Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Day the Earth Didn't Stand Still

I have a very vivid mental image from one of my trips to Italy, a sort of motion picture or clip that replays itself in my mind, one that is etched deeply in the recesses of my mind but which can erupt to the surface when triggered by the right stimulus. It is a memory that is the result of an instantaneous, violent twist of fate. When I close my eyes, I can see it in detail as real as the instant in which it transpired.

We were speeding along the autostrada, as is our habit, occupying, unusually, the right lane or slow lane. To our left, fifty feet or so ahead, a large lorry lumbered on. As I was surveying the situtation to shift lanes, out of the corner of my eye, moving laterally across our path, I spotted two small blips and in an instant it was over. Two small brown birds, sparrows perhaps, had chosen that very moment to fly across the highway, moving in tandem with each other and flying fast. All that separated them was a few feet both in altitude and horizontally. The first passed over the top of the lorry, just. His companion clipped the top corner of the truck and bounced upwards, spinning end over end before arcing downward, hitting the shoulder of the road and skidding to a stop. Her life had been crushed from her in an instant by the corner of that lorry. In that instant she was dead. Her companion flew on, perhaps not noticing her absence, perhaps not caring, for fate had not chosen him.

*        *        *

Our agenda for the day consisted solely of a visit to our friend Rita Farroni, the owner of the historic (and delicious) Sorelle Nurzia confectionary company in l'Aquila. I had initially met Rita years ago during an Italian Trade Commission sponsored visit to Abruzzo, where I instantly fell not only for Sorelle Nurzia's toronne and cookies, but for its proprietor as well. Two years later, after having imported and sold her products in our store, Suzy met Rita in l'Aquila and too was drawn into the orbit of this magnetic personality.

It was not easy getting a room to stay the night in l'Aquila the previous night. Nearly two years ago the city suffered a direct hit from a magnitude 5.9 earthquake. The epicenter was nearly a bullseye on l'Aquila and the city, a large majestic city that had been a commercial and cultural center since its founding in the 13th century was shattered. Three hundred eight souls were lost that day, two hundred seventy two of them in the province of l'Aquila itself. But as we were to find out during the day, the damage was not limited simply to its buildings and public squares. Life in l'Aquila, as the locals knew it, had been shattered.

There may be some hotels that have reopened in l'Aquila, but we were unable to find them in our brief search. Instead, we opted to stay just outside the town, booking a room at the Monastery Fortezza Santo Spirito in Ocre, about 15 minutes from l'Aquila. The hotel, which occupies a former cistertian monastery/fortress built in the 1200s is perched on a hill overlooking the valley below. It turned out to be the perfect place to spread out and relax before starting our last day on the road in Italy.

I hope to write more about the monastery later, for it was indeed a unique experience to stay in a monk's cell. Suffice it to say, the hotel has done its best to retain the character of peace and contemplation, while creating a modern, luxury hotel within that space. Our room was a nicely furnished loft with a beautiful view of the valley below. There were well laid out terraces with comfortable patio furniture that would have to await warmer weather for us to enjoy them. But indoors the atmosphere was warm and welcoming (even as it was insanely cold outside), and the manager and his wife couldn't have been nicer. If all Cistercian monasteries were this inviting, the order would be bursting at the seams.

 *        *        *

The next morning we checked out of the Santo Spirito and said our goodbyes to the proprietor, promising to return (when the weather was warmer). We then descended the mountainside and drove across the plain to the industrial town of Bazzano, just outside l'Aquila, that houses the Sorelle Nurzia factory.

We arrived a little late (the more time we spend in Italy, the more we seem to pick up this local custom) but were greeted to Rita who served us coffee and caught us up on the news about her company and their products. During our tour of the factory, Rita pointed out some damage to the structure suffered from the earthquake. Being a modern building, the damage was minor.

And then it was time for lunch. On our previous two visits we had enjoyed Rita's company at lunch immensely, hearing her hold forth about her company and its plans for the future, why the food from Abruzzo was the best and most authentic in all of Italy and generally enjoying the experience with her over a good meal. In the past we had eaten at a nearby country inn, with large rooms and a fireplace, a lively lunch crowd and a festive mood. "You remember the place we ate at before. We cannot go there. It is gone." Indeed, the conversation began to turn to all the things that were gone, restaurants, bars, pharmacies. And not just places, but a way of life. Rita made reference to anno domini, the year of our Lord. In l'Aquila time was measured against the terremoto. Before the terremoto (B.T.) and after the terremoto (A.T.). In the 33 seconds that shook l'Aquila, not only the ground had been torn, the fabric of life in the city had been rent and the Aquilani had been severed from their past, separated from the lives they had known.

They seem to be making the best of it, or at least trying. We ended up having a wonderful Abruzzese lunch in a small restaurant that had previously been located in central l'Aquila. In l'Aquila A.T. it was housed in a squat prefabricated building located just outside the industrial zone where Rita works. The food was without doubt outstanding -  two pastas, a plate of wood grilled local sausages, scamorza cheese grilled to a smoky and crackly perfection. The service was wonderful and attentive and the atmosphere lively. It was not until we emerged from this cozy and fulfilling meal, into the bright sunlight to see the charmless exterior of the restaurant that we felt the hint of a void. Italian restaurants and dining in Italy is, for us, such a sensual experience, with each element, the tastes, the smells, the sights, playing off one another and reinforcing one another, resulting in a whole greatly exceeding the sum of its parts. It was not the want of a historic building  or the lack of a cozy family run space that dimished the experience. It was the newness of it, the utter functionality of the prefabricated hut that was so dissonant with the other aspects of the dining experience. Italians squat in, nurture and make do with the old, with the traditional, in part because they cherish it so much. For Americans, new and improved is the catchphrase that makes us salivate. Italians do not do "new" so well. And this sudden tearing away of the traditional, of the historic, of the familiar, and its replacement with the functional, the utilitarian seems so foreign. So sad.

 *        *        *

After lunch Rita took us on a brief tour of the area, pointing out Berlusconi houses, row after row of public housing built by the government to house displaced locals and giving them a place to live and work in the area as efforts are being made to repair the city. New roads had been been built and old ones widened and updated with rotaries to address the traffic problems that have arisen as the population has moved to the periphery, at least for now. And everywhere along the main roads trailers and prefab buildings housed businesses - bars, restaurants, even pharmacies - that had been located in the city center B.T.  Against the odds, life was going on and even if the temporary spaces lacked charm and character, they existed. The government had done its best to give people the opportunity to recover from this tragedy. The question is whether this will be enough.

We drove to a small village called San Gregorio, located nearby and also in the periphery. B.T., San Gregorio had been a small village with a church, a handful of inhabitants and maybe a shop or two. A.T. it was a few abandoned homes coexisting side by side with mounds of rubble. Houses were torn open, their private spaces exposed to the outside world, their fronts collapsed, showing off their interior floors and rooms where families once slept, ate together and went about their lives. Collapsed staircases led to nowhere and roofs opened into the skies above. A crumbled church appeared to be a target for repair, the only remaining part standing the nave behind the altar. The altarpiece itself stood under a scaffolding. Nearby a phonebooth and a stone fountain leaned against a house atop a pile of rubble. Later we saw pictures of the dedication of the fount on the town's website some years earlier, as local townsfolk and parishioners smiled proudly.

 This little village, once important only to the few who lived there but which was then their entire universe had been erased by the terremoto. Eleven people perished San Gregorio during the earthquake, including a 12 year old girl who had arrived from her home in France only hours before the earthquake to spend Easter with her Italian relatives. It is quite possible that the survivors there will never see their village rebuilt.

But while the destruction at San Gregorio was sobering, our visit to the center of l'Aquila revealed a different sort of damage. This once bustling commercial city has been transformed into a movie set, with a few curious passersby snapping pictures, but little real life taking place behind the facades of the historic town. For the most part pedestrian and vehicular traffic is limited to the main street - each of the narrow side streets has been fenced off awaiting repair until the main street is completed. All along the main street buildings have been cleaned up and, in most cases, shored up with a latticework of scaffolding. According to Rita, several millions of euros have been spent on each building simply to hold them up. The work of repairing them and restoring them will take sums far in excess and will require years to complete. So for now the city is a petrified carcass, a hollow shell of its former self and life in l'Aquila, despite everyone's best intentions and hard work, has not returned to normal even after nearly two years. No longer are there bustling cafes or bars where friends can gather. A few restaurants have reopened, but they are neighbored by empty palazzi whose lights have been off since April 2009. And worst of all, according to Rita, it is impossible to have friends over for dinner or meet someone on the street through a chance encounter. Until the center is rebuilt and people are able to return to their homes, the Aquilani way of life cannot return to normal.

Rita herself shows signs sadness and resignation, two qualities we had never seen from this upbeat, optimistic woman. She is living outside of the center, has shuttered the family's retail shop there and seems to have set aside dreams of returning home. "It takes a strong people," she says to us, proud of the survival skills that she and her fellow Aquilanis have summoned to cope with the loss of their way of life. And everywhere we go, it is apparent that they have worked hard to restore what they can of their former lives. But like the little sparrow, sometimes the blow is too great and life cannot return. We hope that this is not the case.

Dear Rosa Antico,
This year I decided to not leave you in the dark any more.
This year I decided to reward this palazzo that so tenaciously resisted 6 April 2009.
I cannot live in you, but illuminated, you are as splendid as always.

Rosella Aloisi

Merry Christmas
my dear beautiful l'Aquila

As we retrace our steps up the l'Aquila's main street we notice a small caffe open for business. We step inside this tidy, welcoming space and are greeted by a cheery, older gentleman. The decor is a beautiful timepiece, transporting us back to the turn of the century with its marble floors, heavy wood counters and decoration. Inside, glass cases show off tempting pastries and other goodies and all around are displays of Abruzzo's famous confections - Parozza, Pan Ducale, confetti from Sulmona. But most prominent of all are stacks of Sorelle Nurzia torrone, the face of l'Aquila to us and, apparently, to many Aquilani. We stop and have a delicious espresso, which the owner serves to us with several small plates of Nurzia torrone, cut into bite sized pieces. He smiles throughout and chats with us, wishing us a buona giornata as we leave. And for a brief moment he has resuscitated and revived the l'Aquila we knew and love before the terremoto. Let's hope he is not alone. L'Aquila deserves to live once more.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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