Portraits of Humanity


That “Thanks for coming” eased all tensions and brightened our day. Until then, we had been tormented by a thousand concerns (in hindsight, unnecessary), but Elvira Dones’ smile and words, on her arrival at the airport, immediately reassured us that everything would go for the better. It’s an irrational certainty, of course – we can’t deny it – yet one that can be found in everyone’s life: we rely on small details, because they make the difference. From that “thanks” on, everything has been easy, rain aside. Yes, because the rain had already started early in the afternoon, while we were waiting at the airport for the Turin’s group, and it has never stopped until the 6th October. After a cup of coffee, Elvira starts speaking and we listen to her, spellbound by her words on Albania, obviously, Switzerland, the United States, and the many places where she has lived. Occasionally, she uses some English words, but her Italian is perfect and fluent. After all, she chose to write in our language a long time ago. Then she starts asking questions. She asks about the Arbëreshe villages, and our land; she is very eager to learn new thinks and she can’t wait to visit those places. We explain to her the schedule for the next few days: she is happy and eager do start it. Nearly two hours pass, but that time spent together doesn’t bother us at all, as it is lightened by our smiles, stories, and details. We stand outside the airport’s main entrance, while she smokes a cigarette. But we don’t feel tired at all. She’s a great raconteur. When Marco Cazzato, Anastasia Frandino and Elena Notarangelo arrive (after the classic flight delay), we can heave a sigh of relief: the group is finally complete! Smiling faces and friendly words immediately give us tranquillity. After several days spent asking ourselves how everything would go and how these people would be, we enjoy this moment as a little reward. The minibus that will move us around in the coming days can finally head to Basilicata. We get to know each other during the journey; everyone tells something about themselves. In between the conversations, Marco’s attention is drawn by the landscapes and the colours, which can be distinguished through the bus windows despite the fog. After two hours we arrive at Latronico. After a quick stop at the B&B, where Giusy is waiting for us, we go to Francesca and Valerio’s restaurant, to have dinner. We are starving; luckily, the regional cuisine is able to both satisfy our appetite and please our palate: we have some mischiglio (vegetables and cereals) from Chiaromonte, some baccalà (dried salt-cured cod) with peperoni cruschi (sun-dried, crunchy peppers, which will be our loyal travelling companions throughout the journey). Our guests couldn’t get a better welcome!


As soon as we’re there, the peaceful silence of the village of San Paolo Albanese envelops us. Then, the town slowly starts revealing itself. During our break at the café, we come across the first locals. They don’t seem surprised nor annoyed, but rather accustomed to foreigners. Strange as it may sound, over the past few decades, this small village, with slightly more than 250 inhabitants, has been visited by scholars, tourists, photographers and curious visitors. Most of them are eager to learn about the so-called “seven butterflies” (later, we would discover that this how they’re called). They are seven old ladies who still wear, each day, the traditional dress of the village. Probably, in the long term the village of San Paolo has been affected by this curiosity and continuous search for “phenomena” to be captured. So, today we have to pay the price of such intrusiveness: the old ladies won’t give us any interview. And, despite our inevitable disappointment, we think it’s pretty fair. But on the plus side, we get to visit the village led by Rosangela, who is friendly and helpful as usual, and ready to guide us.
Our steps resound while we wander across the narrow streets that lead first to the Church and then to the small museum dedicated to the Arbëreshe culture. The story told by Rosangela is rich in details: from the escape from Albania and the national hero Skanderbeg, to the symbolism of the icons and the red, blue and gold colours; from the religious Greek Byzantine rites and the relationship with the Catholic Church, to the traditional textile manufacturing activity of broom shrub spinning, and much more. She shows an incredibly extensive knowledge, as well as a keen love for the art, culture and history of this place, founded by some Albanian refugees five centuries ago. We listen to her for three hours in a row; occasionally, we get absorbed by the dialogue (partly in Albanian language) between Elvira and Rosangela. The Arbëreshe don’t speak the current Albanian language, but they can understand it quite well. Such a combination between the past and the present is really fascinating, almost surreal. Marco listens to them, while he moves around, exploring and, meanwhile, drawing. His presence is delicate, and quiet. He uses what he knows best, drawing indeed, to capture every detail. Every now and then, we can find him sitting in a corner, holding a pencil and a sketchbook. We look at him and take pictures; we envy this great skill of his a little bit (let’s admit it!). We say goodbye to Rosangela when it’s late already. We get going, with many unanswered questions. Time permitting, we would have been to get further insights, but Enzo and Filomena are waiting for us at the mountain lodge, for lunch. We take a winding road, full of potholes and surrounded by the fog, but a table packed with colours and delicious flavours awaits us as a reward.
No guest could resist the temptation to eat so many mouthwatering delicacies. What make this place unique are not only Filomena’s cuisine, but also her smile and sweetness. Enzo, instead, is the opposite: brusque in manners, but kind, generous and also funny. After a delicious lunch, we start walking along the road that connects the lodge to the Timpa di Pietrasasso. Today, the trees’ outlines can’t be clearly seen due the fog, but the wood seems to be straight out of a fairy tale. We stop now and then to look closer at some plants, especially the lush holly trees, and some medicinal plants, which are abundant throughout the Pollino area. In the afternoon, we have our first meeting with a resident of San Costantino Albanese. He will tell us his story, which, together with the others, will help us create those portraits of humanity, which are the main reason of this walk. Mimma acted as an intermediary and put us in contact with him. She will also be our guide. Elvira will write some tales based on these stories. Marco, instead, will create some drawings and illustrations.
We are warmly welcomed into a house in the town centre. The tiny living room is crowded: also the neighbours came by to share this moment, enjoy a cup of mountain tea with honey and lemon (What a joy for Elvira to hear the word ‘tea’, which is so popular in Albania) and learn about the story of an intense, moving and beautiful life. We really could not wish for anything better. We leave San Costantino around 8 PM, when it’s dark already. During our journey back, we are rather quiet: we are tired, maybe, or the words heard this evening are asking for some space.


Early in the morning we head towards Matera: a two-hour journey awaits us. In the car, the atmosphere is cheerful, the opposite of the weather today. It seems that the sun has forgotten about us. We pretend not to notice the rain and keep talking about our work, the Ka Art project and Albania. Marco and Gaetano are confabulating on the front seats, but on the back we can’t hear their conversation due to the background noise of the engine. We take the Sinnica and the Jonica provincial roads, crossing very different landscapes: gradually, the river makes way for the lake and then for the gullies. We can even catch a glimpse of the Gravina. At that point, we know we are very close to Matera. A quick coffee break before entering the city and we’re ready to start looking for a parking space. One book shop’s window attracts our attention. We can’t resist going inside, also because the guests want to buy some books and films on Basilicata. They’re eager to learn more about our land, the way it has been narrated by directors and writers. And the perfect time to do so is now. We walk towards the main square, to enjoy some wonderful views on the Sassi district and visit the Palombaro Lungo. Then we head to Palazzo Lanfranchi and the Ridola Museum.
Matera’s beauty makes an impact on our guests. After a short lunch break, we visit the Cathedral and, immediately after that, the Open Design School, where they are waiting for us to carry out a site inspection. Our pace today is rather tight. The proverbial, occasionally mythological, slow paced life, typical of Southern Italy, must necessarily make way for a faster pace. We leave Matera around 4.30 PM. We have one more stop to do on our way back: the village of Chiaromonte. Here we meet a woman who has been able, despite a thousand difficulties, to take the lead of her family business and set precise targets. Once in her office, sensory experiences of any kind greet us. And we get to hear her story, which highlights her unique dedication. The warm hospitality of Basilicata’s citizens is not belied: Elvira, Marco, Anastasia and Elena are mesmerised by such a welcome and keep talking about that throughout the journey back to Latronico. At the table, the discussion moves on to the national political scene and, suddenly, Marco fires up, showing an unexpected side of his personality. Tonight he leads the discussion; this topic clearly concerns him, as it concerns all of us.


The last day we spend together begins with some uncertainty. Over the past few days, Marco made a wish: he really wanted to see the heldreich’s pines, and we really want that wish come true. We tried to ward off rain and storms, by avoiding naming them, but weather forecasts are bad and we can’t risk. However, we’re still up for some nature and woods, so we change plans and we head to the wood of Magnano. In half an hour we are there, surrounded by alders, poplars, willows, oaks and beeches. We walk along the torrent Peschiera, hearing the sound of water. We stop here and there to admire the landscape, without saying too many words, only the necessary ones. Even when you are in a group, this place inspires reflection, silence, and solitude.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen so frequently. You can achieve it only with highly sensitive people, and luckily today is one of those cases. We walk along a route named “Sentiero delle Pietre Tonanti”, where the sound of water is higher than all other sounds, except for the sound of thunders, coming from afar. And, since it’s lunchtime, we go back to the route and take a break. The two old sisters we meet in the afternoon, in Latronico, to listen to their story, really impress Elvira and Marco. What strength of character! How much energy and willpower! Two hours of intense narration, with no falling action. During the dinner, we would often mention their story, making comments on their friendliness and focusing on the details that made, once again, this meeting so unique. It’s time for goodbyes and some celebrations. Today’s Gateano birthday and our guests give him the birthday cake. We drink a toast to him and our meeting here in Basilicata.


It’s time to leave, and we are all a little upset. We have spent a really good time together and we are sorry to leave. But we know we will meet again soon: a nice work together awaits us and we are happy to share it. We set off, once again all together. We go from Latronico to Naples, where Anastasia, Elena, Elvira and Marco will take a plane. At 12.30, we leave them at the airport and head home. We feel bushed now, as after taking an exam. Bushed but grateful, especially for the kind humanity we have been lucky to find on our way.