Niente di Grave
January 1, 2021
By: Pam Lazos
What is it about Italy that makes our imaginations soar and our spirits run free? Is it the incredible array of art and architecture? The notion that many of the world’s most renowned painters, sculptors and thinkers were domiciled there? The amazing Italian wines or the food, which miraculously, and perhaps due to the Italians energetic emigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way to escape both poverty and the rise of fascism, has made its way across the globe? Today, Italian Americans are the fifth largest ethnic group in the U.S. [https://to.pbs.org/3rBIfcq] and I am happy to claim my spot alongside them. Descended from Italian grandparents on my mother’s side and Greek grandparents on my dad’s side, I grew up in a mixed-marriage family. That sounds odd to say now, but ethnocentricity was everywhere half a century ago.
Still, I was never sure what all the fuss was about. My friend, Rosina, who grew up in South Philadelphia but spent about a decade of her life living in Rome would say “una faccia una razza” — one face, one race — meaning there really was no difference since the two countries practically grew up together. Sometime between the 8th and 7th century B.C., Greeks began colonizing Southern Italy (Sicily was at one time known as “Greater Greece”), but eventually the Romans took over, occupying Greece when it conquered the Greek peninsula in 146 B.C. If you’d been living together for centuries, you’re going to be swapping more than a few recipes so it’s no wonder the two cultures share such similarities. [https://greece.greekreporter.com/2019/11/16/una-faccia-una-razza-the-fascinating-story-of-greco-italian-bonds/]
It’s also no wonder that on each of my trips to both places I’ve felt so at home that I’ve dreamed of a reverse-emigration — or at least fantasized about spending my summers there. Art, beauty, history, education, World Heritage Sites and more awaited me in both countries and I used every excuse I could to get there when I could, living in Athens for a summer on a study abroad and adding several weeks to my journey home by taking a few-week romp through Italy. Maybe I was in search of my roots or perhaps just some good gelato, but whatever the excuse, the excursion was always well-worth the time. A couple dozen years ago, I convinced my then husband to take a three-weeklong honeymoon and do a European tour of our roots, Germany for him, Italy for me, and Switzerland thrown in for kicks so we could visit friends there.
We started in Germany, and I’m glad we did because after five days of eating bratwurst, sausage, schnitzel, sauerbraten and pickled veggies, I was gastronomically in distress. I practically kissed the ground when we crossed the Alps into Italy. It was late in the evening, so we went to the first restaurant we saw where a plate of spaghetti and meatballs and a nice glass of red wine tasted like 5-star fare.
The next day we drove to Trastevere, today a hip neighborhood [https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/perfect-day-in-trastevere-rome] that was once a Jewish Ghetto as well as home to the first Jewish settlers in Europe. [http://www.understandingrome.com/jewish-ghetto-trastevere-tour/] Rosina’s apartment in a 2,000+ year-old building in Trastevere boasted a 20 or so-foot double-wide arched doorway with cobblestone rails running at the edge of each side — originally constructed so charioteers could pull right into the building. The actual working door — cut into the larger door — was dwarfed by the size of the arched doorway. Throughout the four-story building, niches had been cut into the walls of the hallways where statutes of the Madonna and other saints sat patiently and protectively watching over the building’s inhabitants. The food in Trastevere was brilliant, as is the food in most places in Italy, but Rosina, herself the daughter of an Italian immigrant, was no slouch in the kitchen and some of our best meals were at her table.
Is it an Italian thing to say that as long as you have beautiful food on the table and friends and family around that it makes no matter how rich you are because your life is already magnificently abundant?
A few days later, we drove to Manciano, a feudal town with its own castle situated in the rolling hills of Tuscany. Manciano has a long history — the castle was built around 1188 — and much to boast about, being less than an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean Sea where sun, sand, and squid pasta — they use the ink from the squid to make it black — await you. Rosina’s friend had a house in Manciano, a small two-story, two bedrooms that he had been painstakingly rehabbing for the past several years, one room at a time. It was laborious work since the walls were at least a foot thick, but it was a labor of love and well worth the effort. Across the very narrow street, maybe 12 feet away — it felt like you could touch the neighboring houses from the second-floor window — I gazed up at the winding cobblestone street for a short distance before the street disappeared around the bend where I knew it continued on, circling the town all the way to the top where the castle sat, looking like the fortress it would be used as in the 14th century. Everyone had pots of herbs and flowers outside their doors and some had laundry strung out to dry. It was glorious, a scene from a movie of an era long gone, but it was not without its drawbacks.
Imagine a trip to one of the most beautiful places on earth, as many would likely agree Tuscany is, long on history, architecture and agriculture. [https://www.summerinitaly.com/guide/manciano]
Manciano, like the rest of the globe, has suffered a bit from an overpopulated world and an infrastructure that has not kept pace with the times. In order to service those who lived there, a few concessions needed to be made and one of them was no electricity after 9:00 at night. That in itself was not a big deal, but it also meant no running water. So, if you had to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, you also had to pour water into the toilet tank after you flushed. The toilet was gravity-fed and could transport the waste away from the domicile, but it was not regenerative without the electricity so the next person to use the bathroom would be out of luck. To remedy this, Rosina’s friend filled several gallon jugs and left them in the bathroom each night for users to fill the tank when done. Not quite camping, but possibly a level of activity that we in the States would find inconvenient on vacation.
In almost any other situation a lack of access to clean water, especially if it’s a 24/7 thing, would leave me feeling disturbed and distressed, but if you’re still reading this, maybe you have guessed my reaction at the time which was — thank you; everything is fine; I have no complaints whatsoever.
If you have food on the table, and good friends and family around, then what are the lack of a few creature comforts? Niente di grave — no big deal.
About the Author:
Pam Lazos is an environmental lawyer with a passion for assuring access to clean water for all, a blogger, and author of the novel “Oil and Water”, about oil spills and green technology, and “Six Sisters”, a collection of novellas about the family ties that bind us. She practices laughter daily.