A week in Civita without the people I quickly came to love in August has rendered me –and the town, really– markedly silent. I miss the ongoing chiacchierare alla piazza between Josè, Gaia, Maria, and Marcella, without whom my Italian education is suffering. Within this vacuum of activity, I’m finally beginning to understand the threatening serenity that hangs over this place.
Despite ominous thunderheads this morning, the need for exercise overcame me, so I ventured out of Il Nuovo without knowing how far I dared to go, armed only with my notebook and camera. Optimistic about my chances of staying dry, I continued out the main gate, headed for Bagnoregio. As I neared the staircase that leads to the belvedere, a gray, creeping shape caught my attention: un piccolo gattino walking on the busy switch-back road.
To date, my luck with Civita’s cats in general, and Betty’s kitten, Due Mila Diece, specifically, has been slim — save for love from il mio amico affetato, Nerone. After Betty and DMD scampered away –again– the other night, Tony reminded me that it takes time (and often food) to build trust, so I was surprised when this little one didn’t skitter off, but actually began to follow me once I spoke soothing words.
The scant puffball mewed pathetically when we reached the base of the stairs, tugging hard on my heart strings, so I attempted to shepherd it toward the cafe at the top of the bluff. Without money to buy food, I figured there had to be a scrap of discarded treat up there; in any case, I felt compelled to deliver it away from the street where it was sure to become roadkill for the white bus to Bagnoregio.
Who knows why the little guy trusted me, or how it even understood what to do, but that kitten hauled itself up five flights of stairs, following the sound of my footsteps and gentle prodding in Italian. (I don’t think it had its full sense of sight, it was so young.) When we reached the top, some German tourists scared it by stepping too quickly; I nearly left before I realized that it was stumbling around looking for me, rather than trying to escape, so I called to it and it came running, an awkward little toddler still finding its gait.
Smart thing, it crept around the cafe looking for food, which is where I left it, hearing it mew in the distance as I continued on after several minutes. What else to do? My heart sank as I sat near the statue of St. Bonaventure, wondering if it would be okay. Tony already has six cats, so there was no bringing it home, if it would even follow me or let me carry it all the way back to Civita — which is full of starving cats anyway.
With a sniff, I thought about that layering of cats in Civita, perhaps the longest contiguous resident group in town. It scares me to think that the children and grandchildren who will ultimately inherit this place may not understand what they’re receiving or won’t make it a priority to visit longer than a few weeks a year: Alessandra’s boys, Ludivigo and Giovanni; Marco and Inge’s children; Fabrizio’s daughter, Chiara, who lives in America; Gaia and Bernardo’s grandchildren, Emma and Thomas, who live in London. The others have adult children who rarely, if ever, visit this place.
The main challenge of Civita’s social palimpsest is the short month-long duration that most residents (or NIAUSI fellows) remain. These vacationers come and go, but those who keep Civita running are a different group, more insular in ways, and they are not all residents — most live in Bagnoregio. How, then, do places like Civita hope to maintain a legacy of memory or a living soul if there aren’t year-round families to carry that torch?
The clouds darkened, so I retraced my steps to Civita, taking the belvedere path in hopes of spotting the kitten. To my delight, a woman scooped it up in her arms just as I neared the cafe, cooing as all Italians do when they encounter a baby of any kind, “Che carino!! Vedi, un bambino!” as she nestled the kitten into the crook of her arm. Her husband searched their car for food and I allowed myself to believe the case was closed: I fulfilled my duty by moving the kitten to a safe place with lots of people where it could be adopted.
I came to see the similarity between the instant trust that the kitten placed in me and how quickly the first group of Civitonici befriended me. Like the gattino on the road, I realized what we all had in common: Civita is part of our journey, but it’s not our permanent home. In transitory settings where we’re all equally “in between,” there is less to lose; it’s easier to be more open to strangers when you are a stranger yourself.
On my way back to Il Nuovo, I smiled at Ivana, who owns the gift shop over which she lives, and waved over at Manuela, taking a break from the kitchen at the osteria, her hands on her hips. Passing me on her way to her family’s bruschetteria, Antonella gave me a nod and a, “Buon giorno,” while Antonio waved down and smiled from the top of the stairs, surveying his lunch crowd.
Like Due Mila Dieci who continues to give me the once-over, trying to determine what I’m about, the behind-the-scenes folks have been doing the same throughout town. They may not all be residents, but they make up a vital community within Civita; they keep it running, day in and day out — Sandro with his tractor, Anna Rita in the church gift shop, plus Antonio, Antonella, Manuela, Ivana, Raphaele, and many others.
It’s clear now that this second month will be characterized by deepening interactions with another layer of Civitonici who are learning to trust me in their own time, just like Tony said.
Naturalamente, there will be food involved.