In late December, early January 2002-03, I took my father to visit the hometown of his father Gaetano Grimaldi, or in the United States, Thomas Profy. We arrived in the late afternoon, driving from Rome. I climbed the hill that my grandfather had descended in 1901 on his trip to America. I thought I would easily arrive in the town square, Piazza Portella. My cousin Nick’s house was around the corner. But where was the square? I parked the car along the side of the road and told my father to wait a minute while I orientated myself. Diane and I had been there a few years earlier. I met some young kids and they proceeded to take me to Nick’s street. Strange, it seemed a long walk. Nick was pacing the street (a Profy, maybe an Italian custom). After greetings we headed down the hill to find the car and my father. Much to my amazement, the car (and father) were gone. I panicked. My mother’s last words were “take care of your father.” We hadn’t been in Italy 24 hours and I had lost him. “Don’t worry,” Nick proclaimed, “It’s a small town, we will find him.” And we did. Gianfranco, Nick’s youngest son, found my father on a different street, had parked the car, and Father was enjoying a glass of wine with members of our Italian family.
Roccavivara is a small town. And it should be pretty hard to lose anyone on its tight, ancient, winding streets. Recently I had the opportunity to spend over a week in the comune (Italian town), guests of cousin Nick and his wife Maria. What an experience! Upfront, my experience is of a retired person. My younger cousins, Nick’s sons go off to work each day. But the population of Roccavivara is aging, fewer children born; young people move away. A significant percentage of the population are seniors.
We arrived on a Tuesday afternoon having spent a few days on the edge of the Dolomites with one of Nick’s sisters and her family. Maria with the help of her daughter-in-law, Eda, had prepared a welcoming dinner. This would be the first of many meals we would share in Roccavivara.
Each morning I awoke at 6 — same as at home. My traveling companion, cousin Joey Lentz, a member of the younger generation slept in a bit more. Something I’ve learn to expect when traveling with younger guys. Up late; sleep late. However, Joey’s knowledge of Italian and friendships with so many relatives and neighbors opened doors to my Roccavivara experience. Sleep on, Joey.
Some days there was a chill in the morning air and Nick would have a fire going in the kitchen. I always started with a caffe latte, and then dropped the milk. Maria always found more and more — toasts, pastries — some home made, some packaged. Fortified with caffeine, Nick and I hit the road. The winds seemed to dictate our route. Sometimes strong and cold, out of Africa, from the east, the west. Not quite sure, Nick led the way. He spent 20 years in the United States. His English is good but still a bit broken, I slowly get into the dialect, and enjoy our conversations. He guides me through the natural world around Roc; and the town’s history, craftsmanship, current politics, and family history.
We end up in the Piazza. There are two bar/cafes in the square. We usually go to one owned by Andrea, a young guy, friend of cousin Joey. I have an expresso. Nick a caffe latte. Guys, mostly seniors are beginning to come into the Piazza. During most of the day there will be groups of them, talking, animated, gesturing, sometimes arguing, and pacing. Nick will usually wander away and I will take advantage of the bar’s wifi to check email and post on FB. Roccavivara is a mix of the nineteenth and twentieth-first centuries. I want to interact with the groups of men but it’s not easy. Individually, I will communicate and photograph some but in groups they are intimidating. I need more Italian, more time to break the ice. I remember hanging out one night in a Tuscan town, old guys were playing bocce. I wanted to play, to photograh them, but I couldn’t find the appropriate introduction. At the same time, I spent hours in the square, listening to the language, observing the interactions, and settling into the life of Roccavivara.
Some days Joey and I stayed in the town. One day we visited women who were frying dough and making other pastries for Saint Joseph’s day. They had trays and trays; baskets and baskets. They worked in a second kitchen in the basement of the house. It is here that canning, baking, and other food processing takes place. The following day on May 1, the town celebrated Saint Joseph the Worker. There was a Mass at 10 with the blessing of the bread; followed by a procession throughout the town. Fascinating, Saint Joseph’s day is March 19 but the May 1 celebration is dedicated to Joseph the Worker. Joey and I were invited to cousin Popino’s (Nick’s second son) in laws for a family dinner.
Food is a central to life in Roccavivara. Growing, preserving, eating, sharing. I had several great conversations with Massemo, Nick’s oldest son. We shared information about our gardens, what we grew, how we preserved produce, and the joys of cooking and eating. Our Saint Joseph dinner was special, delicious. It started with a platter of dried meats and cheese, followed by a fantastic lamb liver and egg dish. There was rice (very different from our typical rice) tomato and cheese dish, cooked escarole and beef on the bone, ribs, lettuce salad and chicken. Dessert was a traditional rice pudding, not as thick as we make in the U.S. Caffe and several after dinner drinks. I tried Montenegro and Nocino.
On other days we were invited to afternoon dinners at Popino’s and Massemo’s houses. Nick and Maria have classic traditional meals. The younger generation are more adventuresome. We had rabbit (delicious), pasta with a wild boar sauce (very much like beef). Homemade olive oil, processed meats, tomato sauce, pickled vegetables — all add to great meals. Salad in all homes was strictly lettuce with oil and vinegar, served after the main courses. The dressing at Nick’s was fantastic. I asked what kind of vinegar he was using. Homemade of course, wine past it’s time, a barrel, add and add to it. Always wine vinegar. I don’t know why but Nick’s homemade wine vinegar was so much better than any other we tasted in Roccavivara.
Our main meal was usually between noon and two. After dinner we had to decide, do we hang out in Roccavivara? Do we explore some nearby towns? Either will be an experience.