At 5am I am woken by the donkey. I knew donkeys brayed, but didn’t realize that like roosters, they come alive at dawn. I learn much about donkeys in Tufo. Sipping coffee in the morning I watch the donkey toss its head from side-to-side, swinging its ears in perfect arcs. Reading in the afternoon I catch it chasing pigeons. In the hottest moments of the day the donkey finds any patch of shade available in the yard and kicks its legs out, crumbling into a ball. The donk has one yard-mate, a pony, whom it follows around between bouts of resting and braying. I hope when the pony dies the donkey goes at the same moment — I’ve not seen a more devoted creature.
All of this I observe from the balconies of Rosa Di Tufo. The family home of a dear friend, Pat. A Philadelphia resident, these last few years he’s left the City of Brotherly Love for 2 summer months to host a writing workshop in this beloved, yet seldom used house. Walk Tufo’s streets at Pat’s side and you’d think he’d been born here. The town, with a population just shy of 1,000, treats Pat like a celebrity. This wide-grinned, Bulls-jersey-wearing young man who speaks little Italian, but speaks it with sweeping gesticulation, is hugged by nearly everyone he passes. Rosa Di Tufo has been in his family for generations and is mostly empty throughout the year. When summer arrives so does Pat, prodigal son returning.
Standing on the balcony here, “Hello, girl” is shouted nearby. I turn and find the neighbor, Franco, on his balcony waving at me. Franco, I learn, loves basketball and invites Pat over to watch the NBA finals, the two of them being fans. With the time zone difference between New York and Rome kicking in, and the bedroom being the only room in the house with a tv, Pat and Franco sit in bed next to one another at 3am watching the game. Some nights they drink wine, some nights they nudge one another awake when eyelids are caught closing. There’s a comfort the people of Tufo have with one another. A trust and a curiosity that I find uncommon, but in no way unsettling.
Cantine de Marzo in the center of town has produced the locally beloved Greco di Tufo — A white wine harvested from local grapes — since 1647. Pop into the winery and you can buy a bottle, or as the locals do, a 5-liter refill. Our first evening in town Pat proudly pulled a plastic carton of wine from the fridge, holding it up as if he were rafiki presenting simba to the antelopes. This is Greco di Tufo he said. And though the wine was half gone, leaving two liters to slosh from side to side in what looked like a large Mott’s juice container, there was such pride in his voice that I was grateful for every sip I took.
A party of us spent the evening feasting on slow braised pork cheek with linguine and tossing back the Greco. At dawn, when the donkey made its call, the last dregs of wine barely coated the container bottom. Luckily the winery is open each day, so we make the short trek to the Cantine for a top-up. At 11:30am Pat urges us to leave. Though the official hours are 8-12, 1-5, Pat has found that often the proprietor doesn’t return from their Italian siesta.
As we leave Carl urges Pat to hold onto the final sips of last week’s wine. He’s excited to see how much the taste varies between the 5 liter’s final days and the fresh batch. I warn him that no good can come from this, watching Pat pour the remnants into a water bottle.
Between the six minute walk from Rosa di Tufo and the Cantine de Marzo we run into Silvana, a local woman who looks almost relieved to see Pat. Seventy-ish, with shoulder length whitish blond hair and bags under her eyes, she and Pat have a conversation in Italian. While I do not speak the language, I understand the situation. Her husband just had a heart surgery (she hits her chest twice as she says this — bom-bom, like a heartbeat). She’s on the way to the hospital, bringing some pajamas to help him feel more at home (she holds out a plastic bag and I can see the collar of a plaid bed shirt peeking out). Yes, he’s doing ok (nods). Yes, she’s doing ok (nods). She’s tired (tilts her head to the side so that it almost meets her shoulder). Did he end up making amatriciana with pork cheek last night? It is her specialty after all (she brings her hand to her mouth and says “specialita”).
When Pat nods in answer it’s the only time she smiles as the two speak.
Never mistake small towns for places where nothing happens. No matter where you go death has been there before. And love. And while there may not be sushi restaurants or the opera, there has always been dinner and there has always been music and there has always been rain.
When we resume our walk Pat gestures towards printouts posted onto the town’s stone walls. They’re obituaries. Tufo has no local paper, so when a resident passes the custom is for the family to write and print an obit, then distribute it throughout town. Pinned onto boards outside of bars, nailed into ancient brick walls next to the grocer, tacked in front of the bus station so it’s the first thing seen when returning to town… since everyone in town seems to live until old age, the image is always black and white. The departed staring at you with a pair of gray eyes.
I imagine they make similar postings for weddings, but with an aging and declining population, these days no one is getting married.
Kelana arrives in town. Her being from Los Angeles doesn’t help her to fit in with the locals. Neither do her thigh high shorts. Or her tube top. Or her braids. Or black skin. But no one asks her to fit in. She, like Pat, is a welcome visitor. She stirs the day-to-day of the town without disrupting it. When she laughs she tilts her head back and opens her mouth, consuming the moment and her happiness whole.
The group of us walk to the 24-hour Barcollo, the bar/grocer/gelateria/cafe/wifi hotspot in town. It’s a warm, muggy night and the air feels like it’s pre or post rain. Weighted. We use fields as shortcuts and Carl accidentally crushes a snail under his sneaker. We mourn its passing, and in total are at the cafe within five minutes.
We order beers and plonk down at a white plastic table outside. Immediately we hear “Viiirgiiiiiniaaa!” cooed from a nearby table. This means nothing to me, but Kelana’s eyes widen and she reacts with a drawn out “Kelllannnaaa” She stands up, as if in a trance, and continues to yell her own name until she’s sitting on the lap of Virginia, who’s lived in Tufo all her life. In her sixties, she has black hair, a cigarette deepened voice, and two-hundred-plus pounds to her name. She remains in her seat and squeezes Kelana with such love both women look like they’re melting into one another.
During this embrace, Giuseppe, Virginia’s husband, stands up and shakes Pat’s hand. Theirs is an odd relationship. In the twenty minutes we spend with them before the couple heads home, Giuseppe alternates between openly mocking Pat to inviting everyone over for Sunday lunch. While Virginia speaks conversational English, Giuseppe speaks little (or so he lets on). And though I can’t follow any of his conversation with Pat, I can tell he has a genial hostility to him. He’ll be full of insults, but say them while hugging his target. When the two parties disband Kelana and Virginia leave one another with a look of longing, while Pat and Giuseppe have a look of mutual understanding on their faces.
When it’s just the four of us I utilize the gelateria part of Barcollo and order a cone of stracciatella, the best flavor of them all. The joint is run by one man, Fabrizio, who serves in many roles: bartender… barista… gelato scooper. He’s beautiful. He’s the stuff day-dreams are made of. Big black eyes, olive skin, black hair slicked back into the perfect pompadour. My palm gets sweaty clutching a two euro coin as he fills my cone. He puts a rolled wafer into my gelato while giving me a smile and I need to wipe the euro down before dropping it into his hand.
Outside Kelana is riding an off-brand mechanical Ninja Turtle that has an ashtray built into it. Licking her cone she takes a look at me and exclaims “I didn’t get a stick!” and I melt into a puddle of blushes. We pass the evening in the company of our new turtle friend, drinking cheap beer and talking about nothing, which is exactly what you want when catching up with an old friend.
I sleep through the donkey brays and am woken to the breeze that pushes on the balcony door, causing it to gently hit the foot of the bed. I get up to sip coffee and read outside, then head back to bed for a 9am nap. The sound of the door and the wind makes a soothing thwump thwump sound that puts me to sleep like a lullaby. I wake at 10, read for an hour, then take a 20 minute nap. After five weeks of travel through twelve different cities, two naps before noon is exactly how I want to spend my last day abroad.
Stepping into the kitchen for my second cup of coffee I find Pat manically squeezing air from the 5-liter carton of wine. Like fools we compared the old wine to the new, and a small part of him is forever changed.
My lazy schedule is able to accommodate a 1:00pm lunch with Giuseppe and Virginia’s family. Our quartet walks through town to their house, and during that time I’m keenly aware that Barcollo is a five minute walk in the opposite direction. I love the intimacy of smaller towns. No matter where you go, you’re always within walking distance of where you want to be next. When we arrive at our destination, it’s not at a doorfront where we knock. Instead, Pat leads us to a grotto where three generations of family sit across several tables drinking wine.
This is my first grotto experience — whenever I’d heard “grotto” I had visions of a sexy watery den, or a bedroom with a four poster bed and billowing drapes. In all instances in my mind they were romantic destinations. After all, a grotto is defined as an indoor room resembling a cave, or, well, a cave. Being a small town where there aren’t contractors available to build cave-like dwellings, the room we’re in is carved into the hillside that Tufo was built upon. This is a legit grotto. While the home itself is just across the street, within this grotto there’s a stove, fridge and dining area whose tables are actually covered in that red and white vinyl gingham you’d expect from an Italian restaurant. In all, the space is roughly 40 feet long and 20 feet wide, and larger than apartments I’ve lived in. Boar steaks and sausages are curing in the back, and in the same area wines are being aged. All homemade.
Giuseppe is an avid boar hunter. It being his passion he’s not constrained by rules like when boar season begins and ends. Months don’t dictate his day-to-day. It’s his town. His country. His life. With pride he has shown Pat his drawer of tusks. There’s hundreds of them. They lie on top of one another and when the drawer is opened they make a noise like loose buttons shuffling about. This drawer is his life’s achievement. When Pat asks what he does with the thousands of pounds of meat he reels in each year, Giuseppe answers with a roll of the hand as he answers “friends…family……policia.” Hunting off season has a price, but it’s one the town is willing to be paid.
We’re introduced to Virginia and Guiseppe’s daughters Iolanda and Paola — Paola is tending to the largest pasta pot I’ve ever seen, while Iolanda is sitting drinking wine. Iolanda wears stiletto heels and a brocade floral blazer. Her hair has been highlighted blonde and straightened till it’s thin and flat as a needle. She’s drinking with her best friend, a seventeen year old chainsmoker with cropped dark hair who is donning an oversized leather jacket. It’s like watching Kim Kardashian and Daria coexist in perfect harmony.
We sit for lunch and first comes the bruschetta. I’ve had bruschetta dozens of times, but at these tables, with these people, it’s the best I’ve ever had. While there are only ten of us, three trays are being passed around, each holding a loaf’s worth of bread. I eat two pieces happily, then Virginia picks up a tray and motions it toward me — Making eye contact she says “eat, eat”. I explain I’m trying to save room for later, but she either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand, and immediately I give in and shove another two pieces down. Pat sees this, looks at me, and shakes his head. “What?” I motion. And he mouths “You have no idea” across the table.
Next comes the salad course. No problem. Then comes pasta. Piles and piles of pasta. Immediately I knew this pasta would be amazing, because when I watched Virginia’s daughter making it she poured handful upon handful of salt into the pasta pot. The pasta is homemade and smothered in cheese and tomatoes and I’m happy and full and then the grandkids suggest we take a break before the main course. Oh shit.
On the street the Kardashian repeatedly asks Kelana to pose for selfies, filtering each image with doe eyes and dog noses to the point where everyone is an anime character. Behind them the unimpressed teen mocks Pat’s cigarette rolling ability and takes on the task, unasked, of crafting cigarettes for him. Behind this scene meat is cooking on a charcoal grill.
When seated again, plate upon plate of meat is passed around. There’s a platter of steak. A platter of chicken. Of house-cured boar. Pork tenderloins. Pork medallions. In pain I place a sausage and chicken breast on my plate. I know I’m being judged, but at this point there’s a finite amount of space more food can fit into. Giuseppe eats two steaks then unbuttons his shirt to the point that a tuft of gray hair pokes out. Pat, being a sport, follows suit and goes mid-chest. Not to be outdone, Giuseppe goes down one more. It’s a hot day and he’s sweaty, with hairs curling out in every direction. Pat undoes another button. There seems to be an invisible poker game being played between the two men and in a final call, Giuseppe goes down to the navel. Pat folds.
There’s no loser however, because at this time shot glasses full of chocolate mousse are being passed around. Though my stomach is full of animal flesh, cheese and a vine’s worth of tomatoes, this orangey chocolate elixir actually cools my tummy. I’m thankful Virginia didn’t bake a cake.
It’s both mentally and physically painful that there’s a train we need to catch. We say our goodbyes as best we can to the crowd, then literally run to board a train to Naples where we’ll catch a 7am flight the next morning. Our packed suitcases are resting at the foot of Rosa di Tufo’s staircase. Running towards the station I pass two teddy bears hanging side-by-side on a clothesline. They rest between white linens and all I can think is that these children are loved very much.
Though I’ve only been here for 48 hours, as I run I still know which direction Barcollo is from me. I know where the moon rises in the evening and where the donkey will greet the sun come morning. I know all of this will still exist without my presence, never missing me, and feel a sadness because I miss it already. Then I look to Pat, who’s pointing towards the empty platform our train will arrive upon within three minutes. He’s panting and his shirt is still unbuttoned, and I can see that he belongs to this place more than it will ever belong to him.
Rosa di Tufo is not empty without him. It’s just waiting.