Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

New Country

by Anna Pia

And so, in 1912 they went north! North from their winter firesides where they huddled and exchanged ghost stories about their encounters with their dead ancestors on that long rocky climb from Aquafondata to Viticuso; where they laughed about their lore and their dreams and the foibles of their neighbours; where they planned their feast days, fired their pizzas, laid out their dead; where they delivered and conceived their babies. They told stories about snakes and their cunning ways and their bold men that killed them with their bare hands; they laughed at the mysteries of sex - those who wouldn’t or couldn’t or just lacked the know-how. Those winter firesides where children were prepared for adult hood and girls learned about making bread and menstruation.

They went north to Scotland from their small home where the sheep came in  in the mountains of Cassino; where they were in awe of the priest and the teacher and the strange language they spoke; where they castrated their pig, the family pet, to fatten it for their sausages and hams; where they created sugos to draw the best from their hens; where toothless old men drink wine and play cards and moustached middle aged women, strong hearted and sturdy limbed, make airy pasta and soothing ricottas and offer garlicked water for erratic bowels; where everyone has both a name and a nickname; where the young go to Mass to find mates; where men ate bread and onions on their hillsides digging up their fine potatoes. North they went, my grandparents, in an uncertain marriage, leaving resentful cousins and deserted old flames. And at the toss of a coin they came to Scotland. They settled in Leith.

Their history is a brave but not a romantic one. In fact, my handed down account of life in the Apennines is far from a world of sunshine or song or a Michelangelo fresco and in my late adolescence I learned these things and their language like a new way of life. The insatiable appetites among the adventurous middle classes in Scotland for accounts of an Italian way of life, their knowing looks at a Massaccio fresco or a Boccherini guitar quintet, their awe at a pesto – what is it but crushed available raw ingredients softened with olive oil to make a clinging sauce for goodness sake!  – astounds me.  The reality of our race, mine, is a stark one, a source of embarrassment to the Italian northerners, unsettling for the cultured establishment of any society; and founded on earthy things; things which are unspeakable and basic to the survival on any remote mountain community.

My grandmother was unable to read or to write; her fantasy to be a lawyer; her dream for me  a teacher; the source of what was not available to her, an illiterate woman, an education.  She left Italy pregnant and in order to keep her hands free to mind her other child during the journey, she had a piece of material which she had sown herself, with a compartment at each end for her belongings, thrown over her shoulder. Her money was stitched into her underwear. She - and many like her - was an entrepreneur. Many Italians then and since found work and settled, she found a barrel organ which she paraded around the streets to attract people and sell her ice cream. My mother and her brother and sister slept in orange boxes at the back of their first shop; during the war years, they entertained and fed the British
and American soldiers with Glenn Miller records and peas and vinegar in a second shop that was the centre of social life in “the walk”.

Leith Walk the first settlement for newcomers to Edinburgh and today the rich cosmopolitan heart of the city, where Polish, Chinese and food shops with soft, folding breads from the Levant, discs crusted with sesame, thin papery sheets to wrap your olives and smoked aubergines in and dip into yoghurts perfumed with fresh mint leaves, now share pavement space with opulent glass fronted pizzerias and curry places. For every shop front tells a story and marks the stages of integration of ethnicities and families. And Leith where creatives blend and bond in white walled co-working spaces to offset mainstream culture in a rich city’s theatres and opera house.

Leith the teeming lava flow of Scotland’s capital, its underside, and where immigrants like my Italian family, both learn the ways of a new country and aspire; and where their ways give fresh perspectives for artists; where new made Scots themselves, can add another voice and layer of human experience: community, common endeavour and the making of a new country.