

A train rumbled in the distance, having just left Aurisina station and now heading East, into the terminus of Trieste. I stopped and listened, as its sound brought me back to another time, another place, another life.

March 2020. The train rattled by at a good clip, its wheels shrieking on rusted rails as it navigated the long bend over the viaduct. I watched the red and blue carriages pass by, silhouetted sharply against the leaden sky. At that time of the morning, the London-bound fast train should have been packed with commuters, standing with their heads looking down, their eyes glued to their smartphones, their ears filled with wireless buds or covered with high-end noise-cancelling headphones. Instead, it appeared all but empty, and I was surprised it ran at all.

I turned to my left and peered through the supermarket window, trying to gauge the level of emptiness of the shelves. From where I was standing, I could only see the wine and spirits section, and that didn’t show anything unusual. But then perhaps alcoholic beverages were not necessarily what people thought of as hoarding targets – though one can never know.

While I was distracted, the line had advanced a little and a woman behind me urged me with a certain sharpness to move on, lest somebody else decided to cut in into the widening gap in the queue. For a moment, I considered retorting that the end of the world really was nigh if the English had abandoned the time-honoured custom of queuing, but then I thought better of it and stayed silent.

I took a few steps forward, being careful to keep a good two meters from the person in front of me. My hands felt sweaty inside the disposable latex gloves, and I gripped the handle of my trolley with unnecessary strength. I looked around me, examining one by one the other people in the queue. Most feigned indifference, ignoring the others, pretending not to see the masks whose novelty still gave everything a tinge of apocalyptic look. For a moment it seemed to me that the new social distancing rules had simply made apparent the invisible bubble of isolation that surrounded all of us, even and especially when uncomfortably squeezed among fellow commuters inside an overcrowded carriage.

I got to the head of the line and was waved in by an attendant who was keeping tabs on the number of customers at the entrance. I scuttled in, heading straight for the canned food aisle.

October 2020. When we arrived, the schoolyard was already packed, and the grade one children were lining up before being marched to their classroom by their teacher, each child touching with their outstretched hand the shoulder of the child in front of them, to ensure a safe distance. Punctuality in the morning was especially important since parents were not admitted into the school building, hence any latecomer would have to go through a complicated procedure to be escorted to their classroom.

After years of yellow, green and grey school uniforms in England, the Italian free-for-all dress policy (or rather, lack thereof) felt like an assault to the senses: pink high-soled shoes and jeans, blue bomber jackets over Batman t-shirts, orange anoraks over white-and-purple striped dresses, plus of course a multitude of Frozen and Spiderman backpacks created a visual cacophony that was as discordant as it was cheerful. Some children had taken the opportunity to transform their masks into another vehicle of self-expression, featuring snarling grins, coloured butterflies, flower patterns or cute teddy bears.

My daughter spotted one of her classmates in the crowd, and the two girls ran towards each other with a shriek of excitement and a wide grin that their masks couldn’t quite conceal. I saw them stop dead a few feet away from each other, each opening their arms as if for an embrace and then crossing them over their chest, hugging their own shoulders tight.

I turned and walked back to the car, a frozen hand gripping my heart. The sun had just appeared over the mountains in the distance, blinding me. I removed my fogged-up glasses, and I discovered that my eyes were still misty.

Roberto Trotta is Professor of Astrostatistics at Imperial College London, currently on leave of absence to the International School of Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy. An award-winning author and science communicator, he is the recipient of the Annie Maunder Medal 2020 of the Royal Astronomical Society for his public engagement work.

Photographs from the harvest are author’s own.