Thursday, October 31, 2013

Poet & Postman

Poet & Postman

If I said “procida”, an Italian word to you, would it hold any meaning?  Stop looking, you won’t find it in a dictionary.  If instead I capitalized the “p” and wrote it as “Procida” would it now ring a bell?  Let me give you a big hint … Procida is more than a word, it is a very, very special place.  Located offshore from Naples, Procida is a volcanic island of less than 2 square miles, seemingly afloat like a lily pad on the surface of the Gulf of Napoli.  

In the sleepy ages before the beginning of time Procida was the aftermath of the eruption of four volcanoes, now dormant and submerged.  Procida was held by the Mycenaean Empire in the period between the 16th and 15th centuries BC.  Much later the first Greek settlers arrived on the island.  During the Roman era, Procida became a renowned resort for the well-to-do Roman patrician class.  There had always been a threat from the sea.  As on the mainland, watchtowers were common and eventually sprang up on Procida to eventually become the symbol of the island.  Much later with the arrival of the Normans, the island came under the control of the Da Procida family which continued to hold the island for more than two centuries.  As an interesting historic footnote, in 1339 the island came into the hands of the Cossa family, of French origin, loyal to the Angevin dynasty, then reigning in Naples.  Their family included Baldassare Cossa, the Antipope, John XXIII.  

While its coastlines is very jagged, its highest point, Terra Murata (Walled Earthwork), is only 300 ft ASL.  It earned this name when following continual devastation first by Vandal and Goth invaders and later by the Saracens (including the infamous privateer Barbarossa) during the Middle Ages, the population took shelter in a fortified village perched firmly atop cliff-like Punta San Angelo, the home of the11th-century Benedictine monastery, Abbazia di San Michele and its accompany cathedral San Michele Arcangelo.  This defendable site with natural walls that peaked above the sea was later fortified into a medieval town, thus acquiring the name of Terra Murata.  The economy here remains in great part tied to the sea, although the tourist industry has also grown considerably.  The basis of its wealth has gone from agriculture, to shipbuilding, to fishing and even included a period beginning in 1744 when it was a game preserve.  In the last few decades, we learned that the population has slowly begun to grow.  Its inhabitants today number about ten thousand from a peak in the late 1700s of approximately 16,000.

            We were staying on the neighboring big-sister island of Ischia.  While we’d visited popular Ischia before, we had never ventured to nearby Procida.  Following breakfast at our comfortable Hotel Rivamare accommodations we departed for our visit to Procida at 10:30am on a brilliantly bright day.  It was a perfect day for a boat ride.  A cloudless, bluest-of-blue sky with just the hint of a breeze beaconed as we departed the protective confines of circular Ischia Porto hedged in by its many wonderful shorefront restaurants and busy commercial piers.  We sat on the fantail until the sun drove us inside for the remainder of our 20 minute ride.  Aboard our freighter-like ferry we were soon past the iconic Argonaisse Castle connected by a causeway to Ischia proper.  Faster boats, hydrofoils and double hulled catamarans, heading to places like Pozzuoli and Naples’ port of Beverello skimmed by us across the glinting surface of the sea.  Off to the south, the northern shore of the Amalfitana coastline, with Sorrento farther off toward its tip, pointed toward that rock that a retiring Emperor Tiberius once considered home, Capri.
In Porta Marina Grande, Procida’s small commercial harbor, it was amazing how maneuverable our ship was as it pivoted to position its stern against the peer so a ramp could be lowered to allow both passengers and vehicles to disembark.  Once off the ship, our first stop was at the biglietteria (ticket office) to check on return trips.  Almost 11am by this time the next returns were at 2:30 and again at 4:20pm … certainly plenty of time to see the sights.  Not knowing what to expect, either would do fine.  We headed off toward the sleepy port town and hadn’t gone but a few steps when taxi driver, Nicolo Todisco, approached us with an offer we found hard to refuse.  For 20 Euros he would take us for a one and a half hour tour of the major sights of the island.  We looked at each other, nodded and climbed into his van.

As we drove around this quintessential Mediterranean paradise it wasn’t long before Maria Elena remarked on how impossible it would have been on foot to have taken in what we’d already seen on our impromptu excursion.  As we crisscrossed the island this fact was reinforced as we passed fellow ferryboat passengers negotiating the hilly streets of the old towns on foot.  Nicolo certainly knew his profession and practically everyone on the island.  I would never have been able to negotiate the narrow passages he managed to get us through even with my eyes wide open, which they were not as I awaited my sense of hearing to kick-in with the sound of scraping metal on many a tight squeeze.  As a form of self-insurance, however, I noticed he did have his mirrors pulled in!  In one instance, he hesitated just long enough for workmen to climb down and remove their ladder to allow us to get by.  

On many occasions Nicolo would stop and open the door for us to take in an especially beautiful overlook, some of picturesque villages, others of ports, churches and beaches.  Procida is nothing like commercial Capri and Ischia.  In fact, some say it is much like Capri was 60 years ago.  There were few stores other than small markets … no Gucci, no glitz, no glamour.  Continuing, our tour took us across the spine of the island through the towns of San Giacomo, San Annunziata and San Antonio to the beaches of Ciracco and the town of Ciracciello itself before returning. 

A highlight of our visit was lunch in Marina Corricella.  We’d driven through its outskirts
earlier and seen its inviting port dotted with white umbrellas from one of our stops.  In many respects it appeared similar to a miniature Positano.  Its domed church sits mid-level on a sloping ridge overlooking the port with its many colorful homes and hotels cascading to the water itself, alive with fishing boats.  If not already the poster child for Procida, Marina Corricella should be!  We wanted to get down there and experience it close-up.  Instead of returning to the commercial port where we’d begun, Nicolo agreed to drop us just above the marina.  From there he gave us instructions on how to descend to the waterfront and how later to make our way on foot back to the ferry port.  That 4:20pm departure looked more and more likely. 

It was an easy walk down approximately 50 steps to the marina from the small piazza beside the town’s main church where we were let out.  We’d deal with the return climb later!  We emerged onto a large stone wharf fronted by a flotilla of fishing boats protected from the open sea by a series of stone breakwaters.  The wharf was dotted with inviting eateries with umbrellas farms defining their boundaries.  We’d only gone a few steps before we stopped to scan the day’s offers of one establishment, Il Postino.  Quit by accident, we’d stumbled upon a famous island landmark … where scenes of the Italian 1994 movie classic, Il Postino (The Postman), were filmed.  If you haven’t seen it you should.
With its panoramas, picturesque fishing villages and classic Mediterranean architecture, Procida has been chosen as a film set for numerous motion pictures.  The most famous of these are Il Postino and more recently, The Talented Mister Ripley, starring Matt Damon.  Yet for Procida, it is Il Postino that will forever be linked to the island.  This film is a modern fairy tale about poetry and friendship with a touch of melancholy.  In this Italian classic, Mario Ruoppolo, played by Neapolitan actor Massimo Troisi, is the lonely unemployed son of a fisherman resigned to the monotony of life on a quiet Italian island most likely destined, like his father before him, to become a fisherman.  He sees himself destined to an unfulfilled life in this quaint backwater fishing community.  Everything changes, however, with the arrival of an exiled poet, who suddenly becomes the island's resident celebrity.  For political reasons, this famous poet has been exiled from his native Chile and has come to Mario’s island to live.  Due of the amount of mail the poet starts to receiv, Mario is employed by the postmaster to deliver mail just to the poet, to a single address.  The poet is the island’s sole letter recipient.  Until then there had been no need for postmen … but for a few, the rest of the island’s population was illiterate!
Each day, Mario used his bicycle to hand deliver mail out to the house of the new arrival.  Gradually with each delivery events take on special meaning.  Initially shy and awkward, little by little Mario gradually changes under the tutelage of the worldly poet.  Seemingly awkward at first, the postman begins to forge a friendship with the poet.  They become unlikely friends, though to Mario it sadly seems unrequited.  Fame, stature and preconceptions on the poet’s part made anything more improbable.  Gradually, this simple Italian postman learns to love poetry while delivering mail to the celebrated poet.  He soon uses his newfound knowledge to woo himself a wife.  There is more to the story and to its subtle meaning but you’ll just have to watch it. 
As melancholy as the story may seem, the film itself is shrouded in sadness.  Its star, Massimo Troisi, postponed heart surgery in order that he might complete the film.  It may have cost him his life.  Only twelve hours after the end of production, at the age of 41, he suffered a fatal heart attack.  The Postman was the triumph that Troisi had hoped to have achieved although he was never afforded time to delight in its success.  This simple, quiet film was unveiled at the Venice Film Festival in 1994 and went on to win five Academy Awards in 1996.  It has been said that in the whole history of cinema, there is no similar film.
But there was a man seated at a table close by the movie’s once famous delivery bicycle that now unpretentiously leans against the wall, its tires cracked and deflated.  He sat closest to the entrance to the restaurant proper, a position most likely calculated to observe everything from errant seagull to fleeting tourist.  No one sat inside.  Procida is all about being outside, outdoors.  I wondered if this was his place, no doubt part of a daily routine.  The staff certainly knew him and treated him with deference.  He had a tough, pugnacious look about him but then so do I.  I’d estimate he was in his 60s, again like me.  He appeared fit, without airs or special agenda, just there, well placed, a sort of middle aged Italian beach-bum, absent a surfboard but certainly dressed for it with shorts and a T-shirt.  His hair was short.  What commanded his pleasant face were goggle-like white rimmed glasses.  We hadn’t spoken yet but I immediately knew, without quite knowing why, that when we eventually would, I’d like him.  And I was so right … I liked Antonio in an instant.  We began with a friendly verbal joust as he attempted to guess our nationality.  We’ve discovered this is a common practice.  Early on in many a first time meeting the guesses are invariably English, Tedesco (German), Australian, Swiss, Canadian but rarely ever American.  Back and forth it went, he from his command position, me from the most forward shade umbrella farthest out on the wharf near white haired men mending their nets.  Cats, playful children and a few other tables separated us while out in the harbor a fisherman painted the hull of his fishing boat from a bobbing dingy alongside with the dexterity of a circus performer.  Antonio had given up before I disclosed we were from Stati Uniti (United States).  Like so many, he beamed with pleasure at the realization. 
For his part, I learned he was born in Naples and for a time in his life was an Italian language teacher.  Later, he was in the automotive business but how for the “super love” of, as he put it, “for Liberta” abandoned everything and walked away into the arms of a simpler life.  Even more than the love of his life, Nelli, and a career, he loved another more, “Freedom”.  Who he was, was more important than what he did.  As he himself put it, he’d … “run in life until May 17 of 2011, when I came to Procida to spend a few days in a little house overlooking the Corricella.  After a few days I decided that this was the place for the rest of my life: I had a home, a place as unique as the Corricella forever closed to cars and the motorcycles and scooters, just a restaurant,Il Postino”, where a family had welcomed me with affection and respect, my escape was over.”
I had been close to the mark then when on first sight he came across as a free spirit.  So much for the subtlety of first impressions.  He, however, had cheated the normal routine.  He represented a deviation from the scheme of things, the order of the established routine … education, job, marriage, family … his instead was a life more like starting a meal with dessert (retirement)!  We should all be as courageous, naked of the monikers of our ambition … to find meaning beyond our job titles.  On his deathbed, I very much doubt he will lie there regretting not having given just one more language test or squeezing a little more from a customer over a paint job!  As he says he now lives “from day to day, but I assure you that I consider myself rich because I like where I live among people I like.”  I seemed to have stumbled onto Italy’s Henry Thoreau with Procida symbolic of Walden Pond!  Like us, he’d been a man from elsewhere; unlike us he’d stayed.  He had apparently forsaken all for a new life on Procida.  Today, he is a high priest; his church a restaurant, “Il Postino”; his prayers only words, and his flock, anyone who will stop and talk with him.  Was he also poet, postman or some of both? 

For a soul like Antonio, Procida is a safe haven, a place of escape from one form of reality to another.  Freedom is like that, alive in our minds, it seeks expression, some manner of form.  For some of us it lies in self-actualization, for others of us it is an elusive stingy provider.  The pleasure is in the hunt for our brand of the stuff.  I’d loved to have had more time to get to know him better.  It will have to wait for a return visit.  Though we’d earlier thought we had plenty of time, that 4:20 departure was approaching.  We had to break away from the magnetism of this special place and return to life’s norm, our norm, our place in a busy world.  

Quietly magnificent Procida, afloat in a jade-streaked azure sea surrounded by hectic crowded places only a horizon away, is a sanctuary in our fast-paced world.  There shaded from the white heat by an umbrella (make it a large one) you can easily sit and sag hours away reading that novel you’ve put off, or writing one, while sipping a perspiring glass of cooled white, or better yet, like a genie in a bottle so ready to please his new master, release the rich nectar of a red.  A place of powerful light, a corner of calm and quiet solitude, it remains yet unchanged and undiscovered by the outside world, for here I sense little changes and new ideas arrive slowly, if at all.  Your only excitement an occasional goal in a televised soccer game, the cries of swooping gulls diving toward a wayward fish squirting from a net or the glitz and glamor of the occasional movie production.  We have to return, to carry on with Antonio outside of “Il Postino”, to drink in his words along with the wine and between the slow rhythmic sounds of the surf and gawking squawks of gulls, lose ourselves once again in the natural beauty of Procida.

From that Rogue Tourist,

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy  Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Procida”.