Back to the Source, Part III: Better in Abruzzo
A better version of me emerges in Abruzzo. That’s setting a low bar, but it’s true. He’s a kinder, more peaceful person, less absorbed by concerns that would steer his thoughts into dark territories. One who’s almost escaped his own head. I find that I can reside in the moment: hiking a wooded solitude, gazing out over a gorge, watching wild horses thunder across a high plain, a herd of sheep and their white shepherd dogs cresting a rocky slope. Or just shutting up and listening to an old woman sing her song in dialect as she hangs her wash above a medieval street. Words become superfluous, intrusive. Abruzzo’s quotidian beauty shocks me from my restless stupor and gives me a glimpse of things timeless and essential. It offers a better way to BE. That awakening makes for an evangelical impulse: one wants to preach about and share it.
Hello, my name is Francis. Can I tell you about The Good News?
But Abruzzo is also not for everyone. At least not for every tourist. It makes few concessions to the casual visitor, offers little luxury compared to more frequented regions of Italy, doesn’t present a façade to shield guests from complicated realities. It pretty much behaves like itself and invites you in as deeply as you’re able to go. I’ve written at excruciating length about this elsewhere, so will spare you the details. Let’s just say that if your idea of a vacation or relaxation is to surround yourself with opulence, have others take care of you, and do no work, Abruzzo’s not your cup of meat. If you obsess about your b ‘n’ b or hotel room’s amenities, the size of its bathroom, the region won’t always deliver (though it does more often now than twenty years ago). If constant internet access is essential to your experience, you might be SOL. You’re going to have to walk uphill. A lot. Much of the driving will be on switchback roads. Depending on your wiring, some of these routes might terrify on the first go. Many of the trattorie will be no-frills with limited menus. If there’s even a printed menu, that is. They won’t have hot-and-cold running streams of humanity to provide obsequious service. Their staffs and owners, very often all family members, might be less polished and “professional,” more familiar than what Americans have been encouraged to expect (but usually also genuine, welcoming, and generous).
What sort of stuff matters to you? Do you want to be entertained or do you want to engage and experience? Answer those questions before you consider Abruzzo. This might not translate, might even reveal a creepy personal obsession, but in the past, I’ve compared Abruzzo’s beauty and allure to that of the Italian actress Anna Magnani: it’s profound, compelling, mysterious at times, but imperfect, not affected, and imbued with an undefinable sadness. What I’m trying to say is that - for me - perfection too often renders “pretty,” artifice. Pleasant to the eye, but not captivating, not necessarily false but not really true. And somehow also tyrannical. Being in the presence of perfection can be oppressive, like being a child in a museum, uneasy about one’s place in the space, too nervous or forbidden to touch anything. Beauty is often ineffable, but singularity, vulnerability… imperfection are – for me – essential to the potion. Scars and flaws compel us to go deeper.
I worry that I might be losing the room here. Let me try to explain. Abruzzo’s endured a lot in its long, sometimes dark history: deprivation, endemic poverty, war, natural disasters, mass emigration. They’ve all left their marks. An understanding of pain and loss infuses the regional character, perfumes its mood. There’s wisdom and experience behind the smile. Most of Its villages, even the most well-preserved and picturesque (and there are dozens), don’t have the meticulously prepared, everything-arranged-just-so quality common in much of Tuscany. Though I think they wear it well, they show their mileage. There’s a dignity to these places - how they bear up, keep on keeping on - that moves and humbles me. And, for all the respite and peace they offer to those willing to accept such gifts, they’re still fighting for their lives. Despite its natural beauty and place as Europe’s greenest region, Abruzzo’s perpetually endangered by forces that’d exploit its resources for ephemeral gain, pave paradise, and ruin forever what makes the place a 21st-century miracle. Abruzzo persists against the odds. Late-stage capitalism can be pretty zero sum. Abruzzo’s value can’t be determined by its metrics. So the region struggles for survival in plain sight. But it does so with grace.
Abruzzo needs a discreet tourism, one that preserves and supports the parks and wild spaces, the remote mountain borghi, the artisanal cheese, olive oil, and salumi producers, the craftspeople turning out handmade filigree jewelry, ceramics, lace, wrought iron and copper work. Survival depends on the circulation of Euros and portraits of famous, white American men. But the region’s rough, sparsely populated topography, hamlets, and small cities generally lack the infrastructure to accommodate mass tourism. Hordes of American, English, or any other foreign invaders, however well-behaved and meaning, would overwhelm Abruzzo’s intimacy, break the spell, trample its soul. At the risk of offending someone, I’ll admit a personal prejudice against mass tourism and quote the late David Foster Wallace on its effects:
“To be a mass tourist…is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you…As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
Abruzzo also doesn’t need sanctioned but ignorant (literally: they don’t know) purveyors of taste giving it the once-over during a long weekend or day trip from Rome and then “authoritatively” reporting everything they discovered during the eight or twelve waking hours they’ve spent in the region. Which is how it’s most often been presented in magazines and newspaper pieces. I’ve participated in some of these crimes as a consultant and regret it. That kind of cursory (and lazy) “journalism” can make for false or unrealistic expectations and set Abruzzo up to fail.
Taking members of our staff to the region prompts thoughts about the bigger mission: promoting Abruzzo in ways that are good for it and for those who’d benefit from experiencing it. We think Abruzzo’s anachronistic charms have value, offer things precious to the rest of the world, things we might – as much as circumstances permit – want to take back to and emulate wherever we call home. Cathy and I are covering (most of) the tab on this excursion, which is first and foremost, a work trip. We can impose our aesthetics, proffer it as a gift with caveats: we’ll be expecting tangible results from these experiences. But we also hope our people are moved in personal ways, that the place enriches their lives. In a past life, we offered our knowledge and services to paying guests. Our success was mixed. We couldn’t reach a few people, failed them and our mission. It broke our hearts. When someone travels with fixed expectations, unopen to experience, it can be stressful. Many folks have pre-formed ideas of what traveling in “Italy” will and should be like. These have little to do with Abruzzo (or Molise, Basilicata, and Calabria, etc. for that matter). We’d like to help the “right people” experience Abruzzo. But we’re not sure we’re the “right people” for that job. It takes a lot of patience, people skills, integrity, and courage. So, maybe, if we don’t reboot our own for-hire explorations of the region, we’ll instead try to help the “right people” bring their info and services to you, somehow collaborate with them both here and in Italy? Would that have appeal? More importantly, would it have value?
We’re working on how we’d be able to do that. This trip should jump-start some ideas. We leave soon. (All photos by Kateri Likoudis Connolly)