Monday, October 13, 2008

a few days in Italy - 2008

For some reason, this year, I left the USA with a lot of trepidation. I was going alone and there were so many details to attend to, I was concerned that I would forget something, or that I would end up in some remote corner of Italy with missed connections. Despite my best precautions, both of these things came true. At every step of the way that something did NOT go wrong, I was overjoyed. Wow, I did it! I made it to Linate Airport!
At Linate Airport, after a nice Lufthansa flight with slightly gross food, I was met by Vanda and Rino. They took me to a restaurant in an ancient building where I had pasta with Melanzana and Mozzarella. Trying to recover my Italian vocabulary, I managed to explain to Vanda that my phone would not work right because I'd forgotten to unlock it and my camera wouldn't work either, since I had forgotten to bring a memory card with me. So Vanda lent me a phone and we went to the store and bought a new memory card. So I was set!
Saturday - Bologna
The next day, the three of us and a friend of Vanda's; Graziella, went to Bologna, a rather famous city for most people that grew up in New Jersey. famous for BALONEY! But in Italy, it's famous for Mortadella. I'm sad to say I did not have a single bite of Mortadella in Bologna.

In Bologna there were a lot of orange,pink, and yellow buildings. There were porticos everywhere, so one could take a walk in the rain and not get wet. There were also lots of bicycles. I find that in flat Italian cities, there were huge numbers of bikes. Bologna was no exception.
We stopped for Pranzo after a whole lot of walking, me still jet lagged. I ate Pasta called Gramigna - It's apparently a weed, called Knotgrass in the USA. My hosts totally wore me out. I happily piled into the car and became semi conscious as Rino sped towards home. Next meal, La Cena. Rino was wanting a light meal, and I was glad, Vanda made pasta in brodo with cold cuts and cheese on the side. For dessert, we had Cachi, which are persimmons.
Sunday - Atena Lucana
The big adventure begins. It started with a ride back to the airport. We were a bit late, so Rino drove at speeds above 130 km/hour. It felt VERY fast. He always slowed down in the areas where the driving "tutor" took photos of speeders. They got me there just in time. The airplane was loading and I was off. I got to Naples in a flash, and easily found the bus that would take me to the main train station at Piazza Garibaldi.

Ah, Piazza Garibaldi, the place where all of humanity seems to meet. It's stinky, dirty, busy. The roads make no sense, and to get to one part from the other, you have to go across a street buzzing with frantic drivers who do not obey traffic laws. We were there 3 years ago, and it brought back sweet memories of being terrorized by having to cross this street. But I had to. I had to figure out where to catch the bus "La Manna." I made several inquiries and came up with nothing. There was no sign. I went into a Tobacciao that sells tickets to go to some parts of Italy, but not Atena Lucana, but I asked anyway. The clerk had no idea. The guy over at the bar though, fortunately he heard me. La Manna? That bus stops right here, in front of our store! wow. Great. So all I had to do now was wait. I didn't want to go very far because I was carrying a somewhat heavy backpack and a suitcase that weighed about 25 pounds. So I ate across the street in the sun where it went from kind of cool to almost too hot in the space of an hour. I was surrounded by flies, street trash and people, most of whom were not speaking Italian. Napoli is more polyglot than Seattle is now.
I boarded a very nice bus right on time and grabbed a schedule so I could keep track of where I was going. I was slightly nervous because I did not have the phone number for my friend Concetta, who was going to pick me up, but it seemed like the bus would be right on time, so I wasn't really worried about it. At 3:40 we stopped in a gas station parking lot where a lot of people got on and off, including a tiny woman who spend a lot of time looking for stuff in her pocket before she paid the fare for her ride. She sat down and after everyone else boarded the bus (who were held up by her) she got back up and wanted to get back off and wanted her money back. She spoke in an incomprehensible dialect, so sadly, the only detail i clearly got is that she is retired and can't afford this bus ride. the bus driver told her he had no choice, he'd already given her the ticket, she couldn't have her money back. One by one other women on the bus started chastising her, again, in an incomprehensible dialect. A man's voice piped in, everyone talking at once. She finally got off. The bus buzzed with all the comments people were making. I really wish I knew what they were saying.
With minutes to go, we passed by Atena Lucana, my destination. Hm, that's odd,I thought; I didn't know we were going right by Atena, I wonder why she told me to get off the bus at Sala Consilina! As its name implied, Sala was on the top of a hill. I marveled that I didn't have to walk up a hill like this. Suddenly, we were at the stop, I saw a couple cars waiting. Oh, good, they're here. I got off. None of the cars had anyone in them that I knew. oboy. The cars were filled with young adults. They would wait for a while, until another car came, they'd honk horns, perhaps leave, perhaps not. In 25 minutes I saw a lot of coming and going of young people, but no Concetta. A man came by with his dog, and asked me why I didn't call my friend, I told him, and he walked away, shaking his head, he clearly thought I was an idiot.
At this point, having been in Italy for about 24 hours, I was not sure just how bad the financial situation was, (would Concetta even WANT to drive the 12 extra kilometers to Sala Consilina to pick me up?) so I started walking. It was already too cold to stand still anyway.
The road was narrow and cars sped by quickly. Most of the way the generous shoulder you see in this photo was not there. Many people that passed me honked as if to say; I see you! I never saw another person walking this road, not one. Italy has become a fully motorized society, at least in this area. As walked along this street, I contemplated how once upon a time, the only way people got from Sala Consilina to Atena was to walk. And now, here I was, clearly an exception, because I was walking. My friend never passed me, I looked in every car. An elderly gentleman pulled up to me and asked if I was okay; yes, I'm okay, I told him, I'm going to Atena Lucana, is it very far? He clearly thought I was out of my element, he sat in his car and watched as I continued down the road. As I drew close to Atena (see photo above) I saw a bunch of women. They walked towards me, all of them dressed in black. uhoh. Let me guess. Jehovah's Witnesses. Yep. They kept telling me "read this, read this" "Sorry", I responded, "I'm not reading, I'm walking" Shortly after this, I realized I didn't know how to get to Atena from this road, it was up there on the top of the hill above, and it was starting to get dark. I walked back to the Jehovah ladies who told me which road was the right one to get to Atena. Finally at the foot of a long road full of switchbacks that I needed to scale to get to Atena, I realized I really was in trouble. It was getting dark and not only was that road twisty and steep, it was probably narrower than the one I'd been on. So I stopped there and called Vanda. Vanda works for the government and has access to all sorts of interesting databases, including one where she can find out people's ages. Hopefully she could find Concetta. The trouble is, I didn't know her husband's last name. Nor had I ever known her address, so I wouldn't recognize it if I saw it.
Vanda said she'd call me back.
As I hung up, the same gentleman, Paolo, who had earlier asked me if I was okay drove up . I explained to him my ridiculous situation, and he offered to take me up the hill to Atena. He asked me all the right questions. How did I expect to find Concetta without a phone number, without an address? What was I planning to do? By this time, I was tired, upset, frazzled, hungry, thirsty and I had to go to the bathroom. I could barely talk! As we reached the summit, a man was standing by the side of the road. Paolo asked him if he knew where Concetta lived. The man responded, yes, right there, but she's in the USA right now, she left yesterday. It obvious to me that it wasn't the right Concetta, who would not have asked me to come on Sunday if she was going to go to the USA. However, I was having difficulty explaining this to Paolo, my throat was so tight, I was practically in tears, so when Vanda called back, I gave him the phone to talk to her with great relief. Vanda told him there had to be another Concetta; after not being able to find a listing for her, she had found out who the parocco/parish priest was, and called him! This kind soul gave her the address & phone number for the right Concetta, but her line was busy. Armed with the address, we continued about a block when he stopped, rolled down his window and yelled "BAMBOLA!" (doll) a woman came up to him, clearly a great old friend, and he asked her; did she know Concetta. Well of course she did, and she knew where she lives too. So she and her tiny, silent granddaughter piled into the car and got us very quickly to Concetta's house, the right Concetta, petite, blonde and very worried.
Paolo, little girl, Carmela

Concetta, not easily daunted, began preparing the meal she had planned earlier. It included lovely little homemade ravioli, a salad of homegrown rucola and tomatoes, and the last figs from the garden. She and her husband also made fantastic soprasotta and what she called sausage, we'd call pepperoni. The next morning, we toured old Atena Lucana, a truly lovely little town, but unfortunately due to the earthquake that hit around 1980, most of the older homes were still empty.
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People were relocated in this town after less than a year to new homes. The main attraction for me going to this town, besides meeting Concetta, someone I have been writing to for several years, was because Atena is where the Fressola family began. All the Fressolas in the world started at Atena Lucana. There are still a few of them left in Atena, but the land that is in this next picture was the property of two elderly sisters who have since died. They owned the land, and Concetta's family worked it.

Fressola property; many olive trees
Here is a photo of the olive groves that belong to the Fressola family.

After our walking tour, Concetta made a lovely lunch for us. While she cooked, I became acquainted with her cats. To me, one of the indicators that an Italian community is comfortable is the condition of their cats. When you see cats with collars and full bellies, it means they are well taken care of. In some towns, cats mostly semi feral, and live off garbage and left over pasta that people give them. I have no idea how they survive at all on that kind of food. Concetta's cat gets meat scraps every day. Not bad for an Italian cat.
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After we ate lunch, they took me to the train station. I boarded the train and sped off into the sunset to Lamezia Terme, where I would then rent a car to get myself to Sersale.
My rental car this time was an Ypsilon. A diesel powered creature, rather gutless. I had to drive from LaMezia, through Catanzaro to Sersale in the dark (not my favorite time of day to drive).
Amazingly, i got lost in the exact same place as the last time. There is now a traffic circle there; which is supposed to make things easier, but when you're on a circle where you have to go right and it tells you to turn left to go where you need to go, it is just not very helpful. After about 30 minutes of trying different roads, I found the right one. Driving in Italy is somewhat challenging for me, but once I got past Catanzaro, all I really had to do was go straight. I found the turn for Sersale, (it seemed to take FORVER!) and headed up the hill. They've started building a new road, to eliminate all the switchbacks. So instead of the typical drive, i got the switchbacks and a lot of construction zones. Finally I arrived at the turn to go to Annina's house, and they were actually outside waiting for me. I was 3 hours late!
Tuesday - Sersale
Annina is a wonderful hostess. She's an excellent cook, great mother, great grandmother; fastidious housewife. She is also illiterate, can read only numbers. Her house is nicely furnished, but all is very simple. In their medicine cabinet were 4 things. Bicarb of soda for teeth, some kind of hair wax for men, qtips, and i forget the 4th thing. No shampoo, no toothpaste, not even any pills of any kind (the pills were somewhere else)
I had a nice upstairs bedroom to myself, a small bed with lots of blankets. In the morning, the typical breakfast routine began. "So what do you like for breakfast? we have all this stuff"
Italian breakfast foods are things like very sweet cookies, very hard dry toast things, and coffee. Their strange American cousin does not drink coffee or wine or beer. Amazingly, Annina did have tea. and she even knew how to make it. But she was very disturbed that she had no lemon. So every time she made me tea she fussed about it even though I assured her I didn't NEED or particularly want lemon with my tea. So I had tea and these little cakes, kind of like pound cake. Then we'd start our voyage. The first day of course we went right to the house of Giuseppe and Santina Mercuri. Their sons came over one by one to say hello. here they are with two of their sons, Massimo and Daniele.

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I said hello to lots of cousins, but I met some new ones this time.
First, I'd like to introduce Emilio and Rosa Torchia. Emilio is the son of one of my grandfather's brothers, Saverio. He's also the brother of Francesco, Anna's husband. Emilio explained to me that he and his wife were little, but their children were big. Here's a picture of them with Annina and me, their tall daughter is in the center of the photo. Emilio had quite a bit to say. Unfortunately, while he was talking to me, his wife and daughter and Anna and Santina were also talking. As son of Saverio, he said. When your grandfather left Sersale, he promised my father that he'd call him, to take him to America some day. But he never did. He also talked about packages sent to Italy, but that Saverio apparently was not one of the ones that received them. Emilio was very interested in family history, and is looking forward to his own copy of the story that I wrote.
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Next, we went to visit Emilio & Francesco's sisters, Antoinetta and Teresa Torchia
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Antonietta was a blonde child; Teresa looks a lot like the rest of the Torchias.

Chestnuts and Mushrooms
My next adventure began after we had lunch at Santina's daughter's house. They promised to take me to gather chestnuts, but we knew that they weren't really ripe yet. We figured that at least a few had fallen. So Annina and Santina and I headed up to the hills. There were lots of chestnuts in the Castagnea (chestnut groves), but they had not yet fallen from the trees.
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We knocked some down and gathered them, but it was a lot of work, and they weren't really ripe. Apparently, normally, most of my family gathers their chestnuts from the woods because they don't own any chestnut groves. Next we searched for mushrooms. This time we exceeded expectations, we filled two large grocery bags full of them.

When we were done gathering mushrooms, I got to meet Santina and Giuseppe's two daughters, both of them really nice with cute kids. Went to dinner at Mela's house, where we had delicious pizza. I watched the antics of her cute grandchildren while we visited and looked at photos.

Thursday - Partenza (leaving)
My final day in Sersale, I had to say goodbye to everyone. I started off with my typical breakfast, with the addition of a lemon. When we went to Cropani Marina to visit Anna's in laws, we also stopped by her beach house, which had lemon trees, orange trees and mandarins. She managed to find a few edible lemons, even though they don't really ripen until winter. So I had lemon in my tea. Anna was very proud of this. I started making my rounds, and at about 10am, I went to Santina's house. She had just borrowed some flour from Mafalda so she could cook up some of the mushrooms so I could taste them. I was still full from breakfast, but what would it hurt? They were really delicious, fried in olive oil. We said our goodbyes and I went back to Annina's house, where a surprise was waiting for me; She had decided that I needed to try the mushrooms that Santina and she and I had gathered in the woods, so she had also cooked some up just for me to try. Now I was feeling overly full and even a bit uncomfortable. I ate one, and she tried to force me to eat another, but it was about 11:30 and I had to be at Ninetta's house for lunch (il pranzo) at noon. I begged her to lay off, I needed to be hungry. But I wasn't now. My stomach was upset. Adriana and I headed to my final destination, Ninetta's house, where Ninetta, famous for her cooking had made wonderful pasta with shrimp, roast chicken (home grown) and some other tasty things. But I couldn't eat. She started heaping my plate with pasta and I begged her to put most of it back. I couldn't even eat the few morsels left in my plate! I was so embarrassed and ashamed (your job as a guest is to EAT) and I kept going to the bathroom hoping that whatever the problem was would be resolved in time for me to gracefully eat this fine meal. But it was not to be. Ahead of me lay the 50 miles to Lamezia Terme, in rush hour traffic, a wait in the airport, and a flight back to Brescia. I asked for takeout. Ninetta quickly came up with a container and gave me pieces of chicken, bread and finocchio. It's a good thing, because by the time I had checked in at the airport, I was hungry. And the chicken was tender and delicious. With heavy heart, I drove down the hill to the main highway, and left all the cousins behind again.

It was some kind of trip! I just missed a wedding, I just missed a funeral. My cousin Pasquale died, after 4 years of being sick and miserable. He was buried the day before I arrived. I got plenty of exercise, met cousins I thought I'd never get to meet, rekindled relationships with two cousins which were kind of shaky before; learned some more dialect, and strengthened friendships. When I arrived in Italy, I was certain that this was my last trip. Having returned to the US, I can't imagine never going back. Italy is part of my life, part of my family, part of me period. I have more family there than I have in the USA.