Sitting at my computer reading through my messages from Italy and looking at those always delightful photographs, I’m thinking about what will be happening in Amalfi to prepare for Christmas. There you really know something truly important is being celebrated and I’m wondering – is the tree yet lit up in the piazza? are the little carved Nativity figures already placed in the fountains with the tiny cribs still empty, waiting for the birth of Jesus? Certainly shops shelves will be heavy with the panettone, lights will be strung along the streets and on the tall Christmas tree on the seafront, all the bars decorated, music playing. Christmas Eve is the day of celebration, with fish being the main ingredient for a very special lunch, all-day activity in the Cathedral with the evening candle-lit service for children, the youngest of whom will, back at home, carry the tiny figure of Jesus through each room ready to place Him in His crib as midnight strikes
New Year is welcomed in with more excellent food, music and dancing in the Piazza and the famous firework comet sent down from a mountain top to the Cathedral steps. At midnight there is always yet another stupendous Amalfi firework displays, for which people leave their hotels, dining rooms or restaurants to watch from the beach. Many then go home, while the younger ones walk round to Atrani for more music and dancing in that delightful little piazza. The following morning now weary revellers stage a procession from the back of Amalfi down to the main Piazza, with traditional musical instruments and an elderly man carrying a young child, he being the Old Year and the child the New. Festivities are wound up with more music on the Cathedral steps and then life returns to normal.
The rituals surrounding Death were yet another revelation to me. Unlike the UK where funerals usually take place at least a week after the event, in Italy people are despatched within 24 hours. For any relatives living at some distance, it might not be possible to arrive in time; where it was quite unexpected, the rush to prepare everything can be exceptionally stressful for those who were close. The first sign is the notices which are posted on the relevant boards throughout the town, with name of the Departed, their family, time and place of the funeral. When my father-in-law died, I was surprised by the arrival of sympathisers with their traditional packets of sugar and coffee. a symbolic nourishment. He was taken to the smaller of two cemeteries in town, but for those who wanted to join their family in the larger plot, it was necessary for their coffin to be carried uphill for some considerable distance. As a result,occasionally a bearer or follower has been known to suffer a fall or other such injury during their climb. When my mother-in-law died some years later, I was expected to sit in a very cold little room with her body for several hours so that she should not be left alone; her sons of course, were busy elsewhere. There were also rituals which kept children away from school and not allowed to play outside, whilst some families would not even hang out their washing. However, when my own mother died, far away in London, not one of these rituals was expected to be followed.
the cemetery, with all the arches along its walls, can be seen dominating the town.
I was tickled pink by the way children had to dress for school; the little ones still at nursery school wore a white smock, pleated down the front, belted and with a smart white collar, the primary school outfit was the same, but blue and the older children also had the same outfit, but in black and always with the white collar. To see the little ones pouring out from school at the end of the morning, was a colourful sight. The older ones were certainly less colourful, but always looked smart. The advantage of these outfits (called ‘grembiule‘) was that they were drip-dry and could be worn clean every day. I remembered my early school days, when some children were embarrassed by not being as well-dressed as all the others and how difficult that must have been for them. These attractive little outfits meant they all would look the same and for a very low cost – very democratic!
Our little ex-pat group liked to take advantage of our few free hours, before our children came home at lunchtime, by enjoying a morning coffee together at our favourite bar in Piazza Duomo and maybe a short walk, before preparing lunch. At that time the schools closed somewhere between 1 and 2 o/clock, (no full days then, it was home to eat, usually followed by several hours of homework) but whenever there was some afternoon activity for the children we usually would all meet up again. Happy days!
Every time I left the house for whatever reason and whichever direction I took, it was inevitable that I would meet someone who would want to stop and chat. That gave me a feeling of security and of belonging. It was clear that everyone knew everyone, having always shared the same schools, outdoor actitivies and families. Nevertheless, I spent a couple of years in Amalfi with no-one telling me that there were a few other English women also living there. The fact that I might be interested to know about them was totally ignored. It was someone from one of my tourist groups who first told me he’d met a local man who had an English daughter-in-law. For a while I couldn’t find out who she might be and then we bumped into one another quite by chance. Still today, we are the best of friends. However, it wasn’t easy; within a short time there were three of us and it was such a treat be able to speak English together, have afternoon teas, share a sense of humour, have our children play together and also share their knowledge of English. Unfortunately, for our husbands that was not pleasing and they each did their best to stop our frequent meetings. It apparently didn’t occur to them that they had never lived abroad and had always been close to everyone they’d known since birth. So that was one of the negative sides of local attitudes towards we foreign women, not at all what any of us would have expected.
23rd November 1980 – it had been an unusually hot day but that gave us no warning of what was to come. In the evening, as I was preparing for my boys’ bedtime, I was dumbfounded by what happened from one moment to the other………..
“I had said I’d get the boys’ bath ready and as I walked towards the bathroom there was a shattering bang. The shock of so loud a noise stopped me and for a moment I thought a jet had broken the sound barrier above us, but within only a second or two, the floor began to undulate beneath my feet; it felt like trying to balance on a slow roller coaster. All our windows shook and a chandelier trembled violently. The word ‘earthquake’ jumped into my mind but I didn’t want to believe it……………..
soon, it seemed the whole town had gathered on the sea-front, where we all tried to understand what was happening………………
“I had been wrong to expect scenes of panic; people were gathered in hushed groups; several were crying, some stood still in dumb shock, others were praying. Everyone had someone to be afraid for. Clearly there had been a catastrophe somewhere but with the electricity off again, there were no radios or television sets to give us news. We waited, not knowing what to do and people tried to comfort one another. Friends I didn’t know I had saw me with my children and offered us refuge in their car, or to share some food with them……………………”
“Although Ravello was mentioned by Boccaccio in his ‘Decameron’ – it’s nice to know that two men from the UK were responsible for keeping the town high on the list of European cultural pilgrimages by attracting so many famous visitors and artists over the last two centuries. Neville Reid, the Scot whose beautiful garden so enchanted the great composer, Wagner, that he can be considered responsible for today’s highly regarded international music festival – and Lord Grimthorpe, the Yorkshireman whose own ‘Shangri-La’ became a place of refuge away from curious eyes for Sweden’s great actress, Greta Garbo and her secret lover the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, as well as providing a magnificent setting for countless others who have continued to enjoy its beauty over so many years.”
We always had something special to look forward to. The pavements were always busy for the evening passeggiata and then there were the historical processions, the annual Regatta end even celebrations for seasonal fruits and vegetables. I was delighted when I first saw the pumpkins and long, rounded squash, not only displayed on stall counters and tables, but also sculpted by local craftsmen into houses, animals, all manner of different items. Other festas celebrated the harvest of chestnuts, cooked in various different ways or simply sold hot from the fire. Pasta could not be forgotten and was very good to eat hot on a cool autumnal evening. There was all the colour and pomp of the annual Regatta, as well as equally colourful religious processions. During the Summer season we could take ourselves to the Piazza Duomo to listen to popular singers, musicians and dancers, who would entertain their enthusiastic audience seated around them on the steps, standing or sitting at the bars. It felt so good to be part of that crowd having so much fun.
I would never miss what for me was the most moving of all these events, the celebration of Good Friday – Venerdi Santo. They begin with Mass in the packed cathedral at the end of which the doors are thrown open wide and in my time in Amalfi, there was usually a man representing the Christ figure and carrying a heavy wooden cross on his back. Today they seem to use different symbols each time, but Ialways remember the man with the cross. There is a hush throughout the town and all electric lights are closed – replaced with burning torches in holders on the walls. My memory is that it always rained on Good Friday – symbolic tears from Heaven.
The time came when circumstances meant we had to move away from our ‘private road’ and life was never the same again.
“No more could I sit on our terrace or at the windows to watch the sea in all its moods, the rising sun bringing us into a new day, or its golden globe turning to flaming orange as it sank into night, leaving a sky streaked with deep reds and purple; nor could I see the fishing boats with their bobbing lanterns, or the port illuminated by the dazzling silver light of a full moon. No more front-row view of the exciting fireworks displays, children playing on the beaches, the to-ing and fro-ing of ferry boats, the noise of buses and coaches, the sound of music drifting up from the stradone, and chatter of holidaymakers strolling slowly down to the jetty. At night, other than the noise of cars and vespas, all I could hear was the lonely call of the white owl who occasionally flew out from his secret home somewhere on the mountain wall opposite our windows. We also left behind the daily contact with our neighbours, who were now good friends, and lost the feeling of being in a very close, family-like community.”
photograph – looking towards our ‘private road’ from Amalfi’s port.
The Neapoletan dialect did not help daily life. All those hours spent at my ‘Parliamo Italiano’ BBC discs, learning the Italian verbs, practising conversation – what was the point of all that? How was I to know that Italian, the language I had been trying so hard to teach myself, was not spoken by the people I met on a daily basis. Instead, they all communicate in the Neapoletan dialect, left over from the Bourbon occupation – apparently quite useful still in certain parts of Spain – but meaningless to an English woman like me. Fortunately, the use of hand-language was relatively easy to understand and by watching people’s gesticulations I could ‘sort of” manage to follow some parts of conversations around me. However, it wasn’t much fun sitting at a table where anything from four to a dozen people would all be communicating in dialect and little old me had to be resigned to enjoying my meal. I didn’t at all like the sound of the dialect for quite some time, but when I eventually gained some familiarity with it, my opinion changed somewhat.
It took almost ten years, with no help at all, to fully understand what was going on around me and when I finally did, I kept it to myself. No-one had tried to help me, despite complaining if I dared to say something in English to one of my close friends, so I was not going to let them know how many tit-bits of conversation I could at last understand. By then many of the Neapoletan songs were familiar to me and although I found dialect being shouted down from a window to an acquaintance way below sounded very coarse, the poetry in those songs did touch me and I now really do love them. I can understand why that particular dialect apparently is the most popular one in all of Italy – it is humorous as well as tender and romantic.