Friday, December 19, 2014

Sicilian Mafia no longer untouchable, as shown by a teenage rebel in well done 2008 film “The Sicilian Girl”

The Sicilian Mafia’s past and present—and hopefully its future—are all shown at least in part in Marco Amenta’s excellent 2008 drama La Siciliana Ribelle, named The Sicilian Girl in English. It is inspired by the true story of Rita Atria, born in 1974 in Partanna, a town controlled by the mafia.

Rita turns on the Mafia after her father and brother—both mafiosi themselves—are killed by rivals. Rita idolized her father, seeing him as a man respected by all as a benevolent godfather who followed “the old ways” and provided the protection and order the police were unable to offer. This was the role of the prototypical Sicilian clan leader in the 1800s, when bandits were many, police officers were few, and citizens came to depend on their family leaders to enforce law and order. These leaders and their operatives came to be known as Mafia, called Cosa Nostra in Sicily and going by different names in other areas of Italy.

With no checks on their power, many clan leaders became bullies determined to increase their wealth and influence by whatever means necessary. Rita’s father, however, refused to deal in drugs and preferred to settle disputes by peaceful means—at least that’s what Rita believed, although she was only 11 when her father was killed. She and her brother vowed to avenge their father’s death, and since her brother and boyfriend were both active in Cosa Nostra, she took careful notes and photos of mafia activities in the years following her father’s execution.

When her brother’s vendetta plan goes awry, a fiery Rita turns to the law to avenge her losses. However, she still has little patience for the police; she is motivated more by hate for her family’s killers than by a sense of justice and respect for law and order. She is placed in a witness protection program, chafing under the restrictions and clashing with prosecutor Paolo Borsellini.

When the Mafia strikes back violently against the police and justice department, Borsellini takes it as a sign of recognition that Rita’s evidence will be damning—and fortunately, it is—although the cost in lives lost is severe. Rita gradually comes to appreciate Borsellini’s courage, integrity and humanity. She also has to realize that her father’s ways were not as heroic as she once believed, and that there is a difference between justice and revenge. Unfortunately, Rita’s turning government witness creates a permanent rift in her relationship with her mother, who is resigned to the belief that Sicily will always be ruled by the conventions of the Mafia and that it is futile to buck the tide.

Jugnot and D'Agostino, center
Solid script writing and fine acting strike an excellent balance between dramatic tension and believability. Veronica D’Agostino’s portrayal of Rita is convincing, as she alternates between anger, defiance, fear, confusion and determination—what one would expect from a teenager standing against the mob. Some critics have complained that the plot is unrealistic because Rita makes some inexplicably poor decisions, but these things happen in real life. GĂ©rard Jugnot also turns in a convincing portrayal as Borsellini, conflicted between the importance of his mission and fears for his own safety and the lives of his family.

The Mafia is still a powerful and persuasive influence in Sicily, but thanks to the spunk, courage and conviction of people like Rita Atria, Paolo Borsellini and others in the Italian police and justice systems, viewers are left with some hope that the way it has been will not always be the way it is.

You can watch The Sicilian Girl with subtitles on your computer for free at The Internet Movie Database.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What will happen if you don’t pay your ticket for a traffic violation in Italy?

When I received a traffic ticket while driving a rental car in Italy in 2011, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t pay the fine. I read advice in several online forums, but it was just that—advice. No one seemed to truly know what would happen. A few people said they did not pay and nothing had happened yet, but the bureaucracy in Italy works slowly, so I realized that something could have happened later and the people just didn’t update their old forum comments. I have now met a man who was ticketed in Italy about four and a half years ago in Italy and didn’t pay. Mark thought the incident was long behind him, but in the past year, he and his wife have been receiving persistent calls from a collection agency in the United States.
Mark had received four ZTL (limited traffic area zone) tickets; three were in Milan, all in the same spot, as he circled in a round-about trying to determine which was the correct exit.

He did not pay the fines, reasoning that
it’s not fair to give tickets to drivers who can’t read the signs or to give three tickets for the same violation.” Mark didn’t even have to pay the car rental agency a fee when they tried to charge his credit card. The bank called him and said that someone from Italy was trying to charge his card months after his trip was over, and he told the credit card representative that the charges must be fraudulent, since he had not made any recent purchases in Italy. Then he had his credit card number changed.

He realized when he received the traffic tickets in the mail that the attempt to charge his credit card must have been related. Several times he received registered letters sent from Italy, but he refused to sign for them, and they were returned. When he hadn’t received any more communications from Italy for many months, he thought the whole incident was behind him.

But a collection agency started calling earlier this year, sometimes multiple times in a day, sometimes only fifteen minutes apart all through the afternoon or evening. He usually didn’t answer the phone, and occasionally someone at the agency left a voice mail explaining the purpose of the calls. One time his wife did accidentally answer the phone, and she was told that the agency would take legal action forcing her husband to appear before a federal magistrate.

Mark is still not concerned, because even if taken to court, he would ask for proof that he had committed a violation. “All they sent me was a photo of the car license plate,” he said. “They have no photo of me at the wheel.”

He also has heard that once five years has passed, it will be too late for Italy to continue pursuing the tickets and he will be completely off the hook. He does concede that it would be wise for him not to return to Italy, at least until this five-year period is up. “Otherwise,” he joked, “I might be joining Amanda Knox in an Italian jail.” Not likely, since Amanda also has the good sense not to return to Italy right now.

Update, March 2017: Mark said: "Five years to the day the calls stopped. We haven't heard from anyone since . . . the courts or credit collectors. The next big test will be when we head back to Italy!"

Read also: Italian traffic tickets are now easier to pay.

I have written several other blogs on traffic tickets in Italy:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

DNA search for relatives yields little; patience and more volunteers needed

Map indicates heaviest populations of J-M172 haplogroup.
Earlier this year, I posted a blog How are the Spadoni families spread across the world related? explaining that DNA testing could answer the interesting question of whether various Spadoni families throughout the world are related. I am still hoping to find someone else with enough interest in this question to help me coordinate a formal family name project, but in the meantime, there is nothing stopping any male with the Spadoni name to apply for DNA testing. We can still compare results on an informal basis to see if our families are related.

Thus far, only one person from another branch of the family has responded and been tested. Florian Spadoni, descended from the Spadoni family of Bigliolio, Italy, also took a Y-DNA test at Family TreeDNA this year. Unfortunately, a comparison of the results indicates that we are not related. However, we can’t make a firm conclusion based on the results of only two family members. We need more male members of the Ponte Buggianese and Bigliolo families to step forward and be tested. In fact, I welcome any Spadoni from anywhere in the world to join in this endeavor. A Y-DNA test that measures the recommended 37 genetic markers normally costs $169 (but it sometimes goes on sale).

At this point, little can be known until more people are tested, so I can’t really say much about my own test results. I can say that my haplogroup is J-M172, sometimes also referred to as J2. Family TreeDNA notes: “Haplogroup J-M172 is found at highest frequencies in the northern Middle East, west of the Zagros Mountains in Iran, to the Mediterrean Sea. It later spread throughout central Asia and south into India. J-M172 is tightly associated with the expansion of agriculture, which began about 10,000 years ago. As with other populations with Mediterranean ancestry, this lineage is found at substantial frequencies within Jewish populations.” Other sources state that people with this genetic footprint have ancient origins in the area between the Caucasus Mountains, Mesopotamia and the region just north of Arabia known as the Levant. According to Wikipedia, “J-M172 is linked to the earliest indigenous populations of Anatolia and the Aegean. The present-day ethnicities who have the strongest amounts of J2 include pre-Arabised Mesopotamians and Levantine peoples, Mediterranean/Aegean peoples, Greco-Anatolians, and/or Caucasians.” Today, it is found in 9 to 36 percent of the Italian population, depending on which region is being considered. It appears to be particularly high in the Central Marche region, but I couldn’t find any statistics that spoke of its frequency in Tuscany.

Outside of Italy, the countries with the highest percentage of people in this haplogroup appear to be Chechens, Iraqis and Georgians. Interestingly, Lela—my son Randall’s wife—is from Georgia, so there is a decent chance Randall and Lela share the same haplogroup. Thus, they could be, in the most liberal use of the term, related.

Florian Spadoni, on the other hand, is from haplogroup L-M20, which is not found in Italy as often. Strong concentrations of this genetic group are found in southern Asian countries such as Pakistan, India and Syria as well as some tribal regions of Turkey. On the 37 areas (or markers) of our genomes that were tested, Florian and I had 11 identical sequences, which is a very low correspondence.

I did have two other people who were identical matches, although these people did not have as many markers to compare. Currently, genetic genealogists recommend that anyone undergoing Y-DNA testing ask for results from 37 markers, because it will result in more accurate comparisons. However, many people who were tested in earlier years only had 12 markers tested, including the two people who had results identical to mine. They would need to pay an extra fee to get the results for 37 markers. Probability charts show there is about a 90 percent likelihood that people with 12 identical markers have a common ancestor within the last 24 generations. If either of these two people would upgrade to 37-marker testing, we could state more positively whether we are or are not related.

Neither of my matches is named Spadoni (to protect their privacy, I will not print their actual names). The first identical match is from someone in Izmir, Turkey. Unfortunately, this person did not include any contact information, so all I can do is know his surname and hope that maybe someday he will contact me. The second person did include his first name and his e-mail address, and I wrote him April of 2014 but didn’t receive a reply. Since his name was rather unusual, I decided that I would try to find him on and and found that he lived in California, is 77 years old and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1979. I will refer to him by the name “Jacques.”

I contacted Jacques by phone last week, and we had a short and interesting conversion. His family came from “the Florence area,” he said, but he would not go into more detail. His father immigrated to France in the 1800s, and Jacques was born there; thus he has a French first name and an Italian surname. I would have loved to ask him more questions, but he seemed hesitant to provide more details.

Jacques said he had hired a company some 15 years ago to learn about his family origins, and they charged him a lot of money and didn’t find out anything. He felt the company had cheated him, which probably had something to do with his reluctance to extend our conversation. Another reason may be that we had different surnames, which indicates what genetic genealogists refer to as a “non-paternal event”—most commonly an adoption or out-of-wedlock birth.

This is something I was warned about when I first read about DNA testing—that it is possible that one may be unpleasantly surprised with the results. Since Y testing faithfully follows the male DNA trail, either Jacques or I may have an unexplained event in our ancestry. I accept the possibility that it could be in my family line, but I think it more likely is in his. I have traced my family through church baptismal records to the 1400s. This does not preclude the possibility of an extra-marital affair, but one has to wonder why the professional genealogist Jacques hired couldn’t find anything out about his family history. Of course, there is also that 10 percent possibility that we are not related, that our perfect match at 12 genetic markers is just a coincidence.

This is also a lesson in patience when it comes to DNA testing. Just as pre-natal testing to determine the gender of one’s child before birth was once rare and is now almost standard practice, so too will DNA testing gain more acceptance and become commonplace in the future. When Jacques had his DNA tested, he was one of the very first to do so; thus it should have come as no surprise that nobody matched his results—and then it must have come as quite a shock when he received my phone call 13 years later (the testing company says it launched DNA tests in 2001). Jacques had not received my e-mail, so it is possible that the address he used has changed or my message went unnoticed or did not make it through his spam filter.

Both Florian Spadoni and I were disappointed to see that we didn’t have more matches to our DNA tests, but we will just have to wait until more people volunteer for testing. Genetic experts say that trying to interpret one’s DNA test results can be like the sound of one hand clapping until more people join the trend. Obviously not everyone shares our strong interest in genealogy and family history, but hopefully we will eventually see a few people in each Spadoni branch who care about this enough to be tested.


Note: Since posting this blog, I have been contacted by the person with roots in Izmir. We are both puzzled by the genetic connection, since he has no knowledge of his ancestors having traveled to Italy, and vice-versa on my part. We hope to continue our research on this mystery.

Also, I have since had autosomal DNA tests at both and Family Tree DNA. This type of test reveals relatives on both maternal and paternal sides, and I’ve made contact with many previously unknown relatives. However, these tests can only predict relations back about 10 generations at best, so they are not adequate to determine if the Spadoni families of La Marche are related to our extended Spadoni family of the Valdinievole.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

I come to a pleasant realization while snacking on snails

May 2, 2014
It was during a lunch of snails that I realized Lucy and I were close to accomplishing our goals in Italy. I had earlier related to Suzye how I had once encountered Ivo as we walked by his field. His hands had been full of live snails, but—always outgoing—Ivo still stopped to talk to me, sharing his plans to eat the snails later and giving details about how he would prepare them and what other foods he would be having for dinner. As he spoke, some of the snails slid out of his hands, and he had to stop to pick them up while readjusting his grasp on the others.

I sample fried snails for the first time, with Suzye and Linda.

A few days ago, we were showing Linda and Suzye an old house in San Salvatore that was for sale, and Suzye noted a mob of snails milling around on the shady stones of the back wall. Recalling my Ivo encounter and snail’s tale, she found a discarded tin pail and plucked up a dozen of the mollusks, saying she wanted to look up some recipes and sample her first taste of escargot. However, in reading online recipes, it turned out that making escargot is not a simple process. Preparing the snails takes several days using a procedure that involves flushing out their systems and feeding them herbs or corn meal before putting them in salt to remove the slime. We didn’t have time for all this, so Suzye decided to give them to Ivo instead.

We had recently met Ivo’s brother Celestino and his family. In previous years, we had only met Celestino’s wife, Antonella. But about a month before Suzye found the snails, I had seen Ivo out in his field and stopped to show him my research that explained how he and I were related as fourth cousins. As we spoke, a young man working across the field walked over to meet us. Ivo introduced him as Matteo Seghieri, one of Celestino’s two sons. A few days later, we were invited into Matteo’s house, where we had espresso and biscotti with Celestino, Antonella and Matteo.

Linda with Ivo and his homemade wine.
While looking for Ivo to give him the snails, we saw his car parked by his field, but he wasn’t in the field or his farm sheds. But by now, we had realized that if Ivo’s car was parked by his field and he wasn’t around, it’s because he was visiting his brother’s family in the Casone di Marcucci, which is right next to his field. Sure enough, he was there, and Lucy, Linda, Suzye and I had more espresso, this time with Ivo, Celestino and Antonella. Lucy and I served as translators, and Ivo expounded on one of his favorite topics, which is food from the cucina povera—the poor kitchen—which he explained uses traditional ingredients that can be found in the wild. Before we left, he had given us two bottles of wine—one red and one sweet and white—and some cantuccini, a type of biscotti that he made from his own special recipe. Even better, he promised that next Saturday, we would come back with the snails, cooked in two different meals.

We waited around at the Casolare dei Fiori during lunchtime on Saturday, and when he didn’t show up, we realized he probably expected us to go back to Celestino’s house. Sure enough, he was there with the snail dishes, and we took them home to savor together. One meal was snails fried in batter, but Ivo had also deep-fried pieces of zucchini and broccoli, so only one bite of every three was actually a snail. Linda, Suzye and I downed this course in about five minutes, while Lucy, who has a more sensitive stomach, passed on these delicacies. The other recipe was lumache in umido, stewed snails, which we decided to save for a later meal.

And what was my impression of the snail meals? I loved the fried zucchini and broccoli. As for the fried snails, I tried not to think of what I was eating, which was difficult. The snails themselves had little taste; the predominant flavor was that of the batter and oil, which I liked. But the snails were definitely chewy, kind of like biting into a soft chunk of fat in a steak. Because of the different texture, I couldn’t help but recognize when I was eating a snail as opposed to a vegetable, and I think that spoiled the experience. Perhaps if I had grown up eating them prepared this way, I would have no problem, but I can’t say it is something that I will go out of my way to eat again. As for the snail stew, we never got around to sampling it. We told each other that we had just been too busy, and then we had waited too long and it wasn’t fresh any more, but I think that if we had liked the fried snails more, we would have made time to eat the stew as well. Sorry, Ivo, that we wasted your time making it. Luckily, he doesn’t read English, so maybe he won’t find out. We told him we really enjoyed the snails, which is true in the sense that we greatly enjoyed the experience of finding them, talking to him and eating them for the first time.

The outcome of this experience is that I came to several important realizations. Because I had been learning Italian gradually over the past four visits, I hadn’t noticed my improvement. I could see that even though I still didn’t consider myself anywhere near fluency, I could now communicate well enough to be invited over for espresso. I had once been at about the same level of language ability as Linda and Suzye, but now I can translate for them. I had wanted to make friends and find relatives in Italy and discover how we were related, and now I knew very many, and I considered some of them friends as well.

I also wanted to understand and appreciate my Italian grandparents, who had grown up in this exquisite country but chose to leave their homes so their children and grandchildren could have better lives. I never met my nonna and hardly knew my nonno, but I had come here to explore the culture that had made them what they were. That culture has changed dramatically from what it was when they left Italy 100 years ago, because now my cousins are policemen, chemists, lawyers, professors, business owners, dentists, hair dressers and employees at stores and factories. Those raised on the farming life of my grandparents are either long gone or retired and on pensions.

But it dawned on me as I munched on the snails that there is one relative who still lives the life of a contadino, a humble farmer like my ancestors before they immigrated in the early 1900s. Ivo has been raised to embrace the old ways, and if I want to know the kind of lives great grandfathers Pietro Spadoni and Torello Seghieri may have led, I need look no further: Ivo is the very embodiment. He forages for wild herbs, vegetables, mushrooms and snails. He raises and slaughters his own rabbits, chickens and ducks and makes wine from his vineyards. His fields supply him with fruits and vegetables and grain for his animals. Anything he can’t provide with his own hands he finds at local open air markets, and he loves to work outdoors and talk about his food and recipes.

I have come to San Salvatore for four winters now, a total of ten months. Lucy and I can speak passable Italian. We have a few friends and many acquaintances, and people recognize that we are part of the community. I have found more relatives than I know what to do with, and I have traced my ancestral roots back nearly 1000 years to this very street. We have decided that we don’t want to move to Italy full time; we love our lives, our family, our home in the United States. But San Salvatore called out to me almost imperceptibly through the first fifty-five years of my life, and I finally answered the voice inside of me. This place is also our home.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Faith-based health-care program Samaritan Ministries has proven to work extremely well for us

For those of you reading my blog for information about our Italian living experiment, I apologize that this entry is off-topic. I had written this article for our church newsletter, but the newsletter is no longer being printed, and I wanted to get this information out to some of my friends and others who may be interested in our experiences with this alternative to traditional insurance. I am so glad someone pointed me in the direction of Samaritan Ministries, and I feel confident that this information will help others as well.

The high cost of health insurance almost scared me into postponing my retirement from teaching in 2010—until a friend told me about an inexpensive and effective alternative, a Christian health-care sharing organization called Samaritan Ministries.

Samaritan’s approach is based on Galatians 6:2, which reads, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Each month Lucy and I are committed to send $360 to another family which has a verified qualifying medical need. In return, when we have unexpected medical issues that exceed $300, Samaritan will share our need with specific other members, who respond by sending their monthly commitment checks to us. We are allowed to choose our own doctor and medical facilities; there is no such thing as a “network preferred provider.”

By participating in this program, we not only save a substantial amount of money but we feel good about paying our monthly shares because we can see they are going directly to help fellow believers. The program is well organized and administered and has a proven track records; Samaritan has been around for 23 years, has more than 30,000 households enrolled (more than 100,000 people) and is growing rapidly.
While Samaritan is quick to point out that it is a faith-based sharing program, not health insurance, Samaritan members are exempt from purchasing insurance under provisions of Obamacare—the Affordable Care Act. The monthly payments are low because Samaritan keeps administrative costs at a minimum. Also, since members make a profession of faith and pledge to adhere to certain moral standards, they generally have healthier than average lifestyles. Specifically, members must abstain from drugs or tobacco products and alcohol abuse and keep sex within the confines of marriage. No payments are made for abortions or sexually transmitted diseases contracted outside of marriage. Members must provide evidence that they attend a church regularly.

Pre-existing conditions and preventative care are not included, nor is dental care. Injuries from auto accidents are not covered because it is easily available within auto insurance policies. Members must submit proof of medical expenses. The maximum amount of sharing for a medical need is $250,000, although members can participate in an optional program that covers needs beyond this amount.

While some of these restrictions may seem undesirable, many health insurance programs also have limited coverage while still costing much more. Lucy and I also set aside another monthly amount in a savings account to cover preventative care, and the combined monthly total we pay is still less than the amount we would pay with most private insurance programs, and the additional money we set aside accumulated in an interest-bearing account until we needed it for medical expenses recently.

On the two occasions we have had a qualifying need that exceeded $300, the amount above $300 has been covered 100 percent, which was not always the case with our old health insurance policy. Not only that, we also received notes of encouragement and commitments of prayer from the members who sent us their monthly shares. It does require some additional bookkeeping on our part, because we not only have to document all of our medical expenses and mail in receipts, but we also have to keep track of which members make payments to us. On one occasion, a couple assigned to pay their monthly share to us missed a payment.  Samaritan contacted the couple to remind them of their commitment, and we received a payment the next month. A Samaritan spokesman told me that if the couple had not paid a second time, the need would have been re-assigned to another family.

Samaritan Ministries is not the only Christian healthcare sharing ministry.  Other similar organizations are Christian Healthcare Ministries and Christian Care Ministries (Medi-Share), and both of these have also been around for more than 20 years and have been positively reviewed by a number of long-standing members, as has Samaritan.

Even though I read all I could about Samaritan, after 30 years as a state employee with traditional insurance, I still had some misgivings about abandoning the traditional model. Samaritan makes it clear that it has a much different philosophy. In its ministry guidelines booklet, it says, “Samaritan Ministries is an arrangement whereby Christians share to assist one another with medical expenses through voluntary giving. We are not licensed or registered by any insurance board or department, since we are not practicing the business of insurance. We believe Jesus Christ is the Ultimate Provider for all of life’s needs. Individuals and families have the primary responsibility for their own health and decisions related to seeking health care. When they have burdens that are greater than they can bear, we firmly believe that the body of Christ, at the local church level first, and then in a broad corporate sense, should bear one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ.”

If you are like me, you will want to read as much as you can about Christian health sharing programs before making a decision. Each company has a web site that gives complete details. I read and re-read Samaritan’s site several times during the months before I had to make a decision. I also called the friend who recommended Samaritan to ask a few additional questions. I have been a member now for more than four years, and I am very pleased with our choice. If you have questions that I can answer, please don’t hesitate to e-mail us or give us a call.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Italian children’s tales are part of Nonno Michele Spadoni’s legacy

Nonno (Michele Spadoni) in his Shore Acres farm yard.
My sister and brother had the good fortune of living in Nonno’s house during their early childhood. Linda was seven and Roger five when Dad and Mom moved from Nonno’s house to Rosedale, and I was born a few months later, just as our family was moving to the new house. Dad had spent all but the first few months of his life in the Shore Acres neighborhood of Gig Harbor, and when he married Mom, she moved into the Spadoni family home. Linda and Roger remember waking up on cold winter mornings and crawling into bed with Nonno, who would often tell them stories with his heavy Italian accent. For me, unfortunately, Nonno was just the name of the old man who held me on his lap and gave me money when we went to his house on Christmas Eve. He died when I was six.

Nonno’s stories, however, live on. His children told them to their children, although not frequently enough for most of us to remember them today. Though I barely knew Nonno, at least I had the good fortune of having Linda and Roger for sister and brother, because they probably knew Nonno better than any of his grandchildren still alive today.

It is mostly from listening to Linda that I know the stories of Pigottino, Patuzzo and the Filli Billi Macola. The latter story, I have concluded, was concocted entirely by Nonno, as none of my Italian relatives has heard anything like it. However, last April when Linda and I visited our cousin Grazia in Italy, we asked if she had ever heard the story of Pigottino. After a little prompting, she said she did remember it. In fact, she said, it was a well-known children’s tale in the Tuscany region, but we had the name wrong: It should be Pochettino. Armed with this new information, I did a web search and located the story on several Italian websites. The sites confirmed that the story has been told for many years throughout Tuscany, and the hero of the story is usually named Pochettino, but some versions call him Buchettino, Buettino, Pezzettino or Minuzzolo. I even found one reference to the story of Pigottino, although the text was not provided, and I eventually discovered that a Pigotta is a rag doll, so Pigottino would be a diminutive form of that word. Each version is slightly different, but most all have the same key features in common, and overall I am amazed at how closely the online accounts match the story as told today by Linda.

Children’s stories—favole, in Italian—were passed from person to person, and each story-teller added his or her own personal flair. Nonno and Linda both added details that are not in the online accounts I found. Since I found only one version written in English—using the name Buchettino and in a book from the early 1900s that is out of print—I have decided to translate one of the Italian versions myself. It does not have some of the embellishments added by Nonno and Linda, but perhaps at a later date I will mix those in as well. I would be interested to hear from other Italian-Americans to see if their parents or grandparents told them a similar story. I have left a few words and phrases in Italian so as not to interrupt the rhyming.
llustration by Carolina Casali, a grade school
student in Livorno. Her class wrote a version
of the story after asking their grandparents to
recount it.

In the days that cats could fly and holidays were held every other day, there was a beautiful child whose name was Pochettino. To teach Pochettino how to work, his mother hid a coin in the house, and every day she said to him: “Pochettino, Pochettino, sweep the house well and you’ll find a soldino.”

Pochettino always swept well and made everything shine, and finally one day the broom swept out a penny, and Pochettino jumped with happiness.

“Now that I’ve finally found it,” Pochettino said, “I have to think hard about what to buy and spend it wisely. I think I will buy a bag of cherries . . . no, because I have to throw away the pit and the stem! Then I will buy nuts . . . no, because a part of the penny will be spent on the shells! And if I buy apples, I’ll be paying for the core. I know: I’ll buy a bag of figs, because we also eat the skins and don’t throw anything away!”

And so he went to buy a bag of figs, but it was a small bag because a penny wouldn’t buy very much. After returning home, he began to eat on the window ledge. As he was eating with great gusto, the last one fell below him in the lane. Pochettino began to cry, calling his papa to find the fig that had fallen. But his father said to him: “Pochettino, leave the fig where it fell, because soon a beautiful plant will be born. Fig trees grow quickly, and then branches will be here in front of the window, and you can go up to eat the figs!”

In fact, since fig trees do grow fast—even faster in stories—a beautiful tree soon grew outside the window, and Pochettino climbed on the branches and went up to eat the figs. One day Pochettino was eating a fine meal when an ogre passed by and saw him there dining on the beautiful figs. He called out:
Pochettino, Pochettino,
Dammi un bel fichino
Col tuo bianco manino.

(Give me a beautiful little fig with your little white hand; some versions say “santo manino,” would could mean sainted or more figuratively, precious little hand.)

But Pochettino said to him: “No, because if I reach out my hand, you will eat me! I will throw it to you.”

Pochettino let a fig fall to the ground.

“I don’t want that; it went into the mud,” said the ogre, and he called again:

Pochettino, Pochettino,
Dammi un bel fichino
Col tuo bianco manino.

“No, you want to eat me! Take this one.”

And he threw another down, but the ogre dropped it and said:
“I can’t eat that. You see it fell into some cow poop.” And once again he called:

Pochettino, Pochettino,
Dammi un bel fichino
Col tuo bianco manino.

Pochettino was a kind-hearted boy, so he said: “I’ll give you one, but don’t eat me.”

He reached out to hand the ogre a fig, but the ogre grabbed him by the arm and put him in his sack. He threw it on his shoulders and began to run home to cook and eat Pochettino with his wife.

On the way he needed to stop and relieve himself, so he put down the bag and told Pochettino to be good.

“Go farther away, ogre. Otherwise I will smell the terrible stink,” said Pochettino from the bag.

The ogre moved away a little, but Pochettino had a good idea, and he said: “Go farther. The stink will disgust me.”

“Is this OK?” said the ogre with a voice far, far away.

“Even farther,” shouted Pochettino.

When he had sent the ogre so far away that he could not see, Pochettino took a little knife from his pocket and cut the string of the bag. He took the largest stones he could find and stuffed them in the bag. Then he re-tied it and ran away.

When the ogre had done his business, he returned to pick up the bag and put it back on his shoulders. He said, “Oh, Pochettino, how did you become so heavy: when I caught you, you seemed lighter. But that is better, because now we can eat you for several days.”

As the ogre arrived in sight of his house, he began to cry out to his ogress:
Mogliera, my mogliera,
make a fire for the caldera
I captured Pochettino!
Mogliera, my mogliera,
make a fire for the caldera
I captured Pochettino!

When he got home and found his wife, the ogre danced for joy, and said: “Did you put a fire under the caldera?”

“Yes, everything is ready,” she said.

In fact there was a fire that looked like a furnace, and the boiling water looked like a volcano. The ogre opened the bag and dumped it out into the water, but the large stones broke through the caldera and the water came out in a wave, washing over the ogress, killing her and badly burning the ogre. He was so enraged that he bit into his hands and fire spurted from his eyes. The next day, still in pain from the scalding water, he took the bag and ran to recapture Pochettino.

When he heard the ogre coming, Pochettino climbed out a window onto the roof. When the ogre saw him up there, he pretended that everything was a joke, saying, “Pochettino, how did you get on the roof? I want to come up there too.”
“Certainly not. You will eat me.”

“No, I don’t want to eat you. Just tell me.”

“No, you will eat me!”

“I won’t eat you. I promise.”

“Then I’ll tell you. I made ​​a ladder with all the pans that were in the house!”

The ogre went into the house and took all the pans, making a ladder, but when he was in the middle, the pans tumbled down, and the ogre fell and broke some bones.

“Pochettino,” he said, rising with difficulty. “Tell me the truth! How did you get up on the roof?”

“This time I’ll tell you. I made a ladder of the dishes.”

The ogre believed it and made the ladder of dishes, but it ended the same way.

“Look at how I’ve been hurt, Pochettino! Do not be evil and tell me: How did you come up?”

“This time I’ll really tell you,” said Pochettino. “I made a big ladder with the glasses.”

The ogre, with great effort and the few healthy bones he had left, made a ladder of glasses, but after arriving almost at the top, he fell like a log, and died.

Pochettino came down from the roof and climbed up the fig tree and went back to eating his figs, finally at peace . . . and if you go to his house to see, the tree may still be there.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Linda’s unhappy biking tale turns out to be blessing in disguise for all

Linda gets off the train in Pescia
May 2014
My sister is a master story teller. No one who knows her well would oppose that statement. She doesn’t just tell children’s stories, although she’s great at that. She also tells stories about the interesting things that have happened to her, and she does a marvelous job at this as well. She’s not technically a professional story teller, although that can be debated, since she was an elementary school teacher for much of her life and thus was paid while she told stories to her students.

Since story telling is so much a part of her nature, it seemed a bit cruel to take her to a foreign country where she couldn’t speak the language well enough to tell any stories. But that’s what happened when Linda visited us in Italy for three weeks in late April and early May.

Of course, she could tell her stories to me and Lucy, but we’ve heard most of them (sometimes more than once, but I don’t stop her from repeating them). In Italy, she met many cousins on both the Spadoni and Seghieri sides of the family, but since few of them speak English and her Italian is limited to about a hundred words, she had to bottle up her stories She was stuck with amusing things to say and no way to express them except a few words and some sign language. She could tell Ivo that he had a “buon cuore,” a good heart, and that she enjoyed the fried snails he prepared for us and the sweet wine he gave us, but we could sense her frustration with not being able to say more. I could relate: I had lived through the same experience for the past three winters here. Finally this year I could communicate reasonably well enough to feel comfortable conversing with my Italian relatives. A couple of times I even said something clever or funny enough in Italian to make people smile or laugh—an important milestone by my reckoning.

A smiling Linda mounts the bike for the first time.
Finally, when something extremely story-worthy happened to Linda as she tried to ride a bike along Via Mattonaia, the need to tell about it became so strong that she broke the language barrier, spending hours on Google Translate and enlisting my help to write down what had happened so she could read it to our relatives. She would show it to me to smooth out the phrasing, and just when we thought she was done, she would go back to the dictionary to add more details. I’m sure my corrections were imperfect, but I knew that a little awkward wording along with Linda’s accent would just add to the charm, so I didn’t sweat the details.

Unfortunately, the first time she had a chance to tell it we were with Enrico Spadoni and his family, who had invited us over for an authentic pizza dinner at their house. Linda had borrowed the bike from Gilda Seghieri, the padrona of the Casolare dei Fiori agristurismo. Because Linda was writing the story for Gilda, she hadn’t thought to bring it along to the dinner. Thus she told it from memory, a little bit in Italian, quite a bit with gestures and pantomime, but mostly in English with me trying to translate. We did an adequate job, but Linda knew that next time she would need to be more prepared.

Linda gives a dramatic reading to Gilda.
That chance came when Francesca Seghieri and her mother Dosolina paid us a visit in our apart-
ment. They were about to leave when Linda pulled out the story and this time read it with polish and dramatic expression, even if she did mispronounce a handful of words. This time her audience was more impressed, as were Lucy and I.

Finally, on our last full day in Italy, we called Gilda away from her
Gilda shows her appreciation for the story.
kitchen at the agriturismo and sat her down in our apartment. Linda did a masterful job, and Gilda smiled and laughed throughout, although she did feel the need to apologize for the trouble Linda had encountered with the borrowed bike. We assured her that the problems were not her fault and that they had actually been the highlight of the trip for Linda, in a backwards sort of way. Without the unfortunate bike experience, Linda would have lacked a great story to tell her relatives, both in Italy and when she returned to America. “I told Gilda grazie mille,” Linda said, “and said that it was an experience I would never forget, that it would be a good memory of my visit, and it would be a great story to tell people when I got back home.”

And for Lucy and me, it also helped us feel more a part of our extended Italian family. Despite having lived at the Casolare dei Fiori for portions of four years, we had never really had an extended conversation with Gilda or shared any of our experiences in detail with her. Laughing together with her advanced our relationship more in those five minutes than the previous ten months we had lived in San Salvatore.

Here is the English version of Linda’s story, as she provided it to me in writing later:
Paul and Lucy had an extra bicycle, but it was too big for me. Gilda told Paul she would provide a bike and she brought it to the Casolare. She said it had been her mother’s and that her mother had been a short person, so she thought I’d be able to ride that bicycle. It did seem to be the right size, so after Paul adjusted the seat, I tried it out. It was different from bikes I’d ridden before—it had hand brakes, and the handlebars were straight across rather than curved.

"This is not the woman from my past."
Here is the story of the bicycle and me. Most of it is true.
On Monday I got on the bicycle and followed Paul and Lucy down the road. The bicycle thought, “This is not the woman from my past. She is not even Italian! She is not the woman I want riding on me! IF SHE DOESN’T GET OFF, I WILL PUT HER IN THE DITCH!” 

(The valley had been a vast wetland, and ditches had been dug to drain it, so the narrow lanes had deep ditches on both sides with varying amounts of water depending on whether it had rained recently.)

I didn’t know that the bicycle was unhappy, just that it was hard to keep the pedals going around unless I pedaled fast, and when I went fast, it was hard to go straight. I didn’t realize that the bike wanted me to get off, and when I didn’t, it followed through with its plan, took me to the side of the road and put me in the ditch. I didn’t know why the bike did it, but there I was, upside down in the ditch.

Paul and Lucy returned quickly and helped me out of there. I picked up the bike and walked it back home. I told Paul that I wished he’d taken a picture of me, and he replied that he had thought about it but decided it was more important to get me up and find out if I was hurt. I was muddy and wet, but I wasn’t hurt, and he did take a picture of me with the bike, which I’m sure was quite satisfied with itself.
Linda adds some dramatic expression,
but the mud stains are real.

On Tuesday I tried again, but it ended the same way—although at least this ditch was dry. I waited for Paul to get there and take a picture, but this time he didn’t have his camera!

I told the bike, “OK, now I understand. You and I are not to be together. I will leave you in peace with your memories of the woman from your past.” The bike and I walked back to the house one last time. We said good-bye.