Monday, April 27, 2009

The Cats of Matera

We are cat people. I like dogs well enough, too, but I really love kitties. Even four years after our two faithful felines died, it still feels strange to have a cat-less household. Woody and Winston had been our four-legged kids for 17 years before going to Kitty Heaven, where they are surely snuggling on my grandfather’s lap.

So, apart from our fascination with Matera’s unique history and architecture, and the fact that lots of people there resemble some of my own family, we also love it because it is a cat town. We have seen more of them lolling around the Sassi than we have encountered anywhere else in Italy. They also are pretty mellow and friendly; they don’t scamper away immediately like most of the kitties we encountered in Ascoli.

They are real cuties, too. They perch on the walls, pose on planters, and snooze on rooftops. One more reason to love Matera in our book!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Musical Matera

It seems that wherever I wander in Matera, I hear music.

In some parts of town it is the songs of the birds that thrive in the ravines and church towers. Chirpy, rambunctious melodies from small flocks conversing among themselves, which faintly mimics the musical conversations I overhear in Italian, itself a sing-songy language.

Walking anywhere in the vicinity of Piazza del Sedile brings strains that are more practiced and perfected. One day it is from violins, another from flutes. Sometimes it is a more orchestrated arrangement of blending instruments forming a beautiful, classical refrain. Once in a while we hear a wrong note, or scales being practiced as warm-up. The Convervatory of Music has its seat in the Piazza del Sedile, and the surrounding neighborhood is pleasantly serenaded daily.

I have heard Jazz emitting from doorways and windows. I read somewhere that this classic American musical style has long been loved in Matera, and it shows. Even the flow of the passeggiata seems to be carried out to unheard yet very present strains of a soundtrack by Henry Mancini.

Then there are the churches. The bells don't toll, they chime. Now and then we hear the tinny recorded bells ringing out the Ave Maria, but usually it is the true bells sounding in a very musical fashion. Today, walking to the car, we passed the church of San Pietro Caveoso, on the astounding outcropping of rock, the church itself built up of heavy stones and blending into the natural formations. Out of the door wafted a heavenly choir of synchronated voices, raising up hymnal praises.

Matera may well be the city of stone, but it is also the city of music.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Abruzzo Update

We're back from France and settling into life in Matera. Well, as settled as you can get in a vacation property for a short term stay. We love this city, and despite the nasty cold that has beset me and made itself at home, we are enjoying getting a more "insider's view" of the place.

By now you've surely seen the haunting and heartbreaking photos of the comunal funeral in L'Aquila. I could not stop the tears when I saw the small, white caskets of children perched upon their parents' caskets. Heart wrenching.

It is not too late to help. In fact, there are more ways to contribute. I have recently updated the How to Help page, so be sure to stop by and take a look. Even giving the equivalent of your morning cappuccino will be appreciated by the families living in tendopoli.

My "Italian brother" Valerio just returned from L'Aquila. He went for a couple of days to help construct temporary buildings, as part of a group from Green Peace. He said it is still getting very cold at night due to the high elevation, but reported that people seemed to be taking everything in stride and with the trademake Abruzzo resilience. There is so much to be done, he said, and much money is needed.

I asked him which organizations are best for getting the money to those most in need. He said the Croce Rossa and Caritas, as well as the Democratic Party of Italy. He also said the most bureaucracy-heavy outlet is the Protezione Civile, where little of the donated money will actually get to the victims and projects, especially in the immediate future, as is most needed.

From the volunteer's mouth.

On another note, I was just referred to this Survivor's Diary, written by a L'Aquila earthquake survivor. Do check it out.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Joyeuses Paques

Or, Buona Pasqua da Francia!

So, we are in southern France, spending a few days with my cousin! After a couple of years of trying to fix dates and work out a visit, we finally made it here. Considering it really isn't *that* far from Italy, you wouldn't think it would have been so hard, would you?

Cousin Celia has a beautiful home in a lovely village and, despite the rainy weather, we are having a wonderful time. She and her partner are loads of fun and gracious hosts. We are sampling local fare and vintages, and -gotta say- those croissants are every bit as buttery and tasty as you would imagine.

When I say "southern France" I am not talking about glitzy Nice or popular Provence. You won't find miles of ordered rows of lavender around here; few towns in the area are considered real tourist destinations. This is the Minervois; an area where vines occupy almost every scrap of arable (or semi-arable) land, sliced through with limestone gorges and punctuated by rugged, scrubby-planted hills. We have seen grapes planted right into hopelessly pebbled fields, yet they seem to be thriving. In the distance, on the one clear day when we arrived, we saw the Pyrenees, their peaks still cloaked in snow.

This is the land of medieval Cathars, peasant heroines, and vengeful crusaders. Gloomy Gothic churches are embellished with grotesque gargoyles. The countryside is sprinkled with stone villages adorned with pastel shuttles, in joyful shades of lavender and cornflower blue. We have glimpsed abundant walking paths, a still-operable canal, and tree-lined avenues. Their friends and other local villagers have been eminently patient with our strange blending of Italian and English, when we have ventured out sans our French-speaking relations.

It is a lovely land, and feels very down to earth. We can see why they love it. We head home tomorrow, but are so glad to be here with famiglia. After the heart-breaking week in Italy rattled by wretched news and aftershocks, we feel a little lighter and more rested.

Buona Pasqua! Hope you have a wonderful day.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How To Help

*Updated April 16 with additional avenues for assistance*

The worst part of watching the horrible news with the astounding images and staggering numbers of dead, injured, and homeless in Abruzzo is the feeling of helplessness. We are not that far away and yet we can't go there and offer solace or comfort, or pitch in to dig through the rubble.

However, several organizations have mobilized to offer assistance. A small donation of cash or blood can be an invaluable comfort to the tens of thousands who are mourning loved ones and lost homes. Here is how you can help:

The National Italian American Foundation has set up a special relief fund, and donations from the US are tax deductable.

The Croce Rosse is the Italian Red Cross; donations can be made online.

Caritas is one of Italy's primary charitable organizations, operated by the Catholic Church. Donations can be made by bank transfer.

If you are in Italy and want to donate blood, the AVIS blood bank wants you al piĆ¹ presto!

*Updated April 12**
If you would like to make a donation by credit card, you can call +39-023-498-0235, a hotline sponsored jointly by Corriere della Sera and Gazzetta dello Sport, two national newspapers.

From within Italy you can send an instant 1 euro donation from you cell phone credit by sending a text message to number 48580.

*Updated April 16*

Save The Children has entered the tendopoli to assess the most pressing needs of the children, to make sure they are properly clothed and housed, and to try to get them back to school as quickly as possible.

Another way for travelers in Italy to donate is through the SuperEnalotto. Sisal, the company that administers the lottery, has introduced a special ticket game with proceeds to go to the quake victims. Tickets can be purchased in increments of 1, 3, or 5 euro from any outlet that sells lotto tickets, indicated with the SISAL logo on their signs.

Despite the destruction and broken lives, there are some heartwarming stories emerging, too. Hop over to Italian Notebook for a short sampling.

Thank you all for your emails of concern...they were most touching.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Rome Trembled

We have been receiving a lot of phone calls and emails from worried friends and family. Rest assured, we're fine. The earthquake that struck central Italy this morning woke us up, as the building moved and the wooden floor of our sleeping loft squeaked and swayed. In my barely-awake state I thought, gee, that feels like a tremor, but dismissed it. After all, we were in Rome where seismic activity is not very common. We had felt several tremors in Ascoli Piceno where the mountainous terrain is more conducive to shakings and rattlings. But Rome?

When we woke up again at 7:30 am we heard the horrible notizia of severe damage and tragic deaths in the region of Abruzzo. It has grown progressively worse throughout the day as more bodies are discovered, more destruction detected. Compounding the situation is the damage sustained at the L'Aquila hospital, requiring partial evacuation of current patients and leaving some victims outside to be treated in the courtyard. The images are heartbreaking, and our thoughts and prayers go out to those grieving, hurting families.

From the video and photos I have seen, the newer buildings were just as susceptible as the old stone structures. When the earth moves out from under you there is no differentiation.

Bryan talked to a friend in Ascoli who said the tremor was very strong but there were, thankfully, no problems there. Sant'Emidio is being hailed again for saving the city from destructive earthquakes.

Diane slept while Rome trembled. Too bad we all awoke to a nighmare-ish situation affecting so many. it is so strange to realize that thirty seconds can change the lives and landscape of an entire city.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Postcard From the Road

Hiya! No, I haven't flown the coop and abandoned the nest, despite the lack of blogish activity around here lately. I've been on the road, for the first time without my trusty laptop in tow. I gotta say, I feel its absence. I had hoped to post as we went along, but I was thwarted in my good intentions. The computer in the apartment we used in Cupra Marittima didn't accept my memory stick, where my documents were handily stored and subsequently trapped. Then we arrived in Roma, and the enormous internet cafe that was conveniently placed near the apartment in which we are lodging has suddenly taken flight and disappeared. Strange, as the place was always packed. I decided to let my bad technology karma rest and just give up trying for a while.

Bryan's sister and her husband have been loads of fun. This trip is their first to Italy and we have enjoyed seeing the bel paese anew through their first-timers' eyes. It brings back memories of our first couple of trips, mouths agape, eyes full of wonder and awe at every turn, and tastebuds oooh-ing and mmm-ing at every bite. Oh yeah, and feet aching after long days beating the cobblestones.

We spent a week in the Piceno where we showed them many of the places we love, took them to our favorite restaurants and a small winery and even got them invited to a friend's birthday party. They liked seeing the countryside and life in a smaller city before their introduction to Roma.

Roma, the Eternal City, is crammed with crowds, but the gorgeous weather and the fabulous front-row seat we're enjoying from our piazza-side apartment makes up for it. Watching the boisterous bustling in the Piazza Barberini is better than any TV show or action flick. We've witnessed it all - amorous couples, angry mammas, tired tourists, police processions, harried commuters, and sidewalk cafe activity, along with a fender-bender right beneath the window. We tear ourselves away to visit the monuments and churches, but when we are in the apartment two or all of us are voyersistically viewing the drama.

Diane and Brian depart tomorrow, and we'll miss them. Seeing them see Italy has reminded us yet again why we love it here.