Come To Italy With Me: Part Five - Making a living from the sea

The sun makes such a fuss when it retires for the day in this part of the world – all fire red, and gold streaks and streams across a perfectly peaceful sky. Honestly, like a spoiled little kid, it needs so much attention. But we’re hooked on the display and so my husband and I decide to see as many sunsets over the harbor as we can during our stay in this lovely old town, Molfetta, on the Adriatic Sea.

On our third night in town, as we walk along the seawall towards the lighthouse, we notice the parked cars along the edge of the wharf. Ron, a car junkie, does a quick inventory and notices that Italians drive mostly diesels, always stick-shift, and often foreign made models. We see many Toyotas, Peugeots, and Volkswagens. There are also many American cars, mostly Ford’s popular Escort and Fusion. Among the most popular Italian cars, there are many Fiat Puntos and the tiny little Panda. Of course they are small cars, because parking in this town is a challenge--especially in the historic section of town down by the harbor where the locals like to stroll at night. As we continue our walk, I see a large black car towering over the others. I wonder what it is and go in for a closer look. I am surprised to find that its a Honda CRV, the car I drive back home. It looks so big here that I laugh at the irony.

As we continue our walk, more and more people are driving and parking on the large piazza facing the wharf. An Alfa Romeo pulls up and an important looking guy continues his cell phone conversation as he gets out of the car and walks towards the wharf. The littlest car in town called a “Smart for two” parks near where we walk and a couple sit inside continuing an argument which probably started when the sun was still putting on its show. A sleek and shiny new black Lancia releases its contents – two gorgeous girls in skinny jeans, high pointy heels and exquisitely fitting soft colored t-shirts.

The closer we get to the water’s edge, the more cars are arriving. By the time we U-turn at the lighthouse and head back toward town, a crowd has gathered on the sea wall. They all appear to be looking to the port opening, and around 8:30 p.m. we see three lights moving quickly towards us. As they come into full view, we see they are small fishing boats--day trippers making their final ride home for the day. Within minutes they are tied to the wharf, lighted by lanterns and exposing the contents of their baskets – small silver fish to be eaten raw, small squid for frying, small lobsters for roasting, and the very popular red mullets used to make the famous fish soup that my mother made most Friday nights when I was growing up chambote.

The Molfettese people love their fish, no doubt about that, and they have been fishing this sea for centuries, and that has become a very big problem. They have exhausted these waters.

From 1950-1970, the golden years of the fishing industry in Molfetta, there were some 150 boats in this harbor, both large vessels which stayed out for weeks at a time and small day-trippers. The large ones usually had a 5 to 7 man crew – captain, motorist, net tenders and fishermen. The smaller ones usually averaged a three man crew and went out daily. Due to the size of its fleet, large port and variety of fish in the area – Molfetta had the biggest wholesale market on the Adriatic Sea. Today, there are only 20 large boats left and the whole industry is heavily regulated. For example, they can go out for one week at a time, Monday through Friday only, and they take turns in certain area of the sea when breeding is active. This still produces enough seafood to keep Molfetta’s present-day wholesale market the largest in the region.

One morning we walk there and, of course, the market is one of those architecturally rich buildings which takes my breath away. Next door, the new retail market, is not yet open for business, but available for tours on Sunday morning. This is the community’s newest pride and joy. The sinks are marble, the water is operated by foot pumps at every station and the refrigeration is behind closed doors. Overhead the ceiling is in the shape of a boat – the Italian impulse to fit art everywhere is a gift to the world.

It is here we meet Giacinto, a retired mariner. He tells me he worked as a motorist on the big ships and knew my uncle Luigi, my mother’s brother. “We fished off the coast of Sicily in those days, in the rich sea around Lampedusa. He was the best captain I ever served with,” he tells me. “He had a nose for it – could find fish anywhere. Good work ethic too.” We continue our conversation as we leave the market and he invites me to see the net-mending operation his family owns. A few days later, Ron and I visit a cavernous facility on the ground floor of an ancient building near the harbor where several men move the linguetta – an eight inch long tongue-shaped needle--back and forth across tattered nets. There are twenty nets in large mounds all around the workshop waiting for their turn. “How do you know which net belongs to which ship,” my husband asks. “Each boat has their assigned space,” he responds and then goes on to tell us that a new net costs close to $4,000 and needs repair at least once a year.

After profusely thanking him – in Italy this involves at least a kiss on both cheeks--we take our leave. Ron notices I am quiet and pensive as we stroll back home and instinctively gives me some alone time. He heads for the caf? for a coffee and I change direction and make my way to the harbor. I walk its sea wall for at least a mile and think about my family’s connection to this water. All my uncles on my mother’s side, the Pansini clan, made their living from the sea.

Uncle Lugi, the eldest brother, went to sea at age ten in the 1920’s. Through hard work and self-taught study of the maritime trade, he passed the exams needed to earn the certification that allowed him to advance his career. He rose through the ranks and in his seventies he was captain of a cruise ship sailing from the port of Bari to Greece. I didn’t know him well, he was always at sea when I visited Italy, and to this day I regret not booking one of those voyages crossing the Adriatic. He could have taught me so much about his life and times.

Uncle Michele, my aunt Pina’s husband, owned a large fishing boat. He once took me out on a short cruise just outside Molfetta’s harbor were we caught the famed merluzzo – a slim silvery sea bass almost always cooked whole. In fact that’s what we did when we got home where aunt Pina had a wood fire ready in the wall oven of her ancient 17th century house. “I’ve never known an American girl who visited this town and wanted to go out fishing,” she remarked at dinner. “Mariangela is special,” I remember him saying and smiling at me with twinkling eyes.

Of all my uncles, it is Uncle Sergio I had the most contact with growing up. He was a warrant officer on the large passenger ships which cruised the Genova-New York-Buenos Aires circuit in the 1950s when this type of travel was at its peak. My parents lived in Argentina in those days and as a small child, I remember his regular visits as a time of great excitement in our household. My mother adored this brother and spent days prior to his visits cooking all his favorite foods and gathering other Italians living nearby for a party in his honor. My favorite thing to do during these visits was going aboard his ship. We could only do this when it was in dry dock and having the run of a massive ocean liner free of passengers, was a thrill. Uncle Sergio also visited us when we emmigrated from Argentina to New York, but we saw less of him in those days as the cruise lines were already impacted by the developing airline industry.

I sat by the harbor that day remembering these wonderful uncles of mine and cried a few tears because I missed them so. As I did this, I suddenly felt my mother near – she had a great sense of humor and I receive this message from her: “Isn’t it dinnertime? Why are you just sitting there?” Being the good little Italian housewife she taught me to be, I picked myself up and went home to cook for my man – seafood, of course.

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to interview a young man, Mauro, who had picked the maritime trade as his career choice. When I worked in education, I was hired to write several pieces on the subject of career options with a focus on parents guiding their children through this complex labyrinth. Therefore, career choices are always of interest to me. Exploring the topic in another country was a great opportunity for cultural exchange, so I sit with him for an hour in the caf? across from my house and am delighted by his openness and willingness to work with me.

Mauro grew up in a family of fisherman in Molfetta. He studied computer science in high school, and then entered the naval academy in Taranto, home of the Italian navy. There he studied for four years and was one of 500 cadets. Today he is a petty officer in the Italian Navy, he has concluded his world tour and – unless there is a military deployment – he can look forward to working on shore, getting married and raising a family in his hometown which is a short commute from Taranto. Like most service personnel in Italy, he will retire at sixty.

When I ask him why he chose a naval career, he prioritizes his answers like the naval academy graduate he is: loyalty to his country, serving his region of Italy, Puglia, and job security. Then he smiles broadly and adds:“… and… I just love the uniform.” When I ask about characteristics needeed for this career choice, he mentions that a person must be organized, have the ability to live in close contact to others and be in top physical shape, and psychologically healthy.

We resume the interview with my question about what he learned on his world tour and he tells me that he liked the way the Italian navy was received around the world, especially when he met the locals on shore.

“I think we smile a lot and are courteous and friendly,” he says. And what other navies of the world does he admire? “The French who are well trained and the British because of their great tradition.” Then there is a long pause in our conversation as we stare at each other and I see him gearing up to give me the answer to the question that he knows is coming. “What about the Americans,” I ask. He chooses his words carefully and tells me, “They come on strong…they think of themselves as the great conquerors…they are often criticized by the world community. But, I always defend them,” he tells me. “Why?” I ask.

He holds my gaze for a few minutes, enormous blue-eyes not blinking, and taking a breath before answering he gives me the answer I know I will take home with me and share as much as I can with anyone who will listen: “Because they are the first to die.”

On my last night in Molfetta, I walk down to the sea. I think of how much I have learned on this trip to my ancestral home. My gratitude for the people I have met in my neighborhood and the generosity of my Italian cousins who took such good care of us, overflows. As I leave the harbor and make my way to the waiting car that will take me to the airport, I stick out my tongue and taste the salty moisture in the air. I feel the sunshine on my head, I hear the noise of the traffic around me and that glorious ancient language that makes everything sound as good as gelato tastes. Despite, the great time I have had in Italy, I am ready to go home . . . to my America! To that land where so many were “the first to die” so I can enjoy the freedoms I have. Goodbye, Molfetta. I love you! Hello, America, I love you best!

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