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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Two Memories


I was born in a coastal city in southern Italy. When I was a little girl my mother and I often walked by the shore, looking at the fishermen patiently unraveling their nets. The silvery fish were spread for sale on the wooden tables along the beach. My mother told me that fishermen go  out on their boats at night. They row their way out to the open sea careful not to make any noise,  for the fish would swim away if they heard them coming. Silently they cast their nets into the water, attracting their preys with a small light and a bunch of succulent worms. Then they sit, smoking cigarettes and eating tune, waiting. 

I came to look at those men with respect, as if they were the depositary of ancient secrets. Some of them looked very old, their skin shriveled by the sun. Darkness, starry nights, deep seas and troublesome waves were their universe, night after night, year after year. When someone asked me the usual question, namely “What do you  want to be when you grow up?” , I would answer:
 “I want to be a fisherman.”
 To me, they were the bravest people in the world.

A few decades have passed in the blink of an eye, and now I live with my second husband far away from our beloved Mediterranean Sea. Every Christmas, out of nostalgia, we build a typical Neapolitan Nativity village on the sideboard in our living-room. I remember last December. Against the night sky full of stars I had already painted high mountains dotted with small houses. Bruno was making papier-mache hills, a lake and of course the barn where, according to the tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Dipping brown paper in a bucket full of glue, I asked him:
 “Did you leave enough space for the pizzeria?” 

 It might seem awkward to you, but the Neapolitan Nativity, which in Italy is called “Presepe”, always includes a restaurant complete with chunks of prosciutto and mozzarella hung from the ceiling. We brought our hand-made terracotta figures from our country, and besides the classic Nativity characters we have two little terracotta tables with people sitting around them, happily  having dinner. Jesus, as you probably know, loved to share good meals with his disciples, so the  pizzeria is not so out of place after all.
Etna, our son, was comfortably sitting in his armchair, watching us struggling with a piece of aluminum foil that was supposed to look like a stream. 
 “You know, “ I said, “this is the first Christmas in my life that actually has a meaning for me.”
Etna had watched us building the Nativity every Christmas for nineteen years, in good and in bad times, and we have certainly had both. When he was a child, it was his privilege to put the  baby Jesus in the manger at midnight on Christmas Eve. But of course when he became a teenager the care for this detail fell back on me. We kept building the Nativity because it’s our custom; it carries memories of our hometown and of our childhood. But this time there was more in it for me, namely the consciousness that we were getting ready to celebrate the birth of the Savior, the one who died to show us the way.

 Etna, on the other hand, was willing to keep the tradition going, but didn’t share my brand new view of Jesus.
“This year,” I went on, “I’m going to go to the Midnight Mass. Would you two like to come?”
 “Don’t even think about it,” was Etna’s answer.
“I’ll probably pass too,” said Bruno.


Manny said...

Your first memory reminded me of Neopolatan songs. 'O Marenariello or Santa Lucia Luntano especially come to mind. Do you enjoy Neopolatan songs? My father would sing them all the time. When he was bedridden toward the end of his life he would have them playing all day long. I love them too, but it brings back too many memories to listen and my eyes start to water up.

I'm not sure if I ever told you, but my family was from a small town not far from Avelino.

I didn't know that a typical presepe includes a pizzaria. I never saw that. Your presepe sounds beautiful. Perhaps you can take a picture this year and put it on your blog.

Too bad about your son and husband not coming to mass. I don't go to midnight mass. I'm just too tired. I like going Christmas morning.

Antonella said...

My husband and I love Neapolitan songs! He can sing many, from the cabaret to the romantic style. I like Tammurriata Nera.
We miss our hometown and our country! I enjoy very much watching Italian TV over the weekend.
Maybe the Presepe doesn't always have a pizzeria, but it always have food displayed somewhere.I'll try to take a picture this year.

Manny said...

I don't know that song. I don't have it in any of my albums. I've been listening to it on youtube and it's not familiar. It's very catchy. I guess it translates to Black Tambourine? I can't understand all the words but it seems to be about a little black child? Is that correct? I don't think I'm familiar with the caberete style. I think the ones I know are the ones that go back 100 years or so.

My mother has the Italian channel (RAI) on all day long. She was never into politics and news until she got the Italian cable channel, and now she gets all angry all the Her politics are much different than mine. ;)

Antonella said...

I'm guessing I would get along politically with your mother!
Black Tambourine would be correct. It's about American soldiers who have children with Neapolitan women during the 2nd world war. The lyrics are kind of funny as the singer wonders why the child is black!
I also like O' Guarracino. It's a 17th century song that talks about all the possible species of fish in the sea getting upset over a fish falling in love and wanting to fight his rival!