Back in Italy: postcard from Salerno

We arrived in Rome on Sunday and immediately headed south by train to Salerno, a working port city at the bottom of the Amalfi Coast. We had visited over night, in 2010 on our way south to Sicily, to break the trip down the length of the peninsula. This visit gave us another chance to explore the old centre, the centro storico.

Here are a few of my favourite snaps.

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The poetry of locally-born Alfonso Gatto adorns the walls of Salerno.
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The decoration at the top of the tower of San Matteo looks decidedly Byzantine.
I’ve got a thing for old signs and fonts.
Detail of mosaic work above the altar of San Matteo.
Beccheria is another word for macelleria, butcher shop. Learning new words every day.
No post is complete without food. This was a little complimentary appetiser with our beer. Pizza fritta.

Creativity: it’s all around us

“Why is it important to be creative?” This is the question posed by my local writing group as a blog post topic.

I’ve thought about creativity for most of my life. I am the third of six children and early on I realised that my siblings could do thing I couldn’t, like draw,  dance, make up songs and play musical instruments well.

Our much-loved great-uncle Tom Doerer, was a successful cartoonist and newspaper man, who started his career as a copy-boy for the legendary satirist HL Mencken. Allan Holtz, a comic strip historian and author, wrote an very informative post regarding my great uncle here.

Our grandmother, Anna Mezzacappa, cooked with the radio on and sang along to the Italian opera programs in perfect pitch. Our grandfather, Giovanni Pergolini, was a tailor ‘un sarto’ who created beautiful coats and hats for us children out of seemingly little fabric, no more leftover scraps from his tailoring business.

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To me, these people in my life were ‘creative types’. My notion of creativity was tied to expression in writing, painting, drawing, sewing and musical ability.

My parents, Owen and Louise, however, were not what I thought of as creative. Our father studied accounting  and worked in project management finance for a contractor to the burgeoning US Space Program. Our mother was a nurse. They were both well-read, kind, funny and incredibly supportive of us six kids. They loved music and introduced us to the likes of Mario Lanza, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Neither could play an instrument and dad used to say he had two left feet on the dance floor.

My own path to creativity has been a slow road. I won a spelling bee in 5th grade. I remember my teacher telling me that to win, I would not only have to spell the words, but I would also have to use each word correctly in a sentence.

More than 50 years later I can’t recall my winning word but I do remember sitting in bed with my pencil and exercise book visualising verbs and nouns and subjects and objects. Fascinated with the combinations that could be created I’d fall asleep, pencil in hand, and awake with sounds and visions of ‘Ships sail on azure seas’  or ‘Rhythmic music is played on bongo drums’, ‘azure’, ‘rhythmic’ and ‘bongo’ being words I had studied.  To this day I have a recurring dream of waking up with my pencil poking me in the side.

I knew one day I would write. I didn’t know what I would write though. At University I studied one class in Creative Writing. I wrote short stories and sketches for the class. Although my writing was good enough for a beginner, I knew I couldn’t expect to repay my student loan as a Theatre Technician or a Writer.  Eventually, with a love of new, emerging technology and an ability to write I landed a contract as a Technical Writer. It turned into a 30+ year career working in different industries.

For some years I thought I had settled for a cop-out career and was suppressing a creative writer urge. But slowly, I began to see the creativity in the work I was doing, finding ways to turn technical information into language the lay-person could understand, or designing a graphic to appeal to visual learners.  I’ve worked for publishers, financial institutions, government IT departments, software companies, utilities, consulting firms and more. In each of these places I have worked with creative people.

I have come to recognize creativity outside of the traditional creative (Arts) industries. A large part of creativity is ability to solve problems, to connect the dots, to recognise patterns, to see what others don’t see, and to use that knowledge to better our lives.

The application interface that you love on your smartphone was designed by a creative person (who also knows how to write elegant code). Your favourite restaurant meal was conceived by a clever chef (and cooked by a team of passionate and creative people with great knife skills).  The botanic garden that you stroll through was laid out by a master horticulturist (and planted by a group of strong souls with an eye for beauty).

I see now that my parents were genuinely creative. My accountant dad dreamed of the future of space and used his considerable analytical skills to support that passion for the future of exploration. My mother managed a job and a household on a shoestring, cooked delicious and healthy meals and encouraged each of us kids to pursue our own diverse paths – all with no preconceived notion of how we should conduct our lives.

Why is creativity important? Our survival depends on it. Imagining new ways to not just live, but thrive, in an ever-changing world requires some divergent thinking. Fortunately, most of us are capable of that.

*****

This piece is part of the August 2018 Writers of Adelaide blog chain. To read what others in the group have to say on the subject of creativity, check out their blog posts:

Fontella Koleff
https://crossbordertales.wordpress.com
Ryan Peck
https://adelaidedad.com
Dean Mayes
http://www.deanfromaustralia.com
Kirsty Davis
https://kirstydavisart.com.au
Heidi Arellano
https://marissakeller.blogspot.com
Jennifer Sando
http://www.jennifersando.com/blog

Follow the group on Facebook here.

Postcard from Latvia — week two

Latvia is a beautiful country of only two million people. My husband Andrew (known as Roo) and I were lucky to spend two weeks exploring a bit of this tiny Baltic country and meet his family for the first time.

Young cousin Mārcis and his fiancée Sintija had already given us an introduction to the capitol, Rīga, during week one. We visited nearby towns of Sigulda, Jurmala and Bauskas for a few hours each and we were keen to spend more time in Latvia’s vast, empty countryside and small towns.

I have documented some family history and our first week in a previous post, which you’ll find here.

During week two we based ourselves in Jaunjelgava, Roo’s father’s village which is 80 kilometres from Riga. Mārcis and Sintija both grew up in Pļaviņas, a small town about 50km further along the Daugava river from Jaunjelgava.

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Screenshot from Google Maps with towns we visited circled

When not meeting and dining with Mārcis and Sintija’s families in Jaunjelgava and Pļaviņas we ventured to other towns for day trips. We also spent a day and night celebrating Midsummer, or ‘Līgo’ as it is known in Latvia, with Mārcis’ grandmother Vida and her sister Vanda and family.

Rather than narrate too much, I’ll let the pictures and their captions do the talking.  The photos in the following sections are a mixture of mine and Roo’s plus a few of Mārcis and Sintija’s.

Rundāle Palace

Rundāle Palace is an ostentatious 18th-century country estate built for Baron Ernst Johann Biron, lover of Anna Ioanovna, the Russian-born Duchess of Courland. The area known as Courland is both a cultural and historic region roughly comprising the modern-day Latvian region of Kurzeme. As summer houses go, it was pretty special, inside and out.

Rundāles Pils
Approaching Runsāle Palace, designed in 1736 by Italian Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who was a senior court architect of the Russian Empire.
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Mārcis and Sintija inside the palace
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Opulent walls and a fine parquet floor
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Ceiling detail
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Portraits
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Wearing our protective shoe covers and having a break from all that walking.
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Vase collection in green room
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A beautiful ceramic heater, luxurious chandelier and lovely pale blue walls
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Palace sleeping chamber with large ceramic heaters
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Trophies

Bauska Castle

Bauska Castle is a complex of two castles at the confluence of the Mūsa and Mēmele rivers on the edge of the town of Bauska. It was built during the 14th through 16th centuries. Parts of the site are a ruin but you can climb a watchtower and gain excellent views of the surrounding countryside.

This Castle, compared with Rundāle Palace, feels more like a country hunting lodge. The decoration is austere and the walls are solid; they’re built to withstand enemy attack.

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A restored section of the newer castle with ‘trompe l’oeil’ paintwork to look like stone blocks
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An unrestored section of the old castle
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Clothing and shoes on display in the castle museum
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Clothing and shoes on display in the castle museum
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Clothing and shoes on display in the castle museum
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Decorated trunk
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Animal horns form part of the candelabra
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Old ceramic plates
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Old kitchen utensils
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In the cellar
Bauska Door
Door — Photo credit: Sintija Silagaile
Bauska
Fireplace for cooking — Photo credit: Sintija Silagaile
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Wonderful thick walls — Photo credit: Sintija Silagaile

Jelgava

In the town of Jelgava there is another palace designed by the same architect as Rundāle. Jelgava Palace now houses the Latvian Agricultural University.

We didn’t visit the palace, however, in the adjoining park a costumed crowd was gathered preparing for an evening concert. We heard some warm-up performances and watched the men, women and children enjoying the Midsummer holiday.

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The Driksa river runs through the middle of peaceful Jelgava.
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Preparing for singing and dancing into the night
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A beautiful flower wreath for decorating a stage
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A skill learned by all the women; making flower wreaths and crowns.
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The girls start making wreaths young and also participate in the singing.

Ušķes — The family farm

Ušķes is the name of the farm where Roo’s dad Roberts grew up, and it was also Roo’s grandmother Minna’s maiden name.

One cousin still lives on the farm. The land is not cultivated these days and there are no animals. Native forest is reclaiming much of the property.

We explored the buildings and farm equipment, some of it quite old;  we admired the surrounding forest; we drank clean crisp water from the well where Roo’s dad would have drunk.

Being in the presence of objects that had belonged to Roo’s aunt and grandparents was an emotional experience for all of us. The fact that his father had never been able to return was on all of our minds. But we weren’t really sad, just grateful that we were fortunate to meet all the living family.

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This building was formerly the house where Roberts grew up. It became the barn when a newer house was built.
Andrejs Beķers
Andrejs Beķers, father of Roberts and grandfather of Andrew (Roo) Bekeris, resting alongside his sickle after cutting hay.
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Andrew (Roo) Bekeris, with his grandfathers sickle
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The newer farmhouse, build in the 1940s
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Another barn on the farm at Jaunjelgava
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Three generations of cousins: Roo, Mārcis and Arturs
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Roo’s Aunt Vilma’s room in the farmhouse – like a time capsule.
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In Aunt Vilma’s old room
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Inside the farmhouse – vintage wallpaper and a winter scene of carved and inlaid wood
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A traditional design on a carved wooden box
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Roo inside the farmhouse

Remembering Roberts Beķers at Ušķes

As I mentioned in the previous post, Roberts never returned to Latvia after the war finished, and Roo is the first person in his family to visit since his dad left in 1944. I knew it would be an emotional visit for us all, but I didn’t expect the family to be so sensitive to Roo’s feelings. But they were. His dad died in 1984 and none of the people still living in Latvia had met Roberts. Still, the family had a strong sense of our visit as being a momentous occasion. And it was.

During our discussions with Mārcis during the months before we got to Latvia, some sort of action or ceremony or memorial for Roberts was discussed. We decided that planting an oak tree for Roberts would be a symbolic gesture. There is a very old oak tree already on the property which was planted in 1926 when aunt Vilma was born.

Sintija’s mother in Pļaviņas knew of a good plant nursery where we could find a decently-sized sapling. We arrived at the farm with the tree and some fresh potting soil. Everyone had a dig and pitched in to place the tree in the ground and water it in. We stopped to admire and each of us was lost in our own thoughts of the significance of the moment.

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Planting an oak tree at Ušķes in memory of Roberts – Roo with cousin Andris
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Planting an oak tree at Ušķes in memory of Roberts – Roo filling the hole
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Feeling a little emotional remembering Roberts fate, never being able to return to Ušķes.
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Roo and I with Roberts’ tree at Ušķes.
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For you, Roberts. May it grow strong.

Family gatherings

A universal truth we have discovered: whether families are meeting for the first time or the 100th time, there is food.

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A beautiful and delicious cake made by Sintija’s mum Sandra. An artist in the kitchen.
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At Mārcis’ grandma’s house –  Vida fed us non-stop. Pickled and smoked foods feature large in the cuisine as well as whatever fresh vegetables and salady things are in season.
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Vida’s irresistible Sorrell soup. Perfect with a dollop of sour cream
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A yummy coffee mousse with a berry sauce
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More cousins gathered to welcome us! Sintija and Mārcis introduced us to Rita and her family.
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Laura and Artis – brother and sister, children of Roo’s cousin Rita.
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And there were pīradzīn! Yeasty bacon and onion rolls. No Latvian gathering is complete without them it seems. And that’s a good thing.

At the cemetery

We visited the peaceful Jaunjelgava Cemetery where Roo’s family members are interred.

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Roo’s grandparent Minna and Andrejs’ graves. He never met his grandparents.
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Rooš Aunt Vilma and her husband
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Roo’s late cousin Elmārs was young Mārcis’ grandfather
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Spring flowers in the tranquil graveyard

Līgo celebrations

Latvia’s midsummer festival is known as Līgo and is celebrated on 23 June. The feast of St John the Baptist (John being ‘Jānis’ in Latvian) is the following day. These two days, the 23-24 June, make up one of the biggest Latvian celebrations — two days and a night of food, singing and dancing. Traditionally, men called Jānis, (a common name that is like the English John) wear an Oak crown.  Part of the fun of the day is going into the fields to collect flowers, which are abundant in Latvia’s gentle sunshine.

Midsummer cheese (Jāņu siers) is one of the special seasonal foods served and since we liked it so much, we ate it most days. The celebration table never ran out of food.

Tradition dictates that if you wish to have good health and cheerful spirit for the following year, you should stay up all night. Even though this is the shortest night of the year, it’s a job to stay awake so the night is spent singing, eating, drinking and having a bonfire. Jumping over it is said to prevent evil spirits and illness — but only young men trying to impress someone usually have a go.

We celebrated with the families of Vida and Vanda, Mārcis’grandmother and her sister, in the countryside south of Jaunjelgava, near the Lithuanian border.

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Midsummer traditions – men called Jānis wear an oak crown for their name day.
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Two beautiful and generous women.  Sisters, Vanda in traditional dress and Mārcis’ grandmother Vida on the right. We miss you!
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Mārcis’ dad Andris in his happy place, cooking shaslicks over hot coal during Līgo (Midsummer celebrations)
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Some of the food offerings at Līgo. the table always seemed to be full, as if by magic.
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Midsummer cheese (Jāņu siers) studded with caraway seeds, is on every table in Līgo season.
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A pickled herring salad with chopped egg, beetroot and the ubiquitous dill
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Roo’s happy place – Beer and pīradzīn
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Spring poppies
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Picking wildflowers
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A native iris
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My first attempt at making a flower crown with wildflowers, something Latvian women are really good at!
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The traditional Līgo bonfire
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Aiva in her beautiful flower crown creation, with Mārcis admiring the bonfire (and warming up?).

Ah, Latvia

This post covers the main places we visited but is by no means comprehensive. We made other stops along the road between places, ate in local taverns and cafes and met more people than we have told you about here.

And, this will not have been our last trip to Latvia; there is so much to explore. The warm welcome will always be with us. Having had that first wonderful experience has just whet our appetite for more.

I leave you with a few more photos. Just get out there and visit.

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Into the pine forest. This is Latvia.
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Down by the Daugava River at Jaunjelgava
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The house where Roo’s grandfather, Andris Beķers, was born and grew up before marrying and moving to Ušķes.
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These three made great travel buddies. Photo credit: Selfie by Mārcis Beķers.
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These two. Mārcis and Sintija. Without their help,
we couldn’t have made such meaningful contact with the family and known about all the foods and traditions of this Baltic gem. We are forever grateful.
Loro Ciuffenna, Toscana
Loro Ciuffenna, Toscana

Flashback to: Ten Weeks in Italy 2010

In 2010, my older sister and I were fortunate to be able to spend five weeks together, studying, visiting relatives and travelling in Italy. Then my husband joined me for another five weeks in Italy with a few days in Singapore on the way back to Australia.

I did a separate blog for the ten week trip as I have done for other trips (on main MLT at Large page see My Travel Sites links for others) and I was very new to blogging. The blog starts at the end of our trip with our stopover in Singapore via London, and works back. This 2010 visit to Italy still stands out as one of my top trips ever for a variety of reasons (though, seriously, none have disappointed). I hope to do many more.

I re-lived some of that fun with my sister more recently with a quick trip to the Abruzzo and beyond; and I learned so much attending Let’s Blog Abruzzo and just being there with a different purpose. I drank new wines, learned new recipes, saw incredibly beautiful parts of the Abruzzo. As well, I have made some new friends and acquaintances and renewed my relationship with cousins.

I’m still trying to find my blogging place in the world. Re-visiting these 2010 posts puts me in a happy frame of mind so I wanted to share some of that happy with newer followers. I would love to hear some critiques from readers and other bloggers. Click the link under the photo up the top to see my Ten Weeks in Italy blog.

Ciao for now…MLT

Learning to be a better blogger in Abruzzo

I have to admit that the idea of going to Abruzzo to learn more about the art and craft of blogging has struck some of my friends and colleagues as an odd thing.  To be honest, most of them have never heard of Abruzzo. Unless, of course it’s just the humorous mention of  it by a character in the recent Australian film ‘Red Dog‘.  The mine worker, Vanno, is always singing the praises of his homeland in Italy, “Ah, now in the Abruzzi…” followed by any of “…the women are the most beautiful” or “…the food is the best in the world” or “…the scenery is fantastic”.  As a migrant in a desolate, woman-less, remote mining outpost of Western Australia in the 1970s it’s easy to see how Vanno would have a sense of Abruzzo as a paradise on earth! But there’s a lot of truth in this idealised vision of our character’s homeland.

From a cousin's house in Morro D'Oro, Teramo, looking back towards the mountains.
From a cousin’s house in Morro D’Oro, Teramo, looking back towards the mountains.

As someone who also has heritage in Abruzzo, I seem to have an attraction to web sites or blogs that discuss Italy (refer previous post here) and more so if the content mentions the word ‘Abruzzo’.  So when I learnt of the Let’s Blog Abruzzo event (yes I have been following the blog of one of the organisers) I thought, “what a wonderful alignment of the planets”.  A visit to Bell’Abruzzo. A room full of people all interested in Abruzzo food, wine and tourism. A room full of people who know so much more than me about blogging. A session to help me with my photography. A list of sponsors who produce food and wine that we will be able to taste. An opportunity to meet people whose blogs I have been following for ages. It was a ‘no brainer’…

I am so looking forward to seeing family, attending the conference in a part of Abruzzo that I’ve not been to before – the hill-top town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio – and immersing myself in all that Let’s Blog Abruzzo has to offer. Ci vediamo presto!

An Italian Obsession

It started with a photo. My grandparent’s wedding photo.

I always had a sense that we were different. My mother’s parents had a funny accent when they spoke English and they talked real loud. My friends couldn’t understand our grandfather. I was used to it and explained that my Pop-Pop was Italian and that he was from ‘the Abruzzi’.

He did have a thick accent but we must have grown used to it. Mom-Mom not so much. Pop-Pop was only 13 when he arrived in America and he was already a tailor. His schooling lasted 3 years before he was taught a trade at age 9. Imagine that today. Mom-mom arrived with her mother and a one of her sisters to join their father who was already in Philadelphia. She went to high school and although Italian was the language of home, she was educated in English through her high school years in ‘l’America’.

But the photo. I was a little obsessed with it for some years. It seemed like something from another time and place than our rather normal Anglo existence, it was foreign and exotic and we just weren’t!

I don’t remember seeing the wedding photo for the first time until I was in High School, probably after my grandmother died and my grandfather sold up and moved to the Jersey Shore. It turned up at my parent’s house amongst the possessions that Pop-Pop no longer needed in his tiny apartment on California Avenue, Atlantic City. He had been totally dedicated to Mom-Mom, Anna. He use to refer to her as ‘my Annie’. He survived another 18 years after she was gone.

But I digress. The photo was taken in 1922 in Philadelphia and I don’t know the other people in it other than my grandparents, the bride and groom. They were 9 years apart. My grandmother was only 18 and my grandfather 27 or so. The bride, bridesmaid and  flower girl have the best hats and the biggest flowers, but the little boy ring-bearer is jut the funniest looking little fellow with wild hair that looks like he jut tumbled out of bed.  They all look so serious.

I have been inspired to think about this photo again as a fellow Italy-obsessed blogger Debra recently posted an entry about a wonderful looking museum with some equally great photos from the Museo Paolo Cresci in Lucca. Refer to the post here.

So here’s a copy of my lovely grandparent’s wedding photo. It started me on  journey to discover my Italian heritage, to visit Italy many times over to meet my grandparent’s families and see their villages in Abruzzo and to try to learn how to speak the most basic sentences in Italian.

I would love to hear what you think or if you have a story (or even an obsession) associated with a family photo.

Anna Mezacappa and Giovanni Pergolini
Anna Mezzacappa and Giovanni Pergolini