There are two fig seasons in Sorrento, Italy. The purple figs arrive in the markets in late June but, according to our grocer, these are just the inferior prequel to the green figs, which appear in late July. Throughout our southern Italian summer, we witnessed the constant buzz of tiny Ape trucks stacked improbably high with swaying crates of unrefrigerated local produce—yellow melons and plums, tomatoes by the thousands, figs nested in their broad leaves as though they'd been lovingly tucked in for a nap. During a five-week visit, we ate our way through the first of the tomatoes, part of the figs and all the yellow plums (and how we hated to see them go). We were too late for zucchini flowers, gone by June.
We didn't drive, opting out of that day-to-day hassle and cursing by relying on the excellent bus and train system—and our feet. In our un-air-conditioned apartment, we were a 10-minute walk from three pharmacies, numerous bars and restaurants, two supermarkets, the train station, a hardware store, several banks, two churches, a lemon tree grove (home to a small herd of goats), a bookstore and a toy store. Countless convenience stores sold fresh, local produce, wine, mineral water and nonlocal sodas, chips and candy. Even without the lemons, goats and pastel churches, we couldn't come close to finding all of that in a 10-minute walk in any part of the Triangle.
I realize many older European cities have a concentrated layout that makes driving difficult. I know their energy prices have long been higher than those of the United States, so food transport is expensive, and air-conditioned homes are rare. If it was too far to walk, the buses and trains were cheap and mostly reliable. The city picked up our compost once a week. For most of the summer, then, we were almost completely "green," completely by accident.
To be that green in the Triangle seems exponentially more difficult. Oh, sure, we have crunchy tendencies, especially here in Durham—an organic kitchen garden, recycling and compost bins, homemade granola. We love living in Durham, but being greener is proving to be difficult. Both my husband and I have long commutes to work, and our schedules don't currently accommodate carpooling, telecommuting or the bus. I grew up in North Carolina without air conditioning (at home or at school). Still, it's a comfort that, as an adult, I'm not ready to live without.
What dawned on me after our five weeks of accidental environmentalism was how easy Italy made it to be so green. Not having the option to buy nonlocal produce or turn on a clothes dryer meant no perceived sacrifice and no bumper-sticker badge of honor for being kind to the Earth through such sacrifices. For now, I'm remembering the taste of yellow plums and the smell of line-dried laundry, thinking about the winter vegetables I can put in the garden. I'm dreaming of light rail and a convenience store within walking distance—especially one that stocks local figs.