Stories from Old Paduli
This story of Zi’ Ciccio (Uncle Francesco) is about the hard times in Paduli right after the end of the Second World War. It is from the collection of stories gathered into the book Le Tradizioni di Paduli: Storie Padulesi raccolte da Giovanni Saccone (the traditions of Paduli: Padulesi stories told by Giovanni Saccone), 2004. Hunger and cold were common. People made do with what they could. Hunger is a great motivator.
ORIGINAL STORY IN ITALIAN
MISERY (Zi’ Ciccio)
The war had just ended. In our town we only saw a small part of it. I recall the bombardment of Benevento. It was a sad week. Every night we heard the sirens announcing the arrival of the bombers. I remember that they usually came at suppertime. With our plates in hand we hurried under a huge oak tree. It’s still there if you want to see it, over near the Trombetti property. It is the biggest one. I and my companions under the boughs would hear the planes shooting at and bombing the Benevento train station. The explosions appeared like so many lights. The next morning we would go to clear out the rubble, all volunteers. How many persons I saw there acting like jackals! They robbed everything that had any value.
I recall one morning that my squad took advantage of the situation. There was a case of canned peas from America. We were so hungry that we hid them for our lunch and when it was noontime we separated ourselves off behind some rubble. We brought out the case of peas and opened each can with the point of a pick. What a surprise awaited us. Forgetting all about etiquette we opened each can and discovered the same thing in each one: tomato sauce.
We had planned a great lunch, but instead we ended up staying hungry. We couldn’t speak of anything else that day, each one of us cursing our bad luck.
I am telling you how misery was my constant companion in life. When I could have enjoyed life, life never offered my anything but hardships and sacrifice.
At the time I was already engaged to Maria (my future wife). We had already been a couple for quite some time and we had decided to marry in the spring. We organized everything including a house, two rented rooms and a meal with our relatives. My grandfather gave us two lambs. To celebrate us, our neighbors prepared the food, and I bought the wine.
The appointed day arrived. We all were happy. Maria and I were still wondering how we would deal with life when the only thing we could talk about every day was money. Without economic means the future scared us. We tried to be happy for the sake of our relatives, but we knew that in the following days we would have to face some hard problems. Our gifts consisted in fact of a bottle of oil and a “scanata” [loaf] of bread, thanks to my mother-in-law who said: “By the time you’ve finished this, you’ll have earned the next.”
I worked the whole winter as a farmhand in order to earn what money we needed, but it was always very little. We needed everything. For this reason my wife and I decided not to take money accept money for our work from our bosses, but rather grain, chick peas, beans and some wood. They were very comprehensive, and they gave me more than I expected. We arranged everything for good in the cantina, a niche cut out from the kitchen. We were able to eat without a problem for a month. I recall that spring with pleasure because it was our first time to live together as spouses and we made love like fools. There wasn’t an opportunity that Maria and I let pass without making love. The weather cooperated. First came the snow, followed by the rains which lasted until May. Therefore, we did not even speak about working. We were forever in the house like two love birds. What pleasure!
As a surprise, my aged employers, from kindness and gratitude, gave us a piglet telling us: “This will be a bounty to your house.”
That piglet, accepted at first with joy, created many problems for us. Above all, we had no place to put him, so for a long time he stayed in a corner of the kitchen on some straw. In the mornings I would take him out to the ally to the space under the stairs. Then he had to eat. What little we had was not even quite enough for ourselves. Maria and I collected so many acorns for him. He existed only on these. There were sacks of acorns all over the house. It kept raining, so Maria and I spent our time collecting acorns.
I ate so much broccoli that year! We would go to friends to gather whole sacks of it. It served as food both for us and for the pig. And yet, it was the best time of our marriage. After lunch we were able to retire to our bed for a rest. At night we embraced by the fireside without any worry about having to get up early the next morning to go to work.
The bad weather stopped and the work began. My wife and I didn’t miss a day of work. That year I had to be apart from her for about a month. For the whole month of July I stayed out in the countryside for the harvest. They gave me one lira a day – thirty days, thirty lire. I understood that it was hard but then I could be secure economically together with my wife at home. My money and hers gave us both a bit of security. We replenished our pantry with the necessary goods: the grain, beans, and wood. We did not fear for the coming winter.
Finally, the pig was fully grown, a real bad character. After one year he weighed more or less one quintal [220 lbs.]. The poor fellow ate only “cerze” (acorns). Come January we slaughtered him and made some sausages, some pancetta, and a bit of lard – all those things necessary for survival. But it was very little. We even preserved the bones to be used in making ragu on Sundays. To make a story short, a pig of 100 kilos [220 lbs.] had to serve us for a whole year.
We had enough to live on but we were not allowed to waste anything. We arrived at a point of even having to save on heating in the sense that we used the fireplace both to warm ourselves and to prepare the food, cooking a pot full of beans that would have to last us for a week. Then we would collect the hot embers from the fireplace and put them in a bucket under the table where we would sit for hours holding hands. When the fire went out we would go to bed. We would sleep partially dressed. You cannot imagine how cold it was in our house. It was probably the same in other houses.
Even with all that misery, I do recall an enjoyable event. I really wanted to have a real meal, especially meat, which I hadn’t eaten since the day of our marriage. I used to dream at night of a nice “round of meat and potatoes.” The occasion presented itself one rainy day. My wife had gone to her mother’s house to her make bread. I went out into the town and bought a quarter kilo of fresh sardines (250 grams or ca. ½ lb.), all in all about a dozen of them that I would fry. But now comes the good part. While I was cleaning them at the door of the house, the Abbot’s cat came meowing up to me, looking more like a lamb than a cat as he weighed about five kilograms. I cleaned the few sardines, and he tried to steal one from me and between a tug here and a tug there it occurred to me that “If I catch him, we can eat for two days.”
I tried catching him but he escaped. Then I decided: “Now I will sacrifice the sardines so that tomorrow we can gorge ourselves on meat!” At that moment, that cat became the means of satisfying my desire for meat. Seeing him so fat and well-fed was a great temptation.
I began by spreading around the innards of the fish not into the bucket but in the ally which the cat enjoyed. After spreading the innards, I then took out an entire fish. I would tempt him to come closer and the cat would follow. Finally, following the fish he entered the house. I hit him with such force that he was killed instantly. I began to skin him. The more I uncovered the red meat, the more I salivated. I lit the fire in the fireplace and while the embers grew hot, I washed the cat with water and placed him into a pot with potatoes and onions. I placed the pot into the fire. The aroma made me ecstatic. The more it cooked, the more my initial nausea disappeared and left me salivating. After a while I tasted a piece. It was marvelous. The taste of meat, potatoes and onions filled my heart with joy. That day my wife adored me when she found such an unimaginable meal awaiting her: rabbit and potatoes!
In fact she immediately said: “Where did you get a rabbit?”
I answered her that it was a gift from Zia Assunta (my aged boss). “This morning she came by for a visit and that’s all there was to it.”
How happy we were that day. We feasted until evening, the fireplace full of fire, a bottle of wine, and lots of meat on our plates.
Who knows whether Maria will ever forgive me, but for that day we were the princes of the town.
NOTES ANS COMMENTS
“Miseria” (Zi’ Ciccio), Le tradizioni di Paduli: Storie Padulesi raccolte da Giovanni Saccone, Parte Prima, Forum Giovanile Paduli, 2004, pp. 15-18. These stories were originally told by Giovanni Saccone in Padulese dialect and then translated into Italian by Maurizio Luongo.
The poor cat that plays such an important, yet unfortunate, role at the end of this story belonged to the Abbot of the Church of Saint Bartholomew. Abbot G. B. Follo only arrived in Paduli in 1947. Therefore, as this story occurred just at the end of the War, the cat in question must have belonged to the previous Abbot, Don Ludovico De Simone, in office 1927-1947.
This is the third Story from Old Paduli to be appear in this Blog. The first was Blogpost 3, “The Shoemaker / Il Calozolaio” in Blogpost 3. The second was “L’ambulante / The Peddler” in Blogpost 7. As with the previous two stories, this one also was recounted by Giovanni Saccone and translated into Italian by Maurizio Luongo. It appears in the book Le tradizioni di Paduli: Storie Padulesi raccolta da Giovanni Saccone, Parte prima, Forum Giovanile Paduli, Finito di stampare agosto 2004, graffiti d F. Antonio Cavotta, S.S. 90 Bis, Paduli(BN).
“The Bakers / I Fornai” takes place in the early 1940s when the narrator, Zi’ Carlo, was around 14 years old. The story focuses on how a family that loses its father, with no other means to live, builds an oven to bake bread and thus supports itself. “Oven” (forno) in Paduli usually refers to a rather large, wood burning structure of bricks and mortar often built outdoors and used primarily for baking bread and pizza.
Below in order appear the English translation and the original text in Italian.
THE BAKERS / I FORNAI
The Bakers / I Fornai (Zi’ Carlo)
It probably was around 1940 because I was then about fourteen years old or a little more. My father, God rest his soul, had not yet returned from America. He had left for America just after the war of 1915-18. He went in search of fortune across the sea where he worked at the most difficult jobs in order to attain some economic stability. He worked for the railroad carrying wooden railroad ties on his shoulders that were used to support the rails. He then worked as a mason when the Americans began to abandon their wooden homes for ones made of stone. Finally, with Italian ingenuity, when the Americans had their beautiful houses, he ended up being their gardener.
In the meanwhile, he was married by proxy to my mother, Caterina, in 1924. He met his wife for the first time when he came back, and I (Carlo) was born a year later.
My mother used to say that they had a great feast. My father, Giovanni, had “i dollari” (dollars). He built a house in town and bought a piece of land. Three months later he departed once more. My mother stayed back in Paduli crying, pregnant, yet comfortable. She was envied by friends and relatives because she didn’t have to work as my father sent home “i dollari” every month.
However, she was used to working as she had grown up in the countryside; so she busied herself in a thousand different things: most of all in cultivating the land. She started a garden, and for this reason we hardly had to buy anything. With the savings she made, she built a large oven for the sake of convenience. You see, before this, my grandmother had made the bread in the countryside, in winter, and there was no means of transportation. So having an oven would bring us good fortune.
I was born in January 1926. As soon as my father received the news, he informed us that he would be coming home for Easter. Everyone in town could talk of nothing else. “The American is coming!”
Easter arrived and so did my father bearing gifts for all the relatives as well as some new American gadgets that were inconceivable to the minds of us Padulesi given the circumstances at the time. In particular, the electric torch [flash light] impressed everyone. We still didn’t have electricity, and no one understood how this metal container could emit light. He also brought back a rifle and went out hunting, something previously reserved for the nobility. All of our relatives were very proud.
Before returning to America, he bought a bicycle for my uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, on the condition that he stop by the house everyday to see if we needed anything. My uncle kept his promise.
Subsequently, and in the same manner, my siblings Giovanni, Pietro, Nicola and Concetta were born. Then came the brutal news. My father was dead at the age of 40, killed by a women with a knife.
This sent my mother into depression, not only because she had lost the father of her children, but also because she could not resign herself that her husband had been together with another woman.
A number of years passed like this, senseless, vegetating. I recall my mother crying all the time. Then “i dollari” ended and we had to roll up our sleeves again. We had gone from the stars to the stalls. We had a house and a piece of land, but no money. Our relatives were all busy making ends meet, so they had little time left for us. The war was at its height, and you could reach out and touch the misery with your hands. Although we still had something to eat, we began to lack everything else.
Then, at my insistence, seeing that I was the oldest, we decided to remove ourselves from this absurd situation. We had to move forward by whatever means we could, especially for Concetta’s sake. She was the smallest, and we all adored her. She must live like a queen. She must always be “the daughter of the American”. That’s when the oven became our greatest treasure. In our town, it was a valuable thing to have as no one else had one.
The project was very simple. As everyone in town was a “day worker” (giornaliero) they found it difficult to have time for making bread. There were no stores selling bread. Thus, in view of the fact that everyone had to go to work early in the morning and returned in the evening, we, for pay, would bake bread for them.
Thus we began our business as bakers. Our fellow townsmen would bring in their “scanate” (dialect for loaves/pagnotte) for us to bake, and we would do the rest. When someone didn’t have time to prepare the dough, they would bring us their flour and return later to pick up the bread to last them for the whole week.
Saying it like this makes it seem easy, but in fact it was very hard work. I and my brother had to procure the wood to heat up the oven. We would get up at 4 in the morning, go to the forest and gather wood. We needed twenty bundles of wood a day, so we would spend the whole day shuttling between the forest and the town with enormous bundles of wood on our shoulders.
In the beginning, everything went well, but then, possibly out of jealousy, problems began with the forest guardians because we were not supposed to gather wood from the communal forest. They would post themselves in the forest and wait for us on the road. We could not afford to be fined. So, we began to work at night by the light of the moon. How many times we fell down with those huge bundles of wood on our shoulders!
My mother would be working at the oven, putting in the bread and dividing the loaves by families, all for one “soldo” (about 5 cents) a loaf. After a while my mother became passionate about her work, not as a merchant but as a mother. Every bake was hers, and no errors were allowed. A burning oven would signify the end of a week of work for a family.
As I mentioned earlier, all of our fellow townsmen were manual laborers, and when they started their day’s work in the fields it was always as “day laborers.” So, they would bring us their bread dough at around 5 in the morning before going to work. We organized the work so that people would make reservations for their orders so that we would always have five or six bakes a day. If someone was not able to be there on time without losing a day’s work, we would have them bring in the flour, salt and yeast for my mother to make the dough. It took about two hours between each bake.
We were all kept busy with this work, from me on down to Concetta whose first duty was to put the wood in the oven but who later began to make the dough.
But even so this wasn’t enough to allow us to live in a dignified manner. The few “soldi” we earned were just enough to cover the necessities. However, we were growing and we also wanted to be able to buy some treats. Therefore, I and my oldest brother would hire ourselves out as “day laborers” after completing our “visits” to gather wood in the forest. It was made our lives even more difficult, but our mother would never ask us for the money we earned. Therefore we were able to buy cigarettes and, above all, on Saturday evenings we were able to go play cards at the cantina with the adults. How important we felt when we could pull money out of our pockets to pay for things. The satisfaction we felt erased all of the fatigue of the week.
There is one thing I will never forget, the difficulties that rich patrons gave us at the bakery. “The bread is not baked well enough.” “The loaves are too big.” This was all an excuse to haggle over the price, which was already miserably low. Sometimes they demanded that we deliver the bread to their homes. My mother often conceded (to our great disappointment) so as not to lose customers.
I remember all the pleading we would have to do, my brother and I, with the delivery packages on our shoulders while we delivered them to their homes. Conversely, “day workers” such as us were always courteous and often saying thanks. They would never forget to leave some pizza for the “guaglioni” ( dialect for “boys”), in their way a form of recognition for our services; which is why I am convinced that being well-off generates arrogance.
Now everything has changed, but I have forgotten nothing. So many people asked us to bake bread for them on credit! Poor people, who was more able than us to commiserate with them. These same people today are so arrogant. They nevert look back. They are really the “lice in the flour.”
How many of these boys may find themselves in difficult straits, these children of wealth, who lack moral values and are set, thanks to their parents, never to have to get used to eating “bitter bread.” How many of these will drown in the sands because in their lives they’ve only known roses and flowers, yet behind every rose sooner or later we must touch the thorns.
I FORNAI – TESTO ORIGINAL
“The Peddler (Don Peppino ‘u Napulitano) is another story of old Paduli recounted by Giovanni Saccone in Padulese dialect and translated into Italian by Maurizio Luongo. (I began these stories in Blogpost 3 with a translation of “Il Calzolaio” (The Shoemaker). Below is the English translation of “L’ambulante/The Peddler” followed by the original text in Italian.
The Peddler (Don Peppino “u napulitano” [the Napolitano]
How many times I’ve heard this story! Yet every time it seems like the first time because of its fascination and ingenuity, and once again I am reminded that if there’s a will, there’s a way. Stories like this submerge you into an unreal world, a thousand years away from the present, and yet all of this happened a mere fifty years ago.
There was a man, a certain Don Peppino from Napoli, who made a living as a traveling peddler, one of those who looked for any means of making a living yet without profiteering and in good conscience.
He would always say, “Whoever has money should pay”. His business was buying and selling, barter, and trade. Habitually he would set out on Mondays from Naples and travel through the Sannio region, even for two weeks at a time, leaving at home a wife and two sons. He traveled in an American Dodge that he got, one doesn’t know how, from the American Army. He would depart from Napoli loaded with various kinds of things according to his own precise work plan.
The Sannio region, his first stop, called for clothes, salted anchovies, dried cod (baccalà) and wool.
I never had the pleasure of seeing him in person, but the stories told to me made his visits come alive. Don Peppino would arrive at the home of my grandfather on Monday afternoons as the first stop on his route. Everyone in the town knew of his arrival. He parked his truck in the farmyard and, after a habitual glass of wine, he would remove the tarpaulin and show his wares. Woolen sweaters, pants made from military fabric, balls of wool and cotton, containers of various kinds, cigarettes, baccalà, and salted anchovies. Our town, Paduli, was the first center of exchange. Don Peppino would always arrive like a being from another world, elegant, well-mannered, and reverent with the ladies, a true household tradesman.
It comes to me almost like a memory. Don Peppino would arrive at lunchtime, and my grandfather would invite him to join him in eating a plate of cold beans, the ones with oil and onions in them. Don Peppino would pull out two cigars and light them almost as if he were engaging in a religious ritual, toasting with a glass of wine that was of little pretense, but which at that moment seemed likethe veritable nectar of the gods. Then Don Peppino would show his goods. “Zi’ Giuvà (Uncle Giovanni)! I have some pants of pure wool which I brought just for you, some anchovies which are out of this world. Go ahead, taste them! And some baccalà like you’ve never seen before!”
In the meanwhile, the ladies were beginning to form a circle around the truck.
Don Peppino had his sales plan all worked out. After Paduli he would pass through Fortore [a municipality in the Province of Benevento] where the product most available was tobacco. At that time, tobacco was produced under strict observance of the applicable laws and the agency designated to enforce the laws was the Financial Guards. Even the leaves were counted, and it was impossible to avoid the law. My grandfather hid the surplus under the tiles in the house and then he would give it to Don Peppino – two traders in contraband acting together with no accounting whatsoever for the gravity of the act.
But, hunger doesn’t know anything about rules.
And so, Don Peppino would come to our house first as a matter of mutual convenience. If someone asked for wool, he would ask for oil. A woolen sweater was worth one liter of oil; a piece of baccalà, a folder (fascicolo) of tobacco or a “muzzetto” of grain; a cup of salted anchovies, a measure of flour. Some would pay in cash.
All of this was part of Don Peppino’s business strategy; everything had its value. The tabacco in Fortore was exchanged for cheese or wool. Oil in Napoli was as valuable as gold. Flour could be exchanged with anyone. Cheese was for the rich. Salted olives, wine, bread and potatoes were as good as cash.
Don Peppino was also a friend of the youth, so much so that they waited for him outside the town. In exchange for a bottle of oil or wine, stolen from their parents, he would give them erotic photos, either of fake American actresses or from casinos in the North (of Italy), intended to increase their erotic fantasies sexually hidden from everyone. If, after obtaining this erotic booty, with a little extra “sacrifice”, they were able to obtain a pack of cigarettes, you would instantly see these obstinate boys transformed into cocky adults. In the evening, by the light of the moon, with their photos and cigarettes, they would all be intent on consuming their lungs, hands and brains.
L’ambulante (Don Peppino ‘u napulitano)
Quante volte ho sentito questa storia! Ogni volta sembrava la prima volta per il fascino e l’ingegno che emanava, è risaputo, l’uomo se vuole può tutto.
A raccontare storie come questa si sprofonda in un mondo irreale, lontano mille anni dalle nostre abitudini, eppure tutto questo avveniva cinquanta anni fa.
C’era un signore, un certo Don Peppino di Napoli che di mestiere faceva il venditore ambulante, uno di quelli che cercavano con ogni mezzo di guadagnarsi la giornata, senza approfittare delle situazioni favorevoli ma con coscienza.
Era solito affermare “chi tiene i soldi deve pagare”, il suo commercio era la compravendita, il baratto, lo scambio. Era solito partire il lunedi da Napoli e trattenersi nel Sannio anche per due settimane lasciando a casa una moglie e due figli. Si muoveva con un Dodge americano avuto non si sa come dall’esercito americano; partiva da Napoli carrico di vari generi con un suo programma di lavoro ben preciso. Il Sannio, sua prima tappa, richiedeva vestiario, alici salate, baccalà e lana.
Non ho avuto il piacere di essere un testimone, però i racconti ascoltati mi fanno rivivere quegli attimi; Don Peppino arrivava a casa di mio nonno il lunedi pomeriggio, quasi prima tappa del suo giro; tutti in paese sapevano del suo arrivo. Si parcheggiava nell’aia col camion e dopo il bicchiere di vino di rito scopriva il telone e mostrava la mercanzia. Maglie di lana, pantaloni in tessuto militare, gomitoli di lana e cotone, scatolette di vario genere, sigarette, baccalà, e alici sotto sale. Il nostro paese, Paduli, era il primo centro di scambio; Don Peppino arrivava sempre come un essere di un altro mondo, elegante, educato, riverente con le signore, vere commercianti di casa.
Referisco come da racconti. Arriva Don Peppino a ora di pranzo, il nonno l’invita a consumare con lui un piatto di faggioli freddi, quelli con olio e cipolla. Don Peppino tira fuori due sigari e li accendono quasi con rito religioso brindando con un bicchiere di vino di scarse pretese ma al momento vero e proprio nettare degli dèi. Poi Don Peppino illustra la mercanzia. “Zi Giuvà, tengo dei pantaloni in pura lana, li ho portati pe vui, certe alici che so’ a fine du munno, assaggiatele, e ‘u baccalà nun s’è mai visto!”
Intanto le donne cominciano a fare cerchio intorno al camion.
Don Peppino aveva un suo programma commerciale. Dopo Paduli passava nel Fortore, e li prodotto più ambito era il tabacco. All’epoca dei fati il tabacco si produceva soto stretta osservanza delle leggi vigenti e l’organo predisposto ai controlli era la Guardia di Finanza. Anche le foglie venivano contate, non si poteva fuggire ai controlli. Mio nonno le eccedenze la nascondeva sotto le tegole della casa e poi le dava a Don Peppino; contrabandieri entrambi senza nemmeno rendersi conto della gravità del reato.
Ma la fame non conosce regole.
Così per un fatto di mutua convenienza Don Peppino veniva a casa nostra. A chi chiedeva lana lui chiedeva olio, la maglia di lana valeva un litro d’olio, il pezzo di baccalà un “fascicolo” di tabacco o un “muzzetto” di grano, un “cuopo” di alici salate una “mesura” di farina. Chi poteva pagava in contanti.
Tutto questo era il mercanteggiare di Don Peppino, ogni cosa valeva. Il tabacco nel Fortore si scambiava il formaggio e la farina, l’olio a Napoli valeva oro, la farina si scambiava con tutto, il formaggio era per i ricchi. Olive salate, vino, pane, patate erano considerate moneta contante.
Do Peppino era anche un amico dei giovani, quanti l’aspettavano fuori paese. In cambio di una bottiglia di olio o una di vino, rubata ai genitori, lui regalava anche foto fantasie erotiche di improvvisate attrici americane o dei casini del nord atte a sviluppare fantasie erotiche di giovani sessualmente all’oscuro di tutto. Se poi a quell’erotico bottino, con un piccolo ulteriore “sacrificio”, si poteva aggiungere un pacchetto di sigarette, allora vedevi di colpo imperbi adolescenti trasformarsi in uomini adulti e spavaldi; di sera, al chiaro di luna, con “foto e sigarette” tutti insieme intenti a consumarsi polmoni, mani e cervello.
“The Shoemaker” is one of many stories of old Paduli dictated by Giovanni Saccone in Padulese dialect and translated into Italian by Maurizio Luongo. The stories were gathered into a book entitled Le Tradizioni di Paduli: Storie Padulesi raccolta da Giovanni Saccone. Every piece of literature loses somethiing in translation. This is especially so when the original was in a dialect with many unique phrases and phreseology such as Padulese. Maurizio told me that he had a difficult time faithfully translating the nuances of the dialect into Italian. He decided to leave many dialect phrases intact. You can imagine how challenging it was to translate it fhe dialect phrases into English in a way that would give the reader some flavor of the uniqueness of the dialect. It was impossible. In the end, I decided to include a smattering of dialectical usages such as Zi’ for Zio (Uncle) and ‘Nto for Antonio, but mainly translated the dialectical phrases into standard English. I also tried to give it some flavor of dialect here and there by using English colloquialisms such as “wadda” for what do you, “gonna” for going to, etc.
Giovanni Saccone has preserved a great legacy of Padulese culture by recording these stories. They reveal much about life in Paduli before and during the Second World War. All of us who cherish this legacy owe him a debt of gratitude and praise for his gift to us.
I intend to follow up with more stories from Paduli. I also intend to post both the translations and the Italian versions together.
THE SHOEMAKER (ZIO ANTONIO)
My dear, you ask me to share my recollections, the stories of my life. For me life was hard! I have seen life materialize and dissolve into a plate of “macaroni”.
You speak about achievements, satisfactions and success, whereas I worked to fill my belly, and eating itself was already a success. I could talk well into the night about the subterfuges and astuteness that I employed just to eat. That was my victory.
How many things I’ve seen in my 80 years! Today it’s easy to be a superman with a full belly and all one could want, but years ago conditions for us were different. Many of those today who are arrogant and presumptuous would have perished back then.
As for stories, I can tell you so many. Every day was a challenge, but there is one story that I remember with great pleasure because it was it was both sad and happy at the same time.
We were in the full throws of the war. Hunger and desperation reigned in Paduli. I practiced my trade as a shoemaker, and I had an assistant named Vincenzo. There wasn’t much work. Shoes were expensive. Whoever had them took good care to preserve them, to the point that when in the house they went barefoot or with make-do footwear while the shoes were only for going outside. A pair of shoes would be passed down from father to son and would even last up to ten years.
Thus, in order to make a little money, my disciple and I would carry our materials and tools on our backs and travel around the countryside asking at every house whether they had shoes needing repair.
The episode that I wish to tell you about occurred on one of those winter mornings made even more miserable by a fine drizzle. Dear Vincenzo , as he did every morning, presented himself in the shop very punctually, partly by habit and partly in order to flee from his own misery that was no less miserable than my own.
There we waited behind the workbench that we had set up hoping for a client to arrive, and always talking about the same things:
“Vinny, what did you eat last night?”
“Zi’ ‘Nto (Uncle Antonio), a scrap of bread and two dried olives.
Vincenzo was like a son to me for fifteen years. I felt sorry for him, and he had the appetite of a wolf.
That morning we decided to go around the countryside. It rained, and yet this turned to our advantage because when it’s raining in the countryside no one goes out to work. Everyone would be at home and therefore it would be possible to find a little work. Assume that we did not limit ourselves only to making shoes. We would do any kind of work in exchange for a meal and perhaps a little something else, such as more things to eat.
We took shelter until the rain lessened and set out toward one of the many settlements in the countryside prepared to make our own meal along the way as it wasn’t a sure thing that we would be offered a meal even if we did find work. Many folks would set us to work in a shed and might not always invite us in to eat.
Here’s how we designed our plan:
“Vinny, today we must eat at all costs. Even though I may have give you a good slap across the face a few times, I assure you that we will eat. At noontime, you say that you’re hungry, then leave the rest to me.”
Now let me tell you how it went.
We stopped in a farm hamlet where several families lived. We were fortunate because they had some shoes needing repair. We decided on a price as follows: thread would pay us in cash for the thred, but would pay us in food stuffs for the labor.
We quickly took out our work tools and began. They were kind in that they had us stay in a small room with a hallway, a type of kitchen with a big oven for making bread. We in one corner contended with the old boots that needed miracles rather than repairs in order to return them to their old splendor. The women of the house, in another corner, were intent either on mending or on knitting. The bambinos and adults both were curious to see what we were doing.
Also, people in the houses nearby knew we were there. So, every so often someone would arrive with a pair of shoes to be repaired, and thus we had enough work to last us into the evening.
Time passed, but as the hour for lunch approached the ladies of the house didn’t hurry to prepare the meal, which made me think: Either everything has already been prepared or we’re not going to eat! My doubts caused me to survey the surroundings directing my words to the grandfather sitting close to me.
“Zi’ Arturo, when will the women prepare the meal? “
“Almost always at half past noon, but today the men killed a calf and took it to market to sell, so we’ll eat this evening as they’ll be coming back late.”
We were all set. But how could we hold off until evening? It wasn’t quite time for lunch but already our my stomachs were making noises. So, with a quick glance at Vinny, we changed our plans. We were anything but actors, but Vinny began playing his part:
“Zi’ ‘Nto, I’m starving!!”
“Guaglio (sonny), it isn’t even noon yet” all the ladies said together.
“What can I do, I’m hungry!”
“Vinny, grab the backpack and eat what’s there,” I interjected, calmly pointing to the pile of things that we had brought with us for our work.
Surprised, even dumbfounded, Vincenzo got up and began going through our stuff scattered about us.
“Zi’ ‘Nto, the backpack isn’t here!”
“Vinny, wadda ya mean it’s not here? It has to be there.”
“Come and see for yourself.”
“Vinny, you’ve lost our backpack?”
“No, Zi’ ‘Nto, I didn’t bring the backpack.”
“Wadda ya mean? You grabbed it from the top of our workbench.”
“No, Zi’ ‘Nto, I didn’t grab anything. I left before you.”
“Oh, I could strangle you!! So now wadda we gonna eat?” I said as I began to go after him with a strap of leather, while everyone intervened to stop me.
“Forget about it!! It’s not the end of the world. We’ll take care of it,” said the ladies of the house.
Carmela, mix up some pasta dough,” said the lady who looked like she had the most authority. “Uncle Tony, we’ll get the chick peas that we cooked for tonight and make some pasta and chick peas.”
“No, no, don’t go to any trouble,” I said.
“Oh no, wadda’s it take except boiling up some water on the stove, and it’s done!”
And thus it was that, in less than an hour there stood a bowl full of pasta and chick peas, a big loaf of fresh bread, two forks, and, surprise, a nice bottle of red wine.
As soon as they had set the table, with great courtesy, they dispersed leaving us alone. What a meal! We ate so much that we had to loosen our belts that so many times we had been compelled to cinch even tighter.
Finally, it was evening and the men returned happily from the market as they had sold the calf at a good price. Our work was finished. Our clients looked over the shoes to see the large amount of work we had done. Finally satisfied, we proceeded to settle the account.
I recall how fruitful this day was despite all indications that morning. We returned back home with bellies as full as they could be, and with two loaves of bread, a rabbit, two cups of beans and two cups of chick peas, some lard, five kilograms of flour and three lire. You can’t imagine how happy we were on our way back to the shop and how we laughed on the road recalling the events of the day.
When we arrived at the shop, I quickly set to dividing up our goods to give Vincenzo his due share. I put the rabbit in a cage for our meal at Easter. As for the stuff we got that day, we had enough food to keep us from hunger for a week.
Translated by Alexander DeAngelis