Modena Rivisitata

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Non mi aspettavo che fosse così bella.

Modena.

Certo che c’ero già stata varie volte, da quando ero piccolissima, siccome era la home town di mia madre, ma, insomma, non ricordavo molto, o non ci facevo caso, sempre presa da tanti altri stimoli e impegni vari.

Stavolta però ci sono stata più a lungo e ad occhi apertissimi.  Sono stati loro, naturalmente, a darmi la meravigliosa opportunità di immergermi totalmente in questa esperienza, i cugini.  Con la lora calda e sincera accoglienza, questi cugini di cui conoscevo ben poco, hanno permesso a me e a mia figlia di goderci una vera e propria vacanza, priva di stress e di drammi.  Ci siamo sentite subito a casa, già dal primo giorno, circondate da affetto, ospiti attese e volute, per cui  loro si sono fatti in quattro, organizzando numerose gite in posti stupendi.  Non succedono spesso queste cose, e gliene sarò eternamente grata.

Subito a mio agio nella loro bella casa in una zona residenziale, circondata da alberi e con una piacevole vista dei “tetti di Modena”, mi sono abbandonata a questa città e a tutto ciò che ha da offrire. E da offrire ha tanto.

Elegante, organizzata, pulitissima, mi inonda in una luce dorata, mentre cammino sui suoi viali, luce riflessa dai palazzi giallo uovo e arancione, tinte vibranti e gioiose, un abbraccio caldo e antico.  Tanta storia in questa grande piccola città, nella sua architettura, nei sorprendenti canali sotterranei, nella gloria romanica del magnifico Duomo e della sua Ghirlandina; Piazza Grande coperta da un tappeto di sassi resi lisci da secoli di passi umani, inclusi i miei, se pur appena un po’ esitanti, dati i tacchi di cui non faccio mai a meno.

 Ho riscoperto il Mercato Coperto, di cui avevo una vaga memoria.  Ero piccola, forse sei-sette anni, e mio zio mi portò lì, al mercato col tetto, cosa che non avevo mai visto; ricordo i fruttivendoli con le cassette tutte ordinate e il pane, tanto pane dalle forme insolite, bianco come il gesso, denso ma leggero; e quel meraviglioso prosciutto crudo, unico al mondo. ‘Vuoi un panino al prosciutto?’, mi chiedeva lo zio Walter, un signore alto che mi faceva un po’ soggezione, non lo vedevo spesso, abitando a Napoli.  Certo che sì! Un buon panino al prosciutto rimane ancora uno dei miei pasti preferiti.  Ero felice allora, vagando con mio zio per il mercatino, mentre mi gustavo il mio snack.  E lo sono stata di nuovo, quest’estate, anche se i miei interessi, oltre al prosciutto e al parmigiano, si sono allargati ad altre delizie, come il ‘savor’, che non conoscevo, ma che adesso è il mio ripieno preferito dei tortelli dolci.

 Quei cedri canditi, lucidi e spessi, a prezzi ragionevolissimi (sono abituata agli imports, vivendo in America), fiori, tanti fiori, e la gente che fa la spesa e conversa, ed io lì incantata ad ascoltare il loro accento modenese che mi ricorda mia madre, e mi vengono un po’ gli occhi lucidi.

Tanti bei negozi, poi! Voi che seguite i miei blog ben saprete che lo shopping è un’attività da me molto amata, e ce ne sono di belle cose in questi deliziosi negozi del centro, all’ombra dei magnifici portici.  E i bar con tanti dolci da farti venire il capogiro.  Le crostate di amarena modenesi sono decisamente le migliori al mondo.  E ‘il gnocco’, gonfio, morbido e friabile, caldo e squisito.  Mia madre lo chiamava la crescente e lo faceva spesso quando eravamo piccoli, ed era sempre una festa.  Dio, come si mangia bene a Modena! Tortellini fragranti, tortelloni enormi e panciuti e così magnificamente gialli, le tigelle col lardo, le piadine morbide, le tagliatelle col sugo bianco ai porcini freschi, e il Lambrusco!  Tanto Lambrusco, tutti i giorni a pranzo un bel bicchiere (o due) di questo meraviglioso vino frizzante.

Una città antica e moderna, decisamente chic, passeggiabile, invitante.  Infatti, se dovessi tornare ad abitare in Italia, sceglierei Modena.  Certo, dovrei imparare ad andare in bicicletta, dato che è il metodo di trasporto più diffuso!

Una città serena, adagiata sulla pianura, circondata da colline verdeggianti e fresche, con panorami mozzafiato.  Situata poi in una zona talmente centrale, che puoi tranquillamente farti delle gite in tanti posti idillici, tipo Firenze, Milano, Venezia, Verona, il Lago di Garda, le spiagge dell’Adriatico e altri, e tornare a casa sazia ed elettrizzata da tanta bellezza, che poi rivivi nelle centinaia di foto scattate con lo Smartphone.

Ho riscoperto le mie origini modenesi, che erano sempre state un pò nascoste dietro alla mia quotidianità meridionale. Ma sono forti queste radici materne, solide, e ne sono infinitamente fiera.

Grazie, Modena, per aver risvegliato in me sentimenti ed emozioni un po’ assopiti.  Sono ben sveglia adesso, e carica.  Non vedo l’ora di tornare.

Grande Modena, you are in my heart.

(Nota: Questo post è stato anche pubblicato nella sezione La lettera  su “La Gazzetta di Modena”, il 29 agosto 2019.  Sono molto grata e commossa da questo onore.)

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Summer in Italy, of course

IMG_1135

You go because, really, can anything else compare?

Italy, l’Italia, the vacation destination on everyone’s bucket list.

You go because Starbucks just doesn’t cut it. A gigantic drink of dubious content, an explosion of sugar and artificial enhancers, flavorings and whatever slimy substance can be squeezed from a plastic tube.   Instead you could be sitting at a intricately decorated table in a small bar in any city or village in the bel paese, under a benevolent sun, and inhale the ultimate aroma – a tIMG_0814iny espresso (called simply caffè in Italy), served in a petite, sturdy yet dainty ceramic cup, accompanied by a glass of cool water, and a bowlful of choices of sugar packets. Do you prefer a dash of milk in your inky black gold?   Then, a macchiato will soothe your soul, with its fluffy dot of steamed milk capping your brew. And nothing, I tell you, my friends, nothing beats a cappuccino, early in the morning (and in the morning only, please please please), in your cousin’s apartment or in the local bar, while swooning after a bite of a fresh from-the-oven cornetto, a tender, fragrant pastry filled with silky cream (or jam or chocolate), that makes a croissant seem like a second-class pastry citizen.

You go because the beaches might not be the long, white strips IMG_1286of Caribbean pure white sand, but the sea is a gentler, kinder embrace of warm Mediterranean history, and the horizon is much closer, and it looks like clusters of villas climbing a hill, or mysterious island silhouettes where you must absolutely go. Like right now. And you can slip into that bikini even if your figure doesn’t resemble Charlize Theron’s, because nobody is judging your choice of a swimsuit, all the ladies are wearing minimal coverage and still eating ricotta-stuffed fried pizza under the rented sun umbrella. You relax on the welcoming (yes, very crowded, but it’s part of the experience) beach, follow your desires, live the moment and the hell with all the rest (for now).

You go because walking on living history makes the stuck heels and the dusty fIMG_1094eet worthwhile.   The lava stones that still support one’s steps, notwithstanding their double millennial age, smooth, solid with their noble heritage, even their cracks a hint of their illustrious past.   And, yes, you can now wear your comfy, padded walking sandals, since Italian summer fashion has relaxed a bit, and those (once evil) Birkenstocks are acceptable, but please make sure that they are the newer, stylish kind, colorful and flirty (and guys, you can’t go wrong with some really cool all-American sneakers).  Naturally, later, go ahead and hit the glorious shoe stores, and buy those sexy heels to show off on American smooth pavement.

You go because most cities (no, all) are open-air museums. The column you lean on near the local pasticceria was there five hundred years ago, looking pretty much the same as when ladies walked in small groups oIMG_1269ut of modesty and wore long-sleeved velvet gowns. The church in the piazza, be it in one of Rome’s characteristic neighborhoods or in a diminutive two-donkey and three-pig village in the mountains of Calabria, was celebrating mass a thousand years ago, and the faithful walked under the same massive and sublime ceiling affresco that you are looking up to right now.

You go because you don’t need to be fluent in Italian to communicate. Certo, some knowledge of the language helps, but the easy-going citizens of Italy will accept your broken sentences and enthusiastically support your efforts, grateful and proud that you actually wish to speak their beloved tongue. And they will love to practice their English on you, thrilled if you respond because you got it, yes, you understood them!

You go IMG_1411because, if you are a woman, you will feel infinitely more so, a true Monica Bellucci swaying along in stilettos on Via Condotti, as the air itself is awed by your beauty and grace.

You go because Capri is even more wondrous that you expected, the gardens over the cliffs are indeed the Garden of Eden; driving down the Costiera amalfitana, clinging to the wheel as you conquer the hundreds of curves, twists and turns on that narrow road is a million times more terrifyingly exciting than Six Flags. The steaming hot, plate-size pizza in a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria in the Spaccanapoli section of beautiful Naples, is an epiphany, aIMG_0891nd that overpriced Italianate snooty so-called trattoria in midtown has no clue what true pizza is.

The wind in your hair is a caress, the sun gloriously brighter than anywhere else( reach for those Gucci shades!) and you hear music where there isn’t any.

Italy is a love song, a sensual embrace.

Just go, my friends, then tell me how you were changed.

Because it’s Always Time-Travel (When I Go to Italy)

pictureTime-Travel  (When I Go to Italy)

It starts on the ride back from JFK Airport.  The realization that I’m not in Italy anymore. The wide highways, the clear green signs, the heavy but orderly flow of traffic, the grayer sky, the exhaustion of my entire body.  But…but, I was buying candied fruit in the supermarket in Portici just a few hours ago…

Now it’s back to an ocean ago.

I’ll be okay, of course, it always works out, no panic attacks, no clinging to the heat of a Mediterranean summer that it’s no longer mine but that still knows my name.

Yes, I need to re-adjust, when I return from Italy. It’s not instantaneous, it’s not easy, it rips my heart, but I keep my cool of course.  I need to cocoon in my American house for a few.  Days, that is, but that’s just because I force myself to focus on my usual routine, not to disrupt my family, my reality.  I pictureunpack immediately.  Need to hide those suitcases that connote airports, fluffy clouds, mediocre airplane food, but also the sweet faces of those who wait for me on the other side.  My past, my core.

I pile them all up on the kitchen table, the wondrous items of my booty – espresso cups and stove-top coffee makers purchased at the usual place, Nicola’s cluttered little shop, on one of the side streets of the open market; stacks of pretty dish towels, baking powder, vanilla powder, Kimbo coffee, black pepper taralli in vacuum-sealed bags, colorful earrings bought at a local fair, handmade by an artisan out of aluminum and a special natural rubber, inexpensive and unique.

Gifts for my dear ones, summer dresses, and a pair of shoes of course, enthusiastically purchased on saldi (sale) in a trendy shoe shop on Viale Leonardo, Bla Bla (yes, that’s the name of the store), in Portici.  My tangible connection to Italy, to cling to as I re-adjust to life without it.

Sweet torture, my annual visit.  I want it and I don’t.  My heart beats out of my chest when I land at Capodichino (Naples’ airport), and it’s always sunny, chaotic, stressful, often the luggage belt doesn’t work, and the wait is eternal, but the cornetti are fresh and filled with cream, so it makes it all okay.  Someone is waiting for me, and their smile is pure joy, and I’m young again, though everything has changed.  But nothing has.

The smell of fuel and cigarettes rattles my soul, because it was always present, then, mixed with humid heat and the intoxicating scent of dreams and hope.

pictureI turn on the air conditioner, place Amica – my favorite Italian fashion mag – on the coffee table, next to a couple of novels I picked up at a quaint, old-fashioned (but fairly new) bookshop located in an old building in Via Diaz, the uphill street that used to be the gateway to happiness, a million years ago, when I lived in a different language.  I don’t answer the phone, ignore Facebook, concentrate on familiar objects that don’t hold powerful memories.  Others don’t understand, really (though nodding politely), that I can’t bear to go outside and talk to people who speak a language that I struggled to learn a lifetime ago, which I love of course, but right now just grates on my raw nerves.

I’m too vulnerable now, too fresh back from my past, too fragile to face the new me that I’ve built over the years.  I need time, just a little time to be comfortable once more in my beloved adoptive land.  Need to transmute into the person who is mature and confident, developed slowly, and certainly laboriously, over the span of decades.

Happy to be back; broken because I am.

I’m of two worlds, and each of them owns a piece of me. Love them both, but
ache for one.

But there they are, my colorful trinkets, concrete memories of what is once again immensely distant, untouchable, fading away as my sea becomes my river.

Material things: yes, they are important.  They can save your sanity.

My Doorman Was Spiderman: An Italian Memoir

Doorman, super, handyman, cleaning crew, even the occasional delivery pictureman.  That was Giovanni, the doorman of the condominium in Portici where I grew up.  A mild-mannered middle-aged man, Giovanni sat in his gabbiotto for a good part of the day.  That would be the little, glass-enclosed box where a doorman is stationed, don’t even know what it’s called in English, but in Italian it derives from the word gabbia, meaning cage, which makes it sound a lot more ominous that it really is.  The citofono (intercom) was in the gabbiotto, and only he was allowed to push the appropriate buttons to make the connection to the various apartments, about 120 of them. You would tell him to call number 20, 30, whatever (mine was 51, forever imprinted in my mind, like the old phone number), he would click it, then pass you the receiver.  Or, I would just say, “ Giovanni, può chiamare mia madre?” and he would connect me to my apartment.  I would encounter him on the stairways, sweeping the steps, washing the ample hallway floor, watering the many planters in the courtyard, opening and closing the windows on each floor, taking care of the tiny elevator when it got stuck (though sometimes he just put up the ‘Guasto‘ sign – out of order – and call a repair service who would take their sweet time to show up), going up and down those stairs several times daily.  But he sure took il pranzo seriously, his lunch break was sacred.  The gabbiotto would be closed at 1 pm, and stay so till at least three, while he hung out with his family in his street-level apartment, the first one on the left, in our wing of the building. The front entrance would be locked, and residents would have to use their key to get in.  If you needed to call someone, well, you couldn’t, unless you started shouting at the top of your voice (which we kids did sometimes, much to the embarrassment and fury of our parents and the other tenants).  Giovanni progressed through his years-old daily routine methodically, and kept everything in order, never rushing, never stressing. As I said, a very average man who just did his job.

Until it was time for the annual cleaning of the windows.

He would start early.  We children were still in bed, our day not yet begun.  But his was just about to change the dimension of his life.  Dragging along his cleaning supplies – bucket, rags, squeegee – Giovanni would take the elevator to the top of the building, the sixth floor, and begin his yearly task.  He would open wide the windows of the landing, sit on the sill, and start reaching out with his materials, spraying, scrubbing, wiping.  As he did so, he would picturegradually stand on the sill, then literally walk out of the window, holding fast to the interior glass with his left hand, and energetically scrubbing away with his right.  Steadily, precisely, but definitely fearlessly.  Balancing his loafer-encased feet on the narrow ledge outside the window, he seemed to stretch all his limbs to reach every corners, wiping and polishing till the glass was sparkling.  When we kids walked out into the sun-warmed balcony, we would stare in awe at this man, our very own Giovanni il portiere, practically walking on glass, and we would cover our mouths so no sound would escape that might distract him.  And cause him to plunge to his death.  My mother would avert her eyes, scuttle back inside, mumbling non posso guardare (I can’t look), and again cautioned us not too make a sound, but just pray (silently!) that he might not lose his grip…quel pazzo scervellato…Yeah, she wasn’t very fond of his dramatic acrobatics, deeming that display of circus-like behavior completely irresponsible and ridiculous.   But, really, how else was he going to wash down those windows?  No professional window-washer crews, with scaffolding and workers secured with ropes, for my building in Portici, just a one-man team who crawled his way through six floors of landing windows, and on both wings of the building, a total of twelve floors.  How I wish I had snapped some photos of this awesome spectacle, but those were not the days of cell phones (besides, if he heard the click, he might even have turned around and, well, you know the rest).  Thus, I shall just post some photos of my good old building and the rusty gate (yes, you can see the gabbiotto behind it), as it still stands there today, beckoning every time I go to Italy.

The doorman days are over now.  It has already been more than twenty years that Giovanni’s gabbiotto has been locked up and empty, and a sturdy gate blocks the courtyard.  A regular intercom system outside the gate allows people to contact the residents, and be buzzed in.

I don’t know who cleans the windows these days, but it will always be Giovanni, il portiere, I will imagine up there, high on the fourth, fifth, sixth floor, semi-dangling from a window, his palm flat against the glass (so white!), his legs steady on the sill, our resident Spiderman performing his stunts. All in a day’s work.

The Little Red Car and the Old House in Molise: A Memoir

A whirlwind in my brain.  That’s what happens when I time-travel. 

Stop, block this, I demand urgently, don’t go there, too painful, can’t change the past, etc, etc…

But one can’t delete the memories, even the ones that claw at your heart. Especially the ones that claw at your heart.

But I’m sticking to childhood stuff now.  Because it’s kinder.

My uncle gave me a beautiful doll stroller as a gift.  I was six or seven, and the present was overwhelmingly exciting.  Pushing it proudly along the paths of the local park, a pretty doll in the seat, and I the proud mommy.

But my brother got a super-cool, shining red sports car.  With pedals.  Zipping on the walking paths, he’d pass me strolling carefully with my ‘baby’, mocking me for being slow, while he owned the world.  And, yes, okay, a bit envious I was (who wouldn’t want to be behind the wheel of a dashing red car?), especially since it was a major project to be allowed to give it a spin  (please, please, just a quick drive?).

pictureMy brother grew into a taller, confident boy, a bit reckless perhaps.  The little red car didn’t, but it was always there.  Transported to my father’s country ancestral home in Colli al Volturno, a tiny village in the heart of Molise.  Now, this house was located in a exceedingly narrow vicolo, an alley not set up for modern automobiles, but efficient for donkeys carrying various wares.  Yeah, dear readers, going back a couple of centuries here.

But, good Lord, what a track it made for my brother’s little red race car!  He no longer fit in the seat of the car, so he worked it out in a different manner.  Just sat himself on top of the toy car, grabbed the steering wheel, lifted his legs over the front, and took off.  He couldn’t reach the pedals, of course, and the only brakes were his feet which would hit the ground when he was ready to stop.  The alley was on a hill, and a perilous curve was only a few meters away, as the narrow road plunged down, past our house and the dark barn that housed a restless, bad-tempered pig.

Guardatemi, shouted my brother, parto!  Here I go, pay attention.  And we did, my sister and I, our hearts beating with anxiety (he was bloody crazy after all), but somewhat excited by the fact that he was going to hit the speed of light with the little toy car, and perhaps smash into something or other, which would be quite entertaining  (we were young kids after all).  Screeching and rattling, the car and my brother rushed by us, and he deftly steered the wheel to avoid the stone walls.  Wow, what a rush! Honestly, I wish I could gather up the courage to emulate him, but no, just wasn’t going to happen.  Boys will be boys; girls, well, should be girls,ecco, and skinned knees were not on my priority list, budding fashionista that I was.  No matter the thrill.

Of course my sister and I (after the fact) eagerly reported to our mother about my brother’s irresponsible behavior, and a serious lecture was sure to follow, in addition to a couple of good knocks on the head, Sei matto, incosciente?

The ancient house is still there, the walls darkened by the passing of time, moss growing in the shadows, and the scent of the old and forgotten embraces the cheerless building.  There was vibrant life here, decades ago.  Then it became solely a summer house for us kids, not much appreciated, alas, often despised for replacing our beach vacation.

Now it sits there, gray, heavy with the lingering thoughts, secrets, joys and heartaches of generations of Di Sandro’s.

If you listen carefully to the silence of the stone walls, you will hear there is silence no more.

Mara at the Gardens of San Giorgio a Cremano

So, I’m on a video roll, what can I say. Well, I had filmed a ‘couple’ of things in my travels and professional events, and I wanted to share with you, my dearest readers.  This one is a little particular in the sense that the beginning…didn’t happen.  By some unfortunate glick fabricated by the mind of my digital camera, even though I introduced the video, meticulously explaining where I was, that fundamental part disappeared!  Pazienza. But I can write about it, no?  In this video I’m in the charming town of San Giorgio a Cremano, next door to Portici (Italy, of course), a lively community at the foothills of the Vesuvius.  On this picture-perfect mid-October afternoon, I visited – thanks to the kindness of a local friend – two stunning aristocratic villas, originally built in the 18th century.  The first one is called Villa Vannucchi, and it was abandoned and partially buried for a couple of centuries.  In the 1980’s, it was restored to its full glory, following the original blueprints found in the ruins.  It was the summer residence of a very wealthy noble family, and, I’m told, the site of quite a few ‘wild’ and opulent parties. The gardens are gorgeous and the setting serene and elegant.  Now it is the home of Italy’s first online university, Università Telematica Pegaso, offering courses in law and humanities.  This brief video starts in the gardens, since, as I explained, the segment taped inside the palace at the beginning, was mysteriously deleted.  From Villa Vannucchi, I walk a few hundred meters to another villa cum park, Villa Bruno, also a stunning place from that era, where you can also find an outdoor theater that, in the summer, offers live performances.  Tucked in the back, we also find an adorable, picturesque bar, calledGoethe Café, in honor of the great German writer who was enamored of all of Southern Italy, especially the Naples area, and spent some time at this villa.  Here local writers gather to this day to read and discuss their pieces.  What an extraordinary coincidence, no?  I suppose I’m home now.