HOTEL OF THE SIREN

I am delighted to have my novel published.

Scantic Books

“Hotel of the Siren” by Antoinette Carone

Scantic Books is proud to publish Hotel of the Siren, the richly textured debut novel by Antionette Carone. 

In the late twentieth-century, before cell phones and the internet, Lucy comes home from work and finds her artist husband Jon slumped over his easel. Some days later, Jon dies. At his funeral, Lucy watches a lady in a green scarf linger by his grave. When Lucy later finds the green scarf carefully placed over Jon’s grave, she begins to suspect Jon may have been having an affair. Lucy collects Jon’s life insurance, sells her house, and moves to Naples, Italy. She takes the scarf with her. There, she changes her name to Lucia, meets new friends, enjoys running along the bay, and begins a love affair of her own with Antonio. Unbeknownst to Lucia, Antonio is The Lady of the Green Scarf’s cousin. Hotel of the Siren tells of lovers and a city where reality can differ from appearance and expectations can be overturned

Below is an excerpt, which I hope you will enjoy.

The day after Thanksgiving, Lucy decided to sort through Jon’s work. Now was as good a time as any. Things needed to be put in order. Not a simple task. She started by gathering blank canvases, sketch pads, paints, brushes, art books, pencils of every size and hue. These she packed into boxes and stacked them in the corner. On Monday she would drop them off at the Children’s Aid Society for after-school art classes.

Next Lucy turned to the paintings lined up along the wall. Some she would give to friends. Most she would take to the gallery to be sold. Jon had created a plethora of work, and recently it had been going for a good price.

The fifth painting she picked up struck her. It was a nude, a woman. Not unusual. Jon often hired live models. This model was tall and thin. She was seated with her right leg extended while the left leg bent with the foot touching the right thigh. Arms lifted, hands folded behind her head, she reclined on pillows piled against an ochre wall. She seemed to contemplate something beyond the frame that contained her. The woman was rendered in warm tones. Her skin was alabaster with pinkish-beige shadowing. Her nipples and aureole were a dark sienna with a muted vermillion undertone. A tint that only Jon seemed able to formulate. All shades of brown, except for her auburn hair which blended into cushions of rose-and amber. All these warm tones lulled the viewer’s eye until it was pulled away by the emerald green drapery around the woman’s shoulders. A long scarf fell between her breasts and over her right thigh, only just concealing her vulva but not her pubic hair, which was a lush chestnut and prolific. The effect on Lucy was disturbing. Something in the painting was familiar.

Instinctively, she shoved the canvas away from her. She sensed danger in the image but couldn’t articulate its cause. Unsettled, she reacted to something in the painting that she had seen in the past. Something no longer remembered, even, but it lay in the recesses of her mind waiting to be recognized, waiting to do harm. The threat centered not on the nude herself but on the green scarf. It was uncanny—familiar but strange. Lucy remembered having seen it, but it was nowhere in Jon’s studio, not with other fabric and props he used with models or for still life.

“Green,” Lucy remembered Anna saying, “is the color of healing.” But this green looked like the color of poison, the drapery languidly spreading to engulf and suffocate.

My imagination is on overdrive.

Lucy berated herself as she picked up the painting to place it in the stack for the gallery. Instead, she stood it against the wall, facing backward.

On Sunday, Lucy went for a walk. The painting had disturbed her more than she wanted to acknowledge. She had been nervous and restless since finding it. Instead of staring out the window and allowing Grimaldi to make use of her lap, she sought the outdoors. She enjoyed walking. It relaxed her..

Lucy walked the short distance through the dead leaves on the sidewalks in front of the houses on her street and onto the larger avenue. This, in turn, gave onto a street as old as the town itself. It had never been properly paved but surfaced with brick. Because of this, hardly anyone ever drove on the street. It was ideal for walking, though. Lucy advanced without conscious aim in whatever direction fate took her. The old road ended abruptly at the graveyard so curiously placed in the middle of this splendid neighborhood.

Finding herself at the cemetery, Lucy decided to visit Jon. Perhaps seeing the earth that contained him would make her believe time was truly passing. She might not remain frozen in grief. She loved the life she and Jon had shared. She loved the colors that stained his hands, the smell of oil paint on his skin, and the way he looked beyond everything when solving a problem with shading or line. She loved the way he beamed at gallery openings. All now and forever gone.

“I need to find a new mode of being,” she said aloud.

She wound her way through tombstones toward the oak and maple canopy that stood over Jon’s gravesite and searched for his grave. His headstone would not have been erected yet. There would be only a small white rectangular marker with his name. Lucy imagined she saw a figure move among the trees, and vaguely recalled an image of witches dancing around a sacred oak.

An acorn fell at her feet. She was standing under a spread-out branch an oak tree. A live oak, still bearing its leaves, although now brown and desiccated. The lawn too was sparse and dun colored. Then she saw it—the one point of color standing out in the monochrome of muddy earth and grey tombstones. Green.

An emerald scarf lay on the upturned soil of Jon’s grave. It was placed over the earth, like someone might cover a sleeping child. Lucy inhaled sharply. Her breath came cold and sharp, like the thrust of a knife. She picked up the scarf. It felt warm., as if laid there only a few minutes ago. It was made of fine wool but had no label. Perhaps it had been hand-knit, the stitches were so small and precise, soft and supple. The scarf was stunning.

Once home, she made directly for Jon’s studio. She laid the scarf on the edge of Jon’s easel. It draped in folds to the floor. It was the scarf in the painting!

Again, Lucy could not help but admit that the model was beautiful and her appearance the antithesis of her own. Now she pondered the idea that Jon had been deeply estranged from her. He did often say that if she lost just ten pounds, she would be perfect and had often asked her to let her hair grow and maybe have it straightened. But Lucy liked her curly hair cut short for easy maintenance. She resented his imposing his artist’s aesthetic on her. After all, her body was hers to control, not his. The notion that her husband might have been attracted to a woman so opposite unnerved her. But then, it was only a picture. Still, it was so sensuously and lovingly rendered.

The figure in the painting propelled Lucy to her bedroom mirror. For the first time since… when? Lucy studied herself in a mirror. She encountered an average-looking woman where once she welcomed an exotic one. This woman was not short, but she certainly was not tall either. She appeared sturdy rather than delicate, having ceded her youthful flexibility to her work desk, and in return, having been granted a little extra weight. That woman had once looked like a Botticelli boy, or so Jon had said. Dark brown hair, very curly, falling to her shoulders in ringlets. She hadn’t bothered with her hair over the past month, so now it was almost shoulder length again. In the soft and intimate shadows of their bedroom, her eyes seemed to be a plain light brown. But not always. They were perfectly capable of turning green in certain light. But green was not a color Lucy wanted to acknowledge.

You can order Hotel of the Siren here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09V34QY2Q

Pasta with Lemon Sauce alla Sorrentina

One evening in Sorrento, we enjoyed dinner with friends in a local restaurant. Sorrento is famous for lemons. We all had tagliatelle with lemon sauce. Superb!

As I often do, I have tried to duplicate this dish. I didn’t quite succeed.  Only the food in Italy tastes like the food in Italy. But I did concoct something rather good.  Here is the recipe:

For 2 -4 servings:

1/ 2 teaspoon olive oil

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 lemons

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 – 1 teaspoon honey (to taste)

Dried savory and sea salt to taste

1/2 pound pasta of your choice

Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet until it just covers the bottom. Just enough to keep the pine nuts from sticking. Next toss the pine nuts in pan until lightly browned. Set aside.

Slice one lemon into very thin rounds. Squeeze the second one.

Melt butter in same skillet. Add the savory and salt and cook for about one minute.

Add the sliced lemon and sauté until caramelized and soft. Add lemon juice, honey and white wine. Simmer to blend flavors.

In the meantime, cook pasta of your choice according to package directions. Drain and add to the lemon mixture. Top with pine nuts.

November in Campania

I haven’t posted anything in the Italian Scrapbook for a while now. It didn’t seem right to extol the splendors of Italy when the country was experiencing such a bad time. They still exist, though, Italy’s beauties. We longed to visit them again. Since Italy had opened for travel, we decided to go for Thanksgiving.

We rented an apartment in Marina Grande, a fishing village below Sorrento. Here we could look out at the fleet (and also Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples).

November can be a melancholy time in Campania, the region in southern Italy that contains Naples, the Sorrentine Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast. It is cold and rainy. Nevertheless, we were optimistic. Summer lasts a long time in this part of the world.

In the past, we had always gone in October.  At that time of year, we could still swim. It’s too cold for our friends in Sorrento who are used to the Mediterranean. For us, accustomed to the Atlantic, the water is fine. In October we could still hike the mule trails that run through mountains of the interior. of the peninsula.

However, things can change suddenly. A couple years ago, on the last day of October, we finished our excursion and ended up at the International Bar near Positano. The sun and light breeze had granted us a perfect hiking day. All at once wind and rain blew in from the sea. In the aftermath, the storm left damp red dust over everything. Our friends said this was the scirocco coming from Africa. The turn in the weather signals the change of seasons. There is no autumn in Campania. Summer stops. Winter begins.

But it didn’t seem to have begun yet in our fishing village when we decided to go to Amalfi. The day before we had walked in sunshine through a Roman ruin nearby. It was only drizzling lightly the morning we climbed from the beach up, up, up to the Sorrento center.

So, like the good Campanian peasants our forebears were, we prepared for the worst. We took proper gear for hiking in the rain. In the town square, the aroma of coffee, caught in the damp air near the Bar Ercolano, seduced us. We paused for an americano. Like good Campanian peasants, we also hoped for the best. And sure enough, by the time we were ready to go, the rain had stopped. We boarded the bus to Amalfi.

The bus meandered up the mountain. Beyond the serpentine road lay our favorite hiking trail, Il sentiero degli dei – The Path of the Gods. In the prolonged summer, the woods had been a brilliant green.

Now, hazy in the mist of returning drizzle, they appeared verdigris. Whichever ancient gods live here, were now somber, preparing for the harsh winter that was approaching. We arrived at Amalfi in the rain. The beach, so enticing in the summer, echoed the gloomy mood of the countryside. The sea was dull, cloudy, no longer turquoise and scintillating. Waves smashed on the seawall, warning us to stand back.

We found a very good restaurant and by the time we finished lunch, the rain had stopped, and sun seemed to be poking through the mist.

Encouraged by the break in clouds, we risked the short walk along the coast to the next town, Atrani. We arrived at the town square in a hailstorm.

There is a road to Amalfi that tunnels through the mountains. It protected us from the hail. This road doesn’t seem like a road.  At first, I thought I was entering the courtyard of one of the buildings that surround the square. But no, it is a real street that led us back.

By the time we emerged from the “tunnel”, the hail had turned into mist. We were graced with a hazy view of the pathway from Atrani to Amalfi.

By four o’clock we were back in Amalfi. It was already getting dark. We took the next bus back to Sorrento and hit rush hour traffic.

You might consider our excursion a failure. Bad weather. Glum mood. A tedious journey with no glorious outcome. But everything doesn’t have to be exciting to be enjoyable. The colors and disposition of winter have their particular beauty.

As the bus pulled into the station in Sorrento, the rain stopped. The air was crystal – sharp and clear. It was the night of the lighting on the tree in the square. There were costumed dancers. The crowd joined in singing traditional songs.

Perhaps this is magic of this part of the world – the worst and best all at once.

Black Friday Penne alla Vodka

We are spending Thanksgiving at home this year.  Like a lot of our friends, we are doing a lot of cooking and experimenting with new takes on old recipes.

Like most Catholic families, we grew up waiting to eat leftover turkey until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Friday was fish day.  In a way, I like to continue that custom.  Not for traditional reasons, but because we like to have something light the day after.  Also, we crave tastes that depart from the traditional holiday fare.  So, I set out to make a dish for Black Friday – black pasta with squid.

Our friend Antonio made this for us in Naples.  He pointed out that there they don’t use pasta that has been tinted black.  For Neapolitans, it’s the sauce.  It’s a very spicy tomato sauce made with cuttlefish that has its ink sac intact. 

Since cuttlefish is hard to find here, I use fresh squid and add canned squid in its own ink.  This year, I could not find it where I usually shop.  Since this is not the time to be going from store to store, I decided to improvise. 

So here is my recipe for Black Friday Penne alla Vodka made with shrimp and black caviar. 

Like most of what we make, dinner starts in Jim’s herb garden.  This time of year it’s rather depleted, but I did procure some lovely savory and thyme.

For four servings:

1/2 pound of penne (I recommend green/spinach penne, if it’s available.)

24 shrimp

1/4 cup vodka

1 cup minced onion

2 cups chopped Campari tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Thyme and savory

4 tablespoons black caviar, divided

Sauté shrimp and set aside, keeping warm.

Set about 2 tablespoons of minced onion aside. 

Heat the olive oil.  Add the seasonings.  If you don’t have fresh herbs, use about ½ teaspoon of dried – or, of course, to taste.  Marjoram is a good substitute for savory.

Add the tomato and remaining onion in olive oil until the onion is translucent and the tomatoes are soft. 

Meanwhile, cook the penne according to package directions.

Add the vodka to the sauce and cook for a few minutes.  You may want to puree the sauce at this point. 

Add 2 tablespoons of caviar.  Just a note – the caviar will not turn the penne as black as does the squid ink.

Drain the penne and add it to the sauce in the pan.   

Divide the pasta among four plates, top each with six shrimp.  In the center of the shrimp, add a dollop of caviar and some minced onion.

Buon appetito

Grimaldi’s Thanksgiving

Grimaldi knew something interesting was afoot.  There was unusual hustle and bustle in Anna’s kitchen.  She and her husband Salvatore spoke loudly, using strange words that he was just beginning to understand.  When they spoke to him, though, they made the familiar sounds that Jon once used.  Grimaldi early on figured out that when Anna said “latte,” she meant milk and “carne” meant meat.  No matter which language, these words brought Grimaldi running to his bowl.  

Grimaldi missed his old home.  He still grieved for Jon, although he loved Anna.  His thoughts drifted to the beings who had disappeared from his life.  He knew that after Jon had vanished, Jon’s mate Lucy did not want him.  She moved to a place called Naples, leaving Grimaldi with Anna and Salvatore.  Henceforth he was to be Anna’s cat. 

As far back as Grimaldi could remember, Lucy never liked him, and for his part, Grimaldi disliked Lucy.  She had no business being in that house but could stay at Jonathan’s sufferance.  Lucy cooked and cleaned.  That Grimaldi would give her.  She did not encourage him to stay around when she cooked, however; so he made a habit of lying in the doorway, pleased when Lucy barely missed tripping on him.  She never shared tidbits from her plate, as Jonathan used to do. 

One day, shortly before Jon vanished, Grimaldi had stretched out on the kitchen table.  Lucy had gone out.  Had she seen him, she’d have thrown whatever she could grab at him.  Grimaldi heard the key; he jumped down and stood in the middle of the room.  As Lucy entered, he put his tail in the air and sauntered away upstairs.  Lucy snarled at the cat’s departing rear and set out to make dinner.  Then she noticed cat hairs on the table.  She felt the surface.  Warm.  “Damn that cat!” she shouted.  If she had gotten her hands on him, she would have tossed him out the window. 

Grimaldi, though, was quite pleased to have gotten away with something.  Upstairs now, he considered jumping up on the bed, but thought he’d better not push his luck. Lucy had it in for him as it was.   He meandered into Jon’s studio.

He found Jon absorbed in painting.  A cup of lukewarm tea and a cheese sandwich sat on a side table.  Grimaldi lapped up a little spilled milk and nosed the sandwich.  He pushed the top piece of bread off and nibbled the cheese.  Then he yowled his Siamese yowl.  Jon turned around and smiled.  Grimaldi sat and regarded Jon, blinking his blue eyes. 

Jon stopped painting to admire Grimaldi.  His colors were perfect—a tail the hue of dried autumn leaves melded into a sandy tan touched with sienna on his body.  The shade flowed back into deep brown of his graceful legs and upward to the ears.  The cool blue of his eyes made for a startling interruption of the warm browns.  Something in the eyes recalled the Mediterranean.  But viewed from afar.  As if gazing on the sea from the mountains above Amalfi.  A blue approaching a cool bright turquoise (but not quite) sliced by glints of white sunlight.  Jon never entirely managed to capture their luster in paint.  Light defined them, not pigment. 

Grimaldi finished Jon’s lunch.  He warbled, and careful not to disturb Jon’s paints, wove himself around Jon’s legs.  Jon seemed dispirited, as if retreating behind his easel.  Then Grimaldi smelled it — not Jon’s scent, but a smell that meant something coming to an end. 

Grimaldi’s instinct was to run away.   He had not forgotten his littermate, Grazia.  She too had emanated this same odor of death that made her unfamiliar.  From the time he first detected it, Grimaldi kept her at a distance.  Grazia crept into the basement where she hid behind the furnace.  She stayed there for two days until Jon pulled her out, limp and dusty.  He wiped her off and laid her ever so gently in a box.  This he put into the car and drove off.  When he returned, he was alone.  The way Grazia changed and vanished disturbed Grimaldi for a long time. 

Now it was happening again. Only Grimaldi sensed it.  Lucy did not.  She behaved as if everything were normal.  He did not run away this time, but rubbed the easel with his upper lip to mark Jon’s place as his own. 

Soon however, the hubbub in Anna’s kitchen made Grimaldi forget his melancholy and drew him there.  He sprang to the windowsill.  He sniffed the delightful aromas and tried to discover what was going on.  Anna was unusually busy.  Interesting smells floated all around.  Grimaldi, taking advantage of Anna’s good nature, plopped himself in the middle of her table to see what he might eat. 

Anna didn’t mind.  She was glad of the company.  Her adopted country did not relegate cats to outdoors where they were expected to hunt their own food.  Here they treated animals as the sentient beings Anna knew them to be.  So, working around the cat, she prepared her American Thanksgiving. 

Foremost was making pumpkin pie, an American dessert that she found peculiar but scrumptious.  Anna offered Grimaldi crumbs of crust and put a little condensed milk into his bowl.  The cat gobbled it all.  Then Anna opened the can of pumpkin.  He went mad with delight.  He mewed and rubbed her legs, nearly tripping her.

“Pumpkin is for cows, not cats,” she told him.

After the pies were baked, Anna put them on the dining room table to cool.  Grimaldi leapt to a chair, then onto the table.  He was about to lick one when Anna picked him up.  She carried him out and closed the door.

While Anna was relaxing, reading the Corriere della sera, Grimaldi made his way to the dining room.  He couldn’t push the door open, but he had an idea.  He leapt and grabbed hold of the doorknob with his paws.  As he dropped, it turned, and the door opened a crack.  Grimaldi nudged it open and stole in.  Yet again, he jumped on the table. A pumpkin pie was waiting. He devoured the center, leaving a great hole. 

Grimaldi was thankful that Thanksgiving — thankful to be clever enough to get a taste of pie, and that Anna loved life too much to deny any creature a measure of enjoyment.

End of Summer Pesto

Summer is almost over and we are missing Italy and our friends there.  All we could do this year was watch videos of the empty Italian cities and people singing from their balconies.  A friend emailed pictures of the deserted streets of Naples, adding that, “A populace that doesn’t observe laws, now is observing the law.”

This is a street in Naples as we were accustomed to seeing it.

Another friend sent the link to a documentary about doctors and a hospital fighting Covid-19 in northern Italy.  All this has brought us to tears.  Yet, the Italian spirit endures.

It goes without stating that we couldn’t travel this year.  I know it is frivolous to lament a missed vacation.   Sometimes I feel that all that can be said about the direness of this epidemic has already been said.  I have nothing more add.  It is a sad and frightening time for everyone.  Isolated, we all yearn to see our families and friends. This plague touches us all, and we are doing what we can to brave it.

Yet here in Long Island life seems to go on.  Especially in Jim’s garden.  As if to assert, “See, I will continue to nourish you,” his herb patch is thriving.  The basil has never been so lush.  One of the ways I could use all this basil was to make pesto sauce.

I know well that there are many versions of pesto online and they result in a wide variety of sauces.  Some years ago when I bought some fresh basil at the local farmers’ market – more basil than I knew what to do with.  I muddled my way through making pesto and we loved it.  I wrote down what I did and have followed this recipe ever since.

It is simple, comprising only five ingredients – basil, pignoli nuts, olive oil, garlic and pecorino romano.  (I leave out salt, which everyone may add as they prefer.)

Thinking of how the Mediterranean diet is healthful and realizing these ingredients are all implicit to Italian cuisine, I did my best to discover the nutrition benefit for each one.

Source:  http://www.nutrition-and-you.com

Basil:      An anti-inflammatory and an anti-bacterial.  It is rich in vitamin A and likewise contains vitamin K, potassium, manganese, copper, magnesium, and iron.

 

Pignoli Nuts:  Contain monounsaturated fatty acids and might help  reduce bad cholesterol, while increasing the good.   They are high in vitamins E and B complex and an excellent source of minerals as well.

  [Jim says these might break the budget.]

 

Olive Oil:        Also helps prevent inflammation and maintain cholesterol balance.  It too is high in vitamin E.

Garlic:             Also a source of minerals potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and selenium and in vitamins B6 and C.  When cut, the bulbs generate allicin, which aids in reducing risk of heart disease and may be an anti-bacterial and anti-viral.

[Jim says that Italians have always known that garlic is good for everything.]

Pecorino romano:        I checked out http://www.bio-medicine.org/ for information on this sheep’s milk cheese.  They say it enhances the immune system and even those who are lactose intolerant can eat it.

[When I originally made pesto, I couldn’t have dairy products, so I served the pecorino on the side.   Everyone added as much as they wanted. ]

So it is with hopeful thoughts of delicious food and friendship that I offer my recipe for pesto.

First, if you are fortunate, you just go to your herb garden and pick basil.   Be sure not to take the whole plant. Cut it with clippers right above the small leaves at the bottom of the stalk.  That way, the plant keeps growing rather than going to seed.   If you don’t have room outdoors, buy a pot of basil and nurture it.  It will flourish in an apartment too.

 

Second, have your significant other grate the cheese.

 

Now, to create the sauce:

2 cups basil leaves                                                      1/2 cup pignoli nuts

1/4 cup olive oil                                                          3 cloves of garlic, minced

1/2 cup pecorino romano, grated                                Salt to taste

Place basil, pignoli nuts, garlic and salt (if you wish to use it) in a blender or food processor.  Slowly puree while adding olive oil in a steady stream.

Put pureed mixture into a bowl and add the grated cheese.

Yield:  1 cup.

Enjoy with pasta or on gnocchi.  Or with anything you like.

 

 

 

Buon appetito

The Cilento

It’s the start of a New Year and of course all good resolutions and good wishes for health and prosperity abound. This year, I am hopeful. I recently published “Siren Shore”, a book of short stories set in Naples (and the Campania region). So far, it has been well received.

The inspiration for this story was a legend from my father’s village in the Cilento region of Campagna, Italy. He said that the belief was that anyone born when the bells tolled for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was destined to become “a human wolf”, as he put it. My father did not share this belief, though he knew that some people in the village did. He loved to tell how he somehow acquired a wolf skin and snuck up on a friend guarding sheep one Christmas Eve. This was over 100 years ago, when wolves still roamed in the Cilento. They were a real danger to the local families who raised sheep and goats then sold cheese made from their milk in the nearby town. The animals grazed on community land in the countryside so it was the task of boys of the various families to watch over the flocks during the night.

Although the traditional time for telling ghost stories falls on Halloween and — in the past — on Christmas Eve, since today is Epiphany which also plays a role in my story, I feel it’s appropriate to include part of Maledetto here:

 

I was growing bigger by the day. At the beginning of Advent, Maria felt my belly and assured me and Sebastian that the baby would be born before time, that is before Christmas Day. Maria encouraged me to eat meat, saying that it was good for me now, but perhaps once the baby came, we would not have such an abundance. It might not be good for the child. Sebastian had grown up on only fish, cheese and vegetables and had been fine until….she did not go on. I craved meat and ate as much as I could at these family dinners while Sebastian watched me closely. I couldn’t quite decipher his expression which seemed to vary from vexation to tenderness.

On morning of Christmas Eve, I suddenly felt tired and touchy. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to hide from the joyous throng and read in solitude. I slipped away before aperitives were served and made my way into the library where my quiet alcove awaited. There was quite a collection of books – oddly enough, though, most dated from the nineteenth century.

I began to peruse the family Bible for names and birth dates of Sebastian’s relatives. I was curious about anything concerning Sebastian. He would never tell me his age or his birthday. The Bible contained old, old records, but I found an entry for “Sebastian, born 25 December 1899 at the stroke of midnight.” There was never any other man with his name in the family. That he did tell me. And it is very unusual in an Italian family that a son is not named for his father or one of his grandfathers. Written in the margin near the entry was a single word – maledetto. “Cursed”.

Since January in Naples is wet and rainy, I had stayed indoors since Isabella’s birth. Even Sebastian’s mother, La Signora, had not objected when I declined to go to mass that morning for the Epiphany. Epiphany – when the Divine or some mystery is to be revealed. For La Signora is was a Holy Day of Obligation.

“You will receive your revelation in any event,” she told me as she set off that damp and chilly morning of January 6th. “I will pray for you.” She looked at Sebastian, but I felt her words were directed to me as well.

“Do you want to accompany your mother?” I had asked Sebastian. “I don’t mind.”

“I cannot,” he replied

 

 

Jim and I frequently visited the Cilento when we were staying in Naples. This region is characterized by villages atop the mountain peaks and farmland at a distance below in the valleys. I have read that pattern of settlement is a feature of southern Italy, which developed under the Normans. Mountain top villages were easier to defend and the farmland became part of the large estates under the feudal system that the Normans imposed when they ruled the south of Italy from about 1040 to 1265.

Cilento Village on Opposite Peak

My father’s town, Campora, lies high in the mountains. When he lived there, it was probably one of the most isolated places in the world. Like the best of old and ancient Italy we have seen here, it is not to be found in the mainstream guidebooks. But sometime after the seventies, the Cilento region was made into a national park and it is now a destination of an elite British hiking tour; there are trails which can be followed, after a fashion, on your own. Campora, noted as a rural village of Cilento, lies amid some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in Italy.

Mountaintop Village in Cilento

To reach the village, you drive up a mountain that twists and turns like a snake. At a certain turn, you can see the village across the valley, on the other side of the mountain. We got there late one afternoon, just as the cows were coming home, walking down the middle of the road straight toward our car. For a moment we thought we were going to have a head-on collision with cows. But they nonchalantly moved to the side and let us pass.

Campora-Entering the Village

We stayed with my cousins Maria and Pasquale, who were in their late seventies. Most of the people in the village were elderly and had lived there all their lives, as did generations before. Maria says that the village was there before Roman times. For thousands of years the Calore River has been carving the gorge that is the valley and it is not hard to imagine people dwelling in the mountains from time immemorial. Maria took me down to the old water mill at the bottom of the valley. When she was a child, the whole village brought their washing to the public washhouse beside the mill. There was no running water in the houses.

 

I asked Maria how Campora had fared during the World War II. She said life went on much as before because they were so isolated that the Germans had no interest in them.

The villagers grew their own food, so ate well; their animals were not requisitioned; they got their water from the public fountain. It was only after the War that houses had their own running water. It was interesting to see my family name on the War Memorial plaque in front of the town café-bar. Carone’s from Campora had served and died in a war fought in 1896 and World War I. With the war deaths and the emigration of the male family members, the Carone’s have died out in Campora.

The young people, though, have left for jobs elsewhere in Italy, mostly in the north.  Many of the houses are abandoned now. We stumbled into one at the perimeter of the village. It looked as if it had once been lovely. The house where my father was born is empty now as well.

 

© Antoinette Carone 2019

Photographs © James J. Mauro

Siren Shore is available on Amazon and at Shakespeare & Co. http://bit.ly/SirenShore

Presepio

One of my favorite Neapolitan traditions is the presepio.  Although the presepio is a representation of the Holy Family at the birth of Jesus, and is therefore part of the Christmas celebration, in Naples one sees them not only at Christmastime, but throughout the year.  In Naples time is a continuum;  all events co-exist.  One of my favorite walks is on Via San Gregorio Armeno, where artisans are working on the figures in the presepio at all times.  This street has been dubbed “Christmas Alley”, which I find annoying.  First of all, it is not an alley, but a via in the part of Naples that dates past Roman times to its Greek founding.  And, moreover, the presepio is not a mere seasonal ornament, but a part of Neapolitan life.
Below is an article by Anita Sanseverino who is an expert on Neapolitan traditions.  She recently gave presentations on the presepio for the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum  and the American-Italian Cultural Roundtable, both in New York City.  Anita elucidates the history and meaning of the presepio beautifully.

 

Il Presepio Napoletano

By Anita Sanseverino

 

In the Italian language, the word ”Presepio” means “Crib.”  Now we use the word to refer not just to the manger, but to the entire edifice and all of the scenes.  It is not considered a “presepio” when only the figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child are represented.  That is the nativity or as it was referred to in the past:  “The Sacred Mystery.”

There were representations of the birth of Christ as early as the 2nd century A.D. but the type of nativities and presepi that we see today are said to have had their origins with St. Francis of Assisi.  In the year 1223, St. Francis took a manger, which was used to feed animals, filled it with hay, placed a few live animals around it, and had a Mass celebrated in front of it.  This representation did not have any figures of the Holy Family.  That came later.

Later, three dimensional scenes were created.  The oldest one still in existence in Italy is in marble created by Arnolfo Di Cambio in the 1300’s and can still be seen at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.  Later, in other places in Italy and in Europe, other artists created the expanded scenes.  At one point, the Jesuits took charge of the Presepio tradition, in order to promote the teachings of the Catholic Church.

It is important to not that the Golden Age of the Presepio took place in Naples, Italy when Carlo di Borbone, who developed a passion for the presepio, became the King of Naples in 1735.

Until this point, the presepio was the domain of the church.  With King Carlo, it moved from the church to the place; from the palace to the grand homes of the nobility; until this tradition reached the general populace in the 19th century.

At the time of Carlo’s reign, the city of Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of Naples, so the city experienced a flourishing art and culture community, and because the King himself developed such a passion for the presepio, it became one of the greatest expressions of Neapolitan art.

Eventually, an entire industry of artists and artisans grew around the making of the presepi – this included artisans who specialized in specific items.  There were artists who were masters at creating figures of animals, exact replicas of musical instruments, miniature fruits and other foods, and of course, the faces of the human figures.  No detail was overlooked in order to make every scene as realistic as possible.  The King’s own presepio grew to include about 6,000 pieces, which were displayed in the Royal Apartments and the public was invited in to view this spectacular scene.

The unique aspect of the Neapolitan presepio was its representation of Naples itself.  Their genius for the portrayal of the full range of the human condition is evident in the figures themselves – and the scenes are set in Naples, not Bethlehem – so that Naples, in effect, becomes part of this monumental event in human history.  The landscape, and all the various types of labor are represented.  Daily life in Naples is reflected in the riot of colors, the crowded scenes of the city, the marketplace, the vendors, the musicians:  not only were there shepherds and Wise Men, there were people of every level of society, going about their daily business.

And at the pinnacle of these street scenes, sits the Holy Family – that Sacred Mystery – and they are shown sitting under a broken temple, rather than being portrayed in a stable or cave – because this broken temple Signifies the Triumph of Christianity over Paganism.  But the genius for portraying scenes of daily life in such an exciting way enables one to feel the liveliness and almost hear the noise of the city!  At the same time, you can see in the faces of even the improvised characters, that the artists have given them a dignity, a purpose, a sense that they too are as important in this event, as are the three Wise Men.

They have shown by integrating the full range of society with the story of the birth of Christ, king of the world, coming to us by way of poor parents, born in a simple hut, that rich or poor, healthy or lame, we are all alike in Christ – that a person’s worth comes not from noble birth, but that all human beings have dignity because they are creations of God.  This is the message inherent in the Christmas story and the Neapolitan Presepio portrays this message in the most creative and human terms.

 

Here are some photographs of presepi that Jim and I took during our stay in Naples last fall.

 

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One of my favorite presepi takes up the whole ground floor of a building in Via Sapienza. It is always present and may be visited at any time. Here is part of a scene with shepherds.

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Neapolitan houses with a man looking out from his balcony. Neapolitans consider it a great thing to have a balcony.

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Detail of a fishmonger’s stall

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Detail of stairs leading to the home

 

Below are scenes from one of the presepi in Amalfi.  This one is built into a fountain and again, may be seen whenever one visits Amalfi.  It shows the whole spectacle of a village, high and low, rich and poor:

 

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All Souls’ Day

As November draws to a close and I think of our Thanksgiving Day tradition, one which we celebrated joyfully, I also remember other, perhaps darker, traditions observed in this month in another part of the world.  This episode of the Sebastian Stories was inspired by such.

Chiesa San Giovanni delle Monache-17th Century (Detail)

The simple pleasure of warm sun.  That was what I longed for and this was only the first day of November rain.  The damp of the villa penetrated my bones.  The chill was unrelenting.

The pool had been drained and covered for the coming winter.  This had been done yesterday on All Souls’ Day, that is November 2nd.  It’s odd to think that only three days ago, we were still swimming in its balmy water.  Even yesterday I remarked upon the trees surrounding the pool – at a respectable distance to avoid a clogging abundance of fallen leaves.  These trees still held on to their foliage, so stately and proud.  But Sebastian said one must think ahead and had the pool drained and covered while I was out shopping.

I walked down Via Costantinopoli in the stillness of dead and dropping leaves, leaves that had been on the trees yesterday.  The sun was out, heating the stones in Piazza Bellini where the old dog from a nearby café lay warming his ancient bones.  I made my way to my favorite pastry shop on Via Tribunali where my mouth watered at a display of nougat candy called torrone in the window – all different kinds vanilla and chocolate, of course; but also green nougat which was pistachio and also coffee nougat.  Some with almonds; some with hazelnuts.  I had noticed that these confections had appeared in the shops around the beginning of October, along with chestnut gelato.  (This I bought for myself every chance I got, since it was seasonal and would soon disappear.)

When I returned home with a large package of various torrone, I found the pool drained and covered.  I had hoped for one last swim, but it was not to be.  Maria took the package from me, saying it was too heavy.

“Why is there torrone only at this time of year?” I asked her.

“It’s for the dead,” she answered.  “The white nougat is molded into a long form and represents the bones of the dead.  For us all life has meaning,”

Maria then told me that All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day fall exactly between the time of the year when day and night are equal and the time when the daylight is shortest, that is the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.  At this time of year the veil between the worlds of the living and dead was thinnest.  On All Saints’ Day, we honor all who were holy; All Souls’ Day is the appropriate time to take care of tasks for the living.  It is the day on which ordinary people are remembered and prayed for.  She said that we want the dead to assist us in life, so we must honor them.  The custom of propitiating the dead was initiated by Romulus after the founding of Rome.  Romulus did not want his brother, with whom he argued then killed, to return and seek vengeance.  Autumn can be a malevolent time and we must be cautious.

Sebastian and his family had begun their festivities even earlier, on the evening of October 31st.  Hallowe’en.  My favorite holiday when I could disguise myself as whatever grabbed my fancy.  I had always been attracted to costumes and fantasy.  But here in Naples, we spent the day wandering around the cemetery, wandering amongst graves and finally visiting the family vault.  I did not mind, however.  I had found another way of being in the quiet dignity of this place.  Just keeping still, letting something happen it its own good time.

Workmen were preparing another vault.  For Sebastian and me?  There was a third unmarked stone on the ground, so small that I tripped over it while looking at the names in the mausoleum.  It seemed ominous at first, but then I considered that I was merely being drawn in by the mood of my surroundings.

Sebastian’ mother, Signora Flora, talked about her late husband Raimondo as if he had only just been placed in the mausoleum, whereas he has been there for twenty years.  The stone is already beginning to wear at Raimondo’s name and likeness because Signora Flora has passed her hand over it so often, letting it linger over his face.  She has not remarried.

La Signora tries to keep close to Sebastian and he does not seem to mind.  I sometimes wonder how he ever managed to get away to New York.  What must La Signora have thought when he returned with a wife!

Today the scirocco came.  It started with a few drops of rain.  Then wind – in full force.  Sebastian had been right about draining the pool.  By the afternoon, the trees were completely bare, and the cover was chocked with leaves and red dust.  The cars on the street looked as if they had been in a sandstorm.  Red dust covered everything, and craters had formed where giant rain drops had landed.

“This is the dust of Africa,” Maria told me.

I stayed inside the villa and tried to stay warm.  I was tired just waiting.  I felt heavier and bigger today.  I could hardly move and nowhere, but nowhere accommodated my great belly.

“Soon,” said Maria.  “It will be soon.”

But it would not be so very soon.  Isabella was due on Christmas Day.  (Maria had said it would be a girl.) We were hoping she would come early because Christmas Day was Sebastian’s birthday.  La Signora said that it was a sin to be born on Christ’s birthday and the poor creature would suffer just as Sebastian did.  La Signora, I suspected, had prevailed upon Maria to brew a potion that would make Isabella come ahead of time.  I intended to refuse all drinks that I didn’t brew myself until the middle of December, when I felt it would be safe.

To stave off the damp left by the sirocco, late in the afternoon I made myself a cup of expresso and arranged a sort of nest of the cushions on the divan.  Sebastian brought me a small piece of each of the torrone I had bought.  As I sipped and sampled, blue seeped through the sky and with it the sunlight.  I thought of the next holiday, one that Sebastian and I would celebrate together.  I lay back in gratitude for the warmth of both the sun and Sebastian.

Haunted

The vision took place in the West Fourth Street station – the one where the Sixth Avenue and the Eighth Avenue lines converge, then go their separate ways.  I had no intention of getting off there.  I was just passing through on my way to meet Janna at a nouveau foodie restaurant on Spring Street. 

I was safe now living a life far from any city and from mountains, just stretches of beach.  Although, the ocean occasionally caused anxiety.  Because here the ocean is too low, away from the road, at the bottom of a bluff.  And it’s as calm as a pool, no waves.  Everything on the bluff is flat – no soaring mountains, no hidden villas, no mule trails winding down, down, down to the seductive turquoise Mediterranean.  Nothing to call me into it’s depths.   My ocean is a real ocean, cold until late summer, always a greenish grey, never bright blue.  Not as beautiful as the Mediterranean, but safe.

On that day, I had left my cozy house by the ocean because Janna wanted to be a lady-who-lunches.  It is to be a celebratory lunch because Janna has a new show opening in the prestigious Broome Street Gallery.  Janna always manages to be involved in the most prominent of galleries and to be in the center of the most important of events.  I am celebrating Janna’s good fortune despite my unwillingness to share in it.  It is safe that way.

So, I undertook a journey on the Long Island Railroad to help Janna affirm life and her love for art.  I myself am now childless and have renounced a promising career.  It was a bright day, neither hot nor very cool.  I knew the restaurant on Spring Street (apt for the season, now that I think of it).  I remembered that they don’t accept credit cards, but I had already gotten off the LIRR and made my way into the subway, the Eighth Avenue line and was on the E train.  I knew that there is a branch of my bank near the West Fourth Street station.  Hence my getting off the train at that stop.

I knew which exit to take – the one on West Third Street.  It seemed that the bank was now where O. Henry’s Steak House once had been.  I had memories of very happy times at O. Henry’s Steakhouse with Sebastian, where, ravenous after a performance, I always had a rare sirloin burger – rare, I say, but it was in fact raw in the middle and charred on the surface.  Red wine accompanied it, at least two glasses and sometimes three.  Salad, though.  Never fries.  Fries were seductive, their appearance and aroma beguiling, but their substance nothing but disappointment. 

So, I got off the E train at West Fourth Street.  I had a vision of Sebastian standing at the Third Street entrance, as he did long ago.  But maybe it was something more substantial.  As I approached the stairs I saw a rat looking at me with sad eyes before he ran away.