So… I left off in Part 1 on my first full day in Italy in 1983. I am at the tip of the boot in Reggio Calabria, suffering severe jet lag, having walked miles and miles for an awful cafeteria meal, and now I am boarding a train that looks like it was just brought out of a 1920’s junkyard.
<< Back to Part 1, The Warm Table if you missed it.
But now we are on our way to Rocco’s hometown of Gioiosa Ionica… a place of beach, sun & fun. Stop! I know you are still trying to pronounce the name of the town. Repeat after me: Joy-Oh-Sa Yo-Knee-Kha. Gioiosa means Joyous, and Ionica means “of the Ionian Sea.” So we are heading off to the Joyous place on the Ionian sea. Awesome, right? OK, Language lesson over.
I will be staying at Rocco’s place. I am dreaming of the eventual bed I will soon come in contact with and chilling out at the beach tomorrow. That is, if this train can make it there, wherever there is.
Rocco, Dom, Enzo and I hop on the train, and sit as I wait to see if this thing can even move. We are on old wooden benches that face each other, and you can see that back in the 1920’s there was some concept of style in the faded curtains I am looking at, maybe?
So we start moving. The train, in fact, moves. Check! But I quickly learn that suspension is another one of history’s greatest inventions, and this train was built before that invention. I also noted that the saying “So smooth, it is like riding on rails” was not coined by someone that had been riding this train, on these wooden seats… Whatever, there is a bed in my future. Maybe I can find a way to get comfortable enough for a little rest on the train.
Of course not. The Adventure is Just Beginning!
So, I am really tired. Rocco and Dom are chill… but then there is Enzo. He has more energy than I would get after a good night’s sleep and 10 cups of coffee. And he is sitting there with… An American. That speaks no Italian. And Enzo speaks no English. But none of that matters, because Enzo figures we will invent some kind of sign language and communicate on a whole new level.
First things first. I trust he knew my name before we got on the train, but this was the time to strike up a conversation about it. Because, you know… it is 1983, and my name is Michael. And in the middle of nowhere on a train rattling through southern Italy, that can mean only one thing: Michael Jackson.
That is pretty much the first half hour of our conversation: Blah Blah Blah Michael Jackson, Blah blah Michael Jackson… blah blah blah Michael Jackson. Michael. Jackson.
I am sitting here thinking, OK… I have the single most common first name in the English language, and so does Michael Jackson. What are the odds? But to Enzo, this was a really big deal, because now he knew one of the two Michaels in the world!
So to get the full sense of what I am talking about, as you continue to read this post, every so often, feel free to randomly scream out MICHAEL JACKSON on your own. Go ahead, insert it anywhere you like!
You Can’t Help But Love Enzo!
He was just so nice. I really tried to engage him, so on the train ride, I was able to get out my Walkman (remember, it is 1983, ok), and actually let him hear some Michael Jackson. He was also very interested in all of the other music I had, so I had my chance to turn him on to Devo, The B-52’s, Ultravox, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Talk Talk, and of course The Talking Heads. I don’t think he was ready for another Michael, so I left my Wham! (George Michael) tape in the bag.
The funny thing here is that Rocco actually lived across the street from Michael Jackson, and we went to school with Janet Jackson, so Rocco would chime in from time to time, and that was simply it. I was to be forever, Michael Jackson.
Hey Rocco, where are the walls?
As we talk about Michael Jackson and listen to that latest Spandau Ballet song, I’m looking outside the train. As we pass small villages on the sea, I look to the right and see nothing but beautiful coastline. On our left, there are villages here and there with dozens and dozens of buildings. Now, what I am seeing are what appear to be brick apartment buildings under construction. But they were not mixed here and there among finished buildings. They all had no walls. These were not vacant, unfinished buildings. Most of them had people living in them. Did I mention they had no walls? Or windows? And people were living in them?
Now seriously, picture this: A 5 story apartment building with no exterior walls. But you can see dad sitting on the sofa watching TV… mom cooking lunch on the stove. The kids are playing in what I would otherwise call a room. You could see their beds, their lamps, kitchen tables… E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. Now imagine dozens… no, hundreds of these, everywhere you look. I’ll admit that many (not all) had the decency to have a tarp covering some of the more private “rooms,” but seriously?
Naturally I ask Rocco and Dom about this unique attribute of local decor, and the answer to my “Why” question, was pretty much “I dunno, that’s just how it is.” naturally asking Enzo would have only resulted in Michael Jackson! I have just stepped into The Twilight Zone.
Wall-Free Buildings Have a Purpose (sorta)
I later learned that there had been a law in the area, stating that you don’t have to pay property taxes on a building until it is complete, and a building was considered “complete” once it had… you got it, WALLS. OK, so I am not a politician, but how many milliseconds does it take to change that law to read that the building is complete when you occupy it?
I also later learned that in Italian culture, they have a different Golden Rule. It goes something like this: Show me a tax, and I’ll show you a loophole.
So it turns out to be 2 1/2 hours on the train of wall-free buildings, beautiful coastline, and questions about Michael Jackson, since my name makes me the local expert.
As we get off the train, I look around, and as I do, my mental capacity for what the world was had to adapt once again. While just hours before, I walked around Reggio Calabria, thinking it was 3rd world, now I am in the town of “Marina di Gioiosa Ionica,” and by comparison, Reggio Calabria was an epic metropolis of modern marvels. I look around, and the theme from The Godfather is playing endlessly in my head.
We are picked up at the train station by Rocco’s Uncle Peppe, and we part ways with Dom and Enzo (MICHAEL JACKSON!!!!) Rocco’s Uncle Peppe drives us to what is about to become my home for the next 10 days. Until now, I have neglected to mention one of the other things that really had me scratching my head up to now. And remember, I have been in Italy for less than 24 hours…
Why are all the cars so flipping small? And yet, it was kinda cool. We hop into Uncle Peppe’s Fiat 126, which was basically an oversized go-cart with doors, to my Californian eyes. Except that it lacked the raw power of a go-cart or really anything with an engine I had ever experienced.
Uncle Peppe takes us home. We drive tiny little roads, which end up as tiny little dirt roads, and slowly I realize we have left “The City” as we make our way from “Marina” di Gioiosa Ionica to simply good old “Gioiosa Ionia.
Inland, not the “cool, modern part of town.”
Finally, we stop on a dark road, and we get out of the car. Now I need to paint you a picture. I am holding my suitcases as I follow Rocco on a dirt path.
To my left, there is a haphazardly planted vegetable garden with chickens walking around and clucking. To my right, there are some bushes, and about 40 feet in front of me, I see an open door with some light shining through.
Is a Petting Zoo somewhere missing a goat?
I walk toward it until I need to pause for the goat to cross the path. The goat. WHERE THE &#@! ARE WE???? A random freaking goat. Seriously? Turns out, he is Uncle Peppe’s friend. A goat?
As I approach the door, I am greeted by the family. They were all in front of the door, standing on a cracked cement pad of sorts, and as I looked around I may as well have been transported 300 years into the past. The family greets me with absolute and utter joy.
Let me introduce you to them:
No doubt, the matriarch of the family. An elderly heavyset lady, dressed in a simple tent-style dress with little flowers on it. As simple as simple can be. Her face had the kind of wrinkles that can only come from having lived a long and hard life. But she had an infectious ear to ear smile, and you could see the biggest heart in the world behind her eyes. In an instant, you simply know this is a good woman, period. She is Rocco’s grandmother, and she welcomed me as though I were her own child.
Rocco’s dad (Nonna’s son). I had met him in the states, so it was a familiar face. Now, don’t let the word “Big” fool you. If I had to guess, Big Rocco was maybe 5′ tall at best, and about 4 feet wide… and bald. Picture that with yet another ear to ear smile, and an exceedingly thick Italian accent, you now have a picture of Big Rocco. A cross between Joe Pesci and Danny Devito! But somehow, you also knew that you never wanted to see that smile turn into a frown. Never! To keep things straight, my friend Rocco was known in the family as “Little Rocco”, or “Rocchío”. OK, got it.
Or just “Rocco”, or “Rock” to me had been a close friend of mine in school. At the time, he was just a friend, but as this story proceeds over the many anticipated parts to come, Rocco quickly became a dear friend, and then a brother from another mother, and to this day my dearest lifelong friend and brother for 37+ years. He is so much more than that, because I owe my life to Rocco, as he is a major contributor to what my life has become today, how I think, and how I view the world. Rocco was the first person to truly open my mind to things I could never imagine and continued to do so for many years. But until this day, Rocco was both a friend and “just another dude from L.A. as far as I was concerned.
I’m not making this up, I promise! I know how this is all sounding, but I am serious. Uncle Vinny was Big Rocco’s little brother, and Little Rocco’s Big Uncle. Nonna’s Little Boy. Vinny is the tallest in the family but was proof positive that that infectious smile is clearly a family trait. As with Big Rocco, I kinda knew Uncle Vinny from the States.
He is the man that picked us up at the train platform. Uncle Peppe is Nonna’s brother. Very thin, but like Nonna, he had the weathered face that was proof positive of a hard life. He was also very quiet, which differentiated him from the rest of the family. He always looked as though he was deep in thought, quietly solving the world’s problems. But in hindsight, I think he was mostly just thinking about his goat. Uncle Peppe also had a lit cigarette permanently affixed to his right hand, or so it seemed. Still, he had that smile that was a dead giveaway that he was family.
These people welcomed me as though I was their child that had just come home from war. I am not kidding, I had never in my life experienced such hospitality. Frankly, I didn’t know it existed.
La Casa Della Nonna
It was time to get the lay of the land, and Rocco (Little Rocco) was up to the task. I remember Rocco telling me things were a little different than what I was accustomed to. OK, whatever that means, right?
I walk into the door that had been in front of me. I am in a single room that is roughly 150 square feet. Immediately to my left there is a little stove. To the right of it, there is an old wooden table with several chairs around it. At the “far” end there is a single bed.
Left of the bed there is a tiny refrigerator, with an old black and white TV on top. Hanging from the middle of the room, there is a frayed wire with a dim light bulb attached. The surrounding walls are fading white paint, and in one spot, there is a calendar hanging from a rusty nail with a picture of the Virgin Mary on it. There is another door that leads outside on the left. No other furniture, no other pictures on that wall. Nothing.
This is the sum of it. The one room is “Nonna’s house.” Decades before “Tiny Houses,” Nonna had it going on! But even “Tiny Houses” have a kitchen sink and a bathroom, right? Wrong.
Rocco next brought me outside to the left. On the exterior wall outside of Nonna’s house was a giant cement sink with an old rusty faucet. This was the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, and the “washing machine”. Even the soap was a big, gigantic bar of “something” that she apparently made herself. That “something,” I later learned was pig fat. What was I thinking? Don’t we all wash up with bacon?
And if I need to use a restroom? Maybe a shower? Have no fear… Rocco has it covered. He led me over to another area outside of the house and opened a door to a room that was clearly an afterthought add-on room. Eureka! A Toilet! Rocco was very quick to warn me that while I am free to use it for my “needs,” I cannot flush this toilet. Ummmmm… and…
How do I Flush?
Rocco demonstrated that before I used the toilet, I had to grab that red bucket outside under the sink, fill it from the faucet, walk it to the “bathroom,” and once I was done doing by “business” dump the bucket in the toilet. He was also kind enough to let me know if my “business” was serious, I might need to repeat the process a couple of times. Check.
And when I want to shower? The bathroom conveniently has a drain in the floor, and the bucket was quite large, after all. I am really, really tired now. Nothing even phases me by this point. Check.
Let’s head to the bedroom
So by now I have seen that Nonna lives in a 150 sq.ft all in one Bedroom/kitchen/family room (The ultimate open floor plan), the water source is a cement sink outside that the chickens might be occupying, and that I might bump into a goat on my way to the bathroom with my bucket of toilet-flush water. By now, if Rocco tells me a patch of dirt behind the house is where I will sleep, well… you get to a point in which nothing can surprise you anymore, right?
Rocco guides me to a staircase around the side of the house. As I carry my suitcases up, we pass through what I could only describe as the attic. It was a room above the house where the essentials were stored. You know, the salami and the olives, of course. There was other stuff in there too, but the aroma was all about the salami and olives. 37 years later, I remember that aroma very fondly like it was yesterday.
We walk through the room, into another room with two beds and a nightstand. Oh, and more salami and olives, thank you very much!
The room was unfinished, lacking paint on the walls, and the ceiling was made of unfinished logs. The beds were iron-frames with lumpy wool mattresses. If you would slap your hand on one, a plume of dust would have attacked you, and if you kneeled down to look at the mattresses from the side, you would notice that lacking any support system other than a thin net, they formed a subtle “U” shape.
I finally lay down to sleep, exhausted beyond belief. Rocco turns out the light, and as I lay on my back in my “U” bed, I’m thinking this must be what it feels like to sleep in a hammock… well, a lumpy hammock, at least.
Hmmmm… Looking up, I can clearly see little patches of sky through unsealed portions of the log roof. What do they do when it rains?
Click tick tzk click tzk tick creek tzk zzk click tzk…
A loud and constant crackling sound coming from above.
Michael: “Hey Rocco? What’s that noise?”
Rocco: “Don’t worry Mikey, it’s just termites in the roof”
Michael: “‘K, ‘Night”
As I promised in Part 1, I would end each post with something of a moral to the story, or at minimum, how what I describe in the post changed my life forever in some way and made me who I am today.
You will find that I will often use the term “Luxury of Experience,” which is the concept that our company, Culture Discovery Vacations started with. I had been a rich kid snob that dressed out of GQ, stayed in 5 Star Hotels, and to me luxury directly equated with money. But Luxury of Experience is something altogether different.
This afternoon, I traveled on a rickety old train and saw things I could hardly wrap my head around. I spent a great deal of time befriending someone with whom I had nothing at all in common, and we somehow figured out how to use our hands to communicate. I found myself a welcome guest in a home that I might otherwise have expected only to see in National Geographic. This L.A. kid was welcomed by a family 8,000 miles away in a kind of hospitality that I had never experienced, and will never forget. What is the 5 Star hotel worth when I have Rocco’s Nonna welcoming me in her home? And did I mention the goat?
Wall-free homes, outdated trains, chickens (and the goat!), bacon-soap, a shower and toilet-flushing bucket, some very loud termites, and a wonderful, warm and loving family. It was perfect! I don’t know yet, but the core of my existence is changing, and tomorrow we are gonna hit the beach! or are we?
Till then, I will leave you with one final thought: Michael Jackson!
I would love to see your thoughts and comments below!
Co-Founder of Culture Discovery Vacations. I am a native American from Los Angeles that has been living with one foot in Italy and the other in the US for more than 30 years. I usually write about oddities I see in Italian culture from an American perspective, and the humor I find in it. However, after decades of living in both countries, I often see the reverse as well. That is, where the Italians got it right, and we can certainy learn from them!