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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Chapter Two: Life in a small town

Chapter Two

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.


  1. I loved reading this. Please keep the post coming.

  2. The first thing that comes to mind when I read this, apart from the fact that it is a wonderful read, is that you were raised on fear.

    Lots of love too I'm sure.
    I'm wondering if that was the Italian way. As it certainly was a prominent guiding stick on the Italian side of my family.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. As I read your story, I find parallels in mine...we are "war babies."

  4. Ok, this needs some ranting from Man of Roma. Rosaria, provocatrice you are!

    I didn’t know you were from Venosa. The ancient VENUSIA! Such an GREAT place, with Orazio one of the greatest poets EVER as a fellow citizen. Ecchediamine! Why didn’t you say it before?


    As you’re probably starting to guess, arteriosclerosis is badly affecting me, it is progressive, and my wife is so glad (but also sweet) to remind me each day. It hits me like in a rave. I have to be careful, no kidding.

    Ribbon commented “you were raised on fear …wondering if that was the Italian way”.

    I was struck that you, a girl from the South, went to Cattolica for vacation, a renowned Northen Italian sea resort of Romagna. People from Rome, for example, usually went to the seaside close by.

    Ok, Ribbon. First of all part of your fears could be explained by the fact that going from Lucania to Cattolica (only 500 km, more or less) sort of exposed you to a BIG cultural shock you describe so well:

    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 …

    As if a today’s Milanese went to Greenland, or something. No, no, I’m wrong. Even today, in the Italian microcosm 500 km mean A LOT in terms of cultural differences, food, clothes, manners. My wife and I know it, poveretti, not having ‘one single dish’ or type of wine in common – which pains us both - and we are both Romans though of different origin.

    Secondly, who knows, belonging to the Mediterranean, so ancient and isolated for so long, implies responsibilities lol such as having skipped the enlightenment and having kept those superstitions that are but survivals of our good ol' Roman religion made of obscure spirits we had to keep quiet and which allowed communication with the higher gods, Juno, Juppiter, Venus and all the rest.

    [*wife approaching to measure my blood pressure …. MoR reacting weirdly*]

    I will add this blog to my blogroll as well. It seems perfect for the Man of Roma’ themes.

    Ciao Rosaria. Una abbraccio! [e un bel bacione grande grande!!]

    Dialetto Venusino. I liked that.

  5. Children can have the greatest plans... I remember when a older cousin told us girls that he could build us a "Play house", being the dream decorator even as a child, I was excited! He found a old door and nailed it between two trees... lol

  6. I just came back to reread today and I'm glad I did as the comments are worth reading too.

    I'm thinking, maybe first time... that I could have said 'fear of God'

    I think that it is a good thing to do for ourselves to revisit the child in us from time to time as that child never really leaves.

    x Ribbon

  7. Oh my, Giorgio, I can go on and on about the isolation we all felt. Cattolica had a summer camp that was opened up to people all over Italy, I believe two children from each region. My dad at that time had political connections; he was in the right place at the right time to make the deal. Plus, Mother had me ready every year to "be selected". She had my clothes ready, my vaccinations up to date, and anything else that might give me a leg up.

    Now that I think of it, it was a major fluke. There were children from all over the world in that place, speaking many languages. Or, maybe the Italian I heard was "foreign" to my ears.

    I'm glad you are adding more cultural pieces here, helping my readers see all this in the cultural context that it deserves to be.

    Ribbon--fear of God, fear of teachers, fear of ghosts, fear of parents and adults in general. Religion played a big part, for sure.

  8. Grazi for sharing yourself with us

    Aloha, Friend!

    Comfort Spiral

  9. A fascinating story. I would love to hear more of your memories :)

  10. Fear and guilt seem to be hallmarks of the catholic countries upbringing up to the 70s or so when the Church's influence really started to wane. It was not only in the Italian way. It was the same here in Québec and in most predominently Catholic areas.
    Maybe our societies have now gone too far in the other direction?

  11. Un'altra storia bella, Rosaria!

    I would not say that I was raised on fear, but thought more of what my parents would think if I did something wrong. Their opinion still matters a lot to me, even though I am no longer a child. To see disappointment on their face gives me guilt.

    Unfortunately, children are no longer raised the way they used to be. Not even my generation was, and I am in my 20s. To see how many children behave is appalling. No one here has respect for anyone, which is sad. So maybe everything about the 'olden ways' were not so terrible in this sense.

    But about different areas of Italy, already coming to Italy as a foreigner is a cultural shock. I speak Italian very well, but feel incapable of communicating many times because of the different dialects from region to region, even town to town. That is, however, one of Italy's many remarkable traits - the diversity it holds. It continually makes me think about the word 'paese', which means not only country, but also can be used to say 'town'. Each town is like its own little country.