My Father’s Village

Marco Scatalglini / Getty Images

In a medieval town in central Italy’s Abruzzi region, an hour from Rome, Norman Thomas di Giovanni finds that you can go home again.

In 1964, to a small town in the Abruzzi region of Italy called Sant’Eusanio Forconese. The main road, piazza, and lanes were all unpaved then. The only available water spouted from a stone fountain in the square, where women carried it home on their heads—walking erect, hands by their sides—in copper vessels.

I arrived wearing a tweed jacket against the cold, 30 years old and an obvious outsider. At the old post office I told the woman behind the counter that I was Poldino’s son and mentioned the name of my father’s cousin. Brushing past me, the postmistress took up a position in the middle of the road and began to shout in the direction of the square, “E venuto il figlio di Poldino.” Somewhere out of view in the piazza, another person relayed the message: Poldino’s son is here. Then a third.

I was utterly overwhelmed. Everything—the sights, sounds, smells, faces—was brand-new yet completely familiar. I could not hold back the tears. After a minute or two a woman came running toward me, the wife of Poldino’s cousin. We embraced. She, too, was crying. I didn’t even know her name.

The next few hours were spent in a daze. I visited the ruined castle on a hill that Poldino, as a young boy, had helped dismantle by rolling its stones down the hillside with his mates. I was photographed in the piazza before the church door with Eusanio Aniballi, a railway worker who used to meet my Socialist grandmother, Concetta Pasquantonio, to discuss the class struggle.

Somehow in my shaken state I neglected to find out which house had been hers, but I did see her grave. She lay buried behind the village’s ancient lower church. A clump of iris sprouted beside the crooked iron cross. From a sealed blister on the headstone, her portrait looked out at me, a woman clearly of my kith and kin. The grave marker, broken in half and poorly patched together, gave her dates: 1883–1951.

Her son Poldino, my father, had run afoul of the village Fascists in 1926. They beat him and forced him to drink castor oil. He was 16 and, having been born in the United States, an American citizen. The quick-witted Concetta lost no time in bundling him off to his father in Newton, Massachusetts, where he would live in a ghetto of Italian immigrants, mainly abruzzesi from a scattering of villages in the mountain province surrounding Sant’Eusanio.

Poldino never saw his mother again. Socialism became his religion. I was born in 1933 and named for the party’s leader at the time, Norman Thomas.

Years after that first visit, I returned to show the village to a friend. Sant’Eusanio sits astride the spine of Italy among the highest peaks of the Apennines. Geographically this is central Italy, but temperamentally it is the south. The Abruzzi heartland is rocky, its winters cold and snowy. At the edge of Sant’Eusanio are Iron Age burial grounds surrounded by stone walls that date back to the ninth century b.c.

I found a house I wanted to buy. At that point about half the buildings in Sant’Eusanio were uninhabited hovels, but could I acquire one? “Here we don’t sell. We buy,” one local informed me. The problem was that most property was inherited or swapped. Nothing had a price because nothing was ever sold.

I thought I might have better luck given that Lucia, who owned the house, was a friend. But even she seemed hesitant. “You come from England,” she said. “The place is run-down.” How run-down? “Sfasciata,” she said. In ruins.

But ruins was what I was looking for. I didn’t like the way the Sant’Eusanesi did up their properties. Stone houses dating from the 1400s were refitted with marble floors, aluminum doors, and plastic roofs sheltering an entrance or a terrace. I wanted something no one had spent money spoiling.

The house stood in a lane just eight feet wide. The exterior was shabby, with brooding stone windows that seemed to look out from under stern eyebrows. By the front door a tiny fragment of a religious fresco remained intact. There was also a spy hole, which had been fashioned by cutting a diagonal channel in a portion of the wall, so from an upstairs room you could see who stood on the doorstep.

As it happened, Lucia owned only two rooms of the place. Over the generations the building had been divided vertically and horizontally into cells. To get upstairs you had to enter someone else’s derelict room-and-a-half from around back. There was a third cell, too, consisting of a room above and a half room below, which were visible thanks to a 1956 earthquake that left a heap of smashed floorboards, brick, and plaster. Cell three, of course, belonged to a third party.

It had taken me years to find someone willing to part with one hovel; what chance had I of ever persuading these other two? A fraught summer was spent trying to tie up the whole package. A woman in her eighties owned the earthquaked wreck of cell three. She and a daughter in Canada wanted to get rid of it, but a son living nearby was distinctly unkeen. What he could have done with this maelstrom room-and-a-half I can’t imagine. The others pressured him and in the end he gave in.

The house had no water or electricity, the interior needed gutting and rebuilding, and the roof would have to be replaced. All the previous owners’ belongings were still inside. The next summer a tractor and trailer set below one of the rear windows received a ton of old hay bales, sending up a tower of dust that rose over the rooftops like smoke.

For ten days the tractor shuttled back and forth to the municipal tip in the gravel pit at the edge of the village. The homes in Sant’Eusanio were constructed with stables beneath them known as pagliai, since they were used to store hay and straw. Entire derelict buildings—like mine—were turned into pagliai. Nowadays these spaces hold items too good to be thrown away but not good enough to serve any purpose. Of what was removed from my property, half went straight into the pit and the rest was transferred partly to one man’s pagliaio a stone’s throw in one direction and partly to a second man’s a stone’s throw the other way. The horde we were reshuffling had probably started out from other pagliai in the village. I wondered how long it might take these imperishables to make a complete round of the village. Five hundred years?

Although work began the next spring, after two months there fell a storm of complications, some originating in Italy, some back in England, where I then lived, and all came to a halt. Unrealized dreams can become a terrible burden. Nine agonizing years later, I felt that the place had to either be sold as it stood or finished and used. I returned to take stock on a morning when the whole village shone as I’d never before seen it. One glimpse of the house told me a sale was impossible. In Sant’Eusanio we don’t sell. We buy. My decision was made.

That autumn of 2004 the town boasted public accommodations for the first time. The Forconensis, a bed-and-breakfast owned by Lia and Luciano Maragni, had just opened on the slope leading to the castle ruins. As I was carless, Luciano asked what I planned to do about meals. I mumbled something about invitations from friends. “You better eat with me,” he said, and on the spot I became his guest. The next night he cooked the best linguine aglio, olio, e peperoncino I’d ever eaten.

Anxious to recover the lost years and wanting a taste of an Abruzzi winter, I returned again in mid-February. For a week I was the Forconensis’s only guest. Lia fed me as if I were family. Great chunks of the day I spent tucked up in bed in haphazard study or else recovering from the abundant meals. Something as yet inchoate was stirring. My vague aim, if I had one, was to come to grips with Sant’Eusanio’s essential culture: food and the spoken language.

Abruzzi is famed for its charcuterie—capocollo, prosciutto, pancetta, many varieties of salami and salsiccia. Families in Sant’Eusanio still slaughter pigs in early winter and make these products for themselves. Sometimes you’ll be invited to share them as a five o’clock snack, with crusty bread and glasses of wine, in the middle of the street off the back of a tractor.

At the Forconensis much of our table talk revolved around local eating habits and culinary practices: what was on our plates, where it came from, how it was prepared. Lia had an encyclopedic knowledge of recipes and menus. Luciano, like many men in the region, was no mean cook and a tough and opinionated food critic as well.

Lia’s meals, basically aquilano country cooking, were full of subtle, refined touches. Most of the time she made her own pasta. A special board and long rolling pin. Flour, water, eggs. The right consistency, then the kneading, rolling out, and cutting into shape. She performed it effortlessly. I’d grown up on this style of cooking in Newton, but the range had been narrower and the elegant touches barely existent.

When I first mentioned to Lia that I liked ravioli, I was thinking of what we had eaten as children, made by my mother or aunts. Their pasta was cut to shape by placing a saucer on the dough and tracing a knife around it. This created a large casing, which was always and only filled with ricotta. Lia asked if I wanted a meat stuffing. I didn’t. “You must try mine,” she said. “I’ll make you both.” She served me a plate of tortelloni: Those with ricotta were excellent, those with the meat filling—minced pork, beef, and turkey, with Parmesan, eggs, and a touch of nutmeg—even better.

Lia used saffron in many dishes, both meat and pasta. I soon fancied bocconcini di agnello allo zafferano and spizzichi allo zaffe-rano. The former is tidbits of lamb; the latter, fresh pasta torn into small pieces—literally pinched off—with field mushrooms and ricotta. As a boy I’d never heard of saffron. Poldino never spoke of it. And yet the most glorious zafferano in the world comes from the Navelli plain, only ten miles from Sant’Eusanio.

I must have driven poor Lia half mad with my requests. On my arrivals I required an overdose of Newton soul food—the minestre of my early years. Pasta e fagioli. Pasta e ceci. Pasta e lenticchie. She never failed to oblige, but I know she considered these peasant soups beneath her talents. I don’t think Lia had any inkling of the exile’s ordeal. Her cooking was paradise regained.

Our meals, especially in winter, could last for hours. A lunch that began at one might end at five, to be followed by a dinner that went from eight to past midnight. I often wondered what I was doing at the evening table when I had no appetite and couldn’t imagine ever eating again.

Italians do not sit idly around tables. With eating comes conversation, with after-dinner conversation comes more eating. It was when a meal ended—the table cleared and relaid with further things to eat, tall liqueur bottles set out like a forest of masts—that Luciano and I settled in for serious discussions. For years he had studied and worked in Milan. His views were backed up by a wide reading in history, religion, and politics. This was another kind of sustenance.

All our talk, which wove its way in and out of food, gossip, village history, and the lives of Sant’Eusanesi past and present, required the laden table that Lia and Luciano had set for me. In its roundabout way, our talk was building a slow picture, filling in a vast jigsaw of my own uprooted personal history and, in Yeats’s words, of “the face I had before the world was made.”

Everyone in Italy, to some degree, speaks and understands two languages. One is the so-called national language, the Italian of newspapers and learned institutions. In oral speech, however, most people use their own dialect. It boils down to identity; Italian works as a lingua franca.

In my den I pored over lexicons of the local vocabulary, at first letting the words wash over me, then trying to sound them out. Sometimes I heard Poldino’s voice saying a word I knew only from his lips. Sciancàt’. Lame. Or my mother’s, uttering the intimate babble that passes between a woman and her small child. Scì bbinnìtt’. Bless you. My mother, who had lived out her threescore and 12 years in Michigan and Illinois, in Massachusetts and Connecticut, who had never in her life set foot in Italy, spoke the perfect capestrano variant of the dialect she had learned from her father.

As kids in Massachusetts, whenever we heard Italian we were really hearing aquilano, but it came to us as a murmur of voices we were not paying attention to, something indistinct, from another room. We never spoke it. In later years I wrongly imagined this dialect to consist of little more than a slightly altered vocabulary and clipped verb endings. In Abruzzi, aquilano is not a limited, corrupt tongue to be shunned but a full-fledged language worthy of serious attention—almost everyone in Sant’Eusanio spoke it at home and to one another. “If you want to live here,” one friend advised me, “you must learn to speak Sant’Eusanese.” Language and identity.

It’s hard to grasp nowadays, with our cars and paved roads, the former isolation of these Abruzzi villages. Little wonder that people in one town can use words and variants every day that someone in a neighboring region might have never heard. Today each village, in exaggerated pride, proclaims its own tongue.

There is a word I am sure has never been heard outside of Sant’Eusanio. One afternoon, as I returned to the Forconensis, friends on Luciano’s veranda asked where I’d been. One suggested, to the others’ glee, that I’d gone struzzimellun’. Though it struck me as comic, I had no idea what it meant. Over the next few days I found that all the villagers were familiar with the term, but they pronounced it in different ways. That there were variants came as no surprise. As a term strictly spoken, struzzimellun’ had doubtless never been fixed in writing.

Since the word’s meaning had not been explained as precisely as I would have liked, Lucia later helped me by putting it into context: Her mother would complain of her father that he’d be out all day but that his absences never came to anything, that all he was good for was to go struzzimellun’. So here it was— gallivanting, dillydallying. Let me opt for the latter, which is appropriately farcical and means wasting time with aimless stops and pauses.

Sant’Eusanio is an ideal place for such stops and pauses. Early mornings, when I walked down to the village to open the house for the workmen, I halted every 20 yards. It was the hour when mist rose off the river and thinned, when the sun turned the whole valley a golden color. In June, while the fields burst with wildflowers, there was still snow high on the mountains.

Poldino had never mentioned the beauty of the place. His Sant’Eusanio was all flies and dust and fetid smells; his Italy, the dead weight of leaden institutions—church, state, monarchy—and millennial poverty. My poor father. Was I here, I wondered, to live out the life he had been denied?

On one of these strolls, unprompted, a word came to mind, in turn trigger- ing a rush of others. None had anything to do with my daily exchanges in Sant’Eusanio. Instead they were terms unheard and unremembered for nearly 70 years—fragments of a buried language, a buried past. It dawned on me that those many years ago, in another country, my first language had been an Abruzzi dialect: Sant’Eusanese.

All along then, at least since 1964, my father’s village had been luring me on, one step at a time, with what we spend most of our blundering lives craving and searching for—a place that explains us to ourselves.

Norman Thomas Di Giovanni wrote about Jorge Luis Borges for the October 2006 South America Issue.

Beyond the Village

The mountainous Abruzzi region of Italy, an hour east of Rome, attracts travelers who like to combine their cultural tourism with a spot of exercise (trekking and mountain biking in spring and summer, skiing and snowboarding in winter). It’s home to the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, the national park that is central Italy’s vast wilderness area. L’Aquila, the regional cap-ital, is a pleasant, modestly scaled city with handsome medieval and Renaissance architecture. Opposite the town’s most famous monument, the 13th-century Fontana delle 99 Cannelle (or Fountain of the 99 Spouts), you’ll find L’Antico Borgo (1 Piazza San Vito; 39-0862/22005), a trattoria that uses only the best and freshest local ingredients.

Southeast of L’Aquila, up the steep-sided Sagittario Valley, is Scanno, a village so remote that its residents developed their own impenetrable dialect and style of dressing. Stop into a bar to sample the local delicacy, mostacciuolo— a cake flavored with red wine and almonds and topped with dark chocolate—or have dinner at Osteria di Costanza e Roberto (15 Via Roma; 39-0864/74345). If they have it, don’t miss the oven-baked trout fresh from the Tirino—a limpid chalk river that makes a good side trip for fishing enthusiasts.

For lodging, the extraordinary Sextantio (39-0862/899-112;, brainchild of Italo-Swedish entrepreneur Daniele Kihlgren, is an albergo diffuso, or “spread-out hotel,” whose rooms occupy several restored houses in the painfully picturesque village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, east of L’Aquila. It’s not for everyone, but design-conscious travelers with a spirit of adventure (and the legs to climb all those stairs) will love it. —Lee Marshall