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Nothing stays the same

Nostalgia for my social and genetic history - as charted in "Noisy at the wrong times" - those Italian family visits and character-plays,  is packaged up into parcels of memory; several holidays distinguished by our growth from small children, into teenagers and then into adults. It is a measure of either its potency or my emotional penury that my identity is based on what amounts to a couple of months of experience in Italy as a child and as a young man. 

Yet there is no question that the affiliation with people and places twelve hundred  miles from London runs deep, even today. It is important to remember that the vast majority of my (large) close extended family live in Italy and they have their own memories and a sense of ownership of the exotic, too. But a recent trip to Montecorvino proved to be as profoundly revealing as any I had experienced before, and what characterised it was the normality of the dysfunction I encountered, the fracturing of families I remembered as being loudly and dynamically united and the unveiling of a side to Italy that, despite its occasional ugliness, has done little to diminish my desire to identify with the place.

It was also my first visit without my mother whose death two years ago, along with that of my brother Matteo, framed the visit in ways that I should have expected, but which still set trip wires and hurdles for me to stumble over. In truth I had not kept in touch with many of my family in the intervening years since my last visit in 2004, but Facebook had brought me into contact with some  of my cousins and, indeed, their children.

Mum's absence was difficult to bear because these were the places that I so determinedly associated with her and her history. I had to dredge the  Italian language from the depths of my memory – more specifically the dialect my family largely speaks at great velocity - and there was no Mum to fill in the gaps or to translate the more colourful expositions. But I was soon engaging in argument with a fluency that I would prefer to be more refined,  but was nevertheless grateful for.

Arrival at Naples Airport and the drive south to Montecorvino had me feeling anxious. The  traits of Italians – especially in the south – that can send a person insane include the way in which they drive. As I explained to my wife, Naples is the capital city of a  country called "Dontgiveafuckville." And Neapolitans remain the most creatively manipulative population on the planet. 

By way of example, the car hire centre is five hundred yards from the terminal building. You could walk there, dragging your bags in the ferocious heat along precarious and pedestrian-unfriendly roads, or you could take the shuttle bus from the car park opposite (which is still a dangerous feat to reach). Then you discover that the shuttle is a small minibus driven by a man who loathes his job – and probably you, too - and you are fortieth in the queue. However, there are helpful taxi drivers nearby who are prepared to take you the five hundred yards for a crisp ten Euro note, and your first thought should be that the car hire companies are getting a kick back from the cabbies, because that is the way it works in Naples. The logic in operation is that nothing in life is, or should be, entirely free unless you are prepared to suffer (wait an hour to go five hundred yards etc.) so make life a little easier by paying. They have this philosophy down to a fine art and you can't help but find it admirable, despite your initial anger. There is nobody to complain to  either, and if  there were, they would have the ready answer that you could just as easily have waited for the helpful and generously free shuttle service. What's the matter with you? In Naples, you are never the cat who gets the cream, but they can make you feel as though you are  as you gleefully hand over the ten Euros, thinking you have beaten  the system.

My first port of call was Lucio, second eldest son of Isidoro, my mother's oldest brother. It became quickly apparent that any hopes of a large family reunion would be dashed on the rocks of  sibling enmity. Lucio, a baker for as long as I can remember, is  still working from his factory in Macchia, a small but vibrant business that has made a name for itself. His speciality is the dried, aniseed-tinged biscotti that is soaked in water before being broken into rough lumps to be mixed through a tomato salad or to mop up sauce; his "Iperpan" brand is well known throughout the region and by the standards of his brothers and sisters, Lucio is doing very well. His bakery has above it a large house that is divided into apartments for him and his children Ivo and Anna Maria, both of whom slave at the hot ovens alongside him, but, depending on who you talk to, either  jealousy of this success, or Lucio's consequent haughtiness has laid waste to his relationships with his seven siblings.

I had visited Lucio on the first day of my visit because he had insisted I do so. "What time do you arrive?" he said on the telephone. "Midday." "OK, my house, two o'clock," he instructed.

He remains as emotional and as warm hearted as I remember him to be, but a note of cynicism has emerged - or perhaps it's sadness? He works hard, from 4am each day, his hands and thumbs painful from working tonnes of dough over decades. Machines do much of that work now, but he reminds me of his father Isidoro as he sits at the table on his balcony, occasionally drifting off into private thought.

"You must come and see us everyday and have lunch," he said, not really understanding that holidays these days had other pleasures to indulge in. But I had lunch with him for three days and, despite the chasms between my previously close family members,  I still had other cousins with whom a meal would be insisted upon. Eventually, across the period of a week, I would spend time with four of the fourteen children born to my mother's siblings, but the realisation that I am unlikely to see those estranged cousins again was exquisitely sad.

The romanticised view I had of this corner of Italy, developed through my childhood —and which still had a resonance up to my last visit in 2004 — has now diminished. The landscape is, if anything, more beautiful than I remembered it, even though modernity has arrived along with growing towns and a knowing tourist industry. Yet what had always been pastoral, quaint poverty now just feels like the rapacious grasp of 21st century inequality - and southern Italians are seething with resentment.

None of my family are  living  in two hundred year old houses in imposing cobbled streets, but in architecturally functional apartments. Visiting my cousin Nunzia on the edge of Battipaglia had a certain feel of danger to it,  and although the gated estate in which they lived might at first appear to be the accoutrements of affluence, it felt as though the electronic fences and doors were necessary to bar the way of a beast. 

The staggering vista from their balcony offers a fully panoramic image of the mountains behind the town, craggy peaks from horizon to horizon, jutting up from the plain to four thousand feet with the sun waiting to plunge behind them. On their  slopes  you can follow the chain of villages from Pugliano, where my mother was born, down through Montecorvino – my father's birthplace – and then upwards again to Acerno. The roaring concrete serpent of the A3 autostrada that thunders past just a few hundred metres in front of us is the dividing line between the gloriously comforting past and the threatening present. Walking through the kitchen door onto that balcony and seeing that vision was as deeply affecting as anything I was to experience on my trip. To Nunzia's family, this was a  daily sight, but for me it was like seeing  a tapestry of my youthful memory, a landscape painting of my history, and from that distance, nothing had changed. 

Standing beside me on the balcony, Marco, my cousin's husband was perplexed by my apparent speechlessness; "Wow," I repeated, "just wow".  He wouldn't have known that I was tracing the roadway between the villages and remembering how I used to ride the route on a scooter, nor what it meant to me to arrive at the top and look back onto the very position we were now standing in, miles away. He probably didn't know the stories that I knew of my mother's youth, or of war time,  the things that happened in those villages,  even though a mile or two away was a British War Cemetery filled with men who landed at Salerno. He would not have known how that view represented whole lives lived and now lost, families once united but now divided. He wouldn't have understood why I couldn't speak, or swallow or stop the tears.

My cousins were keen to wallow in nostalgia, too. Lidia, the daughter of my uncle Rolando,  loved to reminisce about our time as kids and the magnificent quirkiness of her father's ways. 

"I used to wait excitedly for you all to come in the summers. I always remember how Zia Lidia (my mother) would arrive with a suitcase filled with clothes for all of us. It was like having another Christmas," she said.

Before her annual trips, Mum used to spend days in North End Road market buying cheap T-shirts, shirts, sweaters  and dresses for her relatives. An entire suitcase was filled with them, many weirdly inappropriate (vests with peculiar graphics were Rolando's favourite) but she was, in her mind, looking after her family who she knew had little money for new clothes. All of my cousins on this trip were enormously emotional about the loss of Mum and wanted to talk about her. And they also wanted to talk about Matt, my late and frequently miscreant brother, who they all appeared to have adored. Matt had gone to live in Montecorvino at the age of around seventeen, a desperate attempt by Mum to get him away from bad influences in London. The fact that Matt quickly became  a honeypot to the local bad boys did nothing to diminish the affectionate memories of him my cousins wanted to share, somewhat painfully,  with me.

"He was beautiful, your brother. Everybody loved him," they would say tearfully, but when  they saw how it affected me, they would rush apologetically to close down the  conversation, as though guilty for having evoked the memory. It was a scenario that repeated itself throughout the visit  and it was exhausting. I was struck by the affection for Matt because it would have been around thirty years since he had last been to Italy and so my family were, like me, holding on to romantic memories of distant,  exotic relatives. They never got to see where his life took him, the physical peaks and troughs and eventual irreversible decline of his drug addiction, nor his prison time, his utter chaos. I don't think that is a bad thing – I remember the same version of him.

It was Rolando and his family with whom we spent most of our time as kids in Italy. Their ancient little house in the backstreets of Nuvola on the edge of Montecorvino had pig styes beneath it and thick stone walls. Like London, and my first slum home, these old relics have been bought up and converted into fancy homes, their original poverty stricken residents moved on to charmless modernity. Rolando's children (Nunzia, Ferrucio, Lidia and Ines) were fiery and Rolando didn't spend a lot of his time trying to manage them. I have spoken a great deal about Rolando, the circus performer, mushroom collector and the brother Mum most adored. It was Rolando who seemed to epitomise my own Italian-ness when I expressed it to my friends as a youngster because despite his almost peasant like demeanour, he had about him a veneer of Big Top glamour and superhuman strength. He was impossibly handsome too, brave,  fantastically unique  and funny with brilliantly expressive ways of telling stories. His warm heart and emotionality was the icing on this rich cake. I spent much of this trip hearing stories of him from his children, some of them a little darker than I remember, but it was clear they all still mourned him deeply. 

Italian families revel in history and past events, enjoying the conspiratorial elements more than any, embellishing and speculating to a point where you simply don't know whose version of a story to believe. Nunzia occupies the throne in this regard, sitting in the middle of a group gossiping and reeling off tales of misdemeanour, most of which appear to be invention laced with a little truth, and which brings  frequent admonishment from her son, Vittorio.

"Mama! You can't say that. That isn't what happened!"

Nunzia would plough on regardless. I had heard from my own mother the story of Rolando's short spell in prison back in the early fifties. He had been on a public bus which had pulled into the main square in Montecorvino. The bus driver, for one reason or another had offended a woman on the bus and Rolando had taken issue. The driver had then offended Rolando and promptly shut the door thinking himself safe. Rolando took a seat at a café, supposing that the driver would have to get off at some point since it was the end of the line. The driver noticed Rolando waiting and stayed put. So Rolando put his fist through the glass of the door and delivered a good hiding to the driver. However, in Nunzia's version, the story came to include the use of a knife which Rolando had allegedly plunged into the driver's thigh (it wouldn't kill him there.) It occurs to me that Mum may have spared me the nastiest aspect of the altercation and that Nunzia was telling the truth, but it is impossible to tell.  The fact that Rolando had punched out the side of a bus was something of a legend in the town by all accounts and I remember thinking it hugely impressive when Mum first told me about it. Yet Rolando wasn't a violent man, his kids still marvel at the fact that it was their mother who delivered physical punishment, and not Rolando, who had never once laid a hand upon them. 

It was because of these stories and memories that I was especially keen to see his son Ferrucio who I had last met with over 35 years ago. In that period,  Ferrucio had spent eight years in jail for couriering contraband from the north of Italy – his first wife was from a family of ill repute and he had been drawn in. I didn't know what  to expect; he had always been a mischievous, loud character but how had he matured, especially after a long stretch in prison? 

"Mike, when you see him," Lidia said, "you will think he is my father."

He had now moved up the mountain and was living in Giffoni with his new wife and an eleven month old child, Ines, named after his sister. As a carpenter, he works fitfully when work is available on building sites. He is poor but settled, and doing right by his family. I wasn't prepared, however, for the shock (and yes, emotional) impact of seeing him again. He was, as Lidia reported, the image of his father at the same age; not as muscular, but he carried himself in the same way, his face was exact, his mannerisms, voice and expression, even the way he sat with the back of his hand crooked to rest on his hip were identical to Rolando, and he smoked thin cigars, just  as his father did. I sat watching him, speechless at first, as though he were a reincarnation. Almost immediately we met,  Ferrucio asked me for photographs of my mother and brother, Matt. 

Of all my cousins, Ferrucio was one I had seen less of over the years, mainly because of his lifestyle and those eight years in jail, so to see him for the first time since we were sixteen was powerful, but I wondered – perhaps I was even angry with myself – why our two lives had remained so parallel to each other. Why, if I was so emotionally connected to my Italian background, did I allow it to remain an infrequent part of my adult life? 

Marriage, careers and children intervene for sure, but my eldest children, now twenty-three and nineteen, have been to Montecorvino on only one occasion. That was in 2004, when before a full length holiday in Sorrento, we visited Montecorvino. Knowing that three days wouldn't be enough to visit all of my relatives, and knowing that offence can be easily caused, we decided to host a large lunch for all of them at a restaurant. It was the first time that I had ever seen members of my father's family in the same room as those or my mother. What was striking is that the Volpe clan was represented only by my then ninety-four year-old grandmother, my aunt Anna-Maria – the only one of my  father's siblings who hadn't left for England - and my cousin Tina, daughter of my Uncle Matteo, born and raised in England but who had married and gone to live in Montecorvino. The Perillos had about fifty attendees.  That event was also an emotional occasion, mainly for the attendance of my paternal grandmother who, with dementia enveloping her mind, didn't realise I was her grandson but exclaimed, on seeing me, that I looked like her son, Francesco. I remember that I promised myself I would visit more, keep in touch, but I didn't, and my children had never asked to go again.

Now, twelve years later, sitting opposite Ferrucio, I began to wonder if a more consistent relationship between me and my family might have been something that could have changed aspects of my life. Or theirs.  These meetings were becoming so pungently nostalgic that it began to confuse me. I invited Lucio,  Lidia, Ferrucio, and their families, to lunch at the farmhouse hotel at which we were staying. It was, in fact, the first time the cousins had been together for years, and we enjoyed a good meal and wine  and grappa on the terrace,  an occasion they rarely enjoy. We reminisced and Ferrucio and I implored Lucio to repair his relationships with his siblings. We argued, we demonstrated and remonstrated. At one point, Lidia drew the whole table's attention to me and announced, "Mike looks happy." 


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