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The Season of Return to the South: A Christmas Trip

The story not of one trip but of millions taken by Italian migrants living in Northern Italy who return to the South for Christmas

by Gerardo Papalia

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We Southern migrants to Italy’s industrial north all share the same ritual. We take any opportunity we can to break away from grey polluted skies, the heaviness of the air and the stark furrowed fields populated by crows. Year in year out, we all race to the station on the appointed day to become the queue of grizzled short and stocky men, breath heaving from the fog and wearing the distant smell of caffè-latte and cigarettes

Shrieking brakes bring the smell of seared asbestos into the compartment. I flipped up an eyelid and beheld the reddish sun struggling to send its halo of rays through soiled windows. We must be closer now. I raise my tousled head and gingerly touch my cheek ribbed by the corrugated seat. The reprise of the clickety-clack of the steel wheels soon reassures me that we are reaching our destination, as do the prickly pears sweeping their spiny heads over the windowsills.

As always, the night with its jaundiced yellow lights, its curling tobacco smoke escaping insomniac nostrils, the stirring and shuffling along the corridor, has been long and uneven. I can only sleep when the train is moving. The shrieking and jolting when coming to a stop, the siren heralding the announcement of some torpid sleep enveloped station, the hushed chatter of parents soothing their children, all annoy me. Young men can walk incessantly up and down the aisles, children can  cry out for comfort, aged women could grope along the cold rails leading them to toilets at the end of the car. But I don’t care, so long as the wheels keep rolling.

I glance over in the compartment to where my children sleep in odd positions and forms, both wrapped and unwrapped in their papery sheets, and thank fate for having been able to book bunks for them. Exactly three months earlier, on the day bookings opened, I had queued blearily before a never-coming dawn with my elbows resting on cold marble counter while a careworn clerk struggled to find bunks for my family of five.

We Southern migrants to Italy’s industrial north all share the same ritual. We take any opportunity we can to break away from grey polluted skies, the heaviness of the air and the stark furrowed fields populated by crows. Year in year out, we all race to the station on the appointed day to become the queue of grizzled short and stocky men, breath heaving from the fog and wearing the distant smell of caffè-latte and cigarettes. Every year I look at calloused hands and compare them to my still smooth skin. Every year I see the salt and pepper hairs pushing their way from under their woolen caps and wonder how long it will take me to become like them.

Then comes the same silent glance at the computer screen watching the seat numbers rolling and rolling and the same despair when they stop. The same yearning to wipe away the smog and the dirt and the eternal twilight that can never become day.

Our destinations are all the same too. Places that I know intimately without ever having visited or heard of: the flaking walls, broken streets with their mirrors of puddles, drooping round-leafed caper bushes brushing away the dark clouds and ushering in terse blue skies. The welcoming processions of cloaked dark-faced men, always too old or too young, waiting, leaning and looking out onto the dawning sea. The shrieking brakes announcing arrival and lips brushing against unshaven cheeks our first touch of land. The strong arms swinging to lift heavy cases into dented cars that whisk us away along quasi-familiar streets, past our cumpari’s latest concrete addition to a home whose kitchen smells with the familiar fragrance of wood smoke, coffee, fresh ricotta and fig filled pastries.The smell of sea and dry grass finally fills the compartment after fifteen hours of travel. We all know what lies outside: stretches of swaying and beckoning buttercups under olive groves, up and down gentle hills, like royal largesse of gold. Olives tightly packed like ruby gems nestling among dark green foliage, dropping to the ground in paroxysms of generosity and welcome. Here and there, these tiny black eyes coquettishly looking askance through their silvery-green livery daring me to gather them. I know they will indelibly stain my hands and clothes with purple-red blood too bitter to stomach. Their hearts deserve to be crushed under rounds of stone and their flesh sucked from their bones. Through their death, I will adorn my bread as it emerges Christ-like from the furnace that has devoured their mother.

It is the time to pretend we hadn’t gone away, the time to focus all our emotions in the celebration of a hieratic life, unsullied by departure and the stench of discord and change. Our families can gather and live in the illusion of photographic oneness and love. The cold and the fog, the unkindness and the unwelcome of our Northern lives we push into hidden compartments where they poison our wallets and our gifts.

Traces of preparation of the feast of return reluctantly emerge like clues of an unspoken but foregone narrative. Specks of flour here, covered leaven there, flowering bowls of freshly picked blood oranges and mandarins.

On the eve of Christ’s birth this land will again echo with the call of familiarity and difference: “Comu iamu?” As always, pretending nothing had happened and that only one year, and not one life, has gone by: “Non ‘ndi lamentamu, E vui?” (We can’t complain, and you?) The elders will gather up their threadbare souls like I have seen shepherds their ancient greatcoats in windswept fields and reply “Comu diu voli”. (As God wills).

Huddled whitened villages nestle in the hills and scatter along the shore. The train’s course cuts its way into each village bringing re-birth. The passengers spawn into the theater of homecoming, with its Christmas ornaments and special streetlights,

conjured up by the illusions that bore them. Each station is the bead of a rosary that wends its way through the four mysteries of the birth, deeds, death and resurrection of Christ. Each thought of home, of relatives, each greeting, every desired embrace are its prayers.

My children wake up; they look at me with their ruffled hair and unruly faces.

“I’m hungry.” My partner desperately gropes at the bottom of the food bag and pulls out the last broken fragments of the dinner from the night before. “I’m thirsty.”

I uncap their little bottles of fruit juice and attentively help them drink in the rocking of the train lest they gag and splutter. Last night’s crumbs litter the floor and stick to our feet. I ask my partner: “Weren’t we supposed to be there by now?”

She nods: “Yes, but the train stopped at too many unscheduled stations. Then when they divided the train, the connecting locomotive was delayed.” I know this litany all too well. The Italian railroads, the more they descend into the south, the more they change, they become dirtier, less punctual, more resigned to their fate as convoys transporting human fodder.

The specter of hungry children roaming the train with their dark eyes beseeching fellow passengers to part with their last scraps begins to haunt me with guilt. I had not listened to my partner who suggested we take extra food on this, one of innumerable trips. The train jolts to a halt. I look outside. The sea has ignited in burning patches under the rising sun’s rays. There is no station or village. The burnt-out carcass of a car sleeps peacefully and definitively, hidden amongst the reeds of a dry creek bed. We are suspended on a bridge above a fiumara. Some other train has been delayed on the single track up ahead and we all know we are meant to wait. “Comu diu voli”. A lone cry of reproach rises from another compartment as some other poor parent faces their hungry child.

Water trickles slowly down a narrow channel meandering in a sea of dry stones that flows down from the mountains. It is bordered by distant reeds. This is the fiumara. Every century or so, when the rare torrential rains arrive, they become a raging tide of anger pushing animals and cristiani out to sea. I lower the top of the window, lean with my forearms against the central sill and peer left and right as if to elicit some response. Then I settle my chin onto my forearms and look out over the hills. Like me, at that very instant, millions of others are doing the same throughout the world, waiting, wanting and fearing.

It is a gesture of resignation, of acceptance that time must pass, of desire for something precious that cannot be held long close to the heart.

I feel a tugging at my belt. My middle child wants me to pick him up and hold him against the window. He is not as light as he used to be. I pick him up quickly, feeling his soft ribs ripple under my fingers. His flailing legs seek a foothold on the side of the car so that he can poke his sleep-laden face out next to mine. We cannot stay long in this position, but it is better than having to face the question: “Are we there yet?”

Village upon village greets the train with comfortable untidiness. The passengers have long since stood up against the windows, wedging their elbows into the window pane dividers and their eyes into what lies beyond. On one side rise steep green hills with skeletal outcrops and swarms of olive trees with dark branches as forked as lightning. On the other, a shimmering indifferent sea.

At every stop, wrought screeching from the train’s passage, crowds of dark clothed people, with dark hair and dark eyes, gather at the car doors. With waiting smiles, hands, arms and cries they draw down flecks of human cargo bearing gaunt suitcases and eyes hungry to embrace. Flotsam and jetsam from the great ship-wreck of migration, brought back to shore by the rising Christmas tide. Finally, we feel in our bones that familiar sweep and nudge of the train that announces to us, ruffled birds of passage, our appointed place and time of longing. The locomotive pulls back its smoking diesel motor and begins a long glide. Now we begin to run along a stone platform dusted with salt spray and neglect. Stark light posts in broken light blue paint slow their march against our windows.

Our children race out again into the corridor to see if they can make out their Nonno and Zio from the train window. I cast a glace into our compartment in time to see my partner rouse herself into methodical haste, putting away half emptied drink bottles, opened packets of crackers, crumbled pieces of homemade cake and broken apples. Now she is stuffing our heavy winter coats into bags for we will not need them.

I pull down the top pane of the compartment window. The air that rushes in smells of bracing salt and gathering warmth. It forces its way into my nostrils clearing them of the grime and cloying heat of the train, and reaches beyond to pluck away those residual flecks of damp cold and mist that still shroud our thoughts.

We have stopped. Bells ring out. From the distant end of the platform, I see them: my father-in-law with his unmistakable broad-chested frame hollowed out from years of toil in olive groves, my student brother-in-law’s puffy round face. I reach my arm out of the window and wave. Our ten-year-old daughter wants to wave as well. I drop back and pull her up. She struggles to maintain her hold of the aluminum window pane divider and ends up coating her small pale pink palms in black grime: “Nonno, Zio”, she cries over and over again. Our two relatives turn their heads. Recognizing us, they run towards our carriage, my father-in-law with his habitual half crouching gait typical of those who work steep land.

I withdraw from the window to take down our suitcases, counting the small colorful satchels that our children have brought with them, filled with books to study and other “essentials”, cartoon character figurines and stuffed toys. I know they will not touch any of them, so taken they will be with their Nonna’s cooking, the backyard chickens, ducks, guinea-pigs, the prize pig and Max the Alsatian, but above all the great sea itself whose sucking waves make the pebbled beaches tinkle and shine.

Suitcases and rope-bound boxes begin floating out onto the platform as the human tide licks into the compartments and draws away those it recognizes.

The joy and eagerness we feel makes for hurried kisses and embraces: “Comu iamo? U viaggiu fu bonu?” (How are you? Was the trip good?) Ritual questions to which we reply “U solitu” (As usual); the litany that secures the final link in the closing chain. A chain that will lengthen for as long as we believe in capricious dreams.

Nonno and Zio are now picking up the children and holding them tight: ‘My how much heavier you have become, and how much taller! You look so much like your Nonna, nonno, zio, zia, Mamma, Papà’.

Strong arms sweep our battered cases along the dusty platform, across lines encrusted with weathered feces and past the station house wearied by too many departures. Beyond, the car park has become a sea seething with bobbing cars and opening hatches, punctuated by the thud of heavy cases and slamming doors.

Our car is a battered white Renault whose four canvas seats still wear the smell of clay and hay, and the purple-red stains of fresh olives. Generously, it obliges the entry of our seven bodies along with our luggage. Its surprisingly agile suspension rises to the challenge and easily buoys us over the pot-holed streets, running us along the familiar crumbling pale yellow wall that lines Via Aiutamicristo (Christ help us).

As we leave the town centre, the streets turn, narrow and twist, lose and regain footpaths, for we are entering the illegally built periphery. Our eyes, sharpened by months of absence, note even the smallest things, a bright new doormat in front of an old green door, a shop sign missing, fixed or replaced, cumpari Beppe’s deeper stoop as he waves leaning on his stick, Gianni’s new car. It would not be long before we arrive and our senses begin to salivate in anticipation of the delicacies prepared by Nonna’s restless hands.

Suddenly, the house swings into view. We all begin to think in our several and entwined ways: “They have pruned the orange tree, the balcony has a new railing, Max’s dog house is gone, how will my Mother be, what will Nonna have baking in the oven …” The car pulls up. We burst out from its doors and stop. For an instant, we stand there in the silence of contemplation, pale and unsteady, still unaccustomed to the warm air and shading our eyes against the bright sunlight.

After more than twenty hours of travel, the journey home has only just begun.



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