14 September 2014

LIFE: The Train of Happiness

CHIAVARI, Italy – I’ve always been struck by how little the Italians talk about what happened here during the WWII. They remember, they celebrate war related holidays, they march in parades and listen to speeches but for the most part they just get on with things and unless you (meaning me) ask, you don’t hear many stories.
The Train of Happiness
That’s probably why I was so fascinated when I discovered a small book by Giovanni Rinaldi called ITreni della Felicita. The Trains of Happiness is the true story of thousands of Italian kids, mostly from southern Italy, and what one woman did that changed their lives, and the lives of those who joined her, forever. Then I discovered that film maker Alessandro Piva had made an award winning documentary about those same kids, and where they were today. But let me back up a little for this is a story worth telling.

The story starts in the winter of 1945.  The Allies had landed, Italy was liberated and now cities and towns were searching to find solutions to the immediate problems of food distribution and removal of war debris. The national priorities were those. The woman, Teresa Noce, a Milanese partisan and leader in the National Communist Party, had just been freed from the woman’s concentration camp in Ravensbruk, Germany and was now back in Milan. From her experiences in the concentration camp, Signora Noce was well aware of other problems other than those the politicians were concerned with. She was concerned about the children who were suffering from hunger and abandonment, particularly those in the towns of southern Italy that had been hit the hardest by the war, and she decided to do something about it. 

 Teresa Noce in Parliament
The first thing she did was contact the women members of Communist groups in Reggio Emilia. She asked if they could find families who would be willing to take in some children from southern Italy for a few months so they could recuperate their health. The positive response she received was overwhelming, and from that first approach the UDI, the Union of Italian Women was born.

The UDI was so successful Sig.ra Noce, and the other women working with her, decided to expand it and anchor it in southern Italy.  And so it began. There was a lot of work to do. The women began by traveling to Naples, Cassino, Rome and into the small towns of Puglia looking for children who would be eligible for the program. After their families had given their permission the children had to be examined by a doctor to make sure they were able to make the long train trip. In those days, with the frequent interruptions of the railroad lines, it took up to 14 hours to travel from Naples to Rome, a trip you can do today in less than 2 hours.  
There Was No North or South, Only Italy
In the two winters following the end of the war, thousands of children left their homes in the war torn Southern provinces to stay with families in and around Modena. They were clothed, sent to school and cared for, but those were merely the superficial benefits, what happened to them was so much more.

Not all families were receptive to the help being offered though. While the majority of the mothers the UDI contacted had never been beyond the boundaries of their small villages, they had heard the horror stories about the Communists “devils” in Alt’Italia (northern Italy) who ate children for lunch or threw them into boiling cauldrons of lye and turned them into soap. The idea of putting their sons and daughters on trains, which none of them had ever been on, and transporting them straight into the hands of those very “devils”, must have kept many a mother pacing up pacing the floor at night, torn between wanting her child or children to have this opportunity and wondering if they would ever see them again. And the kids were worried as well.
  Babies on the Menu in Milan
One man told the story of a little boy who had been put in his care who, for the first week wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t to go to sleep. He would always say, “I’m not hungry, I’m not sleepy”. But of course he would eventually fall asleep and the next day he would wake up and just keep looking from side to side, as if expecting something to happen. After a few days he finally confessed that he had been told that the people in Alt’Italia were all Communists and everyone knew the Communists ate children. When asked if that was why he was so afraid to go to sleep he said yes, he had wanted to be very watchful.

They were probably all afraid but there were others who told stories of discovery. “Being on that train was like being in a fairy tale,” said one woman. “I remember one night seeing all these lights sparkling in the distance like bouncing stars. I woke my brother and said look at what is out there, and we stood with our noses pressed against the train window looking out. Then, one of the women with us said, that is the sea. I had never seen the sea.”
 Heading for the Train of Happiness
Days later, when that first train finally got to Modena, it had snowed. The mothers had done their best to dress their children for the trip, but the truth was the kids were dressed in rags and many were barefoot, but not all. One mother had taken the only shoes in the house, her husband’s shoes, and put them on the feet of her son just before he boarded the train. When the boy arrived in Modena he stood there shivering in the train station, in his father’s shoes and his sister’s moth eaten sweater and waited to be picked up by his new family.

And family they were, to all of the kids. They treated them like their own, there was no difference. One by one they told of the marvel of sleeping in a clean bed by themselves, of having a whole room to themselves. It was very different at home where they shared beds with three, four or more brothers and sisters in rooms with more than one bed in it. Then they all laughed remembering their first bath in a bathtub, something none of them had ever experienced before.
The Train of Happiness
They all talked about eating three times a day for the first time in their life, of salami and pasta and meat all at the same meal, their first taste of a croissant, of a cookie, treats for kids who usual diet was bread and tomatoes with maybe a drop of oil, for oil was expensive. And in the afternoon they would go for gelato, which they likened to cold ricotta as none of them had ever heard of, let alone tasted gelato before.

There were many adjustments that had to be made by both the kids and the sponsors. For example, many of the sponsors only spoke the local dialect, Romangnolo and the kids spoke the dialects of the south. Some spoke Neapolitan others Barese and still others spoke dialects of isolated mountain villages, and so communication was tricky. “But we managed,” said one man talking about the young boy who had lived with him and his family, “in the end we mixed a little Neapolitan with a little Romangnolo and made our own language.”
Saying Goodbye
The children stayed with the families in Modena for two years and, when they left to return to their families and homes in the south, it was a tearful parting. It had been an experience that had changed an entire generation of Italians, not just the kids but their sponsors as well. And long after the kids went back their Modena families continued to send them packages of clothes and pasta and bread. As one woman put it,  “even if the bread was 15 days old, for that’s how long it would take to get to us, we would open the boxes and smell the smell of Modena and all our memories would come back to us.”

While I Treni della Felicita’ only focuses on the families of Modena and Reggio Emilia, the UDI program actually reached more than 70,000 kids. Many of them lived with families in and around Modena, but many others lived with families in Milano, Torino and other cities in northern Italy. It’s difficult for us to fully understand how this experience affected them for it was a unique time in history when the extraordinary value of human solidarity prevailed, one of many examples of the generosity to the less fortunate that has always characterized the Italians.
A New Way of Living
Film maker Alessandro Piva tracked down some of the people who had been hosted in Modena and put together an hour long documentary called Pasta Nera. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5zph62IdCY Pasta Nera 

03 August 2014


Lipari, Sicily



31 July 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: The Truth About August

CHIAVARI, Italy – After starting my Italian life on the sunny Riviera where things are popping in the summertime, you can imagine my surprise to find that in other parts of Italy, life in the summer is quite different. For example: when I moved to Milan I found myself living in a concrete jungle that was bustling and busy in July, but in August it was as empty as a dried out bee hive.  
The Galleria, Milan, Italy
I woke up one morning and Milan had been evacuated. Every business around my apartment had closed and “Chiuso per Ferie” (Closed for Vacation) signs had suddenly sprouted up everywhere. After a few days, I started to worry. The cupboard was getting dangerously bare and there was not a sighting of anyone selling food anywhere.

What to do? I took to the quiet, traffic free streets and began wandering up one and down another, dragging my empty grocery cart foraging for food like a Neanderthal housewife. There wasn’t even a bar open in my neighborhood where I could get a sandwich. I was starting to question the wisdom of moving to Milan. The plummy job offer I had received wasn’t going to do me much good if I starved to death over the summer, now was it.
 Chiuso per Ferie - Closed for Vacation
I was down to my last can of tuna when I discovered that as a public service, the Corriere della Sera, the local newspaper, published lists of the grocery stores in Milan that were open in August. There were only a handful of them, mostly in remote neighborhoods I had never heard of. And I’m not talking mega-super marts, I talking mom and pop shops that were so small they only had room for 5 cartons of milk and half a dozen loaves of bread. In other words, get there early.

To be honest, that was at the end of the 90’s, and things did improve with time. But not much. So, in the name of the Freedom of Information Act – which doesn’t actually apply here in Italy, here’s a list of bars in Milan that make it a point to be open in August travelers who think mid-August is a good time to visit the city. Like the Corriere della Sera’s list of grocery stores that were open in August, it’s a short list and    not in any particular order.  I’m just thrilled to have a list. For certain there are other places that are open, you’ll just have to pretend you are on a city safari and seek them out.

Pattini Buenos Aires
Pattini Buenos Aires
Corso Buenos Aires 55, Milano
Tel. 02.29516010

They would like you to think all the shops along busy Corso Buenos Aires are "open all year", but they are not. However, Pattini is. This bakery/bar offers bread, foccacia, cakes of all types – which you can also buy by the slice, and of course that cornerstone of Italian breakfast, that bit of uber-deliciousness the French call croissants, our one and only Italian brioche/cornetti. You know the ones I mean. Those horn shaped pastries that come with a shot og custard or marmalade indifr. Or sometimes, if they are whole wheat brioche, they are filled with honey. Or just plain. Who can resist?  

 Princi Cafe
Princi Cafe
Piazza XXV Aprile 5, Milano
Tel. 02.29060832

In Piazza XXV Aprile, Princi is always open. The baker is always baking, the bar man is always doing what bar men do. On offer, along with bread, foccacia and fancy cakes you can have a coffee or a nice cup of tea or even snack or an aperitif. The cocktails are summery and pretty with lots of fresh fruit. You can sit out on the terrace and enjoy the quiet of summer in the city in August. As they say in Italian, “si sta bene”.  

Bistro Elettrauto Cadore
Elettrauto Cadore
Via Giacomo Pinaroli, 3, 20135 Milano
Tel. 02.55191781
Elletrauto Cadore, as the name implies, was once a garage. Now it is a cool place where you can have a cocktail, light lunch or a cup of coffee. The happy hour buffet, along with the usual pieces of foccacia, salami and cheese, offers something new  – something new for Milan at any rate -  chicken wings.  When the weather is nice, you can sit outside under the umbrellas. If you have a good imagination, you can pretend you are on vacation.

QC Terme Milano
QC Terme Milano
Piazzale Medaglie d’Oro 2, angolo Via Filippetti, Milano
Tel. 02.55199367

Aperiterme is QC Terme’s name for their happy hour. It’s held in the garden and afterwards you can sit in the sun and work on your tan in the large outdoor area, or have a facial, the new one that gives light and energy to tired skin (their words, not mine). Or, it might be the neck massage that gives the light and energy, and with all that new energy you can take a dip in the pool which is open until 12:30 AM or, head for the sauna. At any rate you’ll surely be transported to faraway places by the scent of garden flowers and lavender, and who knows, you just might forget that you are even still in Milan.

27 July 2014

LIFE: Precious Moments

CHIAVARI, Italy – In the first six months of this year more than 65,000 immigrants found their way to Italy. They come in by the boatloads overwhelming the residents of Lampadusa and other town in the south. It’s a national problem but except for the few Africans I occasionally see here in Chiavari, I have no contact with them. It was much the same when I lived in the Milan suburb of Saronno, until the day that I met Precious.
The Quiet Streets of Saronno
I first saw Precious when I was on my way home from a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t know we were both going to the same town until she sat down next to me at the train station and we started making small talk the way people do who happen to sit next to each other in public places.

She told me her name was Precious and she was from Nigeria. She seemed surprised that I was American and said I was the first American she had ever met. About four sentences later she suddenly turned serious and said to me, “do you believe in Jesus.” As she said those words, she pulled a small bible out of her handbag and held it in her hand.
 Where Are They Now?
She caught me by surprise and I didn’t know what to say. I knew if I said yes, she would roll into a discussion about the wonderfulness of Jesus and religion and how we have to venerate Him. Or she would start reading to me from the bible or wanting me to pray with her. On the other hand, if I said no, she might let the conversation take a lighter note, like most casual conversations do and we could talk about what films in English were playing at the Arcobaleno Theatre in Milan that week.

I realize now, of course, that it would not have mattered which approach I took, she wasn’t going to let me get away that easily. But at the time, I was convinced a strong stand would put an end to her interrogation. So I took a deep breath and said, “No, I don’t.”
Entering the Land of Milk and Honey
She was visibly horrified by my answer. Then she took a deep breath and asked, “How old are you?” 

I told her. Obviously I was, in her opinion, close enough to my expiration date that she felt compelled to save me and so the onslaught began. With bible in hand and a most serious and concerned face, she recounted the horrors that were in store for me. Did I really want to spend eternity burning in the pits of hell? And didn’t I see all the glories of the afterlife that awaited me in the house of the Lord, if only I would believe in Him.
Some Die Trying
The train station we were sitting in didn’t seem to be the place to discuss such a heavy subject as the pros and cons of my impending encounter with the afterlife, so I did my best to change the subject. I tried again to move her off the Jesus track and onto a lighter, more suitable discussion for a brief encounter – the weather for example. And then our train came.

When we got on the train I sat down next to a young Italian woman and Precious sat across from me. She was fully concentrated on her mission and continued her recounting of the horrors that awaited me if I continued down the path that would surely lead to my destruction. She was making me feel very uncomfortable, and as I wracked my brain trying to think of some kind way to distract her, the young Italian woman, hearing Precious and I speak English, joined the conversation. Precious immediately turned her focus to her.

“Do you believe in Jesus,” she asked the Italian woman.

I’m coming from Marrakesh, the woman replied, “where I met the most beautiful Frenchman. He’s a singer. He’s making concerts traveling around in North Africa. Do you think there is such a thing as love at first sight?”

Facing An Uncertain Future
Eureka! I had found a way around the problem. All I had to do was start another conversation with the Italian woman about the possibility of real love at first sight. So I did. I was hoping Precious would join in and we could all have a nice conversation, but she didn’t. She just sat there, clutched her bible and listened as the woman talked about her adventure with the handsome French singer.

While the Italian woman’s talked about her good fortune at meeting the Frenchman and misfortune that it happened her last night in Marrakesh, I was sorry that I couldn’t engage Precious on another subject. I would have liked to have known more about her as a person, her life, why she was in Italy, how she was getting along. I could tell by the seriousness in which she talked about her relationship with God, and her obvious concern for me, that she was a kind and caring person, a daughter any mother would be proud to have.
I also understood how difficult it is for Africans immigrants to have any kind of contact, other than the most superficial with Italians. It was difficult for me when I first came to Italy and I have the advantage in that most Italians seem to love Americans even though in reality few have ever actually met any.

But while I felt bad for Precious, the thought of future conversations that most certainly would center on my impending demise and the penalties I would suffer for my apparent lack of belief, hardened my heart.
What Does the Future Hold?
And then we got off the train.

We stood for a moment at the bottom of the stairs in the station’s sottopassaggio. As I was turning right to go home and she was turning left to go to a religious service, she said to me, “will you come to my wedding mama?”

For years I had bristled at the African vendors calling me “mama”. “I’m not your mama,” I would often reply to their attempts to get me to buy whatever they were selling. But in that moment, standing there with Precious, I realized that for Africans the title “mama” is the equivalent of “signora” in Italian. It’s a sign of respect. I also realized how much I don’t know about the Africans I pass every day on my daily to and fro of shopping and errands.
It’s not that I don’t know about immigrants. I grew up in a family of immigrants and know their stories by heart. I’ve even lived my own immigrant experience with my decision to move to Italy. But my experiences were a very different from theirs. I had many advantages my family did not have starting with language skills and life skills that helped smooth my path, advantages immigrants like Precious can only dream about.

As for my grandparents’ experiences, there is a big difference between immigrating to a multi-cultural country like the United States that was built on the backs of people like my grandparents, and a mono-culture like Italy. There are no Italian J.P. Morgans, Andrew Carnegies or Cornelius Vanderbilts building railroads or steel plants or digging for oil and providing work for newly arrived immigrants in the process. There are mostly small family run businesses doing their best to survive the global crisis and any additional competition from quarter, especially non-Italians is suspect.
 Dangerous or Desperate?
As boatloads of refugees/immigrants continue to land on the islands around Sicily the role of Italy’s immigrants still needs to be defined. Those coming ashore see Italy as the land of milk and honey, the Italians rich and prosperous. And compared to the life they left behind, it is true. But the Italians see themselves as barely hanging on, struggling through each day. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.  

I never saw her again, but I’ve thought about her many times since that first encounter. I do wonder what happened to her and if she’s happy in her new life. I hope that she is. For me it was a missed opportunity to better understand others who are as much a part of this Italian life as I am. But life is like that sometimes, isn’t it. 

Photos: Ansa, La Repubblica