Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Friendship Waiting to Happen

A Friendship Waiting to Happen 

             It was before 7am in Calitri when I abruptly awoke to an offensive sound.  It took a moment to decipher but the unpleasant noise was the disconcerting rumble of plastic Big Wheels, and apparently for the older children, the occasional noisy whoosh of a moped with an insufficient muffler.  Something about cobblestones and big, hollow, plastic wheels - they don’t seem to go well together.  Neither did the roar of that motorbike in the confines of narrow passages outside with nowhere for its din to go but up and find its way through our open balcony doors.  Why weren't these kids in school anyway?  Specialists in noise, if they had been in school, I'm positive they would have been majoring on Master Degrees in Sleep Deprivation!  As I lay there thinking it might all be a dream, additional laps over irregular cobbles only confirmed I was awake and this was reality.  Clearly, this type of awakening to a new day did not forebode well.  Right off I realized this wasn’t shaping up to be one of the good days.  Awake now, I lay there wondering what the rest of the day would bring.

                 A game or two of Sudoku later I was up and sitting at the kitchen table when with sudden surprise, Mare remarked “My God, you’re sitting just like your father!”  My arm outstretched to the table, my crossed legged posture and undoubtedly my expression must have triggered a memory in her of my long deceased father.  In me, her sudden remark and the earlier cobble clattering events of the morning brought me back to one of the last memories I have of my dad.  Throughout his many careers, he’d always remained a tradesman, regularly working with asphalt, concrete and stone.  One hundred percent Italian as he was, I know he'd have loved the stones of Calitri, clatter though they might.  Additionally, he'd been a great athlete in his time, but on this day of my memory as I watched my dad climb a flight of stone stairs toward me, he'd remarked, clearly out of breath, at what a hard time he had with that climb.  Yes, we do tend to become more and more like our fathers, at least when it comes to climbing and stairs, a pandemic in Italy!  I wanted to go back to bed at the thought but a day awaited and I was, after all, in bella Italia.  How could I ever be unappreciative of that fact? I'd soon lose the attitude.

              What followed was a typical day of shopping and visits to local markets.  Your bread supply and where best to buy it always seems to be a top concern with the Calitrani.  We seem to have gone native in this regard adopting the thinking that goes on about the next meal and everything associated in making it happen.  This, along with our tiny by American standards frig, makes shopping for the freshest ingredients, a bounty zero kilometers away, a daily preoccupation.  Besides it's fun to get out on the streets and mingle.  In the evening, between 7 and 9, following afternoon naps (easy to get accustomed to) and once the harsh sun relents, we make it a point to take part in the evening stroll through downtown known as la passeggiata.  There along with an ice cream cone or an occasional grappa digestivo, we invariably encounter a flood of familiar faces.  I knew many of them but recalling their names is another story.  If you are a betting man, a safe guess might be Antonio, Giuseppe or an occasional Canio, but I don't usually go there for fear I might be wrong, which unfortunately I've been known to be.  To me a slip-up on a name is a faux pas somewhere on the spectrum between a "misspeak" and "a foot in your mouth".  The person I've unintentionally misnamed gets to decide!  I've taken out an insurance policy just in case.  I'm known for writing things down, especially names, in a little notebook I carry.  It helps, but not for those spur-of-the-moment occasions when a name is needed fast.  Maria Elena, much better at recalling names, usually comes to my rescue.  Bad as I am at remembering names, I'd never have made the cut as a politician.
             Mare and I were on Corso Matteotti at the time, just short of the center of town, in the large open area where in recent years Italian singer Vinicio Capossela has performed in concert.  We were passing someone I knew well, actually a Giuseppe better know by his nickname "Peppe" along with his wife, Michela, and their family.  He hadn't seen us so in a rather stealthy maneuver I tapped my friend on the shoulder to wish him a buonasera.  After a degree of handshakes and air kisses, Peppe was quick to introduce some people out with them for the evening promenade.  At first I took them to be visiting relatives, only later to learn they were friends.  They appeared to be in their late 40s.  I'd not seen Stefania and Giuseppe (yes, another Giuseppe!) nor their young son, Rafaele, before in Calitri.  Stefania spoke English very well and explained that although they too had a place in the Calitri Borgo, they lived in Saviano, a place I'd not heard of near Nola, only a stone's throw from Naples.  She explained that her husband was a government employee, if I have it right, in a regional, maybe federal, Department of Agriculture and she was a middle school French teacher.  Sometime during our brief encounter, as I diligently wrote down their names, address and phone number, she invited us to visit them in Nola.  I explained our upcoming trip to Israel and that it would have to wait at least until our return.  A flurry of French and Italian goodnights later, we parted ways.  
           People too easily say "let's have lunch sometime", "let's get together soon" or flashing a spread thumb and pinky finger, mime a silent "call me".  Usually life gets in the way and these get togethers never materialize, if ever really intended at all.  Literal person that I am, I have no qualms believing an invitation sincere and following through, so about four weeks later, on a capricious whim, I decided to give Stefania a call.  You can either make things happen or wait, hoping they may happen.  God and Maria Elena only know, I'm of the former ilk!  We had earlier heard of a new mall, at least for us it was new, near Naples, and we wanted to have a look-see.  Il Vulcano Buono (The Good Volcano) happened to be in Nola, neighboring Saviano.  A visit to this mall, followed by a brief stop to see Stefania and Giuseppe, seemed like a match.  I called. 

            Our drive to Nola had gone smoothly.  Sure there had been the normal mixture of swears and prayers along the way, but putting aside Mare's aversion to my verbal vehicular antics, this is normal for me, only heightened somewhat when I drive in Italy.  I had arranged to call Stefania when we got close.  She would be at home that day because election voters would be using her school.  This was fortunate for it so happened that this day was their son's eighth birthday and they planned to throw him a party.  Another call, after pulling off the highway, had her arrive alongside of us in minutes.  Taking the lead, she escorted us the remainder of the way to the "Volcano".  In the parking lot she asked that we call her later when we departed so she could have an idea of when to expect us at her home.  On top of everything else going on, she insisted we come by.

            The Il Vulcano Buono shopping complex is far different from any mall we have ever seen or yet visited.  It consists of a multistory Holiday Inn, a supermarket on the idea of a Super Wal-Mart, a multiplex cinema, and two shopping levels hosting over 150 stores in addition to several restaurants and bars.  At its center is a large diameter (525 ft or 160m), circular, open to the air piazza used to host concerts and events.  What is especially striking is the oval sloping caldera rising high above the plaza that imitates the look of Vesuvius, the "bad volcano", not far off in the distance (the above photo).  Except for the different entry points (cleverly named after popular nearby attractions like Capri, Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano and Ischia) located around the base of this inverted conical structure, the development is practically invisible.  Much like a warren or the Hobbit's "Shire" for instance, its invisibility is assured since the entire complex is covered with grass and low vegetation meant to blend in with its surroundings, effectively concealing it from view.  Seeing it while approaching from the highway, I couldn't get the image of that pre-school children's TV program "The Teletubbies" out of my mind for their main shelter, the "Tubbytronic Superdome", was a similar grassy dome implanted in the ground!  Teletubbies Laa-Laa, Po and the rest of their companions would feel right at home shopping here.  The inside was amazing.  The place overpowering, not even when you took into account the overpowered 483 horsepower Ferrari 430 (its 2009 MSRP $186,925 - $217,318 in the US) on display outside a Ferrari store!  Just imagine, a Ferrari store as commonplace as an Apple or shoe store in a mall back home.  As we wondered through the "mountain" we realized here was a chance to buy a gift for Rafaele.  We settled on something we considered very American, a ball and baseball bat!
            Margaret, our GPS, digested their address just fine and in short time brought us to their street in Saviano.  From the street pavement to its rising walls, everything was of ageless stone; its sidewalls still shaded a residue of lost ancient color.  It was apparent, we were in the historic center of town.  Parking was tight along the narrow streets.  But for its extra width, which allowed cars to squeeze through, it reminded us of the Calitri Borgo where we lived.  After trying to maneuver into a few spots and giving up, I finally found a place in front of a house farther down the street.  I could not but notice the prematurely worn and old man who came out of the house on my arrival.  When I'd asked if it was all right to park there for a few hours, he nodded in the affirmative and then proceeded to ask me if I was Inglese (English).  Something had given me away, it always does!  When I said no, Americano, he broke into a smile as though he'd just won the Lotto!  I felt good about his reaction, something I've discovered commonplace in Italy.  I could trust that our car was in good hands, old and broken though they appeared.
             There is something deceiving about Italian homes where oftentimes contemporary blends with the ancient world, future and past side-by-side.  In fact, a guest once surprised us by asking if everything was old in Italy!  Of course Italy is old with its buildings recycled through the years, often centuries.  There is deception, however.  It exists between the outside and the inside and begins and ends at the door.  Doors open to the world, and equally well, can close behind us to shield and sometimes seal us from that same world.  Enter solitude or just as easily escape from it - it’s your choice.  Pass through its portal to meet the people outside or pass in the opposite direction, as we were about to, and discover refreshing Italian hospitality.  That day, once through our hosts doorway, the change was complete for inside their home the transformation led us to an instant air of resilient nobility.

               Stefania met us at the door all-welcoming and happy to see us and led us inside.  At the end of a long entry we emerged into a large square room that reminded me of a Roman peristyle with a twist, for though it had no pool or columned garden lining its periphery and was not open to the sky, the illusion of the openness of a classic Roman home's interior was maintained by a exterior glass wall overlooking the greenery of a deck in a room whose height extended two stories.  As though the ceiling had been removed, and I think it had been, the perimeter of the open second level was fronted on all sides by a walkway edged by an overlooking railing flanked with bookcases and furniture.  The entire space had a bright, restful, lived-in feel with touches of art including a piece I recognized from a Calitri master, Fulvio Moscaritolo (see Jan '08 Blog story Shaving Cream Serendipity).  After a brief tour of their beautiful home, we sat and enjoyed refreshments of Prosecco and tiny squares of pizza in the "peristyle" and talked with Giuseppe while Stefania busied herself with other duties we assumed in preparation for the party later that evening.

           We talked of wines, Calitri, politics and answered questions he posed to us, like "Why Calitri? as well as insights into our careers.  Throughout, Giuseppe struck me as a comfortable man, comfortable with his life and everything about him - his wife, his son, his home and his profession.  Erudite and in possession of a cool intelligence, he was also comfortable in sharing his opinions, though we'd only really just met.  He was fortunate enough, no doubt from conscientious study and years of hard work, to have a life that afforded him the luxuries around him.  When we'd briefly met in Calitri, it was his wife I recalled, not him, for he'd been quiet throughout our brief encounter.  Unassuming, he chatted with us as if we were clearly familiar friends, clearly comfortable being with us.  It was obvious that Giuseppe was relaxed around us as if he'd literally just plopped into a favorite soft chair and slid into comfy slippers.  That relaxed.  He came across as a down to earth character without a smidgen of self importance.  Maybe it was a guy thing but there was a nexus, some sort of alchemy or connection between us for I saw a lot of myself in him.  It started when I first learned he loved wine!
            In comparison, Stefania, at least for the moment, was more tightly wound and no-doubt anxious.  Clearly, under the weight of the day's demands, she was preoccupied and concerned about preparations for the birthday party only hours away when approximately 50 people were expected to arrive.  Who wouldn't be!  If she was anything like Maria Elena, and I think she was, as a hostess she wanted everything to be just right.  I idly wondered on where the cars would park!  Sure her stress level was elevated due to the party preparations and I'm just as sure our visit had only peaked it further.  She was a precise sort as I imagine a language teacher must be, silk over a substrate of steel.  With so much on her mind, it was understandable why she was not the carefree person we'd met weeks earlier in Calitri.  Heavy with energy to match her hectic pace and wrapped in her apron, she would occasionally came into the room to join us before leaving to attend to other duties.  We neither of us knew it at the time, but upstairs in the kitchen in addition to everything else underway, she was preparing a full meal for her family and expected us to join them.  We were about ready to say our goodbyes when to our amazement, dinner was served!

           Hers was a grand meal, something on the order of those occasional, special, Sunday afternoon dinners I remember enjoying while growing up in Connecticut up the street at the Lozito's, true naturalized Italian-Americans.  Mrs Lozito went so far as to cover her living room furniture in fitted clear plastic, removed only for special occasions, which apparently never occurred.  Its crinkliness was more than offset by her tender stuffed barciole!  Stefania had found time to prepare veal and salad and ziti pasta coated in red sauce, a favorite of mine, and of course there were flowing bottles of great red wines selected by Giuseppe.  That svelte image of myself I entertain only in my mind was again in jeopardy.  Though tempted at first to eat like a monkey through bananas, I eat deliberately, savoring each sumptuous flavor of the various art forms arrayed on my plate.  We talked of Calitri, travel and nearby Naples.  They offered to be our guides through its streets to show us the city and their favorite haunts, an offer we couldn't refuse, along with a future visit to their beach cottage.  The meal concluded, Stefania graciously made us another offer, this time in the form of a guest room to rest in, in anticipation we might stay for the party.  The meal, maybe more so the wine, had had an anesthetizing effect on us so the offer was more than attractive.  By this time, a bed was more inviting than the table or the drive to Calitri but we had to refuse the generous offer and be on our way.  As we were leaving, Giuseppe presented us with two bottles of wine, one which I particularly recall, for it was no mouthwash wine but Taurasi, a spell casting wine if ever there was one.  He was obviously a good listener for he'd recalled me mention this wine as one of my favorites.

                We may not remember exactly what we did or what was said but we'll always remember how welcomed Stefania and Giuseppe made us feel.  Even in the chaos of all that was happening that day, they, especially Stefania, had opened their home and obviously their hearts to us in an outflow of generosity to veritable strangers.  They had been living proof once again that Italians are ever warm hearted and giving.  On our drive home to Calitri all we could talk about were the gestures of generosity and the outpouring of friendship measurable only in the currency of our surprise.  Could they have been followers of Hermes, god of roads, travelers and hospitality or adherents to the ancient Greek concept of xenia where generosity and courtesy are shown to those who are far from home?  Ours had been a great trip, on its way to remarkable every time we recount the adventure.  It will be hard for us, maybe impossible to match, but one day soon on a return visit to Italy we will somehow, hopefully, be able to reciprocate.  A day, weeks earlier, that had started off so wrong had been bested and more than buoyed by the new friendship extended by Stefania and Giuseppe, a friendship I believe was just waiting to happen.

From That Rogue Tourist,