More often than not, I'm shocked at the blatant racism I see on Italian Facebook pages and felt compelled to leave a response to someone who claimed that most immigrants today offer nothing to American society and exist well below the poverty line... in other words, "we don't want to support them" or "we don't want them" or "they have no skills anyway"....
My response to these people:
Many would argue that when our grandparents and great-grandparents came here, they were also living below the poverty line--in fact, poverty was one of the main reasons for them coming to America. They also didn't speak English at all. Most Italians listed their profession as "Laborer" or "Farmer"... in other words, unskilled peasants. Often the father came first, working to earn enough to bring over his wife and children, as my Grandfather Sergio Finzi did. He sailed across the Atlantic, in steerage, in the middle of winter (when fares were cheaper) three times over the course of 5 years... the third time bringing his wife Caterina and three children (including my 4 year old father, Saverio).
My father's family came from Molfetta and had a very tough life at first in Hoboken... a large family living in a tenement. (They would have another 5 children born here making them a family of 10). Pretty much the same with my Mother's family. Luckily, my grandfather was skilled as a tailor and found employment in a coat factory.
As young children, my father and his brothers were tasked with walking the RR tracks to pick up chunks of coal that fell from the trains for the kitchen stove, which was the only source of heat in winter. They all had to leave elementary school early to help support their family.
My father and one of his brothers bought a lame "Three-Legged Horse" and wagon and sold fruit and veggies to the people coming off the ships in the harbor. Another brother started his own grocery store in Hoboken. A couple of my uncles served in WWII and even my 65 year-old grandfather carried a U.S. Draft Card while my father worked in a military plant making springs for jeeps and tanks.
My father became a fruit and deli man his entire life, always working for other people. Even as a child, I remember my father working long hours, night shifts and often even on holidays. And there was no overtime pay!
My mother and her mother both worked in factories for "piece work"... paid by the piece. My mother bore the sweltering heat and airplane hum of industrial fans all day long as she worked at hot press machines making jewelry boxes... and crushed two fingers, bearing her crooked finger the rest of her life to show for it. She worked her way up to be a supervisor over 30 other workers.
Somehow my parents housed, clothed and fed their 5 children and saved enough to buy a small six-family apartment house where I grew up, the rents from the other five tenants helping to support us. After work I remember helping my father as he maintained the building: putting on a new roof, repairing the chimney, fixing the furnace, doing plumbing and electrical, painting--whatever was needed to keep the tenants happy. He taught me that working hard was a good thing.
My grandparents and parents definitely contributed to our society and created opportunities for their children... My parents were proud to have 5 children, lived to see 19 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren, all living as Americans today. Several of us owned our own businesses, hired employees, bought nice homes... and lived the American Dream. I remember the pride on my parent's face the first time they came into Manhattan to see my 5000 square foot photo studio. It took our family three generations to succeed in America--three generations to fully assimilate. America gave us that chance.
As Americans, we all have to remember that even people who are desperate enough to enter our country through unusual means for asylum (like the Cuban boat people or Central Americans trudging through the desert) in fact should have a chance at a new life. There are no laws against crawling or swimming out of desperation onto our shores. Not everyone wanting a better life comes to our country on a jumbo jet through airport Customs.
For those of you who have never read the entire text of the poem that is emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
My purpose in penning these words is not to let people forget that we are all immigrants and owe thanks to the struggles of those who went before us--AND who come after us. In my opinion, our country is stronger for their efforts and contributions. I've lived in another country and know for certain that we have something special here.
Never forget that WE were immigrants, too.
by David Dalessandro
from Sharon, Pennsylvania
Need some guidance here, so I thought coming to my paisans at Italian Gardeners on Facebook would be a good place to go...
While pulling my tomato plants today it hit me that I was alone. My knowledge of gardening, weak as it is, came most from my Father who got his knowledge from his Father who was an immigrant to the U.S. from Foggia. My grandfather worked for Carnegie Steel in Farrell, PA as a janitor for the office. Carnegie had provided a home for him at a cost of $2.200. Company homes without a bathroom were $2,000 so Pasquale went for the better model. Companies did that in those days...this was 1925. The company then deducted so much from his pay and he had a decent house where he could walk to work.
Another thing the company did for employees was to provide garden space. Carnegie owned extra land in Wheatland, PA and the company would plow the land--at no cost to workers--and let employees claim part of it to put in their own garden. My grandfather took great advantage of that and every year would plant tomatoes, potatoes, beans and other vegetables that would help to feed his family.
It was in this garden that he taught my Father, who then taught me. So, fast forward to today, about 80 years later. I am stuck on the Teaching Thing. My children are grown and not really interested. My daughter is in El Paso, Texas and my son, still living with us, is working to become a tennis professional. Neither are much interested in gardening.
But I love it. I enjoy starting the seeds, tilling the ground, fertilizing and watching the plants grow. Because of the abundance God has provided, I also can many jars of tomato, sauce and hot peppers. Again, not because I have to, like my Grandfather had to, but because I want to. But, I am afraid that I am the last of the line. My uncles are gone. My Father is gone.
My wife humors me and lets me do my thing in the garden. It bothers me that it is likely to end here. And, I fear I am not alone. No one at work talks about a garden. No one else in the neighborhood has one. Just me.
It is a shame, I think, that the accumulated knowledge of at least three generations will end. Do any of you have the same concerns? Do you have children or grandchildren who work with you and ask questions and help pull weeds and can tomatoes and wonder why something is growing or not? Let me know...and if you have answers for this situation, I would love to hear them. Thank you so much, my paisans.
And my Thoughts...
And I totally agree with David, which is why I've asked his permission to post his words here on Grand Voyage Italy. After all, we are #AllAboutItaly here... and we're all about the Truths about our culture. I feel David is correct--too many young people today are detached from their cultural roots and have no idea where their food comes from, especially true with Italian-Americans. When one takes a Voyage around Italy, all you see is gardens--everywhere, in tiny front yards, hanging on walls, on balconies and terraces and in pot gardens surrounding people's front doors. It doesn't matter if they have lemons and pomegranates on their patio or just a pot of basil on their windowsill--it seems that everyone grows something edible.
We should all strive to teach our children the value of home grown, healthy food, like I've done for my own son, Lucas. Here's a photo of him with his tomato harvest at 4 years old...
He's 15 now and looks forward to each February when we go down into the cellar, sort out our seeds and start our heirloom seeds that we save each year from our garden. He now looks forward to the tomatoes we grow as if they are old friends... Eva Purple Ball, Olivette Juane, Giant Belgium, Jersey Devil and more. He also is learning to cook using the vegetables harvested from our garden, and even when we don't grow them ourselves, he now knows how to smack a cantaloupe, listening for the lowest pitched sound (a sign of ripeness), or check a peach's ripeness with his nose, as my Dad taught me.
Gardening is part of the Italian soul. Pass it on, people. Pass it on...
And for more on the subject of gardening...
Creating a Hanging Italian Wall Garden
Bicycles - Italian Garden Style
My New Favorite Tomato: Striped Roma
San Marzano Tomatoes: Accept No Imitations!
How the Tomato Became Part of Italian Culture
Only in Italy: Strange Veggies from La Belle Paese
To see how you can create an Italian Garden of your own,
check out the Grand Voyage Italy Shop on Amazon.
This painting, Portrait of a Young Boy Holding a Drawing by Giovanni Francesco Caroto (1480 – 1555) is perhaps one of the strangest portraits from the Renaissance period. Since carota in Italian means carrot, and the boy in the painting has "carrot-top" colored hair, many believe it's a self portrait of the artist as a boy. Others think it's a portrait of the artist's son. There are some who believe that to truly represent a child's drawing in the portrait, Carota asked a child to paint that part of the picture, which if true, would mean that it has dual authorship--Carota and an unknown child.
This is also the painting from which Dr Harry Angelman derived the now defunct name of Happy Puppet Syndrome for children (now referred to as Angelman’s syndrome). In the painting, the boy’s happy expression and the jerky movement of the puppet of which he holds a picture, reminded Angelman of the behaviors exhibited by three young patients who had the syndrome in his pediatric ward in Warrington, England. Angleman’s syndrome is a rare genetic disorder characterized by intellectual and developmental delay, sleep disturbance, seizures, jerky movements (especially hand-flapping), and frequent laughter or smiling. It affects approximately one in 20,000 children.
To add more interest to this odd painting, it was among others stolen from the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona in 2014. Little more than a year later, the paintings were recovered in in the area of Odessa, on an island of the Dniester river not far from the partially recognized state of Transnistria, just a few kilometres away from the border between Ukraine and Moldavia. According to the Ukrainian police commissioner Viktor Nazarenko, the paintings were buried wrapped in some black plastic drop cloths and hidden behind some shrubs. (Watch the discovery in the video below).
I suppose the first gift to my father, Sal, was his first two children... the "Twins", Joan and Barbara, born three days apart but healthy, nonetheless.
This was the start of my immigrant Dad's entry into fatherhood. Just when other men were being drafted into the U.S. army to fight in World War II, he suddenly was burdened not with one, but two children--this was in 1942 when twins were a mere 1% of all births. His nickname, Sally-Boy was coming to an end. Things had just gotten serious.
When he saw only one baby on that first day, the doctor casually told him, "The second one just isn't ready yet". He couldn't rest assured that everything was OK until the second was born three days later, an event that placed my mother's photo holding the two of them on the pages of New York City's Daily News. The war started and my Dad worked in a defense plant making springs for tanks.
As you can see from the photo above, my father was not only a proud father, but a rather goofy one. Always the joker... that was his first real gift to his children. John and Barbara were to be followed by Kenneth, Joyce-Ann and myself, the "baby" of the brood. Somehow, Dad provided. Before he was married, he and his brother had a "Three Legged Horse and Cart" and sold fruit and vegetables to the seamen down at Hoboken harbor. He had dreams of having his own Italian delicatessen or market someday, but he opted to have security for his family, always working for others for a steady salary. He clothed and fed us by being a grocery and deli man his entire life. This was another gift to us all.
Dad always played the fool, constantly at the ready to play a joke on us, to get us to laugh, putting us close to sheer embarrassment. At the beach he always insisted that we bury him under the sand, head exposed with his shoes stuck out 12' away from his head under a ridiculously long body of sand. Everyone passing by loved it. After a while (and his nap) we'd mockingly wind up stomping on his sandy "stomach" (safely clear of his real one) to the amusement of others around us, aside from my mother, who always made like she didn't know him.
When we were the only Italian family going to a New Jersey mountain lake previously only frequented by Germans, my father offered them meatballs, sausage and spaghetti and became the biggest clown in the middle of the lake, making his infamous sea monster growl that echoed from the mountainside. He taught us to put small, rounded stream stones into the barbecue so they would explode and scare the heck out of Mom when she was grilling burgers and hot dogs. He came up with the idea to put the watermelon in the stream to keep it cool all afternoon--which worked great except for one day when my sister and I had to run, splashing down the stream to recapture it after it got loose. These were also gifts from Dad.
Dad always took me fishing and crabbing down the abandoned docks and piers along the Hudson River. He taught me how to get past chain link fences and avoid guard houses to find the best fishing spot. I remember long, hot afternoons, the smell of fish and tar, and the pinching of the crabs we'd catch in our box crab nets. Some days we'd be there so long until the tide shifted on the Hudson... in the morning the river would be flowing out to sea, and in the afternoon it the river would actually flow upstream.
He'd also drop some bait lines from the wooden pilings using little screw-in springs with bells on them. A big "Mama eel" would latch on to a hook, the bell would ring and Dad would have dinner for him and Mom. One day we caught a big eel in the crab net and a big Jersey blue crab on the drop line. At the end of a long day, we'd head home with a bucket full of beautiful blue crabs and perhaps a few eels to fry up.
Again, more gifts from Dad.
Of course, we all bought Dad gifts for Father's Day. I remember saving the deposit money I earned from collecting empty soda bottles and buying him a bottle of shaving lotion or a pair of socks. A I got older, my gifts were many and varied: bottles of Amaretto, a fishing rod, a lop-eared rabbit, a 3 foot tall basket woven bottle of Chianti, a turquoise pocket knife, a trip to Caesar's Palace in Atlantic City, and odd assortments of power and garden tools.
But looking back, my gifts never matched the gifts he gave to me. He gave rock-solid, undeniable love and pride toward me. He gave simple, sound advice when I most needed it. He even gave me the gift of my wife and son when one day challenging me, "So, when are you going to marry that girl? You spend all your time with her anyway!"
Thanks Dad... for everything.
The culture in Italy is very different than in the U.S... especially concerning rules of proper behavior. What is acceptable in the States might be considered disgusting in Italy. What Italians consider as normal behavior, we would never thing of doing at home. Here are a few differences...
Before I voyaged to Italy, I wanted to learn phrases that weren't the standard tourist expressions. I wanted help in the day to day situations that would arise... to assimilate into Italian life with "street language", possibly even including some well-chosen curse words. I've always held the belief that when traveling in a foreign country, one should make a decent attempt in learning at least some of the language. It's the polite thing, with the added benefit of not sounding like an arrogant "ugly American" tourist, but as a more seasoned World Voyager. I can still recall an Ugly American years ago in rural, central France demanding in an overly loud voice, "I would like some PLAIN bread!"... sheer embarrassment.
For example, one of the more helpful non-tourist Italian expressions I learned was "Va Via!" (Hit the Road!) This became invaluable when being hawked by aggressive street vendors, beggars, scammers or someone trying to rob us. I used it several times with great success--they backed off and were given the impression that I was a confident local and not an easy mark, tourist. It was just as effective as in Paris when I felt a hand in my shoulder bag and yelled "Voleur!" (Thief)... drawing the French people's attention to the thief, causing him to flee. Sounding like a local is a real benefit and boosts your confidence when traveling.
I've listed some expressions which are well worth learning for your next Voyage to Italy. And don't be shy about trying to sound Italian when pronouncing the words. Years ago when learning French, I imagined a mix of Maurice Chevalier (of "Every leetle breeze seems to wheesper Louise" fame) and Charles Boyer (for a deeper, sexy voice) when I spoke. Hey, it must have worked, because although I admit to speaking very poor baby-talk French, and I'm not that great at one-on-one personal conversations, at least my accent est très bon. A vendor in Paris, after asking where I was from said in surprise, "Ahh... but I took you for a Frenchman!" High praise indeed from a Parisian selling necklaces in a flea market.
Click on the link for each below
to hear the pronunciation
When the Google Translate window pops up, click on speaker icon under the Italian phrase to hear the pronunciation. Try to mimic your favorite, sexy Italian TV chef (Fabio? Luca?) when you pronounce these phrases. Use your best Italian accent and you'll do fine...
Allora - This is used a lot in casual conversation as a pause to allow the speaker time to think of his next thoughts. It is used like "then", "oh well...", "therefore", "Mmmm, let me see... ". Examples:
"Allora... tutto bene." (You see... Everything is fine); "Allora...prendo un risotto Milanese." (Let's see... I'll have risotto Milanese.); or after someone does something nice for you, you can stretch it out a bit and say "Allora, mille grazie!" (Well then, a thousand thanks!).
Boh! - More of an exclamation for "I don’t know”, "I don't care" or "I don't want to hear it". It expresses your disinterest ambivalence toward the subject of discussion. The closest thing in English is “meh”, but Italian's use this a lot.
Avete le mani d'oro - "You have gold hands", meaning the person is gifted in using his hands, as when complimenting a local artisan.
Attaccalo al chiodo - Literally, "Stick it to the nail", meaning "forget about it" "leave it for later".
Leccapiedi - A toadie, a boot-licker, a brown-nose--An ass kisser. They have them in Italy, too.
Olio di gomito - Literally, "oil from the elbow. Referring to an exertion of physical labor, as we use "elbow grease".
La mia macchina è in panne - Literally, "my macchina (car) is creamed". This is used to describe something broken, as in "Mia macchina ha una panna, allora prendo un taxi." (My car is broken, in that case I'll take a cab.)
Che ne so - Used as a sarcastic response to someone asking something that you don't (or couldn't possibly) know. A gesture typically accompanies this phrase... a shrug of the shoulder along with wavering hands turned toward the sky as you shake your head "no". Use it as we do when we say "How in heck should I know?" rather than the more precise and formal "Non lo so" (I do not know).
Non mi va - This means something like "It doesn't go with me" and is used when someone suggests something that you don't or won't agree to. Use it casually as you would say "I don’t feel like it", for instance if someone suggests a restaurant that you wouldn't like, or with a stronger voice if you are trying to get rid of a pushy vendor or hawker on the street trying to sell you something that you'd never buy... "Allora... Non mi va!". Kids will say it to get out of doing what their parents tell them to do.
In bocca al lupo - Literally, "in the wolf’s mouth". Used to wish someone good luck, meaning to aim into the wolf's mouth to kill it (the wolf represents the difficulty they are facing). When wishing someone will overcome something more serious, use "crepi il lupo", literally, "Croak the wolf!". Sort of like when we say to someone "You'll beat it" or "You'll kill it". Always use this when wishing someone Good Luck.
Neanche per sogno - Literally, "Not even in (your) dream". Used to slap back someone's offer or when you don't agree with a suggestion, such as "Not in your wildest dreams" or simply "No way!".
Sono stanco - Literally, "I'm weary (tired)". Use after a long day of walking around tourist sites, such as "Sono stanco. Troppo a piedi. Ho bisogno di gelato freddo!" (I'm tired. Too much walking. I need a cold gelato!")
Magari - This is slang for "maybe" or perhaps "if it could only be true". You could use it expressing hope to win the Lotto or meeting the perfect mate, or "Voglio avere figli... magari" (I want to have children... I could only wish.)
Ogni morto di papa - Literally, "Every Death of a Pope", used the same as "Once in a blue moon". Make sure to accent "Papa" correctly... accent on the first syllable (PA-pa). If you say "pa-PA" you are taking about your Dad.
Salve, come va? - Literally "Hello, how’s it going?" The more formal way is to ask "Buongiorno, come stai?"(Good morning, how are you). It’s a less formal way of greeting someone, but use "come sta" in formal or business situations.
Galeotto fu il libro - "Jailbird was the book"... an odd expression referring to matchmaking two people. Perhaps referring to when a guy gives a girl a book (a present) they'll become imprisoned--in love. Some of the roots behind these expressions are really difficult to comprehend.
Promettere mari e monti - Literally, "Promise the seas and mountains". Used like "Promise Heaven and Earth". Examples: "Non mi prometti mari e monti" (I am not promising Heaven and Earth" or "Mi ha promesso mari e monti" (He promised me Heaven and Earth").
Non chiedo la luna - "I'm not asking for the moon". Used when frustrated with someone complaining about a simple request. One of the more useful expressions to make your request in a restaurant or hotel seem like it's coming from a more seasoned Voyager who can't be taken advantage of. (I wish I knew this one when picking up rental cars at Hertz!)
Andare a monte - (ahn-DAR-eh a MOHN-teh) - Literally, "Go to the mountain", but it figuratively means that everything went downhill and failed. Examples: Un viaggio va a monte (The trip was called off); Il matrimonio è andato a monte (the marriage failed). Use to describe something that went awry or got fouled up.
Ho peli sul mio stomaco - Literally, "I have hairs on my stomach", meaning you're not taking something seriously or that it's not bothering you.
Ne ho fin sopra i capelli - Literaly, "I'm sick up to my hair". Use it the same as "I’ve had it up to here" or "I'm fed up to here" or "I'm sick and tired". You can use a hand gesturing to the top of your head with this.
Capitare su un osso duro - Literally, "Happen on a tough bone". A pejorative. Use it referring to dealing with a tough cookie. A person who is "un osso duro" (a tough bone) is a bit thick and stubborn. You can also use "capo tosto" meaning "thick (tough) head". A hand motion goes with this... knocking your knuckles or fist on a table as you say it.
Dare del filo da torcere - Literally, "giving a twisted thread". Think of a small, precocious child asking "Why... Why... Why" no matter how many times you give an answer. "Torcere" means to Twist. They’re never satisfied with your answers. To tell someone about your daughter's quizzical nature, you could say, "Mia figlia mi dà del filo da torcere" (My daughter gives me a hard time). In the positive, you might also use this to describe how smart and curious your kid is because he asks many questions.
Essere in alto mare - This is a common phrase used when someone has procrastinated and discover that they are behind on a project. It literally means that you are in deep water with a long way to go before getting finished.
Mi fa cagare! - Instead of the much more polite "È orribile" ("It's awful!"), Italians will say bluntly, "It makes me poop," . So, when taking about "That restaurant? Mi fa cagare!" "Her new dress?! Mi fa cagare!" "That new American singer? Mi fa cagare!"
Mi sento le mani prudono - Literally, "I'm feeling itchy hands" means you feel like hitting someone... you're pissed off. Be careful how you use this.
Figurati! - Literal, "Imagine (that)!", used as "Don't worry about it!" or "It's nothing!" You can use this in both positive or negative ways. "Thanks for a great meal... Figurati!" or when to act innocent and blameless when you've just dented someone's fender who just cut into your lane, "I'm so sorry I ran into you... Figurati!" It's like saying "mi scusi" (excuse me) without really meaning it.
Dai! - This simply means "Come on!" as in, "Please, you can't deny me." When someone refuses your suggestion to go have a drink, you say "Dai!" along with a motioning hand gesture toward yourself. You can also use it to try to stop someone from doing something negative. "Why are you pushing me? Dai! Wait your turn!"
Meno Male! - Literally, "less bad." Oh, HE got elected? Meno Male! As long as that other jerk didn't win!" "I passed the test? Meno male!"
Che palle! - This is a rather crude, but everyday expression meaning, “what balls!” or "what a pain in the ass!" but stronger than "what nerve!"
Ho perso il mio portafoglio. (I lost my wallet.)
Che palle! (What a pain!)
Grazie a Dio! - "Thank God!" used the same way we use it to express great relief. Always include the "a" (meaning "to")... "Thanks to God" otherwise, you would be thanking God directly.
Che guastafesta - Roughly translates as "What a party pooper". Guastafesta is a combination of two Italian words: the verb guastare, “to spoil” or “to ruin,” and the word festa, which means “party.” Use it when anyone is putting a damper on your fun or a monkey wrench into your plans.
Ma, che sei grullo? - Used more in Florence, literally "But, how stupid are you?" It's used like "Are you kidding?" or "Are you crazy?" to friends. Say it to a stranger and you might get in trouble. Example: "I'll pay for dinner." Response, "Ma, che sei grullo?" or "You paid that much for those shoes? Ma, che sei grullo?"
Scappo! - Slang for "escape" or "I'm gone" or "I'm outta here!".
Basta! - Literally, "Enough!". This can be used in simple ways, like telling a waiter when he's put enough pepper on your dish, or more forcefully when someone is BS-ing you, as in, "Basta! Non voglio sentire altre scuse!" - "That's enough! I don't want to hear any excuses!" Can be combined with above... "Scappo! Basta!".
A fagiolo - Literally, fagiolo means “bean,” but the phrase a fagiolo (“to the bean”) means something like the English “to the letter” or “to a T.” It indicates to someone that you are expecting precision from them.
Ti scureggia il cervello - Use this only with friends, or when you really want to insult someone. It means, literally, "your brain is farting". A Roman expression.
Cazzata - Literally "Crap!" or perhaps a bit more blunt, as it's derived from "cazzo" (f*ck). Used when you get a whiff of someone's BS. Or to scold yourself when you said something crappy or stupid, "Dio, ho detto una cazzata," meaning, "God, I said something f*cked up."
Figo - Slang for "Cool", meaning something great or nice. Used to describe things or people. End it with an "a", "Figa" can also describe a cool (or rather, "Hot)" female, but be forewarned, the word "figa" is also used as a very crude reference to a woman's vagina (similar to "c*nt"). A "figata" is something that is cool or great--used as the opposite of a "cazzata."
Mannaggia - Used as "Damn!" or combined as "Manageria miseria"--"Damned misery!" Used to express utter frustration with someone, something or a frustrating situation.
Zitto - Slang and abrupt was to get someone to keep quiet. "Zitto!" or "Stai zitto!" means "Shut up!" or "Shush!"
I hope you'll put some of these expressions to good use during your next Voyage to Italy. This was a long post, Sono Stanco! If only I had someone else to write these posts for me... magari!
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The cimaruta is a very old Italian portafortuna (good luck charm) rooted in the lore of the ancient Pagan religions of Italy. It can be worn around the neck or hung above an infant's bed to ward off any evil. Like many of the lasting ancient symbols and beliefs, the cimaruta design eventually took on certain symbols of Catholicism. One example of a Christian addition to the design is the appearance of "the sacred heart" of Jesus. However, ancient Roman charms did include a heart symbol, which may indicate that the heart on the cimaruta isn't an entirely new addition.
The traditional cimaruta is fashioned after the leafy sprig of rue, which is an herb that is highly featured in Italian magic and lore. The branch of the rue is divided into three stems symbolizing the three forms of the goddess Diana. Rue was a sacred herb for Diana.
Various charms appear on the rue design, each having its own meaning. The main symbols are the moon, serpent, and key. These represent the goddess as Hecate (the key), Diana (the moon) and Proserpina (the serpent). There may also be a rose; a hand holding either a wand or a sword; a flaming heart; a fish or dolphin (a nod to Diana); an owl (to flirt with the Devil); a plumed medieval helmet; a vervain blossom (a flower from Italian fairy ore); a cherub; a rooster (watchful guardian); and an eagle (able to see evil coming from far away). One cimaruta, for example, might bear the collective imagery of a key, dagger, blossom and moon. The cimaruta is worn nowadays more by women than men.
Mano in Fica
The clenched fist with a trusting thumb is known as mano in fica or simply, mano figa ("fig-hand"), or far le fiche ("c*nt gesture", pardon the profanity), for the resemblance to female genitalia. The word figa itself is a very vulgar word to describe a vagina in Italy. Such a rude hand gesture was common in past centuries, similar to "giving the finger" or "flipping the bird", but has fallen out of use. Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto XXV) mentions the mano in fica. Supposedly, this charm is used to insult the devil and others casting evil spells.
The cornetto, shaped like a horn or chili pepper, is still popular in Southern Italy around Naples, Calabria and in the rest of Mezzogiorno (southern Italy). In Calabria and Naples this charm is worn as jewelry, hung on rear view mirrors, hung in shop windows, on key rings, and on t-shirts. It is more effective if it is red (representing an enemy's blood) and topped with a crown (representing wealth). The cornetto is a symbol of virility (obvious with its phallic shape), but it also brings luck, wealth, success and can also used by women. A similar magical horn of plenty was carried by the Roman Goddess Abundantia to represent abundance, and many think the cornetto has its roots in ancient Roman times.
An alternative to the cornetto, some claim the Mano Corno can ward off the malocchio (evil eye). However, in Italy, the Mano Corno can be seen as offensive... this hand gesture is called cornuto, or a cuckolded man. Give this hand sign to an Italian man and you are basically calling him weak, pathetic and unmanly. This sign--along with sticking up a middle finger--are the most insulting signs you can insult an Italian man with. This charm directly insults the devils and his demons himself.
The Coccinella, or ladybug (ladybird) charm brings luck in the arena of love and romance. it's a very common charm in Italy, especially with women. The red color has multiple meanings... red represents victory over one's enemies (spilling their blood); red helps ward off malocchio; and red also is the color of passion and romance. Another fact about the ladybug is they eat the bad bugs who would eat a farmer's crops, so of course they came to be thought of as a sign of good luck, helping prevent crop failure.
When I was a kid, we would occasionally find a garter snake living in our small urban garden along with our collection of 15 box turtles. I always loved snakes... smooth, silky, muscular and graceful. On our country property today, I've often seen several species of snakes: garter, ribbon, black rat. The hill behind our home is called Rattlesnake Hill, but I've never seen one. I still find it interesting when I come across snakes... but I don't honor them in any way and couldn't dream of anyone holding a festival for them!
Yet, each year in the beginning of May, in the small towns of Cocullo and Villalag0, La Festa dei Serpari is held. The festival is held in honor of Saint Dominic, protector of toothache, reptile bites and rage. But the festival also has ancient pagan roots in honor of the Oscan healer and snake goddess, Angizia. Also known as Angitia to the ancient Romans, she was revered by the Marsi, a warlike tribe of people who lived to the east of Rome in the Apennine Mountains.
Angizia possessed an ability to heal those who had been poisoned--especially by snakes--and had the power to kill serpents by casting verbal spells. First century Romans knew the Marsi region contained many healers, magicians, and snake-charmers was infamous as a hotbed of witchcraft. The Festa dei Separi honors the modern-day separi (snake wranglers), with many of them catching and contributing snakes to the festivities.
In preparation for the Festival, during the last half of March, the separi spread out across the countryside in their hunt for snakes. Once captured, they are carefully stored in wooden boxes, or as in ancient times, inside terracotta containers for 15-20 days. The snakes are fed a healthy diet of live mice and hard-boiled eggs.
On the day of the festival, pilgrims gather in the church of San Domenico to be healed. After Mass, the statue of the Saint is draped with live snakes and carried into the piazza where believers gather to touch both the Saint and the snakes for their healing powers. The local separi also drape themselves with snakes and follow the procession.
In years past, the snakes were killed afterwards and eaten in a feast, but now the bread is substituted, formed into various snake shapes... interlocking rings of snakes, biting their tails, or as serpents with sliced almond scales and coffee bean eyes. The snakes are no longer killed, but released back into the wild when the festival is over.
Some other scholars argue that the festival dates back even further to the Greek hero and god, Hercules. Supposedly, jealous Hera sent two snakes to kill him in his crib. The infant Hercules was unusually strong and fearless and strangled the snakes before they could strangle him. In the nearby hamlet of Casale votive bronzes representing Hercules have been found.
Saint Domenico himself is particularly revered in Cocullo because some personal relics are kept in the church there: a molar and a horseshoe from his mule. Villalag0 also has one of his molars. There is no telling who has the rest of his teeth. Perhaps they were eaten--by snakes.