Coming from a clock-wise country, where social engagements are well planned and arrival times courteously adhered to, it has taken me a little time to get used to the last-minute changes that distinguish the Calabrian approach. This upside of this “unplanning” is that it often produces surprisingly pleasant occasions, the downside, however ,is that your never quite sure if you’re dressed appropriately when you leave the house.
On the 26th of December, a Saturday, we had arranged to collect our friend Cristina from her house before heading together into Reggio for a little café society. It was about mid afternoon when we pulled up outside and were beckoned in to wait while she got ready and I was happily furnished with a glass of grappa to keep me occupied. When Cristina eventually appeared I was feeling comfortably numb from the home-produced spirit so missed the first warning signs that our plans had changed as she was dressed somewhat down from her usual stylish “Vogue” look. When the two girls are together and intent on gossip, I am usually left to tag along behind and obey instructions as and when required.
“The car’s facing the wrong way, can you turn round”
“But that’s heading away from town, where are we going?”
“We’re going to see Sonia”, Cristina’s sister, she’s helping out at the church”
“Oh well”, I thought, “just go with the flow”.
We had only been driving further up into the hills for a minute or two when we came to the road’s end at a little place called Macellari, where we were met by 3 or 4 official looking guys in fluorescent jackets guiding vehicles into a small waste land beside a very narrow bridge. We found a space among about a dozen other vehicles and got out to make our way across the footbridge, over a narrow ravine that nudged a patient stream down between the road on one side and the village on the other.
On the other side, where the path took us up through little rows of houses, there were a number of other little groups ahead and more beginning to follow from behind. Little family groups of all ages, chatting and nodding to each other as they passed. The congregation on its way to prayer and a reminder of my childhood when we would walk as a family unit to the kirk, rather than drive, out of respect to the Sabbath.
As we climbed we began to hear faint music, choir music drifting down from the hills ahead, getting clearer and louder as we approached, ebbing and flowing with the warm breeze. No sooner had we left the last home in the village behind than we passed a small group by the side of the path on our left. They sat under a wicker frame, a mother and father with a young daughter poking a wood fire to keep warm in the dimming of the day.
Double take! A mother and father and child… dressed in Arab clothes, head towelling, rope bands with long striped coats and barely visible sandals.
“Did you see that?” I called to the girls, still focussed on their conversation.
“What?, Oh that? Very nice” as they glanced back, then got back to whatever the hot topic was.
The music was now getting a lot louder and seemed to be a strange mix of Bach and bagpipes. It wasn’t until we turned the next bend and the scene opened up to reveal a narrow valley that we all just stopped, and stood, and gaped. The stream was still evident below us but rising up from either side was a scattering of homesteads dotted around on the hills. At first glance it all seemed so normal with just a few people coming and going about their daily business, albeit framed by the remains of a Roman viaduct. As the valley narrowed towards its arches, another footbridge stretched across to connect the village. Directly across from us there was a small stone cottage with a fire blazing outside. To one side was a small pen containing about half a dozen goats and what looked, from the distance, like an old woman on a stool milking one of the herd. Looking closer we saw that each cottage window and doorway was lit by candles and lanterns which illuminated some type of trade activity, a cobbler sewing roughly cut sandals, a potter at her wheel. Below the bridge crouched a couple of women washing clothes in the stream, beating their garments against the rocks on the bank. A young girl filled an urn from the stream and turned to walk up the path to the homesteads with it perched carefully on her head. All the time the shadows and shapes of the viaduct flickered and changed under the streetlights of flaming torches. Everyone was dressed in authentic robes, headwear and sandals. We had just stepped into Bethlehem, two thousand and nine years and one day ago.
The choral music emanated from hidden speakers in the hillside and helped create the most moving, living nativity scene you could imagine. The bagpiper appeared in front of us from the olive grove above, squeezing an inflated sheep’s hide with pipes replacing where the legs would have been and began to lead us on. Every house we passed offered something new and fascinating, someone selling wine from leather bottles, olive oil being made from an ancient stone mill-press, hot frittole (a local pork dish) being served on rustic bread, a sweating blacksmith hammering some utensils into shape over a bellow-blown fire of intense heat. The townsfolk continued as if we weren’t there, time tourists wandering amazed among the Pharisees, Levites and, well, Romans.
As we passed the potter the young girl emptied another urn of water into the basin by her side, to wet the clay, and the piper led on. When we reached a little square at the top of the village we spotted a small barn. Of course! Inside were all the correct animals keeping Joseph and his bride warm. I’m not good at baby’s ages but I’m going to bet that the child Mary was holding could not have been more than a week old. How did they do that? Did they have a list of expectant mothers in the area or just hang outside the maternity hospital, full of faith?
Sonia was the one handing out the frittole, so we stopped for a chat on the way back and helped ourselves to the sweet, rich meat and a cup of red wine. It was Christmas as it was meant to be. No priests, no church, no presents, no tree full of coloured lights, just an honest simplicity that got to the heart of the season. As we left, the sun had sunk behind the hills and the only light was that from the windows and doors and the flickering street lamps, to guide the scores of people who were just arriving. This only happens on two days of the year. The 26th of December and the 6th of January when the three Kings are supposed to arrive on the scene. Next time I think I’ll wear sandals and not evening shoes.