Sunday, January 17, 2021

Italy still calls to entice, soothe, educate, even during trying times

 While the Covid-19 pandemic prevents me from traveling to Italy for now, it is never far from my thoughts, and Lucy and I are looking forward to returning to our Montecarlo home in the fall. In the meantime, here are some thoughts about what makes Italy and Italians special, from guest writer Jim Pantaleno.

When you finally make it to Italy, it is so tempting to try to see as much as you can. And there is much to see. People rush through the cities ticking off boxes for the places of interest almost like a homework assignment. Some of the nicest moments, though, are the quiet ones where you sit in a sunny piazza or under the shade of a grapevine and just let it all soak in.

The people, no matter their social status, have such dignity. They dress carefully and carry themselves with grace. The sounds of the language, no matter what part of the country, are like music to your ear. You sit there with a coffee or glass of wine just listening. It feels in your head like some lost language you once spoke, familiar but just beyond memory.

Italians know how to enjoy life. They spend more than they should on clothes because they know something well made and properly fitting will make them look their best. Meals are occasions for joy, whether it’s a croissant and espresso for breakfast or a special dinner with wine. They walk more than we do. La passeggiata is a daily evening stroll with friends to socialize and be seen.

I miss being among them…the feeling of connection they give me to the past. We could learn much from them.

***

Jim Pantaleo is the author of SPALDEEN DREAMS: A Boy Comes of Age in 1950's Brooklyn, available on Amazon.

 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

New Netflix movie about little-known Rose Island, filmed in Italy, inspires, challenges and entertains

For fans of movies set in Italy, Rose Island—released on Netflix in December—is an entertaining choice. I suppose one could say that it’s not really based in Italy—but more on that later. Rose Island is a comedy drama based on a true story about a geeky Italian who built his own island on steel pillars 6.8 miles from the coast of Rimini.


Early in the film, we are introduced to Giorgio Rosa, a creative but socially challenged engineer who built his own weird little car as a school project. It is shaped like a door wedge and uses his late grandmother’s couch as a seat. He didn’t bother to register the car, or get a license plate, or even get a driver’s license. Earlier he had built an unregistered airplane as well. When his ex-girlfriend tells Giorgio he can’t live in his own little world, it sparks his thinking. Why not build his own world, an island in international waters, where no one can tell him what to do.

He hits up his pal Maurizio, who works at his father’s shipyard and is quietly embezzling money from his father, which is convenient, because this project requires a ship and some money. They design and build some telescoping legs, float them out to sea, drop them to the bottom of the ocean, build a 400 square-meter platform, drill for fresh water, construct a bar, find a few flaky allies including a bartender and a promoter, and turn it into a tax-free party spot. They call it Rose Island, named after their “president.”

Giorgio is determined to make it more than just a nightclub, though. He wants to change the world, and Rose Island is a symbol of freedom from government controls and repression. He asks the United Nations to recognize Rose Island as a sovereign nation and begins taking applications for citizenship. All of this, however, attracts headlines and the attention of Italian government officers. They are missing out on collecting taxes, and if they ignore Rose Island, it will set a bad precedent. The Vatican has also complained that a lawless society like this will glorify immoral lifestyles.

The pressure becomes intense, and Giorgio and Maurizio must decide if all this freedom is worth the hassle. The Italian government fires Giorgio’s father from his job of 30 years. Other members of the island are enticed with offers of money and privileges, but Giorgio refuses to back down. The Italian government must decide if it should risk flouting international law to put an end to the experiment. Giorgio’s ex-girlfriend must decide between a life of ease with her current boyfriend or risk her career to follow Giorgio’s wild dream.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but Rose Island truly did exist from 1967 to 1968--and now it doesn’t. And in a way, Giorgio did change the world. Rose Island stands as a historical footnote as the only nation to ever be attacked by the Italian republic. As a result of his attempts, the United Nation extended international waters to 12 miles offshore instead of six, rendering similar artificial island countries next to impossible.

The acting is first rate, as is the cinematography. It’s a classic underdog story that will encourage people to take risks and a stand for their beliefs, even against insurmountable odds. One could complain that not a lot happens in the movie, that the plot could have been spiced up a bit more—but that would mean straying further from the true events. And the truth is, Giorgio’s passion is inspiring and reminds us to fervently pursue our ideals and not let society crush all our creative instincts.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

More nicknames and disparaging terms for Italians: Those G-words

As a follow-up to my post on the origin of the terms “wop” and “dago” to label Italian Americans in a negative way, I’d like to cover a few other words used in a comparable way.

Tony and his Youtube
guide to life as a guido.
Guido is similar to dago in its origins. Guido was a much-used first name in Italy during the early 1900s. I am related to four Guido Spadonis from the small town of Ponte Buggianese who immigrated to the United States between 1900 and 1920. Since there was no corresponding name in the English language, people named Guido tended to stand out as Italians, as no other ethnic group used this name.

This practice was applied to other groups as well. People from Ireland were called “paddies” because of the frequency of the name Patrick. British sailors were nicknamed “jacks” for the same reason. Fritz, the nickname for Friedrich, also came to be used in a somewhat derogatory manner when referring to Germans. However, many Italians embrace the term guido and freely use it to describe their ethnic identity.

I caught this band at the Festa
Italiana in Seattle one year.
Another term, “goombah” or “goomba,” is also considered a term of endearment used by Italian Americans to refer to their compatriots, and that is fairly close to its original meaning. “Cumpare,” “cumpĂ ,” and “compare” are all Italian dialect words that derive from compater (cousin) or compatriota (countryman). Italian Americans developed their own dialect words, and “goomba” is one of them—a mispronunciation of cumpĂ . However, just like any other word, it can be considered offensive when used in a disparaging context.

Perhaps the term Italian Americans consider the most offensive is “guinea,” which is a crude way to tag Italians with the notorious n-word. From the 1600s and onwards, Guinea was used as a geographical term for the coast of West Africa. The online etymology dictionary Etymonline.com states that guinea is used as “a derogatory term for an Italian (1896)” that derives “from Guinea Negro (1740s) ‘black person, person of mixed ancestry,’ (and) applied to Italians probably because of their dark complexions relative to northern Europeans.”

Because of its association with one of today’s most distasteful racial epithets, and the fact that it doesn’t share any roots in the Italian language, guinea is one of the few terms for Italian Americans that I find truly inappropriate and insulting.

These terms are all unique to North American culture. However, Italians in Italy have their own disparaging nicknames for their fellow countrymen, representing dislike and prejudice between northerners and southerners. Southerners call those from the north Polentoni (polenta eaters), while people in the south are called Terroni (literally farmers or peasants—but somewhat like the American terms redneck or bumpkin). Similar to many nicknames and/or epithets, it is usually not offensive to be called a polentone or terrone by one’s friends from the same region—but the terms can be fighting words when used by outsiders or enemies. Context is the key, as it is for so many of these slang labels.

***

Where do "wop" and "dago" come from? Click here to find out.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Parallel love affairs that began in Italy and ended in the United States

My grandparents left Italy in 1909—and it was a good thing they did. Nonno had found a reasonably well-paying job in the United States, and they avoided much of suffering that their Italian relatives endured during two world wars. Nonno undoubtedly would have been forced to fight in World War I, and my dad and uncles would have been conscripted into the Italian army in the second war.


I feel great sympathy for the poverty and hardships that Italians endured during the first half of the 20th century, and I’m fascinated with the struggles and conflicts that were precipitated by the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini and his fascist cronies. This interest has compelled me to read several books about this period, so I recently jumped at the chance to be an advance reader for Jennifer Anton, who will soon release a book based on her great-grandmother’s experiences in Italy from around 1914 to 1948.

The book is titled Under the Light of the Italian Moon, and I was fortunate enough to receive a free advance copy in exchange for offering my comments and suggestions. The book will be available for purchase at Amazon March 14, 2021, and you can even pre-order the e-book here.

Jennifer and one
of her aunts.

The part of the tale that touched me the most, however, was not about the war but about the love story between her great grandparents. Pietro Pante left Italy in 1914 to work in the mines of Pennsylvania. He returned to Italy in 1919 to ask Nina Argenta for her hand in marriage. She had caught his eye five years before, and he couldn’t get her out of his mind. She felt the same way, but neither of them expressed their feelings for each other at the time, and then Pietro was gone.

Anita and Michele
in Gig Harbor
The reason this is so personally compelling is that it closely parallels the story of Michele Spadoni and Anita Seghieri, my own grandparents. Michele left Montecarlo, Italy, in 1903, working in a steel mill, for a railway company and then in a brick factory. Having made some money and with a promise of continued employment at the brick factory, he returned to Montecarlo. Within a few months, he and Anita had married. We have no record of how this romance developed, but reading the conversations between Pietro and Nina in Anton’s book sparked my imagination. Michele and Anita could have shared the same words as they pondered the future.

At one of the first meetings between Pietro and Nina after he returned for a visit, they begin to carefully discuss the future, even though neither one had expressed feelings for the other. Here are some details and dialog from Anton’s manuscript:

Nina studied Pietro as he talked about America and looked over the expanse of Fonzaso, his breath coming out in puffs as it met the air. His face held a determined look.

“You love it there, don’t you?” she asked.

“My family here leads a simple and difficult life,” he answered. “They’re born; they work to survive by toiling in the fields and depend on the weather. If I live here, I worry my children and my children’s children will lead the same life. Sometimes I think rather than earning money and bringing it back to live better here, as my father wants, I should settle there for good.”

“What’s wrong with leading a simple life?” asked Nina. She was challenging him but, in her heart, she knew what he meant.

Pietro stopped and smiled at her. “Nothing. It’s not bad if you don’t mind going hungry for half the year. I do find it repetitive and a constant struggle. Maybe less for you and your family because of your mother being a midwife, but certainly for someone like me. Remember, I’m one of fourteen. I want something special for my children, and I’d like to raise them in America where there’s a chance for them to do something extraordinary instead of working in a field until they die.

“And what about you, Ninetta? What do you want?”

She noticed he added the endearment to her name.

She regarded him cautiously. “I know I want a family of my own.”

He turned to look at her.

She wished he would come closer, keep her warm, instead of standing at a distance observing her answers.

“Is that all you want?” He pressed.

“When my brother left for America, it broke my mother’s heart. I promised her I wouldn’t leave her. I want to keep my promise. I don’t want to leave Fonzaso. Not now.” She hesitated. “But to be honest, during the war, I dreamed about taking a ship across the ocean. I wondered about America. Perhaps someday an adventure will be in store for me.”

He grinned.

She shivered.

As the plot continues, they gradually become closer, and their mutual affection grows with deeper conversations. I wish I could time travel and ask Nonno and Nonna about their romance or jump back even farther to eavesdrop on their courtship. But since this is impossible, reading the dialog between Pietro and Nina will have to do. It warmed my heart and brought tears to my eyes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

We appreciate you Nonno & Nonna! The family is doing well, thanks to you!

Michele Spadoni on his farm in
Shore Acres, Gig Harbor, WA
Dear Nonno and Nonna,

I want to give you a progress report on how the family you started a bit more than 100 years ago is doing. When you took that ship to America in 1909, Italian immigrants were treated with hostility and suspicion. The governor of Louisiana, elected two years after you arrived, described Italian Americas as “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in their habits, lawless and treacherous.” Knowing this, you did your best to teach your children and grandchildren to be loyal and productive Americans. Each generation has learned honesty, patriotic values and a strong work ethic. You taught us the inestimable value of family love and togetherness. You farmed your land to put food on your family’s table and worked at jobs that others refused to do. And then you helped your siblings, nephews and nieces become established in America as well.

Anita Seghieri in
her 20s, in France.
Thanks to the hardships you endured, the whole world became open for subsequent generations. In the family we’ve now seen engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers (an abundance of them), artists, musicians, designers, beauticians, city planners, writers, executives, business owners and leaders, military officers—people in nearly every occupational field. The doors that were closed to you are now wide open to us.

Dr. Leon Spadoni, son of 
Michele's nephew Alfredo.
Most of your grandchildren hardly knew you, but we want you to know we appreciate the sacrifices you made, the risks you took, the hardships and insults you endured. In honor of you, many of us are also rediscovering our Italian heritage, tracing our ancestry and visiting those places in Tuscany where it all began. You might also want to know that the family you left overseas, after struggling in poverty for a half century, has also enjoyed the same successes. At the end of World War 2, Italy experienced “Il Boom Economico,” and now our relatives there have taken full advantage of the nearly limitless career possibilities as well.

I await the day we can all be together again at that big and eternal dinner table. For now, on behalf of our family, I thank you for your courage, foresight, persistence and strong moral standards. Your work is done, your burdens lifted. Go and dance with the angels.

Tuo nipote, Paul (along with many others)

The image in this charcoal drawing by Lita Dawn Ancich now adorns
the historic Finholm building in Gig Harbor, Washington, where Anita's brother
Seghiero "Jim" Seghieri settled. Lita Dawn is Seghiero's granddaughter.
 








* * * * *

Author’s note: I was inspired to write this after reading a similar essay by author and friend James Pantaleo.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Change your calendars! The Seghieri-Spadoni reunion will be in 2022.

Because of virus concerns, The Spadoni/Seghieri Family Reunion in Tuscany has officially been rescheduled to May 2-6, 2022. I’m still hoping I can be in Italy this coming spring to coordinate planning, but I need more time to pull everything together and reserve all the locations. And I’m sure that we will all feel safer by waiting to see how vaccine plans progress.

The first two days, May 2 and 3, we will focus on the roots of the Spadoni family, and May 4 and 5 will feature Seghieri history. May 6 will be an open day, with a variety of suggested itineraries, an optional cooking class and a farewell dinner at Fattoria Il Poggio, one of Montecarlo’s finest restaurants.

Photo from 2019 reunion in Gig Harbor
We anticipate that relatives from France, Italy and throughout the United States will attend. It is even possible that some relatives from South America could come as well.

Following is a tentative itinerary, with many details and exact times still to be worked out.

MONDAY, May 2

Morning: Road trip to Marliana, Massa, Buggiano Castello and Pescia—all places various Spadoni families have lived throughout the centuries.

Afternoon: Open

Evening: Dinner where you will be able to meet and greet Spadoni relatives. I will present information on how the various family lines are linked together along with history of the earliest known Spadonis. Primary information will be presented in both English and Italian.

TUESDAY, May 3

We’ll be on the road for most of the day in order to visit the most significant historical Spadoni sites.

Morning: Stignano, Borgo a Buggiano and Ponte Buggianese. The church in Stignano is where we find the first records of Spadoni marriages and baptisms in the late 15th century. It’s also the location of the Spadoni tomb, an indication that the family occupied an important role in the town in the 1500s. In the 1600s and 1700s, most Spadonis moved into the lush farmlands that were opening up around Borgo a Buggiano and Ponte Buggianese as new canals lowered the level of the swampy Padule di Fucecchio. Ponte Buggianese still has a large concentration of Spadoni families, all of whom are descendants of two brothers from Stignano in the late 1400s. We will see the street named for Italo Spadoni, look at many Spadoni graves in the cemetery and visit the site where Italo was brutally murdered by Fascist zealots in 1924.

Afternoon: After lunch in one of Ponte Buggianese’s best restaurants, we’ll move on to San Salvatore, where Enrico, Michele, Alfredo and Adolfo Spadoni were raised (Enrico remained in Italy, while the other three all moved to Washington state). We’ll see the church where Michele met and later married Anita Seghieri. Then we’ll travel to Capannori, where we’ll visit the impressive but mysterious Torre degli Spadoni.

Evening: Dinner will tentatively be at La Favola Mia in Chiesina Uzzanese, which is owned by cousin Leonello Spadoni.

 WEDNESDAY, May 4

Morning: Tour of the Fortezza di Montecarlo, followed by a wine and Tuscan aperitivo tasting (fees to be collected upon entrance).

Afternoon: Tour of Lucca, with 5-Star guide Elena Benvenuti, a Lucca native and the wife of Davide Seghieri.

Evening: Dinner where you will be able to meet and greet Seghieri relatives. I will present information on how the various family lines are linked together along with history of the earliest known Seghieris. Primary information will be presented in both English and Italian.

 THURSDAY, May 5

We’ll be on the road for most of the day in order to visit the most significant historical Seghieri sites.

Morning: Tour of the facilities of the Casolare dei Fiori (family of Gilda Seghieri and Enzo Pasquinelli). Tour of churches in San Salvatore and Montecarlo and several other sites in Montecarlo with significance for Seghieri family members. Tour of Montecarlo cemetery.

Afternoon: Lunch in one of the Montecarlo restaurants that serves exquisite Tuscan cuisine. Tour of Casone di Marcucci (which once housed some 50 members of various Seghieri families), tour of family farm of Ivo, Celestino and Fabbio Seghieri. Tour of church in San Gennaro of Capannori, where Torello Seghieri was once the choir director. We’ll stop in Alberghi (a suburb of Pescia), where we will sample gelato from the best gelateria in the area and then stop at the bicycle shop owned by Francesca Seghieri and her husband Franco Natali. The final stop will be at a used merchandise store where you can buy interesting souvenirs at a great price.

Evening: Make your own plans for dinner. Recommendations will be available upon request.

FRIDAY, May 6

Morning: Open, but with many suggestions, including: Go to the open air market in Ponte Buggianese (ends at 1 p.m.). Take the funicolare to Montecatini Alto. Go to a wine tasting (plenty of options). Drive to Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo and home to two Leonardo museums. Shop in Montecarlo, Montecatini or Lucca. Drive to the Devil’s Bridge in Borgo a Mozzano. Go to the Parco di Pinocchio. Take a train to Florence or Pisa.

Afternoon: Cooking class with Elena Benvenuti.

Evening: Farewell dinner at Fattoria Il Poggio.

What kind of costs can you expect? Airfare, obviously, is a major expense, but you can save by making reservations well in advance. The closest airports are in Florence and Pisa, each of which are about 40 minutes from Montecarlo. It’s usually cheaper to fly to the major airports of Rome or Milan. However, if you are only coming for the reunion and not planning to visit other cities, it likely won’t be worth the savings to book flights to Rome or Milan because of the time and expense required to travel to Montecarlo. Also, one of our family members is Gina Natucci, who is a travel agent familiar with the area, and she can assist in making airfare reservations. Contact her through the family reunion Facebook page.

You’ll need to provide your own housing, and I’ll provide recommendations with contact information in the coming months. You’ll also need to provide motor vehicle transportation as we move from site to site. You can rent a car at any airport.

Meals at our various group dinners will be paid to each restaurant, and costs will vary depending on what you order and the menu prices.

Cousin ElenaBenvenuti is a professional tour guide, and if you want to take the tours of Lucca or the cooking class, you will pay her set rates and make your reservations with her directly. It would be great if you could contact her prior to the reunion, but you’ll also be able to sign up when you arrive. Entrance to the Fortezza di Montecarlo costs around 8 euro and a wine tasting will cost from 20-30 euro.

Otherwise, there are no costs associated with the historical site tours, which I will lead, with occasional help from other family members. Showing people around our wonderful ancestral home is my hobby and a labor of love.

I’m a little nervous about bringing so many people together in one place, most of whom speak only one language. However, there is precedent: The French Seghieri families, with help from Davide, Elena and other Montecarlo relatives, have held some wonderful reunions both in Italy and France. Your patience and positive attitudes will hopefully overcome my shortcomings in planning and leadership.

I’ll be working with Elena and other relatives to firm up the plans. Meanwhile, put the dates on your calendars, talk to members of your family and make sure your passports are current. It may be more than a year away, but you’ll want to be well prepared for an unforgettable reunion and vacation! Ci vediamo in Italia.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Reflection on Italy’s traditional evening stroll: La Passeggiata

The current issue of Ambassador magazine contains my photos and article on La Passaggiata. You can read the text below, or enlarge the pages from the magazine and read it that way.

‟I think we stepped into the middle of a parade,” my wife exclaimed. Lucy and I were taking an evening stroll in the city of Pompei in the region of Campania, and we found the streets and squares packed with locals wandering around while going no place in particular. It was our first experience with a famous Italian event that exists in every decent sized Italian city.

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La passeggiata is a slow, gentle stroll through the pedestrian parts of the center of any city, usually beginning just before dusk. It marks the end of the workday, grants a breath of fresh air and allows people to chat with cousins, friends and neighbors. On weekends whole families walk together, sometimes splitting apart for smaller conversations and then joining again. People greet friends, swap gossip, share the latest news.

Although the Covid-19 virus has put a damper on this Italian tradition, restrictions have eased in recent months, and the passeggiata has returned—with mandated restrictions, such as increased personal space and the use of masks for close conversations. If anything, the months of isolation have increased the Italians’ appreciation of this social rite.

“Our love for life, sunshine and the beauty of the outdoors is even stronger now,” said Elena Benvenuti, a private tour guide in Lucca. “During the quarantine, the few privileged people who were allowed to go out to walk their dogs were ready at the door before their pets, even in the bad weather.”

Because the passeggiata is rarely listed among the “must see” sights in Italy, many tourists miss experiencing it, unaware it even exists.

“This is astounding,” Lucy said. “How did we miss this up to now? It’s like a multi-generational town party. It reminds me of one of my quilts, but where each patch is a person, woven together into one human fabric.”

And speaking of fabric, Italians know how to dress up. Even the most fashion-challenged person must appreciate these daily sidewalk shows. As we walked around in our blue jeans and nondescript sweatshirts, I couldn’t help but appreciate these well-dressed and coiffed italiani.

In the typical passeggiata, clothes are stylish but not garish. Colors are coordinated; styles are modern, classy and form-fitting, never faded or sagging. Sweatpants and sweatshirts are virtually non-existent. Yet people dress in a way that looks natural, effortless, which brings to mind the courtly mannerisms cited by fifteenth century Italian count Baldassarre Castiglione, who served in several royal courts.

In his book Il Libro del Cortegiano—The Book of the Courtesan—Castiglione gave advice on how to be a gentleman. He even invented a word to describe his ideal, sprezzatura, which means the studied carelessness that conceals art and presents everything said and done as something brought about without laboriousness and almost without giving it any thought. Author Dianne Hales has explained that the closest English translation “is nonchalance, which fails to capture the behind-the-scenes preparation and hard work that underlies the ability to carry off things that are exquisite and well done—be it a duel, debate or dance, executed with such ease that it inspires the greatest wonder.” This is the essence of another Italian expression bella figura, which means to make a good impression, literally present a good figure.

Sprezzatura has been described by fashion writer Johnny Liu as ‟artful dishevelment—dressing like you don’t care, taking a nonchalant attitude with your appearance—when in fact you do take time and effort to create your look. The trick to pulling it off is subtlety, confidence and an otherwise impeccable outfit.”

“I’ll never be that Italian,” I told Lucy. Though I grew up in America, I have since acquired Italian citizenship and purchased a house in Tuscany—yet I know to my Italian friends I’ll always be considered American. “Are they just born knowing how to dress and look sharp and beautiful? I think I’m missing that gene.”

“No, it’s obvious that they’ve learned it while growing up,” she said. “I’m sure they pay plenty of attention to the way they look and dress. But we’re from the state of Washington. We’ve made the grunge look famous.”

But a passeggiata goes far beyond simple fashions. Old people walk slowly, faces lined with character and experience. I can imagine that the old man I see might have been, one hundred years earlier, my own great grandfather, walking along with hands behind his back, or playing checkers with another old timer on a park bench.

I instantly sense that something is fundamentally different about these people. Many people walk with their arms linked together. Of course, this applies to couples of all ages and is not unique to Italy. But it is also common to see teenage girls with linked arms, a sign of close friendship. Middle-aged women walk with arms linked to their aging mothers to offer both physical and emotional support.

This closeness is not limited to the women. While it is unusual to see boys walking with linked arms, there still is a physical closeness and comfort with contact not seen in other countries. I see a cluster of boys talking loudly and easily with each other, and one puts his hand on the other’s shoulder and leans closer to share a story he doesn’t want everyone else to hear.

It is also possible to see middle-aged men with arms linked to their fathers, and even occasionally a young teen boy linked with parents, something that would be social suicide in America. The closeness of Italian family ties is typically something that people note and admire about Italy, and the passeggiata develops and encourages this trait as well as puts it on display.

While most people walk in groups, those walking by themselves seem perfectly comfortable. At a certain age—maybe the mid-sixties—men walking alone adopt what Lucy and I call the “old man walk,” leaning forward slightly, with hands clasped behind their backs. Body language specialists suggest this posture demonstrates a self-confident person who has lived a satisfied and fulfilled life. I occasionally practice this myself when walking alone so that I can look naturally when doing it in public.

Watching the teenagers interact during the passeggiata is another fascinating experience. Groups meet, mix and split into different groups. Rarely is anyone walking alone, and if they are, they’re probably on a cell phone, planning a rendezvous. Teenagers and young adults perhaps have the most at stake when it comes to making la bella figura. This is their chance to strengthen friendships, make new ones and impress the opposite sex.

In a way, the passeggiata of young people reminds me of school dances, charged with youthful energy, enthusiasm and passion, a socially sanctioned opportunity for flirting and courtship. Parents approve because the interpersonal skills gained are useful in the workplace and the complex politics of life. Of course, this event takes place every night, so the stakes are not so high and the participants more relaxed, experienced and comfortable.

The passeggiata is the place where many romantic relationships begin, according to Mari Accardi, who grew up in Sicily and is now a tour guide with Rick Steves. “A boy may send some glances toward a girl, and if she is interested, she sends some back. Then it’s up to the boy to take the next step, to say ciao, ask for her name and see if she wants to get a coffee.”

“Look at those men sitting together around that table,” Lucy said. “You should go join them. You look Italian. You’d probably fit right in.”

“Yeah, I wish.” I replied. “I probably couldn’t understand their dialect, and I get lost in social groups even when the men are speaking English. But I do envy them. If I had been raised here, maybe I would have developed better social skills, and then I could be comfortable sitting around chatting, arguing, playing cards with lifelong friends.”

“Or at least by now you would have mastered the old man walk,” Lucy said.

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You can see all of the current issue of Ambassador here.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The heartwarming story of an orphan who found love in an Italian family

Michael and the medallion
What do Oliver Twist, Anne of Green Gables and Little Orphan Annie have in common? Of course, they were all orphans—and they were also mistreated and unhappy, even if their stories end happily. Their experiences lead many to believe that the lives of orphans in the past 500 years were, with few exceptions, mostly miserable. Possibly that is true, but in Italy, at least, orphans during the middle ages and renaissance era were generally well looked after by the Catholic church and charitable organizations.

Ospedale della Misericordia
e Dolce, Prato

I’ve written about this before in Care for the Innocenti and Museum for the Innocents, but I’ve just come across a real life success story that highlights this point. Italian-American genealogy buff Michael Lomagno discovered that his quadrisavola (great great great grandmother, or third great grandmother) was an orphan. She was given up shortly after birth and named Vincenzia Aprilini by an orphanage in Prato, Tuscany, the Ospedale della Misericordia e Dolce. She arrived at the hospital April 9, 1825, which explains the surname she was given.




Her unknown mother tied a black cord around her neck, from which hung a medallion—a Bolognese coin minted in the late 1700s. A piece of the coin was cut off, a common practice that assured that the mother could later reclaim her child by providing the missing piece of the memento.

For most researchers, finding that they have a “trovatelli” or foundling in the family line means a dead end—but Michael is not an ordinary researcher. He wrote an inquiry to the State Archives in Prato, and with the help of archivists there, he discovered a wealth of information.

“For many years I thought of Vincenzia as an abandoned baby who perhaps had a miserable childhood in an orphanage,” Michael said. “I was wrong.”

Michael at the Duomo of Prato.

Michael discovered that Vincenzia was baptized in the Duomo di Prato and only spent four days at the orphanage before being whisked away to the countryside where she lived with her wet nurse for the first year and a half of her life. Nursing mothers were paid a small stipend to care for newborns, so this was a common practice.

But this is where the story takes an especially interesting twist: The wet nurse was also one of Michael’s ancestors, his fourth great grandmother, Maddalena Mazzoni. She had recently given birth to a son, Bartolomeo Incrocci, who is Michael’s third great grandfather. For the first years in the lives of Bartolomeo and Vincenzia, they were raised as brother and sister, and a bond likely formed—but once Vincenzia was weaned, she had to move on to another family. Maddalena received a payment of 159.56 lire for her services. Now a dry nurse would be appointed to raise Vincenzia until age 14, at which time she could be returned to the Ospedale for occupational training.

Her new family turned out to be very close indeed. The supervising priest made a special request to the Ospedale asking that Vincenzia be moved to the family of Maddelena’s childless sister Rosa, whom he attested to be “of good morals.” Rosa and her husband Gaspero Benedetti kept Vincenzia in their home until age 19, which strongly indicates that she was welcomed and loved. Vincenzia and Bartolomeo grew up playing together, probably seeing each other nearly daily.

When Vincenzia did leave the family home, it was for a very special reason. She and her childhood “milk brother” Bartolomeo were married. They had nine children, the eldest of whom was second great grandmother of Michael Lomagno. Vincenzia also had at least 38 great grandchildren and lived until age 77.

Michael discovered the story of her childhood with the help of records kept at the State Archives in Prato and the hospital for orphans.

“What was truly special and humbling was to hold the medallion that was around Vincenzia’s neck when she was given up,” Michael said. “As you can see from the photos, the charm is chipped off. This is deliberate because if the birth mother ever came back to reclaim the child, she would have the missing piece to establish identity. Usually this never happened, but it is heartening to know that the mother of Vincenzia did not abandon her baby with ease of heart. There was hope. There was love.

“From my visit to the archivio, I was able to view the correspondence from the priests to the hospital as well as the ledger that was kept for the payments made for the first 14 years of Vincenzia’s life and, of course, hold the precious medallion that remained quietly tucked away in the archive for me to rediscover. It is a humbling but beautiful legacy to know my family’s history is preserved in Toscana, and I got to be reunited with it.”

Michael Lomagno in Lucca.


Friday, October 30, 2020

The restaurant is not a job; it is family

Andrea Spadoni
What is the experience of restaurant owners in Italy, especially those who depend on sit-down dinner service for most of their income? Cousin Leonello Spadoni owns and operates La Favola Mia in Chiesina Uzzanese, a restaurant that normally opens around 7 p.m. After enduring a lockdown in the spring and summer, restaurants had been slowly reopening while operating under strict new protocols. But a strong second wave of the virus has hit Italy, and Leonello recently received some bad news. Read this October 27 account by his journalist son Andrea to get an idea of what Leonello and other restaurateurs in Italy must face.

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By Andrea Spadoni

A long and demanding Saturday night at the restaurant had just concluded, and we were watching the Mediaset news on television with the headlines of the next day: “More restrictive measures to combat the infection of the Coronavirus. Restaurants must close at 6 p.m.”

We almost didn’t believe it—this blow coming after all the efforts made in the months of lockdown to invent home delivery and the money spent (and lost) to comply with government regulations and customer distancing. It had not been easy, but deep down we understood that it was right, and we were slowly returning the business to its normal life. Now, however, it seemed too much to have to close again, as ours is mainly an evening activity. Instead it happened. And we are forced to start over in La Favola Mia.

Leonello after he heard the
latest lockdown requirements.
At the moment my father heard the news, I looked him in the face. His disconsolate expression displayed the frustration of someone who has dedicated his whole life serving food to others. Anyone does not know him thoroughly cannot understand the commitment this entails. I photographed him, so you too can see the look on his face.

My parents have been running restaurants for 40 years, and even though I never did it as my first job, I grew up among the tables, customers and kitchens. It is an environment that is part of me. It is a world where sacrifices serve to make others happy, and this is the reason we are passionate about this work, why we fell in love with our restaurant.

If it were for the money, we would all have stopped since 2008 at least, since in Italy the profits in this business are now zero. All that remains is the value of the happy moments in life, almost all spent at the restaurant table. This is what my family does, this is what restaurateurs do. They sacrifice themselves every day, without schedules, without salaries, without guarantees, without anyone paying them a euro if one day they get sick—all to offer and share moments of happiness with customers who have become true friends over the years.

The restaurant has its drama, its characters with well-defined roles, its setting made of scents, colors, dishes that come out full from the kitchen and return empty, its rhythms marked by the steps of the waiters and the time it takes each dish to cook. It has its own voices, those of the chef who calls the dishes of the orders, those of the waiters and sommeliers who tell you about the delicacies that you will soon be able to taste, as if they were lines from a poem. The restaurant is like a theater, full of emotions, emphasis, highlights, climaxes and tension. It is a show decorated with special dishes that are good for the body and soul of the public, which we call friends.

All this, however, requires an out-of-the-ordinary self-denial. My father Leonello and mother Carla, in all these years I have observed them, have only worked. They did it honestly, in an excellent way. Day after day, evening after evening, Christmas after Christmas, party after party. And that’s okay with us. Because the restaurant is air, oxygen, it is that place where we feel good even though we are aware that today being a restaurateur is no longer convenient.

When we were asked to make sacrifices, we made them. When in the first years of financial hard times we saw our premises empty, we went on anyway. We struggled, but we consoled ourselves with the satisfaction of the customer who said thanks for the dinner we had served him.

The restaurant, for us and I believe for many others who have chosen this job, is also the story of a family that has been handed down the tradition from generation to generation. It is identity. It is the respect we have for our parents, for our grandparents, who had achieved all this before us and who had taught us how to carry it out. The restaurant is more than just a job that guarantees a living. It is family. You are not guaranteed a salary, but the occupation does promise you love, belonging and a team spirit.

Today is my father’s birthday, and I think he doesn’t really want to celebrate. But I know that even with a thousand difficulties, he will always come up with a new dish to let me taste, and once finished he will come and ask me: “Was it good?”

This is enough for us to be happy. Happy birthday, dad.

In less stressful times, Leonello and I met in his restaurant in 2014 after my research revealed how we are related (we are fourth cousins, once removed).


 

 

Monday, October 26, 2020

A few rare acts of compassion allowed some to survive the Eccidio

Part 5 in a series on the Slaughter in the Swamp of Fucecchio

Among the grim and gruesome stories told in the aftermath of the massacre of civilians in the Padule di Fucecchio, a few encouraging instances of compassion did occur.

Silvano Cipollini, who was 10 years old during the slaughter, was fortunate to be living in a house with his grandfather, aunts and uncles and a handful of other displaced persons. A bomb had struck his own house, forcing the family to move into a neighbor’s home, Casa Simoni. In early August, two German officers appeared and asked to be hosted in the house as well.

“My nonno, who was the head of our family, could not refuse—and that was our salvation,” Cipollini related in an interview in Orizzonti di Lamporecchio, published in 2013. “I remember these two officials were always looking out the window with their binoculars, and they would give orders to the soldiers to scour the area to the left or to the right, searching for partisans that were not there.”

After 20 days of this, the German officers warned the Italian inhabitants of the house on the evening of August 22 to hide themselves well the next morning. “I remember these words,” Cipollini said, “They said, ‘Tomorrow everyone in the house. If not, KAPUT!’ ”



Using a boat and a huge pile of hay, the Italians fashioned a tunnel to hide in and then closed up the entrance.

“At dawn, we heard the first shots,” Cipollini said. “The Germans shot two people on the street, and we heard the victims cry out and ask for help, but none of us had the courage to leave the hiding place for fear of being killed. After about a half an hour, the shouts stopped, but the shots continued.”

During the seven or more hours that the Italians remained in hiding, Germans soldiers were often both outside and inside the house, but the two officers did not give them away.

“Fear and anguish reigned during those interminable minutes,” Cipollini said. “We worried that the bullets shot into surrounding houses would penetrate our hiding place.”

They also had to listen to soldiers reporting on the execution of civilians at other houses, places where they knew that other family members were living. At one such report, Cipollini’s grandfather became so enraged that he grabbed his hunting rifle and tried to force his way out to seek revenge on the Germans. He was restrained by the others, who reminded him that the two officers who were protecting them were among those outside.

Shortly after noon, noting that the shooting has ceased several hours before, Cipollini and the others exited and witnessed the aftermath of the massacre. Dead bodies were in and around every other house. The German officers, whose names he does not know, left around 6 p.m. “Those were the last Germans I saw,” he said, because Allied soldiers soon advanced into the area and the Germans retreated.

Alberto Pratolini

In another part of the Padule, inhabitants at Casa Silvestri had been slaughtered indiscriminately. Soldiers entered and ordered the inhabitants outside and told them to stand in a line. Those who ran were shot before they could escape. Alberto Pratolini was just over a year and a half old, and his mother Bruna clutched him tightly and followed the soldiers’ orders. By chance, Bruna and Alberto lined up on the left side of the door, while the others lined up on the right. The soldiers opened fire, but Bruna and Alberto were miraculously spared, perhaps because they were covered by a German who had unknowingly planted himself in front of them. Among those killed was Alberto's two-year-old friend, Antonio, who survived the gunshots but crawled out from under his dead mother and cried loudly. A soldier dispatched him with a hard blow to the head with a rifle butt. 

When the soldiers left, Bruna went in the house and rendered aid to those inside who were wounded but still alive. In an account published by the ProLoco Carmignano, author Barbara Prosperi relates that the survivors made their way to a home occupied by German soldiers and, remarkably, Bruna charged in and hurled herself at them, shouting, “Assassins!” She demanded to know why they had so ferociously attacked defenseless civilians. One of them coldly replied: “Partisans kaput Germans, German kaput partisans.” Bruna, out of her mind with anguish, pointed at the children and women who had survived with her and shouted, “Are these the partisans?” In the heat of the moment, she grabbed the man and began to shake him, tearing his shirt.

Bruna Fagni

Prospero writes: “Faced with that reaction, the soldier hesitated, and the woman promptly seized that moment to beg for mercy for the people who had remained alive: ‘Save us, please, save us!’ she begged him, continuing to hold Alberto against her chest. The military man said, ‘I am good ... I Austrian. But if my officer orders me to kill you, I must do it; otherwise he will kill me.’ However, the Austrian soldier conferred with three other men and led the desperate survivors to a rear exit. He pointed them to a path that led to the farmhouse of Baroness Banchieri, considered a safe zone because the German command was based there.

“In the midst of so much cruelty, that soldier stood out for a compassionate gesture that saved the life not only of Bruna and her loved ones but of several other people who, following the young woman’s lead, were rescued, transferred to the farm and thus made definitively safe.”

Earlier that morning, the kindness of another soldier had saved Bruna’s 13-year-old brother Bruno, who had been sent into the Padule on horseback to carry food to Bruna’s husband and other men who were hiding deeper in the swamp. Unaware that a slaughter was taking place, Bruno encountered a German patrol. By a stroke of good fortune, the commander knew Bruno and his family, and he warned the boy to turn around. When Bruno hesitated, the officer raced up to the horse and, looking at Bruno with haunted eyes, shouted at him to go home and not be seen again, kicking the beast to cause it to run.

In 1947, Bruna offered her testimony at the trials of German soldiers in Padova and Firenze. She died in 2015 at age 101. Alberto became a bank manager and was 74 years old when he told his story to Prosperi in 2017.

Despite his tender age during the slaughter, Alberto still has haunting memories. “I remember exactly the point at which we met with my brother Alfredo. I still see him running towards us along the road that led from the Silvestri farmhouse to the Banchieri farm. As soon as we were reunited, I told him: ‘Tato Edo ... anto 'anghe ... tutti 'otti,’ (brother Alfredo, Antonio bloody, everyone broken) a sign that despite my 20 months, I had understood very well what had happened.

Casa Silvestri still stands, but it is now abandoned.

“Then I was left with a fear of uniforms. Alfredo at the age of eighteen made his entrance to the Military Academy of Modena. Every time he came home with his outfit, it was a torment to me. Even today it is enough for me to see a simple traffic policeman to feel a feeling of unease.”

Another act of both compassion and wisdom came from the unlikely source of Silvano Cipollini’s grandfather—the same man who in his rage had wanted to rush out and kill the German soldiers with his hunting rifle. Cipollini explained that some of the local Italians had collaborated with the Nazis, and Cipollini’s uncles and friends wanted to avenge themselves on the traitors once the Germans had left.

“Fortunately, my grandfather confronted his sons and the others with wisdom and resolutely convinced them to desist,” Cipollini said. “He told them, ‘Now that we are free, we must not respond with violence to violence. The death of our dear ones weighs heavily on my heart as well, but I don’t want you to stain your consciences as have those barbarians.’ ”

Go back to the beginning of the series