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.
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.