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December 8, 2004

Vietri Di Potenza

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 I think it went something like this, complete with bad translations by me:

Me: "Hello. I am pickle from America. I want to visit your cow. I am studying with Florence."

Them: "Who? Who is this?"

Me: "Eat Pickle! Pickle!"

Them: "I don't understand you sound like an American who doesn't speak Italian very well."

Me: [flipping thru my Italian 101 book] "Its me! Furey!"

Them: "Furey! From America? Raviolipizzamacironiciaobellospeakatooafasta..."

Me: "Please don't speak fast..."

Them: "Oh, i'm very sorry I got excited that you were calling us. Are you coming to visit?"

Me: "I am very excited to eat you. I look backward to the visit."

Them: "Ha ha! Yes. You take the train to Salerno, we will pick you up there - when did you think you could visit?"

Me: "Friday afternoon."

Them: "Ok, you leave Florence and arrive in Salerno at 3pm on Friday, we will pick you up."

Me: "Yes. Pretty baby."

Them: "Bye now."

Me: "Bye bye! Pickle!"

So it was set, I understood the whole idea, get to Salerno train station by 3pm, and I was fairly good with public transportation in foreign countries. I was able to get a ticket, jump on a train, and off I went to Salerno.

The train ride was easy, and I had to change trains in Rome. It was in Rome that I was waiting for the next train when it dawned on me that I had no idea what my relatives looked like.

So then I started to think - "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. This was 1992, cell phones weren't mainstream devices that you carried. I had their home phone number. I didn't call them, but got back on the train and sweated it out.

I arrived in Salerno and the train station was the size of my apartment. I think I actually saw a tumbleweed. When I got off the train it was like a scene from "Godzilla meets Italy". Here I am, looking like Joe American - 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 train passengers were a bunch of 5'6 Italian men and women who looked like they shopped at Black & Grey Clothing Inc. I was desperately trying to avoid stepping on any of them, and also desperately trying NOT to look like I was out of place. It didn't work - a small child actually laughed at me and pointed with his mother clucking and walking him away.

The rest of the passengers left me on the platform and i'm looking over the sullen, barren landscape around me. Salerno's train station is like your a-typical Jersey train station - except smaller and more remote.

This was one of those situations that I was thinking 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. They were crafty and were well hidden. But my street smarts, combined with my knack to notice things out of the ordinary alerted me to their presence quick enough. So I immedately assumed my "two suitcase" posture that you may see many body builders assume.

You know the look. Its like when the bodybuilder can't rest his arms by his sides normally and his chest is puffed out like he is carrying two suitcases. So I do that. In 1992 I was 6'3, but I also was like 175 pounds of sinew and bone. I'm guessing I looked more ridiculous than frightening.

I got my best squinty Dirty Harry look on me 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.

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 looked like two cutpurses.

So I deflated from my two suitcases look at stopped squinting long enough to get a good look at them and make some small talk. The two were very nice and walked me to their car, a 1975 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 panini lunch down and holding on to dear life. 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.

Not to get too excited, but my close third death would be that i'm flying the Giants Team airplane into Yankees Stadium while there is a Yankees versus Red Sox game and Michael Moore is sitting in the stands watching the game.

But I digress.

We get to the top of the hills and we are alive. I kissed the ground and then promotly went to the bathroom because I thought I was going to hurl. It was ok. False alarm.

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 were walking me around like P.T. Barnum's 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 backyard, 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 my cousins-in-law 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.

As I am saying the answer, my world goes into slow motion, "Noooooooooooo..."

and i'm thinking "Maybe I should lie here..."

"...ooooooooooooo....."

i think you are going to be trapped on this one, pal

"...ooooooooooo....Pickle!"

The crowd let out a very positive sound of "Aaaaahhhhh!" after they hear me say "No." and I start to think how i'm going to get out unscathed.

I knew the next line was coming, "You know, Furey, that its an Italian tradition to take a walk with a beautiful woman under the moonlight after a meal..."

At first i'm dreading this and then my brain kicks into "Hollywood Movie Mode" and the quickly degenerates into "Porn Movie Mode". This could be very interesting especially if I get some hottie Italian farmgirl who needs American man to scratch her European itch. But, this is my life and I get set up with a quiet, homely girl that would be very popular in West Virginia or Delaware. We walked & talked a bit and I can report that none of my bastard children are living in Italy.

Once I returned the Inquisition started up again. They asked about my family and why they stayed for only 24 hours. "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!"

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 8 years later this promise would bite me in the ass.

That is another story, for another time.

Posted by Furey at December 8, 2004 12:10 PM

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