By Yasmine El Tabib
We had just finished a meal of spaghetti, meatballs, salad, and fried eggplant. We were sitting around the kitchen table, bellies full, sprawled back in our seats as we took our cold espresso and shared a cigarette. Fresh air drafted in from the open door to the little balcony, bringing with it the sweet aroma of late spring and forthcoming summer. While smelling the fresh laundry and rich soil of Southern Italy, we sat and sipped our shot glasses of syrupy caffeine when we were suddenly overcome by the honks of cars passing by. As more joined in the disharmonious cacophony, I emerged from my food coma to see if I could find out what the ruckus was about.
I had gathered in my little time thus far in Rogliano, a town of 5000 among the hills of Southern Italy and at the base of the Sila mountains, that this kind of commotion usually meant either someone was getting married or someone took their first communion. Unbeknownst to me, the town of Rogliano had adopted the futbol team, Juventus, as if the team was playing for them, and not Turin. Juventus had just won a match. From the balcony I watched as cars passed by, jammed with people painted white and black, blaring noise-makers and shaking their arms to celebrate the win. They were smiling, screaming and chanting. My little Italian brother came running towards me, decked out in a Del Piero #10 jersey, waving a black and white scarf. “JUUUUUVEEE STORIA DI UN GRANDE AMORE!” He belted out the team’s song. We rushed down to the center of town,
San Domenico, as people congregated to celebrate Juventus’ victory. We lined the streets and much like a festival procession, watched as cars decorated in Juventus paraphernalia rolled by numerous times honking and waving the Juventus flag. I watched the owner of the pizzeria drive a gigantic truck, with people overflowing the bed, lighting off flares and leading songs. I chimed in with the chants, at first feeling alien and singing quietly, but the joy emanating from my host family and the face’s of all those around me, soon made me comfortable shouting and jumping. The collective spirit of that night, the following wins of Juventus, as well as all the community gatherings I witnessed, demonstrated the joyous and familiar attitudes, which are commonly attributed to Southern Italians.
I have never been offered so many beers than at Rogliano’s beer festival (which featured an immense selection of two brews—of course including the masterfully crafted Peroni). Nor have I expressed my gratitude towards gnocchi more than when I celebrated its existence at the Mangone gnocchi festival. I’ve never felt more comfortable around strangers than when I was up singing Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”
to smiling faces on Falerna’s boardwalk.
I didn’t expect to work with 30 pounds of eggplant, learning how to pickle it into the perfectly spicy antipasto, or walk into the back of an acclaimed and prized panificieria (bread shop) and witness as the loaves were formed and put into the oven. The inviting and generous attitudes of Southern Italians, which I had been informed about, were much more apparent while living amongst a family.
I realized later, while in Barcelona with a couple friends, just how easy it is to have a limited experience while traveling. In an unknown or new environment, although you may know some about its history and how it stands in the context of the world, you can still be very sheltered while traveling. The advent and success of the tourist industry has allowed people to have a somewhat inauthentic experience by replicating the accommodations that they are used to.
I could have stayed in a beach resort on the Amalfi coast, or in the Sila mountains and gone the typical tourist route—which would have still been a marvelous experience. However, having been brought in as the member of a family, I had more genuine access to their warm culture. Without them, I might have missed the all-night parties in small towns, I wouldn’t have gotten to help out making traditional foods, I might never have seen where and how Italy’s most famous breads are produced and I wouldn’t have established a network of friends that I can’t wait to visit in the future.