I tell your mother that your family’s house is beautiful, but she doesn’t seem to believe me. It’s too small, she says, we don’t have much space.
Your apartment building is of modest size and sits on a dusty street of sporadic loud noise and chaos, lingering evidence of its neighboring big sibling Naples, located just a few kilometers south of here. A large grey building sits right across the street, abandoned and graffitied, and I wonder if it’s as dangerous inside as it is unsightly on the outside, and what types of people lurk around here after hours. When we go out at night, we drive past stretches of cornfields lined with prostitutes, some huddled together in packs, others standing further apart from each other, all waiting to pay the bills. This hamlet has a lot of history, and is even home to a NATO base, but as we drive around I get the sense that the rest of the world doesn’t even know about this place, or doesn’t want to. There are real ancient ruins here, just as real and probably as important as the ones in majestic Rome, but here conservation is non-existent, and everything is falling apart.
This place is called Lago Patria, roughly translated as “Lake of the Homeland,” and this is where you grew up. The lake itself is long and stretches out for miles. It gurgles tons of dark water, and is surrounded by wild, uncontrolled weeds and dry grass. This unkempt vegetation stretches out its wild arms and covers the entire right lane of an already small and winding road. It spanks our windshield as we pass, and we can’t see if there is another car coming in the opposite direction. I momentarily fear for my safety until I notice that this is nothing out of the ordinary for you, and you have it under control. A sigh escapes your lips. Any other city would build pathways here to walk and enjoy the lake. There would be trees, and flowers, and places to rest. These plants wouldn’t be blocking the road. It’s a shame, you tell me.
I look out the window and can do nothing else but agree, but between your tired sighs I find beauty. They are merely sprinkles of disappointment based on a foundation of love. You come from a place of strong values, faith, and tradition, a place from which you can spend a lifetime away from, but never truly leave. It’s a deep-rooted affection that manifests itself sometimes only through lament. After all, we are only upset by the things we care about.
Where I come from, there aren’t places like this.
Stretches of green farmland mix with residential housing and shops, and dirt roads that only locals know connect with paved asphalt and stoplights. I see buffalo prancing around in the fields, and shops of fresh, delicious mozzarella balls. Mozzarella di bufala could not get any fresher when the “bufala” are your neighbors. Everyone has that Neapolitan accent, the product of that cheery, but street tough dialect that sounds like standard Italian if it were knocked around a bit and stuck in a jar and shaken. It’s made up of a lot of ooo’s and shhhh’s, sounds that melt together like the mozzarella does inside your cheeks. Campania is a region you have to wrestle with to understand, it’s a place of unintentional juxtaposition, a place that half-heartedly chases the modern world without being sure that it wants to. It’s a place where men are both religious and sexy, where the only fight that matters is the one for your family, yet the streets are full of squabbles and attitudes. To get along with this place, one must set aside any tendencies toward the prim and high-strung. One needs to know how to relax to survive in a place that doesn’t.
The first thing your family does when I arrive is give me a drink. You’ve had a long trip, have a seat, your mother says, as your sister hands me a cold glass bottle of aranciata. Tell us about America.
I smile and don’t quite know what to say. I’d rather hear about where they come from, about this place, about these four walls, because what’s housed inside is the reason you’ve been able to survive, to live peacefully here. If ugly things exist in this country or in this region, they die at the door of your family’s house. The chaos is just a backdrop, wallpaper for what is truly important. The kitchen sparkles of daily labor, the air is distinctly perfumed with your mother’s heavy, hearty meals, the furniture is sparse, and the tv is tiny, but just good enough. Although it’s not much, everything is lovingly taken care of and catered to. Your mother is right, it is small in here. But what fills this house does not need space.
You no longer live here, but even when you say goodbye to your family and return to work in your grey-skied, trend-setting, contemporary city in the north, this place is never pulled out of you. By the time I leave, I’m convinced that I won’t soon forget this place either.
This place becomes you.
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Main photo: Youssef Amaaou
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