Strangers and Family / I Stranieri e La Famiglia

Before the left turn off of Civita’s main street, Via Mercatello, which brings you to Il Nuovo’s piazza, there are brown double-doors leading into a stone building on the right. Each day, I peer through the door, always standing ajar, to find the corridor blocked by a sawhorse.

Last night, Ilauria, part of the family who I learned resides there, found Tony and I in the garden just after seven. Tony was gathering basil to make fried eggplant while I petted capo-gatto Nerone (my favorite) as he writhed precariously, if not deliciously, in a sunny spot on the high wall. He didn’t seem concerned that, merely inches away, stood a thousand-foot drop to the valley floor.

Ilauria invited us on behalf of her parents, Gaia and Bernardo, to their home for dinner. We agreed to bring our melanzane, the first of several ventures gone awry in the past 24 hours. Feeling confident in cooking with Tony, I should have known it was time for a stumble. First, I chopped the eggplant too thick, then I tried slicing what I had in half after a little admonition (“Those are too big; make them look like the picture.”) When we boiled them, most of the pieces disintegrated into thin, ropy slop.

The best of them fried alright, so I inventively combined a few together in the mixture of egg, cheese, basil and garlic before popping them into the sunflower oil. The result was a bubbling explosion of hot oil onto the stovetop, as if from a high school science project. At this point, I quit attempting to help and begged forgiveness, knowing that our offering would be lacking. So much for la vita italiana, I thought, my heart sinking a little.

We arrived after eight with a small offering of acceptable melanzane fritte, moving aside the sawhorse (meant for discouraging the curious tourist hordes) in order to ascend the stairs. We entered a warmly apportioned old-world home with a massive hearth, 20-foot ceilings and a grand wooden dining table set for six. Emma and Thomas, children of Gaia and Bernardo’s visiting daughter, Priscilla, were already asleep downstairs.

In spite of needing crutch supports to walk, white-haired Bernardo, whose skin is light like mine, served us wine and invited us to sit with him at the table. The women swept in and out, bringing food and water, beginning with an appetizer of caper blossom pods and prosciutto in olive oil – deliciously salty.

In contemplating the women, I immediately fell in love with their intelligence, easy confidence, and unadorned beauty. Sicilian blooded, Gaia’s deep brown skin wraps tightly around her long, lanky limbs. Her slender face and sparkling eyes are topped by outrageously curly short brown hair touched with natural copper highlights. Both daughters inherited her looks, though older daughter Ilauria’s hair is not quite as curly or dark, and Priscilla wears her solid espresso brown locks as shoulder-length waves.

Even after a week in Civita, I felt lost in their rapid dinner conversation. They spoke quickly about complex topics such as Berlusconi, politics, the day’s news, and work matters. In addition to their speed, their vocabulary was beyond me. I felt growing dismay and mental exhaustion as I spaced out on simple sentence construction and correct conjugation, though they helped to correct me.

After our initial course of pasta fagiole followed by insalata con patate, pomodori e olivi –and the melanzane, which they kindly assured us was delicious– I finally fell into English. Thankfully, they did the same so that I could converse with a little less effort. They commented on the rush of tourists in town on holiday, an overwhelming number apparently.

“Today, I heard them underneath the window,” Gaia said with rich dismissal, “‘See those windows? I think someone’s in there – it must be one of the seven residents.’ Seven residents?! If that were true, it would be this whole room!”

There seems a general disdain for people who intrude on the peace and quiet of Civita, as if it’s EuroDisney. After only a week, even I feel annoyed by their loud speech and their constant photography of and picnicking in my piazza. Visitors treat Civita like a ghost town with open exhibits for them to probe without respect or restraint.

As we enjoyed fresh fruit and ricotta cheese for dessert, I was able to contribute my small irritation to the conversation, explaining how the tourists, i stranieri, commonly walk up my stairs and attempt to enter my home while I’m working. Gaia nodded knowingly, adding that it is quite trying for the families who live here.

I smiled secretly in agreement that, perhaps my presence here is indeed becoming less strange after all.

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