“You sound terrible, I’m sendinG you fatha ova wit a lasagna” - A story about a tiny Italian town

April - 2018

In fairytales, kids read about quaint tiny towns, where neighbors swing open their shutters to say hello, where the warm sun makes your Grinch-size heart grow ten times its size, and the cobblestone under your feet takes you back to an imaginary time so far distant from your actual world. Where every morning the green hues of rolling hills light up but it’s the people that bring the place to life with every exchanged smile.  These places do exist, and I found that in Prata Italy. But let me take you back to the beginning.

 

For starters, you should know, a meal is an event. It’s not a carefully calculated hour, where the waiter interrupts every moment in between a sip, a chew and a breath. But an event where conversation is loud and the food itself is bottomless. Its bonding time in its truest form.  I was whipped quickly into shape the night before take-off with this new rule, so this should help you get the picture. I sat down for Easter dinner with my childhood friend Nadia’s Italian family, in good old Revere MA.  Sharing stories in Italian (and by sharing, I mean yelling), passing food plates back and forth, and the above generation telling the next generation what to expect on the trip. One person was missing. My friend’s sister, the youngest daughter of the family, who was too sick to come to come to dinner. The phone was passed back and forth between mom and dad, with dad accepting his role in what was about to play out, and mom explaining the steps she needed to take to get over this sick.  My guess on the other line, was the argument saying she was fine like we all do when we’re sick, but none the less “You sound terrible, I’m sendinG ya fatha ova wit a lasagna”, was the verdict. Regardless of the loud words and body language that questions what’s going to get thrown next, the love they have for each other is unconditional. That lasagna was more than dinner, it’s love in noodle form.

 

So with double the luggage to human ratio, Nadia, Rosanna, and I, deplaned and packed into the rental. Ready to take on Modena, Cinque Terre, the Amalfi and Pompeii. The majority of time would then be spent in Prata, their hometown, for Festa dell’Annunziata. Did I mention Prata is their hometown?! Yes that’s right, I am lucky enough to have taken this trip with my very own personal Italians! Now, as much as all these places are all incredible and I will tell you about them in another story, Prata pulls rank. I knew just how special it was, feeling Nad and Rosa’s reactions as we drove in. Every mile closer, I could feel their uncontrollable grins radiate through the back of the seats. It’s those moments where your insides get all jumpy and out of nowhere the inevitable nervous pee appears. (Don’t lie, you all get it!) Since Nad and I were kids, she had told me about this place. The place where the houses were so close together, everyone knows that you’re in town because you flushed. I think I was most excited to see her experience it again, to see the happiest of a natural habitat. Not to mention experience it with her mom and uncles, who were born in the house we were sleeping in. There’s just no better way.

 

Over the next 6 days, I soaked in every story about Prata that I could, especially from Zio Danny and Zio Victor (Nadia’s favorite uncles), and Tommasina (Nadia’s mom). Tommasina is the OG of Prata. A staple of the town.  Whenever I ran into someone new, I would hear “ahh, amica di Tommasina y Nadia! si si!” and then get embraced by a hug and the usual cheek kisses. Tommasina is a badass woman, who I learned after all these years was meant to run in the 1974 Olympics in Germany. Knowing them almost my whole life, I never knew.

 

Tommasina and Nadia walked me around town explaining the rebuilding after the earthquake in 1983, and showing me who lived where. Tommasina showed me where she used to play with the local kids, and the random games they made up. I met Nadia’s cousin Gianni and his kiddo Carmen, who both have the kindest eyes, letting you right into their world. I ate more cheese and drank more wine than I normally would in a year. Worth every pound gained. (4 to be exact.) I’m pretty sure Gianni was 90% of the reason behind my weight gain. But you couldn’t turn him down, with his quick wit and Boston style sarcasm. I got roasted by her uncles at least twice a day for being a vegetarian. “It’s not meat,” they would say with a shit-eating grin, “its tofu”.  It was never tofu. But remember, food is love. Each time I heard “you have to try this”, they were so proud, and I melted knowing they wanted to share with me. (This however does not mean I ate meat!) I drank Campari, Grappa, del Capo, and Limoncello which would hands down be my choice of the 4. And learned that Limoncello is made from lemons the size of my head, by the peel not even the guts. Mozzarella di buffalo and burratta was always on the menu, and never got old. Watching Zio Danny cut open a ball of Mozzarella de Buffalo the size of a small watermelon, and point out all the fresh milk that would spill out, was like watching someone discover a chest of gold. His eyes got wide and everyone slowly peered over the bowl like a cartoon. The next day would all take me out to the vineyards where Gianni grows his grapes for wine and to the baths where Tommasina and her mom used to wash the clothes. Which later turned into where Nadia and her friends used to party in the summers. Gianni emptied a water bottle and filled it with the water from the baths that runs fresh from the mountains. “Try, you have to try.” There’s that melting moment.

 

Annunziata was the grand event. It is an annual festival centered around their Saint, Mary. Each town has their own saint and their own festivals. This one is 4 days long, But the main event starts at the church with a ceremony of angels. Two girls get the honor of wearing the wings, and being harnessed hoisted up over the statue of Mary to sing their prayers. It’s possibly the only time of year that all 500 people gather in the same place. Next is a 6 hour walk through the town, starting around sunset till about midnight.  The women carry massive candles that are easily 10lbs and traditionally make a personal sacrifice. For OG Tommasina, this is making the trek in heels versus her mom’s generation that would walk it barefoot. I couldn’t imagine doing either on thousand year old cobblestone. So instead I carried my 34lb backpack of camera gear and took photos. Hardly a sacrifice in comparison. The men trek behind along with nuns and other members of the church, carrying the statue of Mary. Each time there’s a break, they light off fireworks. But not just any fireworks. It’s like our version of a grand finale times about 3. They made your heart stop in your chest. I walked the hours with Rosanna and the other girls of the town, listening to them sing and participate in a tradition that’s been going on for thousands of years. I’m very lucky.

 

Every night, I had to harness my inner college days, bracing myself to see 3 or 4am. With the occasional 5am when Tommasina would lock us out of the house, leaving us to sleep on the uncles’ couches. Needless to say, we’ll never let her live it down. Actually, Nad and I don’t even have to worry about laying on the guilt. The uncles will handle that without hesitation. These nights were spent in the town usually at Chocolat, one of 3 local bars. You literally cannot get lost in Prata. The main street is lit up with food vendors and kids’ carnival rides. At the bar, Id drink what I could, and try and keep up with conversation while Rosa stood in as my acting translator.

 

Whatever happened in this town, permanently branded me. Just like all travel does, it leaves this mark that you can’t shake, but none is ever the same. This was maybe deeper than the others. Maybe because of the people, the food, or the history. Or maybe a combination of it all. Whatever it was, I fell in love with it. I read from an old Anthropologist once, there are “social glues, that bring your ancestors to you.” I watched as an outsider, all of these people connect with their ancestors in a way I’ve never seen. That my friends, is priceless.

 

Prata, I will see you again.