Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Life In An Umbrian Village

I have two sisters in Italy (and a third in Scotland, just to keep things geographically interesting) and they all of them live on farms. My mother was Italian and her husband grew up in England. The big family secret as i grew up was that he was only pretending to be my father, a situation that made my life with my family untenable so when i coukd i emigrated. The Italian sisters are a decade older than me making them 66 years old today.
 
I have heard other people look back over their lives and remark that they find it difficult to identify the memories of their youth with their later life, as though their past was lived by someone else. Frankly I feel the same way sometimes. When I go back to Italy to visit my sisters in their farming life in the mountains of central Italy, a place the tour guides describe as idyllic, it is instead in my memory a place that was anything but idyllic.
 
My sister Elizabeth and I on a hike last summer walking through the woods above her farm. She is one of twins who are ten years older than me.
I did not grew up in an ideal family and we were never particularly close so after I emigrated I never went back for twenty five years. I used to joke in California that I was the white sheep of the family, but really I was a cuckoo in the family nest, offspring of a different, secret, father and never completely accepted, never mind wanted. I always felt like an outsider even though I never knew why.
 
My sister Elizabeth with her husband of half a century:
I have always felt the rather peculiar Gothic setting of the Italian side of my family gave my misery a peculiar individual flavor as though my unhappy family were different. Yet, over the decades I have discovered other family stories that were and are considerably more odd than mine. The setting of my childhood was extremely odd, unique perhaps for an English speaker living half a world away. Nowadays the area has been discovered and there is a lively expatriate American community in the handful of villages nestled in this particular fold of the mountains overlooking the Tiber River. The Acqualoreto Blog is one such internet page, or this a story of a vacation in my old farm manager's house. Kate Ballbach at Morruzze. They tell a story of the place where I was a child thnat I barely recognize, yet I lived there until I was 23. My family has recorded history in the village since the 18th century...
 
My other sister Patricia checking her sister's construction plans for a retirement home on the farm as Elizabeth's sons take over the business:
My own story I wrote up at some great length here The Emigre . But then, last year when I was most recently back in Italy something odd happened. I discovered the rural, isolated pocket I had grown up in had become a page on Facebook. The outside world had a direct connection to the biggest of five villages in the valley, Morre is online. Not only that my nephew's wife showed me a collection of pictures on Facebook from the past, some few people I remembered from thirty or more years ago. They constituted a snapshot of a place and time so distant it seems like two centuries ago, not fifty years. I may have some names wrong, and some faces are no longer in my memory bank, but these few pictures depict a way of life that vanished in even the rural United States during the after the Depression.
 
This first one is Angelina, a wizened old lady who used to run the village store, keeping her accounts with a stub of a pencil on sheets of brown wrapping paper on her counter. She's seen here filling a bucket with water. In the summer during the hot months water rationing was in effect and the public utility only ran water during a couple of hours in the middle of the day. Running cold water in the house was rare, perhaps unique in my family home (the one percenters). Everyone else had to make do by filling containers and lugging the water home from the public water tap in the village square:
 
These are the alleys of the picturesque mountain villages travel writers get so enthusiastic about. In this case with a Vespa included for authenticity! Television was available but only one channel and for a few hours in the evening. Life was intimate in these collections of medieval stone houses and gossip was the entertainment. Privacy was an alien concept.
The notes call this guy "Trettica" which in the local dialect means "Shakes," though the cause of his tremens isn't known to me. He's seen here roasting a bird on a spit, slowly twirling the rod, basting the bird with olive oil and salt, a job for a retiree under the supervision of his impatient wife. Winters in the moutains were cold and central heating was unknown. Hot water was provided for rare sponge baths from a pot hanging on the blackened hook on the left of the fireplace.
 
The mountains were littered with artesian springs which flowed year round, were maintained by the farmers and were a source of sweet fresh water for a young kid like me given to roaming freely through the hills all summer long (not to mention a source of water for cattle and sheep). Nowadays I have no doubt such freely accessible water in a world dominated by fear and corporate profits would be frowned upon as unhealthy but I seemed to thrive on it. These fountains were built to a common design and each feature served a purpose. I'll explain:
 
There were several basins. The first, nearest the source was full of clean water and it was used to let horses and cows drink from it. The edges were built flat, which also allowed the basin to serve as a seat wherein you could dangle your feet in the cooling water and your dog could sit next to you and drink. The second basin has the sides angled slightly. this basin was the rinse basin for laundry where the women (NOT the men!) would rinse the clothes and slap them on the stones. The furthest basin with the sides also angled was the soap cycle and you can see the water is murky from the laundry soap. From the furthest end the waste water simply poured onto the muddy ground...
 
Village life. I well remember hot summer afternoons because winters were spent at boarding school in England, and in the heat of the day people slept or hung out in the shade and talked. Everyone talked all the time, about anything, all day and all night. Italians love to talk. These villagers taught me the value of style being truly laid back. When there was work they worked and hard too, but when they retired, or when there was no work, the practiced what Caribbean islanders call limin' - just hanging out.
 

This character I remember well. He was obviously the village cobbler, and he spent his days in his cave of a shop with his leather apron, his shoe nails and his glue, sheets of leather and sharp knives. Lorenzo had a radiant smile and he also owned the only payphone available for miles around. When my mother wanted to call her husband in London my sisters and I would troop into his shop and while my mother struggled with the operator to place an international call we would get to play with his tools and his lumps of dried glue and hear his stories about the latest village goings on. The call which lasted perhaps three minutes might take three hours to place and it would always be dark when we left.

This guy Carletto was the carpenter in the village, his shop smelled strongly of wood shavings and his tiny dangling home rolled cigarette that went behind the ear which didn't hold his pencil. I was friends with his son when I got older and we raised hell in his car, behavior that in retrospect may not have endeared me to the father...
 

Nicola the blacksmith was a prominent figure in our lives. He was always on call to repair broken farm machinery, ready to weld whatever critical piece of equipment was brought into his roadside shop. His other skills included shoeing my sisters' horses a job he undertook with no great confidence in the gentle nature of the horses and he tended to shoe them while attempting to dominate them with the fierceness of his personality while my sisters tried to calm the other end of the animals. He also rebuilt my bicycles when I wrecked them and later my motorcycles sometimes saw the blue flame of his torch when I ride them too hard off road or crashed as one does as a youth, unprotected by gear or Kevlar or other such esoterica. This picture perfectly captures the intensity of his job, and the permanent coal miner's tan he lived with. Seeing him in Church for mass on holidays it was always a shock to see his soft white and pink features cleaned from the grime.

Another "street" in the central village of Morre showing the particular skills masons exhibited building stone arches sing rocks taken from fields. Also note the oven almost invisible in the darkness where bread and pizza were baked. I was always to be found in my village outside the oven when Lisa, one of my buddy's mother was baking. She made exceptional pizza dough and my mouth still waters to remember her rosemary, salt and olive oil pizza; what would probably be called flatbread today. She taught me to make flat bread in the winter using the embers of the fireplace in my own home, a winter diversion when I was older and got to live here year round. Winters were cold long and dark. How I didn't become an alcoholic or a drug addict I'll never know, the boredom was that bad.
 

Local TV. Notice the iron bars on the street level window. Crime was unknown in those days and you could leave your motorcycle by the side of the road even with the keys in it and no one would touch it. Everybody knew everybody and the price you paid for not getting your bike stolen was everybody knowing your business.

Women knitted all the time. This was not a huge cash economy in the 1960s. World War Two veterans were getting pensions and they supplemented their income by growing vegetables and raising a few animals. Everyone's saving grace in these villages was that there were no mortgages, no debts and no banks. It was paradoxically a cash economy and people worked the farm for my family, or held government jobs, like road mender, letter carrier or some other sinecure. Notice the roof racks on the cars, by the time vehicles were making an appearance the family sedan, usually a Fiat or Lancia had to do triple duty including hauling family crap. This was when commuting started and younger villagers drove to serious jobs at the Krupps steel works in Terni 45 minutes away.

 
 
 

The older women always carried stuff on their heads, in this case a woman walking down the gravel road with a basket on her head and a plastic bag in her hand. Plastic bags were everywhere when I was a kid and it always makes me smile when Americans tell me shopping bags are a European tradition. Not where I grew up! There was also no municipal trash disposal in those days and garbage was thrown out as though on a medieval midden in a mutually acceptable spot just outside the village. Weird to think of today, trash just piled up on the edge of a field in a ravine.

See? She has her skein of wool in a plastic bag!
 
The village church in Morre. It looks identical today.
 
 
 
The laundry was carried in big plastic tubs by women on their heads to the fountains for washing and rinsing and then hung up to dry. Lie was a lot of work back then. Less expensive but harder.

This dude and his wife are shopping at one of he itinerant vendors who drove through the villages on scheduled days. Most of them used smaller vehicles, typically a three wheeled truck built by the same people who make Vespa motor scooters. I can't tell what this truck was selling but it must have been bulky stuff like household goods. The three wheeler dude I remember best sold vegetables and fruit, coming round every week and letting us kids taste his watermelons so we'd pester our mothers to buy us one.

The man here has obviously just come in from the fields where he hand cut a bunch of clover probably to feed his rabbits kept in cages ( for meat not pets!). His wife in her sturdy rubber boots does her own chores outdoors. Life was not a lot of book reading in those days, up with the sun, and falling asleep at night in front of the black and white TV.

There was a school house and kids in Italy get a free education all the way through university. Combined with free medical care life, though stressful in different ways, had its own balance. It was a very Huckleberry Fin kind of childhood spending summers riding my bicycle, and later my Vespa moped all over the place. Paved roads didn't arrive in these villages until about 1975, and I learned to ride on gravel, and I learned to pick gravel out of my bloody flesh when I crashed. I remember distinctly the sting of the grazed skin and the sight of the bright red blood welling up out of my wound which was powdered white by the gravel like face make up pancake.

In this picture we see my brother-in-law's brother Mario driving the tractor. He had a job in the city but he'd come back to his native village to help his brother with harvest season. The dude with the flat cap was my brother-in-law's helper, an old dude strong as an ox with two stubby teeth left in his mouth and the ability to work hard for fourteen hours a day. Manilio was one of the happiest people I knew always smiling, enjoying a joke and wielding his machete like it was a butter knife in his huge paw. In his leather shoulder bag he carried his lunch, pasta, meat bread and a flask of wine along with a bottle of water. Home made wine was a breakfast drink and a lunch drink every day. Kids drank it and drunkenness was not unknown but not an epidemic. After lunch in the fields the works would take a nap for an hour in the grass, in the shade before working on till duck most days. It was tough.

 

This was a bit before my time, but I remember the Vespa around the village. In the 1960's cars were still rare and most people commuted on two wheels to local jobs. My generation got used to having a car and I was of course perverse in that I only ever rode a motorcycle. people thought I was lucky in summer and crazy in winter as I rode by...

 
 
This lot were the next generation of youngsters but we did the same thing, hanging around bored, wondering what to do with ourselves and accomplishing not too much...We craved escape from structure but lost our minds when we were left to our own devices. I got used to going off by myself to get away from the boredom of hanging out with a bunch of people unable to figure out what to do.
 

When I was ten years old my summers would begin when we arrived from England for three months of bliss. I would pull my bicycle out of storage and ride off to find my buddies. We made slingshots and we explored the forest trails and paths. We played war games ambushing unsuspecting villagers at their chores. later in the summer we would find ripe fruit like this arbor of grapes and we would sit and eat grapes, pears, apples or whatever we could find until we got indigested. My mother used to get mad if I came home for lunch with no appetite. She's take me upstairs for an afternoon nap and throw her arm over me on the bed. As soon as she started to snore I'd slide out and meet my buds for a game of cards or target practice with our slingshots while the adults slept off their lunches and the only sounds were bees and flies in the heat of the afternoon.

 
 

Winter was olive season when adults were paid to climb trees and hand pick the berries. We had a family olive press where workers stayed up all night crushing olives and keeping a roaring fire going in the stove all night. That was where the stuff you order in Italian restaurants as an appetizer, bruschetta was invented. For a snack the mill workers would put slices of bread on the stove to toast, the root of the word bruschetta, and they would take a bottle of the fresh pressed oil, add salt and maybe a little tomato and hey presto gourmet snack! Shown here with excessively green fresh oil:

 

Writing about it, it wasn't a bad childhood. My sister shad such a blast they never left and live outside Morre to this day. Me? I had to travel and see the world so I did.

Still, this is where I grew up so I guess I can never escape my past even if I wanted to. I used to hate being from here and I remember when I saw the movie ET I wished I had grown up in a Spielberg suburb, a place apparently filled with friends and adventure. Weird that I didn't recognize those same qualities in this funny little village where I lived my own alien adventure.

 

 

The source of these pictures, Quelli delle Morre su Facebook came to my attention thanks to my nephew's wife. I was hanging out with Roberta last September and she said "Have you seen this?" I was amazed. It was completely outside the world of the few family photos my sisters have kept. The old pictures kept ping round in my head yet it took me six months to pull them together.

7 comments:

ralph alan said...


There is that word again, home.

Lori said...

Wonderful blog entry!! Loved it!

Trobairitz said...

What a great look back. I loved seeing all the old pictures as you reminisced.

Rob McNeal said...

Isn't it funny how we eventually come to appreciate our childhood once we grow older and see the value in it. I used to apologize for my blue collar, quasi-rural upbringing but now I realize that the dirt under my fingernails was the weight I needed to keep my feet on the ground.

David Masse said...

I read every word, and took in every picture.

Thanks for the trip to Italy. I'm headed there in a little under a month, Tuscany though.

That will be me a nice perspective, particularly when I visit the Piaggio museum and look at the Ape three-wheeled utility vans.

I could almost taste the bruschetta.

George Collins said...

Fascinating and intensely moving, Michael, many thanks for sharing this personal history.

Heading down to Valpolicella next week and very much looking forward to it, but obviously a vinotour in the 2010s is a bit different from growing up in a medieval village in the 1960s and 70s.

Looking forward to comparing notes!

Cheers,

George

bob skoot said...

Mr Conchscooter:

How nice it was that you happened to find these old photos and remember your childhood. There's nothing like old memories from the past and think of simpler times

bob
A weekend photographer or Riding the Wet Coast