Nelly Writes — Stories

The Glory of Santa Cristina


My mother’s village, Sepino, in Central-South Italy commemorates the 900th anniversary of the death of Santa Cristina, Virgin and Martyr, Protector of Sepino this year. Hundreds of emigrants are coming back to celebrate. My whole family is going by train from Genoa which is 500 miles to the north. My brother Piero and his family will drive to Sepino from Rome.

We meet my brother in Rome at stazione Termini. My daughter Irene, my mother, and our luggage will continue the trip in his car. My husbandTim, my son Stefano, and I will go by train. Sepino is only two and a half hours away.

We board the train and are pleasantly surprised it’s brand-new and air-conditioned. We remember a previous trip to Sepino six years earlier under a hot sun with no air at all. We sit back and relax, we even take a nap, anticipating the week ahead of us -- visiting with relatives, eating good food, seeing the places I love so much, participating in the historical event.

When I wake up 20 minutes later, I notice a luminous sign in each carriage announcing the upcoming station. “Frosinone” is the next station. Strange I don’t remember having gone through Frosinone on my way to Sepino. But I don’t have time to worry because the train stops and empties out.

The station master sticks his head in my compartment and asks me, “Signora scende? il treno si ferma qui”.

“What, the train stops here?” There is a moment of panic, then we gather our luggage and get off. I still don’t understand; the track where we boarded the train said “direzione Campobasso.” I double checked. A group of employees gathers around us. They scratch and shake their heads.

Soon one comes up with an explanation: “I know what happened, il treno era attestato!” Now, I know my Italian, I’m a native speaker, but this word is new to me. “Attestato means ahead; it’s railroad lingo” they explain to me. “You should have taken the train in the back of this one”. There is a good chance that the right train was similar to the one I had taken six years ago. I suspect that the fact the train is new was part of the reason I didn’t triple check - which is always a good idea in Italy.

In his Southern accent, the station master goes out of his way to give us instructions on how to continue our trip: there is a train in 20 minutes which goes back to Cassino. Wait two hours in Vairano-Caianello and catch a couple more trains for the last stretch to Boiano, the nearest village to Sepino. There, I figure, my brother will come and get us. We will be in Sepino at 8:30 pm instead of 3:00 pm.

It’s hot, but luckily we don’t have heavy luggage. We have a cell phone; we don’t feel lost. Actually we are in good spirits, it’s the beginning of our adventure.

We decide to spend the two hours in Vairano exploring the area. We are excited. I can already feel the familiarity of this place, which must seem quite exotic to my husband. We start walking along the main street. It’s a two lane street, the ancient Roman road Cassia, a main fare connecting Rome and Naples. Huge, long trucks, cars, and motorcycles drive through at high speed. It’s a challenge to cross the street. We walk for more than a mile before we get to an ice cream parlour. Stefano, who is being remarkably patient for his six years, gets a huge cone. Tim and I get two very strong iced coffees. We head back, realizing that in this place there is nothing to see.

Back in the station I spot a group of old-timers sitting at a bar. I approach them and ask: “What does Vairano-Caianello mean? Why is Vairano famous?” They look at me as if I am out of my mind. This must be one of the most unusual questions they’ve ever heard. “Vairano, we don’t know what it means... it is a railroad center, it’s not famous... except for us!” And they laugh. I am sure that my question gave them something to think about and discuss for the rest of the afternoon.

We get back on the next train, hop on and off another couple of them. We feel like hoboes by now, our clothes are wrinkled and dusty. We are sweaty. We eat a number of popsicles to quench our thirst and keep cool.

It is past eight when we get into Sepino. Everything is always the same. The streets, made of white smooth rocks, are lined by stalls for the fair that traditionally is held every year on the day of Santa Cristina.

We have dinner at my Aunt Anita’s. She apologizes she hasn’t prepared much for us. She starts serving dinner and she doesn't stop bringing dish after dish from the kitchen -- sartù di patate, roast beef and vegetables, mozzarella di Boiano - the best - and tomatoes, Sepino’s special sausage - soppressata - she makes every year, pickled eggplants and zucchini, and some wonderful tagliatelle with tomato sauce and Romano cheese. For dessert she offers us a basket full of all sorts of fruit and a batch of pepatelli cookies (cookies with honey and pepper), typical of the area.

Although we are tired, after dinner we go for a walk. The piazza is the village’s living room. There we meet everybody without having to have an appointment.

We can’t resist buying some old-fashioned treats -- dried, smoked chestnuts, lupini beans, licorice, hazelnut brittle, torrone, freshly roasted peanuts, salty big green olives. Forget about the calories, this is heaven.

The next day is the eve of Santa Cristina’s Day. The historical chimes of the church will not stop ringing for twenty-four hours. This is the day of the procession of the statue of the Saint. It only comes out once every hundred years from a sanctuar, la grotta, located under the pavement of the main square.

The weather unfortunately isn’t good. Sepino is at 800 meters above the sea level and the it gets cold when it rains. Maybe we won’t have the procession if it rains, because the statue gets stained by the rain drops. My heart sinks. In another hundred years I’m not sure I’ll be around.

The rain comes and goes all morning and early afternoon. Finally, the sky clears and the priest decides to start the procession at 5:30 pm. A huge crowd gathers in the main square. Little girls wear their first communion white dresses, they look like miniature brides.

My cousin Nicola proudly shows off his dress uniform as the statue of the teenage Saint dressed in pink veils emerges from the church carried by a group of four men. My mother points to her brother Daniele in the crowd. I almost didn’t recognize him, he is among a group of confratelli dressed in long white robes and purple capes. The priest starts the tune Canto delle Creature and the whole thousand people in the square answer and sing together accompanied by the music of the organ. I am not used to seeing people praying wholeheartedly. Tears well up in my eyes and I too start singing the laude to the Lord. I haven’t prayed since I was 10 years old. I see my mother’s glazy eyes, I try to guess what she feels: she hasn’t been back in Sepino for the last ten years. She moved to Genova 50 years ago, when she got married.

After the prayer the procession starts. The statue is carried by four men. A huge snake of people fills the narrow alleys of the ancient village lined, as the tradition goes, with the most beautiful embroidered blankets and sheets hanging from the windows. My mother walks between Tim and me. I’ve never seen her so happy. She looks 20 years younger.

After a few minutes big raindrops start falling. People open their umbrellas. They are all dressed in their best clothes and don’t like to get wet. I see a few silk blankets quickly withdrawn from the balconies, as the Saint passes beneath. I hear comments. Some people, like my mother, are optimistic, and think the Saint won’t let the rain ruin the procession. Others are doubtful about her powers and find cover in doorways to wait for the rain to stop.

The procession continues, the rain comes and goes, never enough to stifle the enthusiasm of the singing crowd. In every neighborhood we pass there is a stand on which the Saint (and the men carrying her) rest. The best laces and linens adorn these stations, together with flowers and shrubs. My mother tells us stories about each place we pass. In that house she used to work as a girl, at that fountain she used to fetch water (the best drinking mountain water), at that ring, stuck in the pavement of stone, her father - who was the butcher of the village - used to tie the pig.

Many people look at us and smile, then come and greet my mother: “Rosinella, you are always the same, you haven’t changed a bit.” My mother talks in her dialect to this relative and that school friend, this old neighbor, that playmate. Everyone remembers her, everyone has a story to tell.

“Do you remember when you cried all day because la Befana had not come at your house? You were only eight or nine and couldn’t believe la Befana was too poor to bring presents. You only stopped when my grandmother brought you some oranges, nuts and pieces of coal,” said a woman of the same age as my mother. “Of course I cried, there was no such thing as Santa Claus back then. We waited all year for the sixth of January and we had to be good, otherwise... And I sure thought I had been good”. “You’ve always been a little devil...” comments the other.

Looking at my mother in her environment, I can see she blends in perfectly. Everyone speaks in the same way, as if they were all upset, with the same accent and the same body language. Having grown up in the North, I always thought she was “different”. Probably my father, who was also from the North, did too. Poor mom, she must have felt misunderstood so many times! Funny, my experience is somewhat similar to hers: living in America I too sometimes feel misunderstood and different.

We walk and walk, following the procession. My mother isn’t tired.

Let’s stop at the bakery and buy a wheel of bread” she says. “But Mom, we are in a procession...” I try to say. But she is in charge. “It’s ok. Nobody will notice.”

During the last part of the procession we carry a four pound, perfumed loaf of bread. The famous, unreproducible, longed-for bread of Sepino, made with the best whole wheat, natural sour dough, and baked in a wood-burning oven.

The next day, the 24th of July, Santa Cristina’s day, it’s pouring. This is the day of the procession of the regular Santa Cristina, the one that comes out every year. This statue is made of laminated gold and, like the other one, doesn’t bear the rain very well. The priest decides to cancel the procession. I hear people’s comments when I go to Bar Centrale in the main square: “It’s a pity the procession was canceled. Well at least we had the big procession yesterday, but maybe this Santa Cristina will get envious...” Younger people laugh. Superstition and a little bit of animism are mixed with religious beliefs.

In the evening, when it stops raining, people get some consolation. We all go to the fair to buy little toys for the kids, play at some old-fashoned games, see people, and listen to the music.

Two bands play on the stage mounted in a corner of the piazza. Classical tunes and opera arias drift through the air, together with the smell of food.

I am attracted by the smell of baccalà fritto, fried salt cod. They speak French at this stall. They are from Aiseau, the village where I was born, in Belgium. Lots of people from Sepino emigrated there after World War II. That’s where my mother and father met. I brush up my French speaking with the girls at the stand. We talk about Belgium, we exchange life stories. Then I buy some some delicious salt cod fritters and French fries made à la Belge, as I remember them, served with lots of salt and mustard or mayonnaise.

My kids mingle with their cousins, they understand each other somehow. They run around, play hide-and-go-seek, same as when I was a child and used to come to Sepino with my parents. Carefree, there are no cars in the village. Everybody by now knows that they are Rosinella’s grandchildren. I breath in a sense of deep satisfaction. I feel at home. I found the roots I’ve always longed for. Here, there is a part of my genes, of my history.

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"I come from a country where food is a central part of life. My passion and mission is to share my love of food and cooking with my students. Also to give them the inspiration and tools to create memorable meals and live meaningful experiences in the kitchen." - Nelly Capra