While clearing out files and folders, both paper and electronic, I came across a piece I wrote after a trip to visit my cousins in Italy during the summer of 2006. It was a jolt of sensory nostalgia and balm for the bruise of induced isolation. In my rummaging, I found photos from that trip of two longtime friends and myself. Margo, Patty, and I met as college roommates and were like the good kind of sisters to each other. We had traveled often together. When I said come to Italy with me, it had taken them less than twenty-four hours to say yes. We stayed at Le Camerelle an agriturismo near Benevento owned by friends of my cousin Fiorenzo. I remembered our trip into the mountains to visit his wife Mary’s parents.
The three of us listened intently to Fiorenzo’s directions, “You go Molinara. You find Vittorio Borrelli. Quattro Touri Fromaggio. Papa di Mary. Vittorio Borrelli.” This was Fiorenzo’s GPS. You go, you find.
I opened the map and found the road to Molinara. It had to be uphill all the way, north of my grandmother’s hometown of Benevento, almost to Molise. Between the map and helpful road signs we hoped to find the place. My cousin Fiorenzo, a travel agent, and his wife Mary had reserved a rental car for me. It was a Nissan Micro and it zipped up and down the Sannio Mountains of Campania like a nimble goat. We had gone to the Naples airport to get it because there were no automatics to rent in Benevento. On the way to Naples, Mary suggested we go one day to visit her parents in Molinara, a 20-kilometer drive. They have a cheese factory and we might find it interesting, thus the advice from Fiorenzo on how to get there.
Mary had been raised in Australia and her family had returned to Italy when she was seventeen. She spoke English with a down-under accent. She let her parents know we were headed their way and we set out one morning in late July. It was cool and breezy. Every afternoon there had been a temporale, a thunderstorm that blew in a rush of dark clouds and a deluge of rain, and was over in half an hour. Such was the drama of the South. It was no wonder the Campania was so green and lush, fertile with olive trees, wheat fields, apple orchards, and farms raising water buffalo, cattle, and goats. This was cheese country. We began climbing shortly after passing through Pietrelcina, home of the magic monk Padre Pio. We traversed one mountain and then started up another.
“Oh my God, look at this,” I said to Margo and Patty. Huge wind turbines spun in beautiful arrays along the horizon, their stanchions resembling the ironwork of the Eiffel tower. There were dozens of them. This was not the Italy my grandparents had left a hundred years ago. We were out in the hills; it should have been medieval and primitive up here and, as we would find, in some ways it was–– the best-preserved ways.
We circled the mountain in an ascending spiral looking across the valley at the mountain we had just scaled. The village was in sight when we came upon a couple emerging from a field of some shoulder-high crop onto the side of the road. I stopped and said, “ Buon giorno! Si trove Molinara? Vittorio Borrelli? Quattro Touri?”
“Australian?” asked the woman.
“Americana.” I answered. “Cugina di Fiorenzo e Mary Mottola.”
“Ah,” they said to each other. “Si, si.”
Gesturing up the road the man said, ” You go. Quattro Touri. Vittorio Borrelli. Si, si, a piazza.” Why did I expect details? And what had they been doing in that field?
“Okay, Sorelle,” I said to Margo and Patty. “We’re bound to find him. The place can’t be that big. If they know him, probably everyone else does too.”
We had it in our heads that Quattro Touri would be an ancient stone building with four towers. We rode around the narrow streets scanning each building and kept ending up in the piazza. Finally, I decided to ask a workman who had just parked his truck in the square.
“Qui, here.” he said pointing directly behind us to a modern yellow brick storefront with a white sign. On the sign was a black line painting of a castle with four towers and the letters Quattro Touri. How un-medieval. How clean and modern. No towers.
“Grazie!” I said. We spilled out of the car laughing and rolled up the flight of concrete stairs to the front door. A woman came out of the office into the lobby as soon as we stepped inside. I said the usual litany, “Vittorio Borelli, per favore?”
“ He’s not here,” she said. “But his wife Lena will be here soon to meet you. Talk to Uncle Benny.”
Uncle Benny was an older man in Wellies, who looked just like a younger version of my father, white hair, ski-jump nose, rosy cheeks and a slight stoop to his posture. Uncle Benny was the cheese maker.
“What do you want?” he asked. “We’re finished making the cheeses today.”
“That’s okay,” Margo said. “Can we see them? The cheeses?” We were still punchy from the drive, and hungry, and here was this old man guarding the cheese.
After I explained who were again, Uncle Benny gestured for us to come back, into the factory. Metal vats of cheese, beautiful creamy cheese lined the huge space. Uncle Benny got out a hose and finished washing the floor before we could go any farther. He invited us to approach the first vat and I’ve got to say it was a religious moment. The centuries-old ritual that was still being enacted here dawned on me. Uncle Benny put his hand into the font of mozzarella and water and pulled out a skein of the fresh white stuff. He tore off a piece for each of us and one for himself.
“Eat. It’s clean.” He said and put it into his mouth. We did the same. Holy communion. It was heavenly, sweet and tender, straight from the sacred water buffalo that morning.
“Try this,” he said, leading us to a large steel vat of ricotta, piled high, draining, and still warm. He dipped a wooden paddle in and offered it to us, taking some on his index finger and easing it into his mouth. We did the same. Earth, sky, sun, rain, grass all at once. I could have eaten a quart of it. It needed to be made into ravioli immediately. I hadn’t tasted ricotta that good since my father took me to the ricotta lady’s farm to get it fresh when I was about three-years-old.
Then there was the cacciocavello, a harder pale yellow cheese formed into a melon-sized ball, with twine wrapped around it tied to another like a twin. These two balls of cheese would be slung over a horse’s neck to be carried more easily. That’s why it was called horse-style cheese. It’s kind of like Edam but creamier tasting with a lovely mild tang.
“Magnifico!” said Margo.
“Oh, my gosh!” Said Patty, her hand over her heart, her blue eyes to the ceiling.
Uncle Benny was pleased with us, “You take some with you,” he said.
I explained that we were traveling and who we were again.
“Australian?” he asked.
“No, Americana.” I said. What was it with everyone thinking we were Australian?
The next minute Mary’s mother, Lena, her red hair waving around her pink face, came in followed by Vittorio. Hugs all around. Lena told us to go with Vittorio for a walking tour of the village and then for a light lunch at their house. She went back home to prepare the meal. It was after noon and we were ready to eat, but imagine a tour by the proprietor of the local cheese factory. Vittorio was a vigorous seventy-five year old with curly close cut salt and pepper hair, well-dressed with his grey cardigan hanging from his shoulders. Dark rimmed glasses gave him a Eugene Levy aspect. I kept expecting humor.
Vittorio guided us across the piazza to a large stone house that was a castle with squat square towers and it turned out was the former home of the Duke who ruled the area at one time, and the namesake of the cheese factory. Vittorio knocked on the door and turned to us.
“If they’re home we can look at the garden. Ah, she is here.” The woman of the castle answered the door and told us to go ahead through to the garden.
“Avvocata,” he said, his dark eyes widening. She was a lawyer. The garden was a shady oasis with a fountain. It was loaded with ancient sculptures and contemporary pieces including found objects like a traffic light hanging from a tree. There was a stone press for olive oil being used as a sink. At each artifact, Vittorio would whisper behind his hand, “From the ert kwack.” I finally figured out he was saying, “From the earthquake,” in Aussie English. He told us the owners of the castle had looted the artifacts during the last earthquake and obviously he disapproved. He didn’t want us to think they had a right to the stuff.
As we left the garden, he told us how the long-dead Duke had practiced his prerogative of deflowering each maiden in the village on the night of her wedding and then turning her over to her groom.
“Not anymore,” Vittorio said.
We walked around the castle, to see the renovations from the exterior. An elderly woman with a cane greeted Vittorio as we made the circuit around the back walls. Part of it had been made into condos, their contemporary windows set into the stone. The woman followed us back to the piazza where two other women loitered. I imagined everyone in the village probably knew we were there and these women would have a full report. All three appeared to be in their seventies. The one who had met us, now leaning on her wooden cane was dressed in what looked like peasant clothes: faded print dress, aqua apron with pink roses on it, grey hair in braids under a kerchief. Her shoes were beaten-up leather brogans. Her face was tanned and deeply lined. The second was wearing a housedress like my mother would have, maroon with sprigs of green and a grey and black striped apron. Her hair was snowy white, wavy above a round face with brown-rimmed glasses. She was wearing ballet flats. The third was the modern one wearing a lavender silk top with a royal blue cardigan slung around her neck, a straight navy skirt and black wedge sandals. Her hair was styled in a short salt and pepper pouf and she wore rimless glasses.
Modern greeted us and we exchanged pleasantries. I asked if I could take their photo and they smiled as they moved together and faced the camera.
Grey Braids said to me, “ You should come back tomorrow when we will be dressed in our antique clothes. Vestiti antichi.”
There would be a festa tomorrow on the stage being constructed next to the piazza. They would present the history of the village. Margo, Patty and I had the same thought: how much more antique could the costumes be if these were her regular clothes? Culture and history were very present here. Vittorio pulled us away and said we should get our car and he would show us the wind turbines before we went to his house. We made our apologies to the trio for not being able to return the next day.
It took us about five minutes to wind the rest of the way up the mountain to the base of one of the turbines. It towered above us, the twenty-by-twenty-foot battery house at its base.
“When the battery is charged in there, the windmill stops and the electricity sent on to the company. At a certain point it begins charging again and refills. Always, some of them are turning and some are resting.” Vittorio explained. It was always windy on the mountaintop. They were not letting their resources blow away. So much of Italian life is direct and natural, allowing the creativity and resourcefulness of entrepreneurs to flourish. I shook off this reverie and realized again how hungry I was. As we got back into the village Vittorio guided us to his beautiful gentrified street. He got out and flagged me into a parking space in front of his honey colored wooden front door. The house was pink stucco with terra cotta tile on the roof and big pots of coral hibiscus flowering between the foundation and sidewalk. Lena opened the door and waved us in.
“Girlsies! A light lunch for you. Come in and refresh yourselves.”
She took us upstairs to the bathroom that had the usual sink, toilet, bidet, and tub, but also another porcelain sink on the counter with a slanted washboard built into it for doing hand laundry. This was the great thing about knowing people as relatives instead of traveling as tourists; you could get inside their houses and snoop legitimately. We were enchanted with the practicality of that porcelain washboard.
“I think I’ll take off my dainties and wash them out right now,” quipped Margo. “I really want to try it out.”
“But then you’d have to put them back on and let them air dry,” said Patty. “That’s no good for sitting at lunch.”
We went down into the kitchen still chortling. On the counter were dozens of gnocchi laid out in neat rows on linen dishtowels. The tomato sauce was simmering, basil and garlic.
“Oh my gosh,” said Patty. I actually drooled out the side of my mouth.
“Girlsies, come and sit down in the dining room.” Lena had given us a new name that we would call each other anytime we got together.
The lace tablecloth and ceramic bird knick-knacks on the shelf above the table filled me with nostalgia for my childhood. Lena brought out a platter piled with scaloppini.
“What kind of meat do you think this is?” Vittorio asked.
“Veal?” I guessed.
“No. Turkey!” He said. It was the best turkey I ever tasted- crunchy batter on the outside, tender on the inside. Then, the gnocchi, creamy, just enough potato flavor and texture, it held the pomodoro sauce and slid down the throat. After that came a salad of iceberg lettuce with olive oil and lemon, cheese, fruit, and biscotti with coffee. A light lunch.
As we were finishing a plump, dark-haired girl, maybe late teens, walked in through the garage door into the kitchen.
“Vittorio! Your friend is here again today!” shouted Lena from the kitchen. The girl approached Vittorio holding out a change purse. She was a Down’s syndrome child with that typical sweet demeanor and full face.
“Give me some euros for my change, Vittorio,” she said.
“Okay, Maria, let me count it to see if you have enough. You didn’t have enough yesterday.” He poured the change out onto the table. Maria giggled and clapped her hands. We smiled with her.
“No, you still don’t have enough for a euro,” Vittorio told her. A temporale moved across Maria’s face. The rain wasn’t far behind. She rubbed her eyes with her palms and yelled. “Vittorio, give me some more!”
“Maria,” said Lena putting her arm around Maria’s shoulders. “Come on, time to go. We have company.”
Vittorio put the change purse into Maria’s wet hand.
“Another day,” he said.
As the door closed behind Maria, Margo, who had been a special education teacher, said to Vittorio, “I taught many students like Maria. They get attached.”
“You have to keep the garage door closed,” said Lena.
“I forgot today,” Vittorio said.
We finished our coffees and soon it was time to go.
“Let’s take some photos in front of the house,” said Patty. “We have to include flat Marlene.” Flat Marlene was a paper cutout of Patty’s sister who often came with us on our forays. Because she couldn’t this time, Patty brought her along so she could be included in the photos. Vittorio put his arms across our backs as Lena snapped some shots.
An unearthly, high-pitched shrieking began across the street. A tiny brown Chihuahua was yipping rhythmically as he humped the leg of a stocky grey-haired man who stood there grinning at us. A woman came out of the house behind him and encouraged him by laughing at the spectacle. We stared as it continued until the man shook the dog off and picked him up.
“He always does that when we have company,” said Vittorio. “Pay him no mind.” We could hardly contain ourselves. Many thanks, hugs and promises to return.
“Come back again, Girlsies!”
It was a quiet drive to Benevento with Margo dozing in the back seat and Patty and I still marveling silently at what the day had brought. It had been like gaining access to Aladdin’s cave with “Vittorio Borrelli” being the magic words instead of “Open Sesame.” It would become one of the many tales we would retell on future evenings together.
Later, Mary told us she was so glad we went because her cousins from Australia were supposed to go to Molinara and they had cancelled. Her mother was expecting them and was very disappointed. Lena was happy that we arrived instead. That explained why people thought we were Australian. We still couldn’t figure out why the Chihuahua man performed his little dog hump routine especially for company of the cheese factory owner. Maybe it was a brief glimpse into the undercurrent of relationships in Molinara. Maybe it was because of the earthquake.
And, now, we are having a disaster shared with Italy. My cousins are well, but I can’t ask how their businesses are. I probably would have located this travelogue among my files at some point, would have found the photos I sent to Margo and Patty on our text thread. But, in this time of Covid sequester when the days wobble; I find these memories necessary, for well being, for gratitude, for hope. The hope I have is that we will make more memories together to savor in times of unexpected loss, in times of holding fast to what can be saved.
MaryAnn L. Miller is the author of Cures for Hysteria (Finishing Line Press 2018) and Locus Mentis (PS Books 2012.) She has been thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poetry, book reviews or essays have appeared in Mom Egg Review, Wild River Review, Presence Journal, Ovanque Siamo, Stillwater Review, Journal of NJ Poets, Wordgathering, Kaleidoscope, Passager, The International Review of African America Art and others. She publishes hand bound artist books through her press: www.luciapress.com.