Choosing a backwater over bottled water

The first time I went biking in Italy with my friend Greg Levendusky, he handed me a reusable plastic water bottle and off we went. I had a few Euros with me, expecting we would stop somewhere along the way to buy more water or Gatorade.
We never did — not because we didn’t need more water and not because we didn’t pass through four different Tuscan hill towns that sold water on our journey. Instead, we refilled our bottles at a wall spigot surrounded by stone lions in a village called Petroio. It wouldn’t have crossed Levendusky’s mind to buy brand name water in a bottle. It isn’t simply his annoyance at the way water has been branded and bottled, or the environmental impact of bottling and shipping those millions and millions of gallons. It’s his concern with chemicals that might leach from the bottle lining into the water.
Sometimes I think Levendusky, along with his wife, Pam Powers, are among the most brilliant people I know. My wife went to college with Pam, and I’ve known them for decades. In 2001, they moved to Italy with their young son, though they spoke only a little more Italian than I do — and my Italian pretty much consists of the flavors of gelato and how to ask for a bathroom. But their move has worked out rather nicely.
In addition to not drinking branded and bottled water, their family steers clear of aspartame, microwave ovens, and most chemical food additives they can’t pronounce. And it is important to note that they have been avoiding aspartame, microwave ovens and bottled water for years — in the case of bottled water, for instance, well before the current anti-bottled water backlash and new books such as Elizabeth Royte’s, “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.” They worry about toxins in their environment and the ecological ramifications of how they live.
They reside in a town that I have always viewed as a sort of a Tuscan version of Lincoln, the Vermont village in which I live. It’s small, people tend to know most of their neighbors, and they have an annual joust.
Lincoln doesn’t have a joust, at least not yet, but we do have two parades a year. One of those parades might last almost as long as a television commercial. And we are only a few miles from Bristol, which will have its annual outhouse races on the 4th of July, this coming Friday morning. An outhouse race is a lot like a joust in that talented athletes move at great speeds. The big difference is that instead of riding a regal steed, the outhouse athlete is pulling a homemade one-holer on wheels.
In any case, sometimes I think of Greg and Pam when I am biking here in Vermont and I buy a bottle of water at a convenience store along the route. I think of them on occasion when I swill a diet soda with aspartame. And, yes, I recall their reluctance to own a microwave oven when I defrost some frozen berries at my house and the microwave emits its small ding — a chirp that is eerily reminiscent of a child’s bicycle bell.
Their village is, in their opinion, the Tuscan boondocks, the town that time and tourists forgot and the Internet never quite found. And yet there is something profoundly forward-looking there. Lincoln, too. I have neighbors here who are a lot like Greg and Pam: They grow lots of their own food, they avoid bottled water, and they worry about the size and weight of their carbon footprint.
Sometimes we look toward the big cities to see the trends, and often that’s where they begin. Body piercing, for instance. But sometimes the trends that matter most begin in the hills: Small worlds that are not so much backwaters as they are waterfalls of fresh thinking.
After all, just try and find a spigot with seraphim and nymphs on a big city street when you want to refill an empty water bottle.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on June 29, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Choosing a backwater over bottled water

  1. CA says:

    Following up from your latest blog entry (June 2008), you may find the following video interesting on regarding the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We need a lot more forward-thinking people in both small and large “backwaters” to help change the toxic soup our ocean has become.
    On another note, as an avid cyclist and fledgling writer, thank you for your great work. Really enjoying The Double Bind.

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