Thursday 10 November 2011
A Pig Called Uncle – Michelle Lovric
I’ve always loved obscure Balkan proverbs, perhaps because I am obscurely Balkan myself.
One of my favourites is this Albanian jewel: ‘In times of need, a pig is called uncle.’
For years, I’ve been trying to figure this one out. In restaurants in New York, I have asked Albanian waiters. Talking to old ladies on the vaporetto, I have trotted it out. (After all, the eastern Adriatic coast used to belong Venice.) I’ve looked in dictionaries. But it never adds up.
It might be that ‘pig’ is an insulting Albanian epithet for a policeman, just as it can be in Anglo-Saxon culture. ‘Uncle’ was once a general term of respect, especially in Eastern Europe. So when times get tough, one must be polite to policemen? Or is it something to do with the well-known intelligence of the pig? In difficult times, the pig’s sagacity deserves our respect?
This week, an explanation came to me sideways, as the best ones often do.
Our lovely Venetian electrician Denis was looking at my shabby but wondrous old tapestry, which is sewn together from twenty leftover bits of grander tapestries. It’s a rural scene of bizarre disproportion, with an improbably large goose dipping its feet in a mirrored stream in the foreground. Just behind, there’s a very small boy, the size of the goose’s head, playing with a miniature dog. Oak and beech trees dream into the shadowy distance. For me, my large scrag of painted canvas opens a peaceful verdant window on an 18th-century Italian countryside, right on my wall in the middle of intensely urban, marble-clad, waterborne Venice.
Denis laughed indulgently at my fantasy window. Then his refined Venetian features softened as he told me of a memory it brought him.
His grandparents were ‘proper peasants’, as he put it, who worked the land by the river Sile in the Veneto. They kept chickens and pigs on their small farm. It was a hardworking, simple life.
In those days, the Venetian lagoon island of Burano was inhabited solely by fishermen. It was not the tourist destination it is today. The Buranesi did nothing but fish; they ate nothing but fish. That is, until a few enterprising or plain hungry fishermen started sailing their boats up the Sile estuary to visit smallholdings by the river. There they would swap fresh fish for eggs, grain, chicken and ham. The farm of Denis’s grandparents was on this miniature trade route.
One day, the Burano fishermen brought a new item to trade: a beautiful old tapestry. In fact, it was something like the one I’m so proud of, Denis said politely (by ‘something like’, I am sure he meant ‘much better than’).
He explained, ‘It was all painted with the Madonna and goodness knows what – and goodness knows where they got it. Anyway, the fishermen wanted to trade it for chickens.’
A deal was struck. So what did Denis’s grandparents do with the tapestry?
They used it to hang over the door of the pigsty to keep the pigs warm in the winter.
‘Pigs were king in those days,’ Denis said. ‘We lived on pigs. We lived for pigs. Everything for the pigs.’
So I am inclined to think that the Albanian proverb means that when you are hungry, you must be kind to pigs. Pigs are the bringers of all good things. Pigs can even bring fresh fish to an inland smallholding.
Pigs can even bring art.
Power to the pigs. Power to the pig proverbs.
Michelle Lovric's website
The avuncular pig is from an advertisement for Rachachuros Seasoning.