Patient lands, desiccated calabroni, sweet red onions, caught cockleburs, gray-haired vecchiette, smashed sinks, wary shepherds, prehistoric ferns & the Tyrrhenian Sea.
M y mom does not remember the address of the house.
She remembers the man yelling in front of it, the handle of a gun protruding from inside his jacket. She remembers her five-foot-tall mother, by then already a gray-haired vecchietta, shouting back in her mountaintop dialect, threatening to “call her people.” She remembers holding her one-year-old son, my older brother, and begging Nonni to get out of there. She remembers the view out to the sparkling turquoise sea in the distance, the view that started the whole mess.
But as far as a street name, or number, she has no idea.
There is the smell of crushed wild oregano, there are the howls of the wolves in the early morning and there are the cement skeletons of countless homes begun and never finished.
So we’re on Google Maps, zooming in first to Italy, then to Calabria, then to Tropea, and dragging slightly to the left, to the little village of Santa Domenica. Click onto satellite view and the spiderweb of gray-and-white streets becomes lush green countryside, dotted with the orange rectangles of terra cotta roofs. The town is bounded by the Tyrrhenian Sea at its front and a steep rise into the mountains at its back. At night, the yellow fairy lights of Sicily twinkle across the Strait of Messina, and during the day, travelers, for hundreds of years, have reported an optical phenomenon called the Fata Morgana, in which they can see the island across the water as if it were only a stone’s throw away, see the cars and the people walking along the streets of a shimmering city that twists, expands, contracts, folds in on itself, does somersaults in the air. They say that one August, a deliriously hot Calabrian August many years ago during the northern invasions, a barbarian king witnessed this mirage and drowned himself trying to swim to its shores.
My mom squints at the map through her glasses, mentally matching up streets and intersections with her memories from almost forty years earlier. Her eyes wind their way out of town and start following the gray snake of Strada Statale 522. She pauses at a possible turn, then rethinks, keeps dragging along the map, past Residence Floritalia, Pizzeria Trattoria La Quercia. She’s nodding, whispering under her breath about getting closer. She comes to a roundabout and takes the first right. Some ways down this road, there is another right turn, onto a short gravel drive.
She stops at the end, mouse hovering over what, to me, is just another of those terra cotta rectangles.
“That’s it. That’s the house.”
The house is the reason I asked to come here, down to this corner of Italy that is often overlooked. There are no Colosseums here, or towering cathedrals, no da Vincis or Michelangelos, no black-and-white-striped gondoliers. Here, there are long, potholed roads running along the crests of dry hills and through shaded olive groves. There is the smell of crushed wild oregano, there are the howls of the wolves in the early morning and there are the cement skeletons of countless homes begun and never finished. It is an abandoned land, abandoned by its people who went north to find work, or to South America, or to the United States, like my family. Its population numbers fewer than two million, smaller than that of Rome.
They say that one August, a deliriously hot Calabrian August many years ago during the Northern invasions, a barbarian king witnessed this mirage and drowned himself trying to swim to its shores.
But it is also a patient land that has witnessed the fickle vicissitudes of humanity for centuries. It has seen the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Normans, the Spaniards, the French all come and go. It has learned not to place too much importance in these things.
The next morning, we find ourselves in front of the house, this time in person. As it turns out, my mom could not remember the street name or number because there never was one; the street is more of a glorified driveway, with no markings or signs.
We had driven in silence, full of apprehension. We didn’t know what we would find. Humans, like nature, have a habit of reclaiming what has been left abandoned, and it’s not uncommon here for empty houses to be taken over by squatters, or used as hideouts for local crime. But when we arrive, at the end of that hidden dusty lane, we find the house sitting empty, expecting us, a two-story tan stucco box with a tiled roof and dark-green shutters.
Wilderness has grown up around it, a dense jungle of thorny bushes and tall, prehistoric ferns, banks of wildflowers sprung up along streams of thick grasses. Leaves shake with the slithering of reptilian life through the underbrush. The rusted fence that lines the perimeter of the property has begun to fall over and give way in some sections, and the bars of the large metal gate at the entrance have been wrent aside, creating an opening large enough to climb through.
Humans, like nature, have a habit of reclaiming what has been left abandoned, and it’s not uncommon here for empty houses to be taken over by squatters, or used as hideouts for local crime.
We get out of the car. My mom announces, “Well, there it is,” and then falls silent, remaining a safe distance from the fence, hesitant to venture any closer. She hasn’t been back in decades, and for all that time the house has been something that existed solely in the past, wrapped in a haze of memory. To see it now, in front of her, standing next to her daughter, who is flesh and blood…it must seem like a trick of the eye, the magicking of some fairy, to condense thirty-six years into the space of an overgrown yard, to bring the shimmering past almost into arm’s reach.
My mother never learned to swim, and has a very real fear of drowning.
The house does not have the same effect on me. This is the first time I am seeing it. It’s certainly different from how I imagined—not for the architecture, or the color of the stucco, or the size, but because when I imagined it, it was always full of people.
My mom tells me not to go inside. We don’t know what—or who—could be in there, but it’s too late. I’m already climbing through the hole in the gate, my curiosity pulling me toward the house like a magnet. She calls my name, but only half-heartedly. She’s curious too.
I make my way through the yard, thorns tearing at my tights, cockleburs sticking to my dress. I reach the half-buried tiles of the patio and look back, but can no longer see my mom or the car through the screen of plant life. The side door has been left open, and I step inside.
There is stillness inside the house, but it is not dead.
Leaves shake with the slithering of reptilian life through the underbrush.
It has been waiting patiently. It is like the land. It knows that people come and go, and that life alternates with death, one giving meaning to the other. Life and death have continued to cycle through here.
It is completely empty inside, emptier than I expected. When my grandmother left, it was furnished, livable if not completed. But it’s obvious people have been here since, and they’ve done much more than take the furniture. Wires hang gouged from the walls, stripped, and in some of the rooms they’ve even dug up the tile from the floors, leaving only dry dirt underfoot. One whole wall has been removed, where the kitchen appliances used to be, and the sinks and toilets in the bathrooms are all smashed to pieces.
They’ve left behind a blue-bristled broom and a liter plastic water bottle. Judging from the dust covering both, they haven’t been back for a long time, but I cough loudly and try to make some noise just in case. When there’s no response, I keep going. In one room on the first floor I find the body of a little bird, wings spread as if still in flight. The flesh and feathers have disappeared and the eye sockets are empty circles. All that’s left are the bones, clean and thin as whiskers.
Other rooms I find colonized with wasps’ nests, cardboard-looking constructions now, thankfully, abandoned like the house. Some have begun to crumble, chunks littering the floor along with the desiccated husks of the calabroni, the biggest species of wasp in Europe, cannibals that prey on smaller wasps and insects. I shiver just looking at them, imagining them still alive.
it must seem like a trick of the eye, the magicking of some fairy, to condense thirty-six years into the space of an overgrown yard, to bring the shimmering past almost into arm’s reach.
The stairs to the second floor are attached to the outside of the house, and to reach them I have to force open one of the back windows, breaking off part of the splintered wooden frame. I climb over, ripping my tights in the process, and hop down on the other side.
A wooden swing sways back and forth in the sea breeze.
I tramp my way through brambles and vines to the staircase, the underside of which has crumbled away to reveal the rebar supports. White marble steps peek out from the vegetation like half-buried bones. I decide to test my luck on its structural integrity and begin to climb. When I reach the top, I look out and see the ocean.
They call it the Coast of the Gods, the stretch between Nicotera and Pizzo Calabro, in the province of Vibo Valentia. It is considered the most beautiful stretch of coastline in Calabria, an alternance of white-sand beaches and rocky coves, the water glittering chlorine-blue, so clear that, looking down, you can see the transparent outlines of jellyfish floating feet below. At the end of the day, the setting sun becomes a giant, pulsating red orb that melts onto the horizon line, spreading across the water like a neon oil spill. Each and every night, it feels like witnessing the end of the world.
Like I said, it’s the view that started the whole mess.
It has been waiting patiently. It is like the land.
The year was 1981. My grandmother—Nonni—bought a piece of undeveloped land from a local man near Tropea, a man whose name I will not reveal but on whom she would later bestow the title of quel delinquente. She had a dream for the land: she would build a house on it, a house big enough to fit her whole family, a family that had been scattered in the three decades since they had left their tiny mountaintop village. She would create a place where they would all be together, a place that would keep them together.
In the contract she signed with quel delinquente, there was a stipulation that he, who still owned the property in front of Nonni’s, could never build anything to block her view of the ocean.
In 1983, up sprang the cement frame of a two-story building, right in front of Nonni’s land.
The details of the drama that ensued have been more or less lost to history, and after all these years they’ve become relatively banal. There was a dispute over land—a story as old as time. Both parties insisted they were right, and refused to compromise. The delinquente also happened to be the contractor working on Nonni’s house, and he shut off the water supply, among other inconveniences. Things came to a head, and she confronted him. He wasn’t going to back down, and in those days the law was less of a threat, not to mention that Nonni had a family to think about, a family that never fully supported her building the house anyway. So she went back to America.
Wires hang gouged from the walls, stripped, and in some of the rooms they’ve even dug up the tile from the floors, leaving only dry dirt underfoot.
My brother grew up, I was born and Nonni passed away. The house wasn’t mentioned much after that, only sometimes when my mom would grow very wistful and talk about how things could have been.
What’s strange is that the concrete skeleton is still there, in front of our view. After all that fighting and drama, a conflict that changed the course of my family history, quel delinquente never even built his house.
Now I can hear my mom’s voice calling me from the car. I descend the stairs and thread my way through the yard again, emerging on the other side of the metal fence. I almost expect years to have passed, like in those stories of people crossing over to spirit realms where days seem like seconds, but when I emerge the warm afternoon sun is still high in the sky, and it turns out I was inside for less than an hour.
The next day, we decide to visit the little mountaintop town where my mother was born, to see if there’s anything to find out. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive into the interior of the peninsula, following a bumpy single-lane road that winds precariously along the mountainside. My mom’s not used to driving like this, and she slows down and honks her horn at every turn. We pass countless farms selling the specialties of the region, sweet red onions and ‘nduja, the spicy sausage paste Calabria is known for. We pass dilapidated farmhouses and half-empty villages, where the few residents watch suspiciously as we roll slowly by in our shiny rental car. At one point we have to stop entirely when we come to a herd of sheep crossing the road, the air filling with their plaintive bleats and the ringing of the bells around their necks. The shepherd walks past, dressed in sweatpants and sneakers, and eyes us warily.
All that’s left are the bones, clean and thin as whiskers.
Calabria is contradictory in that it is at once hostile and enchanting. It is known both for the ’ndrangheta, its vicious mafia, and for the warmth and hospitality of its people. Its beauty is the raw, wild kind, the kind that will never quite be conquered. It is a land that keeps drawing people back, but that cannot hold them for long.
What I do not expect driving through the countryside here is the sheer number of half-finished homes at various stages of construction—some just cement outlines, some almost completed. It seems like everyone had the same idea as my grandmother, to try to build a future, to put down more roots here. And, just like her, it seems they all failed. But the houses have not been knocked down, perhaps in the hope that one day they might still be finished.
They mark the landscape like modern ruins.
It’s afternoon by the time we arrive. The town is little more than a line of houses following the crest of the mountain. At the center is the church and the piazza, and at the outskirts the cemetery and the olive groves. It looks like everyone here has white hair; almost all the young people have left to find jobs, either in the nearby cities or in the north. It’s only the elderly who insist on staying. They stare as we get out of the car. They’re not used to strangers.
We wander a bit, my mom getting her bearings in this town she only remembers from her youth. The last time she was here for any length of time was the summer when she was fifteen, rebellious with a cloud of unruly black curls around her face. She refused to sleep during the afternoon, as was the custom, and she would walk down to the neighboring towns and back, for want of anything better to do. At fifteen, this was a place to escape from.
I almost expect years to have passed, like in those stories of people crossing over to spirit realms where days seem like seconds, but when I emerge the warm afternoon sun is still high in the sky, and it turns out I was inside for less than an hour.
We go into the church and find our family’s pew, the second from the back on the left. It still has the name engraved in it. We’re standing there, whispering, when a woman approaches. She smiles and nods to the pew.
“Are you related to someone here?” she asks us. What she really means is, What are you doing here? We explain to her who we are, and mention our family name. Her eyes light up with recognition and she whisks us outside, where she stops one of the white-haired men as he walks past, hands clasped behind his back.
“They’re related to the Professore Valerio, do you believe it?”
My mom nods. “My uncle,” she confirms.
The man smiles, gesturing around his face.
“The shape,” he says, “same as the Professore.”
The town remembers. We are no longer an external threat, but one of them, and the next hour is a whirlwind of meeting people who are related to someone who is related to us, who remembers my mother’s father when he was young, or her mother, or her uncle.
We end up in my grandparents’ ancestral home, being offered espresso by the family who bought it from them. The first floor, where we are, once housed my grandfather’s custom tailoring business, filled with his apprentices and the steady mechanical rhythm of their sewing machines. Now it has been made into a living room, and I am sitting on the couch next to the grandmother, an ancient-looking woman who touches my cheek with her bony, silk-skinned hand and tells me how pretty I am. Or at least I think she does—I’m mostly smiling and nodding along, because the dialect spoken here is not exactly what I learned in my Florentine language school.
We are no longer an external threat, but one of them, and the next hour is a whirlwind of meeting people who are related to someone who is related to us, who remembers my mother’s father when he was young, or her mother, or her uncle.
My mother doesn’t seem to be having problems, though. My whole life she told me she couldn’t speak Italian, but the second she hears her dialect she’s off, gesticulating and exclaiming with words that, for me, don’t carry any meaning. For a split second I see a flash of how she must have been when she was young.
Standing by the stove is a girl around my age, one of the few younger people I’ve seen here. She has the dark hair and eyes of the region, and she’s listening to my mom’s animated speech with amusement. I find myself staring at her, wondering what her life must be like, in a secluded village like this, how different it must be from mine. And how, if my family had stayed here, that girl would be me.
Before long, we’ve procured the name of a man who might be able to help us find the documents for the house, an engineer in the nearby city of Vibo. They say we can trust him because he’s from the town, he’s one of us. We thank these people whom we met only an hour ago, and yet who already seem like family, and take our leave. We don’t know when, or even if, we’ll be back.
The next morning, we wake up early to drive to Vibo Valentia. A city of around 33,000, it has changed hands—and names—too many times to keep track of, since it was founded by the Greeks, then conquered by a Sicilian tyrant, then the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Normans, and back to the Romans. In the process, it was abandoned and rediscovered twice.
Now it seems to have settled down somewhat, and we find the engineer’s house on a tranquil street in the city center, paved with cobblestones and filled with soft light. The sound of a violin floats down from the open windows of a nearby music conservatory painted butter yellow.
We ring the doorbell and in seconds find ourselves seated in the living room across from the ingegnere and his two older sons, who are curious to hear our story. The youngest son wanders out of the kitchen, disoriented by this American invasion in his home, and offers us juice before blearily shuffling back into the kitchen.
That must be the enchantment this place casts, the Fata Morgana again. It makes you see dreams as if they were right in front of you.
The link with the town is quickly established, and my mother and the engineer go from being strangers to paisani in the space of a minute, the two of them on the inside, the rest of the world on the outside. He speaks in the accent of the region, exhaling heavily on his consonants, making it sound like he’s coughing his words. He goes back to the town every year with his family, he tells us. He remembers my mother’s Uncle Valerio.
In turn, we tell him about us, about how my mom never came back to Italy after the last time with my grandmother, how little by little she stopped speaking the language, how the history of our family seemed more or less lost until I decided I wanted to move back here, albeit to the north. How we didn’t expect to find the house still empty after all these years—we really just went to see it out of curiosity. But now that we’ve found it, there’s no way we can abandon it again.
The ingegnere’s eyes mist over as my mother talks. He begins to shake his head, and when she finishes, he quietly vows to help us. He emphasizes that it’s the right thing to do, that he feels a duty. That he believes in our mission. He’ll find the documents to the house, he’ll set all the paperwork straight, and…
He looks at us, trailing off.
“But if I help you, it’s not that you’ll leave the house another thirty years?” He looks intently at my mom, then at me.
“Do you want to live there? Come back every summer?”
Surprised, I smile and nod. “Of course!” I respond, without thinking.
“I’m going to get that knocked down; I don’t care what I have to do,” she declares, to herself more than to me. We have different ways of moving forward, I suppose.
But…am I so sure of that? This whole trip has been a blur of excitement, from one town to the next, making connections, meeting new people, feeling the rush of adrenaline from discovering something. So I haven’t stopped to think about what lies ahead for us here.
What kind of future can I have in a land like Calabria? I come here, and it’s beautiful—it feels like being on the doorstep of paradise—but would I even want to stay?
We say goodbye to the engineer and his family on the promise to stay in touch, and start the drive back to our hotel.
The sun is setting and the heat of the day begins to dissipate, cooled by the breath of a soft breeze that smells of fresh grass and salt. The sky turns to vaporous shades of lavender and violet, and the horizon line disappears, the sea becoming a hazy expanse. A few thin clouds tinged pink float high above.
But I am not looking at any of this. I’m quiet. I’m picturing a life here.
I’m picturing the house, but restored to what my grandmother wanted for it. The weeds cleared from the garden, and a stone path leading down from the road to the front door. A couple of lemon trees, because why not? Or, better yet, bergamot, the citrus that grows only in Calabria, that gives Earl Grey tea its flavor. I imagine a garden that always smells like Earl Grey tea. A large shaggy dog that barks at strangers but is sweet to me and licks my hand when I pet him. The inside of the house with new tiles laid, and a new kitchen installed, and a table and chairs where family and friends could sit and talk. The upstairs without the wasp nests, the walls repainted, fresh linens on the beds. And the terrace, with the view out to the ocean unobstructed, watching the sunset there every evening.
I can see my grandmother’s vision, and I can understand how much she wanted it, how everything seemed so close that it was almost tangible, how convinced she was that she could make it happen if she tried hard enough, even though all logic seemed to go against her. That must be the enchantment this place casts, the Fata Morgana again. It makes you see dreams as if they were right in front of you.
He speaks in the accent of the region, exhaling heavily on his consonants, making it sound like he’s coughing his words.
Was she destined to fail from the beginning, then? And would I be too? If Norman kings and Sicilian tyrants could not hold on to this land, how could I pretend to succeed, when all I had here was an abandoned house, no documents and some goodwilled villagers who remembered my family?
But to all these questions, there has only ever been one answer. There is something stronger than logic at work here—a sense of belonging. And, with it, a sense of duty. As if I owed it to this land, for everything it has given me and my ancestors, to stay. To not give up on it. I knew I didn’t have a choice from the moment I set eyes on the house.
On our last day, we return there, armed with clippers that we use to cut the old chains off the gate. It opens with a metallic screech, and this time my mom crosses the yard with me.
I can see how hard it is for her, to come back here and witness the state of things. The furniture all gone, the kitchen ripped out, the walls stained with mold and the floors pulled up. She climbs upstairs and stops on the terrace, looking not at the sea but at the cement skeleton that still stands in front of it, obstinately blocking our view. “I’m going to get that knocked down; I don’t care what I have to do,” she declares, to herself more than to me. We have different ways of moving forward, I suppose.
We take pictures of all of the rooms for future reference, and then it’s time to leave. We don’t know when we’ll be back, or what we’ll do when we return. But something has changed while we’ve been here, changed irrevocably for us. We can both feel it.
As I’m heading toward the door, a flash of color in the other room catches my eye. I take a few steps closer to see what it is. The floors have been dug up in here, too, and the ground is dry earth. The shutters have been left closed, and the room is almost entirely cast in shadow, except for one window where the shutter is broken, and a strip of afternoon light shines through. It falls in a thin white line across the ground, and perfectly centered on that line, a little two-leafed plant has sprouted up. It can’t be more than three inches tall, but its tiny stem and petals glow green with defiant life.
I stand staring at that plant for a long time, before my mom calls me from the door. It’s time to go.
Christiane Skye Kuppig is an emerging writer hailing from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She moved to Italy upon finishing high school and studied filmmaking and creative writing at the Holden School in Turin, all the while pursuing her passions for travel and language. She now resides in New York City and is working toward a degree in film and media studies at Columbia University. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s 2020 Emerging Travel Writers’ Prize.
Lead image: Ettore Caputo