Vietri Di Potenza

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Studying in Italy provided me with quite a few amusing stories. One of those stories was when I decided to visit the Italian side of my family in Vietri Di Potenza, northeast of Naples.

In the early 1980's a few people from my father's side of the family decided to visit Vietri. My family arrived on a Friday night, stayed overnight and left Saturday for Naples. To an American, this was normal.

To an Italian, this was an insult!

Of course I didn't know any of this before my trip. I had their phone number, I knew roughly where they lived. My Italian was fairly basic, but I could understand it much more if people spoke slowly. I learned the phrase "Por favore, non parla rapido..." (Please, don't speak fast) came in very handy.

I called the phone number, planning on a weekend visit. I don't remember the exact conversation, but it was all in Italian and somehow I basically agreed meet at the Salerno train station by 3pm on a Friday. I was fairly good with public transportation in Italy, and it wasn't hard to get a ticket, jump on a train, and travel to Salerno.

The train ride was easy, and I had to change trains in Rome. By the time I was passing Rome it dawned on me that I had no idea what my relatives looked like. I started panic a bit: "What happens when I get to the train station? How will I know who they are? What if I get off the train and no one is there?"

Panic set in. I didn't have a cell phone. Remember, this was 1992, cell phones weren't mainstream devices that you carried. I wasn't sure what I was going to do once I got to the train station.

I arrived in Salerno and the train station was tiny and there were no buildings or anything near it. I think I actually saw a tumbleweed roll past the train tracks. A few other passengers got off the train, and it was mildly amusing to me because I was so woefully out of place. Here I am, looking like "Joe American" - a tall, 6'4 kid with a baseball cap on backwards, carrying a duffel bag, blue jeans and nike sneakers. As I got off the train the other passengers were a bunch of 5 feet tall Italian men and women who were dressed in simple clothing, not like the fashionable Italians I saw in Rome or Florence. I stuck out like a sore thumb, I could have been wearing a sign saying "Foreigner".

The rest of the passengers left me on the platform and i'm looking over the sullen, barren landscape around me. The land was flat and there was a road leading up to the train station, but I remember thinking how desolate this was, and that I could disappear and no one would know for weeks. It was while I was thinking about that when I saw the two thugs at the other end of the platform.

I didn't notice the thugs at first. The rest of the train passengers left the remote platform, and these two guys were standing at the other end, sizing me up. I looked around the platform for my family and didn't see anyone. They must have been late or maybe by the parking lot.

I got my best squinty "Dirty Harry" look and walked towards them. They were in between me and the exit of the platform and I was going to do my tough guy walk off the platform and try to find the closest haven of security - I didn't want these thugs to jump me while I was alone on this platform and steal my wallet or passport.

I started to walk past me and they gave me a once over - they were about 5'9 and stocky. They didn't shave today and had a familiar look to them. Kind of reminded me of my dad.


Oh man. The two thugs were family!

"Furey?", one of them asked.

"Ciao!", I replied.

So much for my street sense. God's honest truth, this was the true story - I really thought they were going to rob me, I had no idea that they were my family.

I stopped squinting long enough to get a good look at them and make some small talk, in my best Italian. The two were very nice and walked me to their car, an Italian Fiat.

We get into the car and the first thing I do is look for a seatbelt. It had no seatbelt. The driver gets in and the second family member sits in the back. They see my confusion about the seatbelt and the driver laughs this evil laugh which translated to, "Ha ha, no seatbelt for you!"

He revs up the car and we tear out of Salerno at a breakneck speed. The Italians love to drive and my cousin is no different. Salerno is at sea level, and Vietre Di Potenza is located in the hills. Its a hill town that is literally built into the mountains northeast of Naples. To get to that hill town, you need roads that are built into the hills of that same terrain. Roads that are curvy. Roads that have no guardrails.

Driving extremely fast. We are swerving around sheep, goats and cows on these one lane roads. It was like playing a video game, with the exception that its real and you very much could die.

I'm trying to keep my lunch down and holding on to the dashboard. After a while I stop caring anymore and have resigned myself to the idea that if I die - what a way to go. Aside from having a heart attack while a Las Vegas prostitute is riding me while the Eagles won the Superbowl - this is a close second for a fun death.

We get to the top of the hills, enter Vietri, and we are alive.

I meet the rest of the family which were so nice and wonderful. My favorite was Aunt Christina who was a sister to my great grandmother on my father's side of the family. This is my same great grandmother who was first to arrive in America in the early 1920's, and you very much feel like you are in a time machine and getting to meet someone from the past. She was a sweetheart and told me, in italian, the story about when her sister left America and how her husband only had $20 when he arrived in America.

That's it. My father's family has built themselves from a man with $20 to a large, extended, successful family. It makes me proud.

After learning about that, they showed me the house. They lived in a somewhat modern townhome, with three floors and 7 rooms. This is where it got strange.

One room would be like the "family room" with a TV, VCR, and other modern day things in it. Then the next room would be the "grain room". It was a normal looking room with tile floors, completely barren of furniture, and grain neatly lined on the floor to dry.

Not something you see very often.

You see, every family in Italy is provided with a plot of land, about an acre, to which they can grow vegetables, grain, olives, grapes and other home grown foods. They even have some chickens in a coop behind their towntome. Plus, they had a wooden vat to stomp grapes. When they were showing me it, another cousin of mine was busy sloshing away in there, stomping the red grapes and asked if I wanted to try it.

At first I was tempted. Then I thought about it and had a vision of my family trying the wine a few years from now, created by my own feet. They would raise the glass to their lips and immediately spit the wine out out saying the batch is ruined. I politely declined helping with the stomping of grapes.

They walked me around the cobblestoned town, and people started to come out of their houses to meet me. No one spoke a lick of English until one 18 year old dark haired beauty walked up and said, "What's up?"

I was taken aback. Amongst the rural natives here is someone who spoke perfect English.

"Hey, what are you doing here?", I inquired.

"Oh, I lived in New York for a little while and now i'm back home.", she said.

She disappeared into the crowd, and I moved on with my family members who ushered me around like I was part of a circus.

Eventually we got back to their apartment where they were serving dinner. It was a simple meal of roasted chicken, soup, pasta, vegetables and home made wine. The chicken was free range chicken from their farm, and the food was fresh and delicious. The wine was much better than I expected, it was a sweet dessert wine that was sipped after a meal.

While munching on some biscotti and a bit tipsy from the wine, I found out that one of the friends of my cousins spoke a bit of English, and she began to help me translate which made the night a bit easier. One question that came up asked if I had a girlfriend or wife in America.

While I am saying the word, "No", I start to realize maybe I should say "YES", because I watch their reaction go from passive to a bit excited. The crowd let out a very positive sound of "Aaaaahhhhh!"

My cousin pulls me aside and says, "You know, Furey, that its an Italian tradition to take a walk with a beautiful woman under the moonlight after a meal..."

I'm dreading this. I hate being set up. Doesn't matter if it is America or Italy. I felt uncomfortable with the whole situation. The girl, in question, was the same translator who was a friend of the family. And we did go for a walk, it was pleasant but nothing "happened". Just a nice walk.

Once I returned the "Inquisition" started up again. They asked about my family and why they stayed for only 24 hours for their last visit - which was over a decade ago. "Why did they leave? That was very rude. How long are you staying? Two days? No, you call your teachers now and tell them you are staying a week!", they implored.

I had exams on Monday, there was no chance I was going to stay in Vietri for a week. They understood, and made me promise that the next time I visit that I will stay a week, and that if my family ever visited, they would stay a long time. Of course I said "Si! Si!" and thanked them for a wonderful weekend and all that, and I really didn't expect that eight years later this promise would bite me in the ass.

That is another story, for another time.

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This page contains a single entry by Furey published on December 8, 2004 12:10 PM.

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