Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Yesterday was a good combination of work and play. In the morning Fernando and I headed back to Paestum, this time to the Museo with its incredible trove of artifacts from Neolithic to Byzantine. When I was in the museum last summer, I was so nervous about delivering my talk in my bad Italian that it was hard to concentrate. Plus it was insufferably hot in the building. I’m talking 30° C and no circulation at all. The next day I asked Oshri, our wonderful tour guide, if this beautiful, modern building had been built without air conditioning. His reply reveals a lot about the dysfunctional way the Italian governments at all levels work so often. The building has a perfectly good climate control system, but the directors refuse to allow its use. Why? Too expensive. Why too expensive? Because they don’t have enough paying visitors. And why, pray tell, don’t they have enough paying visitors? Well, for one thing, because they keep the building so bloody hot during the height of the foreign tourist season that nobody can stand to go! Word does get around.

Yesterday afternoon was an excursion to the ipermercato with Fabio’s parents, Rolando and Filomena, easily two of the nicest people God ever put on the planet. Both appear to be a bit past retirement age, very handsome people, Filomena all warmth and enthusiasm, Rolando quiet and reserved but the very soul of gentility.

It was fun just to walk around this huge facility and shop with two natives who can afford just about whatever they want, but don’t. The reason they can afford is that they, like so many other Italians, are and always have been very frugal people. But generous to a fault. I can’t count the number of times Filomena called us aside to warn us away from some product that she could and readily would provide us from her home supply. Hard to argue with that; the home supply is always of the highest quality.

The market itself was interesting. Ultramodern (it’s called the Maxi Futura), with huge aisles, bright lighting, an incomparable selection...and not a truly artisinal product in the place. Plus the quantities proffered are bulk items, and two people who’ll be traveling long-distance in four weeks can’t really justify a twelve-pack of TP. The prices seemed good, from the little we could tell. The place just didn’t have the right feel.

Afterwards we trundled into the trusty Fiat Panda and were off to the Supermercato Deco for comparison. This one was more to our liking, moderate in size, with an excellent but not overwhelming selection of local and processed foods, a good deli section, and friendly, efficient staff. Plus it is literally five minutes from the apartment.

Watching Rolando and Filomena shop at the two stores was an education in itself; from the iper- they bought almost exclusively bulk items such as laundry detergent, from the super, primarily processed foods but ones of high quality worthy to be offered to la famiglia and even the cani (dogs), who adore Filomena, and ought to. In my next life I want to come back as one of Filomena’s dogs.

So how did these two individuals attain such relative comfort? A beautiful villa in a beautiful town, food in whatever quantity and quality they desire, a comfortable lifestyle all around? Were they the lucky aristocrats who, even in this region of relative want, have traditionally been indulged? Not a bit of it! These two people have worked their fannies off for everything they have.

Rolando and Filomena were both born here in the South but moved to Torino, in the north, a relatively prosperous area. Bright and ambitious, they obtained an education and when the opportunities were not there for them in their adopted state, they simply made their own. Rolando worked for years in the tour industry, primarily with German tourists. Both learned (and taught to their sons) the German language; so often here, proficiency in a foreign language is the key to better opportunities. Filomena eventually opened her own furniture shop. And they skrimped and saved and dreamed of a villa in the south of Italy. Finally the chance came at an attractive piece of land, and Rolando and Filomena's brother bought it and marked out their adjoining plots. Over the years they built their houses in stages, as so often happens in Italy. As you drive around the countryside, you will occasionally see the pillars and concrete pads which mark the foundations and two or three floors of a house. And that’s it. Abandoned? No, just waiting for the next installment. Elsewhere, the slabs have been filled in with the ceramic blocks and concrete which are the standard material here for walls. That is the stage which Rolando’s brother has reached. And on and on. The system has other advantages as well. After a minimum of four pillars you can add as many others as you think you can afford and the house expands exponentially if it is multistory. Plus, only the pillars are load-bearing, since the floors are tied to them. No bearing walls. La Mama wants a bigger kitchen? No problem! Break out a wall and off you go!

So Rolando and Filomena built their house by stages, as finances allowed, and avoided the massive debt that so often marks the real lawn ornament of an American trophy house. The grounds were gradually transformed into some twenty acres of vineyards and orchards, all immaculately kept. And when the couple retired, they moved with their two sons, Fabio and Domenico, into their dream house, now furnished with two apartments, one for each son. And Fabio (and I have no doubt, Domenico) is every bit as intelligent, ambitious, and kind as his parents. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” That’s a metaphor I think Rolando would appreciate.

As we strolled the orchards yesterday and Filomena filled our fruit bowl with huge ripe figs direct from the trees, it was easy to see the pride these two people feel in what they have achieved. I commented to Rolando that he had created a real paradiso. But that it must also be molto, molto lavoro. He laughed and answered that he never had difficulty falling asleep at night.

Sleep well, Rolando and Filomena! You have certainly earned it.

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