Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pythagoras was Calabrian

Italians often maintain that they have invented everything. I thought that my husband, Salvatore wsa going too far when one day he said that Pythagoras was a Calabrian. It just so happened that the whole south of Italy was part of "greater greece". The beautiful temples at Agrigento, Sicily are testimony to that.

Magna Graecia was the settlement of southern Italy by Greeks from the eighth century BC. From the tenth century AD mainland Greeks were fleeing from the Ottomans. In the eleventh century Normans settled in southern Italy and latinized religion. The Greek clergy also adopted Latin for the mass. The prestige of the Greek language and culture waned in the thirteenth century as the Byzantine Empire declined. From the fifteenth century the Greek communities were increasingly influenced by other nationalities, and the language increasingly romanized. In remote towns and villages Grico survived as an oral language of the peasantry and the uneducated, but even here bilingualism increased from the seventeenth century. There were only about 12 villages where Grico was still in common use at the start of the nineteenth century, and only seven in Calabria, with a total population of 8,000 people, in the first general census conducted after Italian unification in 1861. However, interest in folklore increased in the nineteenth century and Griko songs were collected and published.
In 1901 the Italian government set up an Emigration Commission with funds to help people emigrate. This led to mass emigration from southern Italy to escape poverty, with the peak year in 1911. When the Fascists gained power in 1922, they discouraged emigration. They also persecuted the Greek-speakers. However, until the agrarian reforms of 1950–1, Grico-speaking peasants were virtually self-sufficient on the huge landed estates (masserie), and were able to keep their language intact.
Universal schooling in Italian after the Second World War, compulsory military service and the depopulation of the countryside with migration to the cities undermined this self-sufficiency. Initiatives to promote the language were launched in the late 1950s, spearheaded by middle-class intellectuals in Reggio di Calabria and Bova Marina, and by foreign researchers such as Rohlfs from Germany. A group of university students from Bovesia published a pamphlet entitled La Ionica.
In 1970 the group set up La Ionica Cultural Circle, and the pamphlet became a periodical with poetry and prose in Italian and Greek. La Ionica Cultural Circle and Greek-speakers of Grecia Salentina set up the UGIM (Unione dei Greci dell’Italia Meridionale). UGIM unsuccessfully petitioned the Regional Tourist Office for the introduction of bilingual road signs and five minutes’ broadcasting time on Radio Cosenza. The private radio stations Radio Bova, Radio Mélito and Radio San Paolo in Reggio di Calabria agreed to broadcast some programmes in Greek. 

But what about Pythagoras?

After his travels, Pythagoras moved (around 530 BC) to Croton, in Italy (Magna Graecia). Possibly the tyranny of Polycrates in Samos made it difficult for him to achieve his schemes there. His later admirers claimed that Pythagoras was so overburdened with public duties in Samos, because of the high estimation in which he was held by his fellow-citizens, that he moved to Croton.[36] On his arrival in Croton, he quickly attained extensive influence, and many people began to follow him. Later biographers tell fantastical stories of the effects of his eloquent speech in leading the people of Croton to abandon their luxurious and corrupt way of life and devote themselves to the purer system which he came to introduce.[37]
His followers established a select brotherhood or club for the purpose of pursuing the religious and ascetic practices developed by their master. The accounts agree that what was done and taught among the members was kept a profound secret. The esoteric teachings may have concerned the secret religious doctrines and usages, which were undoubtedly prominent in the Pythagorean system, and may have been connected with the worship of Apollo.[38] Temperance of all kinds seems to have been strictly urged. There is disagreement among the biographers as to whether Pythagoras forbade all animal food,[39] or only certain types.[40] The club was in practice at once "a philosophical school, a religious brotherhood, and a political association."[41]

Pythagoras, depicted on a 3rd-century coin
Such an aristocratic and exclusive club could easily have made many people in Croton jealous and hostile, and this seems to have led to its destruction. The circumstances, however, are uncertain. Conflict seems to have broken out between the towns of Sybaris and Croton. The forces of Croton were headed by the PythagoreanMilo, and it is likely that the members of the brotherhood took a prominent part. After the decisive victory by Croton, a proposal for establishing a more democratic constitution, was unsuccessfully resisted by the Pythagoreans. Their enemies, headed by Cylon and Ninon, the former of whom is said to have been irritated by his exclusion from the brotherhood, roused the populace against them. An attack was made upon them while assembled either in the house of Milo, or in some other meeting-place. The building was set on fire, and many of the assembled members perished; only the younger and more active escaping.[42] Similar commotions ensued in the other cities of Magna Graecia in which Pythagorean clubs had been formed.
As an active and organised brotherhood the Pythagorean order was everywhere suppressed, and did not again revive. Still the Pythagoreans continued to exist as a sect, the members of which kept up among themselves their religious observances and scientific pursuits, while individuals, as in the case of Archytas, acquired now and then great political influence. Concerning the fate of Pythagoras himself, the accounts varied. Some say that he perished in the temple with his disciples,[43] others that he fled first to Tarentum, and that, being driven from there, he escaped to Metapontum, and there starved himself to death.[44] His tomb was shown at Metapontum in the time of Cicero.[45]
According to some accounts Pythagoras married Theano, a lady of Croton. Their children are variously stated to have included a son, Telauges, and three daughters, DamoArignote, and Myia.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Calabria and Malaria

One of the main reasons for the flood of migrants from Sothern Italy was the dreadful poverty which to a large extent was caused by the devastation from widespread malaria.

Many factors contributed to the spread of malaria in Calabria, some of them were due to man’s work, others to the land constitution and to natural events deeply altering Calabrian territory, and creating favourable conditions to the diffusion of malarial.

From the geological point of view, Calabria shows very crumbly grounds easily attacked by atmospheric agents (rain-water erosion, frost and thaws) and crossed by several rivers, streams and typical water-courses, the "fiumare"; they are usually dry in summer, but water-swelling at the first autumn rains and often overflowing. Past chronicles have often recorded such calamities. Marls and clays melted and carried away by the fury of water, depositing in the plains made even sandy shores watertight, producing marshes and bogs. More abundant rains caused the landslide of whole hills which produced large alluvial cones, river beds uplifting, floods and marshlands.

A further contribution to the diffusion of malaria was given by seismic movements, both disastrophic (earthquakes) and slow (bradyseisms). Calabrian territory has always been exposed to various entity earthquakes, some of which had very serious consequences. One of the most ruinous was the earthquake occurred on February 5th, 1783, which altered the aspect of large areas giving rise to lakes, ponds and sometimes diverting the course of rivers. Owing to such bradyseisms, some marshy areas dried up because of the ground lifting (positive bradyseisms), while others underwent a slow but constant plunge (negative bradyseisms). Some of the first cases took place on the Tyrrhenian Sea, in particular in the area between Gioia and Palmi, where some small islands near the beach joined the mainland. Instead, the Ionian Coast underwent a slow negative movement which turned it into such a marsh as to become unhealthy and deserted.

 The diffusion of malaria in Calabria was due not only to the hydrogeological structure of its territory and to extraordinary natural events, but also to man’s work.

Since distant times Calabria has always been covered with wide and thick woods. Classic literature celebrated pine woods in northern Calabria and in the Sila plateau extending for 700 stadium (129 km), whose wood was also used to build Roman churches. The invaders coming from the sea and from inner areas, contributed to take people far off the coasts and the lands, to reach high hills or mountains. Here these populations started to cut off the wood in order to obtain wider areas proper to cultivation. In that period the damages were limited enough, but later they will become invaluable.
 Calabria’s deforestation was given a strong impulse by the fall of the feudal system (with the law of August 12, 1806) which brought the abolition of feudal rights and the breaking up of large landed estates: rivers and woods became a public property. After the issue of this law the mountains’ peaks and sides changed their owners; many wide and almost untouched lands were put up at auction, divided in lots and sold up. The new owners, were soon in need of exploiting their purchases, so that a lot of woods were cut down both for wood’s use and for the conversion of lands into more profitable cultivations. With the cutting down of forests, the natural system sheltering the land from the damages caused by torrential rains was broken.

Trees in fact have a double function against ruinous rains: their foliages soften the strength of water, and their roots form a thick net supporting the ground against the outburst of rain. As a result, a general hydrogeological desorder took place; because of the remarkable slope and the lack of trees, the water divids were soon crossed by whirling streams dragging with them a huge amount of silts which upraised the river beds and diverted their courses. This irregular water system upward and downward caused the formation of many stagnant puddles, nourishing paludism and consequently anopheles and malaria.

Other causes of stagnation were the railways works, whose building material had to be taken from the so-called "quarry" in order to bank up and support their route. The banking up works were in many ways real barriers preventing a full downflow. Therefore, along a good portion of the railways route, stagnant puddles soon became centers of infection.

Other factors concerning the sanitary conditions of the population contributed to the spreading of malaria. Statistics about deceases caused by malaria reveal that it was more spread among poor and especially country people, forced to live and work in the country with inadequate food and sanitary conditions. Calabrian peasant’s food was essentially made of corn beans, potatoes, chestnuts and vegetables; meat was almost completely lacking. Inadequate food caused a chronic undernourishment, favouring the lowering of the body’s defences to all infections, malaria included. Moreover work, not yet regulated by law,usually went on (with a short midday break) from sunrise to sunset, both in summer and in winter.

Since some anopheles species reveal domestic habits and sting man especially inside the house, the kind of house and its location greatly influenced the diffusion of malaria. Often workers were forced to stay in the fields even by night, since their houses were far from the working places. In these cases their living conditions were worse than urban and rural ones. In fact, while village houses were made of tufa, sandstone or bricks, the shelters built in the fields were made of wood or branches, with thatch or reed roofs, without a real defence against malaria.

Peasants used to live in these huts especially in harvest and threshing time, when the transmission of the parasite was fairly probable. Under these circumstances, the only defence was represented by a fireplace put in the centre of the hut, whose smoke kept mosquito away at last by night.

Large landed estates too contributed to spread the infection. Their fields were not exploited in a rational manner: in fact the owners wanted manpower to work only in small cultivated areas, leaving large pieces of land wild and deserted. In this way workers were exposed to the infection. Once ended the working period, the day labourers went away taking malaria also to places not exposed to it thanks to their geographical location.

Case di contadini Case di contadini
 Case di contadini

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Italian or Australian?

Salvatore never really identified with being an Australian. As a teenager he hung around with the Italian boys in Five Dock, a suburb of Sydney where the Italian migrants started to move to. He spent time in the local pool halls and always played a mean game of pool. A lot of his friends drifted into trades such as mechanics as a way to follow the Italian boy’s obsession with cars. Salvatore was different ( although always enjoyed Italian cars) and stayed at school and eventually went to university.

Salvatore and his brother had desperately tried to 'fit in' with the idea of being Australian. The obvious manifestation of being different was the food. They begged their mother, a sensational cook, to buy TV dinners which were frozen prepared dinners wrapped in alfoil with a little section for mashed potato, another for peas and possibly carrots and finally a chop or steak. All this could be easily heated in the oven. It was the frozen version of meat and three veg.

One night sitting down to a mountain of delicious pasta Salvatore told me the story of wanting TV dinners to be the same as his Aussie friends. Savoring the pasta et polpetti  (Pasta and ball meats!), I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Another distinctive difference to every other Italian male I know is that Salvatore couldn’t care less about soccer. However every World Cup he would always take the Italian side.

I learnt from him that Aussies were called “Skips”, after the television personality Skippy the kangaroo. Every migrant child knows the term Skips but unlike the reciprocal “Wog” or “dago” they kept it much more to themselves.

Francesco Ricatti , in his article 'First love and Italian postwar migration' said 

‘The way I looked to others was another surprise. I had never realised that I was classified as different because I didn’t know that blonde hair and blue eyes was seen as normal...As I noticed these differences, and I was hurt, I tried to change myself in order to be accepted. The first thing I learnt was no salami sandwiches for lunch, and instead I wanted to order a meat pie or a vegemite sandwich. I also realised that my mum didn’t use Kraft cheese in my sandwiches but the smelly one. In the classroom situation, when it came time to tell the class ‘news’ I’d find myself changing the stories so that mine wouldn’t sound so different from the others. The day we spent making salami at Zio Rocco’s turned into a family barbecue and watching a soccer game became an afternoon at the footy.’ 

 Being called 'wog' or 'dago' was commonplace in the sixties and seventies and was often the cause of scuffles between boys It was not unusual for scuffles to break out when young Italians were called names such as ‘wog’ or ‘dago’. A group of Italo-Australian boys interviewed in a Brisbane boys’
high school in 1979, made the point that the worst kind of name calling which they could offer back to their Anglo-Australian peers were words such as ‘convict’ or ‘skippy’, did not have the same derogatory value as ‘wog’ and ‘dago’. 

Clearly, the power to define cultural symbols lay in the hands of the Anglo-Australians, even when the majority of boys including the dux of the college, happened to be Italo-Australian. 
On his Italo/Australain identity, Francesco Ricatti further states that that  

‘My Italianess stood out in me as if I were wearing a constant sign. I even started believing the images they [Australians] had of my culture, and if they made fun of it, I’d find myself laughing with them rather than defending myself. To be  accepted, I was agreeing with their comments and ideas about my culture and family: my Grandmother wore black; my parents had an accent; I had garlic breath; I only washed once a week; I had spaghetti for breakfast; my father was a mafia godfather; my Uncle owned a fruitshop...'

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Accents and Dialects

Italian is relatively easy to spell. The language is written as it is spelt, unlike English. The ‘ough’ words come to mind – thought, bough, dough, cough, through. This gives rises to the ‘wog’-like accent of saying every letter in English

Salvatore was an expert with the Italian/English accent and could always make me laugh with his Italian pronunciation of English words where every letter is pronounced. The suburb where the Nescis lived when they first arrived in Australia was  Glebe or Gleebay (pronounce the bay a little shorter) or the suburb they moved to =  Five Dock or FiveeeDuck. The street where friends lived was PinenavenNEW. Changing the order of adjectives was always a problem.  Nonna’s ‘ball meats” became the family parlance and jokes about Italians always had lines with the wrong placement of swear words such as “It’s a hot day, bloody!” or “at’sa no good, fuckin”

The Italians who came to Australia after WW2 have kept the dialects alive . When the next generation went back to Italy to visit ‘the old country’ they found that everybody spoke Italian not Calabrese. Salvatore was an Italian teacher for many years and taught Italian to mainly second generation Italians who only spoke dialect at home.

I love the dialects and have a particular fondness for the Neapolitan dialect and the songs by the great Roberto Murolo.

It seems that some of the dialects are making a comeback. In the north of Italy , in the Veneto region and in particular around Lago di Garda (where my brother-in-law has a house) the young still speak the dialects. On a walk along the lake one can hear different dialects from village to village.  Recently, my brother-in-law was hosting the son of a friend of  from Verona. My daughter and I took him to the Sydney NY’s Eve fireworks and we had a long talk about dialects whilst waiting for the midnight fireworks to explode. He comes from an upper middle class, professional family who frown on the use of dialect. However. this educated young man uses the local Veronese dialect as a type of street language which has now become ‘cool’.  I couldn’t help imaging a scene from Romeo and Juliet with the cocky young men talking about their exploits or simply making sure no-one else understood what they were saying.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nonna or Antonuzza 2

Antonuzza had to make the pasta everyday for lunch. When I say make the pasta, I mean roll out every strand by hand. Pasta was always the midday meal and the evening meal was carne (meat) and vegetables. To make the pasta Antonuzza and Gina (her sister) would go down to the mill and collect the doppio 0 flour or the double zero flour which was the finest. All morning the two girls would sit and chatter and roll the strips of pasta by hand while the rich tomato and meaty sauce would be slowly cooking for 2-3 hours.

The family would come home from school, the mill and the fields and gather around a big table. A huge platter of pasta is placed in the middle of the table and everybody has a fork and just tucks in. There was no place for the faint of heart. If you hesitated you wouldn’t get enough lunch. Everybody just twirled their forks into the mountain of pasta and ate till the mountain disappeared. 

There was no time to twirl the pasta onto a spoon like the Australians or Americans did – only directly and deftly onto the fork. Salvatore always scoffed at people eating pasta with a spoon.
Gay Talese in 'Unto the Sons' , a memoir of his Calabrian tailor father moving to America remembers when his father said that he would have to learn how to eat pasta properly , without twirling it onto a spoon like other Americans did. Only uneducated people ate pasta with a spoon. I could never see the need to use a spoon as pasta so easily twirls naturally around a fork and it is such a great way to eat.

On feast days there was more work to do – cooking extra dishes like pasta et polpette (pasta and meatballs), melanzane ciene (stuffed eggplants) and of course preparing the goat. Nonno ( Monteleone) would kill a goat in the morning, Antonuzza would cook the meat into a thick pasta sauce with lots of chilli and by the afternoon it would be eaten. Nonna, describing the sauce  would put her fingers to her lips and kiss the tips of her fingers saying “Beautiful”.

All the food would of course be complemented with the bread. Once a week was baking day down at the mill. There was an endless supply of flour from the family Molino. Thursdays was bread baking day and it took both girls all day to bake for the week. Nonna always was and aficionado of good bread. You always knew it was good bread when she gives the thumbs up. “Buono, questo pane es buono”. (Good, this bread is good_

Nonna worked very hard. Again it is hard to imagine when I drag Raffaela, my daughter out of bed at 11 on the weekends how a young girl had to work so hard from such a young age. One day she was so tired that she slept through the day which happened to be bread baking day. Her father came home to find that there was no bread. She of course got a walloping and there was no bread for the week.

After my years living in France and relishing the Parisian baguettes, I now can’t go past Italian peasant home wood fired bread. Many Italians in Sydney still have illegal wood fires in their back yards and reproduce wonderful bread. Now many Italian bakeries in Sydney provide, rosettas, mantovanis, ciabatta, foccaicia, crocannte but the Haberfield bakery is still the best. On a Sunday morning the queue of all the local Italians down the street is legendary. 

Bread was baked down at the mill. Infact most things were made at the mill – bread, salami, wine, cheese, vinegar, dried beans, passata, curing olives and of course the flour was made at the mill. Everyday was a special day for some particular task. Each time I ask Nonna I get a different version of  which day was for which activity, Monday and Thursday was bread baking day or just Thursday. Tuesday was for vegetables such as drying the beans. 

I soon came to realise that the truth of these details didn’t matter. The only truth that mattered was the fact that these things were done. In the village in Nonna’s time, they made just about everything they needed. The vegetable garden and the terrano ( the farm plot) produced all vegetables needed – beans, bitter greees, potatoes, garlic, onions (Calabria is reknowed for its sweet onions), tomatoes, eggplants, capsicums, all manner of herbs – parsely, basil, oregano as well as fruit – oranges, apples, figs, and of course grapes for eating as well as wine. Nonna also made her own soap, spun her own wool and of course knitted all jumpers, shawls (without patterns) and made all clothes as well as curtains, bedspreds, sheets, talecloths, coats.

“What did you used to buy ?” I asked her. “Salt sugar, meat and fish” She replies. Hre father bought rock salt and sugar by the quintal (100kg) and there was a macellaio (butcher) in the vllage. Fresh fish would arrive for Fridays and of course there was always piscstock soaking. Pisstoc or baccalao or salted codfish was a staple and had to be soaked for eight days prior to cooking. The water had to be chagned everyday. It was then cooked into a type of casserole. All I remember of my father-in-law’s episodes of cooking pistoc is the very strong malodorous smell throughout the house. However,the end result was delicious.

For many years Salvatore and Raffaela and I lived in the Portguese quarter in Sydney and every Saturday one of the “Portuguese Chicken”places would bring out a huge tray of baccaloa cooked with potatoes, onions and olives ready for take wawy orders at midday. Salvatore was usually on the doorstep at 12.05 to make sure he didn’t miss out as they only made one large tray. It was delcicios. The Portuguese are well known eaters of salted cod fish.

The quintal of rock salt was just that  - a rock of salt. Nonna said that they had to crush it up after going over to her fathers’s and chipping off a supply.

Other things were made such as soap and other cleaning products. kNowing the Italian love of bleach I presume that they also bought bleach.

When my mother-in-law moved into the Italian old people’s home my husband was having a bad run with his health and it was up to me to clean out her house – a very sad thing to do as one’s possessions when they are all laid out on the front lawn don’t ever really amount to much. However, I did retrieve bulk supplies of washing powder ( 5 kg) and 5 litre bottles of bleach.

Her freezer was always stocked to survive the nuclear holocaust. Even when there was only her and her husbnd in the house and when she was alone. There would be bags of dried broadbeans, chickpeas, frozen fresh beans, frozen basil, dried, salted codfish, veal chops, quails. The fridge would stock large amount of parmesan. The larder had bottles of passata, olive oil, cured olives, salami, many tins of tomatoes. There was always something to eat. You would never hear the complaint of my daughter “There’s nothing to eat”. Although I have learnt from my mother-in-law ( and my mother. I can always ‘throw something together’ from what is in the pantry. I always love the Puttanesca recipe which is hot and spicy like a prostitute – you can make the whole sauce from items in the pantry;tinned tomatoes, dried chille, anchovies, olives, olive oil and one always has a little garlic and some onions. I always have either a tub of pecorino cheese or paremesan in the fridge.

I feel I am becoming a mixture of my mother-in-law and my mother who was brought up with the use everything and don’t throw out anything attitude from the depression.

During a visit on a ‘festa’ day to The Scalabrini Village –the old people’s home where my mother-in-law spent her last years, my mother-in-law kept asking Raffaela why she wasn’t eating. Raffaela had eaten an Italian sausage on a huge breadroll with cooked onions followed by a large cannoli filled with ricotta. Raffaela was complaining to me that Nonna thinks I haven’t eaten enough! Nonna was sitting beside her when she was eating and ate the same things but that didn’t seem to make any difference. There does not seem to be any logic when an Calabrain mother or grandmother has an idea that a child hasn’t eaten enough.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Nonna or Antonuzza

Crossing the street one day with my mother-in-law by my side I realised that she only came up to my shoulder. She loomed so large in everyone’s life and I usually only saw her in her kitchen where she reigned supreme. She looked so vulnerable standing beside me at the lights but very pleased to be out with me.

Calabrians are short. Protein deficiency or more precisely a shortage of meat led to the ethnic characteristic of being short. When Salvatore went back to Fabrizia for the first time he was astounded that he had to duck his head to enter through the front door. He was not a tall man.  There was not enough meat. Although, Nonna as she became known after my daughter was born, always maintained that there was ‘abondante’ food when she was young. They may not have eaten beef or even veal which now is the staple of all pasta sauces but there was ‘abondante porc for salami and goat for festive days. Cheese was made from goat’s and sheep’s milk to make the delicious formaggio de capre or pecorino.

Antonuzza Monteleone married Raffaela Nesci in 194... It must have been a relief as from the age of ten she initially helped then was in charge of looking after her 7 siblings and cooking for the family. Even when she was married she still came and helped her mother. That only stopped when her family came along. It’s hard to imagine that starting a family will lessen your work burden.

Antonuzza went to school for one day and that was when she was thirteen years old. The teacher wouldn’t let her stay because her mother had not given her authority to go to school. Her life was to be looking after everyone and she did it so well. Breakfast, lunch dinner, the brothers and sisters left little time for leisure. The concept of leisure and holidays is completely foreign to Antonuzza. Her first ‘holiday’ was going back to Italy to visit the family.   She didn’t tell me this with any bitterness – it was just how it was.

Consequently she never learned to read and write but could always sign her name. I felt very guilty as a language and literacy teacher having an illiterate mother-in-law. I made noises to Salvatore and his mother that I could enrol her in English classes but she started to make the typical excuses that her eyes weren’t good enough or her health wasn’t good enough. She had coped until now and wasn’t motivated to change anything. I soon gave up my mission of teaching my mother-in-law to read.
She was a very intelligent woman with an incredible memory especially for dates. Illiterate people seem to have a very good memory. She remembers the dates of all birthdays, and any significant date in the history of the family. Only now, after the death of her beloved Turuzzo is she starting to waiver when asked questions such as “When did your brother, Antonio get married?”

Antonuzza Monteleone had 7 brothers and sisters -, Fiore, Gina, Rezieri, Antonio, Bruno, Damiano and Rosa. Two migrated to Sydney, four to Melbourne and two remained in Italy.  Only rezieri stayed in the village and worked in the mill while Bruno, like many southern Italians left to work in the north of Italy. He joined the Railways, a good government job and the goal of many Italians because it meant an easy job for life. Bruno, however was a hard worker and always had a pride in his work.

Salvatore on one of his early visits to Italy liked to visit his uncle working in such places as Canicatti in Sicily. He just liked to say the name of the town Canicati, Canicati. The 1990 film, The Station which I believe was set in Calabria romanticised the work of a stationmaster at a small station and I always had the image of this film when Salvatore told the Canicati story. Even though it was a very small village, nothing more than a railways siding, the stationmaster always dressed in full regalia with gloves and military style hat when a train went past. I always imagined Bruno did the same.

Salvatore and I went to Fabrizia in 1994 and Rezieri and his wife were down at the mill. They always still hung out at the mill. I felt that I was stepping back into another era. His wife had on a rough wool skirt and a scarf around her head. She couldn’t have looked more like a Calabrian farm worker if she tried. I think she was very embarrassed to be seen in her work clothes as we ‘sprung’ a visit on them as we hadn’t been able to contact them.

After so many years absence, Salvatore still knew the way down to the mill.  He was only five when they left. We climbed down a track down to the creek and there it was with the old mills stone propped up against the wall. When Rezierei realised who it was he was surprised, shocked then overjoyed and in true Calabrian style of complete hospitality to guests offered us food – olives, salami and some of the delicious Calabrian mountain spring water.

I tried to chat with......... while Reziere was having an animated conversation with Salvatore and gesticulating and pointing to the woods. He kept going without taking a breath for at least twenty minutes.

Afterwards I asked Salvatore what he was talking about. He said that he couldn’t really understand everything he was saying but it was wild stuff about ghosts, mythical creatures in the woods. I was surprised that Salvatore had just quietly listened and wasn’t really surprised to hear these stories and didn’t think to tell me about it.

People from the rural mountains in the past believed in a shaman type of Catholicism where protectors and mythical creatures and characters played an important role. I wanted to know more but Salvatore wasn’t forthcoming with detail so I let it go. 

                                            Salvatore in the backyard with his mother. Notice the stack
                                            of wood, boxes etc. All for the garden.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mr Nesci or Nonno

Mr Nesci didn’t utter a word until he was seven years old. He remained a man of few words but he did love a joke – especially practical jokes and slapstick. Salvatore told me he was especially fond of the three Stooges. Imagine if a child today didn’t speak until they were seven – the endless rounds of ‘ologists’ would be hypothsising, probing, questioning until the child would scream “ Leave me alone!” – forced to speak just to have a bit of peace and quiet.

I always called him Mr Nesci. It just wasn’t appropriate to call him by his first name. My years in France had taught me the European mores of respect for age. Salvatore of course called my parents by their first names. Mr Nesci was a simple man. In Calabria he was a peasant farmer and after he married Antonuzza worked the fields of his father-in-law. He was paid very little and when he decided to migrate to Australia asked his father-in-law , the local miller and relatively well-off, for a loan. Mrs Nesci’s father was not known for his generosity to others and said no! MrNesci left Fabrizia when Salvatore was three months old and never went back. He worked  hard in Australia for five years to bring out his family.

The achievement of two illiterate parents being able to educate their two boys at University in one generation is remarkable. Although Mr Nesci used to constantly say to Salvatore “I’ve paid all this money to send you to University and you can’t do anything!” Salvatore didn’t have a good knowledge of the practicalities of life until much later. He couldn’t really cook, he brought home his laundry, he didn’t know about gardening or fixing things and certainly couldn’t make salami or passata.
My first dinner with the Nescis was a memorable day. Salvatore was trying to downplay the ‘taking me home to meet the folks’ bit. Mrs Nesci had been cooking for hours and there was the usual mountain of pasta with a very rich, spicy tomato-based , meaty sauce. There was also a bowl of roasted blood red ‘pepperoni’ or capsicum. Mr Nesci used to roast them on a little BBQ outside so they were infused with a smoky flavor. Lots of olive oil, salt, chilli and garlic were added to a make a strong, delicious side dish. I devoured everything and had second and third helpings of the pepperoni and mopped it up with the bread cooked in a backyard wood oven. Brought up to eat everything on my plate I all but licked the platter clean. I didn’t realize the opposite is etiquette for Calabrians. It is polite to leave food on your plate as this is a sign that you are not so poor and hungry. I completely cleaned up all the pepperoni. Mr Nesci started laughing and I was a little perplexed and asked Salvatore what he was laughing about. Finally Mr Nesci addressing me in the third person laughingly said, “She’s eaten my breakfast!”

I was mortified. He always had this spicy pepperoni dish for breakfast and I had eaten it all.
Mr Nesci loved his pasta. Even though Mrs Nesci would put out the best plates and serviettes and tablecloth when anyone came for dinner, when the pasta was ready he would place a couple of sheets of newspaper under his plate. The pasta sauce always had pieces of bone from the veal chops used in the sauce. He would place the bones directly onto the paper which would then be rolled up and thrown away at the end of the meal. The sauce would always be ‘picante’ or very spicy and yet Mr Nesci would chomp into a fresh chilli while eating his pasta. Calabrian stomachs were made of cast iron!

The best pasta sauce was cooked by Salvatore’s father, Raffaele rather than his mother. She didn’t like to be told this of course.

Mr Nesci’s veal chop sauce
Finely onions and cook until transparent then saute chopped veal chop with the onions. Add dried chilli to taste and some basil leaves. Cook until well browned. Add peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes, a bay leaf, salt and olive oil. Later on add more basil. Cook slowly for two hours.

Even though I knew the recipe and my sauce is good, I could never make it as good as theirs. Even Salvatore made a better version than mine. Sometimes when I think I have cooked a good Calabrian sauce it’s because I put in far too much salt and far too much olive oil.

All the time I had known Mr Nesci he had had prostate cancer but it seemed to go into remission for about 10 years. Eventually it caught up with him again and the thing that Salvatore had always dreaded – the death of his father   happened. We were called over late one night. The doctor was already there. We raced into the bedroom and he was still warm. I went into the lounge room and asked the doctor “Is he dead?” He nodded and I had to go back into the room and tell Salvatore his father was dead. I will never forget the look of fear on his face. I said my goodbyes to Mr Nesci and left Salvatore with his father.

When we finally got into bed that night Salvatore started sobbing and I held him, not knowing what to say and realising that there wasn’t anything to say and all he needed was to cry and be held. The next day was like a new dawn for him. That dread he had been carrying for so long was gone.

Then they all started arriving – la familiga. This was the first time I met the whole clan from Melbourne – the Monteleones – Antonuzza’s brothers and sisters – Gina, Damiano, Fioro, Antonio, and Rosa from Sydney. Bruno and Riezere were still in Italy. Various cousins and children also came.
The day of the funeral came and I could see that it was part of the tradition for the grieving widow to do nothing except grieve. I wasn’t familiar with my own culture’s death rituals let alone Calabrian rituals. All I knew was that there should be a wake after a funeral and that meant food. Bruno, Salvatore’s brother was organizing the funeral and his new partner hadn’t been around long enough to be involved in the organization of the food so I took it upon myself to do what I thought was required. I got up early that morning and made a mountain of sandwiches and bought some cakes. I laid out the best tea cups and saucers and bought some beer and wine and soft drinks. I was thinking of the good old Irish tradition of everyone getting pissed at a wake and celebrating their life rather than mourning their death.

Calabrians , of course, didn’t do this at all. They would sit around wailing and saying clichés before the funeral and pay their respects afterward but there was not a tradition of eating and drinking straight after the funeral. Family and paesani started arriving at the house to be greeted with a cup of coffee, tea and delicious Sicilian cakes and good ol Aussie sandwiches. The men were thankful for a beer. They were impressed with this Aussie tradition of a wake.

Later that afternoon friends and pasesani started to leave. Then seemingly out of nowhere the procession started - food, crockery, cutlery, drinks, pots and pans, plates, stared coming into the house. One arm of the family, Mr Nesci’s nephew was bringing in. I have never seen s a huge amount of food. I had never seen such an operation. Everything was brought into the house. “What is going on?” I said to Salvatore. He had no idea but Bruno who was 13when he left Calabria knew of the old traditions.

The grieving widow doesn’t cook, usually for up to a week after the funeral but with family living in different suburbs and towns it was only possible for the night of the funeral. The name of the custom,      is the orginal name of the basket in which the food is carried into the grieving person’s house.
Mr Nesci loved practical jokes and Sam told me tht he loved the three stooges – a love shared by Sam. He was forever teasing our daughter, Raffaela by putting up his hand like Mo from the three stooges and saying “Pick two”. Of course then those two wee then supposedly to be used to poke you in the eye.

I was the butt of one of these practical jokes once. When visiting for lunch one Sunday I wandered into the kitchen and saw bubbling on the stove what I took to be the end piece of the paremesan cheese block – a chewy delicacy placed in the pasta sauce and ws always a surprise for the kids. I had grown to love this cheesy chewy delicacy. Innocently I sked “Is that a piece of parmesan you are cooking?” “Yes “ They both replied why don’t you try it. I thought this strange but didn’t want to be a wimp oso took a piece out of the pot and bit into what I subsequently found out was pig skin!! The only other time I saw them both laugh so much wsa when I asked would I be able to help with the next salami preparation. For some reason tis idea ws  hilarious to them. They laughed so hard that they were crying.