The Once and Future Fellow / La Fellow, Volta e Futura

Typically, on days that I don’t walk to Bagnoregio for groceries (aka my cardio workout), I practice yoga on the stone floor of Il Nuovo. In lieu of today’s practice, I showed up at Tony’s in the late morning to assist him in preparing a meal for four Americans from Lynchburg, Virginia — two are visiting homeowners and the others, their guests.

As I have many times during the past week, I once again challenged myself to define Civitonici. This couple has owned a home in Civita for 15 years, which they visit a couple of times each year; while they’re away, they lend their home to friends or rent it out — as do most Italians and other Europeans who own homes here. What is different, of course, is that these are Americans.

The Lynchburg Four are indeed connected with Civita, with Astra and Tony, and with the other Civitonici, including the Rocchi family, (“We need to get us some of that Rocchi red! Can you get Sandro on the phone and have him deliver it tonight?” Frank called to Tony as soon as they entered.) However, I had a difficult time answering that question in the affirmative because they are in every way –language, culture, accent, lifestyle– not the same as other residents I’ve met so far. Throughout lunch mi chiedo: are they really Civitonici?

Today also marks the brief return of Ilaria and Bernardo, here for two days from Rome as Ilaria, a landscape architect, consults with Luca at his giardino. I felt thrilled to receive her email asking to have dinner together, which is the first instance of a non-NIAUSI member –and non-American– seeking me out in Civita. I realized that the reason it felt so good was that this is exactly what Civitonici do when they discover that they’ve both dropped into town at the same time.

After nearly five hours of preparation, eating, and dishwashing, our Lynchburg lunch wiped out most of my afternoon writing time; the gentle buzz from Tony’s supply of delicious Rocchi wine didn’t help, either. I stepped out to fare una passagiata to clear my head, circling vicino Josè’s empty house e dopo I stood by the high wall near the Marchesa’s palazzo to take a little sun. Ever in search of a comfortable seat amongst all this stone, I walked back through Via Mercatello with a nod to Maria, who attempted to wave me and a few tourists into her famous garden for a Euro.

I looked with new eyes upon the gate that Fabrizio and I scaled as I continued out Civita’s back road where I found a fantastic outcropping upon which to sit, write, and reflect. There had not been formal introductions when the Lynchburgers arrived, and I noticed that they didn’t speak to me at first, which initially had me feeling slighted; however, I learned that they simply weren’t sure if I spoke any English, since I had greeted them in Italian. Similarly, when I answered Tony’s phone during lunch with, “Pronto?”a visiting NIAUSI member who was calling to announce her arrival in Lo Studio assumed I was Italian, and stuttered a request to speak in English.

Enjoying the breeze from atop my sunny stone, I had a proud, private laugh: how great does it feel to have people assume first that I am Italian — and have the Italians so quickly welcome me into their lives? How lovely is it that I have begun to explore the secrets behind many of the seemingly closed doors –and garden gates– here?

As I scribbled several lines, I wasn’t at all surprised to watch several couples walk down near me, snap a few photos of the valley, and turn around, missing the discovery of Mary of the Incarcerated and the tunnel that runs underneath the city.

That’s when I began to consider what my presence in Civita will be like over time; what role will I play here? Will I be missed in my absence and greeted warmly when I return? How will I leave my own physical layer? I began to envision future dinners that I would host downstairs in the campo or coffee dates with Josè, Maria, Marcella, Gaia, and Bernardo. I pictured long-awaited hugs and wine-fueled conversations in Italian, Tony’s opera playing in the background. I began to think about other projects I could conduct here that involve food and storytelling…

Those thoughts brought me back to the arrival of the Lynchburg Four and Frank’s commented pleasure at hearing Sandro the Tractor Man say “Good morning,” in English — for the first time ever. We all have an effect on each other, a layering of influence over time. That brought to mind my primary goal in this fellowship, which is to begin a experiential dialogue between Civita and people throughout the world — to bring faraway layers closer together through a personal exploration of built forms, people, nature, food, weather, language and time.

For me, that goal grows ever stronger. When I bring readers along on my daily journeys, I hope to inspire them to experience Civita on their own someday. Primed with a deeper understanding of what they can discover here, I hope to open a door to adventures far richer than buying a bottle of limoncello or a bag of pasta before turning to leave…and missing all of the good stuff.

When I return each year –which I already plan to do– I hope to see one layer of my legacy come to fruition: as I sun myself on what is now my favorite rock, I hope to watch more and more people pass by without stopping, inspired by my book to find Mary and the tunnel below for themselves.

Perhaps 15 years hence, people might even consider me Civitonici.

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2 thoughts on “The Once and Future Fellow / La Fellow, Volta e Futura

  1. Love this! We miss you in yoga. I got to sit & practice next to Erin and Andy on Sunday. These are wonderful musings of yours. I hope to get to visit Civita before long. Maybe next summer. Thank you for keeping us posted. xxoo

  2. To Gabri-a fellow Fellow,

    I read you post this morning with much nostalgia. I have had the same thoughts upon arriving in Civita, and even more poignantly on leaving Civita. I just finished a postscript to my Pizza in Piazza article before adding it to a grant proposal as a work sample, so have been thinking along these same lines as your blog.

    I have also have had the same musing about what defines Civitonici. Two years ago during the community event known as Pizza in the Piazza-pizza in the wood fired ovens followed by our slides of Civita taken as students, there were everyone from part-time residents descended from residents who have lived in Civita for generations and still have a home there (Professor Medori), to children of descendents with a family home that come to for a day or a few weeks (his daughters), to long time residents who are only there for the summer (Vittoria and Maria), to Italians who once lived in Civita full-time but moved away for many reasons (Juliana), to decedents of long-time residents who live close and spend their day-light hours working in Civita (Fabrizio),to long time non-Italian permanent residents (Tony), to long-time summer residents (Jose’), to Italian repeat visitors, to repeat guests of Italian long-time italian summer residents, and maybe stretching it also to non-Italian repeat visitors with a past in Civita, and on and on. How do you define the Civitonici, honorary or not? The participants in Pizza in Piazza the first year were all of these. I certainly don’t define myself as Civitonici, but enjoy being wrapped in their community. I don’t think the question is, “Who are the Civitonici?” when thinking about the community they represent. The community today envelopes more than what I would define as Civitonici.

    I also think there is a critical mass in terms of community that we may never realize as observers. And as the number of original residents becomes fewer, and if their traditions are not passed on, this critical mass grows smaller and smaller. I feel this especially in August as the number of tourists increases. With that said, I think we need to tread carefully as we enjoy this wonderful space. With its many layers, it is not so easy to understand. And it is so easy to confuse it within something else, i.e. the Pinocchio village. Tony told me how one young Italian tourist asked him if her were Gepetto.

    I have a ongoing conversation with Tom Weil, the travel writer who was there that night to witness the incredible community event of Pizza in Piazza as a guest of Jose’, about what makes Civita “special” and I think we are getting closer to the core. He says we will let me in on his latest epiphany the next time we are in Civita together…only there when we sit together in the piazza.

    I too hope to return again and again to keep discovering this special place, to try to understand what makes it special, and maybe in some small way become a part of this special community. The first time I heard my friend Ivana greet me with, “Ciao, Betty”, instead of the generic “Bona Sera, my heart smiled. When Jose’ calls me over for coffee across the piazza, for me it is for more than just coffee. When Paula turns and waves with a big smile as she sails down the bridge on the back of the motorino as I climb the bridge for the first time upon my return, it is the best welcome back.

    And after being a student, a teaching assistant, and a fellow, in an arc of over 32 years, I am beginning to realize that is not just the exchanged hello, wave or shared coffee with a friend that makes you part of the community. And although I think it is critical to our goals, it is not just the documentation or analyzing a part of its history or culture that makes you a part of its community. It is “giving back” that makes you a part of community. It took me 32 years to come to this conclusion and I only finally “got it” recently.

    After my return from Civita, I was discussing my hearth project with a professor at WSU, whose expertise included meaning in architecture and community. We were into the nitty-gritty of what hearths I documented and how I documented them, etc. After we reviewed my project I asked her if she would be interested in reading a copy of a small non-academic article that came out of the study. To my surprise, as I briefly explained to her what the article,Pizza in Piazza, was about I had to fight back sudden tears. After she read the article, she suggested that firing up the wood oven for this community event was the subconscious result of the hearth study. She suggested that my research on the hearths within their homes touched a chord within the community that resulted in the evening of Pizza in Piazza. This interpretation surprised me at first, but now I can agree. But with further thought I understood, it was not only this. The study was the fuel, but it was sharing the slide show that was the catalyst that lit the fire, which warmed their hearts, which created Pizza in Piazza, which made me for a moment in a small way part of the community.

    When I returned this summer, I learned that the timing of Pizza in Piazza had moved to Ferragosto. There would be no slide show. I would not be there. At first I was disappointed. Maybe my study was only a study. Maybe the slide show was only a enjoyable brief interlude. But the more I thought about it, the more I was happy it was going to happen again, even if I would not be there. The fire was lit. I did not need to be there.

    Astra always emphasized “giving back” to Civita. I listened to this and took it to heart, but it only really registered with Pizza in Piazza. It makes me see everything I do in regard to Civita through a different lens. It drives my participation on the NIAUSI Board, my desire that the coming exhibit about Astra’s influence in Civita be the best exhibit we can do, and the way I live.

    Welcome to Civita!

    Betty Torrell
    NIAUSI Fellow, 2009
    Hearth as Home, The Fireplaces of Civita di Bagnoregio

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