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1999 - Saloni Mediterranean

John Cipolla

John Cipolla lives, works and plays in the pleasant surrounds of the city of Melbourne. He dreams of one day living on the Mediterranean coast, but for the time being he is happy to hone his camera skills while continuing the battle with words.

This is a piece made of fragments gleaned from a dubious nostalgia. The impressions were gathered during a number of visits to my mother’s family’s village. Tocco Casauria is one of those places that was once on a main trade route but is now seemingly lost forever from the inevitable process of the modern. That, at least, is my impression.

The Return

by John Cipolla

This story was read at Saloni Mediterranean, March 18, 1999.

Here is a picture.

It is a little street of cobbled stones, hardly wide enough to fit a Fiat 1000, a laneway in fact, over and across which has been built an extension. At the bottom of the street, through the narrow mouth, the valley begins, falling away into mist and olive groves and sky. The cobbles are covered in patchy snow, which is grey and not white, but a path has been cleared from the road down to the door of Maria’s home. If you ring the bell Maria, who is my mother’s cousin, will appear at the window above to see who it is at the door. Andonio, who married Maria after he got out of the army all those years ago after the war, stands rock-like in the wash of snow, leaning on a shovel. A short, grizzly man with a beret clamped over his head and huge snow boots on his legs. Giovanni, he says in that deep voice, a voice to sink into, full of roughness and warmth. A voice I have never forgotten. Beside him there is a doorway to a cellar. I have been told that this was once owned by my grandfather, that it was where the mule and wine were kept. Behind Andonio there is a rendered wall, newly layed and as yet unpainted. It covers the old, and is embedded with a freshly painted green louvred window shut against the cold. But everywhere else I look there are walls devoid of facade, rough-hewn and scarred by the elements, full of cavities and cracks. In the dim winter light the walls seem frail and ghostly, though they have survived for over a hundred years. The solidity of my mother’s village. Maybe that is why I am here, in the village of my mother and my grandparents, the place that was left and never returned to.

Here is Maria, my auntie. She stands against a doorway grinning her gap-toothed smile and squinting one eyed, a red apron wrapped round a large girth, her hands raw out of soapy water. She was about to take in the washing, she is saying. On the wall beside her hang two bulbs of skin-coloured onions, the stalks strung together and nailed to the wall.

Later, after lunch, when her family has cleared out and we are alone with the dishes, we talk.

‘What do you know of life here?’ she asks, the brow of her left eye raised and the pupil there colourless and dead. ‘You’re just passing through, a guest in a poor man’s house.’ I am unsure what to say. I reply that in Australia travelling is what young people do once they have the money to do it. She seems to smile. She picks up a piece of bread and her ruddy cheeks move up and down as she chews.

‘Tu sei un tipo particolare, Giovanni’, she continues. ‘You are a strange type. You travel and travel and what are you looking for, what do you find?’ I cannot answer. ‘Ah Giovanni, you have to cure yourself of this habit.’ And then after the coffee, ‘We’re giving you Nonna Palmina’s little house to stay in while you’re here. It hasn’t been fixed since she passed away, but at least you won’t be bothered.’

I leave Maria and make my way to the house. I encounter Andonio outside a bar and he helps me with one of my bags. It is a rustic three story block with unrendered stone facade, the type found in every village, town and city in the mediterranean. On the top floor a small, wrought-iron balcony. Through an entrance and up a steep flight of marble steps worn smooth. The key is hidden above the door, and looks like a small hatchet. Andonio lights the stove for me. A fierce coldness has set in. ‘It’ll snow tonight, Giovanni’, he says, his voice sonorous. I stare at his hands as he passes me the key. The fingers are thick and the texture of bark.

It is a two room apartment of softly rounded whitewashed walls. In the bedroom is a double bed made of layers of matresses. It sinks in the middle when I lie in it. There is a toilet. A couch in one corner of the second room. A gas cooker with a coffee percolator. A table, two chairs. A single light bulb hangs above the table. Here my grandmother’s sister lived with her whole family, and here she died. My brother Paul stayed here for ten days during the summer. He left his size 12 Rossi boots. I fill them out with extra socks. They will help me to traverse the drifts of snow and the slippery ice later on.

During the night I dream of my grandfather. There are people. I stare at them while they are not looking and I see staring back at me my grandfather’s face just before he died. A face on which the flesh has melted away, leaving the eyes in their sunken pockets. The eyes are like black marbles stark against the brown earth. In them there is a fierce pain, which causes me to turn away.

Before he died I talked to him about my future plans. Vado primo a l’America, I said, e poi ritorno a l’Italia. I was glad to see that me child-like made him happy. He was the first of the family to come out to Melbourne. He and a group of other men from the village came out in the early nineteen fifties. They worked as labourers and factory tradesmen to pay for their families to join them. Half of the village’s population of fifteen thousand emigrated to Australia or America after the war. Life, I realise, comes down to this desperate movement out from death, this spooling away from one’s origins. Nonno Eustachio, my mother explained to me once, didn’t like staying at home and tending the fields. He always preferred to travel and to be payed cash in hand.

I was told about my grandfather’s house before I arrived the first time, in 1980. I was nineteen and I stared at it dumbly. It was not what we think of as a house. It looked like a gray brick standing on its head. A ruined tower without a single window, a fact which, looking back now, seems odd. All around was earth and rubble and weed. I was warned not to enter because of the state of the rafters and beams. Strangely, it stood detached from the other ruins, giving the impression of solitariness, of estrangement. The only door opened out onto the valley and, not far from it, a single tree had grown out from the edge creating a shady canopy. I had heard stories from my family that were set in or around this house. These stories remain, even now, mischievous echoes unwound now and then out of some need of recall.

Nerio, your uncle, my mother said on the day of my grandmother’s eightieth birthday, used to hide in the loft all day. We kept the prosciutto and the sausages there because it was the driest place. My grandma would call for him during the day, but he never answered. He would be up there nibbling on a sausage. He was a terror for sausage, your uncle. Those were the days when a sausage was worth a lot.

We were all three born in that house, said my mother’s sister as she prepared the cake. What, in the loungeroom, I said, surprised. Oh, she replied, in the bed, I think. There were no hospitals then.

My uncle said, I used to sleep in the same bed as Tatone Vincenzo, my father’s father. He died next to me one night. I must teach you how to graft trees Nerio, he said to me before he died.

In the cellar, added my mother, placing the candles in the cake, we used to have a pig in a small sty, chickens in pens, a goat, rabbits, and the bog. It was no bigger than this room. We never used to care about the stink in those days. Living with animals. The mule, too, was there, until it was moved.

That mule was taken away by the Germans, added my uncle.

Before my last visit the house was razed by the consiglio locale, or local council, along with the surrounding houses. I arrive to find nothing but rubble and weeds.

In the morning I am up and out, down the steps and through the doorway to the street. Fresh snow piled knee-high as I walk. I follow the road over grey slush away from the church tower and the castle parapets and upwards towards the mountain that lies directly behind the village. The road opens out into white plains behind which is all mountain. At the base of the mountain sits the Franciscan monastery, reserved, incommunicative, half buried. I turn full circle to face the village. The houses in the morning are sealed in soft white pelts of snow. The winter sun long and lean over the redochre rooftops. Quietness and hardly a breeze. I stumble into an open field as if afloat in a sea. I wade out knee-high in snow and sunlight, breath pluming out ahead of me.

Here I am, I say out loud to myself, looking about in disbelief. Here I am. I am standing at the crossroads. There is the village, there is the mountain and the monastery, there is the land buried under snow, and there is the valley down the middle of which runs an autostrata, a dead river and a train line. From here you can look over the valley and on a clear day see the Adriatic sea, or you can retreat to the protection of the mountains behind, as the men did when German troops arrived. This was once a cross roads, a thorough fare. Now there is only the sound of cats’ paws among the ruins. And the slow exhalation of memory.

© John Cipolla, 1999.

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