Venosa, in the area of Basilicata halfway between Napoli on one coast and Bari on the other had been a known stopover for Roman soldiers on their way to the Levant. Training arenas and an amphitheater at the outskirt of town, sit next to an early Christian Basilica and catacombs. Hebrew, Greek and Early Christian iconography can be seen side by side. Statues of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and San Rocco, the town’s patron sit in niches at each corner.
The Roman poet Orazio Flacco, Horace, was our most famous citizen.Teachers bestowed a crown of bay leaves to the student of the week that received the highest marks, a crown that is similar to the one Orazio's statue wears in the middle of the piazza that bears his name. The person with such honors walked around with that crown for an entire week, in and out of school.
By fourth grade, if you were the one chosen to wear the crown, you tucked it away after school hours.
A castle, numerous palaces and churches built during different centuries, dot Via Appia where my house sat at the corner of Via Armando Diaz. If we followed Via Appia out of town, we could walk in the footsteps of Cesar, thousands of years of history preceding us, leading all the way to Rome and other areas of the Roman Empire.
Most of my friends' ambitions were to become another Michelangelo or Dante or Cesar. We received our names as omens of good fortune, marking us for our future. Our parents' ambitions as well as their ancestry showed up in our names.
Some of us received saints’ names, and we were expected to lead lives of piety and devotion, similar to our namesake. The rest were named after deceased grandparents or uncles. People traced their roots and their fortunes to the saints and patrons that had inhabited their worlds, and had bestowed good luck upon them. Fortunes were acquired and lost based on the respect paid to the patron saint or to the deceased ancestor.
At home, and with friends, we spoke a dialect barely recognizable as today's Italian. I remember when our teachers insisted we speak proper Italian, as heard on the radio that most people still did not have at home, homes that consisted of one or two rooms, mostly without electricity right after the war.In the neighborhood, at christenings and weddings, old songs and stories were sung and told in Venosino. Any stranger who arrived by our town could be recognized by the way he spoke.
Immigrants to North or South America took with them their dialect, their food, customs and songs. In some suburbs in America one can identify the very town you came from because of the special dialect you spoke, the special foods you ate.
I was eleven the first time I left home to attend summer camp in Cattolica, a resort on the Adriatic Sea. I was the only child from my part of Italy, and was known as the Terrona, the girl from dirt farms. I had looked forward to visiting the sea, any beach would do. At school, an occasional magazine photo would be shared, or some one's post cards from friends from faraway places with enchanting names. When those friends returned in September, their bodies were bronzed, their hair full of highlights, their days spent sunning on the beach.
I was already tanned, already dark from my being outdoors most of the time.
An inordinate desire for adventure and fantasy kept me eager to jump at any opportunity to travel.
In Cattolica, I met people from all over Italy. I was introduced to food I had never eaten before, food that didn’t taste any thing like the food my mother cooked. I couldn’t eat, and feared that I might die and never see my parents again. The first time on the beach, I kept walking in the water, sure that in all that water I would be capable of swimming the way it had been explained to me. I was under water, choking and flailing before someone rescued me.
I thought God was finally punishing me.
In fact, every time I got into a difficulty, I thought God was punishing me for an infraction I had committed and forgotten to atone for, such as the time Maria and I disobeyed my Father's instructions .
It had been a typical summer day, and my cousin Maria and I had joined Father and Mother at the vineyard. The place was miles from our house, and we took turns riding the donkey. Mother had packed a “marmitta” a metal container to transport "pipirigni e pumidori" fried peppers and tomatoes, accompanied by a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. After lunch, while Father was taking a little nap, Maria and I had concocted a way to get a tan like the rich girls. We started to dig a hole and remove dirt by a small creek at the end of our property, in an attempt to create a swimming hole. He had admonished us earlier not to play in the creek, as the current was fast.
A couple of hours later, Pa`pa walked over to check on us, felt sorry for the sad looking hole we dug, and volunteered to finish the job. His hole was big enough for us to sit and stick our feet in, and lie around and get a good tan. Again, he warned us about the current in the creek before he returned to his own tasks.
We jumped in and splashed around and soon, the water became muddy and our fantasy beach adventure was destroyed. Without thinking, we picked up rocks and tossed them in the hole, while stepping further and further into the creek. One moment we were splashing and singing, the next moment Father was pulling us out, our hair full of mud and debris, and dumped us in the clear creek to wash the mud off as we cried and shrieked, itching all over, until mostly clean we went to sit in the sun to dry our hair and clothes.