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Calabria, Italy and its Genealogy, History, Culture and Language

By The Ionian Sea - Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII -- Faces by the Way

The wind could not roar itself out. Through the night it kept awaking me, and on the morrow I found a sea foamier than ever; impossible to reach the Colonna by boat, and almost so, I was assured, to make the journey by land in such weather as this. Perforce I waited.

A cloudless sky; broad sunshine, warm as in an English summer; but the roaring tramontana was disagreeably chill. No weather could be more perilous to health. The people of Cotrone, those few of them who did not stay at home or shelter in the porticoes, went about heavily cloaked, and I wondered at their ability to wear such garments under so hot a sun. Theoretically aware of the danger I was running, but, in fact, thinking little about it, I braved the wind and the sunshine all day long; my sketch-book gained by it, and my store of memories. First of all, I looked into the Cathedral, an ugly edifice, as uninteresting within as without. Like all the churches in Calabria, it is white-washed from door to altar, pillars no less than walls -- a cold and depressing interior. I could see no picture of the least merit; one, a figure of Christ with hideous wounds, was well-nigh as repulsive as painting could be. This vile realism seems to indicate Spanish influence. There is a miniature copy in bronze of the statue of the chief Apostle in St. Peter's at Rome, and beneath it an inscription making known to the faithful that, by order of Leo XIII. in 1896, an Indulgence of three hundred days is granted to whosoever kisses the bronze toe and says a prayer. Familiar enough this unpretentious announcement, yet it never fails of its little shock to the heretic mind. Whilst I was standing near, a peasant went through the mystic rite; to judge from his poor malaria-stricken countenance, he prayed very earnestly, and I hope his Indulgence benefited him. Probably he repeated a mere formula learnt by heart. I wished he could have prayed spontaneously for three hundred days of wholesome and sufficient food, and for as many years of honest, capable government in his heavy-burdened country.

When travelling, I always visit the burial-ground; I like to see how a people commemorates its dead, for tombstones have much significance. The cemetery of Cotrone lies by the sea-shore, at some distance beyond the port, far away from habitations; a bare hillside looks down upon its graves, and the road which goes by is that leading to Cape Colonna. On the way I passed a little ruined church, shattered, I was told, by an earthquake three years before; its lonely position made it interesting, and the cupola of coloured tiles (like that of the Cathedral at Amalfi) remained intact, a bright spot against the grey hills behind. A high enclosing wall signalled the cemetery; I rang a bell at the gate and was admitted by a man of behaviour and language much more refined than is common among the people of this region; I felt sorry, indeed, that I had not found him seated in the Sindaco's chair that morning. But as guide to the burial-ground he was delightful. Nine years, he told me, he had held the post of custodian, in which time, working with his own hands, and unaided, he had turned the enclosure from a wretched wilderness into a beautiful garden. Unaffectedly I admired the results of his labour, and my praise rejoiced him greatly. He specially requested me to observe the geraniums; there were ten species, many of them of extraordinary size and with magnificent blossoms. Roses I saw, too, in great abundance; and tall snapdragons, and bushes of rosemary, and many flowers unknown to me. As our talk proceeded the gardener gave me a little light on his own history; formerly he was valet to a gentleman of Cotrone, with whom he had travelled far and wide over Europe; yes, even to London, of which he spoke with expressively wide eyes, and equally expressive shaking of the head. That any one should journey from Calabria to England seemed to him intelligible enough; but he marvelled that I had thought it worth while to come from England to Calabria. Very rarely indeed could he show his garden to one from a far-off country; no, the place was too poor, accommodation too rough; there needed a certain courage, and he laughed, again shaking his head.

The ordinary graves were marked with a small wooden cross; where a head-stone had been raised, it generally presented a skull and crossed bones. Round the enclosure stood a number of mortuary chapels, gloomy and ugly. An exception to this dull magnificence in death was a marble slab, newly set against the wall, in memory of a Lucifero -- one of that family, still eminent, to which belonged the sacrilegious bishop. The design was a good imitation of those noble sepulchral tablets which abound in the museum at Athens; a figure taking leave of others as if going on a journey. The Lucifers had shown good taste in their choice of the old Greek symbol; no better adornment of a tomb has ever been devised, nor one that is half so moving. At the foot of the slab was carved a little owl (civetta), a bird, my friend informed me, very common about here.

When I took leave, the kindly fellow gave me a large bunch of flowers, carefully culled, with many regrets that the lateness of the season forbade his offering choicer blossoms. His simple good-nature and intelligence greatly won upon me. I like to think of him as still quietly happy amid his garden walls, tending flowers that grow over the dead at Cotrone.

On my way back again to the town, I took a nearer view of the ruined little church, and, whilst I was so engaged, two lads driving a herd of goats stopped to look at me. As I came out into the road again, the younger of these modestly approached and begged me to give him a flower -- by choice, a rose. I did so, much to his satisfaction and no less to mine; it was a pleasant thing to find a wayside lad asking for anything but soldi. The Calabrians, however, are distinguished by their self-respect; they contrast remarkedly with the natives of the Neapolitan district. Presently, I saw that the boy's elder companion had appropriated the flower, which he kept at his nose as he plodded along; after useless remonstrance, the other drew near to me again, shamefaced; would I make him another present; not a rose this time, he would not venture to ask it, but "questo piccolo"; and he pointed to a sprig of geranium. There was a grace about the lad which led me to talk to him, though I found his dialect very difficult. Seeing us on good terms, the elder boy drew near, and at once asked a puzzling question: When was the ruined church on the hillside to be rebuilt? I answered, of course, that I knew nothing about it, but this reply was taken as merely evasive; in a minute or two the lad again questioned me. Was the rebuilding to be next year? Then I began to understand; having seen me examining the ruins, the boy took it for granted that I was an architect here on business, and I don't think I succeeded in setting him right. When he had said good-bye he turned to look after me with a mischievous smile, as much as to say that I had naturally refused to talk to him about so important a matter as the building of a church, but he was not to be deceived.

The common type of face at Cotrone is coarse and bumpkinish; ruder, it seemed to me, than faces seen at any point of my journey hitherto. A photographer had hung out a lot of portraits, and it was a hideous exhibition; some of the visages attained an incredible degree of vulgar ugliness. This in the town which still bears the name of Croton. The people are all more or less unhealthy; one meets peasants horribly disfigured with life-long malaria. There is an agreeable cordiality in the middle classes; business men from whom I sought casual information, even if we only exchanged a few words in the street, shook hands with me at parting. I found no one who had much good to say of his native place; every one complained of a lack of water. Indeed, Cotrone has as good as no water supply. One or two wells I saw, jealously guarded: the water they yield is not really fit for drinking, and people who can afford it purchase water which comes from a distance in earthenware jars. One of these jars I had found in my bedroom; its secure corking much puzzled me until I made inquiries. The river Esaro is all but useless for any purpose, and as no other stream flows in the neighbourhood, Cotrone's washerwomen take their work down to the beach; even during the gale I saw them washing there in pools which they had made to hold the sea water; now and then one of them ventured into the surf, wading with legs of limitless nudity and plunging linen as the waves broke about her.

It was unfortunate that I brought no letter of introduction to Cotrone; I should much have liked to visit one of the better houses. Well-to-do people live here, and I was told that, in fine weather, "at least half a dozen" private carriages might be seen making the fashionable drive on the Strada Regina Margherita. But it is not easy to imagine luxury or refinement in these dreary, close-packed streets. Judging from our table at the Concordia, the town is miserably provisioned; the dishes were poor and monotonous and infamously cooked. Almost the only palatable thing offered was an enormous radish. Such radishes I never saw: they were from six to eight inches long, and more than an inch thick, at the same time thoroughly crisp and sweet. The wine of the country had nothing to recommend it. It was very heady, and smacked of drugs rather than of grape juice.

But men must eat, and the Concordia, being the only restaurant, daily entertained several citizens, besides guests staying in the house. One of these visitants excited my curiosity; he was a middle-aged man of austere countenance; shabby in attire, but with the bearing of one accustomed to command. Arriving always at exactly the same moment, he seated himself in his accustomed place, drew his hat over his brows, and began to munch bread. No word did I hear him speak. As soon as he appeared in the doorway, the waiter called out, with respectful hurry, "Don Ferdinando!" and in a minute his first course was served. Bent like a hunchback over the table, his hat dropping ever lower, until it almost hid his eyes, the Don ate voraciously. His dishes seemed to be always the same, and as soon as he had finished the last mouthful, he rose and strode from the room.

Don is a common title of respect in Southern Italy; it dates of course from the time of Spanish rule. At a favourable moment I ventured to inquire of the waiter who Don Ferdinando might be; the only answer, given with extreme discretion, was "A proprietor." If in easy circumstances, the Don must have been miserly, his diet was wretched beyond description. And in the manner of his feeding he differed strangely from the ordinary Italian who frequents restaurants. Wonderful to observe, the representative diner. He always seems to know exactly what his appetite demands; he addresses the waiter in a preliminary discourse, sketching out his meal, and then proceeds to fill in the minutiae. If he orders a common dish, he describes with exquisite detail how it is to be prepared; in demanding something out of the way he glows with culinary enthusiasm. An ordinary bill of fare never satisfies him; he plays variations upon the theme suggested, divides or combines, introduces novelties of the most unexpected kind. As a rule, he eats enormously (I speak only of dinner), a piled dish of macaroni is but the prelude to his meal, a whetting of his appetite. Throughout he grumbles, nothing is quite as it should be, and when the bill is presented he grumbles still more vigorously, seldom paying the sum as it stands. He rarely appears content with his entertainment, and often indulges in unbounded abuse of those who serve him. These characteristics, which I have noted more or less in every part of Italy, were strongly illustrated at the Concordia. In general, they consist with a fundamental good humour, but at Cotrone the tone of the dining-room was decidedly morose. One man -- he seemed to be a sort of clerk -- came only to quarrel. I am convinced that he ordered things which he knew the people could not cook just for the sake of reviling their handiwork when it was presented. Therewith he spent incredibly small sums; after growling and remonstrating and eating for more than an hour, his bill would amount to seventy or eighty centesimi, wine included. Every day he threatened to withdraw his custom; every day he sent for the landlady, pointed out to her how vilely he was treated, and asked how she could expect him to recommend the Concordia to his acquaintances. On one occasion I saw him push away a plate of something, plant his elbows on the table, and hide his face in his hands; thus he sat for ten minutes, an image of indignant misery, and when at last his countenance was again visible, it showed traces of tears.

I dwell upon the question of food because it was on this day that I began to feel a loss of appetite and found myself disgusted with the dishes set before me. In ordinary health I have the happiest qualification of the traveller, an ability to eat and enjoy the familiar dishes of any quasi-civilized country; it was a bad sign when I grew fastidious. After a mere pretence of dinner, I lay down in my room to rest and read. But I could do neither; it grew plain to me that I was feverish. Through a sleepless night, the fever manifestly increasing, I wished that illness had fallen on me anywhere rather than at Cotrone.