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Back to the Source, Part V: Mea Culpa

Updated: Aug 28


(Barisano section of the Sassi)

Mea culpa. I’ve sins to expiate.


The trip has been a good one and it’s been a pleasure to share places we love with our Chef. We chose this time because Poli needed this experience to grow and better serve our mission. Because he has earned it and the restaurant needs it. And who the hell knows if it will even be possible two months from now. But August isn’t the best time to visit Italia. The sun is like a hammer. Especially this year, one of the worst for heat and drought in recent memory. Which is saying something. And then there are the tourists. In parts of the boot, places we generally shun, hordes of them, masses of sweating humanity sluggishly stumbling forward over the centuries-old cobblestones, devouring all in their path, clogging the narrow streets, blighting whatever beauty their presence doesn’t completely obscure. We know better than to come to Italia in August. But here we are. There have been several moments, even in less-traveled Abruzzo and Molise, when my guilt about being a part of the problem nearly pulled me under. The tipping point, however, might’ve come in Basilicata (the instep of the boot, also little-traveled, Italy’s poorest region). It was on the terrace-like piazza beneath Matera’s Duomo, overlooking the Caveoso section of the Sassi. A young man was taking cell-phone shots of a fashionably and seductively dressed young woman while she ran through an endless set of poses. Behind her, the cathedral, built out of shortbread-colored tufa and newly restored, towered as it has for eight centuries above the densely packed “sassi” cave homes, once an engineering wonder praised by medieval visitors but centuries later a “national shame,” a warren so plagued with poverty, deprivation, and sickness that it was forcibly evacuated in the 50’s and 60’s. The sassi are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2019 the city of Matera served as the European Capital of Culture. The sassi, where fifty percent of children once died before the age of two and trachoma and malaria were ubiquitous, are hot properties, home now to just over 1000 mostly affluent Mataresi and no small number of ristoranti, trattorie, hotels, B&Bs, and cafes. The economy runs on irony. This is our seventh time here. And so much has changed since 2002, our first visit, when most of the sassi were still undeveloped. Tourism was then only just ramping up. And no one was posing for glamour photos on the cathedral steps. I’m told that most of the year the throngs we’re now dealing with are nowhere to be seen. And it is hard to complain about a place - once so poor and still surrounded by impoverished communities - experiencing a boom. But commerce is a relentless, cruel, and often stupid master. It exacts a price. Commodified beauty and culture often lose something essential in the process. And Matera is (still) such an emotionally compelling place with beautiful traditions, and inhabited by gracious, unassuming, and generous people, that it’s hard not to worry about its soul. Which is easy (entitled and obnoxious) for a Yank, part of the throng (whether he wants to admit it or not), to say. But, being a Yank, I say it anyway. “Freedom” and shit. The Mataresi are easy to distinguish from most of the tourists. They’re often (but not always!) dressed more casually or plainly. They engage each other in lively conversations during the nightly passeggiata, stopping to make emphatic points or to greet friends. Their gait has none of the tourists’ ovine, uncertain, lost child qualities. Their faces sometimes betray a melancholic resignation, an acknowledgement of the deal they’ve made. Mostly though, they just seem at home: used to the beauty all around them, though not inured to it. Of course, they’re also intimate with its inherent sadness. They are part of the beauty, as integral to it as the tufa. They’re what keeps us coming back: their warmth and humanity, the convivial and welcoming nature of the culture they’ve created.

Anyway, it was while watching this absurd display (not the first I’d seen on the trip - there were dozens of similar incidents: fearfully symmetrical specimens so taken with and unable to escape themselves that they’re rendered repulsive; the cellphone and social media have opened up new territories for irony) that I realized that the guitar piece I’d been enjoying, played with brio in a Spanish style by a street musician, was “Hotel California.” And my mood, already teetering like a top from the crowds, spun into a ditch. Matera, I feared, had “arrived.” An ironic plea from this Ugly American: don’t fuck this up, Matera.

(Pescocostanzo, Abruzzo, w/out the worst of the tourists)

About those previous guilty moments: the most surprising occurred in the Abruzzese mountain villages of Pescocostanzo and Scanno and the seaside town of Termoli in Molise. Our longest stay in Abruzzo, a 6-month immersion in 2001, took us through summer and into September (punctuated by the events of 9/11, when I was helping a friend from L’Aquila guide a small group of Americans on a tour: that was a day). So, we’d seen how the traffic in the mountains went from nearly nonexistent to mini conga lines on August weekends and especially toward the middle of that month. We shouldn’t have been surprised by the crowds we found on this trip. But it’d been a long time since we’d been here in August. We used Pescocostanzo as a base for one leg. It’s close to Pacentro (a medieval jewel on the Morrone mountain that I wanted Poli to see – this trip wasn’t just about food), Sulmona (another medieval jewel, hometown of the Roman poet Ovid and to Clemente Maiorano’s eponymous restaurant in Sulmona – Poli had cooked with Clemente during his guest appearance at Le Virtu’ and I wanted him to taste the food here), and convenient to Anversa degli Abruzzi and Scanno, located on opposite sides of the Sagittario Gorge, a WWF reserve, and the locations of the cheese farms from which we source. The town is an orderly plan of red, blue, and yellow flower-bedecked medieval stone houses with steeply pitched, snow-shedding roofs built along a wide, winding, stone-paved lane. It’s a postcard inside the Majella National Park. Which is why it throbbed with tourists, crowds that at times created obstacle courses for anyone remotely anthropophobic (yours truly). While I greeted this revelation with the usual combo of ironic anger and self-pity, Poli and his wife were rapt and engaged with the town. They’d never seen anything like it before, didn’t have preconceptions of the quiet mountain retreat it is for much of the year, and weren’t going to let anything dampen their spirits or harsh their mellows.


In retrospect, I think it was the kind of tourists populating the place that stoked my rage. Had they been mostly nature enthusiasts there to explore the park or families just wanting to escape the heat and grit of Italia’s major cities, breathe in the mountain air, I think (hope?) my reaction would’ve been less nauseas. But these crowds were affluent and entitled, peacocks in constant display. Their faces wore the expression of people bored by beauty, tortured by the quotidian tedium of natural and architectural splendor, desperate and demanding to be entertained. People whose “worldliness” has left them blind, insensitive, jaded, and empty. These were dull people. The men – sweaters tied around their necks (it was 80 in the shade during the day), hands bejeweled, bare feet in slip-ons - oozed contempt. Many of their wives (I assume most of these were wives) were cosmetic surgery victims, their faces frozen in expressions of permanent surprise. Some of the older women seemed made of wax. They wobbled along the stone streets in impractical shoes that made every step dubious. All of them, men and women, were tanned like Sicilian fishermen. The one thing uglier than them in town might’ve been me: with my farmer tan, t-shirts, hiking boots, and ironic growling, unfairly assessing and judging everyone around me, probably seeing what I wanted to see, generally being as dismissive a dick as the men I ridiculed in my interior monologues. Mea culpa.

(Scanno, Abruzzo) I did, however, nearly achieve nirvana in Scanno. Scanno might be the most suggestive village in Abruzzo. A cluster of tightly packed houses and tangled alleys descending and ascending a mountainside just outside the oldest of Abruzzo’s three national parks, the town evokes another, older time. Long after women in most villages had abandoned the practice, many of Scanno’s still dressed in the traditional daily costume (the details of which - along with, I’m told, the town’s dialect - suggest Balkan origins). Twenty years ago, one could see groups of these older ladies on the streets engaged in their daily chores. Most of them are gone now. The dresses and elaborate headwear now only come out for special occasions. Scanno owes its existence and former affluence to its importance in the pastoral economy. Wool was big business. The cheese and lamb that bring restaurateurs to the town are relative byproducts. And old sheep money also accounts for the town’s importance as a center of artisanal filigree gold and silver jewelry production. There are several artisans still plying the trade in town. For our money, Armando DiRienzo is the best of them. For a quarter-century we’ve been visiting his shop. We included it on our own tours and in the programs on Abruzzo we produced for local TV, and have brought more friends to it than I can remember. It’s a beautiful shop, as much a museum as a bottega. Armando DiRienzo’s a true artist, one in a family line stretching back to the 18th century. And he’s become a friend. His face brightens when he sees me (a rare thing I’ve not gotten used to). We exchange stories about how things are going in our respective countries and towns and it’s the straight dope, no filter. Anyway, we’d already stopped by with Poli and his wife, and they’d bought some pieces. Cathy, too. But I doubled back to get a surprise gift for Cathy, who – as usual – bore the driving burden for these trips (this time she was handling an 8-seat minivan, large enough for the five of us and our baggage; NEWS FLASH: I am useless). The town was crawling with visitors, especially the town’s main street where the shop was located. I found a long queue waiting to get in (masks were required, and occupancy was limited – as much as Armando and an assistant could limit it: there are assholes in Italia, too). I took my place and waited. Armando was at the counter dealing with a woman who was, to borrow a phrase from the restaurant industry, “running” him. She asked to see and try on at least ten pieces and then contemptuously dismissed each one. Her daughter stood at her side providing snark. If Armando was pissed (and he’d every right to be), he didn’t show it. Finally, he mentioned to her that many people were waiting outside and could she narrow her focus to things she felt more certain about. Her daughter exited the bottega and announced to the queue that this shopkeeper was “antipatico.” Something in me snapped. I couldn’t let it go and was pretty sure that I shouldn’t. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” I began in Italian, “but you’re wrong. I’ve been coming to this shop nearly every year for 25 years. He’s kind, patient, and generous. His work is excellent. I see that there’s a problem in there. I think we all do. But it isn’t the shopkeeper.” She stared at me in mute shock. The guy behind me chortled. And she stomped away, furious but still speechless. I turned to the rest of the line and apologized. “I didn’t mean to be discourteous (NOTE: I did, actually).” I rode that high for most of the day.

Termoli is a seaside town in Molise with a humble, affecting beauty. Its well-preserved, medieval borgo juts out into the Adriatic from the larger town, which isn’t without its own charms. On the afternoon we arrived, the sea - a gently rippling sheet, deep blue from some angles, almost turquoise from others – stunned and pulled us from a heat-induced stupor. The colors seemed photoshopped, fantastic. Termoli should be crowded. But we’ve only ever seen it mildly busy. And Molise, the region where it’s located (part of the “Abruzzi” until 1963), is one of Italia’s least known. Its tourism slogan is “Molise Esiste” (“Molise Exists”). So the presence of what seemed like a few thousand extra souls in town did take us by surprise. But the Termolesi remained their gracious selves, and the town’s character wasn’t obliterated by the swarm. By the way, we avoided human clusters when we could, wore our masks when the street traffic got heavy and entering every establishment, including our lodgings. It didn’t feel onerous. We didn’t feel any less free. Go figure. All of these places – Pescocostanzo, Scanno, Termoli, Matera (so far, anyway, as well as Ostuni, Polignano a Mare, and Locorotondo in Puglia) – have made a tenuous pact with the devil. For short but intense periods of the year (Pescocostanzo and Scanno also “enjoy” a winter rush) they brace themselves, welcome (truly, with a generous spirit) the hordes, and make their coin. And from this they’re able to live relatively well throughout the year, without compromising their quality of life or abandoning their cultures and natural rhythms. For all my whining I know it makes sense. And the less fortunate places without this kind of tourism - the dozens of achingly beautiful villages in Abruzzo that are slowly becoming depopulated, for example - would give just about anything for a fraction of this kind of business. Which is about all they could or should handle. I’d like to be a part of helping them get it. I’m not yet sure what that “help” would look like. But I think we need places and cultures like these - oases removed from the relentless grind, with human paces and priorities, embedded in the moment – to survive. I welcome all suggestions.


To be continued…

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