Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Songs and Bombs

No, I am not writing about the latest chart topping single in Rome.  Nor will I make some social commentary about unrest in London or North Africa.    Rather I wanted to share with you a couple of strange occurrences in Veglio. 

One that brought tears to most everyone who was present.  The other that quite frankly scared the living merda out of us. 

It seems like music has always been an important part of life in Italy.  Whether the echos of songs through a church, an opera sung by Pavarotti or the strings in quartet by Vivaldi, music seems to be woven through the culture.

I remember that growing up there always seemed to be music around the big Italian family gatherings.  Most of the time, there would be Lindy Mantova on his accordion adding a melody to the wine, food and chatter that was a strange cross between something that resembled the English and Italian…Italish?

The Church at Tocino--3 Miles from Veglio
Our family in Ossola also have art and music as staples of their daily lives.  Andrea and his father, Giovanni belong to a chorale group of men that travel throughout Switzerland and Northern Italy.    They often perform songs that are several centuries old in little churches that predate another famous Italian’s first journey to America.  

We had heard that they were quite good, but never had experienced the music first hand.  That was, until our reunion in Veglio.

Due to predicted rain, the planned picnic had to scramble looking for cover.  Andrea was able to talk to the local priest about using the little church in Veglio.  The church itself probably seated no more than 40 or 50 faithful on those long ago Sundays.  That meant everyone without exception in village took time from their toils to celebrate mass and spend some time with their neighbors.

The Old Veglio Church
Built around 1200 AD, as of late it has been used more for storage than sacrament with chairs, boxes, refrigerators and other assorted material had to be moved out so tables for dining could be placed. 

Lunch was a raucous affair, with nearly 60 people enjoying lots of wine, polenta, chicken, ribs, lamb and assorted accompaniments.   Laughter and more than a little shouting rang through the church during the celebration.

Then…something quite strange happened.  From the corner table near the back of the church, singing began.  Not just any singing, but hair standing up on the back of your neck sounds of the chorale.  No instruments, just the joining together of voices in sacred music that was first sung over five hundred years earlier. 

What was once loud, became eerily still as the singing continued.  A little taste of the singing is in this video clip that we took with our iphone. 

Flash forward though to last Friday.  Not sure why I thought I needed it, but found myself taking a little early evening nap on the cabana.  When I woke up, I checked my phone and found a flurry of texts, attempted calls and voicemals from both daughter Alexandra and brother Mark.

Turning first to Alex,  she reported having been robbed near her new apartment in Chicago.  Fortunately,  only her wallet was taken, snatched while she was checking her groceries as she left the store. 

Next, I checked the voicemail from Mark.  ACCIDENT IN VEGLIO, check your email right away and call me back!  Holy crap, what is going on?

A quick check of my email reported the accident.  Andrea and Cecilia had been cleaning debris from the house the previous Monday.  A fire had been started to burn what they could.  Unfortunately, something found its way to the fireplace that caused an intense explosion. 

Andrea was no more than ten feet from the fire, while Cecilia was across the room.   The explosion knocked them both to the ground and shattered bottles nearby.  Andrea was hit the hardest, with his face blackened and hair and beard burning.

As soon as he could, Andrea made his way to the water trough instinctively submersing his face trying to stem the burning.  Neighbors came running having at first thought the sound was from the quarry, perhaps placing too much explosive.

Andrea with all his hair and his California Girls
A friend was called and brought Andrea and Cecilia to the hospital.  Andrea was injured most severely and had to stay for nearly a week.  The burns thankfully appear to be healing nicely thanks to quick action and good care. 

Of greater concern are his ears.  The hearing in both is not good and certain ranges are missing altogether.  Andrea is going to a clinic the next two weeks for hyperbaric care for the ear drums.  Hopefully, it will restore some if not all of the hearing that was lost.

Now that the mortal danger is past, we are hopeful that his hearing will return in full.  We know that he gets great joy in singing and listening to music.  It would be quite sad and listening to the chorale sing may give you an appreciation of this.

Rendering of the "Culprit"
Oh, I almost forgot.  Closer inspection revealed the culprit as a Bomba a Mano which translates quite clearly to hand grenade. Model #35 made between 1939 and 1945 was probably hidden away during the resistance fighting that occurred against the Germans during World War II.  Part of the Ossola Rebellion whose tale will have to wait to another time.

For now, we pray and hope for recovery.  Mark and I plan to be in Veglio the last half of September.  We will be working with Andrea to stabilize the roof and prepare the project for the Alpine winter. 

Don’t tell our mother this story as she will hound us daily. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Old and New Friends & Family

We have been back now a week from Italy.   The jetlag is wearing off and the gelato-induced daze is starting to lessen.  Linda and I find ourselves asking “what the heck just happened” a few times a day.   We had an incredible time with a wide range of emotions and experiences over the past few weeks.

CaliItalia Family Portrait in the "New" Kitchen
My heart is also heavy as I write this, having learned of the passing of the eighteen-year son of one of my best friends.   I wanted to share some thoughts on our trip to Veglio though while the memories are still fresh in my mind.  Thoughts not so much of the old stones and wood and rubble, but of hearts and minds.  Of the reminders that life is both incredibly fleeting but also ties us together eternally if we let it.

During our trip, we had the opportunity to meet and spend time with many of our family who we had not met before.  Without exception, they welcomed us with open arms and a few kisses on the cheek like we had know them our entire lives.   

A little language barrier didn't stop Alexis and Meghan!
But even beyond our family, those we came in contact with in the little villages of the Ossola Valley were gracious and took time to listen and talk with us.   So, for this entry I thought I would make a few introductions of our extended Veglio family.

Our closest family in the Valley has always been Giovanni, Mareka and Andrea Scotton.  Giovanni is the grandson of my grandfather’s sister.  He and Mareka live in in the “new” family house built in the 1930’s next to the “new” church built in 1650.  Their son Andrea, who has just graduated with his master’s degree in Architecture and Planning is our partner in the restoration project. 

Mark, Mareka, Giovanni, Ken and Short Brother
I am sure we will be talking more about the Scotton family in the future.  Not only did we spend several days exploring the region with them, they organized our reunion lunch and worked so hard to ensure it was a great success.

On our last trip to Italy, we met Aunt Andrina.  She had also visited us in California twenty years ago and her joyful spirit is contagious.  Aunt Andrina worked nonstop for five hours in cooking, serving and cleaning up our Veglio lunch.  She lives in the new family house too, and can often be seen on her bicycle going to the market.  Not bad for nearly eighty, and we treasured the wisdom that she shared with us.

Aunt Andrina(on left)
Although Veglio today is home to just a few part-time residents, several of the locals have “getaways” there where they spend time with the gardens or making wine.  Cousin Davida has a house just down the path from our home.  This is his official man cave and he is the official winemaker of Veglio.  While we really like Davida, we are thinking of suggesting a few technical changes from California.  My neice Allyssa did have the pleasure of tasting it on this trip…I think she described it as “rustic”.
Napa Valley in no imminent danger

Sidenote:  As we were looking at our old house, we discovered a basement that we did not know about.  It contains a little winery with four giant barrels and room to store several hundred bottles. 

Ossola Valley is the start of several other valleys that make their way into Switzerland in this part of Italy.  Veglio is just one of a hundred little villages in Val Formazza.  Formazza has strong Germanic roots from the settling of Walsers which were a tribe that came to the region about a thousand years ago.  It is a major producer of hydroelectric power, granite and bottled water. 

The region is a complex mix of very old plus a new group of “settlers” from across Europe who are discovering its unique way of life and beauty.  We met a few of these recent immigrants to Formazza.  Like us, they have fallen for the area’s incredible beauty and availability of old stone houses.  Freddie is an artist from Basel, Switzerland who spends time here with his children, his art and his restoration project.

Freddie enjoys the music after lunch(and wine)
Cecilia is an art curator from Beirut who is restoring two old homes in Oira, which is just down the road from Veglio.  We spent time with her celebrating Andrea’s graduation plus at the reunion lunch.  She shares the view that there is something quite special to be rebuilt and given to those interested in learning from the past.

One of our special guides on the trip was Adrianna who is half American and half Swiss but has lived in Italy for most of her life.  “Addie” spent an entire day with us as our interpreter in working with the notary public as well in hiking up to Veglio to understand the village better.  

Adrianna and beau
She is a delight and was full of questions for Linda about life in the US.    She misses Cinnamon gum and US beauty products and wanted to hear all about the latest from Bloomingdales.  Adrianna is in the process of learning her fifth language, Japanese and has a very bright future wherever she decides to go!

While it is impossible to write about all of the people we met, there was one special little lady that I must mention.  For most of the past several years, we have been getting to know family from my grandfather’s side.  We really didn’t know too much about our grandmother’s family even though we knew she lived somewhere in the Formazza region. 

Aunt Paurina and her new great great nieces
When brother Ken was making reservations at a little B&B near Veglio, the proprietor(Mario) started asking questions about our family connections.  Ken told him about Grandma including her last name of Arrizzi.  A few days later, Mario emailed Ken to tell him that he had found one of Mama Tuna’s relatives living nearby.  It turned out to be her baby sister, Paurina, who is now 87 years old.

My mother remembers clearly her mother talking about taking care of this little baby sister who is nearly twenty years younger.  What a joy she was.  We had the chance to spend time at her home and she joined us for the entire day of the reunion.  Amazing to make a connection with a generation that we had thought was long gone.

Ken may still be on the Mountain
I am finding it very difficult to remain with my head in California.  Each day, I keep thinking about our experiences and the people of Veglio.  Even though, our trip and our time there was a once in a lifetime experience, my hope is that we continue to build these relationships as we rebuild the house.

But for now, I am back to the so-called real world of Orange County.