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.

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