Memories of a Town in the Sky

By Laura Benedetti
Sunday, April 12, 2009

"L'Aquila? Where's that?"

I've heard that question countless times over the past 20 years, since I left Italy for graduate school and made my life in the United States.

I can't bring myself to tell the questioners that I'm from Rome, although that would simplify things considerably. So I explain that I come from a small town 70 miles east of the Italian capital, northeast to be precise, and no, it's not Florence. "L'Aquila" -- that's L-apostrophe -- means "the eagle," and like an eagle's nest, the city is high in the mountains. Not far from town is the tallest peak of the Apennines; if you climb it on a clear day, you can see the Tyrrhenian Sea on one side, the Adriatic gleaming on the other.

Before last week and the earthquake that devastated it, people from L'Aquila often felt that -- if only because it is the capital of the Abruzzo region -- their town deserved a bit more recognition. As if we were still living in the Middle Ages, when Boccaccio wrote about "the land of Abruzzo, where the men and women go in clogs on the mountains, and clothe the hogs with their own entrails," L'Aquila always seemed fated to remain unknown and misunderstood. Perhaps to fight this sense of being invisible, Aquilani took to showing up at concerts, political rallies and soccer games with signs that proudly proclaimed: "L'Aquila c'è," which means "L'Aquila is here," but also "L'Aquila exists." When Italy defeated France to win the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a friend spotted one of these signs among the whirling Italian flags.

Growing up, I sometimes resented the mountains that surrounded my town like a stony prison and considered its motto -- "Immota manet" ("Standing steadfast") -- a curse, as if L'Aquila alone had to keep still while the rest of the world moved forward. I left as soon as I could, but I kept going back, even after my parents died and many friends were no longer around. As Cesare Pavese wrote: "You need a village, if only for the pleasure of leaving it. A village means that you are not alone, knowing that in the people, the trees, the earth, there is something that belongs to you, waiting for you when you are not there."

L'Aquila meant knowing that I was not alone. I enjoyed going back to the golden color of the dried saffron sold all over town, the smell of Peppinella's bread, the coolness of the water from L'Aquila's many fountains. But even more, I relished the time people took to tell you about their joys and sorrows, between an aperitif and a long dinner under the summer sky. As my daughter once remarked, when you go out in L'Aquila, you run into so many friends that you never know when you'll make it back home. That's just how it had been when I was young. Things came and went, but L'Aquila remained the same. Immota manet.

For the past three summers, I have introduced my Georgetown students to L'Aquila's treasures: the Fountain of 99 Spouts, the Spanish fortress, the church of Santa Maria del Suffragio. We would stop before the tomb of Pope Celestine V in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, and I would tell them the story of the medieval hermit who became head of the Roman Catholic Church only to discover that freedom was worth more than power. He renounced the papacy and returned to his mountains in Abruzzo. People from L'Aquila see in him a kindred soul.

For the past few weeks, as tremors rocked L'Aquila, my friends and family became increasingly tense. Alarms punctuated the nights, as if the town were at war. I tried to keep my anxiety at bay; nothing particularly worrisome, the experts declared. Last Sunday, when I called to reserve rooms for the students I planned to take to L'Aquila this summer, I asked the caretaker of the monastery where we stay about the tremors. "Oh, you know . . . three hundred in a week! I don't even notice them anymore," he said. I hung up feeling reassured. In my mind, I saw the carefully tended garden, the Gran Sasso mountain through the limpid air. No need to worry. Immota manet.

That night, before going to sleep, I checked the news. An earthquake had just struck central Italy. The epicenter was 70 miles northeast of Rome. I got on the phone, called one number after another, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam's cry in my ears: "Petersburg! . . . You know my telephone numbers." L'Aquila, you know my telephone numbers . . . but what if nobody answers?

It took me an hour to reach a friend. He was standing in the Piazza Duomo looking at the collapsed cupola of Santa Maria del Suffragio, weeping.

From then on, the stories I heard from friends and family merge with those of strangers: the old lady who refuses to leave the rubble of her house; the friend who ran down six flights of stairs with her shoes in her hands, terrified neighbors on each floor asking her what to do; the doctor who watched children die in his arms at the hospital. Photographs show a ghost town, dust and debris on the streets we had walked, the bar where we used to meet, the gelateria that had just come out with a new flavor. Time has come to a halt; through the holes in the walls you can see laundry hanging, a coffeemaker ready for the morning.

And now that L'Aquila is no longer what it used to be, everybody knows where it is: right in the center of Italy, halfway between the two coasts. How could you possibly miss it? Now that nature has shown, once again, the futility of all human pronouncements -- "L'Aquila c'è," "Immota manet" -- L'Aquila soars in the memory of those who knew it, impervious to time. A town in the sky, a dimension of the spirit.

Laura Benedetti is a professor of Italian at Georgetown University.

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