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The House in Penne, Abruzzo: Completing the Circle

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

Via del Genio, centro storico, Penne We’re buying a house in Abruzzo. No great surprise to anyone who knows us or who, in the last nearly quarter century, has endured one of my extemporaneous, promotional addresses on the region (I’m sure there are support groups for those who have). We’re selling our home of 25 years in South Philly to pay for it. Though we know we're lucky to have this opportunity, we’re a little ambivalent about it. It’s in Penne, in the hill country on the border between the region’s Teramo and Pescara provinces, beneath the Gran Sasso range of the Apennines. On clear days the massif almost seems to hover directly above the town. Penne, "La Citta del Mattone" (“City of Brick”; the streets and most of the buildings are constructed in honey-colored brick), has pre-Roman origins and was called Pinna by the Vestina tribe (“Penne” is a corruption of its original name). The Vestini were among the Italic tribes who opposed the expanding Roman Republic and very nearly defeated it during the Social Wars (one of the best names for a conflict, ever, especially one so bloody, hard fought), less than 100 years before the birth of Christ. The Abruzzese, whose genealogical lines all trace to one or more of the Italic tribes, are proud of this. The tribe names - Vestini, Frentani, Marrucini, Paeligni, Sanniti, Marsi, etc. - remain in use, still have currency. About 12,000 souls live in Penne. Aesthetically, it’s not among my top 10 favorite towns in Abruzzo. I prefer the mountains and the starker, wilder country in the region's hinterlands. The landscape around Penne is beautiful, though. Gentler but still dramatic, more reminiscent of a Renaissance painting: a rolling sea of green and straw waves crested by medieval borghi, vineyards, fields of sunflowers, groves of olive trees. For reasons I’ll explain, it might be the perfect landing spot for us. It's quiet but not dead. Traditional. Dialect can still be heard. People connect on a personal level, seek out each other's company. It’s easy to be in the moment in Penne, to be completely present. But all this can be said about most places in Abruzzo.

In Piazza Luca da Penne, in the town's medieval core, you'll find a cafe run by a Cretarola. We might be distantly related. The small zone around Penne is the only place where the name is found in Italia. A couple of properties up from the cafe, there's a pharmacy run by a Barlaam, a name also peculiar to these parts. In 1909, my grandfather Alfonso Cretarola arrived in Boston. He was 17 and traveling with two other boys from his village. One of them was a Barlaam. Alfonso had been born in 1892 in Castiglione Messer Raimondo, less than 20 minutes from this piazza. I’ve still got family there. Not exactly kismet, but I won’t deny its power. Circles kind of demand completion.

The house, a centuries-old rowhome, is on Via del Genio. "Genius Way." An intriguing and now-ironic name for a medieval vicolo. I apologize in advance to my neighbors (they can call our house La Nicchia dello Scemo, “The idiot’s Niche”). I suspect that there was some sarcasm in the nomenclature. So, we’re trading our rowhome in Philly for another in Abruzzo. Sure, we looked at some country homes, some ville. Your real estate dollar goes crazy far in Abruzzo (we’re talking fractions of what some shell might cost in la Toscana and much less than the price of our house in South Philly). The possibilities allowed for over-the-top ideation: our own olive grove, maybe a private wood, land for our dogs to run, space to put in a pool or two (though I’ve been in one of those exactly once in the last decade), complete privacy. But I’m about as handy as a snake, have no idea how to care for an olive grove (I couldn’t reliably grow weeds), and don’t drive. So, the ridiculous, maybe offensive “Francis Cretarola, contadino” dream was quickly abandoned. Living in a town like Penne forces me to engage with other people. I need that.

But why now? Why sell the South Philly Victorian, the place we restored, where we raised our dogs, entertained our friends, hatched schemes about Abruzzo and Le Virtú, convalesced and took refuge during times of illness and darkness? The answer’s complex. Let’s hope, dear reader, that it’s also interesting.

A house in Abruzzo has long been a goal. Almost since our first visit. At the start it was a romantic notion, the allure of what seemed a more exotic life, a chance to reinvent ourselves. Predictable shit. Most of Italia seduces. But Abruzzo knocked us over. Its natural beauty, the gentle rhythms of its culture, the food. We were head over heels. When we lived there in 2001 - almost daily walking our dogs across the wind-swept Campo Imperatore, a high-mountain plain nicknamed “Italy’s Little Tibet,” encountering herds of sheep and goats, watching wild horses thunder past, climbing to medieval ruins, and taking in spectacular views - it was hard to imagine being satisfied anywhere else. But we returned to Philly and eventually opened the restaurant. We traveled to Abruzzo every year, often for extended stays, and the initial infatuation burned away. We met and befriended many Abruzzese, in all walks of life. We came to understand more of the region’s truth, its complexity, imperfections, difficulties, and challenges. And those things mattered to us. There’s nothing romantic about Abruzzo’s traditional livelihoods, the green, sustainable activities that make the region a model for what responsible living might look like in the 21st century, the farming, shepherding, cheese-making, etc. The landscape, while gobsmacking, can be unforgiving and the weather, particularly in the mountains in winter, extreme. Nature’s an indifferent bitch. Renumeration will never be commensurate with the effort and resources invested. The people persist. Their reality is Sisyphean. They do it out of passion, a sense of duty. And what they do, the places they live, the parks that take up over a third of the region’s territory and offer sanctuary to its bears and wolves are all endangered. The same forces that carve off mountaintops in West Virginia, clear and pave our countryside, and would drain the last resources from the Earth in search of short-term profits even as the water rose above their ankles, who look at the natural wonders that improbably remain and see only dollars or Euros have their eyes on Abruzzo. So, Abruzzo became a thing we wanted to protect. It became precious. Our crush was replaced by something deeper: love.

Abruzzo promised prescriptions for our afflictions, too.

Certainly, it offered escape not just from the prisons in our skulls, the recursive, self-absorbed, solipsism our culture seems to engender, but also the relentless drum of commerce that pounds through most of modern life: the endless sell, bread and circuses, manic drive (internal and external) to distract, entertain, avoid reflection, consume. I felt that from the jump. Too often we see every interaction and exchange as bottom line, performative, in service of filling unspoken and unexamined voids. They’re drained of humanity, intimacy. And they’re hopeless. It’s sad. There’s an almost ineffable sadness that describes American/First World consumption. That part of us that perpetually wants is never satisfied. It simply adjusts its expectations upward, becomes disconsolate, inconsolable if those expectations aren’t met. If you doubt me, go to just about any website and read a while through the online reviews. We’ve got problems we can’t define, and that no restaurant or store can fix, holes no product can fill.

Of course, Abruzzo’s natural beauty forces one to reckon with his/her own insignificance, adjust perspectives a little. It’s liberating. And eschewing some amenities (the supermarket, online shopping, for example), and simply tackling quotidian chores the old-world way helps remedy the loneliness at the heart of so much 21st-Century life. Going to the baker, butcher, cheesemonger, fruit and vegetable vendor, etc., looking those persons in the eye, having a conversation, one (if at all open to the experience) transcends a commercial exchange and enters a profoundly human one. One begins to find community. Walking the streets of a town, exchanging courtesies, wishing passersby good day or night, might seem like small patate. But their impact, the connections they engender are huge. If you take your caffé every morning in the same place, spend time in the piazza during the evening, conversations, relationships become almost inevitable. People in Abruzzo’s towns will ask you questions, inquire about your story. I’m an introvert and sometime misanthrope. I dread this stuff. But I need it desperately.

Living in Penne makes it unavoidable. Penne is on the list of “I Borghi Piu Belli d’Italia” (“The Most Beautiful Villages in Italy”). I’m not sure it belongs. But it is beautiful, in the wistful and poignant ways that very old places in genteel decline are beautiful. There’s a sadness about the place, a nostalgia baked into every brick. And there’s also dignity. Penne doesn’t feel sorry for itself, meets the world with pride, good humor, and generosity. It holds its back straight, goes about its business. And our visits there confirm that things are happening, there’s momentum, a modest wave of optimism that not even two years of COVID could completely turn back. Old, vacant spaces have been taken over and repurposed. Closed restaurants have reopened (god help them through all this), and there’s a renewed vitality in the village’s collective step.

The town’s streets are active. People still live in the medieval core. Women sweep the areas in front of the tightly packed houses, put out food for the street cats. They queue up at the stores. Older men walk in groups, their arms clasped behind their backs like deposed emperors, engaged in passionate conversation. They stop when a point demands emphasis. The bars can be lively. Younger people socialize there, and in the piazze and on the belvederi. The paesani congregate all day in the municipal park just outside the baroque San Francesco gate and saunter back and forth along its roadside path. Their numbers swell at night for the passeggiata, the evening stroll. There are an ungodly number of pigeons (whose shit used to be important in leather-making). Just outside of town, there’s a natural reserve centered on an artificial lake. The lack of rainfall last year had an awful effect on the place, but rare species of birds and otters still call it home. I’ve been told that odd wolf has wondered by, close to town. Though the city’s core is relatively small, there are miles of strade and vicoli to roam, climbing up and down its four hills (Pinna most likely meant “high rock” in the Vestino dialect). I know because I’ve walked almost every one of them, counted every step.

And during those constitutionals, I was greeted and not infrequently interrogated by my future neighbors. I became chummy with my barista, and she filled me in on the town’s developments, confirmed the positive vibes I’d felt. Being Abruzzese, she also didn’t sugarcoat it. It could all go to hell in a heartbeat. That said, she encouraged me to buy a place in Penne, in “centro storico,” and was genuinely happy when I said that that’s just what we intended to do. I went back to a downtown salumeria, one we’d visited years ago when we’d stayed just outside of town. He remembered not only my face, but also my last name, where my grandfather had been born, and the name of our restaurant. He asked where my wife was (I was traveling with my brother, who was seeing the town, maybe also his future home, for the first time), remembered that Cathy is Chinese. Maybe this isn’t so moving or important. But it sure seemed so in the moment.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to find this in the US. For sure, old South Philly worked this way. And what remains of that culture gives the place its identity, uniqueness, and warmth. But there’s much less of it than there was when we arrived in ’96. And in a country in which many of us travel in our own virtual bubbles, deeply engaged with handheld appliances, “chef-crafted” (right, whatever) dinner fixings arrive at the door in a box, and it’s not bizarre to see four Amazon delivery trucks parked at the same intersection, exchanges like those described above might not survive much longer. In Abruzzo, in places isolated by terrain and culture, they’re often the norm.

Just off Penne’s Corso dei Vestini and inside the Porta della Ringa gate, there’s an unassuming place, a kind of bar/restaurant, called La Vestina. My brother and I ate there twice on our most recent trip. The owner, a white-haired, dentally-challenged, mustached guy named Pasquale, prepares simple dishes directly out of la cucina povera. No cheffy flourishes, no artful plating or fantasia. Just the basic, genuine article served in ample portions. Chitarra alla teramana (with mini meatballs), lasagna rossa or in bianco, maccheroni alla mugnaia with “ragú” (three meats: lamb, beef, and pork), porchetta, etc. Solid stuff. You walk through the cafe and into a large, wood-paneled room, and sit wherever you like. They’ve got some local bottles, but the alla spina selections – Montepulciano, Cerasuolo, and Trebbiano – are just fine. The area around Penne and nearby Loreto Aprutino produces some top-shelf plonk. Even the most basic stuff is pretty good. The feel of the place, the familiar exchanges, sense of neighborhood are even better. On the two nights we had cena there, the regulars included us in conversation. They drilled us about why we were in Penne, talked about the town, their jobs, life in Abruzzo. Pasquale, learning that we descended from a Cretarola from Castiglione, came to the table to get a look at and meet us. Our server, a woman in her mid-thirties who would’ve been at home working in any mid-Atlantic diner, joked with us, broke balls, and generally made us feel like we’d been coming there for years. We had too many shots of genziana.

But what I remember most, what gave me one of the best feelings about the place, was the table across from ours on both occasions. There, a group of four guys sat on consecutive nights, in the exact same configuration, as though they had assigned seats. They were blue-collar dudes, still dressed for work, and cracking wise amongst themselves. They spoke to each other in Arabic, were obviously not Italian. Now Italia - ironically and shamefully for a country that has sent so many emigrants into the world - has experienced waves of xenophobia. Ugly stuff. Its extreme right, like ours, trades in fear and hatred of the “other.” I braced myself for some stupidity. How would I react? I needn’t have worried. Maybe we just got lucky. Our server’s conversations with the table, the way all the other patrons (most of them also blue-collar workers) interacted, joked, and exchanged comments with the group made it clear that these guys were regulars, felt completely at home. It’s pathetic how relieved this revelation made me, how happy. Surprised by basic, human decency. Which speaks directly to our ambivalence about the big step we’re taking, how we feel about our home country.

The divide that now defines American life was long in the making. And, though we’re progressives (I’m the son of hardcore New Dealers, my grandfather from Abruzzo was a socialist, and Reading, where I was born, had been a socialist town; spare me the hate mail), we strived to not allow politics into our restaurant. An older, affluent regular once clandestinely stuffed our original book-style menus with McCain campaign leaflets (and was incredulous when, upon discovery, we told him that no, we weren’t cool with it, and if he had to know, wouldn’t be voting for the Arizona senator), but we refrained from political speech at the restaurant (at home and on my personal social media, it’s a different story). We wanted to create a peaceful space, a place where folks could come together as they do in trattorie in Abruzzo and beyond. That was naïve, I know. And it changed during the 2016 presidential campaign. Because it had to.

When the grifting deadbeat descended the escalator and immediately established xenophobia, racism, and bigotry as foundational principles of his campaign, you can believe that many of the folks who’ve worked with us for over a decade, folks from Puebla (but also those from Abruzzo, Campania, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Canada, South Philly, Camden, Maine, western NY, etcetera), took notice. When you show up day after day, grind it out, and ask for nothing but an opportunity to earn yourself and your children a better life, you better believe that being called rapists and drug dealers by the man running for The Most Powerful Office on Earth makes a dent. Even more disconcerting was how well this message - directly out of the America First/Know Nothings’ playbook that had made life “interesting” for immigrants coming from China, Ireland, Eastern Europe, Italia and elsewhere in the previous two centuries - played. We watched in horror (this is a serious word, horror, and I’m using it seriously) as one of America’s great political parties gradually and then enthusiastically bent itself to conform to the conman’s message. The dog whistle became a bullhorn. It happened too fast and too easy to not reflect a deeper truth. The mask, which had never been that convincing a disguise, was off. Run-of-the-mill racists and bigots, who’d for years maybe felt self-conscious or timid about voicing their hatreds, now felt energized and empowered. Especially after the conman won. Some of our people were harassed and threatened on the streets.

We couldn’t remain silent. We did events in support of immigration reform, medical care for immigrants, refugees in sanctuary in a Germantown church, a family from the Congo navigating the refugee process. The GOP candidate for mayor made us a focal point of his campaign and directed his supporters at our mom-and-pop shop, putting a bullseye on it. It had worked for the Grifter-in-Chief, so why not? Things got “interesting” for us, too (BTW: the two families in sanctuary, from Jamaica and Honduras, who’d filed for refugee status, complied with all regulations and then, out of nowhere, been unjustly subject to deportation orders from 45’s INS, eventually won their court cases; they now live freely in their adopted country).

I won’t torture you (or me) by going over the events of the last few years - the Muslim bans, betrayal of allies, Presidential incitements to violence, the upside-down bible photo op, tear-gassing civil rights protestors, the daily deluge of lies from the Oval Office and its supporters in Congress, the denial of science, the would-be Brown and Black Shirts, etc. Only that when a bunch of mostly white, middle class, authoritarian thugs (who claimed to be pro-law and order), domestic terrorists, essentially, stormed our Capitol at the behest of a defeated President (who’d recently suggested that they inject themselves with bleach to defeat a lethal virus) to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, beating and killing police in the process, and when the party who’d proposed him as candidate and then conformed to his would-be dictatorial will refused, yet again, to hold him (or the insurrectionists) accountable, something broke. I’m not sure it can be fixed.

We’re loath to run, surrender the field, but more and more alienated by our culture, our refusal to study, learn, know. The idea of “freedom” as the right to do whatever one wishes, without accountability or responsibility to one’s neighbors. The lack of empathy, sympathy, compassion, imagination. Our deliberate amnesia, willful ignorance. Our casual cruelty and violence. Those last two especially, but also our betrayal, nearly constant and dating well before 45, of our stated mission and ethos. The potent strains of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry that run through much of our culture. The promise of America - equality, justice, opportunity - persists. A lot of people have sacrificed much, died to advance it. But will we ever truly achieve that promise? Do we even want to? Can we ignore the ephemera, skirt the comparatively trivial, and focus on existential threats? Can we rise to the moment and then maintain our vigilance? It sure doesn’t seem so. If that’s the case, then what is the point of America? There are moments when I feel too tired to care, when (to paraphrase poet David Slavitt) indifference, exhaustion’s complicated gift, takes hold. Brief moments, but terrifying. Do any of you feel likewise? America’s my home. I owe it everything. But it now seems drained of something essential. Maybe it’s hope. Was it wishful thinking that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, I’d always managed to harbor some hope about where we were ultimately headed? I don’t know, but right now, I’ve difficulty finding it. It breaks my heart. I fear that love will, one day, cross that proverbial thin line.

Which brings Abruzzo to heart and mind. A balm, though not a panacea.

For me, Abruzzo offers an escape, not from a fraught situation but from what often seems an unbearable weight. It represents a more manageable fight, a struggle I can wrap my head around. And it offers a place where I can be a better version of myself, where I can slow things down and address, confront my own truths and demons, seek something akin to grace. Where my wife and I can carve out a space for ourselves, understand each other as we think we’d like to. Selfish, privileged stuff. Also, illusory. Whether or not you’ve emotional or complicit attachment to America (and we, emphatically, have both), its actions and mistakes will find you, impact your life. When we sneeze, the world catches a cold.

So, Abruzzo as refuge, a place to repair and regroup. For us, our friends, and the people who work for us. But we can’t abandon our responsibilities here, forget whatever complicity we’ve got in this mess. Our mess. We love our city, our neighborhood, our restaurant, and our staff. They’re all worth fighting for. A lot of things and people are. While total withdrawal has its allure, it would be cowardly. And it would bite us on the ass. It would catch up with us, eventually. You can’t hide from your sins or your responsibilities. But our lives – the moments that make them endurable – might happen in Abruzzo.

So, we’ll own in Abruzzo and rent in Philadelphia. That makes sense for us. It’s hard to feel happy about that calculus.

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