Well, not exactly. I just always wanted to play off of the famous headline. Pope Francis did visit Calabria on Saturday, and the family of a 3-year-old victim of a stray mob bullet, to let the mafia know they are “excommunicated.” It’s the latest in a string of courageous and/or interesting stances from the Holy See, who has softened the papal position on homosexuals, paid lip service to a zero-tolerance policy on child abuse in the church, and offered to baptize extraterrestrials. His anti-Mafia proclamation is easily his riskiest move to date, unless aliens take umbrage at being baptized and vaporize Earth. It’s no secret that the Vatican has a history of, shall we say, turning the other cheek when it comes to organized crime. Although the mafia in the U.S. has been greatly diminished, in regions like Calabria the ‘Ndrangheta is still a dangerous force. That probably doesn’t scare Francis, who in Argentina bore witness to the “Dirty Wars” in which the government there swept away tens of thousands of dissidents and Jews. It’s been alleged Francis’ role in that pogrom was less than noble; perhaps he’s atoning. Whatever the case, he’s proved himself a very different pope in just over one year wearing the big hat.
In the 15th Century, the surging Ottoman Empire was pushing into the Balkans. The troops of Sultan Mehmet II in 1453 famously toppled Constantinople and slayed the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI. In the meanwhile it was making its presence felt in Albania and along the Adriatic in a more gradual, but no less dramatic fashion. By the turn of the 16th, the land had been ceded, and an Albanian exodus was already in motion; most of these exiles fled across the water to – guess where? – Italy.
The descendants of these refugees live on today as the Arbëreshë people. Found in pockets mostly over Southern Italy and Sicily, the Arbëreshë are distinct from modern Albanians in that their customs, language, cuisine, and other traditions bear greater resemblance to the Albania of 600 years ago. Thanks to their stubbornness and, more recently, Italy’s embrace of its minority cultures and languages, even the Arbëreshë language is closer to pre-Ottoman Albanian than what’s spoken in modern Albania. In fact, “Arbëreshë” was the name the people of Albania called themselves before the invasion.
Today there are roughly 100,000 Arbëreshë spread out over 50 different communities in Italy, mostly in the south and in Calabria. Although many of their names may have been Latinized, they were allowed from the outset to practice their Orthodox brand of Christianity in this Catholic land. Thus in many of the Arbëreshë dwellings, the town has two main churches, one Latin and one “Greek.” (Albania today remains half Muslim, either in spite of or because of the best efforts of its national hero, Skanderberg.)
Arbëreshë is not considered an official language in Italy, it has been fiercely preserved along with the customs, food, and traditional garb brought over centuries ago. Not to mention it also gave us this awesome Italian-Albanian hybrid flag.
Although the straight-up Albanian flag is even more badass.
Welcome to In Bruttium, my new blog about Calabrese, and other “Mezzogiorno” or Southern Italian, culture, history, and destinations. I decided to start this blog as an ongoing project to uncover more information on this region, for a couple of reasons. First, Calabria is, I believe, one of Italy’s least-known and least-understood regions, especially to outsiders. It is not a major travel destination like Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, or even Naples. It lacks the Hollywood-generated recognition of Sicily, and even the randomness of Sardinia. I plan on covering Sicily and Sardinia to some extent here too. But my main focus will be Calabria – rural, impoverished, wild, ancient, and a bit of a mystery.
My other reason is more personal, as I am of Calabrese descent. I’m only 25% “Italian” – more on the sarcastic quotes in another post – but it’s a big 25%, and it’s all Calabria. My great-grandparents came to America from the Cosenza area, and although this heritage has been watered down over generations, I still feel it in me. It’s mixed in with Irish and German and English, but as the most recently immigrated of my European lines, it stands out. I suppose Italy and Italians have a habit of standing out anyway. From the food to the conversation style to the clothing to the flag colors to the auto traffic, Italy is, well, loud. It begs exploration.
I’ve only been to Italy twice and to Calabria once, but my goal is to return at least a couple of times to seek and report on its hidden treasures, unique stories, odd trivia, varied cuisine, and interesting people. I hope to hear from readers with similar curiosities, who may have interesting information of their own to share. So begin our adventures In Bruttium.