la Giornata della Memoria

In the US, the Day of Remembrance is in April or May, depending on the date of Yom Hashoah on the Hebrew calendar. In Italy, the Day of Memory falls on January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated. Today, my memory goes to a place Ugo and I happened upon a couple years ago: the internment camp at Ferramonti di Tarsia in southern Italy. The southernmost and largest of fifteen internment camps in Italy.

Ugo and I had driven about an hour and a half from our farm in Calabria to a town near Tarsia, to pick up a motor for the power washer. While driving toward the freeway, we passed a billboard and peripherally I read “campo di concentramento.” I asked Ugo to pull over and back up. The billboard indicated the Campo di Ferramonti di Tarsia, turn left in 500 meters. We drove slowly forward, and a sign indicated a left-hand turn down an asphalted road barely wide enough for two cars. We turned left, passing a café on the right and 50 yards later saw the barracks through the iron fence. A cell phone number hung on the locked gate. We called and the number rang without answer. We tried again after a few minutes, and still nothing, so we walked back to the café we’d passed.

Café is misleading. It was more like walking into someone’s kitchen. A plate of leftover spaghetti and some risky-looking lunchmeat gleamed in the display case, clearly the health department inspector didn’t pass this way often – or maybe he doesn’t know the place exists. We ordered two espressos from the man behind the counter and asked about the camp. We were possibly his only customers of the day, and as happens in small towns, he had time and willingness to tell us what he knew.

The site had recently changed from private to public management so we would need to call the mayor to find out who could open the gate for us. The café owner, of course, had the mayor’s cell phone number. We called, and he explained that we would have to schedule an appointment with the guide for another day because no one was available that day.

The café owner began his story. His father had been a boy of 12 when the camp opened in 1940 and remembered playing ball with the children interred in the camp. Calabria in the 1940s was still agricultural and farmland surrounded the camp, while many of the prisoners were educated professionals, teachers, lawyers, accountants, artists. The owner’s father received math lessons from one of the male prisoners who was a professor. The farmers would barter food for services from barbers or doctors. In the early days of the camp, the prisoners could leave during the day and were accepted as part of the community.

I have a hard time believing the prisoners felt part of the community. Nothing can soften the atrocity of being imprisoned for one’s ethnicity. From 1940 to 1943, over 3,800 people — mostly foreign-born Jews — were imprisoned at Ferramonti. While prisoners were not killed at Ferramonti nor forced to work, it was a prison with barbed-wire on the fence and limited rations; prisoners were held against their will. Historical accounts do tell of weddings and even a birth within the camp, a rarity in the network of prison camps during World War II.

Ugo and I returned to Ferramonti one drizzly August day, having made an appointment with the guide. The reconstruction of the camp has been criticized for not reflecting the conditions of the original camp. A road divides the area the camp occupied, and the only remaining building barely stands on the other side of the road outside the fenced-in didactic area. The other buildings had collapsed with age and abandonment so the barracks are newly constructed representations that house an example of sleeping quarters, a conference center, a theater, and a museum with photos, letters, and documents.

Criticism aside, it’s important to remember how men have hurt each other and equally important to recognize how they have helped each other. At a time when most commanders “just followed orders,” at Ferramonti, the commanders often did something for which Italians have a particular talent: bent the rules.

Ferramonti’s commanders tried to maintain a level of humanity and dignity. As witnessed by the café owner’s father, there was interaction between the locals and the prisoners. As described by him, they were prisoners — unjustifiably — yet treated as humans. When an inspection by a German official brought his leniency to light, the first commander was transferred to another position. His replacement, having learned from his predecessor, was sly in his permissiveness.

One letter recounts an episode where someone saw a prisoner outside the camp after dark in a rainstorm. When questioned about the episode, the commander responded that surely the witness was mistaken, his vision impaired by the lightning and rain, all the prisoners had been inside during that storm; in reality, the prisoner had been returning to the camp after dark in the storm.

When the end of the war was imminent, the Nazi military began rounding up prisoners from internment and work camps and shipping them to death camps, wanting to exterminate as many prisoners as possible before losing the war. When word came that they were approaching Ferramonti, the commander let the prisoners escape into the surrounding fields, and the locals hid them in their homes. The commander sent the local priest to the camp’s entrance with a yellow flag, signifying a cholera epidemic inside the camp. The Nazi officials continued without entering for fear of contracting cholera. That effort alone saved several thousand lives.

When I read about the war, I ask myself what I would have done. Would I have hidden people, would I have been part of the Resistance, would I have been a partisan? I like to think so but without having faced the situation, I honestly don’t know. I hope I never have to find out.

The day we visited, I did not take photos or notes. My brief description here relies on my memory. For more information, you can visit to see a trailer of a documentary about Ferramonti.  

You can see photos here

A film was made about Ferramonti, entitled “18,000 Giorni” and is available (in Italian) on YouTube at

This must be the place


When I had a television, two of my favorite shows were Northern Exposure and Gilmore Girls. I loved the towns, the quirky characters, the local events, the community. One of my favorite scenes in Northern Exposure is when one of the characters dances under the snow to the notes of Talking Heads’ Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place), which I’ve often thought of as my personal theme song. If I ever return to the States, that’s the kind of town where I’d want to live.


In early January, while strolling through the presepe vivente or living nativity in Belvedere Marittimo, I was reminded that I already live in that kind of town. A town full of quirky characters, local events, and most of all, community.

An Italian presepe, or Nativity scene, goes beyond the barn with the baby in the manger, Mary, Joseph, a couple sheep and shepherd, and the wise men in the distance. A presepe encompasses an entire village. The manger plays center stage but you find a baker, butcher, a blacksmith, a water wheel, a tavern, dogs, cats, and chickens wandering the streets, shepherds and sheep on a hillside outside the village. People throng Naple’s street of San Gregorio Armeno to buy figurines and structures, nurseries sell moss at exorbitant prices, hardware stores sell crinkly blue paper with stars to create the sky.

Lamb born Christmas night

Lamb born Christmas night


The presepe vivente uses a real town as its structure and locals dress and act out the parts of the figurines. Belvedere Marittimo hosted a fabulous one this past holiday season, on the eve of December 26 and again on January 5. A blacksmith hammered iron over a smoldering fire, a trio of women sewed lace by candlelight, teenage boys tended a ewe that had birthed a lamb on Christmas eve, and a young girl who seemed to have stepped from a Vermeer painting roasted chestnuts over a brazier. In one corner of the village plates of pasta e fagioli were given out and around the corner from the terra cotta shop, women doled out polenta. People lined up for crespelle, steaming fried dough wrapped in a paper napkin. The bakery offered slices of warm bread with cheese and prosciutto. Jongleurs played accordions and tambourines, fronted by a woman banging a wine bottle with a stick and a man who kept time with a butter churn. Centurions preceded the wise men or magi on their way to see the babe in the manger.


Ugo and I wandered through the meandering streets, up and down stairways in tight alleys, nodding hello to familiar faces, and stopping to get the lowdown on the recent robbery at the post office. At each stop, we exchanged good wishes for the Christmas passed and the New Year to come with friends and neighbors of our community, and I smile to think of the home I’d found in this faraway land.


This must be the place. 

Back in Bees-ness

Bringing home the pollen...

Bringing home the pollen...

A gentleman stopped Ugo (my husband) and I while walking through town. “Excuse me, Doctor, do you have bees?” he asked, and went on to explain that two swarms were hanging out in town — one attached to the cornice over his balcony and another on the wall of the local parsonage — and asked if could we do something about them. Talk about providence; just the day before I’d thought I’d like to replace the hives that died two years ago, and here were two swarms just waiting to be rescued, or not.

We began beekeeping in 2005 when a swarm was given to us by a beekeeper after we expressed interest in becoming beekeepers, and we learned to capture swarms in the spring of 2006. Now, armed with swarm boxes, smoker, brushes, and our beekeeper suits, we returned to the swarm sites before sunset the same day the gentleman asked for our help. We went to the parsonage first. The swarm had settled on a climbing rose about eye-level from the ground. With the swarm box positioned under the swarm, we puffed intoxicating smoke on the bees then gently pulled the branch from the wall and gave it a decisive snap, which dropped a large clump of the swarm into the box.

The bees that didn’t fall in began flying around or remained attached to the wall. Using a brush similar to that used to brush away eraser bits from an architect’s drawing, we encouraged the stragglers into the box and then walked away for a few minutes to see whether the bees would enter on their own, meaning the queen was inside, or climb back up to their original spot, meaning the queen had remained attached to the wall. After a few minutes, we saw many bees exiting the box and going back to their original position, clearly the queen had not dropped into her new home. We held the swarm box close to the newly formed clump on the wall and brushed all the bees inside, then positioned the swarm box on the ground with the lid almost closed. The bees that were flying around seemed to be entering this time so we left that one and went on to the second swarm.

This second swarm was more of a challenge. It hung on a cornice about ten feet above the floor of the four-foot wide balcony. Ugo climbed the ladder we’d positioned next to the swarm and I held the swarm box as best I could centered under the swarm. He slid a piece of cardboard between the cornice and the swarm to detach it, making it fall into the box. Rather than fall as one clump, about half of them fell into the box and the rest on the floor around it. I dared not move my feet for fear of stepping on them and tried to gather them with another piece of cardboard and transfer them to the box. We could see they had already begun to construct wax comb sheaves, which is probably why they didn’t fall in one nice clump and why they flew back up almost immediately. Ugo broke off the comb and placed it in the swarm box, hoping it would entice them. We brushed as many as we could back in the box and left it as we’d done with the first one; if the queen was in the box, the bees would enter.

Meanwhile, we returned to the first swarm box. The queen and her court had entered, so we sealed the box, put a screen over the entrance, and put it in the car to bring home. We decided to return the next morning to check the second swarm. The next morning, Ugo went to look at the second hive, and it had, indeed, returned to its original position. We returned at sunset to try again but were told the swarm had flown away around one o’clock that day. 

I was ecstatic to have at least one hive and begin beekeeping again. We positioned the swarm box where our prior hives had been, and as soon as we removed the screen from the entrance the workers took flight in search of pollen and nectar. 

We left the swarm in the swarm box for two weeks to build up comb on four frames and yesterday, transferred the swarm to its final home in a full-size hive. The bees buzzed softly, and we were able to work calmly. Although we didn’t spot the queen, we did see sealed brood cells, which tells us she’s had her mating flight and is laying eggs. The worker bees had built wax cells on all but the last side of the fourth frame so we’d arrived just in time to give them more frames to work on.

Preparing to open the swarm box.

Preparing to open the swarm box.

Brood cells are on the left; the four initial frames were moved from the swarm box to the full-sized hive.

Brood cells are on the left; the four initial frames were moved from the swarm box to the full-sized hive.

During the last visits to our previous hives, the bees were angry when we opened the lid, which was a sign that they were unwell. We tried the recommended treatments to no avail. This hive buzzed sweetly when we lifted the cover, and I was reminded of our first hive. Almost ten years had passed yet I felt the same fascination watching these small creatures go about their bees-ness, undisturbed by my observation, working together for the health and growth of the family. 

I used to keep a notebook and write down the hive status after each visit, keeping track of any events or problems. Much as I love keeping handwritten notes, instead of starting a new notebook, I went to the App Store to look for a beekeeping app. Sure enough, I found more than one, but for now, I downloaded BeeKeeperLite, a free app that provides forms for taking notes and tracking the activity level,  colony temper, queen info, and more. Photos of the hives can be added to the forms and it works with location settings to track the hive position, which would be helpful for nomadic beekeepers or those with multiple locations.

If you want to learn about different types of monofloral honey, an app called Honey Guide sells for $0.99. It focuses on Russian honeys but is written in English, and the descriptions apply to honey produced in other countries. And check back here for an upcoming blog about honey tasting.

The village idiot laid to rest

About ten years ago my husband and I decided to build a second home on a piece of Calabrian hillside that’d been in his family for 100 years. Applying our efficient, urban, multitasking attitude and abilities to this traffic-free, rural setting, we complete a week’s worth of errands in a morning with time for a cappuccino in the piazza before a lazy lunch and an afternoon nap. The town, Belvedere Marittimo, is big enough for a mayor and a post office yet small enough to hold town meetings where most citizens attend, if only to gossip about the absentees. A typical afternoon finds the piazza humming with shrunken-apple-faced men playing cards outside the café and their wifely counterparts calling to each other across the alleyway while shaking tablecloths out their windows — yes, the quintessential southern Italian town.

On one such morning, a thin, bald man cooed “Hiiii,” coming over to us as we bought tomatoes from a farmer’s truck, turning his cheek to me, first the left then right, kiss kiss while my husband visibly cringed. “How are you? Re- re- remember, remember when I was walking up the hill and you gave me a ride?” he stuttered without embarassment and smiled.

“Yes, I remember” I told him.

Holding out a paper sack with one hand and pointing to his chest with the thumb of his other, he nodded as if to convince himself and said “Andrew eats everything.”

“Bravo,” we responded, “you eat everything.”

Andreuccio — Littly Andy — didn’t play cards with the other retired or unemployed men. He walked around town, smiled, complimented the ladies, and oohed at small children like a proud grandfather. Raised as the dirty child of an unfortunate prostitute, in middle age, the town adopted him much like they might have renovated an abandoned building that had long been an eyesore. The medical clinic gave him lunch everyday, and the widows and spinsters took turns giving him dinner. Walking by the café in the piazza, without fail one of the regular patrons offered him a candy bar or ice cream cone. The town sent a person to clean his house and launder his clothes twice a week. He had cable TV and two cell phones: one for each girlfriend he explained.

Active in the local parish, the priest gave him a gold ring adorned with Jesus, and during parocchial processions honoring the town’s patron Saint Daniel or the Virgin Mary, Andreuccio had the honor to carry one of the banners at the front of the crowd. He visited Lourdes eight times with the local parishioners.

In the summer, he would walk two miles from town down to the beach in the morning and in the late afternoon, someone like me would give him a ride back up the hill although he’d have just as happily walked, with no appointments to keep he could stroll as slowly as needed to bear the August heat.

A local sculptor carved a bust of Andy; it resides in a private garden. I once asked if I could see it, and he exclaimed, “No, you can’t see it. You can look at the real thing — I’m here in front of you.” He was similarly offended when asked his age, “You can’t ask that,” he'd respond, almost angry, and wander off muttering to himself.

Last year, he wandered to the front of the church during my stepdaughter’s wedding, while unknowing guests gestured and raised eyebrows in question, “who is this?” and those of us he knew smiled and mouthed, “it’s okay, we know him.”

A few weeks ago, word arrived that Andreuccio had died. After a week in the hospital for bronchitis, he was sent home. The following morning, he didn’t answer his door and upon entering, he was found lifeless on his bed. I was unable to attend his funeral but heard it rivaled that of a head of state; the entire town came to pay their respects. Little Andy lived 80 years debt-free and without modern responsibilities, appreciated his neighbors’ help and repaid them with kindness. And they called him the village idiot.