Sunday, June 20, 2010


We’ve been pure tourists for the last two days and having a ball at that. We’ll have to do some serious work next week to justify the expense of this trip. We’re fortunate to have the two best tour guides in southern Italy in the form of Fernando and Fabio. Not only are these two guys experts in classical studies, but they both dearly love the area and have an encyclopedic knowledge of it, from neolithic times right up to the present.

Friday evening a group of graduate students from the University of Salerno came over to talk to the ‘food guy’. These bright, charming young people have the notion to start a sort of institute to promote archaeotourism, particularly in the form of traditional foods. It’s interesting that four of them come from families which produce food either for home consumption or commercially. Rita, for example, the attractive young woman who acted as translator since her English is almost flawless, comes from a household which produces peaches commercially. But her family also produces its own wine. Allesandro’s father, from Basilicata, produces a form of Lambrusco.

Needless to say I gave them all the encouragement I could; Besides the incredible beauty of this area, it seems to me that their food traditions are some of the most valuable ‘commodities’ they can share with the world.

After the students left, Fernando and Fabio drove us to a restaurant in Castellabate, a seaside cliffhanger with spectacular views where a small castle was built in Medieval times next to the Benedictine abbey which was attracting the pirates. Thus the name of the town, Castella alla Abate, ‘Castle-at-the-Abbey, Castellabate. By the time we arrived it was almost 10 pm and the lights of the northern Cilentane coast were spread out below us for thirty miles and in the far distance we could make out the silhouettes of the Amalfi Coast and Capri. The weather was perfect and a half moon floated over a calm sea. Magic. After a spectacular meal on the terrazza, the beautiful proprietress was kind enough to give us a tour of the inside of the restaurant, ‘La Calesse’ ‘The Shay’ named after a nineteenth-century gig prominently displayed in one of the main dining rooms. The restaurant is actually in the rear of a beautiful if somewhat down-at-the-heels palace, the Palazzo Perotti, and the Signora has made her home in the rooms surrounding the courtyard. Afterwards a quick tour of this ancient town. I hate the word, but it’s inescapable: quaint.

Yesterday we were up early and off to Paestum, an incredible archaeological treasure which is only about 10 miles from Agropoli. Fernando and Fabio were far too ambitious for that foolishness! Paestum lies in the plain of the River Sele and is flat as a pancake, but ten miles inland mountains rise precipitously to heights of several thousand meters. We made the loop through the western flank of the mountains so that we could see the Grand Canyon. The Cilentane version, that is. Perhaps it’s not on the scale as its American cousin, but it is spectacular nonetheless, a deep gorge, carved by a mountain torrent, the Solofrone, through towering tablelands which Sergio Leoni and Clint Eastwood used as backdrop for some of their famous ‘Spaghetti Westerns”. This was also most likely the area where Spartacus made his last stand against the combined forces of Crassus and Pompey.

We drove through two beautiful hill towns with spectacular views, Trentonara and Capaccio. The latter was the headwaters of the Roman aqueduct which serviced Paestum, and its name derived from Latin, Caput aquis, ‘Source of water’. The Romans were not especially known for their poetic temperament. When they created an artificial harbor at the mouth of the Tiber River, for example, they named it Portus, ‘Port’. Perhaps in the case of Capaccio they showed good judgment; no amount of poetry could do justice to that stunning view.

Finally to Paestum where we were joined by our young friends of the night before, all of whom had been here countless times before and were doubtless bored out of their minds but graciously had offered to accompany the Americans. About Paestum I will have to say much more later, but let it suffice to say that it contains the best-preserved Greek ruins in all of Magna Graecia and some of the best in the Greek world. And it’s a textbook example of the sort of cultural fusion that this area represents. There is evidence of Neolithic settlement here, then Archaic Greek, Classical Greek, Lucanian, Greek again, Roman, and Medieval. Fortunately for us the last-named was minimal; the area silted up and malaria invaded and the city was abandoned and all but forgotten, to lie in wait for rediscovery in the twentieth century.

Lovely Rita acted as interpreter again. The language barrier is something we have struggled with since we first started coming to Italy years ago. It is especially painful this time, however, because I really feel I’ve found kindred spirits in Fernando and Fabio. Fernando and I refer to each other as ‘Gemello’, ‘Twin’, since we share so many interests, scholarly and otherwise. And yet their English is almost as bad as my Italian, and that’s saying a lot. We’ve finally reached a sort of accommodation where each speaks his own language and if the other fails to comprehend then we struggle along in the auditor’s language. I am coming to the point where I can understand quite a lot of an Italian conversation, unless it’s in dialect. And there’s always Latin in reserve.

Written communication is not much of a problem, thank goodness in this time of easy worldwide internet access; Fernando and I each read the other’s language with some proficiency. But that issue brought up an interesting discussion last night when we were invited to a party at the home of one of Fernando’s colleague, Francesca, and her husband Jim. Both spoke flawless English, as did their friends Maria and Antonio, and it was a real luxury to ‘bathe’ in English for several hours on end. Maria and Antonio are native Italians, she from Florence and he from Puglia, and they both spent two years in California where they were initially overwhelmed by the demands of conversational English. Francesca is an expert in Medieval art who chooses to publish in English because, as Fernando says, “No one reads the Italian journals.” The upshot is that she is internationally known and in demand as a lecturer...but is practically ignored in Italy. Few Italian scholars can or will read English. Jim is a native of southern Turkey who grew up in Istanbul, learned German, fell in love with an Italian, and took a three-month intensive to try to learn the language when he was posted to Italy as part of his job as an executive with an export firm. He must communicate on a daily basis in at least four languages. And then there are the dialects! Jim swears that sometimes some of his salesmen deliberately use impenetrable Italian dialects just for the pleasure of imagining him scratching his head.

And then there’s the whole issue of learning to ‘think’ in a foreign language and how that may alter your whole way of processing the world. Look, you can know all the vocabulary in the world, but there’s just no way to translate by the book; every language has its on idiosyncrasies and peculiar patterns, and there’s nothing for it but to muddle through until you ‘hardwire’ your brain to think in the new language. For example, here’s a simple conversation as it would be rendered literally from Italian to English:

A: Good day, Sir! How stands it?

B: Well. And for thou?

A: All well, thanks to thee.

B: Has hot, no?

A: Is true! But not such hot as for yesterday. And is a good breeze.

B: Is true! Yesterday I have been traveled to the Castellabate-for-the-sea and almost I have been scalded.

A: Sir, where thou wantests the my parking?

B: As thee wishest. But not for this space. Is for Fabio.

A: It goes well. Here? Is well?

B: No. He is for the tenant.

A: But here?

B: Is well. Now I owe to go to the my work. Thee I will see after, perhaps?

A: Yes. Soon we will make the touring for Paestum. We are here again at the seventeen hours.

B: Goes well. To the early!

A: To the early! At the arrival, Sir!

You can see why it’s a bit of a struggle. And yet we struggle on, and somehow the human contacts that we make are so much dearer for the effort.

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