Exile to and flight from Calabria

It sounds so intriguing. A museum in a former dairy farm fitted out like the interior of an ocean liner in a remote part of Calabria in southern Italy. The curator is Gian Antonio Stella, columnist for the Corriere della Sella, well known for his writings on migration and his book, L’Orda, the Horde. La Nave della Silla opened in 2005 and added a new section on immigration in 2013.

I look at the website and their Facebook page. Film footage of hands beating against the doors of a lorry or being grasped by coast guards from the Mediterranean sea; dust coated jeeps and feet, crossing the Sahara or the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. The images are familiar but here they are multiplied around the walls of a container, enclosing you, putting you in the position of a migrant perhaps.

I have located the village, even worked out a circuitous route to get there but an email pops into my inbox. Dates do not coincide. The Museum is only open for limited periods in the summer months anyway. I am disappointed. La Nave della Silla looks well conceived and designed. Then another email pops into my box.

“This is the phone number of Francesca but she only speaks Italian. You will need a translator. Enjoy Lampedusa.”

How can I enjoy Lampedusa when I know no one on the island let alone a translator? And it seems impossible to get there. Airfares from Rome are sky high and ferries non-existent at this time of year. Time to bail out and go home perhaps?

But the trip does not seem complete so, on a whim, I book a Ryan air ticket to Palermo. Perhaps I can sort something out from there or maybe I can just soak up the Royal Palace with its combination of Muslim, Jewish and Christian influences.

As I fly over Calabria I read Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped at Eboli. Levi was exiled to a remote and barren corner of Calabria because of his opposition to Mussolini. It was a world steeped in pre- Christian pagan myth, desperately poor, cut off from the state and where malaria was rampant. Levi was trained as a doctor although he was not practicing when he was sent there. The peasants, justifiably disillusioned with the doctors in the village, turned to Levi for help. Over the peasants’ beds were images of two guardian angels – one of the black scowling Madonna of Viggiano with inhuman eyes, the other a beaming President Roosevelt. A third image would not be the King, the Duce, or even Garibaldi but a dollar bill sent from New York or elsewhere. Rome or Naples meant little to the 1200 residents of Gagliano with 2000 emigrants in the United States, or the 5000 residents of Grassano with almost the same number abroad.

For the villagers America had a dual nature. It was a place where a man went to work, often in dire conditions and from where he sent money back home; where he could die and no one would remember him. But it was also an earthly paradise. Some peasants stayed abroad and their children became American but others came back after 20 years, met a local girl and bought some land which yielded nothing. It was as if they had never been away. Many of the migrants in Gagliano looked on the day of their return as the unluckiest of their lives.

“Damn 1929 and the bastards who got me back here,” said the tailor who gave up a very successful business in New York.

It was the crash of 1929 and Fascist propaganda that there were jobs to return to that persuaded people to return.

After 1929 few came back from Italy and few went over. The villages with half of their people on one side of the ocean and half on the other were split in two. The post sometimes arrived with useful everyday objects such as axes, scissors and razors and the occasional letters to wives that would trail off after a year or two. Nothing came from Rome except for the tax collector. With the men gone the women took over and often had children with other men. Unmarried mothers were not snubbed or pointed at.

I become fascinated with Guilia Venere the woman who did for Carol Levi – cleaned his house, cooked his meals, washed his clothes and even posed for him. Carlo Levi became a well-known painter and there are lovely scenes in the book of the village children, yellow with malaria, carrying his easel and paints to a chosen destination, then standing back and watching the picture unfurl.

Giulia’s first husband and son emigrated to the United States. After he left she had 17 births and abortions by 15 different men. A liaison with a priest led to still born twins and only 3 survived. One day she received a letter from her son, who had left with his father for America when he was very young, fighting in Ethiopia in Mussolini’s fateful war. He wished to return to his village and asked his mother to seek out a bride for him. The book ends before the son arrives. I hope, if he returned unharmed, that he did not have the same regret as the barber and other returnees. Giulia deserved a little happiness.

I am sad I never visited La Nave della Silla but maybe Levi has given me insight into the migrant experience that a museum never could?

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