by LindaAnn LoSchiavo
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — — Lao Tzu (circa 604 B.C.)
In the 1990s, when the personal computer was still a novelty for many households, I was writing for a weekly newspaper, The Italian Tribune, and for a bi-lingual quarterly based in Italy and Brooklyn, L’Idea Periodico. Though I was receiving invitations by postal mail and press releases via fax, a newfangled source beckoned: Google News Alerts.
My paternal ancestors hail from the “kingdom ofAeolus,” a beautiful, dramatic archipelago off the coast of Sicily. In 1898, my patrician grandmother Maria Grazia De Marco began her life on the largest, most populated island, Lipari; of volcanic origin, Lipari’s last eruption occurred about 1,000 years ago. In contrast, my grandfather Giuseppe Lo Schiavo, born in 1891, was raised to be a farmer on an active volcano with only two tiny villages, Ginostra and Stromboli. A Google news alert was activated for both names.
Remarkably, only days later, an item popped up. Manuel Pradel, a French screenwriter-director announced he’d make a film Ginostra on site. Little did this foreigner know that our local harbor, “u pertuso” [from “pertugio,” the Latin word for “a hole”], which lies along the island’s western coastline, is the world’s smallest harbor. And did Mr. Pradal have any knowledge of the forbidding terrain — — not to mention the noisy explosions from “Iddu” (the volcano’s local nickname)?
In 1950, before Italian director Roberto Rossellini could start shooting Stromboli, Land of God, starring Ingrid Bergman, he had to charter a cargo ship to transport cement and lumber to Porto Scari (Stromboli’s port) to build the roads necessary for a film crew and equipment. With RKO footing the bill, construction went smoothly. But the daily volcanic activity, which forced most islanders to emigrate, is an on-going threat and caused Rossellini many delays.
Ginostra was eventually filmed on tranquil Panarea, but a different fire had been lit. This news alert became my first step into a fascinating odyssey.
Back in the Stone Age of the world wide web, I discovered a remarkable scientific site devoted to volcanoes — — with cameras positioned to monitor Stromboli’s seismic activity. I became a volcano voyeur.
When my Grandpa Giuseppe was young, he was trying to catch rabbits for supper with his older brother Antonio. Suddenly, hot lava spilled down a cliff as the ground shook violently. Tossed skywards, the boys grabbed a tree branch jutting off a rocky precipice. They managed to hang on until rescued at dawn.
Traumatized by the ordeal, Antonio’s growth was stunted and he was unable to speak for years. When he finally recovered, his vocal register was falsetto — — the voice of the 13-year-old who almost lost his life and put in harm’s way the little brother he was supposed to protect.
Studying Stromboli’s volcano cameras, I tried to guess where they had hunted. Then providence intervened, prompting me to search for a building they had spent time in, Ginostra’s one room schoolhouse. Photos of this modest structure were online. A primitive schoolroom, with neither electricity nor indoor plumbing, had become a place tourists could rent.
In two days I completed “Return of the Native to Stromboli.” After it was published in The Italian Tribune, it was reprinted by eight magazines, becoming the most popular feature I’d ever done. The newspaper’s readers asked for more. I followed up with numerous articles — — pieces on the local patron saints, Rosalia and Bartolomeo; holiday traditions; even family recipes such as my grandmother’s pickled melon rind and prickly pear preserves.
Cyber Italian’s web site requested permission to translate my writing for their students. “Il ritorno del nativo a Stromboli” was the first to appear. Deciding to make a list of which publications were reprinting my work in English or Italian, I discovered that a magazine located in my ancestral homeland had written about me. The voice of the Aeolian Islands was reading my journalism, my short fiction, and even my poetry.
Filed under “Isole Eolie,” Stretto — — www.strettoindispensabile.it — — titled the piece “Ginostra: Dear Grandpa, everything is the same here just as it used to be” (“Ginostra, «Caro nonno, qui è tutto come allora»”).
Where would my muse lead next?
Fan letters asked: “Are we related?”
Exposure led to fan mail, which contained island memories and this question: “Are we related?” Since Ginostra’s 1890s population ranged from 2,100 to 1,000, naturally there would be a lot of inter-marrying in such an isolated spot. However, the limited number of native surnames recycled within a small hamlet can cause confusion.
One letter, from a woman who had lived in grandpa’s area until the mid-1950s, contained fragments of poetry passed on through generations via the oral tradition. Sicily did not build this one room school until 1905, so an educated villager had taken it upon himself to teach children to read and write (from the 1880s until 1905). This man, her relative, had had many experiences that he recounted in narrative verse.
Would I translate some for my audience? Yes, I would.
Easier said than done! My plan had been to preserve the scheme of 4-line rhyming stanzas first composed by the Ginostrese native Antonio Lo Schiavo [1821—1885]. The first hurdle was that our local dialect has no dictionary. When I shared a sample with native speakers born in Milan, Bologna, Rome, and Bari, it was so unfamiliar that no one could understand it. Two colleagues born in Sicily jokingly described the 19th century text as “deep Sicilian.” My father, who had grown up speaking this dialect, bailed by saying he had not conversed in it since his parents died and several words made no sense.
Scouring the Internet for a few elderly Aeolians who still lived there was helpful though discouraging. Even when my American approximation was deemed “giustu” [correct], it was pointed out that Nino’s original was wittier and more amusing. After a certain amount of back-and-forths, my work was done and it rhymed.
The longest poem “La Canzune i Ninu Murina” was translated into standard Italian as “La Canzone di Nino Murina” and into American English as “The Ballad of Tony the Eel.” A shorter poem, a lament, was translated only into English as part of a longer article I did for Oral Tradition Journal’s editor.
In 2002, Oral Tradition [17/1: 3-17] published my work, their first piece on Aeoliana, with this title: “Homespun Homerics in the Kingdom of Aeolus: Ninu Murina in Stromboli.” Gaetano Cipolla translated it into Sicilian for his journal Arba Sicula (Sicilian Spring).
A letter arrived: “We are related!”
Fan mail increased. One stranger’s letter began with a confident assertion: “We are related.” A copy of a portion of an elaborate family tree was included in the package, tracing our roots to a common ancestor who had sailed to Ginostra in 1720 in a tiny boat to escape the religious persecution of Jews in Portugal. His birthname, Moishe Pereira, had been Italianized to Musa Lo Schiavo by the time he registered his marriage in Messina in 1722.
Since my college days, people asked if I was Jewish, explaining that I looked Sephardic. Finally, that long-lost branch on my family tree revealed it was true. My ancestor’s surname Pereira [“pear tree”] is Portuguese, Galician, and Sephardic Jewish in origin, which would have rendered my Roman Catholic grandparents and parents speechless had they still been alive.
Since Moishe / Musa traded his Portuguese for a Sicilian dialect, perhaps he eventually learned this Strombolese proverb: “Cu lassa u vecchiu cu u novu, sa chi lassa ma nun sa chi trova.” It means: “Whoever decides to change is unaware of what the newness may bring.”
Little did I know, when I was sharing the Aeolian culture with far-flung readers, I was edging closer to an encounter with the first Lo Schiavo who settled on this forbidding black cone in the Tyrrhenian Sea, a Jewish male who had been so tormented defending the right to practice his faith that he would find fiery belches and daily effusive eruptions far less challenging.
The average peasant from Stromboli was illiterate and left few records behind besides the essentials, if that. Handwritten ledgers crammed with dates and blurred names were maintained in Messina, across the sea. Little is known about Moishe / Musa apart from his name-change, marriage, the birth of his children, and the fact that we can trace our lineage back to him.
In 1907, my 16-year-old grandfather boarded a boat that would take him to America, echoing our ancestor’s 1720 sea voyage. In both cases, an able-bodied bachelor left behind his parents and his first language. Each young man boarded a boat and sailed on an unfamiliar ocean, a kind of canal of the flesh, a path from knowing to faith.
“The Ballad of Tony the Eel”
by Antonio Lo Schiavo [1821—1885].
translation by LindaAnn LoSchiavo
Tony “the Eel” wanted a serving girl hired.
With his invalid wife, help was required.
Then he found himself a hearty young miss,
One of Johnny Cincotta’s relatives.
Johnny Cincotta told her: “Sister-in-law,
If you were his maid, it would stick in my craw.
This guy’s a half-wit; there are more brains in cement.
You’re better off home, without a cent, but content.”
But Genia’s brainstorm was the crowning touch:
“Becoming his maid, it wouldn’t take much.
If you get close while you’re in his employ,
You will pick on bones that you might enjoy.”
That’s how Nuzza wound up as a housemaid—indeed
Meeting her employer’s needs as if they were married.
All this flirting and kissing made its impact;
This affectionate act was part of the pact.
Not even one single month had gone by
When Nuzza took control through the clothes of this guy!
“Your shirt, Uncle Tony, I will be mending—
As long as I see that your Will you’ll be tending.”
“How can I will you my wealth from here on?
What will I leave to my heirs when I’m gone?
No one’s ever done anything so inane!
It’s useless to nag, so quit being a pain!”
“Keep quiet now and don’t say one word.
We can’t let his kin know what has occurred.”
At last Johnny’s scheming provided the key:
An excuse to bring Tony to Lipari.
They brought him to Favaluoru in a bit.
Their demeanor was not unlike sly pirates.
Favoluoru was thinking to himself:
“Here’s the most dishonest contract ever written.
It’s clear these swindlers knew how to stack the cards;
With these Saracens, I’d better be on guard.”
When the new Will had been completed— well, then!
Simon’s daughter smiled again and again
And caressed Tony “the Eel” under his chin.
He made a statement:
“Nuzza, you look so content.
I’ve denied my heirs my holdings without restraint.
I’ve relinquished everything without a complaint.
I’ve even betrayed Christ and all of heaven’s saints!”
“Uncle Tony! Your words are insulting me
And you shouldn’t make me feel so badly!
You know I will be in bed, at your side, lying —
Especially now that you have left me everything.”
Note: Nuzza’s relatives brought Tony to see a lawyer, Favaluoru, in Lipari because there were no licensed professionals [lawyers, doctors, nurses] on Stromboli in the 19th century.
Note: Despite the specific reference to Nuzza as “a daughter of Simon,” it is believed that Lo Schiavo changed the maid’s name because birth and death certificates have not been located.
Setting: Ninu Murina’s house, where his relatives have gathered to divide his earthly belongings.
Nuzza showed up equipped with a contract;
Vanni Cincotta showed the Will was intact.
These legalities—slippery, serpentine—
Were elusive as snakes on glass inclines.
Ninu died in 1885. Here is Ninu’s Letter from Hell:
Though dead, Tony “the Eel” to Nuzza had written
A letter sent by registered mail wherein
He said: “Dear Nuzza, I am sorry and blue
For all those stolen kisses I’ve given you,
For property I gave you, and too willing!
As if alive in Hell, I can’t help despairing!
Sending you my regards, I won’t say anymore.
I’ll await your arrival with your brother-in-law.”
The original poem in Eolian dialect is at this link as well as a translation into Romano Italian –
“La Canzone di Nino Murina” (Italian translation by LindaAnn LoSchiavo)
Native New Yorker LindaAnn Lo Schiavo is completing her 2nd documentary film on Texas Guinan [1884-1933]. Recently, she starred in a documentary about Greenwich Village that screened in June 2017.
To revive her spirits, she puts pen to paper.
101 Fiction, Hawaii Review, Ink & Letters, Metamorphose, Measure, Mused, Peacock Journal, Windhover, and Nous are recent credits.
On Twitter as @Mae_Westside
On Facebook as Mary Louise Guinan — – for obvious reasons
On other social sites sites I’m under my own name.