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.