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Living Slow in Italy - Is There A Mason-Dixon Line in Italy?

Valerie Schneider

"Watch your pockets," we were gravely warned. We had just informed our landlord of our plans to travel to Basilicata and deep frown lines quickly emanated across his forehead. His mouth was drawn in, showing obvious distaste at our news. "Ma perche?" Why on earth are you going down there? It's so far. It's, it's the ... mezzogiorno, he half-whispered. It is, he cautioned severely, a very dangerous place where we would likely be robbed. Hence the advice to keep an eye on our pockets and wallets. He railed on that the people there were extraordinarily lazy, a load of freeloaders, just plain different. Why would we want to see that? His meek embarrassment when I relayed the fact that my family originated from that supposed dark and lazy land was offered as an apology but not sufficient proof to settle his mind that we'd be able to handle ourselves.

We assured him we had traveled "down there" twice before without incident and had found it a lovely place. His reaction was not uncommon, though. We've discovered that many other residents of central Italy have no idea exactly where Basilicata is located "You're going to Calabria?" asked our neighbor. No, I corrected her; Ba-si-li-ca-ta. Si, si. Part of Calabria, she responded impatiently. Actually, it's a separate region, I smugly told her. We've found that among our acquaintance our geographic knowledge of the bel paese is frequently better informed than native-born Italians. I patiently told the signora that Basilicata, ancient Lucania, is located between Calabria and Puglia. "Beh. Same thing."

Others know where it is and are convinced it is a place steeped in brigands, corruption, poverty, and slothful peasants who want nothing more than to bilk the government and live off the state. Never mind that we read regularly of corruption scandals and crime statistics in the northern industrial centers. Laggiu` e un paese diverso, they tell us. It's a different world down there.

Peppers on window in southern Italy

Peppers drying in Southern Italy

The interesting thing about what is called "The South" or "il Mezzogiorno" is that the demarcation line depends on who you're talking to. In and around Rome it begins in Naples. Tuscans will tell you that it begins with Lazio. Friends in the Veneto say that Marche is the marker. Most in the north will concede Tuscany, Umbria and Marche to be "centrale" and therefore neither north nor south. Southerners consider it all North. Here in Marche, Abruzzo is definitely considered south, never mind that its border lies only fifteen kilometers from here. My landlord will generously grant that the northern portion of Abruzzo is acceptable as being centrale, but Pescara is absolutely, definitely South with a capital S. It's only an hour away, I argue, but what do I know of such matters?

So on it goes, each having an imaginary kind of Mason-Dixon line drawn in his head depending on his place of birth. Interestingly, Rome, despite being geographically further down than Pescara, is frequently not considered part of the south but is merely Roma, its own entity and state of being.

With such thoughts and prejudices ringing in our ears we careened down the motorway crossing from the acceptable middle portion of the boot to the lower foot zone, the hinterlands undisputedly considered The South. From Abruzzo into Molise, then across the flat plains of Puglia we went. We watched the industrial zones and large-scale farms blur past the windows. We noted countless trucks filled with produce heading northward. We also noticed many, many vehicles with northern license plates bound for the clean beaches and waters of Puglia. We turned inland and upland, through valleys then mountain passes. The autostrada ended and we ascended an ever-more curvy road full of vistas and free of contaminating industry. We arrived in what we now call The Mother Land, the piccolo paese from which my family emigrated one hundred years ago, the town of Anzi. We breathed deeply and gaped at the views. Sparsely scattered stone villages clung to rugged, steep, rocky hillsides. Butterflies danced in the sparkling sunlight. Beautiful, unspoiled country.

Southern Italy vista

Southern Italy vista

We checked into the villaggio, the only lodging within a half-hour of town. The peaceful setting promised tranquility but the very rustic state of the cabin left a lot to be desired. The manager told us they're trying to upgrade things; they have a lot of work to do if they hope to attract foreign visitors. But then, I guess that probably isn't their target market.

Judging from the curious stares we received when we entered the main piazza, foreigners are not a common occurrence in these parts. When we met up with my cousin, Michele, and his wife, Melina, the onlookers approached them to chat, obviously wanting to know who their companions were. After one such encounter Melina commented, "la signora talked to me but looked at Valeria!"

We found we achieved something of celebrity status as word trickled around that I was an Americana by birth but an Anziese by heritage. The curiosity was cute, and a smile on our part quickly brought on conversation and questions. By the end of Day Two several people had commented that I resembled la famiglia and it was obvious that the waters from my gene pool had splashed out of this region. When I dropped names, "my cousin is Michele," they inevitably responded, "Ah, si? Michele is a good kid." Nice that at 54 he's still a kid.

My cousin, Michele, and his wife, Melina

My cousin, Michele, and his wife, Melina

The event that drew us to town also brought home many immigrant Anziesi, those who had moved to other parts of the country for school, marriage, or work. The normally tranquil hamlet of 2,000 had mushroomed to about double that population and the sleepy city became party central for the entire area. People from all the surrounding villages came in to celebrate the Feast of San Donato.

The first night a procession of about 500 people carried the heavy statue of the town's patron saint hoisted upon the shoulders of six men, winding their way down the steep hillside road for three kilometers to rest it on a pedestal in a santuario church in the valley. The carnival atmosphere outside turned somber as San Donato passed by and one by one people lined up to enter the church and pay homage by touching the statue. The scenario was repeated the following day when a much smaller crowd amassed to transport the statue back up the leg-challenging hill to place him back in his home church. A band played, the entire town amassed to pack the piazza and enjoy the warm sunshine.

Evenings brought on the festas, and I have to say, these people like to par-ty. There were concerts in the piazza, along with the requisite food booths. A couple of local butcher shops enterprisingly rolled out grills and cooked up sausages and chops. Another guy sold roasted sweet corn. All of this looked a little lopsided. The town has precious little horizontal space, and even most of the main piazza is sloped. The only level portion was occupied by the stage. The booths were slapped up on the slant anyway. My shins hurt from standing on the incline to watch the widely-popular band crank out 70s tunes from the Italian hit parade. At least I think they were hits; everyone was singing along. The little town was buzzing, bars were packed, old folks grouped together taking it all in and smiling. In the middle of it all were a couple of Americani enjoying the atmosphere and friendship that was freely given.

Anzi, built into the hillside

Anzi, built into the hillside

We weren't allowed to depart for our cabin before 2:00am any of the evenings we were there. Even at that hour our pleas for sleep were met with laughs and ribbings. You're the youngest ones here, why are you the first to leave? Because we're tired, we whined. "Wimps! This is festa time! You can sleep when you get home!" Obviously they hadn't read last month's article.

Huge meals were presented to us. People we had just met wouldn't allow us to pay. They proudly explained the local dishes, told us who had produced the cheeses, tried to teach us the dialect words for the delicacies we were enjoying. We learned that the long red peppers we've seen hanging to dry are not, in fact, spicy as we'd thought, They are sweet peppers that, once dried, are fried in olive oil and eaten as part of the antipasto. They are also crumbed into sauteed breadcrumbs and used to top pasta dishes. I became severely addicted to the peperoni (paperul crosck in dialect) and two of their friends promised me they would dry a string of them just for me. Each meal consisted of hand-made cavatelli and orecchiette. The local bread is thick and hearty, some of the best we've had in Italy. Lamb is abundant – on the beautiful hillsides as well as on the plate.

One lunch lasted 3 1/2 hours. Another dinner didn't end until about midnight, when we all bundled into three cars and fled in haste, fearful we'd miss the fireworks. We not only caught the display in the sky but a fire on the ground, the drought-ridden grasses of the hillside having been ignited by the pyrotechnics. It flamed out quickly enough, but was enough to get the adrenaline pumping.

Throughout these meals they joked with us as well as with each other, bringing us into their circle. They filled and refilled our glasses with wine and prodded us to eat more, drink more ... ma hai mangiato poco! Why is your glass empty?! Lucky for me the local wine is all homemade and is very light, with an alcohol content of only 9 or 10%.

I am a little sorry to report that we didn't see any brigands and no one ever tried to pick our pockets; it may have made for a more exciting story. On the contrary, we had difficulty unloading sixty centessimi out of our pockets to deposit into the town's coffers; no one would allow us to pay for even a measly cup of caffe. One morning we snuck into town without having called Michele first, thinking we'd have our breakfast and find him afterwards. All went well until a friend of his spotted us and promptly pulled out some bills. We protested and tried to shove money at the barista, but when faced with a local regular against a couple of stranieri, who do you think he was going to listen to?

I commented to Melina how amazed we were at the number of sincere invitations issued to us, how we were so quickly accepted, how everyone shared their hearts and their wine and their food. "Well ..." she said. "Down here we're different. We're warmer; we have traditions we like to share. For our friends, it's enough that you're our family, so that makes you their friends, too."

In a way I guess my landlord was right. Laggiu e un paese diverso. It really is a different world down there ... and I'm so glad it is and that we get to be a part of it.

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2007

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