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Palpable Fear: Living with the Earthquake

Despite our fears, we wanted to be with our adopted community in bad times as well as good

earthquake italy

Centro Storico of Penna San Giovanni (Le Marche) blocked off in case the bell tower is compromised.

We were half awake at about 7:45 on Sunday morning when we heard a loud, deep rumbling. The house began to shake violently. The noise and shaking lasted about 30 seconds, which of course felt much longer. We quickly got dressed and made our way downstairs. Our house was still whole.

How does one measure trauma in a community?  In Penna San Giovanni, about 25 miles from the center of the recent seismic activity, our Italian neighbors have suffered through two solid months of earthquakes, aftershocks, evacuations, crowding in with relatives and seeing their heritage crumble before them.  They are exhausted and disheartened, as we experienced first hand on this visit.

earthquake italy

Residents evacuated from the centro storico in Penna San Giovanni after Sunday’s mega quake

The planning for this year’s fall trip to Italy was very specific.  While fitting into our daughter’s freshman year college schedule, we were excited to attend the annual fall Castagnata in our town of Penna San Giovanni for the first time, and for me, to finally participate in the raccolta delle olive— the yearly olive harvest and the ritual of mixing our tiny amount of olives with our neighbors’, making the trek to the frantoio (olive press) and coming home with genuine EVOO.  We were of course apprehensive about the earthquakes.  The most recent had been in Visso on October 26, about two months after the first series of quakes that devastated Accumoli and Amatrice in August.  But we’d been planning this trip for months and despite our fears, wanted to be with our adopted community in bad times as well as good.  We knew our neighbors were stressed from two months of seismic activity.  We wanted to share in this crisis with them, as well as check on our own house.

We arrived on Saturday evening October 29 to learn that there would be no olive picking this year.  A wet spring and summer created the perfect environment for a flourishing of worms that ate all the olives and desiccated those remaining, which fell useless to the ground.  On close examination, you could see their tiny little teeth marks on leaves and stems.  Disappointing, but last year had been a banner year for oil, and it’s rare to have two good years in a row.  After the eagerly anticipated first-night-in-town pizza, we fell into that fitful, jetlagged sleep, looking forward to feeling better in the morning.

We were half awake at about 7:45 on Sunday morning when we heard a loud, deep rumbling.  The house began to shake violently.  Interior doors rattled in their jambs; the mirror clanged against the plaster wall.  The bedroom literally shook around us.  Because we had expected an earthquake, or at least strong aftershocks from events a few days before, I wasn’t surprised to be in the middle of one.  Nevertheless, my heart was pounding and it was truly terrifying.  Foolishly, my instinct was to stay in bed lying very still, when what I should’ve done is throw on clothes and run out of the house.  The noise and shaking lasted about 30 seconds, which of course felt much longer.  Then all was quiet.  Nothing had fallen down upon us– the beamed ceiling was intact.

We quickly got dressed and made our way downstairs.  Our house was still whole.  We walked around the inside and then the exterior.  We saw no new cracks; nothing had fallen.  All that we noticed were three paintings askew and three tiny heaps of plaster dust.  We silently blessed the engineers who designed and built our house.  It was a beautiful day, so eerily calm we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.  It was too early to walk to town for coffee so we took showers, swept around the house, started pulling weeds in the garden.  A neighbor who was looking after her horses called to see if we were okay.   She told us that this morning’s quake was much worse than those that had come before in August and a few days ago– stronger and longer.  (We now know it was the strongest quake in Italy in 36 years.)  The aftershocks we felt when we were outdoors recalled those Carole King lyrics– “I feel the earth move under my feet…”  Where she was talking about being near her crush, this was Mother Nature’s fury at its most violent and unpredictable.

As we were walking into town, we ran into our friend Marcello, the geometra.  He was dashing from place to place to inspect damaged buildings and identify danger zones, and informed us that the centro storico in Penna was closed due to possible compromise of the campanile, or bell tower, of the church.  The campanile over the commune was solid, but residents around the piazza were evacuated as further assessment of the tower was conducted.  The exquisite Gothic church in the nearby borgo of Villa Pilotti was in ruins, likely beyond repair.  At the bar just outside the centro, residents were clustered discussing yet another assault on their nerves and property.  A friend who brokers insurance chatted with us for a while and then rushed off to check on one of his properties where he’d just installed a new roof– the tenant was reporting damage.  The young man who organizes Pro Loco events in Penna, told us that the Castagnata scheduled for that day, would be moved to the following Sunday.  It was later cancelled entirely and we learned he had 600 kilos of chestnuts to dispose of.

earthquake italy

The beautiful baroque church in Villa Pilotti, near Penna San Giovanni, December 2015

After a while, we headed home.  Our friend Pasquale who had engineered our house, invited us to lunch at his mother’s.  His mother seemed a bit strained, but served us an incredible meal with two kinds of polenta, prepared as though it were lasagna, in thin sheets with ragu between them.  She also had made an elaborate dessert of chestnuts and chocolate, this being chestnut season.  I’ll post that recipe at a later time.  But we were truly concerned for Pasquale’s mother in law, who grew up in Accumoli and whose husband is buried there.  All she could think of was returning to see if her husband’s grave was unharmed, but of course the towns of Accumoli and Amatrice had been evacuated weeks ago and remained off limits to residents.  She, of all of us, seemed most rattled by this unending assault of nature, moving quickly outside whenever another aftershock occurred.  My heart went out to her.

At home that evening we could not bring ourselves to go out for dinner.  The shops had been closed all day, except for the fruttivendolo, who had arrived for the Castagnata festival, and us having only arrived the day before, we bought a few things from the truck to begin to stock an empty house.  Necessity being the mother of invention, the pasta I made that night from whatever was in our pantry and some fresh tomatoes from the truck, was truly delicious and comforting.  The recipe is at the end of this article.

earthquake italy

The church in Villa Pilotti today. Through the window, it can be seen that the roof has collapsed

We slept little that night.  Our go-bags were at the ready and we were still tired from jet lag.  But lying in bed with your ear to the pillow, you hear every vibration through the floor of the house and the legs of the bed, easily confused with the beating of your own heart.  I lost count after eight aftershocks.   We finally drifted off for an hour or two toward morning.

The next day was Halloween, but no one felt much like celebrating.  We wore our Halloween wigs to the bar and made the owners laugh for a moment.  Based on the circumstances, they’d cancelled their Halloween party because so many people had evacuated and no one was in the mood.  The next morning, after a 4.8 aftershock that sent me running down the stairs in fear, we went to the neighboring town of Gualdo, which has a Tuesday market.  But the market was cancelled, the square cordoned off, and the main bell tower on the church was braced, the spire sitting gingerly on the ground beside it.  It was so sad, we quickly left.

earthquake italy

The braced campanile of the church in Gualdo. The spire is on the ground beside it.

The situation here is grim.  People’s nerves are frayed and even the most cheerful residents are resigned and circumspect.  With nature so out of control, it seems there should be raging storms with whipping winds and torrential rain.  Ironically, these days have been beautiful, autumnal, temperate, mild.  You want to think things are normal, but they are not.  We are lucky to have such a strong house, but so many have been displaced and so many of Italy’s treasures are crumbling.  We can only hope this long siege will soon end and the slow process of rebuilding can begin to heal so many damaged souls.

Recipe for Pasta Terremoto

This recipe depends on items you might have in your pantry.  If by chance you’ve got some garlic or a lemon, add them!  It can only improve on this surprisingly delicious dish.

earthquake italyIngredients:

1/3 c. olive oil

1/2 t. dried red pepper flakes

3/4 lb. fresh cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered

8 sundried tomatoes in oil, roughly chopped

2 T. capers, plus 1 T. liquid from the caper jar

1 160 gram (8 oz.) can of tuna in oil, (drain about half the oil)

1/4 c. vodka

1 t. dried thyme leaves

freshly ground black pepper

1/2 lb. or 250 grams short pasta

about 1/4 c. pasta cooking water


Set a large pot of water to boil to cook the pasta.

earthquake italyHeat the oil in a medium sized skillet over high heat.  Once heated, add the red pepper flakes and the tomatoes.  Cook for 5-6 minutes stirring occasionally until tomatoes give up their juice and a sauce begins to form.  While cooking the pasta, add to the sauce the sundried tomatoes, capers and their liquid, tuna, vodka and thyme leaves.  Add some black pepper if desired.

Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 c. of the cooking water.  Add the pasta to the skillet, mix well and add enough cooking water to make a juicy, but not watery sauce.

Serves two as a one-dish meal.      

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