European Vacation – August 17

Today, we visit Cannevale and Borgile, where my father and mother-in-law (respectively) were born. I’ve been hearing about these places for the last 20 years, and today I was going to see them. We climbed in the van and took the Autostrada to Falerna, on the Mediterranean.

Cannevale isn’t so much a town as a collection of a few buildings, perched high on a hillside. On the way out, my father-in-law pointed to town after town, and building after building, saying, “That’s the town that _________ came from”. I was amazed. Almost every Italian I knew back in Canada seemed to come from an area where they could throw a stone from one place to another. Yes this was not a highly populated area. The buildings on the hillside were sparse and the few towns were not large, by the inhabitants were obviously of fertile stock, as they fathered the Italian immigration waves of the 50’s and 60’s. On looking at the landscape, it’s not hard to see why so many chose to test their luck in the new land. Although ruggedly beautiful, this was not forgiving land. Dry and almost vertical in most places, olive trees seemed to be the predominate feature on most of the hillsides. A few vineyards in Savuto produce wine that Flori insists is the best in the region (and I wouldn’t quibble with him on this point) but I have no idea how a large family could feed themselves on a tiny parcel of land. Today, with much of the population leaving 50 or more years ago and the increasing draw of tourism, the standard of life is much improved over what it was, but you can still sense the struggle for survival in these hills of Calabria.

We turned up the coast and passed the beautiful beaches of Falerna and Campora, where we turned inland to drive up to Cannevale. The roads became narrower and less maintained (the “strada disservizio” or unserviced road signs become commonplace) until we finally pull the van down a goat trail to Cannevale. Here, Flori’s reminiscing kicks into high gear. I’m stopping the van every few feet, as he hops out and walks up to someone and asks “Do you know me?” (In Italian, of course). Amazingly, most of them do, or at the least, connections through mutual acquaintances are soon made. Its as if the 45 years that have passed since he immigrated to Canada was no more than the blink of an eye. So in so’s cousin, who married so in so, had a brother that was the friend of my second cousin. Familial connections the Inglese wouldn’t even remember make everybody part of an extended family here. Flori’s having the time of his life, walking along the paths of his youth, seeing tiny rock houses that seemed so much larger years ago. The long since abandoned cantina he showed me where countless Cannevale youths had entertained themselves looked more like a root cellar, and was no more than 10 by 10 with a 7 foot roof. The schools were in buildings the size of a large garden shed. This was a world of dramatically reduced scale. Gradually, after many intervening impromptu visits, we made our way to his home.

The house was abandoned 25 years ago, the roof is gone, the rocks are crumbling and weeds are the only current inhabitants. But Flori still takes pride in the addition he added as a child. He walks around the building, drinking in the memories and shedding the intervening years. He points at the hills around “That rock we called ‘man with a hat’, and this was ‘Crow’s rock’. There’s the ‘Tunnel of Marble’.” The names don’t sound very special in English, but once translated into Italian, they sound like exotic ports of call. The nearby town of Cleto, another Italian village where house and rock merge on the face of a mountain was once called Petromale, which means “bad rock”. Sounds much better in Italian, doesn’t it?

This trip is especially bittersweet for Flori, as part of the business to be done on this trip is to sell this land, which still belongs to the family, to a neighbor. This is Flori’s good bye to his home. I can tell it’s hard on him, but the closure is important.

Just steps from Flori’s home is Anna’s grandmother’s house, which is still inhabited. We visit the old couple who live there. The outside of the house looks derelict, but inside, they’ve made a rather cozy little home. It’s a strange anachronistic mix, with a modern washing machine sitting against a wall that’s at least 200 years old. Outside, there are plums drying in wicker baskets hanging from the ancient stone walls. When Jill remarks on the basket, they give her one to take home. The couple is in their 80’s but still live alone out here, at the end of a narrow trail, with few conveniences and nothing nearby except some neighbors they’ve known for decades. It’s their home, and moving is unthinkable.

We now climb up from Cannevale to the home of a cousin who was the last to live in the old house. Now, they have a huge 4 story home, where they look after a 91 year old aunt, who has since become bed ridden. Although there are senior’s homes here, at least 4 of the families we visited had taken in their aged parents, either moving into the parent’s homes, or building a new home with room for them. There’s more of a blurring between generations here, with parents and elderly aunts and uncles being absorbed into the nuclear family. It’s a continuation of the trend I mentioned before. Parents build houses large enough to accommodate children, and at some point the children return the gift by bringing their parents into their homes and caring for them for the remainder of their lives. It’s a system that seems to work here.

Again, the setting aside of the “good things” was evident in this home as well. The 4 story home was beautiful, but the cooking and entertaining was done in the garage. Now, this was no ordinary garage, it was a 4 bay enclosure that had tile on the floor, was spotlessly clean, with a modern kitchen installed, and was quite comfortable and homey. But it was still a functioning garage. The large dinner table shared the space with a Fiat.

Another quick visit to a cousin, and we join them on a tiny sundeck, where they’re passing the afternoon (pommerigio) watching the world slowly pass by their tiny intersection. Every car that goes by honks, and a farmer moving his tractor stops and stays for awhile to share a glass of wine. This was a common activity in the afternoon, when everything closes down. The pace of the world slows from it’s already more than leisurely cadence, to a treacle slow crawl. An old man can pass 3 hours, leaning on a stone wall watching the occasional car pass by. Everytime we stopped, you could be sure that someone was watching us from a window or front step. And when we asked directions, they always had time to chat and discuss for 5 or 10 minutes if they were related. No one ever seems to have anything more important than what they’re doing right now. It’s like a line I remember from an episode of Fawlty Tours: “Fortunately time is not pressing greatly upon me.” It seems to be the central theme of this area.

We now drive down to Falerna, where Flori and Anna’s previous hotel was. They became friends with the couple that run the Hotel San Giovanni (another distant relative of Flori’s) and promised that they would bring “the kids” back for lunch. The owner is 70 plus, but presides over his kingdom with the energy of a man half his age. He prowls through the dining room, clapping his hands, singing Italian songs, threatening the waiters in his employ, and grabbing menus and bussing dishes himself when said waiters fall one step behind. He returned to Falerna years ago, after building his bank account and his experience in the hospitality industry in New York. Starting with a tiny hotel, he has now built it into a thriving anchor of the local resort community. The hotel caters at least a wedding a day, and can serve over a thousand meals. For this particular meal, our host picked up the tab. In between circuits of the dining room he stopped and chatted at our table for a few minutes. During one such visit, he nodded off for a 1 minute nap. Apparently, his day started at 5:30. It was 4 by this time, so he had already been going for almost 11 hours. Although his children help him at the hotel, he has no immediate plans to hand over the reigns. “I can’t slow down, nobody else can keep up with me.” I believe him.

Next stop, Borgila, where Anna grew up. After stopping, asking more directions, finding more long lost acquaintances, including a classmate from almost 50 years ago, we find the house. It’s in slightly better shape than Flori’s, but it also has been abandoned for many years. The town of Aiello sits up the mountain, overlooking a bit more fertile valley. We explore for awhile, then leave, stopping to chat with the couple that now farms the land around the old house. Although relations of Anna’s, it’s Flori that does most of the talking. They quickly find more mutual acquaintances. Anna comments from the back “Even when they’re my family, he’s the long lost son.” One more stop to visit a relative, again a daughter who’s taken in her elderly father (the most alert 92 year old you could ever hope to meet) and we get directions back to Cosenza. This time, we don’t even try the GPS and with one or two miscues, manage to find the hotel rather quickly. Another makeshift supper and we’re off to bed, to prepare for our last day in Calabria.

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