It's wonderful to be here with you, blogging on the Atlantic site. I've got a new book coming out next month: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture--the themes of which will sometimes be reflected here--but my entries will be far ranging and, I hope, provocative. Here, for example, is a bit of travelogue...
Thanks to the recommendation of (among others) my wise and worldly Atlantic colleague Corby Kummer, I just spent two weeks in Puglia, Italy, a marveously uncrowded and strangely unspoiled coastal region notable for its architecture (from garish Romanesque to tiny conical roofed "trulli,") its ancient Greek monuments, and--here's where Corby comes in--it's unsurpassed cuisine. But after spending a week or so in lush Puglia, I thirsted for a starker, less opulent place--and dipped into Bassilicatta.
Basilicata is a mountainous, arid landscape lodged deep in the arch of Italy's boot. The region has two tiny coastlines, one in the center of the Gulf of Taranto in the Ionian Sea, and the other on the Tyrrhenian Sea, but mostly it is dry, hot, and largely overlooked. In "Christ Stopped at Eboli," a memoir of his exile there before World War II, painter and physician Carlo Levi's portrayed Basilicata as a place untouched by modernity, or, for that matter, civilization, a desolate forgotten land where extended families huddled with their sheep, cows, and chickens in festering cave dwellings. Survival required enormous stamina, self discipline, cunning and luck--the infant mortality rate hovered at fifty percent, and few people lived past middle age. It was a place steeped in misery, certainly, but also history and majesty, and eventually Levi came to revere its stoic beauty, and the stubborn honor of its people. In 1943, the provincial capital city Matera mustered a militia against the German occupation, the first Italian region to do so.
Half a century later, in 1993, Matera was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, people live in its caves by choice, not out of desperation, and most have electricity, indoor plumbing and television. Few if any share their space with livestock, and more than a few have attended university. They are artists, craftspeople, architects, businesses owners. While the region remains one of the poorest in Italy, a place where unemployment is so common as to be expected, Matera today shows no signs of depression or hardship. I was struck by its other-worldly archeological wonders, its mystical churches carved directly into the rock, bedecked with ancient frescos, its grottos opening into enormous cave dwellings that once housed entire clans, its miles of twisted byways leading back to prehistory. Seeing these it was clear why Mel Gibson chose to film his controversial "Passion of the Christ" here--and easy to imagine that Matera today appeared much as Jerusalem must have 2000 years ago.
When the late afternoons are warm--as they usually are this time of year-- what seems like the entire population of Matera empties into a central plaza for the passageta, the daily promenade. The passageta is popular all over Italy and in other countries in southern Europe, but in Matera it seems to take on a special significance. Great grandparents and newborns throng the square deep into the night--well past what most of us would consider a reasonable bedtime. Teen agers--nerds, hipsters, great looking popular kids dressed for a big night out, loop endlessly, their faces expectant and open. On one side of the plaza, a young man keeps watch over his older sister as she observes the procession from the safety of her wheelchair. Over the course of an hour or so, he never leaves her side, and never loosens his smile, or his guard. On the other side of the plaza, a gaggle of older men sit gossiping, raising their head as one to nod in approval at young couples pushing baby carriages, middle aged couples leading aged parents by the arm. Some of the strollers have cell phones, but most don't. There is little money for such luxuries. Still, the children look particularly healthy, happy and well cared for. As I watch a pair of small boys kick a soccer ball against a church wall, while three small girls dressed in their Sunday best chase each other in gleeful circles. There is no graffiti, no litter in the streets, not even a cigarette butt. At midnight, the old people drift homeward, and teenagers pair off or gather in clumps of three or four, as their parents hang around, keeping a tactful eye. Toddlers and babies sleep in their carriages, or their father's arms. Lovers walk to a balcony to look down at the old city ablaze in moonlight.
In Matera, people consume, of course. The region is famous for its marvelously dense bread, its pasta with turnip tops. On Sunday, a motor cycle club comes to town, and gathers just outside one of the city's largest cave churches to show off their classic rides. A small group of locals stop to admire the machines before heading into mass. But most pass right by, oblivious. They will never have the money to buy one of these things, and even if they did there is no need. When it matters, in the passageta, everyone walks.