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The End is Nigh

Valerie Schneider

The flimsy tent was erected off to the side of the piazza.  “Revival” was scrawled on a poster board, placed to face the main passeggiata flow.  Inside, only a handful of people were scattered among the neat rows of folding chairs, but outside grouped a crowd of curiosity seekers, gazing in to see what was happening in the nylon inner sanctum, not willing to enter, yet wanting to know what was going on.  They jockeyed for clear-sight positions and bobbed their heads to and fro, alternating their gazes from the workers unfurling sound equipment to their cronies, while commenting and asking for insight about the possible goings-on within.  I must say that they resembled, perhaps somewhat ironically, a flock of bleating sheep.

Their confusion and amusement were understandable; after all, it isn’t every day that a Bible Belt-style tent revival rolls into Matera, deep in the south of Italy.  And just when they thought they had things figured out, the microphone crackled to life and a voice, unmistakably trained, even in Italian, to share the news of brimstone and hell-fire began to do just that.  As the talking and questioning from without began to rise in crescendo, so did the voice from within to compensate.  All through the piazza echoed an old-fashioned preaching-to, with words ebbing and flowing that were mostly incomprehensible to me, except for the repeated refrain of the Italian equivalent of “The end is nigh.”

I couldn’t help thinking, don’t I know it.  Not the end of the world but the end of our Italian adventure, which at first seemed something like the same thing.  I was not (and still am not) ready to go.  But la crisi economica that has plagued our homeland has hit home here, as well.  The savings statement was weighed on the balance and found lacking.  There was nothing to do but face it head on- after a few months of deep denial, of course.

Unfortunate timing for being involved in tourism and property management, and it seems editors aren’t buying many articles these days, either.  I spent an inordinate amount of time writing my CV in Italian, which received compliments from my gracious proofreaders but niente from the recipient organizations.  That’s when reality reared its hideous head, telling me quite convincingly that no income means no rent money means nowhere to live.  At least not for very long.  Hellfire and brimstone reality, indeed.

Plans were unwillingly and sketchily made to return to the US.  Where we will eventually end up and for how long is still undetermined, as we fully plan to brighten the bank account and hot-tail it back across the pond as soon as possible. 

Our countdown to Re-entry began with our departure from the Cilento Coast.  Our friend needed his villa back.  Relations were coming for a visit and we had promised to show them around.  T minus two months.  We kicked off the first leg of our Farewell Tour to make the most of the remaining time in the Old Country before heading back to the New World.
First stop, Ascoli Piceno.  Diane and Brian loved it, as we knew they would.  We introduced them to the sights and flavors we had been enjoying daily for the past few years.  They enjoyed wine tasting, heaping helpings of pasta, and stellar sea views from the rental apartment we booked.  They explored forts and castles, hill towns and hidden gems. We loved seeing it anew through their first-timers eyes.

We met with some of our Ascolani friends and broke the bad news of the terminal state of our savings account, and they helped us mourn its imminent death.  One was so upset that he lamented not having extra space to offer us, no room in his small home that we could use.  “But…” he said, after pondering things a bit, “I do have an empty garage.”  He considered the possibilities a little longer before determining it would not do.  Too dark and damp.  “Mannaggia!  If there was anyway that I could make it habitable for you, I would do it.”  He was bummed out, he told us, that we would be going away. 

We appreciated his sentiment, but we are definitely past that age when living in a borrowed basement (or garage, as it were) would be comfortable for us.  Twenty-five years ago, maybe we would have considered it.  Maybe.  Still, it was nice to know that our departure would be as unwanted by them as by us.

Next stop on The Tour:  Rome.  The Eternal City, packed with historic relics … and crammed with kids on their gite scholastiche (school trips).  There were also crowds gathered from the length of the peninsula, converging to march for a labor demonstration.  They snarled traffic, overtaxed the piddly Metro system, and occupied every available bench and staircase in the city for their picnics. 

We witnessed the overwhelming multitude from every tribe and nation gathered in Saint Peter’s Square for Palm Sunday with the Pope.  The mass of humanity ribboned out of the piazza and down via della Conciliazione toward our vantage point at Castel Sant’Angelo, many wearing the native garb of their homelands.  Beautiful.

Our rather shabby apartment on Piazza Barberini turned out to be a thrill, despite its cramped quarters, quirky baths and less than comfortable furnishings, because of the front-row seat it afforded us.  From our first-floor windows we watched the buzzing activity below in the piazza and waved to tourists on the upper deck of the Open Bus.  We peeled ourselves away from the interesting voyeurism to show Diane and Brian the splendors of Rome.


Piazza Barberini at Pranzo (lunch)

Piazza Barberini at Pranzo (lunch)

Then our world was rocked.  The earthquake that struck L’Aquila woke us up, as the building moved and the wooden floor of the loft where Bryan and I slumbered began to squeak and sway. In my barely-awake state I thought, gee, that feels like a tremor, but dismissed it. After all, we were in Rome where seismic activity is not very common. We had felt several tremors in Ascoli Piceno where the mountainous terrain is more conducive to shakings and rattlings. But Rome?

When we really awoke at 7:30am, we heard the horrible notizia of severe damage and tragic deaths in the region of Abruzzo.  The images were heartbreaking.

Diane was the lucky one; she slept while Rome trembled. Too bad we all awoke to a nighmare-ish situation affecting so many. It is so strange to realize that thirty seconds can change the lives and landscape of an entire city.  As we viewed scenes of destruction, it felt somewhat personal; we had visited L’Aquila a few months back and found it to be a lovely city with friendly, open inhabitants. 

Bryan quickly phoned a friend in Ascoli who said the tremor was very strong but there were, thankfully, no problems there. Sant'Emidio has again been hailed for saving the city from destructive earthquakes.

We felt a little disappointed that we were not in Ascoli during these events, not because we had any desire to feel more pronounced tremors than we already had, but because it seemed strange to not be in our normal element, among our friends, participating in the piazza-side discussions; to perhaps be where we could have done something useful to help, instead of lament and cry from a distance.  We longed to give some kind of comfort.

Instead, somewhat guiltily, we boarded a plane for France to visit my cousin for Easter.  She had begged us to come for more than two years, but something always crept up to interfere.  Considering that France isn’t really that far from Italy, you wouldn’t think it would have been so difficult, would you?

We enjoyed a little interlude from the constant barrage of distressing news and images, and had a personal guide to a slice of southern France.  Not Nice, not Provence, but the Minervois, an area I had never heard of before.  This is the land of medieval Cathars, peasant heroines, and vengeful crusaders. Gloomy Gothic churches are embellished with grotesque gargoyles. The countryside is sprinkled with stone villages adorned with pastel shutters in joyful shades of lavender and cornflower blue. We glimpsed abundant walking paths, a still-operable canal, and tree-lined avenues. Their friends and other local villagers were eminently patient with our strange blending of Italian and English, when we have ventured out sans our French-speaking relations.

After the almost overwhelmingly heartbreaking week in Italy rattled by wretched news and aftershocks, we felt a little lighter and more rested.

And that brings us to the latest leg of our Tour: Basilicata.  We have been holed up in the fascinating city of Matera, which is even more eternal than Rome.  We have spent much time here over the past few years and feel very attached to the place.  The history stretches back to pre-history, the complex uniqueness of the Sassi captivates us from every turn, and the buzzing city life up in the centro reminds us it is a livable, vibrant place, as well.

Matera Murgecchia Civita View

Matera Murgecchia Civita View

It seems that wherever I wander in Matera, I hear music.

In some parts of town it is the songs of the birds that thrive in the ravines and church towers. Chirpy, rambunctious melodies from small flocks conversing among themselves, which faintly mimics the musical conversations I overhear in Italian.

Walking anywhere in the vicinity of Piazza del Sedile brings strains that are more practiced and perfected. One day it is from violins, another from flutes. Sometimes it is an orchestrated arrangement of blending instruments forming a beautiful, classical refrain. Once in a while we hear a wrong note, or scales being practiced as warm-up. The Convervatory of Music has its seat in the Piazza del Sedile, and the surrounding neighborhood is pleasantly serenaded daily.

I have heard Jazz emitting from doorways and windows. I read somewhere that this classic American musical style has long been loved in Matera, and it shows. They host an annual Jazz music fest, and a locally-produced beer is branded Jazz.  Even the flow of the passeggiata seems to be unconsciously carried out to unheard strains of a soundtrack by Henry Mancini.

Then there are the churches. The bells don't toll, they melodiously chime.  Sunday, while walking to the car, we passed the church of San Pietro Caveoso, which rests right on the edge of a dramatic outcropping of rock and seems to almost melt right into the natural formations. Out of the door wafted a heavenly choir of synchronated voices, raising up hymnal praises.

It also seems that wherever I go in Matera I see familiar faces.  Not because I know many people here, but because many Materani look like family members … and my own reflection sometimes stares back at me, too.  Several times people have greeted me very familiarly, only to embarrassedly say, “Oh, scusi! I thought you were someone else!”   At the parrucchiere today I eyed a woman who was the near replica of my aunt Carol.  Maybe that’s why I feel so comfortable around here.

When we leave Matera we will venture to the Motherland for a couple of weeks among la famiglia.  After that, only a few more weeks will remain in our Farewell Tour.  The calendar is reminding us constantly that the end is indeed nigh.  As the old song goes, Time keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking into the future.

Additional Resources

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, 2009

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