6. Farindola

FARINDOLA was, in many ways, as far away from America as anyone could go.

It was difficult for outsiders to reach Farindola. In winter, it was almost impossible. Perched in an Apennine mountain valley, Farindola was not geographically remote. Located near the center of the Italian boot between Rome on the Mediterranean Sea and Pescara on the Adriatic Sea, Farindola was as close to major population centers as any Abruzzi hill town. In fact, it was surrounded by the cities of Abruzzi: Pescara to the east, Chieti to the south, L’Aquila to the west, and Teramo to the north. But Farindola clung to its mountainous isolation. The only “roads” leading to the village were rutted dirt switchbacks that climbed for miles into the hills at treacherously steep angles. Two-legged and four-legged creatures traversed the trails in dry weather only.

Farindola remained largely unfazed by the outside world. Communication from beyond the valley came mostly in the form of personal reports from villagers who occasionally ventured beyond the switchbacks. When the villagers spoke to one another, they used their own clipped Italian dialect, chopping off the final vowels of nouns and adjectives and thus avoiding the trouble of having to make them grammatically agree. The few hundred souls in Farindola could easily behold, on a clear day, the ageless Adriatic Sea to the east. But the view of the bustling coastal city of Pescara remained forever blocked by the tiers of mountain ridges that tumbled to the sea.

For adventurous outsiders who managed to ascend the mountain crest on the way toward the hidden village, Farindola emerged as a land rooted in its timeless patterns. Each summer, wheat stalks grew up the sides of the valley and obscured the view of the town. Fields of hay and rows of grapevines stretched from within the little valley to beyond its perimeter and over the undulating hills. Farther on the horizon in three directions, the open pastureland bumped up against the sky. As summer faded into autumn, the soft light from above reflected the crops from below as they turned hues of gold before the harvest. The smell of ripe earth suffused the crisp air. All the world was hills and sky. For centuries, the agrarian rhythms of the village had proceeded unabated. Successive generations of families had established an essentially tribal, subsistence society of farmers, vintners, shepherds, and goatherds.

The buildings in the town center were said to be at least 500 years old. Most were small, white, two-story structures huddled very closely together. Some of them were two-story homes for the farmers and herders. Other buildings contained first-floor shops and second-floor homes for the tailors, cobblers, and carpenters who catered to the farmers and herders. The ground level had dirt floors.

Despite the rustic beauty of the land, it could not always yield enough surplus to keep pace with the rapidly expanding population of people at the turn of the 20th century. As the population swelled, therefore, so did the number of emigrants. All of the people in Farindola, whether they worked in the village or in the fields, were in a similarly precarious predicament. The tailors, cobblers, and carpenters knew that their fate was ultimately tied to the land as well. If the farmers had a bad year, so did everyone else.

Fortunately for Farindola, the village was unusual even for Italy in the early 1900s. In most agricultural parts of the country, absentee landlords dominated large estates. Attempts to break them up and to replace them with small peasant farms had failed, only worsening the prevailing poverty and hunger. But in the inaccessible Farindola, small family farms of less than ten acres were still the norm. Thanks to the rugged terrain that isolated the mountain valley, Farindola retained its self-sufficiency, at least among those who remained behind. The people were peasants, but nobody starved.

To the outside world, almost everything about Farindola appeared to be small and insignificant. There were small plots of land with small homes with small rooms with mostly small furniture. The only things big about Farindola had to do with food: dining tables so large that they barely squeezed inside the homes; pasta platters so prodigious that they had to be carried with both hands; and logs of goat cheese so ponderous that they had to be cradled like babies, which made sense, given how much the cheese was cherished.

The people of Farindola came in all shapes and sizes, but nearly every grown man and woman shared one common distinguishing physical characteristic: hands so huge that they seemed out of proportion to their bodies. Each finger a bulky sausage of gnarled muscles coiling around thick knuckles. Each palm a vast callus-covered plain. Each back of the hand a cluster of bulging sinews like tree roots breaking free from the earth. The fingers were not unusually long, but they were extraordinarily thick and strong. The hands resembled gloves more than hands. They seemed uniquely adapted to lives of hard labor of working the mountainous terrain.

The people routinely relied on each other. They had little choice. Their very existence was at stake. Once a week, the whole of Farindola baked bread together in the community wood-burning furnace. They brought their wheat, flour, and yeast to the sole furnace in the village and cooked their bread on the same day. That way, they limited the cutting of trees from the land, thereby preventing the rich topsoil from washing away. For the sake of mutual survival, everyone had to take responsibility for everyone else.

Nearly everyone in the village was Roman Catholic, but church doctrine didn’t dictate their faith. Most villagers couldn’t read church doctrine. If they were spiritually enthralled, they were enthralled most typically with the stories of the local heroes who had been canonized as saints and whose feast days were celebrated regularly.

Some of the biggest celebrations in and around Farindola were those for Saint Francis of Assisi and one of his closest friends, Saint Anthony of Padua. Since the early 1200s, Saint Francis had been one of the most influential cultural and religious figures in the region. He hailed from the province of Umbria, just northwest of Abruzzi. He became wildly popular for doing peculiar things: stripping himself naked of fancy garments in front of the religious authorities in the public square, giving away his belongings, chatting with birds, bargaining with an angry wolf, and calling the sun and the moon his brother and sister. He became recognized, inside and outside the church, as the patron saint of animals, birds, peace, and the environment.

His friend Saint Anthony had prodded the northern Italian municipality of Padua to pass a law allowing debtors to avoid prison by selling their possessions to creditors. The law became the forerunner of modern bankruptcy laws. Saint Anthony became the patron saint of the poor, of oppressed people, of protection against starvation, and—most celebrated of all—of people who were looking for lost things.

Serafino kept a picture of Saint Anthony in his home. Like many Farindola farmers, Serafino couldn’t read scripture too well but found a fertile source of inspiration in the earthy, populist faith of Saint Francis and Saint Anthony.

“I’d cut my tongue out before I give up my religion,” Serafino used to say. He didn’t necessarily attend Mass every Sunday, but he was devout in his own way. As far as he was concerned, the theology of Farindola could have been summed up in ten little words: “Look after each other, and take care of the earth.”

The village priest once asked Serafino why he had failed to show up at church.

“Church is right here,” Serafino thumped his chest, having learned to look beyond monuments and shrines. “If it’s not in your heart, it’s nowhere.”

The priest never asked again.