Wednesday, January 13, 2010

la Nonna's Story 13/01/2010

You never know what the morning might bring. Which is why it is always good to go out for a coffee in Sicily. Yesterday I went to English Bar and the sweet elderly father was sitting in his usual seat with the newspaper, meeting and greeting 'Buongiorno Dottore! Arriverderci Avvocato!' (Italians make much of professional titles, so you are referred to as Doctor, or Lawyer directly). His daughter, who was on the till, was reading out a postcard from New York so I looked up and said something, being the only customer at that moment. It was cosy there, my cappuccino perfect and the apple pastry freshly baked. She asked me was I American, in English, and I replied that I was irish. She sighed that it was so important to travel, always travel, that their cousin had gone to NY for capodanno. She said she had lived in Canada, until she was 9, then came to live in Milazzo. Her husband had lived for several years in Manchester, hence calling it English bar. He was the smiley bushy grey haired man. She was so smiley and doing her best to chat in English. She lamented the fact that they don’t get to practise and that most tourists stay at the port and go to the islands that nothing is made of the beauty in Milazzo.

Today, invece, I went down to a bar by the sea, which is not nearly so welcoming, in fact he didn’t even put the heater on for me to sit in the covered area outside. But the cappuccino was good, and I got the Gazetta del Sud. No more news on the Haiti earthquake than I got this morning at 2am when we came in from work. But I read that Miep Gies, the keeper of Anne Frank’s diary and their guardian angel who had kept them hidden for two years in her attic, died at the age of 100. Remarkable woman.

It was this fact that sparked the chat with the nonna on my way past. I came by all the fishing boats of Vacarella, all the fishermen in their thigh high green wellies with the fish out on display. Slimy eels, pinky mullet, pink prawns and anchovies. One man was happily rearranging his fishing lines. Another was fixing his nets in his boat, another was gutting fish a bit further back from the pavement, with a few cats lurking nearby. A crowd of seagulls floated contentedly near the water’s edge, occasionally sticking their beaks in the water to pick up a minute fish. All the men had a good gawk as I went past. Plenty of action, despite the mizzle. Met the postman on his motorino with his bundle of letters in the little boot, and his luminous yellow waterproof jacket with Postino printed on it. I heard him park and holler up to a woman to open up for her post: ‘Maria, c’è posta, mi apri!’ In fair weather he goes about his rounds singing and whistling. A happy man, one of my favourite characters, especially now that the nonna just told me that he writes poems and brings them to her since he knows she likes them! A poetic postman. Fantastic.

La nonna had her door open when I was passing, since the bread man was just at the next house. He comes by every day with fresh loaves. So she invited me in and we went in to see the nonno, who was in bed. He waited for her to go and get the bread and as soon as she was gone he said, ‘here, open this glove for me.’ The knot was very tight and I understood that the aim was to keep the saw inside the glove locked up! But I opened it anyway – he wants to get his old tools out to remind himself of the man he once was. The nonna came back in and was very annoyed 'What are you doing with that od pruning saw?!' - and put it away. He asked me did I want some gamberi, their daughter had come round with lovely fresh gamberi. Every time I see him he wants to give me something. I said I had some already, grazie. We went into the kitchen then and the nonna showed me the fresh prawns. I told her about Miep Gies dying and she told me she had been there at Anne Frank's house, since her son and his Dutch wife live nearby. She then said she’d love to tell me her own account of the wars, of both world wars and how her family had been affected. Through her son she had met Elvira Battaini, a writer from Milano, who had made notes on things the nonna had told her down through the years, as she had wanted to publish them in some form. But she passed away in the summer, said la nonna sadly, ‘she was like a sister to me, always with a word of comfort and great flair and courage.’

La nonna said she had written down what she remembered of her earliest years. She remembered feeling abandoned by her father, who went off to work in Argentina when she was little, came back to fight the first world war and then returned to Argentina. She was close to her grandfather instead, who acted as father to her, though he grew older very suddenly and as a young girl she had to look after him. She said when she was a girl and was out walking with friends one night to hear the prophecies of a fortune teller, as they passed by the gates of the cemetery, not far from her house, her future husband whispered his declaration of love in her ear, saying he was going to send her a love letter. ‘Look at the stars! Listen to the whoosh of the waves!’ he said, ignoring their tenebrous surroundings. She laughed at the incongruity of the place with his romantic words. His letter reached her via a cousin. She had to keep this romance secret from her strict mother especially a kiss he gave her at their next meeting, during a walk in town; he kissed her on the cheek and she was so worried her mother would see the mark that she ran into the toilet with her little cracked mirror in her purse, and checked. She said they had been through many ups and downs together but had always managed to love each other through 68 years of marriage: some achievement. He had an irascible temper she said, he would often offend her with the way he spoke to her, but every day when she would see him off at the end of the road, he would expect her to give him a kiss on the cheek. But, she said, if he had been particularly offensive over a period of a few days she would put her foot down and not accept it. These Sicilian men, I said, are very volcanic, thinking ‘chauvinistic’ would be the wrong word to use. Oh, she said, he was 100% volcanic. I have heard about the nonno’s temperament before; one day at dinner with all their four children (in their 50s), and the grandchildren (aged 15-25- including my husband) he swept his arms round the room, and said, ‘Look at what one cock can do!’

As a young woman, the nonna got a job in Palermo in an ‘Aiuto Materno’, a kind of shelter for abandoned children and women who got pregnant as the result of rape during the war, or through prostitution. They would be found in rags, sleeping rough in the streets or at the train station, and brought to them where they got washed and fed and a bed. She had to keep her courtship with her fiancé secret, because the job was only for single women.

Come back, she said, so I can tell you more about my life story.

1 comment:

  1. Oh.. but I thought you just had written one blog post about Xmas meal... but just found out there are so many on your blog! I am so happy to know where all those nice stories are kept now. I'll come back for more from the nonna :-)

    well done Bronagh, it's really great to read. I finally manage to eat my evening meal and stop dreaming about your fresh prawn and aspargus risotto! but I hope I can come and taste all those nice recipe in Pachamama one day. ciao, Veroxx

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