Chapter 58: Violence against women in Italy

Today, November 25, concerned people are commemorating the world day against violence against women–La Giornata mondiale contro la violenza sulle donne.

The headline in one major Italian daily announced: Femminicidio, cento vittime nel 2012: una donna uccisa ogni due giorni. A woman in Italy is murdered every other day, usually by a supposed loved one. In 2011, it was one murder every three days!

The latest victim was only 17 years old. She was stabbed to death. The killer was her ex-fiance.

Eighty-seven percent of Italian women who called Telefono Rosa, a woman’s protection group, admitted being a victim of violence in their own homes.

Maria Teresa Manente of Differenza donna explained that deadly violence against women has increased significantly since the 1990s. The article presents data but leaves the reader puzzled as to the reasons for increased violence against women. They are cultural as well as social.

It’s ironic that I was watching Giuseppe Tornatore’s film Malena while researching violence against women. Malena, a war widow, is a beautiful Sicilian woman who is harassed and later punished by her fellow cittadini. Malena never receives the honors granted to widows, especially war widows. Throughout the film, Malena faces daily verbal abuse–puttana, diavola, she’s called. Later, she is forced to collaborate with occupying German troops since she has no family or friends in her city. When the Germans leave, she is beaten–her hair chopped off, not by men, but by other women. In the end, Malena’s husband returns from the war, unharmed. He and Malena leave town, their heads held high–a vaffanculo to misogynist Casteluco’, Tornatore’s fictitious name for the Sicilian city.

Paradoxically, in Italian culture, la donna is an iconic figure–la vergine Maria, la mamma, la nonna. But what about la moglie, la fidanzata, l’amica?


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Chapter 56: Sunday Lifelines

I’m sitting here on the very early Sunday morning, reminiscent of my childhood and reminded by it by Facebook posts sent to me by my Calabrese friends and family.

It’s a good time to wake up here for many reasons. There’s the silence of the countryside where I live. The coyotes are asleep, as are our dogs who protected us last night from any possible harm. Soon the noise from the highway will rise up to shatter the silence.

Here in Gringolandia, as Frida Kahlo’s used to call it, it is 5am. In Calabria it is lunchtime, pranzo. I wake up to numerous Facebook posts informing me of a beautiful and peaceful Sunday.

Don Vittorio Savoia has just sent me a picture of his pranzo. Giulia Torchia reminds me of the fragrance of her foccaccia. Elisabetta Mezzatesta Luca’ sends best wishes to all the Catherines out there as November 25 is the feast day of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. Giusy Zani wants to chat while I write this blog post. Mimmo Surace brags about his barbecue.

Don Vittorio’s pranzo is a reflection of his Calabrese tradition–simple, nutritious, reflecting our roots as contadini. We Calabresi are not a people of the five-course Italian meal. The five-course meal is a reflection of our northern brothers and sisters, richer and more prosperous than we Calabresi.

Don Vittorio’s pranzo is a big plate of pasta surrounded by meatballs, a chunk of simple bread to the right of his glass, filled with a strong, stout red. The bottle of his homemade wine sits close by, ready to provide more wine. There lies a single fork for we Calabresi are not a people of the exquisite posate of multiple forks and spoons like our northern brothers and sisters. A simple tablecloth, clothed in simple flowers, undergirds the meal. It reminds me of the simple Sunday dress worn by my nonna that I’ve seen in pictures.

Now that I’ve gotten my Calabrese “fix” I do what I always do on a Sunday morning–I’m going back to sleep.

‘BBona duminica a tutti!

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Chapter 57: November 22, 1963

Every person I’ve ever talked to who was alive on December 7, 1941 knew exactly where he or she was and what he or she was doing at the moment they heard the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese fleet. The same came be said for our generation who lived through the Kennedy assassination.

Today celebrates the 49th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

At 12:30 on a Friday afternoon while in military school, the nuns turned on all the TVs in our classrooms. The news spoke for itself. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, announced Walter Cronkite on CBS, was dead. No need to retell the details in this blog post because they are indelibly etched in our brains. What is of interest is where I was and what I was doing and what I did for the rest of the day.

JFK was special to most of us Italian Americans, not because he was one of us ethnically. He wasn’t. He was Irish. The only positive feelings the Saccos had about the Irish came from Gene and Pam, cousins in blood but brother and sister to me, Herbie, and Anthony. Pam and Gene were half Italian and half Irish. So, we respected the Irish half of their blood. Being half Italian and half Irish made them a mix of some bad shit. (That’s a compliment for those readers not from our neighborhood.)

So we Saccos, except for my Republican father, loved and admired JFK. And even the old man admired JKF after the Cuban missile crisis. Italian Americans loved him because of his faith. He was Roman Catholic like us, which made him an underdog like us. And after watching the movie PT 109, we realized he was a bad ass like us. My nonno, forced to vote for Nixon by my dad, still had a picture of JFK in his house.

After the announcement of his death, the nuns called our parents and asked them to pick us up a couple of hours earlier than normal that Friday afternoon. My dad arrived within an hour. We were mostly quiet, in shock, during our drive home in his truck.

He dropped me off at home because he still had a few deliveries to make as part of his business. I had homework to do, but I did it with Uncle Landy’s old 16-inch, black-and-white TV on. Speculation filled the air waves. Was it the Russians who had JFK killed? That was the dominant theme stuck in my 6th grade head. Were we going to war? Would the Russians nuke us as we had been warned about by the nuns in every civil defense drill? (In school we would hide under our desks in lieu of rushing to an air raid shelter, like our desks would protect us from Soviet ICBMs!)

Where could we hide at home? Herbie, Anthony, and Aunt Mary Ann were up stairs while me, my dad and Uncle Landy lived downstairs in the red-brick two flat owned by my nonno. We had no basement, only the abandoned lot next door with bushes and a huge oak tree to hide in. Basically, we were fucked if the Russians attacked.

Things calmed down when my dad returned home. He knew way more than I did and we watched the TV coverage throughout the evening and the weekend. Sunday evening I had to return to military school where we lived until the next Friday afternoon. The nuns kept us extra busy with military drill and homework to keep our minds off the assassination.

Today, November 22 has another special meaning for me. It is the birthday of my godson, Michael Adler. Michael turned 21 today in Houghton, Michigan, 400 miles north of Chicago. He filled me in on classes at Michigan Tech where I taught for 8 years. He’s planning to intern in Leipzig, Germany next summer with a group of researchers. I am so proud of him and his many talents as a student, classical musician, researcher and human being.

Michael revealed to me a few months ago where my bronzed plaque in honor of my 1988 Distinguished Teaching Award is now located. It’s beautiful with a head shot of me with a lot more hair than I have now. I look both distinguished and bad assed at the same time. The bronze plaque would have looked so much better in my house so I must admit I was tempted to ask Michael to steal it for me. But, I didn’t. I have to set a good example as his cumpari.

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Chapter 55: Indulgences

Indulgences. The word itself for some Italian Americans means cioccolato perugino, an excellent gelato, torta alla nonna.

But, it’s none of the three. As a participant in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church, indulgences mean something else entirely. For those not familiar with indulgences, the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia states that they permit “release from captivity or punishment . . . the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.”

For an 8-year-old, indulgences sounded like Monopoly’s equivalent of a “getting-out-of-jail” card. “Jail” for a Catholic kid like me was purgatory.

Purgatory was the main weapon nuns used to keep us in control when corporal punishment didn’t work on us. Purgatory was described to us as a temporary punishment chamber. Every time we did something wrong, the nuns told us we were going to suffer in purgatory for years and years. Not for a few minutes standing in the corner but “years and years!” Even though death was far off, I wanted to join dead family members in heaven–immediately. So, I put a plan in action–the Sacco purgatory insurance program.

In military school, every morning began with Mass at 7am in our chapel. Mass was said in Latin; the priest faced the altar, altar boys wore special Mass uniforms.

Sitting in the far back of the chapel, I could hear nothing clearly–the priest mumbling all his prayers in Latin, his altar boys interrupting him every once in a while with their own mumbling. With nothing really to do, I pulled out the indulgence prayer cards from my St. Joseph prayer missal.

Each indulgence prayer card promised the supplicant–me–X number of years of immunity from purgatory. Some indulgences were worth 100 years, some as many as 500 years! That’s what I called insurance protection! Given that I was a naughty cadet at school and a naught Sacco kid at home, the Sacco insurance protection program was a wise business move on my part. My goal was then to accumulate centuries of purgatory protection. That meant protection from past sins–but more importantly protection from future sins!

After a while, it got tough keeping track of my thousands of years of immunity. So, I brought a small notebook to Mass to bank my “numbers.” The notebook, my libretto was almost full when a nun passed by one morning during Mass and saw me banking my indulgences.

In the middle of Mass, she grabbed me by the ear, lifted me out of the pew, and screamed at me–accusing me, an eight-year-old boy, of heresy in front of everyone! Worse than the public pilloring was her destruction of my notebook, cancelling all of my years of immunity from burning in purgatory.

The Sacco purgatory insurance program had failed. I was in deep shit!

But, the story isn’t over. As I got older, I learned that “grown-ups” back in the Middle Ages abused indulgences worse than I did! And no nun punished them because the Pope allowed them to do it! These “grown-ups” didn’t pray like I did, they actually paid money to the Pope to reduce or even expunge purgatory time. The Catholic Church used indulgences to raise money, the Pope lining his pockets like a Chicago alderman. And the nuns hid this information from us!

In the final analysis, I have no idea if these “grown-up” indulgence abusers got their money’s worth when they died. If they did, then maybe the Sacco purgatory insurance program worked after all and will take full effect when I die.

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Chapter 54: “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .”

I like saying the rosary at night as I lay in bed hopeful for sleep.

I recite the rosary for two reasons. First, as an insomniac, I fall asleep within two decades into the rosary. Second, for us Calabresi, if we fall asleep before the rosary is finished, our angelo custode finishes it for us.

Not really! But it sounds like it would be a Calabrese custom and maybe it is!

My favorite time to recite the rosary is when I take my favorite hike in the world along the Cinqueterre trail in Liguria, the region that hugs the Mediterranean like no other. I stop at Vernazza, the fourth of the five towns, in the mid afternoon and I enter the Romanesque-style church perched at the end of the tiny harbor. Always at this time, the women of the village pray the rosary in a chant-like fashion. A-v-e M-a-r-i-a, p-i-e-n-a d-i g-r-a-z-i-a . . . I sit behind them and pray along with them–my soul comforted as well as my exhausted legs.

At the end of the rosary, the village women exit the church eyeballing me–a man who invaded their sacred pace. Italian men don’t generally chant the rosary with old women. Italian men generally don’t even go to church anymore–except in the Mezzogiorno.

Even though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, the rosary holds me hypnotically, like prayer for a Buddhist monk. In fact, it was only in a Buddhist temple in Da Nang, Vietnam, that I reached this zen-like state. If I pray the rosary when I drive, my road rage disappears–or at least almost.

I know that my nonna recited the rosary while rocking me to sleep as a baby. It inevitably stopped by crying and calmed my soul. Maybe, it isn’t too far-fetched to think that she now finishes my rosary when I fall asleep.

She is after all my angelo custode, my guardian angel.

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Chapter 53: Unanswered Questions

As I continue examining my Italian identity, I keep tripping over so many unanswered questions about my family.

Family members repeatedly mentioned that my nonno, Cesare Sacco, was raised by his sister or aunt, Elisabetta. They weren’t sure which. Yet, I’ve found no records at the municipio di Miglierina pertaining to her. I did see my nonno‘s postcard to his nipote (niece), Elisabetta, postdated in 1959, yet there is no trace of her either. In other words, two mysterious Elisabettas!

If Cesare Sacco had been raised by a sister or aunt, what happened to his parents Cesare Sacco and Maria Esposito? My nonno‘s certificato di nascita lists them as his parents. Since my nonno was born in 1890, his parents must have been born somewhere between 1865 to 1870, shortly after Italian reunification.

So you might say: “Well, go to the municipio and get their birth and death certificates?”

Not so fat! The municipio burned down in 1875, barbecuing most of the records I need. Their baptismal records are available at the Parrocchia Santa Lucia, but the parish priest would not allow me to examine them–even with a bribe-filled handshake.

Once I get back to Miglierina  for a few weeks, I’ll locate everything I need and answer most questions. And bring more “gifts” to the parish priest and the municipal workers. Just like we do in Chicago!

But, I still would have some additional unanswered questions.

When did my Zio Francesco (Zio Cicuzz’) go to Argentina? What happened to his sister Antonia, the older sister of my nonna, Giuseppina Cittadino? No one has ever mentioned Antonia to me!

How did my nonni meet? Why did they get married so late in life? (They were 23 and 22 respectively–old for miglierinesi!)

So much information is just outside of my reach. If I could only find two more generations–my great, great, great grandparents, I would find Cesare Sacco, born in 1794. He is listed in Padre Antonio Caccetta’s history of Miglierina as a brigante. The briganti are Calabria’s version of Robin Hood–beloved by the contadini and hated by the baroni.

So many questions! So many mysteries!

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Chapter 52: ‘Nduja

Nduja is a Calabrese culinary phenomenon, but hardly anyone knows about it in the U.S., outside of Calabresi.

What is ‘nduja?

Culinary critic Tim Hayword, in his article “A Little Dab’ll Nduja,” has trouble defining it while raving about it: “I could say it was a soft Calabrian salami, I could say it was a sort of preserved pâté, I could even, at a stretch, call it a sort of hot chilli haggis, but there’s one thing I can say with absolute conviction: ‘nduja is the single most exciting ingredient I’ve come across in ages.”

Moreover, Tim states . . .

“Nduja is a unique salume from Calabria. It’s distantly related to a sopressata in the sense that it’s made up largely of pig-head bits (minus the cheeks which are used for more premium guanciale) but flavoured with spectacular quantities of red pepper. The strange name is related to the French andouille and, though ‘nduja is also packed into that rather worrying lower end of the gut to form its singular shape, it has nothing to do with the much more polarising (and let’s face it, poopy) andouillette.”

Ironically, I learned about ‘nduja, not from my nonno, but from a Calabrese sandwich maker headquartered in the Piazza Santo Spirito in Florence. It looked like a spread as he made my sandwich, but the taste was amazing! I made up for lost time by returning every day to get my fix.

The Piazza Santo Spirito sandwich shop was jammed every day. My snobby Florentine neighbors set aside their criticism of Calabresi to feed their faces with our beloved ‘nduja. Their faces were transfixed! Their pupils dilated! Smiles wiped out their frowns. My Florentine neighbors morphed into the French villagers, eating Juliette Binoche’s chocolate in the film Chocolat. ‘Nduja had transformed their boring lives, reviving their long-lost passion.

The owner smiled at the effect of his ‘nduja–while counting his money.

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