Explorer: Laura Pugliano
Between the Calabrian Seas
Far south of Naples, as the toe of the Italian boot, there is a land known as Calabria. Wild and wonderful, this is a land of sunshine, crystal-clear seas, and star-filled night skies. Between the Calabrian seas is a place of rest and of work, of dry heat and cool breezes, of olive groves and vineyards, of tiny towns and of great renown. Nestled into the skinniest strip of land between the seas, humbly resting atop a mountain, is a tiny town called Vena di Maida.
Here, you won’t find tourists or nightclubs, trattorias or stylish shops. You will find a beloved town and countryside, sun-kissed earth, smiling, tanned, wrinkled faces, and a place that is dear to the people who at some point have called it home. It is here where I spend my summers. It is here where my husband grew up. It is here where we were married.
My husband, Giuseppe, says that going home is like taking a time machine. Technology hasn’t swept in and changed the pace of living from how it has been for decades. Kids aren’t on Snapchat; they are on their bicycles. Adults don’t call each other to talk; they sit on wooden chairs outside their doors in the middle of the street and chat all night. Moms don’t have Blue Apron meal delivery arrive at their door; Massimo and his truck bursting with vegetables meanders through town, announcing his arrival over megaphone via his featured lineup that is always the same, ‘patate, cippolle, lattuga, pomodori’, in case anyone forgot that he always has potatoes, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. The post office opens at 7:00 AM, or it doesn’t, if the internet connection isn’t working. Yet one place is always open: La Chiesa di Sant’Andrea Apostolo, the Church of Saint Andrew the Apostle. Of course, it is a Catholic church. What other religion exists for Italians?
Just as Calabria is a world different from her cousin northern regions, so is her language. Languages, plural. Dialetto is an ephemeral thought for most foreigners studying the Italian language, for when they hear about dialects, there’s no reference point to put into perspective their importance. You may easily ask for directions from a shopkeeper, converse at Italian dinner parties, and even hold a job in central regions like Umbria and Tuscany, but upon entering the south, Italian fades away like sautéed garlic in tomato sauce. It’s always there in the background, usually identifiable, yet not possessing the strength that it once had. A proficient adult becomes an incompetent fool who can’t even understand a cute bartender’s response, make sense of relaxed chatter in the piazza, or even begin to grasp the words that the MC said over the microphone at last night’s festa that ignited everyone into laughter. You again become a student, but this time, of a language that has no instructional books. And it comes when you were finally so proud of your Italian pronunciation, intonation, and comprehension.
In Vena di Maida, the primary spoken language among families is not Italian, nor the local dialect, but an ancient language called Arbëresh. Arbëresh is distinct to Italy, derived from a dialect of southern Albania and containing traces of Italian and Greek. There are four dialects, and all have been spoken in various Southern Italian towns since the Albanians came to the aid of the King of Naples over 500 years ago and settled in the mountains. Fascinating as that is, what it means for me is that I will never, ever, attain fluency in Calabria.
But Italy doesn’t just do that to me. She does it to everyone, to Italians of far north to those of deep south, who can only communicate with each other in the standard Italian that originated from the Tuscan dialect. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Italy is so enchanting. Maybe you need to think of learning her language, dialects, and ancient vocabularies more as a love affair and less as a great feat of learning and understanding. Complete fluency will never arrive. Moderate understanding of local communication must be soaked up along with the sun, and the rest must be felt with the heart.
Calabria is a place where you wake to scorching sun and rich espresso, bathe in the turquoise sea during the day, and dance the lively Tarantella by night. You get stuck driving through town by goats with bells on their necks, their shepherd playing a wooden piccolo as he plods alongside them. You eat your weight in home-grown ruby red tomatoes, spicy soppressata, buttery olive oil and hand-rolled pasta, and wash it down with this year’s light-bodied red wine. Then you take a pisolino, a nap to digest it all. And then you do it all again, day after day. There isn’t time (or internet bandwith) for Facebook trolling, Twitter live-tweeting, Amazon Prime ordering, Retail Me Not coupon clipping, Target Cartwheeling, Starbucks star-dashing, MapMyRun fitness tracking, and everything else we clog up our lives with. There’s only enough time for slowing down and being. And therein lies Calabria’s beauty.
Laura Pugliano began globetrotting the world spending semesters abroad in Austria and Italy, managing an equestrian facility in Central Italy, and traveling as much as possible everywhere in between. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Writing from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and her professional writing experience includes newspaper travel columns and magazine articles. In 2015 she married her sweetheart in Calabria, Italy, and honeymooned in Bali, Indonesia. Laura lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, Pino, and holds the title of Cooperative Genius at work by day and sous-chef at home by night. She spends her summers with her in-laws among the sea, sun, and hills of Southern Italy. Find her on Instagram here: @lauramonica.