Sunday, September 28, 2014

La Passeggiata

La passeggiata
Walking is an integral part of daily life in Cervinara.  There are frequent short jaunts around the neighborhood; to the bakery for the occasional loaf of bread baked in the wood-burning oven, to the bar for a shot of espresso or to pick up the various grocery items kept on hand for the unprepared housewife (me!), or to the local pastry shop where they have free wifi (and some of the best sfogliatelle outside of Naples). 
There is also the post-prandial promenade.  When the food stupor of the noon meal has started to wear off, the streets and piazzas fill up with folks out for a stroll, oftentimes down to the Villa Comunale where at 4 pm Miccione Gelateria refills its coolers with freshly made gelato.  The van pulls up to the sidewalk stand, they unload 8 or 10 tubs of deliciousness, and the line forms immediately.  Their gelato is always so good, made with fresh ingredients and scooped generously into cup or cone.  Of course the gelato eaters enjoy their treats while strolling through the lovely park that is the Villa Comunale.  It’s never enough to burn off those calories because there are benches awaiting and we often just sit and watch the passers-by as we savor every lick of our gelati.
Mike and I often go out in the evening for a quiet stroll down to Piazza Elena.  This piazza is without a doubt the loveliest in Cervinara and we head down the hill, past a couple of orchards and the field where the goats go to graze, until we find ourselves in this beautiful cobble-stoned square.  The fountain is a welcome source of refreshment and the spectacle of the kids kicking their soccer ball around or of the toddlers learning to ride their bikes for the first time is always entertaining.  We sit and relax for 10 or 15 minutes before heading back up the hill towards home.  If our timing is right, we get treated to some spectacular play of sunlight off the local hills; first there is Mount Taburno to the left, standing majestically against the sky changing from blue to pink to the deep purples of sunset, then directly in front of us, Mount Pizzone, whose granite crags become golden as the setting sun splashes against the rocks and sparse trees.  We always pause to soak in these views because there is always something new in the way the sunlight plays against these hills and it makes us appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.
But sometimes a “passeggiata” is not enough and we hunger for a good hike in the hills.  I am never happier than when I am traipsing through some mountain trail, stopping to look at rocks and vegetation and marveling at the panoramas from high up on the hills.  Today we drove up to the family property, crossed over the dike that was built to prevent flooding and mudslides and hiked way up into the woods.  The steep climb was brisk and invigorating and the views were well worth the effort.  Mike didn’t come all the way up; he’s not as “excited” about getting out into nature as I am.  But even he enjoyed checking out the chestnut trees and marveling at the terraces that have been painstakingly built into the side of the hills. 
It was a beautiful hike, but it was also a bit distressing.  All summer we have been hearing how the chestnut harvest is not going to be good this year.  There is a parasite that has attacked many of the trees and added to that is the odd weather we had this summer…much too chilly and rainy for a good harvest.  The “ricci” that we found on the ground were empty rather than filled with two or three chestnuts.  Most were still closed tight, indicating that they had dropped prematurely.  Some were partially cracked open, but still the fruit inside was small or wormy.  It’s clear that chestnuts are going to be sparser and more expensive this year.
But be that as it may, this knowledge didn’t detract from the wonderful passeggiata we enjoyed today.  As long as we keep coming back to Cervinara I know that we will take advantage of the opportunities for walking (and eating) that this lovely little town provides. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Life in the "cortile"

Life in the “Cortile”
Housing options in Cervinara are many and varied; there are the single family villas, often large and elegant, built on fields that were once farmed; there are modern apartment buildings and public housing complexes scattered throughout town; there are multi-family houses where several generations share the same construction; but in the old parts of town, in Ioffredo and Castello, there is the “cortile”.  A cortile is a courtyard that is often shared by several households, sometimes related, sometimes not.  It is an experience in communal living that can have a variety of outcomes.
There isn’t a lot of privacy in the cortile.  Doors and windows open out onto this common ground and it’s impossible to avoid your neighbors, even if you try.  Parking often presents complex logistical problems.  Arguments that should be private become public knowledge.  Everyone knows his neighbors’ preference in TV programming, dining times and musical tastes.  When you get along with your cortile neighbors, this is fine.  When you don’t, it can be very trying.  There are relatives who have shared a cortile for years without speaking to each other, and neighbors who pretend not to see the person standing next to them.  But when the cortile relationship works, it is a beautiful thing.
We have been blessed to be part of a cortile where the whole system works.  For five years, our neighbors have been two sisters and their spouses, Bianchina and Michele (Lello) Valente, and Maria Rosa and Pietro Campana.  We have been welcomed into their homes and have grown to admire and love each and every one of them.  There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear a knock at the door and in comes Bianchina with a plate of some goody to share.  Sometimes she brings over fresh squash blossoms.  She gets too tired to cook them up herself so I make up a batch of my squash blossom fritters and we share the finished product for lunch.  If we have extra cookies from our trip to the pastry shop, they go over there.  We have helped with some basic home repairs and Bianchina has shared her many recipes with me.  And every evening, without fail, we sit in our wicker chairs and we chat…about everything and nothing and all that is right and wrong with the world.  We discuss our supper menus and the history of Cervinara and what life was like during the hardships of WWII.  We share stories of our youth and compare prices at different stores and we gossip about what is happening in town.  These families have become ours and we are lucky to have such good cortile partners.
That is why when, last Sunday as we were looking forward to another nice day away in Puglia enjoying some sea and sun, we were devastated to receive a call telling us that our dear friend Lello had passed away very suddenly.  It was a shock that left us reeling.  For me, Lello was almost a substitute father.  When we first moved to Cervinara I was still recovering from the loss of my own dad, and Lello reminded me so much of him.  They were both born in 1922, both served in the Navy, both were men devoted to their family and both were men of unshakeable faith.  Lello was a gentleman just as my father was.  He could never get used to just calling me “Dorothy”.  He used to call me “signora” and finally settled on “Signora Dorothy” as a happy compromise.  If he and I were taking the garbage out at the same time, he always insisted on carrying my bag as well as his own.  A lady shouldn’t be taking out the garbage!  His last words to me as we were leaving for vacation was that I shouldn’t worry about closing the big portone door, that he would take care of it for me, and for us to have a happy and safe trip.  Little did I know that that would be the last time I would see him.
It has been a week now that we have been without Lello.  The cortile has been busy with the funeral, with many visitors, with the comings and goings of daily life.  We still see Bianchina, Maria Rosa and Pietro every day, but there is a shadow now that hangs over us all.  We smile and sometimes laugh together, but we know that Lello will not be joining us in our conversations.  His passing has left a hole in our hearts that will not be easily filled.
I am so grateful to have our little cortile, even with all the inconveniences.  Our little corner of Cervinara is filled with love for each other and for our town and for that we are truly blessed.  Rest in peace, dear Lello.  You will never be forgotten.

Friday, August 1, 2014


I've often written about how nice it is to be living in Europe, just a short flight away from so many interesting and beautiful spots.  Not that Cervinara, and all of Italy for that matter, isn't enough.  It's just such a nice change being able to hop on a plane without needing to plan for nine hours of being squashed into too small seats eating rather unappetizing food and dealing with the seat recliner in front of you.
Wizz Air is the company that flies direct from Naples to much of Eastern Europe, places like the Ukraine and  Romania that aren't on my bucket list right now, but also to Prague, Budapest, and many more places that I'm anxious to see.  While it's not fun having to run to the plane to try to get two seats together, or to have to pay to have a carry on bigger than your purse, or to have your purse count as that free carry on...well suffice it to say that they can do pretty much what they want because they're the only game in town. 
At any rate, this past month we headed to Hungary for the wedding of my nephew to a lovely young woman from Budapest.  We flew over with the parents of the groom as well as one of my sisters who had come to visit for a few days prior to the nuptials.  This was a week dedicated to lots of site seeing but more importantly connecting with loved ones and getting to know the new members of the family.
I have decided that Budapest is one of my favorite European cities.  Maybe it was because we were there for a full week and were able to take our time with the site seeing, maybe it was because we were there for a very happy event, maybe it was because we were able to see some things not normally available to the casual tourist, or maybe it was all these plus the fact that it's an incredibly beautiful city; the bottom line is that I am in love!
We stayed in Pest, the more active and interesting side of the city.  This is where the restaurants and clubs are hopping, where the baths, the opera, the good shopping and the museums are all within an easy walk or short tram ride.  While Buda is beautiful to visit, there isn't as much to do beyond admire the castle, St Mathias' church and the rising hills.  It would be fine for a one night visit, but if you are looking to really get a taste of the city, Pest is where it's at.
Budapest is known as the city of monuments, and rightly so.  There are statues dedicated to politicians, musicians, poets and war heroes.  Many of these are not simply statues standing in the middle of a square; they are artistic and effective ways of reflecting the importance of a person or event that stop the visitor in his tracks.  Most poignant of these must be the Shoes on the Danube memorial.  Walking along the banks of the Danube in front of the gorgeous Parliament building we happened upon a collection of shoes...ladies' heels and farmers' work boots, children's shoes and slippers, all made of iron....some with pebbles inside them, others with votive candles, dried flowers, or ribbons.  This monument represents the dozens of innocent Jews gunned down in that spot , their bodies falling into the river and then forgotten.  It was impossible to be unmoved by this simple memorial.  On nearly every street, in every square, and even in hidden corners of town there are monuments that remind the visitor of Hungary's difficult history and their many important artists, authors and heroes.
Budapest is also known for its baths.  Our visit to the Szechenyi thermal baths provided us with a relaxing and fun way to while away an afternoon in the city.  We hopped on the metro line 1 and took the straight shot out past Heroes' Square to the bathing complex. The lobby of the baths is beautiful in that Belle Epoque way that evokes past elegance.  The locker rooms not so much!  But once changed and into the pool area we were able to enjoy a leisurely soak in the hot pool followed by a more invigorating dip in the cooler pool.  We didn't head into the "serious" pool where people were doing laps back and forth.  As someone who always feels the need to cover up as soon as I get out of the water, this was a very pleasant environment because the natives had no such compunctions.  It was refreshing to see some very hefty women unashamedly strolling around the pool areas in very revealing two piece suits. 
Budapest is also a city of cafes.  The coffee culture is embedded in its very essence.  One of our most elegant moments was having coffee and pastries in the Parizsi Book Store cafe.  Believe me, this was not like grabbing a mochaccino at Barnes and Noble!  The elegant architecture, vaulted ceilings, polished woodwork, and grand piano complemented our cappuccinos and cakes and made us feel like we were back in those elegant days of grand ballrooms and sparkling chandeliers.  We savored every sip of coffee and delicious bite of cake.  It was like being in a fairy tale.
Budapest is also a city with a tragic history.  The buildings still marked with bullet holes are evidence of the violence of the Russian invasion.  The Jewish cemetery and Memorial Garden next to the Great Synagogue remind us of the more than 2000 Jews who died from hunger and cold during the brutal winter of 1944-45.  There is also a very visible population of homeless whom we saw bathing in the Danube, sleeping in parks, and asking for handouts.
Budapest is a city of real people.  It has not been so sanitized that tourists do not feel that they are in a real city as much as in a Disney version of a city.  It has beautiful panoramas and vistas, great museums and monuments, lovely churches and fantastic restaurants.  But it also gives the feeling that it is a work in progress, that it is struggling with its difficult past and yet is proud of the progress it has made.  I'm glad we made it here before it becomes too much like Prague...beautiful and yet somehow not real.  I'm glad that we have seen the sometimes gritty, often poignant, but always vital and vibrant city that Budapest is today.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Could This Be Summer?

We arrived in Cervinara on June 1, ready for another summer of fresh air and sunshine and of course, a little bit of summer heat.  We have been in sweaters, raincoats and blankets ever since!  This year it seems that summer just doesn't want to show up.
At first we blamed the cold and damp inside the house on the fact that it had been closed up for six months with no heat to dry things out.  While we waited for some sunny days to warm up our meter thick walls we bundled up in jeans, sweaters and overcoats.  Then it started raining.  And raining.  And raining some more.  We had hail that ruined the plantings I had put in, but that is nothing compared to the farmers who saw their tomatoes get hammered and their potatoes rotting in the ground. 
Eventually the full days of rain tapered off to afternoon storms.  A sunny sky would turn black and ominous in a matter of minutes.  I had a load of clothes out on the line for the better part of a week.  No sooner would they start to dry out than another freak thunder storm would get them dripping again.  It was at this point that we ran away to Budapest for a week where we enjoyed seven straight days of warmth and sun with only occasional gusts of wind requiring us to put on a jacket.  Pure heaven.
We came back to Cervinara at the beginning of July, ready for another summer of fresh air and sunshine and of course, a little bit of summer heat.  We have been in sweaters, raincoats and blankets ever since.  Wait!  Didn't I just write that?  Could it be that July would be as wet and miserable as June?  So it has seemed.  But today, when I got up at 6:30 for my walk to the loo, there was a warm breeze in the air.  And there was sun surging up behind the hills.  At 10:30 as we strolled through the market, we actually complained about the heat.  And we turned on the AC in the car for the ride home!
I don't want to think that Mother Nature is toying with us.  I don't want this to be another tease of a day, only to be followed by damp and chills.  I want this to be the real thing.  I want to complain about the heat and need to sit INSIDE to cool off instead of outside to warm up!  Could this be summer?  I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Wednesday is market day in Cervinara and almost without fail, if we are in town we will go to browse through the stands and to pick up a few staples.  We start going down the main aisle directly across from the entrance to the grounds.  On the right we find the stand that sells fabric, then a small fellow who sells children's hats, some shoe vendors, household items and detergents.  On the left there are the clothing vendors, with a surprising variety of items hanging there ready to be tried on or purchased.  Whether for men or women, there is always plenty to choose from.
At the end of that first aisle we turn left, past the market equivalent of the dollar store, past the tables where random used clothing is tossed around, all for a euro.  Women paw through these items in search of something that might fit the need of someone in their family.  It's not unusual to find like-new clothing for a song.  Of course there are also the pocket book stands with knock-off Chanels or Coach purses, as well as no-name but nicely made bags and suitcases.  In other words, there's something for everyone at the "mercato". 
We have our usual vendors and they know us and what we want.  Clams from the pescivendolo to make spaghetti with vongole (our menu every Wednesday, just for the information of those who might be planning a visit), big, fat, green olives (they call them "bianche" or white olives here), and the random fruit or veg that might look good at the time.  Our fish monger remembers us but is always too busy to chat.  He just bags up our kilo of "veraci" and we are on our way.  Our olive fellow on the other hand knows us well and we always look forward to a quick conversation and joke or two.  That is, until today.
It was hot this morning and we decided to change our route.  Rather than stroll through the stands where we knew there was nothing we needed, we went the back way to the food aisles.  On the corner is another fish vendor whom we have never used.  His clams were a euro less.  Why not?  Who would know?  And so, we cheated on Geraldo and bought our clams.  From there, it was a slippery slope.
We headed down the aisle and saw another vendor, one from whom we had bought some prunes once.  We decided to get some more prunes, then I saw that he had lentils in big bins and I bought a pound of them.  Then Mike noticed the salted anchovies.  Yuck!  I never eat them and he'll have to fix them himself, but we ended up purchasing a few ounces of those buggers too.  We refused to buy olives, knowing that our regular vendor was right up the pathway.
But the damage was done. Our olive man had seen us consorting with another vendor.  He was hurt.  Why would we buy anchovies from the other guy when he had them too?  Didn't we see that he had lentils and every other dried legume known to man for sale?  What was the matter with his prunes?  Weren't they good enough for us?  Oh my!  He scooped out our usual order of olives without offering us a taste.  He didn't respond when Mike asked him to mix some fresh water with the salty brine.  He took our money but didn't send us off with his usual hearty good byes.  This was bad.
We will be back next week, strolling through the rows of bancarelle and making our usual purchases.  We will not cheat on our olive friend.  I don't know how long it will take for him to trust us again.  Adultery is an ugly sin, and we were caught in flagrante delicto.  But I hope that by the end of the summer all will be forgiven and we'll be back in his good graces, joking around and enjoying some free samples.  Until then, we'll be on our best behavior.  Honest!

Friday, June 6, 2014


Italy is a feast for the senses, and Cervinara is no exception to that.  Every day we are flooded with sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that keep us wanting to come back to our little town.  We returned here just about a week ago and we have been soaking up all that these hills have to offer.
I've written before about the sights of Cervinara; the churches, our castle tower, the mountains covered with lush vegetation.  These have not changed.  But yesterday, as we were having our car checked out, I marveled at what surrounded me.  In the parking lot of Top Car there is a small patch of unpaved land, and we watched as one of the workers took a ladder and climbed to the top of a cherry tree planted there and harvested a bushel or so of luscious fruit.  The red orbs contrasted against the green leaves, the green leaves contrasted against the crystalline blue of the sky, all provided a treat for the eyes.  (The really cute mechanic who worked on our car did too!)  But as I sat on the wall of the driveway and basked in the warm sun, it came to me just how lucky I am to be able to enjoy such a mundane activity as having the tire pressure checked in such a lovely spot.  Jiffy Lube...nah!
I've written about the sounds of Cervinara; the church bells that announce 6:00, noon, 18:00, the chatter of the folks in the bar, the whir of the weed whackers and the droning of the ladies reciting the Rosary.  But today there was something so sweet in the sounds of the kids kicking the soccer ball around Piazza Ferrari, their voices celebrating their freedom from brought tears to my eyes.  And this year there is the sound of water as it courses down the "torrente" from the mountain top.  Usually this "river" is dry now, but due to a very wet spring we have the lovely sound of water gurgling down the hill.
I've written about the food of Cervinara; the chestnuts in the fall, the cherries and strawberries in the spring, the peaches and melons in the summer.  But what about the smells?  You can almost guess what day it is by the cooking aromas that waft out of every kitchen at 1:00.  Sunday means a ragu, with sausage and meatballs ready to be poured over pasta.  Fridays we find the smell of fish frying or grilling.  Thursday, in preparation for the leanness of the Friday menu, there is very often a baked pasta; lasagna, cannelloni, or perhaps gnocchi.  Mondays, to compensate for the richness of the Sunday menu, is the day we smell a chicken simmering in a pot on its way to being made into a lovely broth for homemade soup.
There are other smells as well, not always so pleasant.  In the evening as a bit of dampness descends on our valley, we have the pleasure of the intense smell of manure that is being spread on neighboring fields.  There is also the pungent odor of the herd of goats that comes off the mountain to graze.  It's strange how I can sense that same "gameyness " when I bite into a delicious piece of chevre.  Of course there's always the stink of the cigarettes that invariably show up in any public place.  That I could certainly do without.
What's left but touch?  Here, there is a hardness to every surface.  Houses made out of concrete covered with stucco.  Floors of tile or marble.  Cobblestone pavers under foot.  There's something unforgiving about the materials used for every day living, but perhaps that is why everything is decorated with flowers; to soften the harshness of the houses, to sweeten the smells of every courtyard, to add color and brightness to the gray of the concrete walls and buildings.
Yes, I find Italy and Cervinara to be sensational, in every sense of the word.  We are happy to be back and hope that someday someone who reads this will come and be immersed in the same richness that we enjoy every day.