I wrote this story two years ago after an experience with Dreaming South in Calabria, but I never got around to posting it:
“Un ce ocedd nat ca u pass pi Cariati”.
There aren’t any birds that haven’t passed through Cariati.
I learned this proverb from Antonio, my host’s father, during lunch at the beginning of my ten-day stay in Cariati, a small city in the Southern Italian region of Calabria.
It refers to the fact that Cariati was a point of passage for many different people throughout history because of its location by the sea.
But in this case, Antonio likened the saying to our group of ten artists who came to Cariati to participate in a documentary project last summer. We were photographers and video artists who came from France, Iran, Poland, the United States, Russia and England. We mingled with each other and of course, with the Calabrians, who were hospitable and proud of their roots.
Very hospitable. We were welcomed immediately by our host Giovanni and his family. His mother picked me up from the train station, and our group enjoyed ten days of exquisite breakfasts, lunches, and dinners together, most of them either eaten in the family’s pizzeria or cooked by Raffaela, Giovanni’s mother, and eaten on the terrace of their house.
Antonio and Raffaella like to meet people and tell them about their culture, and they were eager to share their food, language, and traditions with us. I felt so lucky to be able to understand Italian on this trip, as otherwise I would not have been able to talk directly to many of the people in the area, and much would have been lost in translation.
They were not just hospitable, but proud. Giovanni’s father Antonio, an exuberant, talkative man, wears his regional pride on his sleeve.
He referred to himself, only half-joking, as “Calabrese DOC” (DOC means “denominazione origine controllata [controlled designation of origin] and appears on bottles of wine and Italian food products, indicating their authenticity and quality.)
He told me about how he moved to Switzerland for work in the 1970s, and when people asked him where he was from, he said Calabria, not Italy. He had found a job in Switzerland which paid three million lire a month, a good salary, and he described Switzerland as a beautiful place.
But after a while, he said, he looked around and saw that everyone was in a hurry. He described them with their heads down, rushing from one place to the next.
A friendly extrovert, Antonio has no trouble making friends. If he walked into a club by himself, he would walk out at the end of the night with a few new friends.
However, he said that in Switzerland he couldn’t make friends, and he felt that the people didn’t want to get close.
So, friendless and watching everyone rush around, at one point he asked himself:
“Che ci faccio qui?” (What am I doing here?) Then he repeated it again to himself, “Che ci faccio qui?!?”
He lasted one month in Switzerland.
Before he headed home, his Swiss acquaintances asked him what was wrong, why he was leaving so soon.
“I’m in love,” he responded.
“Oh, you have a woman waiting for you in Calabria,” they nodded knowingly. “It’s natural that you want to go back. You can marry her and bring her here to Switzerland and start a family. “
“No.” he said.
“I’m in love with my land.”
It’s not hard to see why, even as a short term visitor. The landscape is so captivating it’s hard to describe it without falling into cliché. I was reading on the train on the way to Cariati, and when I looked out the window at the rolling hills covered in olive trees and the clear blue Ionian sea, I jerked to my senses, thinking, “Why am I reading?”
The old historical center sits on top of a hill and is surrounded by medieval walls with eight towers. Front doors open right onto the cobblestoned streets, where people sit on chairs outside, the streets becoming an extension of their homes. The city offers a panoramic view of the sea below, and a visitor can get lost wandering through the winding labyrinth of narrow alleys and white stone buildings shimmering in the summer sun.
“The Calabrian sun is the best,” Antonio states with great conviction. “No matter what you have,” he continues, “you can come here and be healed. The Pugliese sun is no good. The Sicilian sun is okay for some things but not for others, but nothing beats the sun of Calabria.”
Antonio continued, crediting the Calabrian sun for the success of the region’s characteristic crops- traditional “poor” vegetables such as peppers, onions, and potatoes, and other crops like lemons, fruit, grapes and olives, all of which, along with fish and seafood from the adjacent sea, are put together to make their simple but delicious regional dishes.
Giovanni, Antonio, Raffaele, and others I met in Cariati extolled the flavors of their local food and its superiority over food that is not grown locally, preferably in Calabria.
“We live for flavor,” Antonio said as we sat down to enjoy lunch. “We enjoy.”
He got more talkative, gesticulating enthusiastically, as the white Calabrese wine kept flowing. He and his wife shared stories about traditional life in Calabria, gender roles, small sustainable cultivation, the local dialect, and what he called Calabria’s miraculous olive oil.
When people stopped paying attention he motioned to them with his arms to listen, repeating “Ascol’, ascol’” (Listen, listen).
Lunches lasted a long time. The whole trip was relaxed, reflecting a slower way of life than the frenetic pace many of us are used to.
Nothing against Torino, a fine city and my adopted home, but it’s very different from a Southern Italian town and, leaving the problems that face Southern Italy aside for a moment, has less of a stereotypically “Italian” feeling.
For ten days, I felt like I left Torino and went to Italy. And I quite liked it.