28 September 2014

LIFE: Rapallo, A Castle by the Sea

CHIAVARI, Italy - It never failed. As soon as the winter fog would start to lift in Milan and the stark reality of the gray on gray city set in, I would start thinking about a weekend getaway on the Italian Riviera. My getaway of choice was often Rapallo, a small town in Liguria, about 35 miles south of Genova. 
Rapallo, Italy
Calling it a small town makes Rapallo sound quaint and old fashioned, which it is, but it is also part of the poshest arc of the Riviera. Its nearest neighbors, besides Chiavari, are toney Santa Margherita Ligure and the much touted celebrity playground of Portofino. I like it anyway. Just like we can’t pick our relatives, towns can’t pick their neighbors.

What I like about it is that Rapallo doesn’t have that international jet set feel of Portofino and even though there are more hotels there than in Santa Margherita, it manages to feel homey.  

Rapallo's Castle, ahhh I mean Fortress
There is a long, palm tree lined walk along the sea that runs from the town’s harbor to the castle, make that castle with a question mark.  Calling it a castle is a bit of an exaggeration, at least for me. When I think of the word castle, I think majestic, commanding, imposing, but none of those words describe the castle in Rapallo, and that’s what intrigues me.

Rapallo’s castle sits on a rocky base on the edge of the sea and frankly, as castle go, it isn’t the least bit majestic or commanding. It is low and wide with rounded corners, its sides riddled with merlons (the narrow openings those inside the castle use to shoot at attackers) and it looks more like something you’d find on a playground than what it actually was, Rapallo’s main defense against the Barbary pirates.

 The Pirate Boats are Long Gone

It was built after the fierce corsair Dragut Reis attacked the town in 1551 and made off with about one hundred women and children who he promptly sent off to be sold in the slave markets of Algiers. Make no mistake, Dragut was no Disney pirate with a black eye patch and a parrot on his shoulder. He had spent four long years as a galley slave on an Italian ship and plotted his revenge as he sat broiling under the hot Mediterranean sun and shivering in the freezing rain. After he escaped he devoted the rest of his life to attacking the towns and villages along the Ligurian coast, Rapallo among them, and showing as much mercy to his captives as he had been shown during those four years he was chained to an oar on that ship in the middle of the sea – that is to say – none.

Today the castle is used primarily as a venue for art exhibits and the thick walls that once shielded the Rapallo infantry (and the town) from the Barbary pirates now hold up watercolors and photographs by local artists.  
 Rapallo's Pretty Sea Walk

One of my favorite places in town used to be a small bar near the castle that had a bookcase filled with board games. They served simple meals and sandwiches that you could eat indoors or at one of the outdoor tables and enjoy the best view in town of the castle and the sea.  During the rainy winter months this is was where you would find the locals, sipping coffee laced with grappa and playing Italian monopoly or Scrabble and watching the storms come in off the sea. I was sorry to see that a run-of-the-mill touristy bar has taken over that spot, but the view is still the same even if the atmosphere has changed.

On balmy summer evenings band concerts are held in the gazebo in the small park in front of the sea walk and on August 15th, which is the most important summer holiday of the year, it’s nice to sit by the water, cooled by the evening breeze and watch eye popping fireworks.

The Saline Gate

At one time there were five gates that led into the town of Rapallo but today only one remains, the Porta delle Saline. Above the apricot and white baroque portal there is a small golden niche holding a statue of the Madonna. Many people still make the sign of the cross when they pass through the portal to go out of Rapallo, a hold over from when it was prudent to seek the protection of the heavens when leaving town, especially if you were a sailor ready to embark on the dangerous pirate ridden waters of the Mediterranean.  

In the shade of the pastel colored buildings there is a daily food market where local vendors sell seasonal fruits, vegetables and fresh fish. You’ll also find a fair number of butchers and bakers and pasta makers. One of the best food shops is “Abuttega de due Scu” which I think means “a little shop that sells a couple of things” in dialect. It’s owned by Andreina Barbieri, a nice lady who is happy to tell you how to cook some of the more unusual pastas made in Liguria, like testaroli which looks like a rolled up extra-large pancake, but tastes like heaven.  
 Signora Andreina Barbieri, Owner of Abuttega de due Scu

Did I mention there is no shortage of places to eat? There are snack bars and bakeries where you can buy hot from the oven foccacia and restaurants that serve fresh pesto served over the local pasta, squiggly trofie.  Before the European Union imposed its rules the trofie were made by local housewives and sold to the restaurants in town. Now they are made at the restaurants and still delicious.

Of course there are the prerequisite boutiques showing the latest fashions from Milan and lots of shoe shops, jewelry shops and other places to spend your money. There’s even an 18 hole 70 par golf course.
 The Ventura Jewelry Shop, Rapallo, Italy
The beauty of Rapallo is that it has everything, all perfectly packaged and compact. You can walk the historic part, the center of town, in 20 minutes – maybe less, so there is plenty of time left over to devote to the things you like to do, like finding a gelateria and trying to decide which of the 25 flavors of ice cream on offer you are going to try that day. 

Even though I chose to live in Chiavari when I moved back to the Riviera a couple of years ago, I'm happy to be close to Rapallo. Now when I get the urge for a Rapallo fix it's nice to know that instead of being a couple of hours away, as it was when I lived in Milan, it's only 7 minutes by train - Chiavari-Rapallo. 

21 September 2014

LIFE: Travels With Ginny - A True Tale About a Foot

CHIAVARI, Italy – Talked to my cousin Ginny the other day. We haven’t talked in a while and just hearing her voice made me realize how much I miss her. We’ve had some good times together, traveling around, getting into trouble, getting out of trouble and laughing all the way. What I’ve posted today is a true tale of just one adventure in my travels with Ginny.  I hope you enjoy it.
 Place Rossetti, Nice France
The date 16 August,1999 is burned on my brain. It is the day my cousin Ginny and I were crossing rue Hotel du Poste in Nice, France when I fell and twisted my ankle. As even in tragedies there are bits of fortune, mine is that we were not far from the Lady of the Rocks Hospital, which is where I ended up.   
            I had never been in an emergency room anywhere and so my experience with such things is limited to watching ER on television. Needless to say reality is quite different from the fictionalized version. No George Clooney for one. Yes there are doctors walking around, pouty French film types, but in my opinion the entire ER department needs to have its blood pressure checked. If things moved any slower we would have been at STOP. I want sirens to go off, or at the very least a few bells and whistles, some signal that emergencies are coming in and need to be treated, but the aura of calm is overwhelming.
Most of the emergencies appear to be motor scooter accidents. One young man they roll in is covered with twigs and branches, his face is scratched and bleeding and his jacket is a mess. He looks as if he has been launched head first into a very large bush. Then there were the old people who had apparently wandered away from where they were, forgot where they were going, and now can't remember where they came from. The woman on the gurney next to me is clutching three purses: a gold lamè evening bag, a large cloth bag with a zippered closing, and a beige pleather bag with a long strap. She also has a jacket with her even though it is in the mid 90’s and the humidity is high. She is obviously a woman who prepares for every occasion.
 They wheel me into a hallway and leave me there.  After a while, two hours to be exact, a doctor stopped by, wiggles my foot and sends me to x-ray. The bad news is that I have indeed broken a very, very small bone in my foot. A teeny tiny bone. A bone so insignificant there isn't even a name for it.
             Nonetheless I am whisked off to the cast department.
"Ooo la la, vat 'ave vee 'ere?" asks the round and jolly cast person. Put your foot up like dees, ho kay? First we put this beige sock with no toes, then this bright green bandage, ho kay?  Hold eet,” she says as she goes round and round with the bright green bandage, right up to my knee. 
“It’s too tight”, I wail.
“No, no, it's not too tight, it is just right."
As the green bandage hardens into stone, my toes begin to puff up like blue Christmas tree ornaments.
"Now, we wrap eet all up with this beige and blue stripe bandage, and voila! a little tape to finish the package and eet is done!"
            I hate it. It is hot. It is heavy. I feel as if a God in some far off place in the universe wants to know more about the migratory patterns of ex-pats in Italy and had me grabbed and tagged.  Get this thing off my leg.
            “We have to go home,” I say to Ginny.   
            The next day with the vile green cast on my leg and shiny new crutches tucked under my arm, we take a taxi to the Nice train station.
            "Go to the Tourist Information Desk and ask them were we can get a wheel chair,” I say to her. “There's no way I can hop up and down the stairs to the tracks on crutches." So she does.
           The Tourist Information people send her to the Accuiel (Welcome) desk. The Accuiel desk sends her to another Accuiel desk. The second Accuiel desk sends her to yet another Accuiel desk, and when she finds herself in front of the Accuiel desk she  started from she throws up her hands in true Italian fashion and says Basta. Enough.
In the meantime I am holding court with a family from Montana who had never been to Europe before and were wondering how come there are no bugs or flies here. Ginny finally comes back with a strapping young Frenchman and a wheelchair. Ahhhh. Success. Off we go, he pushing me in the wheelchair and poor cousin Ginny toting all the baggage like a foot weary train station bell cap in an old Hollywood movie.
"You go down the stairs," the Frenchman says to Ginny "and I'll meet you on the other side of the track and help you put the luggage on the train."
Ginny takes one look at the stairs, one look at the luggage, and opts to go with us thinking he must be heading for an elevator. But no, instead we head for the very end of the train platform where the Frenchman proceeds to push me across the tracks, clutching my crutches in my arms like a shield. Just the thing to fend off a high speed TVG train that I'm convinced is going to come whizzing around the corner at any second.
"Stop" I yell, "Help", as images flash through my mind of my much loved and carefully cared for body parts splattering from one end of the station to the other. Then I look over and see poor Ginny, loaded down like an Mongolian packer crossing the Himalayas following the best she can, bent over under the load of bags and suitcases that are swaying to and fro and I shut up.  
Finally settled on the train I ask the Italian conductor to arrange for a wheel chair when we get to Milan. "No problem," he says, "I'm getting off in Genoa so when the next conductor comes on, just remind him." 
When we arrive in Genoa and the new conductor comes on, I do just that.
"Signora, Signora, Signora," he clucks. "It is all taken care of." 
Fifteen minutes later he’s back. "My colleagues in Milan want to know your name."
"My name? Are they afraid they won't recognize the person with the bright green cast on her leg carrying crutches as the one who needs a wheel chair?"
"Don't ask," he says.
I give him my Italian Identity Card and he reads my name into his cell phone. “Thank goodness you have an Italian name,” he says, “if you were German or Swedish they would have hung up on me.”
Once home, I'm stir crazy before the door even closes. Ginny is leaving soon to go back to the States so she spends the next couple of days running back and forth to the grocery store stocking my cupboard with stuff like tuna fish, pasta, frozen veggies and water. 
"That's what Nonna did during the War,” I tell her. "Stock up on stuff”.
Banal conversation. What I really want to know is if the current lust of my life, the dairy department stocker at the GS grocery store, stares at her like he stares at me when I shop there.  I finally get up the nerve to ask.
"I don't think so," she says. "No one stared at me."
I’m not convinced.
On my own after Ginny leaves, I rent a wheel chair. The elevator in my apartment building is a tiny thing, so I have to shoehorn the wheel chair into it, then squeeze myself in as well. But that turns out to be the least of my problems. Once on the street I can't get the chair to go straight. It wants to veer to the right. And while my street has wheel chair access, they are used by motorists as access driveways to park on the sidewalk so they are crumbled and broken up. What that means is once I get the chair down into the street, I can't get back up to the sidewalk. It is a nightmare. 
 The cast is making me crazy. I hate it with all my heart. I am afraid to go to sleep at night for fear it is cutting off my circulation and a blood clot is forming and speeding straight for my brain and I am convinced I am going to wake up dead. I decide to call Francesco, an orthopedic surgeon I know, and ask if he would please come over and take a look at the x-rays and take the cast off, for surely it is not an absolute necessity.
He comes over that same night. The cast has to stay.
How long, I want to know.
Six weeks.
Six weeks! No relief from this hot itchy thing until October? It’s inhumane. It’s excessive cruelty. It’s against every international law on the books, it’s even against the Geneva Convention rules on torture I whine.
"Phyllis, Phyllis, Phyllis, you are the worst patient I have ever met," he says shaking his head as he walks out the door. 
In spite of the trials and tribulations of that long hot summer, I survived. Since then Ginny and I have gone on to many other adventures, like the time we almost got washed overboard on a boat trip to the Cinque Terre. But never mind, that's another story for another day. Besides, from the conversation we had yesterday, I have a feeling there are more adventures in our future, and I for one can't wait.

14 September 2014

LIFE: The Train of Happiness

CHIAVARI, Italy – I’ve always been struck by how little the Italians talk about what happened here during the WWII. They remember, they celebrate war related holidays, they march in parades and listen to speeches but for the most part they just get on with things and unless you (meaning me) ask, you don’t hear many stories.
The Train of Happiness
That’s probably why I was so fascinated when I discovered a small book by Giovanni Rinaldi called ITreni della Felicita. The Trains of Happiness is the true story of thousands of Italian kids, mostly from southern Italy, and what one woman did that changed their lives, and the lives of those who joined her, forever. Then I discovered that film maker Alessandro Piva had made an award winning documentary about those same kids, and where they were today. But let me back up a little for this is a story worth telling.

The story starts in the winter of 1945.  The Allies had landed, Italy was liberated and now cities and towns were searching to find solutions to the immediate problems of food distribution and removal of war debris. The national priorities were those. The woman, Teresa Noce, a Milanese partisan and leader in the National Communist Party, had just been freed from the woman’s concentration camp in Ravensbruk, Germany and was now back in Milan. From her experiences in the concentration camp, Signora Noce was well aware of other problems other than those the politicians were concerned with. She was concerned about the children who were suffering from hunger and abandonment, particularly those in the towns of southern Italy that had been hit the hardest by the war, and she decided to do something about it. 

 Teresa Noce in Parliament
The first thing she did was contact the women members of Communist groups in Reggio Emilia. She asked if they could find families who would be willing to take in some children from southern Italy for a few months so they could recuperate their health. The positive response she received was overwhelming, and from that first approach the UDI, the Union of Italian Women was born.

The UDI was so successful Sig.ra Noce, and the other women working with her, decided to expand it and anchor it in southern Italy.  And so it began. There was a lot of work to do. The women began by traveling to Naples, Cassino, Rome and into the small towns of Puglia looking for children who would be eligible for the program. After their families had given their permission the children had to be examined by a doctor to make sure they were able to make the long train trip. In those days, with the frequent interruptions of the railroad lines, it took up to 14 hours to travel from Naples to Rome, a trip you can do today in less than 2 hours.  
There Was No North or South, Only Italy
In the two winters following the end of the war, thousands of children left their homes in the war torn Southern provinces to stay with families in and around Modena. They were clothed, sent to school and cared for, but those were merely the superficial benefits, what happened to them was so much more.

Not all families were receptive to the help being offered though. While the majority of the mothers the UDI contacted had never been beyond the boundaries of their small villages, they had heard the horror stories about the Communists “devils” in Alt’Italia (northern Italy) who ate children for lunch or threw them into boiling cauldrons of lye and turned them into soap. The idea of putting their sons and daughters on trains, which none of them had ever been on, and transporting them straight into the hands of those very “devils”, must have kept many a mother pacing up pacing the floor at night, torn between wanting her child or children to have this opportunity and wondering if they would ever see them again. And the kids were worried as well.
  Babies on the Menu in Milan
One man told the story of a little boy who had been put in his care who, for the first week wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t to go to sleep. He would always say, “I’m not hungry, I’m not sleepy”. But of course he would eventually fall asleep and the next day he would wake up and just keep looking from side to side, as if expecting something to happen. After a few days he finally confessed that he had been told that the people in Alt’Italia were all Communists and everyone knew the Communists ate children. When asked if that was why he was so afraid to go to sleep he said yes, he had wanted to be very watchful.

They were probably all afraid but there were others who told stories of discovery. “Being on that train was like being in a fairy tale,” said one woman. “I remember one night seeing all these lights sparkling in the distance like bouncing stars. I woke my brother and said look at what is out there, and we stood with our noses pressed against the train window looking out. Then, one of the women with us said, that is the sea. I had never seen the sea.”
 Heading for the Train of Happiness
Days later, when that first train finally got to Modena, it had snowed. The mothers had done their best to dress their children for the trip, but the truth was the kids were dressed in rags and many were barefoot, but not all. One mother had taken the only shoes in the house, her husband’s shoes, and put them on the feet of her son just before he boarded the train. When the boy arrived in Modena he stood there shivering in the train station, in his father’s shoes and his sister’s moth eaten sweater and waited to be picked up by his new family.

And family they were, to all of the kids. They treated them like their own, there was no difference. One by one they told of the marvel of sleeping in a clean bed by themselves, of having a whole room to themselves. It was very different at home where they shared beds with three, four or more brothers and sisters in rooms with more than one bed in it. Then they all laughed remembering their first bath in a bathtub, something none of them had ever experienced before.
The Train of Happiness
They all talked about eating three times a day for the first time in their life, of salami and pasta and meat all at the same meal, their first taste of a croissant, of a cookie, treats for kids who usual diet was bread and tomatoes with maybe a drop of oil, for oil was expensive. And in the afternoon they would go for gelato, which they likened to cold ricotta as none of them had ever heard of, let alone tasted gelato before.

There were many adjustments that had to be made by both the kids and the sponsors. For example, many of the sponsors only spoke the local dialect, Romangnolo and the kids spoke the dialects of the south. Some spoke Neapolitan others Barese and still others spoke dialects of isolated mountain villages, and so communication was tricky. “But we managed,” said one man talking about the young boy who had lived with him and his family, “in the end we mixed a little Neapolitan with a little Romangnolo and made our own language.”
Saying Goodbye
The children stayed with the families in Modena for two years and, when they left to return to their families and homes in the south, it was a tearful parting. It had been an experience that had changed an entire generation of Italians, not just the kids but their sponsors as well. And long after the kids went back their Modena families continued to send them packages of clothes and pasta and bread. As one woman put it,  “even if the bread was 15 days old, for that’s how long it would take to get to us, we would open the boxes and smell the smell of Modena and all our memories would come back to us.”

While I Treni della Felicita’ only focuses on the families of Modena and Reggio Emilia, the UDI program actually reached more than 70,000 kids. Many of them lived with families in and around Modena, but many others lived with families in Milano, Torino and other cities in northern Italy. It’s difficult for us to fully understand how this experience affected them for it was a unique time in history when the extraordinary value of human solidarity prevailed, one of many examples of the generosity to the less fortunate that has always characterized the Italians.
A New Way of Living
Film maker Alessandro Piva tracked down some of the people who had been hosted in Modena and put together an hour long documentary called Pasta Nera. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5zph62IdCY Pasta Nera