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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Under Vesuvius

City Life

Graziella waited until she was hungry, and then opened the package wrapped in plain butcher paper that Mingu' had handed her at the station. There was the gold locket and chain that Donna Maria Rosaria had always worn. My Lord, she thought, I can’t thank her enough. She read the note stuck in a corner:

“Cuore del mio cuore….

Hart of my heart,

I miss you already,


She looked at those words for a long time, and before she realized, she was at the station in Naples.

Naples in 1930 was hot, blustery, smelly, noisy, a mixture of high and low society. The city had been the seat of the royal family commanding the Two Sicilies way before Italy became unified under the House of Savoy. It had beautiful museums, castles,  palaces and Roman and Greek antiquities.

Briny smells of sea life and food cooked outdoors slapped the city from the boardwalks to the top of Vesuvius. The town clamored for attention at every corner; noise and laughter following her everywhere. It felt like a holiday spilling out from church pews, coffee houses, parks, houses and boats, forcing you to stop and participate. There were things to do, places to go, schedules and expectations, people coming and going. Breakfast at eight, dinner at two, supper at nine, long and elaborate meals punctuating each day, like the tick-tock sound of the clock in grandfather’s library.

The town was trying to erase all memories of a past life. When you are here, it screamed, live with all your senses.

She attended classes in the morning, uncomfortable walking to and from, skirting people and animals, trying to ignore the yelling and calling out of street merchants, sing-song lilts that reminded her of the songs Mingu would sing. The town spewed joy, anger, irritability and gentility at the end of each street.

She felt inadequate, conspicuous in her old fashioned clothes. . When her grandmother insisted Graziella be fitted for proper attire and took her to a special shop where fashionable clothes for women were produced on demand, she was stunned and pleased too. She had sewn her own ever since she was ten. In fact, she and Dolora’ had sewn everyone’s outfits at home, even her father’s. These shops had special patterns, special fabrics and professional seamstresses who could measure and produce an outfit in less than a week.

She noticed her grandparents changed clothes often, and she was expected to do the same. There were more people around the house, doing different jobs for you, including freshening your clothes after each wearing, before you had a chance to agree to that. There were more people in service here than back home, though the vineyards required lots of hands.

Graziella bathed in a warm room, and let the water be thrown out, instead of using it to wash clothes. When she first arrived, she had washed her own delicates and had tried to find a place to hang them on the terrace when the maid laughed and told her everything was hung out in the basement; in fact, there was a special drawer in each room for dirty clothes. From that spot, the laundry dropped in the basement where a team of laundresses had tubs of hot water and finished in a few hours. The following day someone else’s job was to iron and mend and put clothes away in each owner’s bureau.

At home, water was a precious commodity, especially in the summer when the creek was low and animals and vineyards needed assistance through dry spells. Everyone had chores, cleaning fireplaces, transporting wood and oil for lamps, changing linens, helping in the kitchen, sewing. There were always things to be done and everyone pitching in to do them.

Right now, she thought, every man, woman and child over five will be helping with the olive harvest. The sick and very old would prepare food and mind infants. For the next month, while she was being shown the sights and purchasing luxurious linens for her trousseau, at her grandmother’s insistence, her brother and sisters were spending twelve hours in the fields, alongside the workers, climbing tall trees, plucking olives from each branch without dropping any, sorting and packaging. There were people for each task; and children were especially adept at climbing branches hard to reach. The entire town was doing the same task in different lands.

The wind smelled of olives and grapes, harvests taking place one after the other in all the surrounding vineyards.

At home, they all did the laundry, sharing tidbits of each other’s dreams and miseries. The children knew not to dirty any more than was absolutely necessary. They wore their apron-like over-dress and over -shirt around the house to prevent spills and marks.

I must adapt, but not be carried away with this practice, thought Graziella.

At dinner, Doctor Fabrizi directed the conversation as he sat at the head of the table. He was interested in what Graziella was learning, interrupting often to spout out his philosophy on the need for universal public education, or the latest news bit.

“Don’t believe the propaganda,” he told her when she shared the latest edict from Mussolini that teachers had to sign allegiance pacts.

He marched her to the library, at the end of the meal to show her something or other that she should have read by now. Every waking moment was filled with books, conversations, classes, outings. She had forgotten to write back home twice in one month.

Two weeks into her classes and she had lost track of time. Studying furiously until all hours at night, Graziella noticed that her grandparents read newspapers or wrote letters, and inevitably ended up taking a nap for an hour or so, not realizing that they still had the book opened at the same page.

She would help them get comfortable, add a pillow here, a shawl there, loving how they insisted they wanted to stay there, to remain in her presence until she went to bed. When she could no longer keep her own eyes open, she woke each of them, one at a time, and guided them to their bed.

She was not prepared for her classes. And she could not admit this to anyone. She needed to absorb and catch up before someone found out. If her grandmother knew, she would get her a tutor. And then what? What can a tutor do?

I don’t need a tutor, what I need is time, she thought, time to catch up.

She excused herself from accompanying them to events. Grandma’s face was always disappointed. “Just like your mother!” She’d say, “Your mother had the pick of the crop, young men courting her everywhere we went. She began to retreat to her studies, telling us that she was going to be a doctor too. Who heard of women doctor? But she was tenacious, that one. You got that from her, and your hair color. I think I see her every time your blond hair catches the light! You’re a looker, too, just like your mother!”

“Oh? Thank you Nonna. Why didn’t she become a doctor?” Graziella didn’t know this part.

“She met your father, and the rest is history.”

“Well, I’m engaged, and still…”

“Here, you ought to have this book at your disposal…” Doctor Fabrizi had changed the conversation, got a book off the shelf and passed it on to her. It was the anatomy book that she needed to purchase at the bookstore. Her mother must have known these books, must have dreamed just as this daughter is now dreaming.

“It won’t happen to me,” she said, “ I will finish my studies. Mingu will wait for me and Papa’ will get better and see me graduate. I hope I can keep up with my classes… ” She said this last statement before she realized that she was being premature, worrying them at this point.

“I am worried …” She started to expain.

“Studies are supposed to be hard. Schools are geared for those special top minds who can take a challenge. They resemble the challenges in life, only more so. Medicine, especially.” Her grandfather had put his arms around her and understood. He believed girls could do anything they want. But, he knew that many of them were intimidated easily. Not his Marianna, he thought. And tears showed up at the thought of his only daughter dead in her prime. If only there were more doctors, female doctors for females, he thought.

“I want the practical part.” Graziella said.

“The more we know of how things work, the more we can figure out when something goes wrong. I’m still learning things, understanding things that I studied in my first year. Imagine that, still learning in my eighties.” He had to get through to her that learning is a continuous process. Even when we think we know everything, there are always new things to learn.

“Nonno, did Mother have the same difficulties?”

“I don’t know! She had just started when she met Paolo. He swept her off her feet so fast, we had nothing to say about the matter. We went to meet his parents and that was that.”

“I feel so unprepared for my classes.”

“I’d love to help you. You just have to keep me awake long enough!” He had a chance with this child, he thought.

Grandmother jumped in suggesting that Graziella could take fewer classes, enjoy what the city had to offer, go out with the rest of the students instead of studying every night.

The following day, Doctor Fabrizi lined up his books of anatomy and asked her to fire off questions. She did, reading one paragraph, and forming a question for him. He went to a corner of the room and pushed a button to reveal a big schematic, a study aid he had forgotten he had. Good grief, that’s just what I need, she thought. They fired away at each other, one question at a time, in a game set kept up with scores that Grandmother shouted out loud.

The interchange invigorated everyone.

Before they knew it, the clock struck midnight.

Buoyed by the experience, Graziella shouted, “ I can do it!”


  1. This is such a pleasure to read. I look forward to each segment!

  2. Yes, a great pleasure to read. I feel as if I am in Naples with Graziella!

  3. When you wrote about the olive harvest, I could not help but think about my father whose parents had olives trees near Patras, Greece, and how he said he came home from school to a snack of warm bread dipped in olive oil.

  4. What a great story of remembrance. You do a great job of making your audience "feel".


  5. "The town was trying to erase all memories of a past life. When you are here, it screamed, live with all your senses." Oh, Rosaria, you have the city here, the city then, many cities today. I'm excited by this post. I have to go back and read more.


  6. "I don’t need a tutor, what I need is time, she thought, time to catch up."

    I feel like this, Rosaria. I think many of us need this, the time, and too often, we forget to make or take it.

    (I was so fricken excited about the changes in social dress between the town and the city. This speaks back to a fascination I've always had with history and how our society has developed and changed our view of the self. Imagine what ramifications even just the change in dress and toiletry would have on G.'s idea of self. It blows my mind, this, which might seem simple, but really is so complicated. I love this. Invigorating post.)


  7. Erin,
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts with me. I need to hear what resonates with readers, with modern ears. Yes, changing clothes, food, routines, even how we spend time together, our space, all affect who we are and how we feel about our place in the world.

    I love what you say, these things might seem simple. Yes! We, as writers, must create a space made of everyday things to make the character live a full life. We do it consciously, deliberately, worried all the time of how much to keep, how boring or insignificant it all feels when in fact, like spicing up a dish, it can overwhelm or underwhelm.

    Thanks for visit. I gain new eyes and ears when someone else reads this.

  8. Rosaria, I am sorry I missed so many of these posts. I loved the description of Naples, so authentic. E poi, fattelo dire, sei veramente brava come scrittrice. Sai, avevo stampato molti di questi post legati alla tua memoria, perché sei un esempio vivissimo di italo-americana! Ma poi, sono stato travolto dalla vita che mi gira attorno velocemente, troppo velocemente.

    But I will come back. And if I will not, scold me!

    Un abbraccio carissimo.

  9. Ciao Giorgio,
    Glad to see you around. Grazie per il complimento!

    p.s. slow down, my friend. We taught the world to slow down and enjoy life.

  10. "We taught the world to slow down and enjoy life"? Must be a case of do what I say, not what I do.

  11. Paul, I think modern life, different cultures have changed our patterns and attitude. In the old country things happened through fortune and destiny. You were either born one way or another; nothing much you could do! We lived with what we had; we learned to enjoy what we had, give blessings for the wonderful surprises, and accepted the ugly parts that came our way.

    "Il dolce far niente" is so Italian, but maybe not so modern Italian. Giorgio can speak on this.

  12. I misinterpreted your words as applying to you. I figured that with 3 blogs, the school board, a book club, etc, you were far from slowing down. But applied to "les vieux pays", it figures.

  13. Thanks for sharing us a very impressive story.