It was Easter, Pasqua and the entire town of Lucca had seemed filled with joy. Donald and I were at Patrizio’s and Monica’s. Monica’s 88-yer-old grandmother had just entered the home. She was wearing a ratty baby blue bathroom and immediately unopn seeing us, started crying?
What’s going on, I wondered.
After a few moments Monica introduced Donald and me to bisnonna. We greeted her warmly. She responded in little whimpers. Then Monica firmly told her, “Sit down.”
Patrizio gathered everyone to the table. He poured a sparkling sweet wine and we all toasted, “Buona Pasqua; Buona Pasqua.” Cinque piatti di antipasti sono arrivati. The primo piatto was prosciutto; il secondo was piled high with various salumi and the Italian specialty lardo di Colonnata. Il terzo piatto was a sausage and cheese torte, while the fourth and fifth plates held spinach and fennel tortes. A cestino or basket of white Tuscan pane and a small bowl of olive (olives) sat on the table. As we ate and drank bisnonna seemed to relax a bit. As the first plates were being cleared, bisnonna pulled herself up out of her chair and stepped into the open kitchen. She stuck her head out the door and lit a cigarette. I noted bisnonna smoked a widely sold Italian cigarette, MS, a brand that Donald had smoked when he had lived in Rome. “They’re very strong,” Donald said.
As Bisnonna puffed away, Patrizio elbowed me, winked and said, “Look at her. Her chest has puffed up. It’s as if she’s transformed from a little old lady into a race horse.” I looked at bisnonna and sure enough she seemed to have gained strength. With each and every puff, she stood taller. When she returned to the table she was like another person. No longer hunched over, she was now filled with bravado. In a voice gruff from years of smoking, bisnonna asked, “americani?”
“Sì. Siamo Americani.”
“Portland, Oregon.” Bisnonna clearly had no idea what I had said. She looked at Patrizio, who simply stared back at her.
“Portland, Oregon. Sopra California,” I said hoping she’d understand that Oregon was just above the Golden State. She nodded and proceeded to tell us about the many Lucchesi who lived in and around the Bay Area. Ernesto returned from the kitchen carrying a large platter of the Lucca pasta specialty, Tortelli lucchesi, ravioli stuffed with veal and beef. He heaped a large spoonful, enough for two people, onto my plate and poured a second red wine. The tortelli was pungent and tasty. I turned towards the kitchen and asked Tiziana, “Hai fatto i tortelli?” “Certo,” she replied, confirming what I had suspected – she had made the tortelli by hand.
Ernesto reached across the table and ladled a second helping of the ravioli onto my plate. I looked at him and nodded, acknowledging his little victory. Before the next course was served, Bisnonna once more went into the kitchen, stuck her head outside and despite the rain, smoked another cigarette. Returning to the table, she proudly told us that she had been smoking for over fifty years. “I smoked throughout my entire pregnancy with Ernesto.” Then, with absolute certainty she said, “That’s why he turned out a boy; otherwise, he would have been a girl.” I looked towards the kitchen at Ernesto, who grinned and then performed a little curtsy. Patrizio and Monica both rolled their eyes. I smiled at bisnonna.
A few minutes later, Ernesto brought a second pasta dish. “I should have known,” I murmured to Donald. The platter of maccheroni was even larger than the ravioli dish. Ernesto spooned a massive helping of the pasta onto my plate. Bisnonna resumed talking, but I had no idea what she was saying. Like in most Italian families everyone else had begun talking as well, making conversation impossible to follow. I was now on watch for Ernesto’s swift hand. I ate very, very slowly, savoring each bite. I succeeded in keeping Ernesto at bay. “Round two” went to me, I thought.
Bisnonna left the room again to smoke. Her lungs must be the color of the roast turkey Ernesto was bringing to the table. Bisnonna sat down and, as we dined on the delicious bird, she began to talk about Mussolini. “Voglio parlarvi di Lucca durante la grande guerra.” I was curious about the war and what Lucca was like during the Mussolini era. But I sensed an immediate tension in the room. Bisnonna continued, “I neri americani sono arrivati a Lucca…” but before she was able to say more, Patrizio interrupted her. “Basta,” he said firmly. Monica shot her grandmother a dirty look. Patrizio looked at me. I grinned. Bisnonna carried on, “I neri …” At once Monica and Patrizio pounded on the dining table and said, “Stai zita,” a not so polite way of saying, “That’s enough.” I wondered if these Italians wanted to keep this part of their history secret from the Americani. I would come to learn from historian Dr. Mary Hewlett, the same Mary who bought the apartment in Lucca, that the conflict had become, for Italians, basically a civil war. For sometime after Mussolini’s fall, nobody knew which side they were supposed to be on. There was no TV and, for a while, no radio and no newspapers. Some Lucchesi had buried their saucepans and other metals so as to stop the Blackshirts, the fascist, paramilitary-armed squads of Benito Mussolini that used violence and intimidation against his opponents, from taking the goods to melt them down for weapons. The Nazis rounded up and shot people, as did the partisans. They weren’t equal, but there were atrocities on both sides. “Wounds go deep,” Dr. Hewlett had said.
It wasn’t surprising, given the fact that Italians had been so divided on Mussolini, to find reticence talking about the war. But nothing would stop bisnonna from continuing her discourse on World War II. “They’re americani; they want to know this,” she declared. She told us that when the SS soldiers occupied the walled city the citizens were frightened. Many had been shot. Lucca and the surrounding countryside was under constant bombardment until the day, in the summer of 1944, the 92nd Division of African American Soldiers – known as Buffalo Soldiers – liberated Lucca.
“We were very glad when the Americans came. On July 10, the day they came all the bells of Lucca started ringing, just like at Easter.” When she finished, bisnonna stood up, took a couple steps towards the kitchen and lit up. “Fuori,” Monica said, ordering bisnonna to go outdoors.
Next week find out what becomes of bisnonna, who “wins” the good game Ernesto so deftly plays, and the role Monica plays in abetting my Italian.
Until then, stay well, Roberto
If you have friends or family members traveling to Italy, especially anyone heading to or near Lucca or anyone wanting to learn a bit of Italian, please let them know about my website, www.welovelucca.com. Grazie mille!