all that was left behind


WE PULLED INTO the village at about noon on the afternoon of the 24th of February. It was a clear, brisk day and the sun spotlit the piazzas and ancient churches of the settlement on the periphery of Bari with a pale orange glow.

Bari is a seaport city on the Adriatic known best perhaps as the final resting place of Saint Nicholas, whose bones lie in a crypt in a basilica by the sea’s gray waters. It has about as many inhabitants as Tallinn, yet even in a country like Italy, which is devoured by insatiable tourists year round, it’s still somehow out of the way, a mystery obscured from view.

Ringing Bari are a series of provincial communities with names like Toritto, Grumo, Sannicandro, and Adelfia. This is almond, grape, and olive country. In the past, most of the people of this area, which is engulfed by green plantations of flowering olive groves, were involved in or influenced by agriculture. The soil here is black, red, and pungent and divided by stone walls into uneven patches, giving the area the appearance of one lush and fragrant country garden.

In the village of Toritto, I came upon a group of older men standing outside a church and asked them for directions to the local cemetery. “I am from America,” I explained in Italian, “but my roots are from here.” The tallest of the men, a blue-eyed, cheerful soul named Gianni, tipped his flat cap to us and got in our car, just like that, to show us the way. He gave directions, though not in Italian, but in the curious Barese dialect, a delicious mix of French and Greek. This is the language my grandfather spoke as a child, a tongue that is utterly alien to me and for which I hold no key.

The cemetery happened to be closed, this being the Mezzogiorno, where even cemetery gates are locked at lunch time, so we returned later that day to study the stacks of interments. This soil may be suitable for olives, but not people. Everyone here is buried above ground. The markers for Giovanna and Lazzaro, the siblings of my great grandmother Maria, were found almost immediately, in one of the older vaults. As long as we searched though we could not find the markers for their parents — the grandparents of my grandfather — Angela and Francesco.

I knew these people on sight, as their images hang on the wall of my parents’ house in New York. The old man with the gray hair and mustache. The old woman with the dark hair and sad face. She had taught her daughter Maria how to cook, and Maria had taught my mother how to cook. My mother had taught me.

In the cemetery office, I asked for help in locating their graves. Two locals, both with the dark hair and olive eyes of the ancient Greek settlers of the region, passed dilapidated books bearing the names of Toritto’s dead citizens between them. In Tallinn, people were dancing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of independence. We were sitting in a dusty office, thinking of our own past.

Anna, our 10-year-old daughter, also wanted to find Angela and Francesco. She had been a brave traveler in this land of her roots, and even tried to explain to her somewhat bewildered Italian relatives how her friends like to collect deer antler sheds in the forests of Estonia for fun.

At last, I glanced a familiar name in the old book. It was our Angela, who had departed this life on the 15th of January 1922. But where was our Angela buried, we inquired from the men? “Well, she is no longer buried,” one frowned. “Her remains were transferred to the ossuary.”

“What ossuary?” I asked.

He stood and grabbed a large flashlight. “Here, come with me.”

Beneath one of the chapels in the cemetery, he shone a light through a grate, outlining piles of bones and dust. Because of limited space in the cemetery at times, they removed all the old burials and deposited them into a common dark mass grave. The ossuary! I gaped at the skulls and femurs.

This is what had become of Angela, and what became of her husband Francesco. This is what had become of our flesh and blood. This is what had become of the past. A whole century had since passed and the names had survived, the dates, old photographs, and some memories.

Yet all that was left behind was this.

“It’s just so sad,” Anna said to me as we exited the cemetery, “that there’s no marker for them.”

I took a long look at the olive groves surrounding the cemetery, flowering even in winter, and let out a sigh. “That’s just how life is,” I said. “When you’re gone, you’re gone. There’s nothing else left.”

mattina è mattina: notes from italy

A compilation of posts I made about our recent visit to Puglia and southern Italy.

February 21

It’s sort of unnerving to be dropped into a whole city of people who more or less resemble you. I don’t fully trust my fellow Italians, if they can be called that, but I also don’t fully trust myself. In that sense, we get along perfectly. The street here in the center hosts a bevy of interesting shops for furniture restoration, textiles, tiny supermarkets with all the necessary goods. People leave their clothes out to dry on the balconies, and don’t bother to take them in if it rains. You can hear children giving lip back to their parents through the doorways — Italian children are not Estonian children, and silence is never golden. The religious scenes and displays stir something very deep in me, the dim lighting, the heavenly color schemes, the vague fertility references, the texture and smell of the old brown wood. I grew up far and away from here, yet I feel as if some part of my mind is constructed of these materials, that if my mind were physically accessible, upon entry you would encounter a glowing candelabra and some impressive crucifixes. I feel the same way about the boxes and bags of pasta, the orecchiette and gnocchi.

Somewhere hidden away in my soul is a grotto brimming with greasy tins of olive oil and cured meats and a little old man with a white cap who looks like Danny DeVito who asks me if that’s all. Tutta? 

February 22

Some notes, for personal use. 1) Apparently my great grandfather was an anarchist, at least in his youth. 2) The local dialect is a mix of French and Greek. 3) The few Italian words I learned as a child were dialect words — ‘avast’ is barese, not Italian. In Italian ‘avast’ is ‘basta.’ 4) Everything really closes in the afternoon. It does. Everything. Even the little supermarket run by Danny DeVito across the street. 5) How vegetarians can survive in this culture is beyond me. I am sure they exist, but when every other meal comes with prosciutto, a lapse is unavoidable. There are some head shops and biomarkets in Bari though. 6) When Italians are silent on trains, I don’t get the sense that they are at peace, but rather they are sullenly stewing over something and will erupt into an emotional outburst at some perceived grievance or displeasure.

February 23

More notes from Puglia: 1) This is a society that places food and digestion above everything else. Whereas in other countries, eating is something that takes place during or between shifts at work, in southern Italy, work is organized around eating. Eating is so important that shops shut down in the middle of the day, so that people can have a proper time to unwind, eat, and digest. This deeply resonates with me, and seems like the healthier, more human way to live, even though I have not lived that life myself, having scarfed down many lunches and dinners while working at the same time; 2) Puglia, the heel of the Italian “boot,” is merely one peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean. We think of Italy as being a center, the center of Catholicism, or the Roman Empire, but in actuality, it’s rather isolated, and water-borne conquerors from Venice, or Greece, or Turkey, or Normandy have captured its palaces and centers of administration. The seas around Puglia connect this place to others, rather than separate it. 3) Across Italy, one still encounters suspicion around the South, as a place of backwardness, corruption, and crime. It reminds me a bit of how Long Islanders would regard Manhattan in the Eighties. People would say they were “going to the city,” and it would be implied that they might not come back. I haven’t encountered anything like that, insulated as I am from local culture, in my travels in Southern Italy. Instead, I am told all of the local criminals have made their way to Milano, where the real money is.

February 23, continued.

An exhausting stroll in Barivecchia at 9.30 pm yields droves of Italians, who are still eating. After breakfast, after lunch, after dinner, they could still go for some more panzarotti, or a pizza. And I am one of them. I have devoured two hunks of mozzarella di bufala today, each one richer and more pungent than the other, with the creamy salt milk oozing everywhere, and then another dish of deep baked eggplant parmigiana all red and black and impenetrable … Then the three espressos. What is going on with me? Bari feels like home. All of these big avenues and black coats and gray scarves. All of the long shadows, the long faces, the scattered lovers embracing in the piles of strewn garbage, and the stink of discarded tuna fermenting in the bins. Graffiti, graffiti. The roar of the Vespa. In Monopoli, an herbalist accosted me on the street corner because I snapped a photo of her shop. “I deserve some privacy!” she said, and I responded that it was for my friend in the US, another herbalist. “We just don’t have these kinds of shops there,” I said. Soon after she was bowing to me and smiling. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. It was just a misunderstanding.” The men of Monopoli clumped together in the parks under the palm trees while the Italian tricolore fluttered above in the February chill. Blue skies, wispy timeless clouds. Do they really have so much more to say, day after day?

February 24

1918 was a watershed year. Two of our daughters’ great great grandfathers played a role in the Estonian War of Independence. One of them, Martin Laanemaa, fought for the Estonian side (and received property afterwards in Pärnumaa, from the nascent Estonian state), and another, Aleksander Dujev, later Estonianized to “Tulev,” was mobilized in his hometown of Nolinsk, on the periphery of Mari-El, and fought with the army of General Nikolai Yudenich. My understanding is that he was captured and sent out to fight again in an Estonian uniform (I need to revisit the stories, which Epp has collected). But given his service to both the Whites and the Estonians, he could never return to Bolshevik Russia. 1918 was also the start of the great flu epidemic, which ravaged many families. By 1920, my great grandmother Erma Riedel had died of it, as had two of my great grandmother Genevieve Carroll’s sisters — Lucy and Madeleine. It may be the case that Giovanna Panza, the first wife of my great grandfather Domenico Abbatecola, also died of this, and she is buried here not far from where I sit. According to this emergency passport application I found for my great uncle Vincenzo Abbatecola (“Uncle Vinny”), he lived in Toritto, a nearby village, from about 1913 to 1922. We will go there today.

February 25

Good morning from Montrone. In 1884, my great grandfather Domenico Abbatecola was born here to Vincenzo Abbatecola and Lucrezia Iacobellis, whose portrait still hangs on the wall in our dining room on Long Island. Yesterday, we went to Toritto, which is where my great grandmother Maria was born. We pulled into town, and I was directed to the cemetery by an older man named Gianni Casamasima. He just got in the car and showed us the way. Whatever came out of his mouth was not Italian, it was the local dialect. Trying to understand dialect is like being sprayed with aural confetti. And yet it’s somehow more accessible than standard Italian, which sounds a bit stiff and rigid to my ears. The sound of the local dialect is softer, the ‘s’ has more of a ‘sh’ sound, and the tempo has a gentler, easier rise and fall, whereas standard Italian can sound impatient from the second the person says, “Pronto!” I wish I knew dialect, or Italian for that matter, but I have been informed that dialect is ‘molto difficile.’ In Italian, “It’s cold” is “Fa freddo” but in dialect, it’s ‘Fasce fridd” … To think, this was the native tongue of people just a generation or two removed from me. Once it’s lost, it’s lost. Language is a gift. It provides your mind with alternative ways of intuiting. If you have the opportunity to learn a new one, do it. This also goes for my Estonian friends, who speak the ‘kirjakeel,’ the official language, but no longer know the dialects of their families.

February 26

Vietri sul Mare, along the Mar Tirreno, the Tyrhennian Sea. Here opens up the Amalfi coastline, popular among tourists. Some part of me finds tourism in Italy off-putting, though I can’t say why. Yes, it is a beautiful country, and yes, its inhabitants are eager to please (and be paid for it) and yes, it is rich with history, and yes, it was once the center of a great civilization, but also, it is home to superstitious peasants who grow and cook their own food. Whenever someone displays a fine, highly priced and rated wine, I secretly think that the wine in my cousin’s basement probably tastes better. Of course, I love to explore Italy, and also Greece and Spain and France, so who I am I to judge? It is also a distinctly Latin country, the Latin country upon which all others are modeled or copied. Those church bells that ring are the same ones that chime over the Spanish missions of the Pacific West Coast. Yet, in America, somehow Spaniards and Portuguese are thought of as being “Latino,” and Italians are thought of as being the generic “White.” Marco Rubio is “Latino,” Chris Cuomo is “White.” The term “Latino” may hint at admixture with the indigenous peoples of Central and South America and Africans as well, yet the truth is many southern Italians have some deep African ancestry, and no wonder, it’s right across the sea. That’s another issue. The Middle East, Africa, feel very close here. It is Northern Europe that is distant and remote. To get to the Middle East, you have to get on a boat. To get to Northern Europe, you have to traverse vast mountain chains. My deep bias against Northern Europe is that it remains pagan, particularly Estonia, with its reliance on witches, healers, and astrologers. Still the Latin or Roman church also feels a bit ersatz compared to the more ancient Byzantine ceremonies. Most of the churches in southern Italy retained the Byzantine rite, and in fact, when they were brought, begrudgingly, under the control of Rome, it created a fissure between the various Christian centers, and was responsible in part for the Great Schism which never healed. In Pompeii, however, one is reminded of our own gluttonous and orgiastic pagan past, one which the church tried to eradicate with sin and penitence, but was, as the iniquitous deeds of Sr. Silvio Berlusconi attest, unable to wipe clean from the Italian character to this day.

February 26, continued.

The reality of being of Italian descent. On line at Pompeii, the woman at the ticket counter looked me over. “Where is your family from?” she asked. This after she just dealt with a school of French teenagers. I rubbed my face a bit and answered, “Bari.” “Ah, Bari!” she said. “In Bari, they have excellent orecchiette with broccoli rabe!” This morning, at the B&B in Vietri, the proprietor asked me where I was going. “Back to Bari,” I said. “Bari? They have wonderful broccoli.” “With orecchiette,” I answered her. “Orechiette!” Her husband’s eyes lit up. “I love their orecchiette with broccoli!”

February 28

Goodbye for now Italy. On my last day, to find the way to the central station, I merely rolled down the window and asked a motorcyclist, who smiled and said, “Follow me.” The rental car was supposed to be returned at 8.45, but we delivered it at 11. “No problem,” said the man at the counter with a shrug. “Morning is morning.” Mattina è mattina.

‘my fellow italians’

In every deserted corner of this world you will find a good-humored Italian man with an espresso machine.

I WAS LOOKING for an espresso. Christmas morning in Reykjavik, just a few years ago. Pale yellow light over the corrugated roofs of the city, wintry gusts of snowflakes in the face. Festive lights blinked from windows but the temperature was minus something and there were no other souls about.

Our daughter Anna was with me, then about eight years old. We hiked up to the Hallgrimskirkja and posed with the statue of Leifur Eriksson. Then we came down one of the long side streets until we found a cafe that was open. The windows were fogged up, and it seemed like each opening of its door produced a puff of warm white welcoming steam. The place was packed. Standing room only with holiday revelers in new jackets and scarves. I pushed my way up to the bar and ordered an espresso and a hot chocolate.

The barista was a white-haired man with light blue eyes and a tight round Frank Sinatra face. Instead of making my espresso or Anna’s hot chocolate though, he just stared at me. He stared and stared, and then smiled a bit.

Then the old man spoke spoke. “Buon giorno, signore.”

The words startled me. “Giorno,” I answered back.

He nodded and winked at me. ” Ha! I knew you were one of us,” he said in Italian. “With that face!”

I reached up and touched my nose.

“Daddy, what language is that man speaking?” Anna tugged at my sleeve.

Italian,” I answered, still a bit dumbfounded.

“Wait. He’s Italian? But what’s he doing here in Iceland? And how do you understand him?”

“Oh, Anna,” I said rubbing my brow. “Italians like us are just everywhere.”

It’s true. In every deserted corner of this world you will find a good-humored Italian man with an espresso machine. For me, these generous gentlemen are the equivalent of those famous Estonian Houses that anyone can find scattered from London to New York to Sydney. After he served us our espresso and hot chocolate, the Reykjavik barista took a break from his Christmas duties to sit with us for a while in the cafe and just chat. Even though my Italian is crude, he was so happy that I could understand him.

“I just have to speak it sometimes,” he said. “Living up here,” he glanced out the foggy window. “I just have to!”

“But how did you get here?” I asked Sinatra.

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Oh, you know exactly how I got here. A woman!”

It really made me smile. I understood him too well. And there is something about the language that is so soothing. I enjoy the popping cadence of it, its flavor, its emotion, more so than English sometimes. In Estonia, I listen to the radio broadcasts from Rome while I boil pots of casarecce pasta, though Anna prefers linguini. I don’t understand it all, but I do find it comforting. It speaks to some hidden part of the self, real or imagined. I am a closeted Italian, I think. I may have ancestors from half a dozen countries, but never has an Irishman recognized me on the street and thrust a pint of Guinness into my hands. Yet walk into a cafe in Reykjavik on Christmas morning, and I will be recognized. Nothing left to do but sit with “my fellow Italians” and hear their long stories out.

This identity became more precious to me living in Estonia. As I watched with some horror as my first-born daughter and her mother picked apart a container of sült one evening long ago, I felt I needed a cultural balance to all of the gingerbread, blood sausage, leelo singing, and saunas in our lives. To bring them into my tribe. They may now be the only Estonian children who will willingly consume blocks of Pecorino Romano cheese or who know what limoncello is. A few years ago, I even traveled to Bari, on the Adriatic coast, to meet with relatives. Cousin Vincenzo! Cousin Lorenzo! Santina, Gianfranco, Pamela, Michele, Antonella and Lello! And so many others.

My mother and father came along, as did Marta, our eldest daughter. I taught her how to cross herself in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas and how to eat her bread with olive oil with a dash of salt and pepper. I did all of these things without ever thinking, and yet she had to learn them for the first time from watching her father.

It’s not much to pass on, I thought as I crossed myself, but it’s still something.