I’m running late on this again, but since I haven’t touched my Easter candy yet, I figure I’m all right. And apparently people are still celebrating Easter here today—like the twelve days of Christmas, there’s a whole week of Easter—so maybe I’m not late at all.
So, for the first time ever, I had time off at Easter. In America, we have school vacations at the end of February and April or in March, but almost never around Easter weekend. But here in Italy, I had Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Monday, and then Tuesday off as well for good measure. And according to the other teachers, this was a short break.
My mother came to visit, and we took the time to travel to southern Italy. I’ve never been south of Rome, so it was a brand new experience for me. We went on a whim, too. One of the other Fulbright English Teaching Assistants recommended visiting Matera if we had the time, and since history and geology and culture really interest me and Matera has all three—it’s the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with history all the way back to the paleolithic—we decided to go.
We traveled from Assisi to Bari, where we originally planned to spend one night and then go on to Matera in the morning. But when we arrived in Bari and saw the Adriatic Sea, we decided to stay a full day and take a later train to Matera. We spent the day walking all along the waterfront, watching the fishermen come in with their catch and then start selling it right there on the sidewalk. We walked all the way to the Bari Eataly, where we finally ate some of that wonderful, fresh fish, and then walked back to the train station, exploring and getting lost in the historic center along the way. There are no street signs in Bari, so our map wasn’t much help, and whenever we stopped to ask someone where we were or where the train station was, they responded, “I don’t know.” (I thought I was asking wrong, but I checked with one of the teachers at school the other day, and she confirmed that I was asking directions correctly. They really just didn’t know where they were.)
Next we took a train through the southern countryside to Matera. Matera is one of those places that they say you should visit now, before it becomes a huge tourist destination. It’s famous for its sassi, the natural and manmade cave dwellings that people lived in up until the 1950s and ’60s, when the sassi became synonymous with poverty and squalor and the Italian government came in and forcibly moved the occupants into better housing. We spent two full days in Matera. We took a tour of the city and explored on our own. We visited a reconstruction of a cave dwelling and saw what life would have been like living in one fifty years ago. We even stayed in a cave, though it was a very high-tech cave, complete with wireless internet and a heated towel wrack and one of the best showers I’ve seen in Italy. We used the ancient Roman baths in our hotel as well. Finally, we spent Good Friday walking the Stations of the Cross, which were carved above the doors of churches all over the sassi, a different station at each church.
Our tour guide described Matera as an eagle. The cività, where the wealthy citizens of Matera lived in Roman and medieval times, is the head. The two sassi are the wings. Everything is built right on top of everything else, so no matter where you walk, you’re walking on someone’s roof. The gorge and plateau Matera is built on was carved out by the ocean that once covered this part of Italy, in much the same way the Grand Canyon was shaped. The construction of the city was fascinating, and I was both intrigued and disturbed by the history—disturbed not only because of the way the government forced these people from their homes and communities and culture but also because of the way it is being romanticized for tourists now. I was reminded of one of the first lessons in the introduction to cultural anthropology class I took at Kenyon: it is important to respect other cultures, but cultural objectivity should not get in the way of what is right and wrong. By the time we got on the train back to Assisi, I had decided that I want to write a novel set in Matera. I have the setting. I have the history. I even have a title. Now I just need a story.
We returned to Assisi in time to celebrate a quiet Easter with my landlady and landlord and neighbor. We had a beautiful meal, and I finally got to try one of those giant chocolate Easter eggs I’d been seeing in grocery stores for weeks. No, we didn’t buy the giant one in the picture. Instead we got one that was smaller—but still pretty huge—and split it five ways. Generally, people are shocked when I tell them that in America, children get little plastic Easter eggs full of candy instead of giant chocolate Easter eggs with a toy inside.
Finally, we had a couple quiet days to recover from all the traveling and good food, and then school started up again. This was one of those weeks that I wish I could have recorded every minute of, so I wouldn’t forget anything, because it was so full of new information and experiences and emotions. I’d heard so many rumors about southern Italy, but I really loved visiting, and there’s so much I didn’t see. I didn’t realize how much I missed the ocean until I was walking along it, or fresh fish until I was eating it. And don’t even get me started on how wide the sidewalks are and how the cars actually behave how they’re supposed to—generally speaking.
This was a whim, but it was the best whim ever, and I hope I’ll get the chance to go back and explore more.
In the meantime, I’m in the home stretch. Spring has come. There are less than two months of school left. And then I’ll be on to the next adventure.