From “Positano,” a 1953 article by John Steinbeck:
About ten years ago a Moslem came to Positano, liked it and settled. For a time he was self-supporting but gradually he ran out of assets and still he stayed. The town supported him and took care of him. Just as the mayor was their only Communist, this was their only Moslem. They felt that he belonged to them. Finally he died and his only request was that he might be buried with his feet toward Mecca. And this, so Positano thought, was done. Four years later some curious meddler made a discovery. The Moslem had been buried by dead reckoning and either the compass was off or the map was faulty. He had been buried 28 degrees off course. This was outrageous to a seafaring town. The whole population gathered, dug the Moslem up, put him on course and covered him up again.
This tale of an outsider being embraced is very resonant to me, as I’m always outside of everywhere, even my birthplace. Living in Saigon from 1999 to 2001, I was often mistaken for a Taiwanese, simply because I was fatter and lighter than the locals, and my body language was different. I planted my feet too far apart, rarely leaned against anything and never squatted.
Steinbeck’s account is also close to home because my wife and I spent two years in Italy. Our stay in Certaldo, population 16,000, was the happiest of our lives. Although Vietnamese, we were a part of that town and, further, felt more embraced by the earth and time. History snuggled us. Certaldo’s walls of bricks from different centuries, stones, and mortar immemorial reminded us, daily, that humanity endures and remembers.
A mere block from our apartment was the Boccaccio House. I had read the 14th-century author in college, back when a higher education meant trying to acquire as wide a historical and geographical perspective as possible. Now, it’s militant solipsism. Restored in the 19th century, the Boccaccio House was destroyed by an American bomb in WWII, then rebuilt again. His tomb lies in a church thirty yards down Giovanni Boccaccio Street. In spite of the solemn inscription, “Han sub mole iacent cineres ac ossa Iohannis,” Boccaccio’s bones aren’t beneath, but dug up and tossed away in 1783. Lord Byron lamented this desecration in 1818, “even his tomb / Uptorn, must bear the hyaena bigot’s wrong.”
Everywhere, there were sights to contemplate. One September, we looked out our kitchen window to see the glass coffin of Beatific Giulia riding by as she made her annual trip down the hill, carried on the shoulders of townspeople. When Giulia died in 1367, church bells pealed by themselves, Certaldesi claim, but this is also said of Saint Verdiana of nearby Castelfiorentino, and of Saint Fina and Beatific Vivaldo of San Gimignano, that hilltop town of many towers, visible from our bedroom window.
Certaldo is the setting for but one story in the Decameron, with its population depicted as simpletons foolish enough to be tricked by a glib talking Friar Cipolla, or Brother Onion, a nod to Certaldo’s most famous produce. Only one Certaldese is described in detail, “a stocky kitchen-maid, who was plump and coarse and bowlegged, with a pair of paps like a couple of dung-baskets and a face like Baronci, her skin plastered in sweat, grease and soot” [translated by G.H. McWilliam]. Ah, but it’s good to be immortalized by your most celebrated son! I saw this story dramatized in Certaldo.
Stories must be swapped and retold, for without memory, a man or community is nothing. Visiting Certaldo in the 1830’s, Frenchman Antoine Claude Pasquin reported, “the inhabitants, dealers in wood and charcoal as in Boccaccio’s time, are still exactly like those he so humorously describes, agiati (at their ease); and the taste for hearing and telling stories continues popular in the country.”
The truth is, storytelling was an enjoyable compulsion wherever people gathered, but this most human of impulses has been nearly snuffed out in this age of television, recorded music and, more recently, smartphones. Now, we mostly fling crude fragments of stories at each other. If texted, they are perforce illiterate and incoherent. Even face-to-face, we often have to scream to barely rise above the percussive thumps, guitar snarls, and rapped obscenities.
With no large streets, vast parking lots or huge shopping malls, 21st century Certaldo retains its human scale. We walked everywhere. Each evening, hundreds of people gathered in Piazza Boccaccio, in front of the town hall, just to stroll, sit on the church steps, say hello or chat with their neighbors. Teenagers flirted, kids played. Under a clump of trees across from the ice cream parlor, old men in rumpled suits relaxed. A flaxen-haired girl picked up a large, dry leaf, and that was her toy for the evening.
At first, I assumed that everyone but my wife and I was Italian, but soon enough, I saw or was told, that there were Albanian, Moroccan and even Sri Lankan immigrants among the locals. We knew a Chinese family ran the Hong Kong clothing shop, but we never saw them. At Pizzeria Cavour, the cashier was a Chinese teenager. Even now, I can hear her clear, crisp command, “Dimmi!”
Among the pizza toppings, one could choose hotdog, and at Finn Mac Cool Irish Pub, there was a Confederate flag with a death figure brandishing a bloody knife and “THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN.” Other signs of American culture included Mormon missionaries who rang our bell one evening, kids trick o’ treating and, of course, American music on the radio. At a local festival, a teenage singer sang R.E.M. with the help of a lyric sheet.
Certaldesi needed few pretexts to get together. There were several festivals, a huge communal meal, political dinners and a fashion show featuring locals modeling clothes from the town’s shops. Seeing a flyer for a walking club at the supermarket, my wife and I decided to join. Paying modest fees, we took several bus trips to nearby towns, where everyone walked around for a couple of hours then had a drawn out meal together. Wine would be poured, and songs would pour forth. More than sightseeing or exercising, socializing was the real purpose, obviously, for there was no reason why each participant couldn’t just drive the relatively short distance to wherever we were going.
At Piazza Boccaccio one afternoon, I saw two of the organizers of the walking club. Smiling, they asked if my wife and I were coming to the next gathering. The plan was not even to squeeze onto a bus but merely meet at some field just outside of town to gaze at stars.
“No,” I shook my head. “It’s just outside of town,” I grinned.
Frowning somewhat, one of the men explained, “Going somewhere is not why we do this!”
As with so much else, seeing each other face-to-face to share stories was the real reason.
Dodging the Black Death, the Decameron’s narrators told wise and amusing stories to affirm life. In the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade had to keep inventing stories to prolong her own life. Without meaningful stories, a culture is more or less dead. What stories do we have besides the stultifying fantasies and vapid fables force fed to us endlessly by the suited hyenas?
To not be able to tell and hear stories is torture. In Philadelphia, my home, solitary confinement was equated with penitence. Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842, Charles Dickens reported, “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment [solitary confinement], prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature.” While not technically in solitary confinement, too many of us are solitary enough. Seeing nothing but ourselves, photographing mostly ourselves, we rage at others for not admiring us.
If small town Italy had such an ideal human arrangement, why would anyone ever leave? To make money, of course. My best friend in Certaldo was Niccolo, and I’m still in touch with him more than a decade later. Niccolo left Certaldo even before I did. A sommelier, he found a job in Japan, and has been there since 2003, working first for an Italian restaurant, then as a breakfast manager at a large hotel. Six years ago, Niccolo confided that he yearned to return to Certaldo to become a yoga teacher, but that plan has been scrapped since the Italian economy has been sinking ever lower. Niccolo’s sister has emigrated to Germany.
Six months ago, Niccolo asked me to proofread his resume so he could apply for a job in Taiwan. Truly brilliant, Niccolo can speak, read and write English, French, Spanish and Japanese, and get by in German. Nearly forty, Niccolo must think he can learn Chinese too.
A broken economy destroys communities. War, too, obviously. This world will be increasingly immersed in both.