Remembering Salvatore: Part 3 of 3

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the last two weeks, I introduced Salvatore, and shared some of his experience during World War II.

After hearing about the priest, we threaded our way through the streets of Piedimonte Matese, impressed at the pace Salvatore set for us, given he was older than we were by thirty years or more. As he was unlocking the door to his house, I noticed a piece of ancient history built right into the door frame. The lower two or three feet on the left hand door frame was made of a fluted stone column, broken off at an angle. The typical Italian house construction, thick walls with stucco finish, surrounded it.

“Where did you get this?” I asked.

“My father found that column in the river many years ago, and had it in our home. When we were rebuilding the house after the war, we put it in this wall.”

I don’t recall asking what his father was doing when he found it. Fishing, maybe? I’ll bet you’ve never gone fishing and found an ancient Roman marble column! I found a silver dime once when I was digging in the garden, but that marble column has it beat. It must have been found before modern antiquities laws were enacted in Italy, because items like that are no longer considered ‘yours for the taking’ even if found on your own property.

We entered a corridor and climbed to the second floor  balcony to enter his home. (This is called the first floor in Italy, being the first floor above the ground floor.) It was cool and spacious, with dark furniture and nicely framed paintings. Light filtered in from a courtyard filled with plants.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Salvatore introduced us to his wife, who spoke no English. She greeted us kindly, with a knowing resignation that led us to believe we were not the first strangers her husband had brought home for a visit. After a short time she brought a silver tray with small glasses, and three bottles of liqueur with hand-written labels taped to them. After that, she left us to visit, and we didn’t see her again except to say goodbye.

Salvatore told us about his sons. One had followed him into the teaching profession, and the other was handicapped in some way, and required special care.

“Please try the drinks I made,” he urged us, and poured dark liquid from a tall bottle. “It is made from hazelnuts,” he said of the first one. A small taste was enough of that. Next came cherry liqueur, burning a deep red path down our throats. Salvatore set that aside, clearly eager to get to his last offering.

“I make this from my own recipe. It’s like limoncello,” he said.

Mixed citrus--from Wikimedia Commons

Mixed citrus–from Wikimedia Commons

We knew limoncello, and enjoyed it, but his drink was more orange colored than any we had tried. And more delicious! He smiled with satisfaction at our response. “It has not only lemons. I make it with oranges, lemons, and tangerines. My own recipe.” He beamed as we sipped the golden nectar. “I grow the fruit right here,” he said, gesturing toward the verdant courtyard.

“Do you share your recipe?”

“Of course!”

As he went to get paper and pen, I thought to myself, of course he shares his recipe. He is a man who shares his whole life, openhanded and openhearted with friends and strangers alike. He scratched out the recipe, with careful instructions, and we visited some more, went out on the balcony to see the garden, looked at paintings on his walls and photos of his sons.

As the afternoon wore away, we reluctantly excused ourselves to go back to the hotel. Our heads swirled with the stories, but more than that—Salvatore’s life itself was vibrant with generosity, joy, patience.

More than eight years later we still think of him and marvel. Who would have thought that the strongest image of life we encountered in Italy was an elderly, nearly toothless man who earned his living teaching a ‘dead’ language? Salvatore—that name means ‘savior’ and Salvatore’s spirit of vibrant life seems just what the world needs. Someone willing to do good in the face of ridicule, to foster young lives (human as well as plants), to remember the past and look to the future, and to share generously with strangers.

Maybe you are as eager to have Salvatore’s limoncello recipe as I was. I’m sharing it here, just as he wrote it for us.

1. You must take two ripe lemons, two oranges, and two tangerines (six in all);

2. Peel them completely;

3. Clean all the peels from the so called “pane”, that is the “bread” which is the white material between the peel and the fruit;  with your left hand you maintain still the peel by means of a table fork while with your right hand you liberate the peel from the white part, that is the “bread”, till the peel becomes rather transparent;

4. Put all these peels in one liter of liquor-alcohol and leave in a well closed glass container for about one month or more, if you prefer.  The fruit must not be placed in the container:  you eat apart [eat that separately];

5. Dissolve 1 kilo of sugar in one liter of hot water and mix with the alcohol after having taken away the peels.  At last you fill and keep in a well closed bottle.  The liquor is good to drink after two or three months. [Could he have meant “for two or three months”?]



Salvatore and the Priest (Part 2 of 3)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week’s post introduced Salvatore and our serendipitous meeting.

So how did this 80-something retired Latin teacher from a remote town east of Naples learn English? “I learned from an American priest,” he told us. “The priest who saved Piedimonte Matese!”

We walked along a street that climbed one side of a valley. As we walked, he told us about the priest. As a young man in America, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and was rejected by his Protestant family because of it. They wanted nothing to do with him. But he felt called to the priesthood, and eventually studied in Rome. He was assigned to serve in Piedimonte Matese in the 1930s. His family in America cut him off completely, but he loved his life and work in Italy as a priest, and he taught English to those who wanted to learn, including Salvatore, who was a young teenager at the time.

Then the war came. Mussolini joined the Axis powers in 1937, and as war gradually engulfed Europe, life in Italy became more and more difficult. The German presence in Italy grew to an oppressive level, and life was further disrupted by food shortages and military conscription. With the potential of American involvement in the war, the church and community authorities urged the priest to return to America, but he refused. Italy was his home, and he had no family waiting for him.

Then came Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered the war.

Salvatore paused on the sidewalk and pointed across the valley to another section of the town. “Do you see the palazzo over there, the biggest building? That is where the priest stayed during the war.”

The ducal palace, highest building in this photo.

The ducal palace, largest building in this photo.

Because it wasn’t safe for him to continue his service, the authorities prevailed upon the local duke to take him under his protection. Within the Palazzo Ducale, the priest was safe, but he could not leave the palace without risk of capture and imprisonment as an enemy alien.

Almost two years later, in the fall of 1943, American and British forces began making their way north up the Italian peninsula. The Germans had established a camp west of Piedimonte Matesa, near the Volturno River, and as the Allied forces approached in October, the Germans began a slow retreat, destroying bridges, roads, and supplies in their wake.

American forces continued their approach, shelling locations the Germans had occupied, causing additional damage to the war-ravaged town. The citizens were caught in the crossfire.  The priest knew the Germans had all withdrawn from the town, and wanted to let the approaching Allied forces know.

He attached a white flag to a pole, and set out for the American line, over the protests of the local citizens. When they realized he would not be dissuaded, a couple of them joined him as he walked down the main road directly into the Allied attack, waving the white flag and calling out to them in English. Finally, the shooting stopped.

“He saved our town,” Salvatore told us with tears in his eyes. “He was a hero to us.”

The Allies set up a camp where the Germans had been, and helped restore some order to the area. They needed help communicating with the local officials and citizens, and the priest recommended his young student, Salvatore, as their translator. Each day an army jeep driver picked up Salvatore to help with translation, and he was granted permission to be out after curfew so he could give Italian language lessons to the soldiers in the evenings. His father’s house had been bombed, and the soldiers helped them begin rebuilding.

“You see,” Salvatore said, “we owe a lot to Americans.”

I took photos of the palazzo across the valley, and we started back down the road. “Now, I’d like you to come to my house. I have made some liqueur I would like you to try.”

Come back next week for Part 3!

Meeting Salvatore

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.

Piedimonte Matese

Piedimonte Matese

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.

Salvatore, surrounded by plants on his balcony.

Salvatore, surrounded by plants on his balcony.

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.

“Your students?”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“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….