Italy in Lockdown

I walked the beach where Mario Ruoppolo recorded metaphors for Neruda. I put my feet in the sand where he spoke of his love for Beatrice Russo. I tasted the salt water and had a drink from the same bar he frequented at the Marina Corricella. I ate seafood for lunch and dinner and sipped grappa by moonlight, slept in the same hotel room as Sophia Loren at Casa Sul Mare, so my concierge informed me. It all sounds romantic. After five decades of living someplace else I return to my homeland wanting to find the romance of memory, the romance of history and the mirage of youth. This time I returned with much more luggage than before, some of it filled with books I have written that accompanied me to a conference on Canadian studies and linguistics held on the island of Procida.

Procida is a small island of about 11,000 inhabitants, just a short boat ride from Pozzuoli, before reaching the large island of Ischia. Procida is where the wonderful movie Il Postino was filmed and where scenes of The Amazing Mr. Ripley were also filmed. It is also the dream island of the female lead character in director Ivan Cotroneo’s vulnerable and funny coming of age film Kryptonite. Yes, it is an enchanting island that weaves a kind of magic difficult to resist. I understand why Massimo Troisi, who created the love struck character of Mario Ruoppolo, was captured by its spell.

Procida is spilling with giant sweet lemons on trees, clear sea, sun and sand, charming streets of black cobblestone, the marina with the multicoloured boats, friendly inhabitants and fewer tourists than the larger islands. It is an island of tight streets that are steep and challenge your knees. At the very top is the Terramurata, where the view is beyond poetry. In a building that had once housed convicts and then a church and is now part of the University of Naples Orientale, where windows open to the sea, I sat and spent four days in the company of brilliant students and staff. It was a wonderful experience, but temporary and all too brief.

The real Italy, I would discover in the weeks that followed, as I travelled alone, a mere woman of a certain age in a land where I had returned not a tourist, but a stranger.

The realization of being a stranger in the country I have loved in my memory for 50 years was more than sad, it was heartbreaking. I am no longer a young woman and in spite of my tall, large stature, I am now in the rank of “the invisible,” a sad but accepted fact. What I am now is a perfect target, a victim of any activity less than honourable and easily dismissed by attendants, waiters and anyone in the business of being polite. I carry on my face my Canadian outline, a form I have developed over the years that seems instantly recognizable. I am open, polite, I smile easily, I am helpful and, I think, a compassionate person. These are attributes I have eternally regarded as positive. In Italy these qualities are less embraced in the same admiration but rather credited to someone who is termed fessa, a rude and derogatory definition of someone who is a fool, a sucker, an easy prey. I confess it does not please me to be placed in this grouping, but I have come to learn that I am in the company of many other distinguished strangers, tourists and at times the occasional resident who has managed to slip into this group.

On the third day of my arrival I took the train from Rome, headed for Naples on my way to the island. My trusting and perhaps slightly naive personality allowed me to befriend a woman and her young daughters at the train station. They followed me down the escalator to the waiting train and, as I wrestled with the heavy suitcase of books and clothes, they quickly liberated me of my wallet and credit cards with such eloquence and speed that by the time I realized it and let out a scream they had vanished across the train tracks to the opposite side of the metropolitana. I do not doubt they were laughing all the way at how easy it was to steal from the fessa with the smile on her face and the handbag over her unsuspecting shoulder.

The woman and her two girls got away without a trace, richer by a few hundred Euros and Canadian dollars. I was left with my Canadian smile, my wounded ego, and the damn heavy suitcases. As I made my way to the polizia in the Naples train station, I carried something much heavier in my heart.

The police officer sat behind his desk as I arrived with my strained face and worried eyes. He greeted me with a relaxed, casual manner and asked me what had happened. He routinely acknowledged my dilemma, asked me to sit and wait, as he needed to go out for a cigarette and would deal with my situation on his return. My tears or my pocket book were not his immediate priority and certainly not a reason to quit smoking. The thieves were less of a priority than I was. My pain, my discomfort, my memories had no history here. I was more than invisible. I had been erased.

After the conference, I headed by train to my hometown of Ceprano in the region of Lazio, only a two-hour train ride from Naples. I love travelling by train; there is still a romance attached to its sound, the world rolling by in the large windows, the countryside on a joy ride. Just be careful of the constant stops at each town and the delinquents who quickly jump on and off, taking with them your valued belongings. There are no more attendants to assist you at train stations in small towns. There has been a reduction in workers of the ferrovie, as there has been in many government jobs. There is no one to help you if you have need of any help. If you travel by train, travel light.

My hometown did not feel the same as I remembered even a short time ago when I had visited in 2009. It now seemed to have a different smell, a different colour, in the morning and evening. Even the air seemed heavy, uncomfortable and odd. I searched for sounds I could recognize, but they were not there. Only the bells of the church seemed familiar, and the swallows that found their way back every summer, like me, looking for the nest they had left behind. The piazza that once spilled with people only seemed to have a scattering of elders and small groups of teens. The faces appeared different, worried, sad – a look of resignation had creased the brows. Women walked by, purses clutched close at times, looking over their shoulders. I sat at the caffè bar and I listened to conversations. The word crisi seemed to begin and end every sentence. There are no jobs, too many taxes, crime, violence, corruption, terrorism at every level, including government. But it all seemed material for conversation, banter, drama, shouting and complaints. Everyone is waiting for the one miraculous political party that will make it all better, that will take care of business, make things fine again. Italy has become a soap opera, a glossy magazine, a ridiculous television program that embarrassingly seems to worship stupidity. It is as if Italy has fallen into a well of arrogance, dripping with style and superficiality. It has become the “fiction” of the language they most entertain, Americanisms – the red, white and blue flag they wear as a neck scarf. Italy has forgotten the magnificence it once was, abandoned the relationship that gave it identity.

But the suicides and the locked gates are troubling. The papers are filled with stories of desperate people ending their lives. Everywhere there are locked gates and guard dogs. It is not only the bank that is on lockdown. Now the hairdresser in the piazza has a doorbell you must ring before you can enter. Visiting friends who must warn you to wait by the chained gate, as they shackle the dog before entering, makes the evening meal a little difficult to digest.

 I dared venture to the cemetery on the outskirts of town, a pleasant walk, I thought, until I was asked not to do so by relatives and to be patient and wait for someone to drive me. I broke the rule and went on my own and realized I truly was on my own. There were no other bodies walking in the mid-morning sunshine on the cypress lined road that led to the cemetery. No one walks much anymore, even if gasoline is more expensive than gold. Those long evening promenades over the bridge, back and forth in the company of friends and lovers, are gone. The children are few and well guarded. They are not walking to town, alone, the way I did as a child. There is a fear and a mistrust that is alarming. There is a concern for the self and little feeling of community except among close friends.

 There are three dollar stores in my small hometown, all owned and run by Chinese families. The local fruit market is owned and run by two young Egyptian brothers. There is a community of six East-Indian families with beautiful children, born in Italy, who now speak a variation of the dialect my grandmother taught me, but it has a different rhythm and sound. There are Romanian young women who work in the bars and caffès, Albanians who tend to the elderly that families no longer have time for. The face of Italy is changed, but the locals are hesitant to consent to this fact. They still conduct their day in denial, a denial that is arrogant and foolish, and ultimately dangerous. It is time to recognize and embrace the new face and changing reality if Italy is to survive.

A student, Massimo, who had attended the conference, accompanied me to the train station when the conference was over, concerned for my well-being after having learned of my ordeal in the train station. He was a young man in his early thirties, had a PhD, and spoke three languages. We talked while we rode the boat to Pozzuoli, then took the metropolitana to the train station. He was a charming and brilliant student who spoke openly of his disillusionment with his country, and admitted he wanted nothing more than to leave Italy, to find his future somewhere else. He asked me about Canada. He was curious about Australia, England and even New Zealand. There were many others like him at the conference, from many different regions, not all southern regions, some from Bologna, Siena, Perugia, Udine – all hoping to find their way out of a country they feel offers them little prospect or opportunity to establish a future for themselves and the eventual families they want to create. The impossibility of these students to find employment in a corrupt society where nepotism still reigns, where fear and the threat of violence is real, is driving them away. This Italy – once again failing its children as it failed my generation, watching these skilful young talents flee with all their intellectual resources, energy and passions it so badly needs – needs to heal itself.

I cannot lie, I have always been proud of my roots, always defended my heritage and refused to change my name when I was encouraged to do so. I still identify as an immigrant Italian/Canadian. I still root for the Italian team in soccer games, although I am torn if by some miracle a Canadian soccer team is the challenger. I speak the language, read the books, listen to the music and run to the latest Italian film to relive the romance. I am part of an association called L’Altra Italia, which presents a complete romanticized and selective image of a contemporary, modern and glamorous Italy in the fantasy of films and celebrations it provides. But on occasion I need the small taste of the illusion it offers and I admit, I dress up and indulge in its banquet.

I have dreamed of returning home, living by the sea or by the green mossy hills of my youth on my grandfather’s land. I have dreamed of returning to a landscape that inspires my heart, to the persimmon trees and umbrella pines I climbed without fear. I want to believe there is still a Fellini, a Magnani, a Mastroianni. I want desperately to believe in the magic, in the black and white world of the nine year old who continues to live inside me. But on this particular return, as I walked and observed and cried, I realized I did not throw any coins in the fountains.

Gianna Patriarca is an award-winning author of six books of poetry and a book of children. In 2009 an Italian translation for the first book Italian Women and Other Tragedies was launched in Italy. Her most recent book, Too Much Love, will be published in 2012 by Quattro Books.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 27.

Share this post

scroll to top