The day before I went back to Italy, I got a fax from a man named
Giuseppe. The news it contained was not good.
As I've promised, I take you the details of your arrive. It is
not easy to go from Rome to Castel di Sangro: we are in a
montain zone (800 m on sea level; much than 200 km from
Rome) and you'll take the train to arrive.
If you are at 7:35 A.M. on Fiumicino Airport in Rome,
you'll be able to take a taxi to go to Termini Railway Station
to take the 11:50 train from Rome to SULMONA. The arrive
is on 15:06 P.M. Sulmona is at 150 km from Castel di
Sangro and I'll be at Sulmona station. Excuse me, but I'm
very busy in this days before the first match of the championship
for some manifestation about Castel di Sangro and it
is very impossible for me to be at Rome as I want.... But
we are mointain people and, don't worry, we are used to
combact against difficulties. As Lilliput people in a Gigant
So Giuseppe would not meet my plane after all. I flew to Rome
anyway, of course. But as soon as I wheeled my luggage cart through
customs, and the horde of cab drivers descended upon me, I picked
the first one.
"How much to Sulmona?"
"Five 'undred thousand."
"Four," I said.
He motioned with his thumb. "Follow me." And so I was off to the
Abruzzo, well in advance of the 11:50 from Rome.
Italy is composed of twenty regions. Some are legendary, others extremely
popular with foreign tourists, and still more, though not as
well known to outsiders, prized by the Italians themselves. And then
there is the Abruzzo.
Frommer's 1996 guide to Italy describes it as "one of the poorest
and least visited regions" in the country. "Arid and sunscorched ...
prone to frequent earthquakes, the Abruzzo is ... impoverished and
visually stark." It is a region, says another guidebook, "in which there
is little of interest to see and even less to do."
This reputation was not acquired overnight. Nathaniel Hawthorne
visited in the nineteenth century and wrote even then that the
region was "without enough of life and juiciness to be any longer susceptible
of decay. An earthquake would afford it the only chance of
ruin, beyond its present ruin."
And that was in season. The English poet Swinburne, for reasons
never adequately explained, attempted to penetrate the Abruzzo's
mountainous defenses in the winter of 1879 but was driven back by
"as outrageous a blast of snow as any I've ever faced." He returned to
Rome and did not try again.
As for the inhabitants, the English travel essayist Norman Douglas
wrote in the early years of this century that "their life is one of
miserable, revolting destitution." And Frommer's pointed out more
recently that "many of its people have emigrated to more prosperous
regions," leaving behind only "clannish local families," described in
another book as "atavistic and introspective."
"This is still a land," author Tim Jepson has written, "that could
provide settings for a dozen fairy tales, with its wolves and bears and
sturdy country folk.... Villages on snow-dusted hills are wreathed in
mist amid the wild mountains, deep valleys and dark forests; and ancient
are crafts practiced for their own uses, not for the tourists."
But I was no tourist. For better or worse, I had business in the
Abruzzo. My destination was the remote town of Castel di Sangro,
which some contend means "castle of blood" in the local dialect.
The town is shielded from outsiders by what one reference book
describes as an "inaccessibility extreme even by the standards of the
Abruzzo." It is located almost 3,000 feet above sea level. Winter lasts
from October to May, and in all seasons bestial winds gust down
upon it from higher mountains above.
On one side, Castel di Sangro is bordered by the Abruzzo National
Park, which still contains wolves and brown bears, as well as
more than thirty species of reptile. On the other side lies the immense
and silent Valle della Femmina Morta, or "valley of the dead
woman." Strangers to the region who ask how such a name came to
attach itself to such a vast and empty expanse reportedly receive only
shrugs or the shaking of heads in response.
Beyond the valley rises La Maiella, an enormous limestone massif
cut by deep and treacherous canyons and containing more than
fifty peaks, the highest of which, Monte Amaro, or "the bitter mountain,"
reaches an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. Again, the origin of
the name has been lost in the mists of time and legend.
"This is a landscape," warns yet another guidebook, "that should
be approached with caution." Or, in the alternative, not approached
at all. Yet so deep in the grip of mania was I that I was not only approaching
but preparing to plunge into its core: alone, knowing no
one, speaking not a word of Italian, yet committed to staying for
more than nine months.
My arrival came on a warm Saturday in early September of 1996.
The driver dropped me at the deserted Sulmona train station just before
noon. All seemed tranquil and pleasant. Leaving my mass of luggage
in the somewhat drowsy custody of a ticket agent, I walked a
few hundred yards into the center of the city (population: 25,000), ate
a moderate lunch, and returned to the station. I napped intermittently
for an hour or two, lying on the platform next to the tracks, my
head resting on a duffel bag and dappled sunlight falling on me
through late-summer leaves.
In midafternoon I heard a train whistle in the distance. My train!
The 11:50 from Rome. I looked at my watch: 3 P.M. Right on time.
Leaving my luggage again, I walked to the front of the station, looking
for someone who might be Giuseppe, hoping that some new
"manifestation" had not prevented him from coming to Sulmona.
Just then, a small, battered automobile entered the parking lot at
high speed and jerked to a halt. Out bounded a man who appeared
to be in his mid-twenties, with dark hair and an alert look in his eyes.
"Giuseppe?" I called.
He looked at me and recognized immediately that I must be the
scrittore americano. But he looked puzzled. "Joe?" he said, looking
from me to his watch.
"Yes, yes, all my bags are just around the other side."
"But the train. She is not arrive."
"No, no, but I get ride. Not important. Here, I'll drag the bags
Giuseppe seemed perplexed but did not pursue it. If a man pursued
everything that did not make sense, he'd never get anything
As soon as the bags were safely stowed the last two rising from
my lap to the top of my head as I scrunched into the front seat of his
tiny car we were off to Castel di Sangro, or so I thought. Giuseppe
drove at what felt to me like a recklessly high speed, but I'd soon
learn it was well below the norm. I couldn't tell whether not being
able to see the road through my suitcases made it better or worse.
Before I could even attempt conversation, I heard a shrill chirping
next to me and Giuseppe pulled a cellular phone out of his pocket
and began speaking even faster than he drove. As soon as that call
was concluded, he made one of his own, looking intently at the buttons,
not at the road, as he tapped them in rapid succession. He spoke
for only ten seconds, then signed off with a quick burst of ciaos. But
immediately he made another call. Then he received two more. He
made one, then received three in a row. I was trying to keep score.
Another two calls incoming, three outgoing. Giuseppe 5, Incoming 9.
"Ciao," he would say toward the end of each. "Ciao ... ciao, ciao,
ciao ... ciao ciao ciao ... ciaociaociaociaociao."
As I would soon learn, one of the fiercest everyday competitions
among Italians who speak to one another by cellular phone is to see
who can cram the most ciaos into the close of a conversation. To win
an undisputed victory, you must not only have muttered the word
more times than your conversational opponent but also have gotten
in the last ciao of all, clicking your OFF button even as you utter the
Eventually, he slipped the phone back into his pocket, looked at
me, and said, "Excuse." Clearly, the time for our conversation had
arrived. Giuseppe gazed at me earnestly. This meant, of course, that
his eyes were not watching the road, which, though I myself could
not see it through my luggage, seemed from the motion of the car
and the straining of its feeble engine to have begun the ascent of a
"You can see?" I said, pointing toward his front windshield.
He looked puzzled, glanced in that direction, then looked back at
me. "Sì ... sì, sì, sì."
"No. I mean, `see.'"
He laughed gleefully. "No ... sì. No ... sì. What you meaning,
`no, sì?' Yes, no in inglese, no?"
"Sì," I said. "I mean, yes."
He glanced briefly back toward the road, turned the steering
wheel a bit, then looked back at me. "I no understand too much the
English, no? I have not speak this. Is easier to have write, yes? Not for
"Sì," I said. "No. But Castel di Sangro. Much far?"
"Castel di Sangro?" He pronounced the name with an incredulity
that suggested he'd never before heard it in his life.
"Sì. We go Castel di Sangro, yes? I mean, sì?"
"No, no, no, no, no. I take you for arrive Roccaraso."
"Roccaraso. But you no worry. Not far."
"But I'm going to Castel di Sangro."
Giuseppe shook his head. "Not possible," he said. "No arrange."
"What do you mean?"
"Castel di Sangro no hotel. Roccaraso many. For much schee. You
like the schee?"
"When very much the snowing. Schee. Like Tomba."
"Oh, ski! I understand. Well, no. Not really. I no schee.
But, Giuseppe, what about Castel di Sangro?"
"No problem. I say you you no worry. You Best Western Roccaraso.
You sleep. At later I call with you. Very busy this days. But
Best Western okay, okay? No problem. You no worry."
Then he got another half a dozen phone calls his ciao ciao ciao
ciao ciao firing like the pistons of his engine and eventually pulled
off the road and into a parking lot. Looking out my side window, I
could see, sure enough, a Best Western motel.
Stumbling out of the car with suitcases falling all around me, I
could see that we were on a strip of road lined with motels, which
were separated, it seemed, only by sporting-goods stores that had
pairs of skis and colorful ski parkas in the windows.
"Don't worry. No problem. Don't worry," Giuseppe said. "Much
events for me now. You have sleeping. I calls later. No problem."
"What time, Giuseppe?" I pointed at my watch. "At what time will
He tossed both hands upward and exhaled sharply. I was meant
to understand, I think, that my question was impossible to answer.
How could he know when he would call when he had much events
and was very busy this days? "Don't worry," he said. "No problem."
"Okay, Giuseppe. No problem. And ... thanks for the ride. I
"Prego. See, write is more easy than talk, no?"
"Yes. I mean, sì. But, Giuseppe, I have a room here?"
"Sì, sì, I tell you no problem."
"Okay. Good. No problem. But, Giuseppe where is Castel di
"You don't worry. She not far. Ciao, ciao."
"Ciao, ciao, ciao."
"Ciao, ciao, ciao, Giuseppe."
"Sì. Ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao." Then he rolled up his car window and
drove off, already making a new call on his cell phone.