[In reference to the
wall shrines of
Naples] Twenty five or so years ago I
took the big elevator down into the Sanità and spend all morning
just walking and discreetly shooting some photos. In
front of one of the little street shrines the little
bulbs were burned out. I thought, what the hell, these
folks don't have much money, so I unscrewed one and
found a little hardware store, bought the bulbs and
returned to replace them, leaving a half dozen little
boxed spares. Well, not surprisingly, my every move had
been watched in front of the little shrine. As I was
replacing the bulbs a severe woman came up and demanded
to know what I was doing. I answered that the bulbs were
burned out and that I wanted to do something for the
neighborhood and got some new ones and was putting them
in so there would be a little light at night. I added
that I hoped it would make the saint happy. The
inevitable crowd gathered. It was quickly established
that I was an American who spoke Italian with a definite
Neapolitan accent, that I was sincere, and was doing
this deed on one of my regular annual trips back to
Napoli. Took a while for them to be damned sure I wasn't
up to something or that I had no ulterior motive. Then I
was greeted with smiles and thanked.
One younger fellow in the crowd came up chided me for carrying around a camera "down here." Certainly I knew that it would be snatched! He then said he would go with me wherever I wanted to go and that I could take all the pictures I wanted "with no worry." The trip then really became interesting. I was invited up to his apartment for coffee and was introduced to wife, kids and a dozen other assorted family members, including one who was a Scafi Blu captain. I told him I had friends who owned a trattoria at borgo Marinaro and had talked to lots of the Scafi Blu folks down there. He warmed up even more and gave me the inward waggle of his hand, palm in, index finger extended indicating I should come for a look see in the bedroom. Beaming, he proudly showed me large brown boxed cartons of Marlborough cigarettes from floor to ceiling. I applauded and said Bravo! Everyone thought that was funny. I soon was treated as if I lived "down there" and have always wished I had returned the next year with copies of the photos for them.
I have an Italian-American immigrant tale from the United States, this time from New Orleans where St. Lucy is venerated in an innocently inappropriate way by the St. Lucy Society of New Orleans.
The wave of Italian immigrants arrived at the port of New Orleans after the war between the states in the U.S.. Most all came from Sicily, and New Orleans culture today is rich with Sicilian cuisine, customs and traditions. The annual St. Joseph's day altars in churches and many private homes still feature huge ornate baked breads and pastries. There are many Italian benevolent societies, clubs and organizations as well, including an Italian-American-Italian federation of the Southeast.
Our Gulf Coast Italian-American Cultural Society from the Mississippi Gulf Coast always had representatives for the annual meeting of the state federation. One year when the federation gathering was hosted in New Orleans, I went over with several of our society's officers. ( I was local club president that year … the first and only Irish descended president of an Italian cultural organization in the area.) One of the events was attending a special annual St. Joseph's Day mass honoring the St. Lucy Society of New Orleans's patron saint in a huge Catholic cathedral there.
Few if any present day Italian Americans in the New Orleans area speak Italian, and their Sicilian dialect also vanished under generations of pressure from parents to speak English and "be American." The incongruence of honoring a patron saint of the blind on St. Joseph's day is just part of the mish-mash of traditions and cobbled together memories of "the old country." Adding to this gumbo from the past is the song selected to be sung at that mass for their patron saint, Saint Lucy AKA "Santa Lucia." Yep, that's what we sang loudly, filling the church with song not about St. Lucia healing the blind, rather it was a familiar melody from around 1849 that glorifies the beauty of an ancient seaside quarter of Naples, Italy:
Over the sea shines a silver star.
Placid is the wave. Fair is the wind.
Come to my swift little boat,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.
Come to my swift little boat,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.
It seems that the St. Lucy, who lived in the fourth century has long had a history that does not match her name. All that scholars and historians really know is that she was a brave individual who lived in Syracuse and died, unflinching, at the hands of those persecuting Christians. Fanciful legends evolved after her death as a tribute to her faith and courage. One tells of a chaste young girl who had devoted her life to Christ. Her mother, however, wanted to marry her off into a fine family. Lucy would have none of it, and through her prayers at the tomb of Saint Agatha she brought about a miraculous cure for her mother's long-standing illness.
That convinced Mom, but her jilted bridegroom turned Lucy in to the local governor as a Christian. We know she was persecuted and killed. And the killings were pretty grim in those days including burning, a sword thrust through the neck and torture that included mutilation of the eyes. Another Lucy legend has it that Roman Emperor and persecutor of the church, Diocletian, put out her eyes himself, only to have them restored by God. At any rate she wound up as patron saint of the blind. Her name comes from the same root of the word "lucid" or light, and what the heck, she could be that bright shining star reflecting her light off the waves in the bay off the ancient fishermen's port of Santa Lucia in bella Napoli.
Great story that brought me back to Napoli and 1959, as a barely nineteen-year-old who had arrived fresh from a year of US Navy electronic and instructor schools for a posting to Naval Air Facility Capodichino. I have told you about my instant fascination with Napoli and making the transition from speaking Spanish to Italian facilitated by my taking a tiny apartment on Cupa Carbone, a stone's throw literally across a wooden fence from the American base which in a fenced off area just down from the Italian civilian airport facilities.
A large gray Mercedes bus shuttled us between the Capodichino air base and Piazza Municipio which was a central hangout with the enlisted Bluebird Club, and all sorts of other bars and even a huge pizzaria on the second floor of a large building on the corner of Via Medina and Piazza Municipio above where the entrance to Monte Dei Paschi di Siena bank is today.
Across the piazza roughly around where via Verdi comes into the piazza from Via Santa Brigida there was the California Bar which attracted lots of American sailors as well as locals. I was having a great time trying to communicate, learning Italian and, unwittingly, mimicking the strong local Neapolitan accent and vernacular. I had developed a friendly repartee with a waiter in the California Bar and he found it a novelty that an American was trying so hard to learn to speak Italian.
One afternoon I stopped in the California Bar and there was just one other person, an older man sitting alone at a table. As I bantered with the barrista, the man at the table smiled and motioned me over. He was nicely dressed, very friendly and he complimented me on my Italian. Really a nice old guy. I asked him how he learned his English so well and he allowed as how he "had lived in the states" and that he always liked meeting "you young fellows stationed here." Sort of like talking to a favorite old uncle.
I saw him a couple of more times and wrote my parents that I had met the nicest interesting old man, an Italian who had lived in the USA, a Mr. Luciano, but everyone called him "Lucky." I got a stern almost screaming letter from my father who told me to stay away from the man and not to talk to him ever again because he was a notorious gangster.
I was sure father had bad information, but after mentioning this to one of the guys who had been stationed there a couple of years he told me that Lucky Luciano did indeed hang out at the California Bar and that he had been deported by the US government and that it was best not to even be seen with him. So I quit going to the California Bar and never saw my friend "Lucky" again.
A few months before I was was discharged, ready to return to Texas and enter the University of Texas, all the newspapers had a photo of a well dressed man sprawled on the pavement at the entrance to Capodichino airport where the US Naval Air Facility was located . . . and, incidentally, just across the fence from Cupa Carbone and not far from my little apartment. In the photo he was being lifted into a plain wooden coffin. Someone had taken what looked like a cushion from a chair inside the airport lobby and thoughtfully placed it under the head and shoulders of the man who had collapsed and died. He was sixty-five years old.
As a gangly kid from Aransas Pass, Texas who knew nothing at all about gangster mobs, or for that matter, not about much of anything at all outside South Texas, it was one of many real life history lessons I got while living in bella Napoli.
Playing Music in Naples
Aug. 9, 2011
...I have not picked up either my alto or tenor saxes or my flute in a long time. When I quit playing second tenor with a local 16-piece big band in the late 1990's, I finally stopped playing for the first time since high school days in the 1950's. Played all the way through 4 years in the Navy including the almost three years in Napoli with our little six- piece pop band, "I Saraceni," with my Italian buddies including Corrado Cimmino whose family had a music and record store on Via Santa Brigida across from the entrance to the Galleria. I bought a tenor sax there, met Corrado who is my age and we formed the band and played gigs at the Circolo Calabrese, and spot gigged at the Sombrero Club which you may remember at Piazza Vittoria. It was a cozy walk-down piano bar in a corner building that fronted on the bay. Romano Mussolini was a regular and we all played together and even joined Romano playing at a private party in an incredible private apartment in one of the buildings at Piazza Bovio.
Those connections greatly helped me learn decent Italian and ultimately I was emcee for a NATO variety act broadcast live on Silvio Noto's "Punto Contro Punto" out of the RAI studios in the Mostra d'Oltremare. That was really well received and we were asked to do a repeat performance as a fund raiser for the Vigili Urbani retirement fund which we did at the Teatro Politeama. This was the time Chubby Checker's "Twist" was the rage. We had a Country & Western segment with American kids square dancing with the cowboy garb and girls in long red dresses and I, skinny as a rail, wearing a fancy white Western style shirt and red bandanna around my neck, was a real novelty speaking in Italian, all carefully rehearsed show biz lines prepared by one of the friends in a group of intellectual young locals who had adopted me as their mascot... Orazio Orlando, who became a famous actor and died early in his life in the 1980's...
For a nineteen-year-old, being stationed at the Naples, Italy, U.S. Naval Air Facility just a dozen or so years after the end of WWI was the the chance of a lifetime to learn a new language and burrow deeply into the mysterious soul of this ancient city. I quickly developed a fascination with the chaos, contradictions and daily street theater that is Naples. While many at the base used derisive names for the Italians and rarely got to know the city, every day brought me another magical discovery and the challenge to understand what I was seeing.
As a South Texan I already spoke decent Spanish and after a year of earnest effort my Italian, heavily mixed with snatches of the saucy local Neapolitan dialect I had included, had come along pretty well. Well enough to make many friends, to converse easily enough and to meet fascinating people like The Maestro. The year was 1961, and I had been in bella Napoli almost two years
lead petty officer was a lovable Irishman named Brophy
and he had fallen genuinely in love with a local girl
named Maria who also had a strong and utterly engaging
personality. Maria was the daughter of a traditional
Neapolitan family from the general Mergellina fishing
community. The head of the family was a short, wiry,
slightly stooped but always animated man whom everyone
called ‘O Maestro
and he had given his blessing to Brophy and Maria. The
wedding was an affair to remember and it was at the
reception, where the wine flowed freely, that ‘O Maestro and I
hit it off splendidly. He thought it amazing that a
tall skinny American kid was trying so hard to speak
Italian and that so much of it was in dialect, and,
according to him, fairly decently pronounced dialect.
The Maestro was to become my tutor.
I was invited to come back and visit him and his warm and embracing wife any time I liked. The trip to their modest home was an adventure in itself. The Maestro lived above Naples’ fabled Mergellina harbor about a half mile or so up on the Posillipo cape that juts out and above the sea below.
I took a city bus to get to the Maestro’s home. As I neared the stop I always looked carefully for a large sign on a building proclaiming “Forno Elettrico.” I learned that it meant Electric Oven and the exquisite smell of baking bread was also a signal to get off at the next stop nearby. Diagonally across from the bus stop was a low stone wall with a tall metal spiked fence on top of it and nothing visible beyond it but the bay of Naples as it curved around all the way to Sorrento. A metal gate had a box with a number of buttons with names next to them. It was the first time I had seen this arrangement where you press a button and await a voice from a tinny speaker asking Chi è? If your voice was recognized after the “Who is it” challenge, a buzzing sound indicated the lock on the gate was being held open magnetically and you pushed on it and were in! If you pushed the wrong button, it was often a free lesson in colorful dialect.
Beyond the gate and low wall was a steep wide stone stairway leading down to the bay below. A patchwork hive of one and two story yellow stone block dwellings perched precariously on one another as they clung to the steep incline on each side of the stairs. The Maestro lived at the very bottom of the steps, and he and Mamma were on their narrow front stoop waiting as I arrived. Each visit to the Maestro over the coming months was as if it was the very first one, with enthusiastic greetings and a hearty invitation to come in and eat or have something to drink.
On the side of the Maestro’s building were steps that led down to the a small half moon of sand at the water’s edge where a half dozen wooden fishing skiffs were pulled up and nets strung out to dry. As I tried to tell the Maestro that I was raised in a small fishing community on the Gulf of Mexico in South Texas he looked puzzled, then finally understood. He was convinced Texas was all cowboys and Indians and learning that Texas had an ocean and fishing was an astounding revelation which delighted him. He clapped his hands and almost did a little dance at the water’s edge as he announced that I was going with him in his boat and he would teach me how fishing is really done. The next Saturday afternoon was agreed upon for my first fishing lesson and we went back up the steps for “a glass of wine.” My return bus trips from a visit to the Maestro are mostly a warm vino rosso blur, but I somehow always made it back to the base in time before they locked the gate.
On my first fishing trip, I learned lots of new words. The “Osteria” sign over the door of what looked like a tiny cafe on via Posillipo across from the gate to the Maestro’s house did not mean they served oysters on the half shell. Osteria means tavern, and this one was headquarters for the Maestro and his fellow fishing buddies who pulled out two chairs and invited us to join them. I quickly learned that most all fishing trips started or ended in the osteria. No oysters, but there was plenty of hearty red wine from the fertile slopes of nearby Vesuvius and hours of raucous unintelligible dialect. They all talked to me as if I was one of them. I learned quickly that a laugh, smile or just about any facial expression or hand gesture worked fine as a response, and easily kept me in the animated play of conversation. And little by little, being a natural mimic, I pieced together certain common expressions based upon what they were doing or the gestures they were using. It was a vino-blitzed Berlitz course and I was becoming one of the gang, no longer “that American,” but Lore’ pronounced ‘low-ray,’ the half pronounced diminutive for Lorenzo, Lawrence or just Larry in Italian. See how easy it is?
Later in the afternoon we went out in four boats and pulled gill nets that had been set out earlier. It was pretty slim pickings, and as I helped pull in and coil the net into the boat the Maestro would pull small fish free from the net webbing. Holding each one up as if it were a flash card, he would call out its name in dialect, then wait for me to repeat the name. “Percuóco . . .” he intoned as he held up a small yellow fish. “Pear-koo-oh/ko” I would reply. He would nod approvingly and giggle under his breath. Slowly I learned to recognize and remember the names of maybe a dozen common fish and crustaceans that I untangled from the net. I would name each one aloud in mangled dialect which was riotously entertaining to all the fishermen within earshot of our boat. But I was learning much more than the names of fish. Our friendship grew over time as I tagged along sometimes even at night to pull nets under the white hot hiss of a pressurized kerosine lantern on the bow of the boat.
Late one Fall afternoon we were not too far off shore, but in fairly deep water, and the Maestro began to quickly spool off several feet of heavy white twine wound around a wooden dowel. The nets had just about all been pulled in and the catch had included a decent number of squid, calamaro in Italian and calamaio in dialect. There was suddenly a quiet excitement among all the boats. The Maestro in a bare whisper said, “Look at this bella femmina” as he held up a medium sized squid just hauled in. “Chèsta e ‘mpanuto” the Maestro said excitedly. I understood it to mean “she’s loaded or full,” whatever that might mean. He motioned for me to come closer and watch. As he turned the squid over for a closer look up inside her long skirt he thrust it to me so I could see the clumped eggs visible inside. In an instant he passed a sail repair needle threaded with the twine through the thick top of the squid’s body, tied it in a stout loop and handed it to me, squid and twine.
“Now I will show you how to catch a big one” he told me conspiratorially. Then in broad gestures he indicated that I should carefully drop the squid into the water behind our slowly moving little boat and play out the twine a little at a time. I immediately felt that with all the other boats pretty close to ours, this was a rookie joke and that I was about to be had. But the Maestro was dead serious. The old master was teaching a fine technique to a young apprentice.
“Slowly now, but take an extra wrap of twine around your hand and be ready,” he prompted. He was so intense and wide eyed I was sure this was all grand theater for his buddies, and I was really going to look like a fool at any minute. Then suddenly it felt almost like the twine and trailing hot mama squid had snagged something. The Maestro moved back quickly to feel the tension on the line.
“Easy, and slowly now!” he whispered, indicating that I should start pulling in the ten or fifteen feet of line I had played out. “Here comes the punch line,” I thought, but I did just as he said, and carefully pulled in whatever suddenly had loaded up the twine. As I drew in the line I saw a large white something at the end of it as I pulled it closer to the boat. I was sure this was it. I was about to pull a large big white sack of some sort into the boat as the Maestro almost crooned “mo nu fatto nappoco . . easy, any moment now, then pull up and into the boat slowly, don’t stop!”
And as my hand neared the “white sack” on the line, I was stunned to see that it was a huge squid wrapped in what can only be described as an enraptured embrace as his tentacles tightly encircled the female squid. I had boated enough poorly hooked fish to know not to allow any slack, and in one steady up and around tug I brought the happy couple aboard. The Maestro was delighted and there were shouts of approval from the other boats.
It was the biggest squid I had seen, a male as long as my arm. And just as I had been told, he was attracted to the egg bearing female. “You did well.” the Maestro beamed as we headed back in. “Next time we will catch an even bigger one!” As we later gathered at the osteria for a glass or two all I could think about was getting anyone else to ever believe what I had just seen and done.
all too soon it was time to leave my beloved Napoli to
return stateside for discharge and then on to the
University of Texas. I had been sure to get Maestro
Salemme’s address and after returning I sent him and
Mamma Texas postcards of all sorts including our large
boat fleet in South Texas unloading shrimp and fish. I
also sent several packages full of all sorts of hooks,
sinkers and other fishing tackle to the Maestro.
Brophy later contacted me saying nothing could have
delighted the old gentleman more. Few things, fifty
years later, have delighted me more than being adopted
by the Maestro and his fishing buddies. Magical times
that will be mine forever.
©Larry M Ray 2012
This is related
to the item about the Grotto
of the Dog in Agnano