Friday, August 31, 2012

Why Italy Makes Me Cry

I love Italy.  I love the people, I love the natural beauty, I love the history, I even love the quirky bureaucracy that drives everyone crazy.  But there is an ugly side to Italy, one that I hate to acknowledge and yet one that is unavoidable, like a huge zit on the nose of a beautiful woman.
Italy is dirty.  And too many Italians contribute to this blight.  Not inside their homes.  No!  It is rare the Italian home that is not so clean one could eat off the floors.  Italian housewives are obsessive with their cleanliness, scrubbing and bleaching, washing windows and dusting...all on a daily basis.  In my world, window washing is a once a year event, if I'm lucky.  Here, it's not unusual to see women washing down windows and walls every week.  If a woman works or is too frail to do the chores herself, there is no shame in bringing in outside help for these jobs.  Seriously, Italian homes are pristine!
But once you step outside your door, all bets are off.  Here in the south particularly, litter and graffiti are blights on the landscape.  Graffiti of the most inane kinds mar the walls of most public buildings, both inside and out.   Schools, train stations, walls, even churches: nothing is immune to an idiot with a spray can.
Good graffiti doesn't bother me so much.  Graffiti can be public art at its best.  Driving into NYC, I always enjoy passing the trains with great graphics and original designs.  But here, it is more in the nature of "Maria and Immo went to Naples on 6/12/12", or "Angela, you are my life!".  Worse is the profanity, much of it American, I fear, with FU becoming part of the lingua franca here.  So, we find lovely buildings, or even not so lovely ones, rendered ugly and marred with ridiculous and pointless phrases.
And then there is the litter and the garbage that have become an unfortunate part of just about every landscape.  Everyone has seen the famous sights of piles of garbage accumulating on streets in Naples.  This is an occasional and unfortunate occurrence that is due to a variety of factors, from lack of landfill areas to the Comorra organized crime families.  That doesn't bother me so much.  Naples is a huge, overcrowded city with hundreds of narrow streets, many too narrow for cars let alone a garbage truck.  The act of collecting the refuse of these millions of people is difficult to say the least.  They are getting it done, and this year there seems to be fewer issues with the garbage.
No, what makes me cry is the litter, the thoughtless dropping of papers, bottles and cigarette butts with nary a thought to finding a bin or waiting until you get home to dispose of the refuse.  Here in Cervinara, there is a campaign to keep the town clean.  Public announcements are placed around the city, reminding us that "If you love your town you will keep it clean".  But they don't work!  People who are our neighbors and friends will drop a wrapper or a paper napkin without a thought.  And the litter stays on the street until the street sweepers come along once a week or so to clean up the mess.  Worse is what is found in the fields and vacant lots.  Street sweepers don't head into those areas, so plastic bottles and bags, papers and boxes all get blown into the grass and there they stay.  When the big mowers come along every couple of months, they just chop the junk into little bits, making it even harder to collect.
We have garbage pick up on a daily basis, with recycling being done by about 75% of the population.  Then why as we are driving along the road do we see bag after bag of garbage that someone has tossed out a car window?  Why can't it be put out with the rest of the trash and be picked up as it should?  And why are tires and mattresses and old appliances left out to blight the landscape when all it takes is a call to town hall to arrange for a pick up of bulky items?
This is not just a Cervinara problem.  Oh no!  Cervinara is pristine and spotless compared to some of the other areas we drive by.  This entire region is known for its cavalier attitude towards public cleanliness and it has got to stop.  It boggles my mind how the same people who maintain such spotless homes are willing to live with such filth outside.
OK, so I have spoken my mind.  If I have offended those of you who love Italy, so be it.  No one loves this country more than I do.  She deserves more respect than what I see around me. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Local girl makes good. Congratulations Ketty!

Cervinara is a town that has sent out its children into the world; if you have followed my blog you know that there are pockets of Cervinaresi all over Italy, into the US and Canada, and down into Australia and South America as well.  As lovely as Cervinara is now, it must have been a very harsh place, back when food was scarce and central heating and plumbing unknown.  But the products of this small town have made great contributions to the world in many venues, from science and research to the arts and literature.  Cervinara has begun a program to honor some of her native sons and daughters and recently we were able to share the joy and pride of this honor with one of our dear friends.
The Onorio Ruotolo award is given every year to a deserving citizen of Cervinara who has met the abovementioned criteria.  Ruotolo was a sculptor who was born and spent part of his childhood in the Ferrari section of town, who then moved away and became recognized as a great artist and poet.  One of his sculptures is found in our Villa Communale.  He spent most of his adult life in the USA, doing many public and private projects in the Hudson River Valley.  It is in his honor that this award is named.
We have become fast friends with our neighbors, Bianca and Lello Valente.  They are with us for only two months of our time here, but July and August are always much more fun when they are around.  We swap recipes, share treats from our kitchens, and enjoy pre-prandial chats every evening.  When we pulled into our courtyard after our 10 days in Puglia, Bianca came running out of her door with her usual energy and joie de vivre.  She grabbed me with a force uncommon in most 80+ year old ladies, hugged me fast around the neck, and then shared her great good news.  Her daughter, and our good friend Caterina (known as Ketty to those who love her), was to be the recipient of the Ruotolo award!
Ketty has had a significant career in the political realm, which wasn’t always easy for a woman to achieve back in the day.  Born in 1952, she has struggled with the same glass ceiling that most women of our generation have faced, and she has done it with grace and class.  She is currently vice-prefect for the region of Isernia, a position of great responsibility and with many demands on her time and energy.  She was originally hesitant to accept this award, and it was only with significant arm-twisting that she agreed to be honored by the town of her birth.
And so, on the evening of August 17, Mike and I, along with about a hundred other friends and family, came together at the town hall to honor Ketty Valente.  There were of course many speeches about her achievements, but the crowning moment of the evening came when Ketty addressed the audience.  Her acknowledgment of her humble beginnings and how she would have been nothing without the hard work and support of her grandparents and parents moved everyone in the audience.  It is so important to recognize that we are not wholly responsible for our own successes, but that we owe the majority of what we achieve to our forebears and the lessons that have been carried down to us. 
For me, the most important part of Ketty’s presentation was a gift she made to each of us in the audience; a parchment with the following quote by Luigi Sturzo.   “Il cittadino deve essere educato non con I favori, ma con la giustizia, non con le pretese di privilegi e vantaggi individuali, ma con l’assistenza nel far valere I propri diritti: non con le raccomandazioni per ottenere quell che non e’ giusto, ma con l’equa valutazione dei bisogni e delle esigenze collettive.”
Roughly translated, this says “The citizen must be educated not with favors, but with justice, not with the claims of privilege and individual advantages, but with assistance in asserting his or her rights: not with recommendations to get that which is not just, but with a fair assessment of the needs of the entire community.”
After the ceremony Mike and I were invited back to the house where we shared a nice supper of pizzas and antipasti, and some great wine provided by our good friend Maurizio Zollo, founder of the Rocca dei Sanniti vineyard.  We were so honored to have been able to share this evening with the whole Valente family and to know that we are recognized as family as well.  Congratulazioni a Ketty! 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


August is vacation month for Italy, and while we had decided that we would never again go touring around in the heat of the summer, we find ourselves in the deep south enjoying beaches, boating and sightseeing.  Puglia is the farthest south of the heel of the Italian boot, and Santa Maria di Leuca is the exact point where two different seas meet.  On the promontory where the Leuca lighthouse is one can see a line with the different colors of water join together.  It is quite a unique experience.
Puglia is very different from the lush, green hills of Cervinara.  As we made our way down from the Benevento region where we live, over the course of the five hour trip we noticed many changes in landscapes and vistas.  Where we have hills, vineyards and fields of green  Puglia has a  harsh soil that manages to produce only prickly pears, olives and figs.  And rocks.  Lots of rocks!  Rocks that end up in countless walls that divide farm from farm and yard from yard.  Rocks that ended up in "trulli", the peculiar traditional structures that are conical in shape and that dot the countryside.  Rocks that are the foundation of almost every home here.
For Italians on vacation however, Puglia is all about the beaches.  There are beaches and swimming opportunities for those who want white sand, for those who want rocky coves, for those who want grottoes to explore, and for those who want cliffs off of which to dive.  We've seen them all and, except for the cliff diving, have enjoyed experiencing all the variety that Puglia has to offer.
But Mike and I have never really been beach people.  I burn way too easily and Mike is not terribly tolerant of heat, so we haven't limited ourselves to seaside relaxing.  As much as we have said that we would not be the crazy tourists traipsing through historic city centers in August, that is exactly what we have become again.
Inspired by our wonderful hosts here we have had visits to a couple of beautiful cities that should be much more of an attraction to people from all over the world.  Lecce is a capital city of this region and it has one of the nicest historical centers I've seen.  The entire area is a treat to the pedestrian sightseer because it is a zone of limited traffic where only residents can bring a car in.  Wandering around both the broad main streets and the tiny back alleys provided us with visual treats and pleasant shopping opportunities.  There were beautiful churches to enjoy although most were closed for the afternoon hours.  When we asked why none of the churches were open, our waiter at our lunch spot chuckled and said that the faithful tend to prefer the beach to the church on hot summer afternoons.
And hot it was!  Even inside the Duomo and down in the crypts of the churches we did get into, there was a tremendous heat that surrounded us and made our touring less than perfect.  We guzzled water by the liter and sweated out as much.  After several hours of walking through this medieval jewel we moved on to Otranto, another lovely spot in Puglia.
Otranto marks the easternmost point of Italy.  It juts out into the Adriatic Sea and is a magnet for swimmers, boaters and sunbathers.  When we got out of our car we were greeted by a blast of heat that was overwhelming.  Mike and his cousin Rita both opted out of a hike up to the castle that dominates the city, but the rest of us decided to give it a try.  We enjoyed the beautiful views along the lungomare, but were more than a little jealous of the folks splashing around in the water.  We trudged through the narrow streets past shops and wine bars until we got up to the Duomo and then the castle.  Enrica and I were the only ones to go through the castle and we were able to enjoy the history of this medieval fortress as well as an exhibit of Andy Warhol and other pop artists.  Quite a contrast in styles, for sure.  By going slowly and keeping hydrated, we were able to check another beautiful town off of our bucket list.
On the way home we decided to go for a swim, so Rita and Angelo took us to an isolated, rocky cove that was sort of a natural swimming pool.  By that late in the afternoon many folks had started to leave but there was still a good crowd of people enjoying the cool water.  A couple of hours there certainly refreshed us and we headed home cool and comfortable.
So, as much as touring around in the summer heat is not what we really want to do anymore, days such as this one are rich and enjoyable and we wouldn't miss them for the world.  We sweated like crazy and dragged our dripping bodies up hills and cobblestone streets.....but it was all worth it.

Puglia is not on the radar of most Americans, but it is truly worthy of a visit.  Keep it in mind when planning your next trip to Italy!