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April 30, 2007

In Praise of Bawdy Italian Folk Songs

My new Italian family

My Slow Day in Italy didn't begin nearly as slowly as I'd imagined. Tilde woke me up at 7:30, I had a quick shower, a quicker breakfast, and then it was into Tilde's car. The three of us--Tilde, myself, and her daughter, Wanda--were headed into the mountains and I wasn't quite sure why. Tilde said something about a crazy man named Ali and sausage. That's all I knew, but it seemed like as good a reason as any.

Like all the hills in Italy, the ones around Cilento have a pretty look to them. The road climbed over hillocks and wound left and right in an upwardly direction, past increasingly thick woods of oak and chestnut. Occasionally, we would pass an old man or woman walking along the side of the road who appeared to be on their way to an Italian peasant contest.

Valle D'Angelo is a postcard old town that sits, like its name suggest, in an even more postcard valley. It translates either as "Angel's Valley" or "Angelo's Valley"--I'm not sure which, but either would be an excellent title of an evening soap opera. Here we met the crazy man, Ali, and a friend of his, Peppino, who is not crazy at all. Ali and his wife, Carmela, run a restaurant. They also have some apartments they rent out to guests, and Ali took me round to have a look. By North American standards they were cramped and had low ceilings, but as they were situated in hundred-year-old structures none of that mattered. In every room, the window was open and there was a bird's nest on the wall or tucked up on a rafter. The birds, Ali told me, mate for life and return to the same nest every year. Hence, the open windows. I asked if the birds made much noise, and Ali nodded his head and laughed. He said some of the guests don't like the birds, but in a manner that suggested this was neither his nor the birds' problem.

Ali slices pecorino

Ali grabbed a bottle of red wine from the restaurant and we got into Peppino's pick-up truck, which would take us deeper into the mountains. Cilento is not only a national park, it is the largest national park in Italy. Much of what I'd seen so far was about as densely populated as your average suburb, which isn't so unusual for a European national park. I was once driving through a national park in Spain and came upon a Michelin tire-testing facility. But now Cilento was taking on the look of real nature. Patches of snow were visible on the tops of the mountains and their sides were bearded in forest of the type that looked very difficult to walk through. At one point, Peppino stopped the truck and we all got out and looked at a chestnut tree so large that 32 people once managed to fit inside a cavern-like hole in its trunk.

The place we were going was beyond the reach of a conventional car. Until five years ago, this town did not have electricity. It is called Pruno, and there we would find Francesco and Maria, Carmela's grandmother and grandfather. The talk in Peppino's truck was whether or not Francesco himself might be out on the mountain roads, which conform more to the Mongolian definition of "road" than they do to the Italian one. Francesco is 81. He learned to drive when he was 67. Francesco will say openly and with steadfast seriousness that he drives as well as Michael Schumacher, the Formula 1 driver. He is alone in this belief. Others think his driving veers towards the insane, and this is really saying something coming from Italians.

When we arrived, inside the house Maria was spinning lamb's wool into yarn and Francesco was sitting on the couch, under a row of aging prosciutti and salami hanging from the ceiling. They could not have been expecting us, since they do not have a phone. Francesco's first words were that he couldn't believe how tall I was. There was a standard exchange of smiles and pleasantries with friendly but insubstantial conversation that lasted for something like three minutes, after which Ali had had enough. He pulled out a folding card table, set it up on the patio outside and threw a tablecloth over it. It was time to eat.

Ali broke out a stash of Carmela's sausages and began cutting them into slices with a big wood-handled knife. Francesco added an orb of white cheese called Caciocavallo, which, Tilde told me, literally means "horse cheese" and is so named because the cheese, which is aged by being hung from rafters, looks like horse's testicles. "Cilento pastoral culture," she said, "is very sexual." Indeed.

Carmela's sausages

Franceso's and Maria's prosciutti and salami

Carmela's sausages took everyone but Ali by surprise. No one could quite believe how good they were to eat, least of all me. These were air-cured sausages, but instead of being hard and chewy, they had a near fluffy texture, and one of the benefits of this was that you could eat them faster. Tilde said the secret to such a sausage was using both good fat and a lot of it.

Drinking Francesco's wine

Maria brought out her own sausages. She produced a large white tub filled with lard, and pulled out the sausages, which were entombed within, cleaned off the lard and cut them into pieces. (In the south of Italy, sausages have to be preserved in oil or lard because it's too hot to hang them all year.) Tilde unwrapped a soppressata. I don't know where she had hidden it, but now it was out in the open, and when Maria tasted it she pronounced it a good soppressata. Tilde was almost giddy.

Ali's bottle of red wine lasted maybe a few minutes. When it was empty, Francesco disappeared underneath his house and reappeared carrying a very large jug of red wine--about the same size and shape as your standard office water-cooler refills--which he made himself. There are few things as reassuring as drinking wine from a container there is no possibility of emptying. Francesco went back underneath the house and found a small though thick wheel of pecorino cheese. It also appeared inexhaustible, though with it we came close.

Francesco jams on the accordian

We sat, we ate. When Ali caught me at one of the few moments during which I was not in the act of chewing, he would say, "Mark! Managare!" When speaking, which he did a lot, Ali would gesticulate wildly with his hands. He would then light a cigarette, smoke in silence, butt it out and the arm waving would begin anew. The eating went on for more than an hour, and just like a protracted session of laughter, it concluded all at once for everybody. We sat in silence, contented, drinking Francesco's wine and breathing in the sweet mountain air.

Ali had an idea. He shared it with Francesco, who shrugged it off, saying something dismissive in Italian. Ali--pressed the matter. Others took up the cause and Francesco conceded. He stood up, went in the house and emerged with an accordion. Pulling the straps over his shoulder, he sat down and began to play. Francesco is self taught, and he plays well. He serenaded the ladies with traditional Cilento love songs. Tilde was the first to start singing and also the first to dance. Wanda followed, then Maria, then Peppino and Ali.


Under normal circumstances, I don't consider dancing before hitting the 11-drink mark. But I couldn't exactly refuse the invitation from Maria. I stood up and took Maria's hands in mine while her husband played the accordion. We danced to "La Calabressella" and we danced to "La Cilentana." Later, Tilde told me that the lyrics to both songs are a tad on the explicit side. "The country people needed to be fertile in order to have enough hands to work the fields," she explained. I suppose that could be true. It's also possible that the Cilentani are merely horny.

A typically ripe verse:

Io me ne voglio andare nel Cilento
Mi voglio sposare una cilentana.
Non mi importa se non ha soldi,
basta che ha una fresca fontana.

I want to go into Cilento
I want to marry a girl of the Cilento
It doesn't matter if she's poor
For me is important she has a fresh fountain.

(Laura, if you're reading--and I know you are--you have to believe me when I say that I would never have accepted the invitation to dance had I been aware of the graphic content. Italian accordions should come with parental warning labels.)

That afternoon, I danced with three generations of Cilentani women--Maria, Tilde and Wanda--to perverted Italian folk songs. This is not something I ever imagined I would do in life, but having done it I can say it's an accomplishment.


Only an American would have amibivalent feelings (or surprise!) at the frankness of country folk songs.

Mark, you've got to get out more!

I know someone else that knows how to play the accordian (lives at the beach)...maybe not the bawdy lyrics, but still...

Italy is #1 on my places to visit list, so I'm really enjoying this part of your journey. I envy you the authentic experiences you're having.

If only we Americans tended more towards the accordian - I'm sure we could come up with some lyrics to put the Italians to shame :-)

Good luck!!

Wow! What a nice surprise! I saw this on today and couldn't believe it - Valle dell'Angelo is my mom's hometown! She couldn't believe it either when I showed it to her - and she actually knows Ali and his family. Admittedly, that's not a great feat considering the size of the town....Thanks for a nice surprise, I'll definitely keep on reading!

Greetings Mark! I normally despise travel writing...banal recapitulations of roads excessively travelled. That said I am now officially hooked on your blog. Masterful writing and very fresh..reminds me somewhat of Bruce Chatwin. Wonderful!

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