At Home in Reggio Calabria, Italia
Touchdown Reggio Calabria. Thankfully our decent to the tip of Italy’s “boot” had been relatively smooth and only called for minor adjustments by our Alitalia pilot. This is not always the case due to the city’s position on the windy Straights of Messina, just opposite the mountains of Sicily and Calabria.
Our suitcases pattered out of the airport’s miniature luggage belt and I eyed my surroundings, a bit unsure of what was to come. I was grateful to have Filippo there with me and his childhood friend, Pado, who had randomly been on our flight from Rome. English had fully disappeared as we approached the short line of dilapidated taxis to take us into town.
And there my culture shock began, squeezed into the back of a balmy taxi, bracing for my first ride on Calabrian highways. Initially, I questioned where the charm was. It certainly was not in the sea of unfinished concrete buildings as far as the eye could see. I quickly learned of their commonplace here, a tell-tale sign of the region’s poverty and lack of building code compliance in a land of favors and mafioso activity.
The architectural eyesores were not the only thorns in the seaside landscape. Trash was abundant and in our nearly month-long holiday we would step over it in the city streets and scoff at it lining beautiful country roads. My surfing companion, a lover of the oceans would pick up plastic on the beaches almost daily and shake his head in disbelief at how people could rape this beautiful land.
And truly, amidst the ruble, rubbish, and graffiti, this Calabria was something spectacular.
I would still need to get my bearings and settle in though. For example, re-learn how to cross the street. Like many parts of the world, Reggio was controlled chaos. I learned how to stare down the cars approaching me on the cross walk, convincing them of my confidence that I indeed intended to get to the other side.
My discomfort was evidently escalated by my nerves of meeting Filippo’s dad for the first time. I was well aware that seven months worth of Saturday Italian lessons were only going to get me so far, but I craved to give off a charming first impression. Needless to say, by sunset of day one, I was in tears— a much needed release. With some rest and a home-cooked meal, I was better emotionally prepared to cross the street the next day.
What followed my minor breakdown was an unforgettable trip to mio ragazzo’s hometown— full of family time, childhood friends, and charming day trips topped off by Calabrian cuisine that satisfied my whole being. I’d leave beautifully bronzed after days of seaside lounging and with a deep appreciation for such a grand adventure so lovingly shared with me.
As an avid Airbnb user and House Hunters International watcher, I love seeing homes in foreign locales. I was eager to enter Filippo’s childhood home for the first time. The building itself, just two blocks from the sea, sits on the relatively quiet street, Via Giuseppe Benassai. Here, even the trees grow rather chaotically—from the street itself. Filippo’s grandfather developed the property in the 1940s and his family has lived there ever since in two apartments, one now belonging to his mother and the other just above to his late aunt and uncle.
We fumbled getting our luggage into the foyer, but once inside I immediately knew its Italian charm would not disappoint. The marble floors, high ceilings, and grandiose furniture pieces made my eyes open wide. I left my luggage at the door and began exploring the rooms filled with grandmotherly character, classical furniture, and trinkets, juxtaposed with modern art. Peeling wallpaper revealed the home’s age and stately chandeliers reminded of its elegance. Floor to ceiling windows with balconies in each of the two bedrooms and living room let in floods of light and a fresh breeze. That is, when one was available in the ever-growing inferno the southern city was becoming.
The kitchen was simple and it quickly became evident that in this Italian family, it was the heart of the home. Meals and post meals were spent around the table, the television its fourth guest. News of Brexit and Eurocup soccer matches were a permanent companion, a cultural difference that I didn’t quite understand, not growing up watching tele through dinner.
Filippo’s lovable mother, Antoinetta, or “Nini” as I called her, was in her element caring for us. A beloved retired schoolteacher, Nini is an unstoppable mamma and nonna. She fussed over us at the stove, preparing fresh and healthy meals— notably her involtini di pesce spada (swordfish rolls) and pasta con melanzane e pesce spada (pasta with eggplant and swordfish), as ’twas the season for the meaty fish. And I don’t think I will ever find something close the the liquid gold extra virgin olive oil from her friend’s private farm that we doused over almost everything. Something that good just can’t be bought.
I’ll forever remember the sweet moment I helped Nini cover her scrumptious arincini balls in breadcrumbs. Tiredly, she was bent over the table and noticing her discomfort, I began gently rubbing her back for her, a meager crumb of an offering for how well she was taking care of me.
On one of our early days in Reggio, I accompanied mother and son to the cemetery where Nini’s parents and sister were laid to rest. We stopped at the flower shop across from the gates and selected a simple white bouquet and a few single gerber daisies in yellow and pink. Nini guided us through the wide cemetery streets with melancholy in her steps. Her sister, Maria, her best friend had passed away nearly a year and a half ago, and I could feel the freshness of her loss.
I have been to beautiful foreign cemeteries before, namely La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, really more of an open-air museum with its elaborate sculptures, but this southern Italian cemetery was something special. This resting place was personal. The above ground tombs layered in rows of five were dotted with flowers, proof of the routine visits of loved ones left behind. My eyes merely grazed across the petals to what really piqued my interest and pulled on my heart strings, the faces in uniform frames. Looking at a photo of the deceased within attached me to this place as if I were looking at an old photo album. I stood back as mother and son removed the old flowers and added the new, filling the simple vase with fresh water. With tenderness and tears, we laid a soft touch to Maria’s photograph. I silently mouthed a Hail Mary and prayed for Nini’s strength, knowing how much she missed her upstairs sister’s companionship.
For almost a month I stumbled through my Italian conversations with Nini, but regardless of the lack of words, we still got to know one another. I was in awe of her presence in town and at 74, her social life. This glammed up grandma would often be out past one o’clock, playing cards or going to the theater with her girlfriends, especially after a day when her hairstylist of 20 years came for her five euro cut and style at the kitchen table. Filippo’s aunt would often refer to her sister, Nini as “culu i fora,” dialect for something along the lines of “you love having your ass out all the time.” Filippo would add that his aunt called him and his brother, Luigi the same, proper sons of Nini.
One evening after dinner, an impressive parmigiana di melanzane, I returned to the table to find a blood orange colored box neatly tied with a sunflower yellow ribbon. Nini eyed the package and eyed me inviting me to open it. I hardly needed to see what was inside, for the gesture alone was sweet enough. I carefully untied the ribbon and opened the delicate box to reveal a red coral necklace that had belonged to her sister. Nini had a matching necklace, but had had her sister’s cleaned and redesigned by her jeweler. Nini beamed proud as she helped me fasten it around my neck before we went out for our evening stroll. I embraced her and planted a kiss on her lips, as I had begun to do and asked Filippo how to verbally express my gratitude. “Commossa,” he said. “I am moved.” And how truly moved I was. Moved by it all.
I had no idea physically, what to expect when I met Filippo’s father, Disma. I had never even seen a photo. His weak frame surprised me against the strong figure of his son. Yet at 77, he moved quite well from one side of town to the other on his own two feet, something to be envied about elderly Europeans. Disma had a full head of white hair, tousled out of place by the wind. The initial greeting began as usual. Two kisses from right to left and a buongiorno, or was it a ciao? The informal ciao had been falling from my lips too casually I later learned, embarrassed. We walked to a trendy seaside bar and as I sat on the outskirts of father and son, slowly sipping my prosecco, I felt lightyears away from their conversation.
Having left the family when Filippo and his brother were little boys, I’ll admit to not having a good impression of the man. I knew he was a communist and retired politician. Born and raised in Palermo, Sicily, he descended from nobility and the stories could continue about the interesting life of his family. In Reggio, Disma had been the well respected leader of a trade union. I witnessed this respect first hand at dinner one evening. The amicable restaurant staff was humbled to have Disma at their table and later invited us to a nightcap on the beach. There, sitting in a circle of 70-something Italian men and women, I saw the respect and admiration toward the guest of honor. As Disma puffed on his cigarette, carelessly, as he unknowingly tended to do, I imagined him in decades past speaking out against the mafia in times when that certainly wasn’t the safe thing to do. As kids, Filippo and his brother were unaware of the police escort that followed them to and from school and watched while they played soccer with their dad in the park.
This image of the mafia, so real in the life of someone I was close to intrigued me. I sat for days at the beach reading, Gomorrah, a real-life account of the page-turner evils of the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra. Every day in Reggio we passed a shop with an armed officer standing guard outside. One could only assume that the particular shop refused to pay off the mafia.
We spent a bit of time at Disma’s home that he shares with his partner, and shall we say partner-against-(organized) crime, Antonia, who had been the leader of a women against the mafia group. Their home was as close to a museum as any home I have ever seen. The walls were layered with a variety of paintings and fine figurines filled the surface of every elegant piece of antique furniture. Noticing my interest, Disma took me on a tour of the house, a gesture I, as the outsider found kind and welcoming. I followed Disma from room to room as if in a labyrinth, pausing as he pointed out special pieces. Che bella dripped like a leaky faucet from my mouth, over and over, but my face said it all. Each small room was filled with a different genre of novels. He was very clearly a voracious reader. When we sat back down in the salon, Disma pointed out a hand-sized simple sculpture that was 5,000 years old. I wish I could return and learn more, write down historic details, for I was too enthralled by the beauty and age of it all in the moment. In the comfort of Disma’s home, regardless of the language barriers, I no longer felt lightyears away.
La città: Reggio Calabria
For an Italian city, Reggio seems relatively new. An earthquake destroyed the city in 1908 and as a result, much of the city center boasts an Art Deco style. At the beach in town one afternoon, Filippo pointed out the the tiles mixed in with the rocks, remnants of the city’s rubble that fell into the sea. Italy is always just one shake away from great loss, as the world saw with the recent devastating earthquake in Amatrice.
Reggio boasts a rich cultural history, having been founded by the Greeks around 740 B.C. When I suggested the city build a parking garage to clear up the crowded streets a bit, Filippo responded by driving me past an excavation site near the train station. “They tried,” he laughed. “Then they hit this.” Not even three meters below the surface they had come across the foundations of a Roman temple.
The city’s piece de resistance is an archaeology museum, which happens to be the most important museum on Magna Grecia in Italy. Housed in an air locked room are Reggio’s jewels, two exquisite Greek bronze statues called Bronzi di Riace, named after the town near the sea from where they were found. The statues portray two warriors and date back to around 450 B.C. Discovered in 1972, they are in astonishingly near perfect condition and are few of a kind, as only a handful of bronze statues dating back to Ancient Greece exist in the world.
We toured the museum with Pado, marveling at its treasures. At one point Pado stopped at an exhibit with considerable relevance to him. He explained that as a child he had been digging in the dirt near his home, an area in the early stages of development. He dug up what he thought was a large rock, only to find that incredibly enough, it was part of a Roman temple. By law, development of the area ceased in order to bring archaeologists to the site. Pado noted that his mom feared for their life, interfering with someone’s business as they had.
After the museum the three of us went for an afternoon gelato, at the famous, Cesare. This leafy green kiosk is perfectly positioned near the city’s promenade along the sea. The gelatería, recently named the best in Italy, is integral to the culture of this Italian city. I learned that here in the south, alcohol isn’t consumed in as large of quantities as in other places. “The heat will make you crazy enough,” someone explained to me. But, what they forego in booze, they double in ice cream. Morning, noon, and night, Cesare consistently had a line out the door.
I’m quite confident when I say, I never have and never will taste a better gelato. I’ll forever crave the creamy cones consumed on those hot nights walking along the promenade beneath massive magnolia trees. It was the gelato comas that aided my slumber during those hot, restless nights.
Life pulsated on the promenade, especially as evening transformed in to night to the scene of a spectacular golden sunset behind the Sicilian mountains. After dinner families flocked here, fleeing their balmy homes. The summer pop up bars and nightclubs filled and we took advantage of their cold beers and Aperol Spritzes. Our strolls after supper became a cherished routine. Almost as routine as our evening nightcap, an Amaro do Capo, a chilled Calabrian liquor, served best in a tall frosted shot glass. There were so many beautiful moments along that sea at this hour, when a soft yellow halo fell on this piece of the world, matching the hue of our champagne toasts. If only we could have sat in those moments in Reggio forever. It felt like my Italian home.