For some mysterious reason I started this morning a dialogue with a UPS man at the store. It was about shipping a box far away, destined to arrive in time for a conference on "Community."
For an even more mysterious reason I started telling him about the “medieval” world of my childhood, which technically occurred from 1936 to 1946.
The subject matter arose initially from “trash pick up” due this morning, and my inherent habit of redeeming trash for reuse. Memories arose from a distant past.
Trash! We buried it among the grape vines…Yes, that is exactly what was routine at the farm, a forty acre farm 10 miles out of Rome and 6 miles from the Anzio beachfront from WWII, nestled at the foot of the Alban Hills.
My birth occurred as “little Adolph” was in the process of solidifying his expansionist dreams in Europe. My Mother had left the Sudetenland with the idea of studying linguistics with professor Adler, a Jew, and a personal friend of Pope Pius XII, who also had a German housekeeper!
Even housekeepers can create connections and obviously the Pope, a man of great power, never did try to assault his housekeeper (as powerful figures appear do engage into these days!)…yet the Borgias probably did!
Anyway, back to my Mother. Imagine a woman trained at the Frank university of Prague where Thomas Mann was still alive, coming to Italy, falling in love with a man whose hero was Rudolph Valentino and also Adolph Hitler, being seduced by him, becoming pregnant (here I am) and more or less suddenly finding herself on the brink of a European War in which all of her Jewish friends would be incinerated. She was secluded on land only seven miles from Rome, surrounding a I7th century ex-convent - then villa. A Prince Barberini, the nephew of pope Urban the VIII, the Baroque Pope, had it built. The Barberini princes’ "bees" coat of arms, having survived over the palatial gate at the end of the estate for hundreds of years were defaced about 20 years ago of its coat of arms by someone who probably shipped it to an antiquarian in New York City!
The convent-villa was a grand place with three stories. We, the local land gentry, lived on the upper floor where one had a distant view on clear days of St. Peter's dome in Rome.
Some peasants who worked our land lived in a mezzanine without plumbing of any kind. Imagine how blacks lived before the civil war in the South. I came to America to escape my past only to see parts of it again as I travelled through the 'South' in 1955….the shanties across the railroad tracks…
Our peasants, as the Southern blacks, also had no place to go. They had no health care, nothing but one large bedroom and kitchen where all the cooking utensils consisted of a copper cauldron suspended over a hearth fuelled by the sticks and wood they were allowed to collect on the premises. And they were white, not black. Poor downtrodden people are by nature colorless until they want either to be rich or white.
Food! -- Our peasants were allowed a vegetable garden. My father called them sharecroppers; Oil and wine (as in old Roman times) were free. Some had a few chicks on the edge of the property. If they were sick they would have had to walk for more then an hour to Castel Gandolfo, where the summer residence of the Pope was. They saw him, but he did not see them as his limo rushed down the Old Appian Road towards Rome, right in front of our giant travertine gate in front of the property.
Not very different from how people live today in the countryside of some parts of South, Middle America, India, or Africa. – There are no Popes there, just giant corporations.
My grandfather and father felt no guilt for this state of affairs because, “THIS IS THE WAY IT WAS." On the other hand my Mother, having come from Prague, a highly civilized product of civilization, felt compassion for those serfs but was powerless to alter their fate in any way.
But this story is not just about the peasants living on our premises, but about me, the only child and presumptive heir to the villa -farm property, but only after having married a rich neighbor’s son, which was a marriage dreamed of by my Grandfather Peter!
As the only grandchild of four grandparents, two German-Austrian and two Italian ones, I had the privilege to see how folk from recently still enemy countries ate daily together. -- Not well.
On the other hand, although I sensed this all along, it did not slap me in the face until after WWII when I became nine years old.
Until then life was marvelous for everyone, including the peasants who baked bread weekly as one can still see it done in Breughel's painting, carrying the planks of loaves over their heads and then zipping all the loaves in a giant dug out hearth dug into the side of a small hill, which is protected by with a huge metal door that was closed after the loaves were nestled into an area surrounded by red ambers. You wonder if Little Adolf also remembered similar ovens in his native Austria. The fragrance of that bread when the door opened still pervades my life, along with the thought of Adolf's ovens where all my Mother’s Jewish friends were incinerated.
Was I part of a community? Was I part of the Italian Community, of my Mother’s community? How many communities can we be part of?
This paper is about community. Yes, I was and am part of many communities now. But the real community then was the one with supporting peasants. They made/cooked, chickens, cows, cats, dogs, donkeys, horses, butterflies, snails, insects, birds, olive trees, peach trees, wild herbs, ancient olive trees and much more.
As an only child home schooled by a depressed mother, I chose to run away from the villa, which also contained the renaissance chapel in which I was baptized by a man who became the head of the Jesuit order…did I care about any of this? Of course not. Status symbols were not part of my life because whatever I played with had no status. IT JUST WAS.
Sure, perhaps once every two weeks I was driven by my grandmother's carriage to visit a far away estate where there was a child with whom I played. The same went for far away relatives. What is now achieved in ten minutes with a car, may have taken more then an hour by foot because the roads were not paved, but crisp with stones and gravel…and it might rain.
I neglected to say that we had no telephone, only the radio for news. The running water in the big house came from a well after it had travelled from the lake of Albanpo, near Casdtel Gandolfy.
For heat, there were only three fireplaces in a house with more than 12 rooms…. A grotto built by monks under the house had the same temperature all year round, about 52 F. It was our refrigerator during the summer.
Obviously Jefferson was much better off then we were! On the other hand we had Venetian hand-painted renaissance furniture in the house. I hated it because scratching it was almost a mortal sin.
I was happy. My parents were miserable and had little money allotted to them. My grandparents had the power and were happy. The peasants were RESIGNED.
The purpose and intent of this story after describing the personal notes is to describe how this mini universe could function without really being part of a metropolis.
It did function for better or worse, depending of its inhabitants because there did indeed exist a COMMUNITY, a stratified one in which I was at the apex observing all those gents below and looking at them, mostly through my mother's eyes and commiserating with them.
But, would it have been possible to have a similar community with peasants who had a closer well so that women did not have e to carry the enormous copper vats on top of their heads and walk a mile with them on?
Yes, it could have been done, and it was done after the war ended in 1945 and Communism swept over Italy creating unions. Serfdom had ended. Something valuable also ended: community.
Now the peasants knew they were suffering and were poor. Now the landed gentry were afraid of the peasants because they might take over.
Yes, for a few years after the war ended we still raised our wheat and had it thrashed in a nearby community. The paid laborers still gathered grapes, which were hand-torqued to separate the juice from the skins and seeds. The cow still gave us milk, the pig raised by another peasant still gave is hams, the rabbits I still raised until I went to Rome to school when I was 13 years old, still gave us meat. The olive grove made it possible for us to have our own oil.
Eventually many years later, we did have a refrigerator although stoves no longer heated the house because we spent the cold months in Rome.
Slowly over several years, the villa became a financial burden. The peasants living in the mezzanine had died. Cheap help was no longer available and I, living mostly in the metropolis learned to adapt to contemporary life.
Now, more than sixty years later, my thoughts go back to the structures of those communities looking at the growth which might occur, not in a linear way, but in a helicoidally growing structure, in which the direction of growth also has within itself the original schemata from the original circle, plus the development and change in time. After all, that is how the structure of DNA, the informative matrix in our bodies, works. One could call it a matrix in constant evolution.
As the state of this Earth is increasingly turning to destruction being overridden by too many hungry people, and powerful forces not aligned with the welfare of their constituents in which I include so-called other animals, green creatures, silent rocks, and whatever is part of what some call “Gaia” or “Mother Earth.” I look back at the ancient hierarchical structure and wonder, could it be become part of an ascending helicoid in which humans live in small communities, work together in creating food and shelter and, most important, use the finest of technology to have access to medicine, news and shipments of products they cannot self-raise, also partaking at a virtual level part of the larger community called "Gaia” and civilization. Jacques Ellul would have agreed.
Yes, of course it is possible. We are far removed from the Oneida Communities, the Ghettoes, and the Stadtels. Today’s romantics are invoking such an adventurous life from the safety of their foam-stuffed couches while imbibing adventure through televised programs. They are television programs that have access to anything possible or thinkable. They are custom-made as a release for people like us who lead stereotypical social lives based on pre-programmed activities insulated from physical existential involvement possibly demanded by a creative daily existence.
Beaudelaire would have called many of these technologically advanced programs creating for the brain of the spectators the illusions of artificial paradises, not much different from lounging in the opium dens and probably as destructive to the mind and body in the long run.
Obesity is indirectly our main killer, driving us to physical death and mostly into worlds, which no longer exist, but briefly in the mind. A button is switched off and we are still in our same old house, in our same old jobs, with the same old mate and with angry kids who want more and more of EVERYTHING.
Is change possible? Yes, but only within the supportive network of a community in which we need to create and work for and feel proud of. Alone, we can do nothing except switching on the TUBE! And live someone else's lives.
*This is an original copper cauldron used to prepare the one meal for a family. It hung from two rings over the hearth. It was no longer used after WWII when unions came into existence in Italy after 1946.