Calabria, and My Garden of Eden

My mother’s village, Santa Caterina dello Ionio, was perched high up on a mountain top. Each day at 5am I begged my aunts to take me with them to my grandfather’s orto (vegetable garden) he had named ‘Giangi’, which was a good half hour’s hike downhill into the gorge…

We came across people who got to their farms way before we even got out of bed. The aroma of baking bread made my stomach growl and I could see the tiny flames glowing inside their brick and stone ovens as we continued down the path.

I knew we had arrived at nonno’s orto when I saw the rivulet, more like a brook, gently meandering through the bottom of his property. One of my aunts lifted hefty boulders to block the water’s flow and create a pool where she would wash our clothes, beating them on the rocks before drying them on a branch of the nearby gigantic fig tree that looked hundreds of years old.

We were deep in a revine, and as I looked up I saw the most wonderful garden built on steps on the side of the mountain. My other aunt took me to the water reservoir nonno had built after returning from Philadelphia U.S.A. around 1908. It was called ‘u concu’. All she had to do was lift a wooden panel and water began flowing through all the pathways especially designed to water everything. I could sense my nonno’s spirit everywhere, and although I had never met my grandparents I felt them in my heart, as if they were sending me their love. They were humble hard-working souls who had endured much through World War 2 and had accepted their lot in life. Tears welled in my eyes.

Our first bit of food was at 11am when the church a couple of hundred meters above us tolled its bells helping farmers keep time. Watches were a luxury no-one could afford.

After helping gather some figs, also fica d’India (prickly pears) and more, we sat in the little casetta – the stone house nonno fixed up, but I was told it was originally built centuries ago. Brunch consisted of aromatic slices of Calabrese salami, hard cheese (Pecorino, I think), and yummy crusty Calabrese bread and a jug of that fresh mountain dew water from nonno’s concu… I was in heaven and felt what Eden must have looked like. This is my Calabria as I remember it… This is my experience in Calabria 1964… Memories of a little boy in Giangi, my Garden Eden…