From the Stone House: On Belonging

As the crow flies, Montereggio is perhaps a dozen kilometers from Castiglione del Terziere, my Italian home for a year.  But Lunigiana—this northern part of Tuscany, between the Emilian plain and the Mediterranean Sea—is so hilly that I never know how many dizzying switchbacks a road might boast, thus how long it’ll take to get from A to B.  (Or how many times en route our car will have to edge past another coming at it.  Sometimes both vehicles must fold in their side-mirrors like wings so as to squeeze by.)   

The road up to Montereggio from Villafranca, which lies in the Magra Valley, is astonishingly twisty, as close to car-less as a road can get, and very generous with visual surprises.  Vistas keep opening: here the whole valley below, there a mountainside much higher up; here a huge panorama with the Alpi Apuane in the distance, there a tight, vertiginous swoop-and-rise of green as one hill meets another, their encounter a clash, their beauty nearly violent.  One cannot drive this road quickly—its corkscrews and uneven, bumpy surface make caution mandatory—so as a result, one can actually see things.  And be surprised and disoriented by the constant shifts in scene and perspective.  What direction are we going? Soon becomes a pointless question.  Up is all that matters.

 

On the evening of our excursion to Montereggio, Antonio and I passed a few tiny villages as we ascended (one had two houses, another three), but found ourselves in the midst of woods most of the time—woods thick with trees, but not too dark.

In fact, the onset of the gloaming was preceded by slants of sunshine, the rays falling low and wide on the ground.  The late-afternoon light was a lush golden yellow, as happens toward the end of August.  Steep ravines kept dropping off on one side or the other of the road, their bottoms too deep to make out.  It seemed to me that our car were ascending along a ridge; I felt alternatingly safe and in peril, depending on how the road was banked at each curve.  As for inhabitants to either side of us, well, the trees appeared to be the sole residents of these woods; I saw no humans or animals (though the latter were surely there).  And I, a non-tree, was not unwelcome, simply unfitted for what life was all about here.

As we climbed higher, our car huffing a bit with each downshift and upshift, I felt myself tumbling deeper and deeper into the imaginative space I’d occupied as a child when, reading fairy-tales about journeys into a forest, I’d been more riveted by descriptions of the natural world than by those of the prince, witch, or toad whose actions I was meant to focus on.  And the road to Montereggio was, I imagined, leading me to a fairy-tale of its own.  The village is known in Italy as a booklovers’ haven—a place where, annually since the nineteenth century, book vendors have set up tables and stalls during a three-day book festival, just as makers of honey or chestnut bread or funghi porcini would do.  Authors of all stripes show up each year in Montereggio for its Festa del Libro.  They give readings and talks, and wander (their readers trailing after them, like Peter Pan’s gang) through the squares and lanes of the medieval borgo.  It’s a readers’ retreat perched atop a remote mountain, in a region of Italy where the art of printing had a very early start—just a few years after Gutenberg.

We finally pulled our car onto the road’s shoulder just outside the village.  The light’s gold tones had faded, but dusk hadn’t yet fully arrived; the air was dust-mote’d, the road entirely silent save for the chirp of crickets.  We found and scaled a steep stone staircase—a little shortcut, so we wouldn’t have to round yet another curve—and landed in the village’s main piazza.  There, tables were set up and piles of books (though not, alas, heaps of readers) were everywhere.

 

church

We’d allowed an hour to get to Montereggio, certain we’d be early for a 7 pm conversazione, yet we arrived fifteen minutes late—relieved to find that the author we’d come to hear, Marcello Fois, hadn’t yet done his thing.  He was seated at a table in the borgo’s main square, talking with several admirers.  Antonio, who’d interviewed Fois a couple of years ago for the literary journal A Public Space, introduced me to him, and Fois invited us to join his table.  His copy of Nel Tempo di Mezzo (a title perhaps best rendered asIn-Between Time), his latest novel, lay before him.

It took me several minutes to move into mental gear, so I let Antonio do the chatting.  My forearm, stung hours earlier by a wasp angry at being inadvertently pressed against my side, had puffed and reddened by the time we got in the car; by now it was swollen and itchy, and I labored to concentrate on the conversation.

Fois is a Sardo (born and raised in Sardinia) who speaks elegant Italian at quite a clip.  There’s a world of difference between his native tongue and Italian.  Without subtitles, my Italian husband can’t understand a word of a Sardinian film; for his part, Fois had to study and learn Italian.  He couldn’t simply pick it up in the street.  So much for second-language acquisition, I thought as I listened to him.  I’ll never catch up, I could practice Italian all day long and never even get close!  Well, I consoled myself, Marcello Fois has lived in Bologna for over two decades, so he’s had more time to work on it—though he’s no doubt had a more emotionally vexed relationship with his adoptive language than I have with mine.  (Most mainland Italians—those “on the continent,” as Sardinians say—would never want or try to speak Sardinian the way they might wish and aim to speak English.  Nor would they view Sardinia with the same grudging respect they tend to accord the United States.)

 

Once we were all seated in the nave of the old stone church where Fois and his interlocutor (a local literary figure, younger, female, and at pains to conceal her daunted-ness) were to converse for forty-five minutes or so, Fois continued talking with the same ease and poise he’d shown at the table.  He ranged over various topics: books (in particular Manzoni’s The Betrothed, about which he spoke with warmth and humor), the making of his latest novel, nature and culture, and language.

It’s always good, I’ve found, to wait til the day after a literary reading or conversation to see what sticks.  What did the author say that was truly memorable or useful?  The morning after Fois’s appearance in Montereggio, I awoke thinking about a particular distinction he’d made between identity and belonging.  Identity, he said, wasn’t interesting to him.  It simply got assigned—you’re a Sardinian, you’re an Italian—whereas belonging was a matter of choice: you had to decide to belong somewhere, decide what it meant to you in order to belong to that place and to be claimed by it.  We don’t spend enough time, he said, taking close note of our surroundings; thus, we have a harder time belonging to the places we inhabit than our predecessors did.  Do you know, he asked, any names of the trees and birds where you live?  How often do you really pay attention to the sky?

Fois recalled how he used to feel slightly wounded when fellow Sardinians would ask him, as soon as he’d arrived back home, when he was leaving.  Were they so eager to see me go? he wondered.  Then he realized, after numerous return visits, that he hadn’t understood: they weren’t trying to get him to leave, but rather to remind him of where he belonged.  They’d noted his absence and wanted him to note it, too.  After that epiphany, he discovered that each trip by boat (his preferred mode of travel between island and continent) became, in effect, his real and true journey.  Crossing the water was the important act of travel; the rest of it—getting from, say, the port at Genoa or Livorno to the city of Bologna or Rome—was incidental.  Water had to be traversed, and that act entailed crossing a border between one language and another, one way of living and another, one self and another.  It entailed, for Fois, a reckoning with where he belonged.

 

We made the descent from Montereggio to Villafranca in the dark, passing not more than two vehicles as we came down, our brakes whining in protest by the end.  It felt strange to be on a straightaway in the valley, no longer at an upward or downward tilt.

Who lives up there in Montereggio on a full-time basis?, I wondered as we headed into the center of Villafranca.  And what’s it like for them to make that trip we just made—what do they experience as they wiggle their way up and down such a fantastical road?  Do they feel safer or less safe as they hit the straightaway?  Does the Magra Valley feel claustrophobic to them?  What do they notice of its sky?

My stung forearm had by this time become tight as a drum, and rather warm; I wanted to scratch it off—the whole thing, from the elbow on down.  Let’s eat something, said Antonio, you’ll feel better with some food in you.  We’ll go to Il Vecchio Mulino.

 

Melchiorre Tomellini, the trattoria’s owner, smiled and waved at us as we walked up.

Sit here, he said, it’s pleasant outdoors at this time of evening… He pointed to one of several tables for two.

We sat.  Adjacent to us, a family with several small kids was finishing up its meal.  The children’s firecracker Italian was impossible for me to follow, the parents’ reprimands easy to understand.  Their table looked hurricane’d—plates and glasses and bits of bread everywhere.

She’ll need some wine, said Antonio, pointing at me.  She got nailed by a wasp… Go on, show him! he said to me.

Melchiorre, who was filling our water-glasses, peered at my extended arm.  Oof!, he exclaimed.  Okay, here’s what you need to do.  Come with me.

He put down his pitcher and waited for me to stand.

Where are we going, I asked uncertainly.

To the clinic!  He grinned, then pointed down the lane.  Right over there!  And I know the doctor on duty.

 

Twenty minutes later—after Melchiorre had abandoned his other patrons in order to accompany me to the clinic, where he introduced me to a young female doctor who gave me a shot of cortisone—I walked back to my table, by now quite hungry.  Melchiorre somehow managed to produce our dinners, along with a bottle of red wine, within minutes of my return.  The table next to us lay in disarray, but his patron-in-distress had her shot and her food: all was well with the world.

You see? said Melchiorre as he refilled our water glasses.  Easy!  I know everyone around here.  Now have your dinner.

As we ate, Antonio and I talked about Fois.  He was, we agreed, an engagingly open, smart, and lively author—the roadworthy kind, the sort of author that publishers like sending on book tours.  Of course, not all such authors take genuine pleasure in making such appearances.  We’d each seen our share of disaffected writers trying to pretend they were glad to be in some place they’d never visited and would never set food in again.

I really enjoy coming to places like this, Fois had said, his enthusiasm unforced.  It’s a treat for me to discover an amazing borgo up here in the mountains… I don’t get to do this often enough.  Each of us needs to do more such traveling, to know our own country’s regions better.  You know, Bologna’s not that far from here, but how many people in my city have visited this area?  Who’d have thought such a church (he gestured at the thick stone walls) would be up here?

What about at the two of us, I said to Antonio as we polished off our pasta.  How far we are from our home in Brooklyn!

In a way, Antonio replied, that makes it easier for us to pay attention to this place. Because everything’s new, nothing’s become deeply familiar, so we can observe more carefully…

 

Belonging, I thought, flashing onto Fois’s face as he spoke that word, recalling the intensity of his gaze out into the audience…

I suppose I belong to Brooklyn, where I’ve lived for the better part of 15 years.  Yet I’ve now chosen to belong for a year to Castiglione del Terziere, a tiny medieval village with about a dozen full-time residents.  And Melchiorre belongs to this part of Lunigiana—to Castiglione (where he too lived until last year), and to Villafranca, where he works, and to Pontremoli, where he now lives—in the fullest and deepest sense.  He moved away for a time, he told us when we first met him; he went north.  But missed his roots and returned here.  He made the choice to re-belong.

Will I make that same choice when I go back to Brooklyn next August, my sabbatical over?  What will it mean for me to re-belong?  What will I commit to, there, with renewed pleasure and feeling?  What will seem to have faded, to be of less import?  And will Brooklyn have noticed that I’ve been gone?  Will I care if it hasn’t?

I can’t imagine anyone asking me, once I’m back there, when are you leaving—posing that question in the same way that Fois’s Sardo compatriots did.  Brooklyn’s a place of incessant comings-and-goings, after all; Brooklyners are habituated to emigrants and immigrants.  My city’s identity is mongrel, its residents peripatetic.  In what sense does such a home claim its residents, or they it?

 

church

We returned to our little stone house tired but sated, and fell immediately asleep.  In the morning my arm was acceptably itchy, the swelling much diminished.  For a moment I wished I’d stuck around in Montereggio the evening before, to talk more with Fois; yet I was glad I hadn’t, else I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience Melchiorre’s pride in his ability to help out a newcomer.  Or the solace of good local food: the mushroom pastas at Il Vecchio Mulino aren’t the same, I’m sure, as those from Montereggio.

The word belonging arose again in my thoughts.  Perhaps, I decided, it’s less important that my absence be noted by others, than that I note it myself.  That I be aware of when I’m fully present in a given place, and when I’m not.  When I’m really listening for how language works, and when I’m not; when I’m truly observing the sky, and when not.  To pay attention is to attend, to be present.  Perhaps this is what I can take from Fois’ when are you leaving: the query’s obverse, which is have you shown up yet?  Are you really here?  I’ll belong when I answer, yes.

 

Martha Cooley is the author of The Archivist, a national bestseller published in eleven foreign markets, and Thirty-Three Swoons.

Photos from Flickr Creative Commons

From the Stone House: On Belonging

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