Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Last Mule of Anzi

A friend told me the story of her father-in-law’s emigration from Italy. He left Lucca at age 17 for California, like so many others, in search of opportunity and riches in the New World.  His wife and her family had likewise come from Lucca, but he had long shunned the idea of returning to Italy, despite his kids’ pleadings. Finally, after much insistence that Italy had changed in the forty years of his absence, he agreed to travel there to show them his birthplace and introduce them to his long-lost family members. It was the early 1980s.

As they drove through the cultivated plains to reach Lucca they passed an old man along the country lane accompanied by his donkey, laden with wood. “That does it!” yelled the father. “Turn around and take me back to Roma! The last thing I saw when I left Lucca forty years ago was a man with a donkey; today I return and the first thing I see is a man with a donkey! Nothing has changed here. Take me home to America.”

To him, the donkey symbolized backwardness. He was sure everything was as it always had been, including the poverty he had grown up with, and he didn’t want to relive any of it. He was unconvinced that Italy had become a modern nation with an active economy during his absence.

The continuity of old traditions is something we find so appealing about Italy. Things have changed, that is certain, but many of the long-held customs and crafts are – at least for the moment – still alive.

Like my friend’s father-in-law, the first thing we saw when we visited my ancestral village for the first time was a man with a mule. Rather than see it as a symbol of poverty or backwardness like he did, we found it sweetly reassuring that, in a world where technology blitzes forward at a mind-boggling rate, some things are still left to tradition.

Through our many visits to Anzi we would see this man, striding along his clip-clopping mule, which was usually bundled with firewood. We would wave as we passed him, and exchanged buongiornos and polite chit-chat as he delivered wood to an old signora’s doorstep. In an ancient hamlet with leg-numbingly steep and narrow streets, the mule makes sense. How else are you going to get a load of heavy wood home?

All around town there are stone circles affixed to many buildings, placed there to tie up a mule. At one time, my cousin Michele told me, there were probably thirty working mules in Anzi. They would be utilized to haul tools and implements to the fields, tote grain sacks to the flour mill, and transport olives or grapes to be pressed. Now there is just one.

La panda e` ucciso il mulo,” Michele’s wife Melina stated flatly. The panda killed the mule? What?

“The Panda, the car by Fiat,” she said. It became the workhorse of rural towns like this because it was narrow enough to fit through many of the streets, had enough power to accelerate uphill to reach them, and came in a four-wheel drive version that could be taken to the fields. It was also economical, didn’t require feed, a stall, or pooper-scooper clean-up.

Completely logical. It was only then that we took notice of just how many older model Pandas were still in use in Basilicata, and now understood why. The newer Panda is much larger and less desirable in towns like this; old ones are greatly in demand.

Yet the mule guy continues unfazed. The Panda, after all, cannot climb steps.  His customers are mostly anziani, elderly folks, but he can be seen around town every day guiding the mule up the stepped, inclined alleyways with bundles of wood to fuel their stoves and fireplaces. It is an old-world tradition that will likely die when he does, but for now he and his mule carry on.


janie said...

I love this story!

Valerie said...

Janie - Glad you enjoyed it. It is such a great welcome whenever we see him on our visits. said...

Ciao Valerie, mi piace che tu anche dagli U.S.A. continui a scrivere di Anzi. Mi piace, L'U L T I M O M U L O D I A N Z I !
Sono felice di averti trovata sul tuo blog, sarà un modo per mantenere i contatti, un abbraccio forte forte a te e Bryn. MELINA

Valerie said...

Melina! Carissima! Sono contenta che l'hai trovato il blog e ti piace l'articolo del 'nostro' caro paesino. Anzi e voi state sempre nei nostri cuori. Ci mancate molto. Vi ho appena mandato una cartolina; vedi, vi pensiamo spesso. :) Abbracci a voi e gli amici anziesi.

Diana and "Guido" said...

I live in a small hill town and have to walk with everything I buy down 58 stairs so I think the mule still has it over the Panda. Gave me an idea.

By the way, I like your blog and will be back. I have my own but it's brand new....kinda quiet.

Valerie said...

Diana and Guido - Benvenuti! Mules do make perfect sense in towns like these. We love the continuity and practicality of it. We have seen gas-powered contraptions that can "climb" steps in steep towns around Campania and Basilicata, which also replace the mules, though. Tornate presto!

Deb said...

Is there still an old flour mill in Anzi? My grandfather came from there as a child, his mother's family owned the mill and people would grind their grain on a barter basis. Just wondered if it was still there, I've been unable to find any pictures or even information about a river in Anzi.

Valerie said...

Deb - I know there's a mill of some sort there because my cousin grows wheat and has it ground there. Will have to ask about it. What was your grandfather's name? Anzi sits high up on the mountain, but the Camastra River flows past it down in the valley below. You'll have to come see your ancestral town (and the mule! :)