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Linda Becker &
Peter Costantini
Seattle, Washington, U.S.
Email:
jpetercostantini@attbi.com

Rapino

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Peter

In the shadow of the massif of la Maiella in the Appenine Mountains, the village of Rapino meanders up from the valley to its center on a hilltop. The mountainous Abruzzi region used to be isolated, but now an autostrada (divided highway) runs the 130 miles east from Roma through the mountains, past the university town of Chieti nearby and down to Pescara on the Adriatic. There's still not much visible industry in town: a few ceramics workshops, a quarry cut into a nearby mountainside. In the fields above the town, though, rise several big new houses with satellite dishes, built, I'm told, by rapinesi returning home from northern Italy or Switzerland or the U.S. to retire.

Looking towards la Maiella from piazza Diaz, 9

My grandfather Giuseppe and father Ralph (then Raffaele) were born in the family house in Rapino at piazza Diaz, 9. Giuseppe started emigrating to New York in 1901 to work as a pattern maker in the garment industry. For more than two decades he alternated between working in the States and returning to spend time in Rapino. During one return visit, in 1913, he married my grandmother Cleonice. Still in Italy when World War I began, he served in the Italian army and was gassed somewhere around Milano. Finally in 1928 he brought the family to the Bronx on a steamer named the Conte Biancamano.

Peter in front of piazza Diaz, 9

Raffaele left his hometown at the age of 12 and never looked back, although later in life he visited it several times. I had always pictured them huddled in steerage, but when I finally asked him he said they had a nice enough cabin. From Napoli across the calm Mediterranean to Gibraltar, he was elated to be traveling on a big ship to America. Once they hit the swells of the open Atlantic, though, the thrill was eclipsed by seasickness until they sailed into New York Harbor. There I had always assumed they had to go through Ellis Island, but it turns out that, because my grandfather was already a citizen, there was no such drama. The ship docked at a pier in lower Manhattan and the family took the subway up to the Castle Hill station in the Bronx. Giuseppe didn't have a car, but he knew a real estate agent who owned a 12-cylinder Packard and had persuaded him to pick them up at the subway, so they rode home in style to their house in the Bronx.

Giuseppe with an honor from the President of Italy

Giuseppe, for his part, returned to Rapino in the late 1940s when he retired. His first wife, Cleonice, had died in the States. Back in Rapino, he married Amalia, some 20 years his younger, and in 1950 they had a daughter, Giuseppina. I was born a month later in the Bronx to Ralph and his wife Alice.

Linda

In Rapino, we stayed in the house of Peter's grandfather, Giuseppe. Giuseppina lives and teaches elementary school 15 miles away in Chieti, and usually only stays in the Rapino house in the summers. But when she found out we were coming to visit, she went to the trouble of cleaning up the house and getting a plumber in to turn on the water so we could stay there.

Peter on the balcony of the family house

Giuseppina's mother Amalia had died when Giuseppina was fairly young, but Amalia's sister, Concetta, continued living with Giuseppina and Giuseppe. She was really Giuseppina's second mother. She continued living with Giuseppina in Chieti until she died a few years ago as a very old and well-loved woman.

Giuseppina

When I look at this photo of Giuseppina, I remember vividly the wonderful surprise I felt as we spent more and more time with her. I anticipated it being awkward being around Peter's friends and family—with everyone speaking Italian, what do we do with this silly girlfriend (me)? Not only was Peter a patient and untiring interpreter, but Giuseppina seemed to want to get to know me. Not only was she gracious and generous beyond all expectations, but she is sweet, interested in everything we had to say, and of course (she is Italian!) a wonderful cook.

Looking over the town from the back porch

In the six years we have been together, mornings in Rapino are the only ones that found Peter up and about before me. In fact, he went to the local bar to get us tea and coffee while I lay in bed—a stunning switch of roles. He seemed absorbent, permeable to every drop of Rapino air. One day it rained and while I stayed curled up reading in his grandfather's house, Peter walked all over the town and hills. He was drenched, but clearly delighted, in his element.

Our first night in Rapino we went to the town bar, the local gathering place, where people (mostly men) play cards and drink aperitifs, and where in the morning we got espresso and sweets. (I regret not getting a picture of it. I was too shy of the camera's intrusion to try to take pictures inside at night, with the old guys still wearing their hats as they sat around tables talking and laughing and beating one another.) Peter's great uncle Cicott' (Francesco Oliva) was there, and after a while someone he was playing cards with pointed out Peter and Cicott' to each other. They hugged, but it was not until the next day when Peter and Cicott' stood talking in the square that they really reconnected. Even though I could not understand a word, I fell in love. He is quite elegant.

Cicott'

The evening we spent with Cicott' and his wife Fiorentina was magic. I don't know why she took to me—perhaps she could see how happy I was to meet her—but we managed some sort of conversation about life and love. Peter, on replaying the tape of our talk, said he mistranslated some of what we said, but it didn't seem to matter. I know this sounds naive, but they struck me as more authentic than anyone I have ever met, maybe by being totally unselfconscious. Fiorentina's secret to a long and successful marriage (they are approaching 75 years together) is to not eat at the same time every day.

Linda with Cicott' and Fiorentina

Peter

Linda has a rare talent for empathetic listening. When Fiorentina began to talk to her in Abruzzese dialect, Linda looked deep into her eyes, talked back to her in English and body English and a few words of Spanish, asked questions, nodded, strained to understand, and pretty much convinced Fiorentina that she did understand. I think that's why Fiorentina took such a shine to her, as did the rest of the family. My poor translations seemed pallid in comparison.

Fiorentina

Cicott' is my father's first cousin, the son of a brother of my grandmother—or was it my grandfather? Friends who understand these things say this actually makes him my second cousin, but I still think of him as my great uncle. He is 92 and Fiorentina is 90. They still have a garden and when I was there four years ago, I helped them can their own tomatoes.

Fiorentina and Francesco Oliva

They have done all kinds of work over the years. Cicott' used to be the town taxi driver, and drove a lot of people to Roma or Napoli to take the boat to America or Argentina. He still has a robin's egg blue 1958 Fiat 500 in mint condition, although it's too small to carry much more than the two of them. At one time they also ran the town movie house and had an appliance store. They have I think three or four grown children, one of whom is a general in the army, along with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The secret of long life is to work hard and to eat enough but not too much. Don't always eat at the same time of day. And don't get drunk—people in Abruzzo drink too much.
—Fiorentina and Francesco

 

During World War II, the village was caught between British and German lines as the Allies advanced northward. The Wehrmacht had taken over the Olivas' house, and they and several other families fled up into the hills towards la Maiella. There they lived for some time in a cave called la Grotta del Colle. During my last visit, Cicott' told us about this and said he had never gone back to that cave since the war. He decided he wanted to show it to us, so we drove up into the hills, then hiked a half-mile or so in to see it. The ceiling was still black with smoke from the fires of the people who took refuge there.

Peter with ancestors

In the old picture I'm holding here, my grandmother Cleonice and grandfather Giuseppe are the young woman and man standing in back. Seated in front are my greatgrandfather Raffaele and greatgrandmother Irena, Giuseppe's father and mother. According to my cousin Eugenia, our family historian, the picture was taken on Giuseppe and Cleonice's honeymoon to Ortona sul Mare.

My dad remembers that one day, as a little boy, he was standing near two carabinieri (national policemen). They looked askance at him and one said disapprovingly to the other, "You know, that's the grandson of Raffaele Costantini." The other nodded knowingly. The elder Raffaele, it transpired, was famous for having thrown a carabiniere into a lime pit during a dispute. My dad doesn't know why or what happened to them both after the fight. In any case, it must have been a tough rap for younger generations to live down, especially in the era of Mussolini.

Linda

Our last day in Rapino Giuseppina took us to the cemetery where her mother and father are buried. Later at her house she made thin-crust pizza, with a very simple tomato sauce, and absolutely delicious. Peter, Arianna and Fabbio sat around laughing and telling stories for hours while I snapped photos and waited for Peter's interpretations. We talked politics (Arianna used to live in Bologna, I think, which reportedly has a relatively progressive city government), the future of nursing (Arianna is a nurse) and teaching, and Giuseppina's plans for retirement. She wants to move back to Rapino and enjoy the peace, the quieter lifestyle.

Giuseppina in her kitchen

Peter

One earlier visit, when Fabbio was five, he took us on a personal tour of Rapino. He pointed under several porches and behind several woodpiles and told us, "The wolf lives in there." Four years ago, a twentyish daredevil, he took me on a terrifying tour of the town at suicidal speed on the back of his Vespa motor scooter. As we shot down narrow passages and plunged through fields and woods, my Italian failed me except for "Piano, piano" (take it easy) and "Sei pazzo" (you're nuts). He still enjoys motocross and racing. And maybe wolves, too, although he had no comment.

Fabbio

Arianna practices the high Italian art of cynicism with style and brio, and has a delightfully astringent take on Italian medical practice, mores and tempores. She also speaks very fast and softly, or so it seems to me, and I have to ask her frequently to repeat. On a previous trip, she told me: "You know, you speak Italian like you learned it from a book." I replied that this was true because I had indeed learned it from books and classes. As a kid, I rolled my eyes when my dad tried to teach us, and my mom doesn't speak it, so I had no incentive to find out what they were saying behind our backs. I ended up learning it on my own in my early thirties.

Arianna

We weren't able to catch up with Fabbrizio and Pina until the day we left. They are cousins of my New York cousins Eugenia and Anthony, who are the children of my dad's sister Irene and her husband Eugene. Got that? Eugene was also a native of Rapino and had the same last name, Costantini, but the two families were not related in any traceable way. There's probably a good story there a couple of centuries back.

Fabbrizio and Odeo

Fabbrizio is the son of Eugene's brother, Odeo, who lives with them and takes care of their little daughters Rita and Francesca during the day. Fabbrizio teaches at the medical school in Avezzano, a long commute on the autostrada towards Roma. Pina teaches school nearby.

Pina with Rita and Francesca

When talk turned to September 11, Fabbrizio mentioned that just in their corner of Abruzzo, they knew of four different people who died in the attacks. Some were emigrants or descendants, but all still had ties to the old sod. One was one of the airline pilots who went down. So many reverberations around the world: the globalization of grief.

Fabbrizio showing Peter the route south

We weren't able to stay long, but Fabbrizio helped us map out our route to Matera, and kindly gave us the map to take along.