Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Nursini

This is a hard post to write for a few reasons. The first is that I am as guilty as anyone on focusing on the expatriate English-speakers in Norcia when reporting on the earthquakes and the aftermath of earthquakes. In recent years so many English-speaking Trads have been to Norcia, we speak as if it belongs to us.

The second is that my Italian is not as good as it was when I was, say, 27, and so most of my interactions with the Nursini have been fraught with anxiety and embarrassment.

The third is that a Norcia shopkeeper once ran off with my change, and I had to throw a bilingual strop to get it back. To be honest about a place, you can forgive the foibles, but not forget. Meanwhile, I seriously hope he is okay.

Norcia is a town that depends on tourism. Tourists are the people who give the Nursini money. They depend on us for a living, but we aren't them, are we? The relationship between the local and the tourist (and the expat) is problematic, as we saw in my resentment at being poked by an African bag-seller in Rome. I'd be curious to know if the Italians in Rome accept the bag-sellers as Romans. This may depend on whether or not the bag-sellers speak Italian. I'd also be curious to know if Scots accept me as an Edinburgher, since I certainly do not have an Edinburgh accent. Incidentally, there a lot of tourists (and expats) in Edinburgh, too.

We tourists can be a demanding bunch. What is it that we are looking for when we roam the world? A number of things. Sun or snow, relaxation or adventure, new foods and new sights, a chance to meet locals, perhaps. This last aspect of tourism makes me very nervous, as tourism is acquisitive. An American tourist told me that she'd rather collect experiences than photographs (sure enough) but most of all she'd like to collect people. I felt very uncomfortable. Although the young have different rules, the natives of a place are really unlikely to invite tourists home to experience the "Real Edinburgh" or the "Real Bonn" or the "Real Venice". Relationships with locals are fleeting. Tourists may remember them forever, but the locals will forget the tourists in seconds. There are just too many.

That's another reason it's difficult to write a post about the Nursini: who am I to say anything about them? However, I feel as if they have disappeared behind the mostly-American monks, the expats and the rubble of the historic buildings. Therefore, I will give it a shot.

In Norcia there is a beautiful Art Nouveau style café called the Caffé Tancredi. Behind the counter there is a dark-haired, wide-eyebrowed male server in semi-formal waiter dress or a blonde lady or a dark-haired lady slightly younger than the blonde. It is the custom of many of the Nursini to drop in at least once a day and down a coffee and a "pasta" chosen from the plexiglass display. Promiscuous use of chocolate syrup is the hallmark of the Caffé Tancredi: unless you ask him or her not to, the server pours a good dollop of chocolate into your cappuccino. The locals chat, or sit at one of the few tables and looks at a newspaper.

In Norcia there is an old-fashioned jewellery store with windows like display cabinets. When I said regretfully that the gold crucifix pendant I admired was too expensive, the proprietor took out an example of  the silver version. He named a price, and it sounded reasonable to me, so B.A. left the shop to get his wallet. This gave the jeweller a chance to establish that I was Canadian and to tell me all about his relations in British Columbia. When B.A. arrive with his wallet, the price of the silver crucifix had mysteriously dropped by 20 Euros or so.

In Norcia there is a luxury goods shop that includes a hairdressing salon. One day last month I decided that instead of buying a bottle of conditioner and doing a long-overdue dreadlock seek-and-destroy mission, I would pay the Nursini hairdressers to do it instead. I popped into the shop and began to gabble in a bizarre and shame-making language made up of Italian, English and Polish. Our phrasebook had no useful phrases for the hairdressers, and although I now remember the verb "pettinarsi" (to comb), I'm not sure I remembered it then.

However, I convinced the hairdressing staff to take me on as they examined the terrible state of my hair and said various things I couldn't understand, and a young woman took me away for a hair-washing. I felt very sorry for her, as presumably did an older hairdresser, for she eventually came along to help her junior pick apart the dreads. They were worried that this hurt me, and frantically suppressing the Polish that came to mind, I tried to assure them that it didn't. Meanwhile, the hairdressers chatted to each other about my hair, and perhaps it is lucky that all I understood exactly was their astonishment that I wasn't screaming.

Then I was moved from the sink to a chair, and we agreed that my hair was now better, and again there was a team effort, as the clock ticked speedily towards lunchtime, to comb out the last of the snarls. The hairdressers exchanged approving remarks about the colour of my hair, which they observed was natural. Then there was work with a blow-drier. and my shame-making attempts to explain that I'd be happy if they just put the hair in braids, and the job was done, and I was well and truly hosed at the cash register.

When you have twice as much hair on your head as do most other heads, being hosed at the cash register is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When it doesn't happen, I tip heavily out of sheer gratitude. However, on this occasion I didn't have enough money on me, or my cash card, so I had to ask if I could come back after lunch to pay. The young lady behind the cash register--and the male boss--were fine with this, so off I went to lunch.  I returned later with a handful of cash and left a tip. The young lady behind the cash register had the same shifty, self-conscious look as the shopkeeper who, after Christmas, ran off with my change. I felt a bit bad about that, but I couldn't think of a way to say, I don't really care. I'm on holiday, and I suspect the [August] earthquake has left everyone badly off.

There are other Nursini I'm thinking about, too. There are the waiters and waitresses at the Granaro del Monte and other restaurants in town. How are they? Are they working? There are the women serving behind the counter in the bakeries, and the friendly lady who runs the kitchen goods store. Do they have enough to eat? The lady in the fruit-and-vegetable store, the lady in the cheese shop, the men and women in the butcher shops.... How do you deal with perishable stock in the wake of a natural disaster?

There's the couple in the wine shop who, at Christmas time, directed us towards an expensive bottle and then, when I wittily managed to say we were too poor, towards the cheaper stuff. Have the bottles survived?  Then there's the young lady in the Campi di Nursia who led us on our donkey-trek. Is she alright? Are the donkeys and mules all right? And then there are the children who threw firecrackers at Christmas and the teens who queue up to be taken by mountain bus to high school in Spoleto. Are they okay?

There are almost 5,000 Italian Nursini, which means that there are almost 5,000 stories about Norcia that are not being told in English. I'm not equipped to tell any of those stories, or even to help the Nursini--unlike the monks who have remained in the area, at risk to life and limb, to minister to them. But I can at least offer a link. The easiest way, I have been told, to get money directly into the hands of the Nursian needy is to send it to the monks, stating explicitly that it is for the people. Here is a link to the Monks of Norcia donation page. 


  1. My parents, who were there recently, recognized many people in the videos. I am thinking of the people I stayed with, hoping they're safe and their house is relatively undamaged. Don't have any contact info, so no way of finding out...

  2. Awful, isn't it? There are two possible sources of information when they have time to post. One is "I Love Norcia" (see Facebook), which I think is the Norcia Businessmen's Association. Another is the Monks of Norcia themselves, of course.

    1. Yes--I'll ask the monks at some point, but right now don't want to bother them ;-)