May Day in Potenza

By Valerie Savino

When the car window fell inside the door of our rental Fiat Punto, we should have known that this was not going to be an ordinary road trip.

We left Naples that morning, just a few weeks after arriving for a new dream job in Italy. My husband, Robert, myself and our two young children, were staying at the American Hotel, just across from the Naval Base in Angano.  We were finally over jet-lag, and somewhat settled into a routine, at least as much as we could while waiting for our car and household goods to arrive.  It was May Day weekend, a very big holiday in Italy, which marks the start of the summer season, much like our own Memorial Day. Robert’s cousins in Forenza had graciously invited us to attend a wedding. We were very excited to accept, so set out that morning with a map, a Via Card, my Italian cell phone, our US Passports, an Italian-English Dictionary, a few snacks, and the one suitcase we could fit in the small trunk. 

With the kids safely tucked into the tiny back seat, the first order of business was to find the A-1 Highway, and make our way to Potenza, where we had a hotel reservation. It was a very sunny day, in fact a rather warm day, so I had the AC on in the car. Robert was driving, and just as he was trying to merge onto the highway, he demanded that I turn off the AC, so the car would have more power. I reluctantly complied, but rolled down the window in protest. Once we were established in our right-hand lane and up to speed without too much honking and swerving on Robert’s part, I rolled up the window to turn on the AC. Well almost. About half way up, the window slipped down inside the door. No amount of cranking on the handle, or cussing under my breath could coax it out. I consigned myself to making the best of the next 135 miles with the wind blowing through my hair at 100 Klicks. At least it was a warm, sunny day.

Tangenziale, Napoli

After a short stint on the dreaded Tangenziale, the very busy two-lane highway that goes through the heart of Naples, we merged onto A-1, a larger, national highway, much like Interstate 5 in Seattle. So far, so good. Now I had to help Robert find the exit for A-16, which would take us over to Potenza. We had been warned not to take the much easier route via A-3 because that highway was notorious for bandits. The signs are easy to read, large, and in Italian, but we managed to get in the correct lane just in time. We stopped at the toll gate and took a ticket. By now, my hair was a tangled mess and I had a few bug smears on my sunglasses, but we motored on.

After about an hour, we saw the exit for the SS658, a nice easy highway that would take us through the countryside, past Melfi and into Potenza. As we exited the A-16, we came to a toll gate. Not a manned toll booth as we were used to, but just a barrier, like you see at a railroad crossing. There was a stand where you could pay with a Via Card, a prepaid card for the national toll system. Robert put the card in. After a few minutes, the machine spit it back out. The barrier did not move. I remembered the ticket from the last toll booth. This time Robert put the card in, then the ticket. The machine thought about it for a minute and spit both items back out.  The barrier was as solid as ever.

 By now, we were starting to get a line of cars behind us. Italians are not known for their patience in traffic. They started honking. Robert tried again, because he was mad, and not just in one way. The honking was getting louder. Finally, in frustration, we both threw our arms out the windows at the same time. Surprisingly, the Italians understood this gesture, probably because we had all learned it from our Italian parents as children.  The harried young man behind us rushed up, grabbed the ticket, shoved it in the machine, then inserted the Via Card. The machine thought about this, kept the ticket, and spit out the Via Card. Robert grabbed the card, and halleluiah, the barrier lifted. The sky got a little bluer, and Robert peeled out on the highway. I dug around in my purse for a comb. The kids say they are hungry.

The Basilicata Region, formerly called Lucania, has a long history, and is one of the most remote areas in Italy. It was originally covered in a dense forest that hosted wild boar, wolves and lions.  The legend of the werewolf finds its roots here.  Almost all of the forest is gone now. The area is primarily agricultural with much pastureland, some vineyards, and small family farms.  The one major industry is the Fiat plant in Melfi.  As we passed by, we could see the modern facility on the hill, looking very out of place among the sheep. As one of our Italian immigrant friends from Sons of Italy said, “It’s a good place to be from”.

Potenza, Basilicata

After about an hour, we could see the city of Potenza on the hill in the distance. Potenza is the Regional capital of Basilicata. It has been continuously occupied since about 216 BC. The oldest catacombs in Europe, used by the Samnite tribes, are nearby. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Samnites are considered by anthropologists to be the indigenous people of Europe. You would be hard pressed to find many in Italy today, although occasionally their descendants can be found in the Benevento area.  The Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, who was born in Potenza, was a Samnite.  Potenza was once a medieval walled city, the ancient gates can still be seen, although the walls are long gone due to earthquake activity.  

We were excited to arrive at our destination. Everyone was looking forward to relaxing at Il Grande Albergo, translation: “the large hotel.” First, we have to find the place. The streets are very narrow, and one way. Our map is useless. What they call streets look like narrow alleys made of volcanic rock. Google maps is just a dream. Cell phones with internet are still years into the future. We must rely on our own intuition.  We decide to drive straight up the road as much as possible, and be sure to follow the one-way signs. Such a grand hotel must be on top of the hill, right?

Streets of Potenza

As we head up the road, higher and higher, along the way we pass a large piazza that is hosting what looks like a communist rally. There are giant banners with slogans we can just make out in our limited Italian, but the symbols are clear. There is a small crowd in the square and a person at the microphone trying to get everyone excited about some important political point. They don’t seem too impressed.  Robert reminds me that May 1st is Labor Day in Europe, and that’s probably what the rally is about. Oh yes, I just never thought I would see it in such an ancient place.

A little further, we come to what seems to be the end of the road. Just in time we notice the very small sign on the wall, really just a brass plaque, that says Grande Albergo. Robert pulls into the nearest parking place. The hotel is supposed to have free parking. Paid parking is one of Robert’s pet peeves, so he wants to find out where the free parking is located. I suggest that we unload the car and go inside to ask.

As we are exiting the car, a tall police officer comes over and places his beautifully booted foot on the bumper. He pulls out a book of tickets and a pen, and asks us something in Italian. We both panic. I ask Robert to talk to him, because I don’t know any Italian. Robert, on the other hand is supposed to know at least some Italian.  Robert denies every having said he knew the language. This is a total surprise to me.  Robert says that I should talk to him because I know some French. Robert is such a logical man. French is not Italian, but I try anyway. After some pointing and signing and a little English, I realize that he just wants to know how long we will be in the parking spot. Robert pretends like he knew what the officer was saying all along. He writes something on the ticket and I put it in my purse. I can’t put it on the dash because the window is broken. We can’t leave anything in the car. We take everything out of the car, including the rental agreement, so that I can call the rental company to get the window fixed.

The lady at the desk is German. She probably speaks ten languages, none of them very well, but her English is better than my Italian. I ask about the free parking. She doesn’t seem to understand. I told her we were parked out front. She said it would be OK for a while, and not to worry about it.  Robert was worried about it. The kids were starving. We all needed a shower. We decided to go up to the room.

The room was surprisingly nice, and it had air conditioning! Things were getting better. I found some Ritz peanut butter crackers for the kids. Robert took a shower, and decided to go move the car while I cleaned up and called the rental car company. The rental car company could not help with the window until Monday. May Day and all. Oh well, we would worry about it after dinner. At least the weather was nice. I hopped in the shower. Robert left to move the car, leaving the rental agreement, map, room key and his ID in the room.

When I finished with the shower, Robert was not back. The kids were still starving and demanded food. I managed to find some cookies and juice. What could be taking him so long? I really could use some wine about now. We sat around the room for a while. I looked at the map to see how to get to Forenza for the wedding tomorrow. Still no Robert. I decided to go downstairs to talk to the German Lady. At first, she didn’t understand me when I asked if she had seen my husband lately. I explained that he went to move the car. She was clueless as to why he wasn’t in the room. I looked longingly at the bar and restaurant, but I didn’t want to go to dinner without Robert.  I went back to the room.

After another half-hour I was getting really worried. It was dark outside.  I knew he didn’t have any ID or the rental agreement for the car. I started to think of all the things that could have gone wrong. I couldn’t call him because he didn’t have a cell phone. I was afraid to call the police because he had no ID, and because I cannot speak Italian. I grabbed the kids and decided to go talk to the lady at the desk. She was surprised that he had not returned and profusely expressed her sympathy. Nice, but no help.

In desperation, I decide to take the children and walk the dark streets of Potenza to find him. Now, this idea has lots of problems. First off, I don’t know my way around Potenza. Second, I can’t speak Italian. Third, my blue-eyed, blonde-haired children look very American as do I. Everywhere we walk, we notice people staring. We are obviously making a spectacle of ourselves. There is a small crowd gathering to admire my beautiful children. They want to touch their golden hair for good luck. I freak out and return to the hotel, which is barely a block away.  

I return to the room with the children. Now, I am about to cry. Wine is the only thing that can help at this point, but I don’t have any. I also really need food. The kids really need food. And we really need Robert to come back, right now. I hear a soft tap at the door. It’s Robert!

He gives me a hug, and without a word he walks over to the suitcase and extracts a mini bottle of scotch, which he promptly finishes in two swigs. I look in the suitcase for more booze, but come up empty. He then explained that he got lost. He said the people were very kind, but no one could help him. They just kept patting his hand and pointing him toward the top of the hill. He kept missing the very small unlighted brass plaque on the wall that said Grande Albergo. He kept going around in a big circle on the one-way street, from the top to the bottom and back up again. He finally noticed the sign and the front of the hotel. He pulled into the same parking spot where the car was originally parked!

To heck with it all. Let’s eat! We hustled down to restaurant to get a table. Surprisingly, we were the only people in the dining room. The waiter hurried over to explain that they were closing in a few minutes, and most of the food was already put away. We explained how very hungry and sorry we were. Could they please just find something we could eat. The kids are about to cry. OK, ok, but hurry. It’s May Day after all. They have pasta for the kids, but the only meat left is pork chops. They are the special tonight, very good, locally grown. We’ll try it. And some wine, please! The wine is fabulous, and the pork chops are the biggest, thickest ones I have ever seen. Robert still admires them and wishes we could find some like it in the States. A few more glasses of wine and everything is so much better. Even our Italian is improving. After such a long day, we are ready for bed and an early start for the wedding tomorrow.

Vic Finally Gets His Pasta

In the morning we have a nice Italian breakfast in the dining room. There is cereal for the kids, pastries, cappuccino, and juice from blood oranges. The waiters are all very nice. Even the German Lady waves at us. Everyone smiles as we walk by. I begin to think that we have become a bit notorious in Potenza after last night’s escapades. We smile and nod as we walk by, and wish everyone a “Buongiorno”.

Now for the trip to Forenza to meet Robert’s cousins and attend the wedding. We dress in our Sunday best and head out on the open road in the little Fiat with the broken window. We carefully watch for the signs that show us where the turn-off is for Forenza. We find the small country road that winds across the valley, up and down a few rocky hillsides, and through herds of sheep until we finally see a small town high on top of a hill. It’s inspiring to think that Robert’s grandfather made the journey from here all the way to Boston in the early 1900s, when transportation in the area was mostly done by a horse drawn carriage. There was a train to Naples from Potenza, then a ship to Boston. Like so many other immigrants from Italy during that time, he never returned to see his family. In fact, nearly a hundred years later, we are the first relatives to make the return trip.

Backroads of Basilicata

Forenza, which translates as “forest”, was established as a Samnite settlement around 317 BC and still looks like a medieval village. It has a wall around the city, and for a moment I wonder to myself if they have electricity, but as we approach, I can see the TV antennas and satellite dishes on the tile roofs.  I notice the wooden electric poles that dot the landscape, and soon we arrive at the parking lot at the foot of the hill. Only residents are allowed to drive in the town, and we are quickly met by Alfredo, one of the cousins who speaks English. Alfredo and his wife, Oriana, are visiting from London where they live. They immigrated there many years ago, but come back at least once a year to visit.

Forenza, Basilicata

He takes us to the home of Donato and Silvia Savino, his brother and sister-in-law, and the parents of the bride. Despite the outside appearance, they have a lovely, modern home on the inside. We give them our gifts and freshen up. The bride and groom stop by the door. It is customary for the immediate family to walk through the village to the Church of Saint Vito, the patron saint of Forenza.  Alfredo will drive us there, because no one else wants to walk that far.  

The church is beautiful. We sit down and wait for the bride to appear. We tell Alfredo the story of the Fiat window and how Robert got lost in the dark, and couldn’t find the sign for the hotel. Alfredo explains that in Italy, you are taxed by the size of the sign. If it is lighted, they tax you even more. He said that the rule in Italy, is to “beware of showing too much affluence”. Good words to live by in the States, too. He tells us that the Fiat is notorious for having the window fall inside the door. The groom works at the Fiat plant in Melfi, and some of his friends will fix it in the up position so we can drive more comfortably. We just won’t be able to roll it down for now. We thank him profusely.

The bride appears and the ceremony begins. It is a very long church service and all in Italian of course. We try to follow along. The kids are getting bored. Alfredo gives then gum, something I would never do in church, but it is effective at keeping them quiet. I notice that the groom’s friends make a quick getaway to fix the window. When the ceremony is finally over, Alfredo returns us to our car. We are to follow him to the reception at a special restaurant, Il Volturo in Lucano, but first, tradition dictates that we drive around the village three times and honk our horns for the happy couple. What fun! The kids are delighted.

The wedding reception is fabulous. There are appetizers and champagne to start. The bride and groom circulate around the room and greet the guests. They dance with our children. This is followed by a sit-down dinner. Cavatappi is the traditional pasta of the region, and this fresh, homemade version is superb. It is served with two different sauces, one marinara and another with meat. There is plenty of time between courses to visit and drink more wine. We are introduced to the special wine of the region, Aglianico del Vulture. It is a beautiful red color with lots of grape flavor and not too much tannin. We are delighted, and linger over the glass and the conversation. Since we are a little worried about driving back on the unfamiliar roads in the dark, we decide to leave before the second course. Alfredo tells us this is too bad, because Donato is the butcher in town, and he has specially prepared the meat, including some beautiful pork chops for the dinner! Robert is sad to miss those beautiful pork chops, but we are more afraid of getting lost. Alfredo shows us the road from the window, so we can see that it is just a straight shot to the main highway. We say our goodbyes and promise to visit again.

The trip back to Potenza goes quickly and soon we are back in the hotel, and the same parking spot as last night. We change our clothes, and feeling braver, we decide to explore the village and find some pizza to finish our dinner. The German Lady, still working the reception desk, shows us that there is a pedestrian-only walkway up to the main piazza where we can get some food.

Piazza in Potenza

We head up a dark alley toward the lights ahead. Soon, we see shops that sell all kinds of goods like pastries, fruit, meat, vegetables, household items, books and stationery, drug store items, and best of all, gelato! We promise the kids some dessert later and keep walking up the hill until we see the entrance to the piazza. We recognize it as the same square that had hosted the communist rally the day before, but now, there is a rock band blaring American music. The square is full of people, young and old, who are enjoying the May Day holiday and the warm weather. We find a small tavern like restaurant and grab a seat.

The waitress is a nice young Italian girl. To our relief, she speaks a fair amount of English. She wants to know where we are from. We explain that we are Americans, but we are living in Naples right now. She says that she would very much like to be in Naples, and she is saving up to move there to attend the University. There is nothing to do in Potenza, she is so bored and just wants to be where the action is. Many of the young people from these remote villages choose to move elsewhere. There are few chances for a good job in this area, and they want more out of life. Some of the smaller towns only have old people left. The government is trying to revitalize the area with cash incentives to buy one of the many empty homes. Some people have been successful in opening agritourismos.  These are vacation estates where you can stay and learn to cook or grow grapes and make wine.

After our simple pizza dinner, we head back toward the promenade for some gelato. The walkway is crowded with people enjoying the warm evening, and strolling from shop to shop. We get our cones and leisurely walk along, talking in English. As we head down into the dark alley that takes us back to the hotel, we hear shouting behind us and the sound of running footsteps. Suddenly we a set upon by two young men who grab us to stop us from walking. We are shocked to hear then talking excitedly in English.  They are so happy to find fellow Americans in Potenza. They explain that they are Mormon missionaries from Utah and California and are here for a year. They are only allowed to speak Italian around the church leaders, and really miss their families and home. They just want to hug us and visit for a while.  They talk about the US and everything they miss. The food, the movies, the stores, the beaches, and skiing are just some of the things they can’t wait to get back to. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think I would meet Mormon missionaries in Potenza! They are grateful to talk with us and could have gone on all night, but we needed to get back to our hotel and put the kids to bed.

What a crazy adventure we have had this weekend.  Tomorrow we will head back to Naples with a much better understanding of our Italian roots and culture. Italy is a beautiful place where the old and the new mingle together to make “La Dolce Vita”.  We look forward to more Italian road trips.


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