CONVERSATIONS ON THE AMALFI COAST
Some say Atrani is Italy’s smallest municipality, il comune più piccolo d’Italia. Its thirty acres extend along the sides of two facing mountains, Monte Civita and Monte Aureo, and its only road—for the other streets consist of stairs—is a dead end that runs for a few hundred yards at the end of the valley formed by the river Dragone, the Dragon—a name that recalls a local legend of a fire-spitting serpent. Some years, if rain and snow have been abundant upstream, you can hear the dragon rushing to the sea; one year it overflowed and carried along in its waters cars, motorcycles, and a young barista named Francesca; her body was found hundreds of miles away, off the coast of Sicily.
The heart of Atrani is its piazza, a shared living room where residents of every age and social class spend hours together, seeing and being seen, riding tricycles or pushing strollers and wheelchairs, slowly sipping a lemonade made with the fruit of the famous local groves. Only tourists buy lemons on the Amalfi Coast, because if you are reduced to buying lemons, here, it means not only that you do not have a lemon tree—which is embarrassing enough—but, more worrisomely, that you have no friends. Everyone has a surplus. Because John and I speak Italian and spend so much time in Atrani, we are generally treated differently from most tourists—but, make no mistake, not everyone is nice all the time. When asked how to best enjoy the mysterious and lovely packet of lemon leaves enclosing dried grapes and candied lemon peels, the Amalfi shopkeeper huffed, Si apre e si mangia: “You open it and you eat it” (her only slightly less impatient assistant intervened to clarify that we were not supposed to eat the leaves).
The two main bars on Atrani’s piazza are almost identical, separated by the arched entrance to one of the tunnels that lead to the beach. The word “bar,” here as in the rest of Italy, is not quite accurate: you can have coffee and breakfast—including a full English breakfast—lunch and dinner, aperitivo and snacks, late night drinks and anytime pick-me-ups. You’d assume the two bars to be rivals, sharing as they do the same clientele in the same place, offering the same things, the same experience. When the young owner of the bar we frequent—one rarely frequents both—went next door to ask for change, I asked his father about their competition. He looked at me as if I were from Mars. “We help each other,” he said. “Why would we be rivals?” Why indeed. Just last night one bar owner was sitting at a table of the other bar, having a drink with friends, singing along to the live music being performed on the other side of the piazza.
Kitty-corner from our bar, the large and gregarious man who runs the alimentari shop shares his task with his quieter and leaner business partner, who works behind the scenes. They are taking over from a boisterous older woman, mother to one of them, who never failed to share bits of wisdom with her customers as she weighed the mozzarella or sliced the prosciutto. “I sing, signora. I sing for life,” she used to tell me. “To those who tell me I’m fat, I say, If you don’t like the way I look, then don’t look. I am old, anyway–why would I want to diet?” Her son has taken to calling me “signora bella,” beautiful lady, usually abbreviated into the otherwise incomprehensible, “signorabe’.” He asked for my husband’s name—how to call him, otherwise?—but mine is superfluous. He imagines that, whatever my name, surely I would prefer being called “signorabella.” He is not wrong. One day he explained about the way political power works in Italy: “First there is the State, then there is the Mafia, and then there is the Juventus (Turin’s soccer team).” His partner added, “And the pope. Don’t forget the pope.” “Ok, but the pope comes after.” All nodded in agreement. On our third summer here, he gave us two bottles of his own wine. The following summer, a small smoked cheese filled with olives and ham. Then, a buffalo-milk stracciatella: shreds of soft mozzarella bathed in sweet cream. John and I are halfway between the locals, who know everything he sells; and the tourists, who are only interested in sandwiches made with the more globally known ingredients. We are all too eager to try everything. It takes a long time to shop here, but then, what’s the rush?
On the steps home, laden with more provisions than we should eat, we often meet don Raffaele. In his nineties, though lean and strong, his skin burnished by the sun, he still climbs 500 stairs every day to pick the scant produce of his small patch of land: a few lemons, plums, apricots. It all fits in his hands. “What else am I supposed to do? Let the lemons and plums fall to the ground and rot? It’s nice, when friends come over, to offer them some lemon water.” He climbs alone, “piano piano”—very slowly. His wife is not up to the challenge of the stairs (“She’s old,” he says, “È vecchia”—we later learn she is five years his junior), his six children scattered all over the world: Atrani is beautiful, but there isn’t much work for young people. At home he gets bored, but on the stairs, don Raffaele tells us, he gets to chat with the few tourists who speak some Italian and admire the beautiful women going up and down (he gives me a smile and an appreciative look as he says this). He has stories to tell, of this town and its legends, its history. He points across the valley to Masaniello’s cave, where in the 1600s the young Neapolitan revolutionary found refuge from the Bourbon monarchy he was trying to overthrow. Don Raffaele built the ceiling to the small house we rent, the very terrace where we have breakfast every morning. Before the war the house—three rooms clinging to the side of the mountain—was a stable for animals, and during the war the Atranesi found shelter there from the Allied bombings.
After a few summers, we realize that our elderly friend Assunta, whom we also meet frequently on the stairs, is Raffaele’s sister. Like Raffaele and like many who live in the densely packed tiny town, she has a small plot of land along the stairs, on the side of the mountain. Her first words, when she sees us approach her garden plot as she hoes and waters, are always, “Che vi posso offrire?,” What can I offer you? When we marvel at her generosity, she sighs that the world is sad, and during her youth there was the war, and now there is no war but still people have war in their hearts. So we do what we can, she says. Like most Italians, Assunta loves her tan: the contrast with her perfectly coiffed snow-white hair, emphasized by large black sunglasses, makes her look like a movie star. When she heard me hesitate about going to the beach in the middle of the day for fear of sunburn, her laughter echoed along the valley as she asked me: “Do you want to be like the moon—white when she arrives and white when she leaves?”
We meet Assunta at Mass on Sunday, whether at the small medieval church on the piazza—where it is not uncommon for folks to put a bill in the collection basket and take out change—or in the stately church of Saint Mary Magdalen, with the octagonal bell tower featured in M.C. Escher’s drawings. The priest’s little dog quietly comes in and out of the building during Mass, briefly resting on the altar at his owner’s feet, or in the aisles. It is at Mary Magdalen’s that the elderly caretaker, broom in hand, once shared with me her feelings about the protector saint of Atrani: “Some say she was in love with him, with Jesus. And I say, of course she was in love with him; who wouldn’t be? Every time I look at him I want to embrace him: he was such a handsome man, so tall—as tall as your husband! Now, if he had been short, that would have been different; I do not much care for short men.” She saw me tired one day, and recommended I turn to Magdalen for company and for help; then she stopped for a few seconds, looked around the church, and added: “Well, also to Jesus Christ, of course: you should turn to him first, actually, because he is God.” Clearly, though, this was an afterthought. Magdalen is the one. Her Atrani home has the best location of all, jutting towards the sea with views in every direction—a memory perhaps of the reason it was first built: in thanksgiving for Magdalen’s protection of her people against conquering armies. The church’s pink walls remind the visitor to admire the bougainvilleas below; its yellow and green majolica domes pay homage to the lemon groves that surround it, the sales of which have helped rebuild the church over the years.
After Mass, the little piazza is at its busiest, as the Atranesi enjoy a pre-lunch aperitivo. I overhear a northern Italian tourist tell his wife on the phone, “È bello come sempre, forse anche di più” – “It is as beautiful as always, here, maybe even more.” The blonde and stylish Californian tourist we met the previous day exclaims to me: “People actually live here!” Next to her, an elderly British tourist asks her husband, “Would you like to sit in the dappled sun?” After the obligatory lemonade, John and I head home, just as the stairways that are Atrani’s streets fill with the smells of cooking—garlic and tomatoes overpowering all others. Five hundred steep and irregular steps are a lot for our late-middle-aged bodies, and we must learn to take it slow because, Atrani reminds us, the slower you go, the more enjoyable, more companionable, and less tiring the journey.
Cristina Mazzoni was born and raised near Rome and moved to the United States with her parents and five siblings forty years ago. Since 1993 she has lived in Burlington, Vermont, where she is professor of Italian Studies at the University of Vermont. Her teaching and scholarly interests center on European fairy tales and Italian food culture.