We visit Roccamonfina
The van climbed the winding road to the small mountain town of Roccamonfina in Campania, my grandfather’s birthplace. As we followed the snow-covered Apennines from Rome where we were staying for the week, I practiced
Italian with Luigi, our driver. For 350 Euros, the rental and the lessons were a bargain. “E’ lontano, Luigi?” “No, quasi cento kilometre.” “Bene. Stai attento, eh.” “Si.”
I had a vague idea of what to expect since my father had visited Roccamonfina in the 1970’s and when he returned said, with pride and enthusiasm, “There are chestnut trees everywhere. That’s what they do. They farm chestnuts. It’s the chestnut capital! My cousin gave me chestnuts to take home, but the customs agents took them! I’ll bet they ate them.”
I called when I arrived. “Pronto.” “Vincenzo Iannuccilli?’ “Si.” “Vincenzo, sono Eduardo Iannuccilli, figlio di Pietro.” My emotions and my Italian were shaky. “Si.” “A Roma…. adesso.” “Si.” Come sta?” “Bene.” “Possiamo visitarLei a Roccamonfina?” “Si.” Indecisive somewhat, but I thought I was doing OK. “E possibile mercoledi.” “No, no, perche il dottore viene mercloledi.” Now we were doing well. I understood him! His doctor was coming on Wednesday. “Cosi. Posso venire martedi?” “Si.” “Aha. Martedi. Si. Allora. Non parlo bene Vincenzo. Ha capito?” “Si, si. Ho capito. Hai parlato bene, molto bene. Ci vediamo martedi.” He understood? I spoke well? We will see each other on Tuesday? I hope so! I hung up and took a breath. “I got through that part,” I thought.
It was a beautiful, clear January day. Diane and I, and our friends were off, with Luigi at the wheel. The trip south along the autostrada, adjacent to the Apennines, was splendid; small hill towns painted into the landscape, beautiful valleys dressed with winter grays and browns, scattered cypress trees still holding their green, houses sketched on the mountainside, fields tilled to neat parallel mounds and ready for planting, undulating grape vines strung like strands wound together, waiting for the fruit. Perfect. “Bellisimo, eh, Luigi?” “Si.Si. Sono bellisimi.”
We approached the exit one hundred kilometers south of Rome. Luigi called Vincenzo. “Get off at Caianello. Then follow the road up. Sopra, sempre dritto.” I was eager and anxious. Who was waiting for me?
The winding road was bordered by leafless chestnut trees, hundreds, perhaps thousands, neatly trimmed, with stacks of wood pruned from the resting bodies, arranged at each base. The gray trees blended with the land, their trunks in turn blended with the uneven hills. Homes mingled with the trees dotting the countryside, smoke rising from the chimneys. I pictured their families at lunch. Daydreaming that I had discovered these hills, I awoke to hear Luigi calling Vincenzo again, “Davanti la chiesa, in front of the church.” Of course, where else would we meet?
Our first stop was a lonely, small, unscrubbed church, some distance below the top. It was vacant. “Non e’ questa. C’e un altro, Luigi.” “Si.” “Sopra, sempre dritto.” We approached a small square, the town center, and the church. There he was, sitting in his car. “He looks just like my aunt,” I said. Vincenzo got out of the little Fiat. He was a shorter version of my family. He smiled with small teeth, walked with short quick steps, and wore heavy glasses that settled low on his nose. He had on a soft gray hat with a short brim. His small hands protruded from a bulky, gray winter coat. “He walks like my father!” I embraced him. Due baci, one on each cheek. “Vincenzo, piacere mio. Non posso credere! You look like Aunt Vera!” He smiled and said, “Venite.”
We returned to our van and followed him further up to a modest, two-story house in an unlandscaped yard that sat behind a fence-topped wall containing two dogs and some chickens. A small orange tiled roof that suggested an entrance to a temple hung over the gate. His chestnut trees surrounded the house to the rear and to the top of his hills. To the right the road wound further up. Sopra. To the left were more homes that followed the road to the town below. Sotto. “Viene, viene.” We were hesitant to enter, although not sure why. It was cold in the entry and stairway, but the welcome was warm. Their home was immaculate and adorned with tile and marble. There was a gas-fired flame heating simulated logs in the kitchen fireplace. Anna (my mother’s name) appeared. “Viene, viene, come in, give me your coats.”
Anna was shorter than Vincenzo. I felt huge. With pride, Anna took us on a tour of her home, and then, as it was early afternoon, invited us to join them for pranzo. Why for a moment had I thought we might go to a restaurant? Although I had grown up in an atmosphere of open homes and food and sharing, I thought the custom was dwindling. I was prepared to buy dinner. Foolish. But it had been so many years.
I became a little concerned when Anna murmured to herself, sotto voce, “I did not know how many there would be.” (There were five of us since we invited Luigi to join). Her concern was not of having enough food, but of where we were to sit. Two guests, the kitchen table, more than two, the dining room. We sat while Anna left for the kitchen and returned carrying dishes with generous portions of lasagna, each enough for a meal. “My goodness, look at this lasagna.” “Pace yourselves,” I said, “I am guessing there is more to come.”
It was a good guess because she served enough food to open a restaurant. The lasagna was delicious and the sauce was perfect. Vincenzo brought out his homemade wine. We drank, and soon thereafter, my Italian tongue loosened. I became a master of the language. “As you drink more wine, your Italian gets better and better,” an Italian friend once said. The meal was magnificent: after the lasagna, Anna served meatballs, short ribs, and home-made cured sausage. Mine nearly skipped off the plate when I tried to cut it. Following came roasted chicken from his yard, killed that morning, along with more wine, white and red, then pork and insalada from his garden. The food linked me to memories. In order, she served rabe and fungi, home-grown, pannetone, provolone, and chestnuts (his trees). Now three hours from the lasagna, it was late afternoon, and the meal was topped with caffe’… espresso…limoncello…. anisette. We talked. Dad’s grandfather and Vincenzo’s grandfather were brothers (i nonni sono stati fratelli). Dad and Vincenzo’s fathers were first cousins (sono stati cugini). Vincenzo and Dad were second cousins Vincenzo and I were third cousins (siamo cugini!). We drank more wine, and my tongue loosened even more. Then a funny thing happened.
Vincenzo started to speak English! He had lived in America over thirty years ago and began to remember. His wine was loosening his tongue! He returned to Roccmaonfina because of illness in 1972. “I no speek-a English for so manna years. Noboda here speek-a.” “Thissa the las time I make-a the wine. I getta too old.” As we spoke, I could not take my eyes from Vincenzo. His hands were like my Dad’s, his teeth like my aunt’s, his jaw like my uncle’s. They were our hands, our smile, and our teeth. We spoke and ate for hours. The more I understood his past, the more I learned about my family, and the more I was pleased.
Later in the day, when our meal was finished, I asked Anna if she cooked like this all the time. “No,” she replied, “No one is around anymore.” “No, no, I no canna eat-a like this evera day,” said Vincenzo. I looked around the dining room at the pictures on the walls. There was their wedding picture of forty-seven years, another of their family. She had frozen time with pictures of her children when they were young. There were pictures if their grandchildren. Although her daughter lived nearby, her children were gone. “My son is in Milan. He teaches English there. He was not able to come home for Christmas this year.” She seemed wistful. I had the feeling that Anna wanted to return to the past, to the usual Sunday dinner, to the same meal that we had. I sensed that she wanted it that way forever. I wondered if the Italian family Sunday dinner would disappear completely. I feared so, but hoped not. It had disappeared in mine. I sat and reflected. The conversation regarding our family continued. There was more to the story.
The day had passed so quickly and I was sorry that it ended. “Gracie, gracie, cugini. Vi ringraziamo.” “Niente, niente.” “I would love to return to see you.” “Si. Si. Anytime, anytime. You can stay in our son’s room.” It is an invitation that is hard to overlook. “One more thing,” I said. “Can you show me my grandfather’s house?”
“No, it’s not there anymore. It was knocked down and a new one built on the site. The owners are away on vacation and we cannot get in. You can see the outside if you wish. It is very nice.” “No, that’s OK.”
Our friends and traveling companions became part of our family that day; laughing, sharing, eating, enjoying with wonder and admiration, just as we did, just as I expected. They seemed overwhelmed, consumed while they consumed, surely by the food, but moreso by the hospitality; generosity from the heart. We could almost have been anyone, anywhere, anytime with Vincenzo and Anna. This day it was Roccamonfina, in Campania, Italy, south of Rome.
It was an unforgettable day. I did something I always wanted to do. I returned to my roots. There I found what I expected; an extended family, full of love, pride and satisfaction. They shared their home and their table with us. As we drove down the mountain, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to return and to spend two weeks here living with Anna and Vincenzo, harvesting the chestnuts with the men. I could speak Italian and eat like this every day!” Our photos did not give justice to the day. Of course, we would use them to share with others as much as possible, trying somehow to capture and hold the experience, but we knew it would only be a morsel. There was one more stop before we descended, the square in front of the church. Diane took my picture. I stood as tall as I could.