Friday, November 02, 2007

...and Misinformed

I’m back, folks! Following two wonderful weeks in the company of my sister, I returned home and promptly came down with a nasty cold. Then Bryan, despite my pleadings to not get sick, couldn’t stand to see me suffer alone and succumbed to the illness himself. A week of hacking and blowing and…well, I’ll spare you the details.

But where were we? Ah yes. Cadogan and their slighting of my Motherland. The opening sentence in their sparse section about Basilicata makes the statement: “The Basilicata has never been one of the more welcoming regions of Italy.”

Really? As with any region that isn’t heavily-touristed, you’ll meet with people or communities who do not seem to be overly pleasant. We’ve encountered that here in Marche in towns like Castorano, where our friendly greetings were left to fall to the ground like dead leaves. People didn’t respond with a smile nor a buongiorno. So be it. We met with a similar experience in Narni (Umbria), which, despite being a well-preserved medieval city with gorgeous landscapes and architecture, does not seem to attract the numbers of visitors as nearby cities; the local people weren’t unfriendly per se, but seemed wary of outsiders wandering their narrow alleyways and gawking around.

So I wonder what town in Basilicata the authors happened into that formed their judgement of the entire region. Or did they even visit (my suspicion from reading their measly morsels of “insight,” is that they did not). Because, in our experience, while the Lucani may not be used to tourists, most of them would sooner sever their arms than appear inhospitable.

We have some travels under our belt and speak conversational Italian which helps, I’m sure. But even on our early trips to these little hamlets we met with curious smiles and a desire to assist. Our forays into the Motherland garner us outright stares. Let’s face it, a little town of 2,000 souls that is perched on top of a mountainside at 1,000 meters surrounded by rural farms and sheep in southern Italy does not draw many Italian tourists, much less foreigners. We are evident outsiders and people stop in their tracks to look us over and determine who we are. For many, this can be disconcerting and may seem unwelcoming. On the other hand, I think it’s just simple curiosity; an out of the ordinary occurrence in their daily lives. Almost every time we smile and speak we are met with grins and torrents of words and questions.

Some of these encounters lead to friendship. Take Belli Cappelli. Otherwise known as Michele, he is so-dubbed because of his long, curly locks. My cousin’s wife says, “he’s the ugliest guy in town but has the most beautiful hair!” He stood in the piazza chatting with us after a simple “ciao” and before we know it, he’s ushering us to the bar and buying us caffe. And this is before he knows that his friend, Michele, is my cousin. Afterwards, when talking about the peperoni cruschi, he promised to dry a string of the peppers just for me, and would set aside some of his home-made wine for us, as well. Other strangers have paid for our drinks, some of whom we had only exchanged greetings with. Unwelcoming? I think not.

When I went into a restaurant in Matera to ask about dinner reservations I was informed they were closed at dinner that evening, but the owner picked up the phone and called a few other restaurants in the area to see who would be open on a Sunday night. I didn’t ask him; he certainly didn’t have to do it, but didn’t want us to go hungry or waste time tramping around town searching. The B&B owner invited us to his newly-opened art gallery, opening it up for a private tour and pointing out finer details we’d have missed on our own. Another B&B owner in Genzano advised us on which restaurant would offer us the best sampling of local fare, calling to make reservations and asking the chef to have a particular wine on our table for us when we arrived.

While these are not uncommon experiences for travelers in Italy, it shows that the Basilicatans are no less hospitable than, say, Tuscans. Closer acquaintances, however, quickly display their true hearts as the Lucani are proud of their roots and their land and enjoy sharing it with others. Meals are long and enormous; no less than 3 pasta dishes would be considered right. Feeding you until you cannot possibly swallow another bite is their way of showing hospitality and affection. We have frequently been greeted with “ciao, are you hungry?” They do not want you to feel even a weak hunger pain.

We have been invited, fed, and made to feel accepted. We have found the Lucani to be among the most welcoming people in Italy. I guess it depends on your attitude and your willingness to overcome their initial wariness with smiles and conversation. The very act of traveling to that remote locale makes them want to like you. Interest in their culture, cuisine and history guarantees they will. But what do I know? The guidebook says it’s not a very welcoming place so it must be true. Right?


J.Doe said...

After living in Tuscany for 4 years and not being a wealthy person I can tell you that any hospitality Tuscans show to foreigners is extremely overrated and linked directly to the amount of money they plan to spend-not that any tourist guide to Italy says this.

Valerie said...

J., We've not spend much time in Tuscany since our first couple of trips to Italy several years ago, but that really surprises me. Do you think that is indicative of just the main tourist towns or all over the region? Interesting.

Eryn said...

seems like you really enjoyed your vacation!!! Good for your for travleing off the beaten path :-)

carol said...

We couldn't agree with you more.We've always had the warmest interaction with the locals.They always go way out of their way to be helpful....
On another note, thanks for your terrific post about Matera.It influenced our decision to visit there on our way south.We weren't disappointed.Although we arrived after dark,without a map, helpful shopkeepers got us pointed in the right direction, complete with a complimentary map and a great restaurant recommendation.We wandered the Sassi in the rain the following morning,before we had to leave.But we will definitely return.
Hope your colds gone.

chris & erin said...

I hope you both are feeling better - it seems like this is going around Italy!

It's wonderful to hear stories about this type of hospitality - experiences like this are truly the ones that make my heart most happy. It's the "Italian family spirit" that I always hope for - but especially being in a city like Florence, we don't get to experience as much - but it's lovely when it happens

Valerie said...

Eryn, we have really enjoyed all our travels to the South. You'll definitely be able to read more in the future! :)

Erin (and Chris), we're feeling better, thanks. Bryan is still coughing but is on the mend. I've had some problems trying to read your blog, the Active X locks up my computer :( But from what I have read, you're having some wonderful experiences and making friends. Hope to meet up with you sometime soon!

Valerie said...

Carol, It was such a pleasure meeting you and Bill here in Ascoli. I'm glad you visited and enjoyed Matera; it's an incredible place, isn't it? Maybe next time we can meet up there for a few days :)

The Passionate Palate said...

I agree with you all that my experience shows me the unfriendly Italians are in the touristy areas (but even that wasn't so 10+ years ago in my travels.) Once you are off the beaten path, yes, there is lots of odd stares and curious glances, but much more hospitality and willingness to help. Wherever there are tourists in the world you find disgruntled locals...anywhere. So, I am very glad you posted this.