My Life in Italy, Part 3: “Scratch Your Balls 13 Times and never make eye contact with the Witch”

Day Two in Italy

If you just finished Part 2 of this series, you know that I had just gone to bed after my first full day in Italy, and life has been full of surprises. If you have not read it, please start from the beginning of the story so this all makes sense.

I sleep through the night, and I needed it! But before my eyes open, there is a sound. Before you read further, a refresher: City kid. Los Angeles. Snob. OK, caught up? The sound is a… rooster. I’m not an idiot. I have seen roosters… in The Dukes of Hazard…. The Waltons… in movies. But in real life, it was something quite different. LOUD. Yeah, that is what it was… freaking LOUD!!!!

And yet when it would stop, there was another foreign sound. I couldn’t exactly explain what it was, but in retrospect, the sound was, quite literally, the lack of sound. It was the sound of nothing. Something I had never heard before. I lived in the suburbs of L.A., but I never realized how much ambient noise there was. Cars, traffic from not-so-far-off freeways, airplanes above. A subtle hum that is part of the city. All gone. I liked it, until the dammed rooster would violate the peace. Over and over and over. OK, I get it. We’re getting up.

Good Morning

Not this Upper Room

My eyes open, and I see Rocco’s room in the daylight. I gaze around. If you have read the Bible, the best way to describe this is to say that I could picture this as having been the famous “Upper Room.” You know, Last Supper, Doubting Thomas, Pentecost. Not the Upper Room you would see if you visited Israel, but the one you would conjure in your mind after reading the Book of Acts. Except I doubt the Apostles had cases and cases of salami and olives. Just sayin.

Anyway, Rocco is gone. Presumably awoken by our friendly rooster before I was. ::n.e.e.d. c.o.f.f.e.e.:: I throw on some clothes and stumble downstairs. Ahhhh, Mr. Rooster woke everyone up before me. Lots of Good Mornings all around, and I really need to go number 1.

I was well-instructed the evening before. I made my way to the cement sink outside. Got the bucket, filled it, and proceeded to the bathroom. Did my business, and emptied the bucket. Mission accomplished! Back to Nonna’s kitchen/bedroom/dining room/den where all were gathered.

My, This Coffee Tastes Odd

The Moka Pot. Yum!

As though she had been reading my mind, Nonna had a little
“Moka Pot” making coffee for me. I had never seen a contraption quite like this, but Dude! There is coffee in there, so all is good.

She pours my steaming hot coffee into a big mug, then pours some warm milk, and gestures to the sugar for me.

I finally take my first sip, and there is this flavor. It was as though the milk had some sort of chemical-soapy-perfume in it. Rocco, I know you are reading this too, but it was awful. My mind went in search of what this coffee-destroying milk was. The goat? Is it goat’s milk? Is it milk that had gone bad? Did the goat pee in it? Doesn’t he know about the bucket? Or maybe it is something they add to the coffee here as a tradition that just happens to be awful to my tastebuds? You know, like Poi for mainland Americans visiting Hawaii.

Diplomacy Lessons, Please?

Evil Milk

I’m in a pickle. I don’t want to be rude to my gracious hosts and ask a stupid, possibly offensive question. But this stuff is really bad. So I kinda find a way to ask Rocco under my breath. He explained that it is Latte a Lunga Conservazione. Basically, milk that can be stored at room temperature for long periods and doesn’t go bad.

I later learned that we have it, too, and it is called UHT Milk. I don’t know if other UHT milk tastes like this, but I will never, never find out. N.E.V.E.R. All I can say is that whoever invented this stuff needs to be hunted and jailed for life, ok? Moving on.

I’m not quite sure how Rocco got me out of the milk situation, but Nonna made me some black coffee. I felt horrible that I might have hurt her feelings, but then I tasted the black coffee, and the angels began to sing. There is just something about making coffee with a Moka pot. It is like a percolator, but not. Strong, thick, rich, and full-bodied. As though I had never had coffee before this day!

We all sat around the table and chatted as I took it all in. The goat. Uncle Peppe. The chickens without boundaries. Big Rocco. This just felt good. A kind of good I think I had never felt.

Getting Into The Zone

At that point, it all kinda just flowed, and I was in rhythm with where I was, who I was with, and just about everything. Even Mr. Goat. I went upstairs, grabbed some clean clothes. Headed downstairs, got my trusty bucket, filled it for my shower, figured out how to shower with a bucket of water… and just took it all in. I mean, 24 hours ago I woke up in the Excelsior Hotel in Rome, but now I am in heaven.

Rules to Live By

We finally get to a point at which Rocco and I are gonna go out. I’m thinking Hello Beach, here I come. But first, we need to get some rules out of the way.

Rule #1: Don’t Mess with The Water Flow

Big Rocco walks me outside into the garden area. Hi, again Mr. Goat. He shows me a cross-section at which two very small cement water canals meet. At this cross-section, there are panels. If you move these panels to shut off the flow from one area, you divert the water. Essentially, one configuration causes the water to flow into our garden. Another sends the flow next door, another across the street, and so on.

The purpose of this lesson was not to teach me how water flows, of course. Big Rocco wanted to warn me.

Whatever you do Mikey, don’t f$&k with the water flow, ok?

OK Rocco. I won’t touch a thing,

I never intended to.

OK… ’cause we got different times when we need to change the water flow. If you do when it’s not our time, we got big problems, and we don’t want no big problems, got it?

Got it.

It was clear that water was a precious resource, and people shared whatever flow came through this little canal. They had a time-slot system that you respect. If you don’t respect it, well… I didn’t get the feeling that they would file a complaint with the city water authorities. Check.

Rule #2: Carry this letter. Everywhere. Always. No Matter What.

Big Rocco next produced a piece of paper with a hand-written letter on it. It was folded up, and he handed it to me, telling me that no matter what, I must always carry it with me. “No matter what, get it?”. Furthermore, no matter who I encounter, if I am not with him or another member of the family, produce this letter for them. “No matter what, get it?”. Wherever you go, whoever you meet, you give this letter to them. “No matter what, get it?” GOT IT.

I couldn’t read a word in the letter, but I was not born yesterday. There I was in 1980’s small town southern Italy. A man named Rocco gives me such strict instructions to show this to everyone I encounter if I am not with his family. This was not a Hallmark card. I was in possession of a protection letter.

Looking back as a middle-aged adult, it sounds scary. I mean, a freaking protection letter? What’s next? Beware of horse heads in my bed? But back then it didn’t even phase me. I mean, it was odd, but ok. I get it, so long as I have this letter on me, I will be safe. So what about that beach?

First things first. We are not done with the rules. Big Rocco hands me off to Little Rocco for the rest. We have two 50cc motor scooters to race around town with. Sweet! But Rocco (now Little Rocco) needs to give me my next rule.

Rule #3: Scratch Your Balls 13 Times and never make eye contact with the Witch

Yes, you read that correctly, and that is why it is the title of this post in the series. There is only one possible word that can come out of your mouth when someone says that to you:


Rocco indulges my curiosity and explains. As we pull out of the driveway and onto the dirt road, we will make a left about 50 feet down. Once we do so, about another 100 feet down, we will likely see the witch. She is an old lady, older than dirt. Dressed in a full-length black dress with a black headdress and veil. She sits outside on an old rickety chair all day long and gives the Malocchio to anyone that passes by.

The Mal-What? The Malocchio, pronounced Mahl-Oh-Kee-Oh. Literally translated, it means the “Bad Eye.” You got it, The Evil Eye. And that is something that nobody wants!

Anti Malocchio School

Fear not! The locals have an age-old, proven master defense system against the Malocchio. Rocco taught me well. As we pass the witch, while she is supposedly giving us the Malocchio (what have I ever done to her to deserve this, anyway?), I must avoid making eye contact at all costs and scratch my balls exactly thirteen times. This will render her powers harmless. Take that, witch!

This naturally poses several questions:

  1. What exactly happens to me if I am affected?
  2. How will I know?
  3. What do girls do?
  4. Is it not more likely that I will get into an accident by scratching my balls 13 times with one hand while riding a scooter with the other?
  5. Is this just a prank to get everyone to laugh at me?

The answer to number 4 I think is obvious. Historically those that have crashed while scratching their balls only did it 12 times, or overcompensated with 14 ball-scratchings, of course!

Did I follow this lesson? You bet I did! This is a whole new world for me, and I have already seen enough! I may not have believed in it, but I scratched those balls raw if I needed to!

As it turns out, I did get the Malocchio during this trip, but that will be in another part of the story. You will just need to wait.

Rule #4: Never Enter Here

As we leave, Rocco tells me he is going to give me the lay of the land. He will show me areas of town, how to get from point A to point B, and places I can go to, as well as those I cannot. Places I cannot?

We start riding, me following him on my scooter. My letter is in my pocket, and I am ready to go, I make my right, then make my left, and there she is. The Witch. Oh no, Mrs. Witch. I have been well-instructed. You’ll never get me!

We both scratch our balls 13 times. To be honest I was counting my own scratching, and cannot testify to Rocco’s count. Nonetheless, we passed her without any lightning striking us.

For what it is worth, she really did look like a witch.

We arrive in an area of town, and Rocco stops. He points out a bar and tells me to be sure never to go into that bar. He shows me other places where I may enter and some more “forbidden zones.”

What I quickly learn is that it is not merely a matter of a certain place having a good product, while another does not. This was more of a sense that the people inside that place of business will respect my protection letter, and the people inside that other place will not. In other words, I could be seen as guest or target, depending on where I was. Listen to Rocco, opt for guest.

The Beach at Gioiosa Ionica

We finally make it to the beach, and what a beautiful beach it was. Instead of sand, there were wonderful pebbles all over. Instead of the murky, freezing cold, polluted Pacific Ocean, I was accustomed to at Santa Monica Beach, I found crystal clear water, warm, with a beautiful clear blue color.

Hey! Dom and Enzo! My new friends! We had a great time, until 1:00 PM. This is when I learned that in Italy, 1:00 PM is lunch time. No matter what you were doing, no matter where you were… STOP. It is now time for lunch.

So we hopped on our scooters and rode back to Nonna’s house for lunch. And this brings us to the conclusion of Part 3. There is so much more to come in Part 4: “Floating Feathers Means We’re Having Chicken.

The Takeaway

To start with, if you do a little Googling about the region of Reggio Calabria during the 1980’s, you are going to have a very clear picture of why I needed that protection letter. Frankly, it was a dangerous place. Reggio Calabria is home to a mafia organization called ‘Ndrangheta. In fact, they became much more notorious than the Sicilian Mafia.

No matter who you were, you could not be caught between sides. You needed to align with certain people whether or not you were “involved.” Now, I’m not gonna lie. I had no clue at the time. I had no idea who was involved and who was not. It was all just information overload for me. But over time, I came to see things that were difficult to ignore. I also later came to learn the fate of some people and places in my story that paint a clear picture.

That said, while everything in this story is 100% true, there will be times in which I need to leave out certain details and names for various reasons. In some cases, it may be to protect the memory of someone that died of something other than natural causes. In others, it is to protect people I know to be innocent, and in others, to be honest, it is for my own protection and that of those I talk about in this series. Let’s just say that you should know when you need to read between the lines as I continue.

Still, I was there visiting a friend. His entire family embraced me and made sure I was protected, no matter what. Whether that protection was from an upset neighbor that wanted to protect their share of water, or the witch that would give me the malocchio… and yes, protection from those that might otherwise do harm or kidnap me. Even from the local police who might not know what a young American kid was doing riding a scooter around town.

All of this “protection” came from a deep sense of hospitality such that I had never encountered. It changed me because it showed me a kind of humanity that I hadn’t understood. Wonderful, amazing people that were treating me like family because I was a friend of Rocco’s.

It humbled me, and continues to do so to this day. I will close up this part with a little shout out to Rocco. All of these decades we have remained friends. To be honest, Rocco became my brother. What you are reading here is the very beginning of that, because if you were to ask Rocco, he would say he never did a thing for me, and I have helped him all of our lives. But the truth is that Rocco may have saved my life during this trip. I had been living an extremely reckless life, and this was the beginning of a process that changed me at my core, and it is thanks to Rocco and his family. Moreover, Rocco has been that person, that link, that brother for all of these decades.

Ready for more? Head on over to Part 4: “Death Comes to Those That Swim After Lunch”

Till then, don’t forget to scratch your balls 13 times every time you pass an elderly lady wearing black. She just might be a witch, and you do not want the Malocchio, trust me!

In the meantime, I would love to see your thoughts and comments below!

The FAMILY feeling of our vacations explained
You can travel to Italy without worrying about the weak Dollar
My Favorite Culture Discovery Location – Michael
  • Love this. I can see in my mind not only you telling the story but also you living it. I also love you emphasizing the true hospitality Italians are willing to give. Thanks for sharing! Can’t wait for the next one.

  • I’m LOVING your stories!!!
    But…..we simply MUST know what girls do about scratching when they pass the “witch”???
    Also, as an unofficial editor, Dukes of Hazzard has two z’s …
    Lastly, your son Andre is my pick to play the role of YOU when your movie is being made…he’s PERFECT!!!
    One more thing….even though you are still writing your script, and I’m SURE many more titles for future episodes may be great, I vote for this to be the title of your movie “Scratch Your Balls 13 Times and never make eye contact with the Witch”. Maybe you can hold a vote among all lovers of CDV when your last episode is done!!!

    • HAHAHAHA. I actually have no idea what girls are supposed to do. I’ll have to ask Rocco!

  • Wow!

  • YolieYolie

    Author Reply

    Oh my, a protection letter. Wow! You had me laughing out loud as I envisioned you steering with one hand and scratching with the other. Mexicans call it Mal de Ojo and you never want to catch that. Looking forward to your next chapter.

  • I heard about Rocco but not the family time. So fascinating. Looking forward to the next chapter!

    • Yep… We always tell the condensed versions of these stories from our life here. It is awesome getting it all written down in detail to put it all in context. Wait till I start talking about Soriano!

  • Malocchio: a basement in a brownstone in Brooklyn. A bowl with water, drops of olive oil, prayers, incantations or whatever. I was very young. I seem to remember it was for getting rid of a headache or possibly someone had cast the evil eye. But I digress. I have been to Reggio Calabria to visit a first cousin whom I had never met. Flew down after a CDV in Norcia. Rocky and Daniele said to fly; train would take forever. My goodness, the greetings at the airport, the tears. What love and acceptance. My friend who traveled with me said that no one has ever made her feel so at home. The next year I brought my oldest daughter to Reggio after Favignana to meet her cousins. She still talks about the love, the hospitality. How I wish more people would travel that far down into the boot and meet the people there. Michael, thank you for sharing your memories.

    • Wow! you had the Malocchio treatment in Brooklyn! How cool :-). Yep, bowl of water, olive oil, salt and prayers. Like I said, it was determined later that I got it. I’ll probably go into that in the next post. But yeah, the sense of feeling at home, the love… amazing!!! I had never experienced anything like it 🙂