Editor’s Note: Mary is once again providing our community with a series of articles based on recent travel to her ancestral home Molfetta, a sea-side city located low on the Italian boot in a region called Puglia. Her last series on Italy we published four years ago, remains one of the most popular cultural pieces we’ve presented.
“We have a house for you,” says my cousin Rino calling from Italy.
It is June 1st, the day when rental properties become available for the summer season in Molfetta, that grand old town on the Adriatic Sea where both my parents were born and raised and where a large extended family of cousins awaits my return.
“So tell me about it,” I say and the good news pours forth. “Three bedrooms, large parlor, adequate kitchen, large bathroom with a shower and washing machine, big windows …”
“Air conditioning?” I interrupt.
“Nope, you won’t need it.”
“Stone walls are very thick, ceilings are 14 ft. high and there’s good circulation from the courtyard,” he assure me. “And, of course, there’s all that sea air,” he teases. This last bit of news is the best. He got us a place by the water.
“How old is it,” I ask, hoping the answer will make my day.
“Oh, about 500 years old is my guess,” he tells me and I can practically see the grin coming through the intercontinental phone line.
“You didn’t,” I say in a soft whisper.
“Yes,” he says. “You’re in the historic district ... inside the walled city ... and ... next door to the Palazzo De Lucca!
I know exactly where this house is located and what it looks like. I’m thrilled! To be accurate it is not a house in the American sense because there are no single-family residences in ancient cities like this one. Rather, it is a building that housed a noble family and its staff of servants back in the 1500s. Today it has been refurbished into a multi-family dwelling with large suites of rooms on the top floors, tiny residences which were once servant’s quarters out back and commercial space now inhabits former stables on the ground floor. Our suite is high up with windows overlooking the harbor so I’m sure it was, and probably still is, prime real-estate.
Molfetta started out as a small fishing village on an island sticking out into a great harbor. This location made it prey to every invader who came up the coast, so a great protective wall was built around it. Inside this wall, an active mercantile community flourished in medieval times and great houses were built by noble families like the De Luccas in the prosperous 15th century. Much of this walled city has been inhabited ever since and some of the oldest parts have recently been refurbished. The place is a small gem with an active neighborhood of narrow, well- traveled streets, impressive residential buildings, shops and museums. In the evening it is softly lighted by street lamps which cast a gold-colored light reflected in the moist cobblestones. It’s no longer an island but rather a peninsula which borders the main route between the modern city and the older one established near the sea. The house my cousins have found for me will allow me to be at the epicenter of a bustling, active, fun-loving community of modern day Italians while living in a medieval city on the water. Perfect!
Things tend to remain the same in Molfetta, even with the challenges of modern living. The daily rituals of church attendance, marketing, family meals, evening walks and attention to the needs of the very young and the elderly have remained the same for centuries. People here know ritual for what it is: a celebration of familiarity shaded by time and place. It’s a good feeling to live in a community where the rules of behavior are clear. That’s what makes it so special and now I will have an opportunity to share this place I love so much with my husband and daughters, who are coming to Italy for the first time. The house’s location in the heart of the city will connect us to the rhythm and liveliness of the culture.
I tell Rino to rent the house for September, my favorite time to visit. I love the weather at this time of year – warm enough for swimming, low humidity and cool nights. This is also a fun time in Molfetta since the festival of the town’s patron saint, the Madonna of the Martyrs, takes place early in the month. I can’t wait for my American family to discover Molfetta at its most festive – processions and parades, boating parties, music in the streets and fireworks late into the night. Much of this activity will take place right under our balcony when the road to the harbor becomes a pedestrian mall.
As we make our plans for this special family holiday, we decide that our daughters, due to work commitments, will stay only through the festival and Ron and I will remain in Molfetta the entire month and take a few day trips around the region since Puglia has much to offer its visitors. My goal during this trip is to live as much like Italians as possible. We will go to the cafe in the morning, hang out the wash and do our marketing, buy fresh fish off the docks and cook it for lunch, nap, dress for dinner and stay out late almost every night. This form of vacation is called “Immersion Travel” and it is perfect for people like my husband who dislikes crowds, bus trips and rushing through sites other people have decided you should see. It will allow us to experience Molfetta slowly and intimately.
Three months later we are in Italy. The house does not disappoint. The rooms are large and sunny. The floors are beautiful hand-painted ceramics in a flower motif which remind me that Italians create beauty wherever they can. The balcony is a treasure, since it provides a wonderful view. We step out there on our first night in town watching an incredible sunset over the harbor which turns the sky fiery red before fading to violet then dark blue. Throwing open the shutters in the morning and watching the neighborhood awaken is also a joy.
In the weeks to come we are cherished and spoiled by my Italian family. My grandparents each had five children. All of them are gone now but most of their children and grandchildren still live in the area and have developed into a large extended family who loves nothing better than meeting the new family members I have brought with me. They cook for us, chauffeur us, take us sight-seeing, share favorite restaurants and places to shop. The younger generation take my daughters on motorcycle rides during the day and out to clubs at night. They spend as much time with us as we allow and are cautious about giving us our privacy. At least one cousin calls us every day to ask if we need anything and they come in handy when difficulties arise. At first our credit cards don’t work and cousin Diana deals with her bank to exchange the back-up travelers checks we’ve brought. The sea is difficult to enter for a swim due to slippery and jagged rocks and cousin Liliana, an athlete, shows us the safest approach. The picture of her leading my husband and daughters into the sea looking like Moses leading the Israelites still make me smile.
Concern for Ron’s comfort is paramount to my cousins since he does not speak Italian. Cousin Gennaro takes a train to the nearest city to get Ron English-language newspapers. Cousins Rino and Maria share their home often so Ron can watch the BBC on their big-screen television. When we car pool out of town, all the cousins who speak English gather in one car with Ron and sit close to him in restaurants. In more ways than we can count they let us know how much they love us. Over the course of the month we are in Molfetta they share with us the best of the Italian character – warm, sunny, empathic and very transparent. You always know were you stand with Italians; it’s the way I was brought up and I wouldn’t change it for anything. On our last night in town there are real tears shed as we say our good-byes. They don’t let us leave till we give them a time for our return. “Five years,” I tell them and they accept this gladly as though our leaving becomes more bearable.
Once back home in Norwich, I review the photos taken on our Italian trip and I select these three to accompany this article because I think they best exemplify the various activities of the different generations of Molfetta’s residents. They were taken at a reunion held in our honor by my mother’s family, the Pansinis, and hosted by cousins Diana and husband Enzo at their beautiful summer house in the midst of an olive grove on the outskirts of town. Needless to say, a great time was had by all!
The top photo is of my generation of cousins, the 60+ group. Almost all are retired and they include housewives, teachers, health care workers and therapists. Most of the men have made their living from the sea with extended voyages aboard cargo and passenger ships where they worked as officers, electricians and technicians. Their joy now lies in living close to their children and grandchildren. They share remarkable good health and a positive attitude, attend church on a regular basis, walk everywhere and enjoy the sea for both recreation and the sustaining seafood that dominates their diet. Since the local airport in Bari now offers international flights, they are now beginning to travel widely and they share their memories with us of places like Russia, Turkey, India and Tunisia.
This photo of my cousin Luigi, his wife Rosanna and their children Lorenzo and Francesca is as close to the model Italian family of this generation as I could find. She’s a surgical technician with irregular work hours including evening shifts. He’s an electrical engineer working for a helicopter factory in a nearby city commuting weekly back home to Molfetta. They are able to hold these jobs and raise a family because both sets of grandparents live in their neighborhood and look after the children. The little girl will be raised at home till school starts and her older brother is taken to school, basketball practice and religious instruction by his grandfather. Notice he is playing a computer game; he also takes a Spiderman backpack to school and loves McDonald’s fries – just a few of our American exports.
And here’s the younger generation, all well-educated (a high community standard in Molfetta) well mannered, fit and very loving to their family and friends. Some of the older ones are employed outside Molfetta but come home as often as they can. Cousin Michele works for a wind-power equipment company, cousin Valeria is an orthopedic surgeon, cousin Betty teaches Math and cousin Roberto Pansini is an entrepreneur who established his own successful business in town by providing a service to newlyweds which produces a red-carpet event at a local theater where their wedding video is shown to family and friends. The college students live at home till their mid to late twenties and commute to local universities. They spend their out-of-school time similar to the high school crowd – meeting with friends, days on the beach, playing soccer and enjoying the music scene in town which is varied and exuberant. They tell me they love where they live and want to stay and raise their families here. Like their ancestors, they are Molfettese to their core and forever in love with this corner of Italy.