I’d never expected to visit Piedimonte Matese, never even heard of it until a couple of days before going there in October of 2004 for a conference related to some research I was doing. On a Saturday afternoon, Vern and I caught the train in Naples, from a platform so far off to one side of the main lines, we thought it might be the railway repair yard. There we boarded a train that must have been retired from main line service years before. In a third class car with worn upholstery and faded paint, we headed east toward the foot of the mountains, Piedimonte.
Late in the evening, after the conference, we inquired about the return train, and learned there was no Sunday rail service. We had a day off, regardless of our plans. So on Sunday morning we wandered on foot into the streets and piazzas of Piedimonte Matese to explore. Leaving the main square, we rounded a corner and literally bumped into an elderly man.
“Excuse me!” Vern said, and the man’s eyes lit up.
“You speak English!?” A smile revealed three or four teeth. He stood a little over five feet tall, with his round belly wrapped in a cardigan, and a thinning frizz of gray hair crowned his head. He exuded the aura of a gnome or a hobbit. And he spoke English quite well.
We were surprised to meet an English speaker in this remote town, too, and after introductions he invited us to come to his home for a visit. Vern and I exchanged a glance and a shrug. Why not? We had nothing else on our schedule, and his enthusiasm charmed us.
“But first,” he said, “I have an errand. Will you walk along with me?” We agreed—after all, we had planned to walk around the city anyway, and with Salvatore, any questions we had could be answered. He showed us a two-liter soda bottle, now filled with water, and began to explain his errand, but changed his mind. “You’ll see. It’s just a short walk.”
Soon we came to a small park, a triangle of green in the dusty city. At one end a couple of small shrubs struggled through the turf. Salvatore opened the soda bottle, knelt, and poured water at the base of the shrubs. “I planted this,” he said, examining the main stalk of the plant, broken off a few inches from the ground. Then he looked across the park. From a bench about 30 yards away, several teenagers watched him, smirking as they talked among themselves. Salvatore sighed. “They laugh at me for taking care of this plant, for wanting something nice here in the park. They broke the stem. But look,” he said, pointing to the base of broken plant. New growth sprouted near the old stem. “It’s still growing.” He smiled, dismissing the attempted destruction, determined to nurture life, to bring the water and a hope to the broken plants.
In his eighties when we met, Salvatore had retired some years earlier from teaching Latin in the local school. He had lived in Piedimonte Matese his whole life. But his teaching years were not over. “I have one more small errand,” he told us, “if you don’t mind walking with me. It’s not far.” We walked through a residential area, and as we approached an apartment building he pulled a rolled up newspaper from under his sweater and opened it to reveal rose cuttings from his garden. “My students live here,” he said, “and their garden has some rose varieties I don’t have, so I am planting some of mine for them, and taking some of theirs for my garden at home.”
He rang a buzzer at the gated entry, and exchanged a few words on the intercom, too quick for my ears, with a woman. In just a moment, she appeared on a second floor balcony, a lovely stand-in for Sophia Loren, waving down to him and telling him something. “My students are on their way home,” he told us.
“Yes, her daughter and another girl. I tutor them in Latin every week. I want them to meet you. We’ll wait a few minutes if you don’t mind.” He quickly dealt with his horticultural errand, and then stood with us in the fall sunshine, listening intently. “Here they come!” he said, and we heard the sound of a scooter approaching.
Two teenage girls zoomed into the driveway on a Vespa, giggling with delight as they recognized Salvatore. They met us with shy good manners, but with Salvatore, three generations older than they were, they chattered with excitement. No, these were not the geeks of their school. They were two blossoming Italian beauties in tight jeans and fashion jewelry.
Perhaps nothing could have intrigued us more about Salvatore than the affection these students had for him. We took photos and promised to mail them back when we got home. Eager to know more, as we left the girls behind, we asked him how he had learned English.
“I learned from an American, a priest,” he said. “I’ll tell you about him. Do you mind walking a little farther with me?”
To be continued….