AN OLD CUSTOM
It was a little later than I had wanted to arrive, but there were still a good ten minutes before the presentation was to begin. Rounding the hallway, I could see the aula magna or assembly hall, full of students, waiting rather patiently, I thought, for a school event. I entered through the doors in front with the idea of making sure my memory stick worked in the computer. And at that moment, there was a sort of a hush and the students all stood up at the same time. There were over 100 of them. It wasn’t a wave, like at a sporting event, nor was it in any way a straggly rising. They were all looking directly at me.
Their teacher said they were showing a sign of respect. I had seen children rising to their feet when the teacher or principal entered the classroom in old Italian films, and my father said that they stood up for professors as they came into the room when he was studying at “La Sapienza” University in 1950’s Rome, but I had yet to witness the gesture live, as it has become rather uncommon.
I must say that I felt quite moved by this collective action made by the students in the town of Villa San Giovanni that day. Perhaps commonplace for the pope and high state officials, this show of respect stopped me in my tracks. In that moment, I realized that my book wasn’t just an ordinary assignment for the students of the Linguistic High School, but they had really taken it to heart.
A little while later as I listened to Principal Maristella Spezzano, warmly and eloquently introducing me, I felt a bit choked up as I reflected on my presence there that morning and the importance it held for the students and faculty. I was an invited guest, who had lived amongst them and written about it, in their words, “without prejudices or stereotypes.” They felt honored to host this meeting, and I felt just as honored and proud to be received in this manner by the people of the region about which I have written.
VILLA SAN GIOVANNI, CALABRIA
This was the second event in which I would be recognized by the good people of Villa San Giovanni, a town just north of Reggio Calabria. Last year the Society of Culture and International Relations awarded me the Premio Calabria, an international prize with the mission to promote culture and raise awareness of Calabria.
Villa San Giovanni is perhaps best known as the principal ferry terminus for connections from Italy’s mainland to Sicily, because Villa San Giovanni marks the narrowest point between Calabria and Sicily, just 3.2 kilometers (about 2 miles) across the Strait of Messina. People, scooters, cars, trucks, buses and entire train carriages are loaded onto these ferries 24/7, as they say. The ferry journey across the strait from Villa San Giovanni to the center of Messina takes about 20 minutes for the 7-kilometer (about 4⅓-mile) stretch. When traveling by train, however, that time frame doesn’t even scratch the surface of the labor-intensive and incredibly time-consuming task of loading the train cars on and off the ferry.
The ancients crossed this stretch with trepidation, wary of the strong currents at this major crossroads of civilization. Ancient shipwrecks that have brought to life priceless treasures attest to the strait’s dangerous passage. Two Greek statues dating from the 5th-century BC, for example, were recovered off the shores of Villa San Giovanni in the area of Cannitello: the Head of the Philosopher and the Head known as Basilea. These bronze artworks can be viewed in the archeological museum in nearby Reggio.
Today, traversing this narrow expanse of sea seems a relatively simple undertaking from atop a passenger ferry. Many see the area as a pass-through on the way to and from Sicily. Few stop, and fewer stop and talk or write about it.
THE INCONTRO – THE MEETING
For my efforts, I was the honored guest of the Liceo Linguistico Istituto Istruzione Superiore Nostro-Repaci (Linguistic High School of the Institute for Higher Education “Nostro-Repaci”) at their “Incontro con Karen Haid.” My book Calabria: The Other Italy had been selected as the project for the third and fourth year English classes. They would be reading about their region as seen through the eyes of a foreigner (that would be me) for the entire school year.
In addition to the assembly of students and other invitees, Antonio Messina, the Mayor of Villa San Giovanni, and Mirella Nappa, the Educational Director of the Province, were in attendance and presented a series of opening remarks, along with the above-mentioned, enthusiastic principal and Stefania Arena, English teacher and originator of the event.
I began by talking about my life before Calabria, my musical studies and career, and my foreign language immersion programs, to give them a glimpse into some of my experiences before landing on their shores. Speaking in Italian for those not fluent in English, I continued with my initial encounters in Calabria and the inspiration to write a book about the region.
I’m one who looks audience members in the eyes, and I found the students to be quite courteous and attentive.
QUESTIONS FROM THE STUDENTS
The students would be the protagonists in the second half of the program that was in English. They had prepared a series of questions, and from the manner in which the topics were broached, it was clear that they had carefully mulled over the chapters they had read with their teachers, Stefania Arena and Gabriella Romeo. One at a time, they came up front and posed their numerous questions.
They were intrigued by a viewpoint that perhaps many of them hadn’t before considered on the various topics. They focused on comparisons between customs in Italy versus those in the United States, such as with the preparation of swordfish, a local specialty, or weddings, or mode of dress.
For instance, as the passeggiata or promenade down il corso or the main street takes on such an important role in Calabria, they wanted to know if it was similar in the U.S. and seemed a bit surprised to hear that the passeggiata as they experience it didn’t exist in America.
A couple of questions focused on the amount of detail I included in the book, which I think made them wonder how someone not born there could have more knowledge than they did on certain topics about their region. So, they were curious as to whether I took notes while I lived there and/or did I make a study of specific subjects, such as the Riace Bronzes, the incredible Greek statues in Reggio’s archeological museum. As I told them, I did study up on many topics and I paid attention when in Calabria, passing quite a bit of time in the company of those beautiful bronze statues. In addition, I often recorded anecdotal information and stories in emails sent to my family when living in Calabria.
The region’s image surfaced in a few questions. Do people have negative preconceptions about Calabria and what can be done to improve tourism? It’s hard to know what people think, but with regard to English speakers, particularly those not in the European Union, I would imagine that the general population doesn’t really know enough about Calabria to have strong thoughts one way or the other. My feeling is that everyone can do his or her part, however small that may seem. And I hope my book is doing its part.
Stefania did an excellent job of summarizing the questions and answers in Italian for those in attendance who didn’t speak English. She went right to the point, like an English speaker, and I could see that her students appreciated her hard work and dedication.
BYE-BYE TO VILLA SAN GIOVANNI
The students ended by referring to a quotation, now rather famous, from the 2010 comedy film Benvenuti al Sud (Welcome to the South):
“Quando un forestiero viene al Sud piange due volte: quando arriva e quando parte.”
(When a foreigner or outsider comes to the South, he cries twice: when he arrives and when he departs.)
Well, I don’t remember actually crying upon arrival, although TrenItalia, the Italian train system did its best to shake me up on the rather uncomfortable stagecoach that shook me nine long hours from Rome to Locri, but I did shed a few tears upon departure from Reggio’s airport.
At the end of the event, the students lined up with their books to be signed and many pictures were taken. In Villa San Giovanni we said good-bye with smiles. Well, I was smiling as I walked away full of warm thoughts and under the weight of an enormous gift basket full of goodies from Calabria.
Photo “Crossing the Strait of Messina” courtesy of David Evers.
Read more about this fascinating Southern Italian region in Calabria: The Other Italy. And join me on a comprehensive, small-group tour of this beautiful region – check out the itineraries on my Calabria Tour Page.
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Read about another visit to an Italian high school in Reggio Calabria.