European Vacation – August 16

This was the day of the Cosenza visits, a day Anna told us would be “relaxing, with not much planned”. Tomorrow, we would head for the hills where Flori and Anna grew up and visit more relatives. I started off by escaping down to the lobby and the high speed wireless connection so I could catch up with my blog posts. I was working quietly in the lobby, when our guest from the night before walked in, ready to whisk us on a tour of Old Cosenza. He had brought his small white car and he was going to lead the way with Flori while I followed in the rented van. I was dubious of the proposed plan. This was reinforced when we lost him before I had even pulled out of the hotel parking lot. But we found him after I navigated my way through the one way streets surrounding the hotel. Our guide headed off, driving at about half the posted speed, and straddling any available lanes. I felt more secure knowing that no matter how badly I messed up, our local guide was probably upsetting more drivers than I was. After we were led into a couple of dead ends, and missed going the wrong way through several one ways, we eventually ended up in the historic piazza (after driving the wrong way through a roundabout). The one good thing was that Cosenza was still in Ferragosta mode and there was hardly anyone on the streets. A little more touring around, then we went back to their apartment for lunch. Lunch was huge, with the mandatory 17 courses, and was delicious. After lunch, we set out, again in our convoy formation with Flori and our guest leading the way, to find our way to one of Flori’s cousins who lived out of town. It took a little bit to find them, but eventually we got in the general vicinity, and he came and found us.

It was here that I got my first indoctrination in the concept of the modern Calabrese home. They are actually more apartment buildings, with a separate floor for each child. These are homes built to last, with walls 16 inches thick, today made of concrete and plaster (traditionally rocks) and floors all of marble and terrazzo. The homes are usually built 3 or 4 stories high, and the floors are finished off as needed. Even if the children are grown, married and have their own house, there’s still a floor reserved for them (just in case). In this instance, we climbed up 3 flights to the very top of the house, where they had their summer kitchen. In most homes, there is more than a trace of Catholicism as well. In our host’s house, there was a niche reserved for the Madonna, complete with a perpetual electric candle, and a large painting of the last supper in the kitchen.

We settled in for the visit, and I was identified as the “Inglese”. But my host wouldn’t leave it there. He wanted to grasp my entire name, so Flori explained that my first name was Gordon, but my second name was Hotchkiss. Somewhere in the translation, they got reversed, and I was referred to as “Hotchkiss” for the rest of the night. It was always done in a very friendly way, so I kind of liked it and never bothered to correct it.

Hospitality flowed the minute we entered, as drinks and snacks were brought out. Our staying for supper seemed a foregone conclusion that wasn’t worth bickering about, and to be honest, the graciousness was so overwhelming, we didn’t bother to argue too much. The wife, who spoke some English, caught me once when I refused a cup of ice cream, and then later finished a cup given to me by one of my daughters. After that, every time I declined the offer of something, she said “Are you sure?” with a slight smile. By the end of the evening, we had turned it into a bit of a routine.

We took a quick trip back into Cosenza to try to sort out our train reservations, with me driving and our host providing directions. He tried to turn me into an Italian driver, by imploring me to ignore stoplights and directional signs. “Hotchkiss, Go Go Go!” “But the light is red.” “Go Hotchkiss, Go!” I closed my eyes, hit the gas and went. We managed to emerge from the drive unscathed.

When we got back, his two daughters, one son-in-law and grandchildren joined us. One family stayed with us for supper, and Jill immediately fell in love with their son, an adorable 4 year old nicknamed King Kong by his Nonno. She taught him English for the rest of the evening, and he helped her brush up on her Italian. Alanna and Lauren were quickly cornered by the 12 year old daughter, who had enough English that they were soon comparing notes about favorite bands and singers (apparently Jessie McCartney is the bomb in Calabria), school, movies, MTV and other cross cultural commonalities. I was chatting with the son-in-law, and we managed to converse about whitewater rafting, soccer and a mountain village we should visit while we’re there. It was a great chance to make some new friends, which we all did. But as the night came on, I played the buzz-kill and suggested we make our way back to the hotel. I remembered the ugly GPS experience from the night before and was not at all sure how we were going to get back. Our host and his son-in-law solved our problem by jumping in their car and guiding us back right to the hotel. Not the relaxing day promised by Anna, but a good day where we met some new friends.

“Hotchkiss, when you come back, your family stay with us..okay?” It would be a tough offer to turn down.

As we were leaving, I got to see the rest of the house, the part where the living wasn’t done. This floor was a showpiece from floor to ceiling, with beautiful antique furniture, an immaculate kitchen, large bedrooms and a modern bathroom. By North American standards, it would have been a palace, but for most of the time, it was sealed off, as the living and entertaining was done upstairs. “The kids are too rough on it,” was the brief explanation. At one of the homes we visited, I chuckled when I saw the remote control, wrapped in plastic and secured with a rubber band so it would stay new looking. It was symbolic of an attitude towards many possessions here. There seemed to be two worlds in Calabria, the one you live in, and the one you keep wrapped in plastic because it’s too good to use.

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