Life goes on: Christmas in Italy’s earthquake hit towns

The biggest fear for many residents in earthquake-struck central Italy is that their villages - farming communities with rich culture and centuries of history - will become ghost towns after deadly tremors left huge areas uninhabitable.

Life goes on: Christmas in Italy's earthquake hit towns
Destroyed homes. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Thousands were left homeless by three major quakes earlier this year, many are still living in 'containers' or prefabricated homes after months spent sleeping in tents or cars.

But they are determined to stay.

“People in San Pellegrino are strong, brave and resilient,” says Denise Abel, a British woman who has been living in the quake-hit  town for four years with her husband.

“There's a strong sense of community, and many refused to leave, needing to be with their animals and land.”

Abel's own home was severely damaged by the quakes, and her husband's work has been affected. He relies on the internet and phone, which have been erratic since the tremors.

“Christmas this year will be very different for us,” Abel tells The Local. “Usually our house is full of family who travel to us from Milan and from the UK. They will not be with us this year and we'll miss them, but we have good friends in San Pellegrino.”

Denise Abel's home before the earthquake. Photo: Private

In Italy, Christmas retains traditional roots, with family and religion often at the heart of the celebrations.

As well as destroying and damaging many homes, the earthquakes left many of the region's medieval churches unusable. One of the most significant cultural casualties was Norcia's Basilica di San Benedetto. Rubble and the crucifix from that church are on display in Rome's St Peter's Square over Christmas.

And in the affected towns, there has been a push to get things back to normal in time for the festive season.

“Norcia made a determined effort to reopen at least the Main Street before Christmas, with a ceremony to switch on some Christmas lights,” said Abel.

Amatrice. The Christmas tree has been lit up. This is how life returns, the future is under construction.

“This year our Christmas dinner will be in the communal tent, cooked by someone else! It will be the first time in my adult life I've not cooked for Christmas, which feels strange,” she adds.

Denise Abel's home after the tremors. Photo:Private

In Amatrice, the town which suffered the brunt of the casualties in August's quake, communal dinners will be held in the canteens which have been set up, with a celebration on Friday night, complete with Christmas music and decorations.

Just a week ago, a skydiving Santa descended on the town to distribute gifts and sweets among local children, an event which mayor Sergio Pirozzi said helped “normality return”, while admitting that Christmas would not be easy. He has asked each resident to bring a flower to the town's memorial on Christmas Day in order to remember the 299 quake victims.

Many of the towns are hosting Christmas markets to promote local produce, and all in all, over 150 initiatives have been set up to help residents over Christmas, both in the affected Le Marche region and the coastal cities where many displaced residents are staying.

Regional president Luca Ceriscioli said he was convinced that “no-one will be alone” this Christmas. “It's necessary to have a sense of community, and this message has been heard loud and clear, he said.”

Judith Mathias, another British expat who bought her home in San Ginesio 11 years ago, has been able to return to her home after spending several weeks in a hostel. She told The Local she had put up Christmas lights and decorated the living room, from where she will be speaking with family and friends at home over Skype.

“We want them to know we are OK this Christmas.”

“I've also made Christmas puddings to have along with delicious Italian seasonal delights and several bottles of Prosecco,” she added. “And there are lights up in the town too – San Ginesio is open for business!”

A woman sells panettone, Italian Christmas cake. Photo: Judith Mathias

Mathias said she has been impressed by the tireless work of firefighters and rescue workers, and by the resilience and warmth of the locals.

She recalls the fear after the first tremors: “Our house was originally a holiday home, and in July this year we moved here permanently with our lurcher dog, Shaun. It was such a beautiful place – then the earthquakes struck.

“After several nights sleeping in our car in our clothes, our house was deemed safe and we were settling back in and relaxing again when in October the tremors started again. Our house shook violently from side to side, at first we were unable to move, but we managed to get out with Shaun and an emergency bag we had kept by the door.”

As for what 2017 will hold, it's far from certain how long it will take to rebuild homes and get the local economy back to how it was. But both Abel and Mathias are determined to stay.

“We have been warmly welcomed by the Italians – who always want to stop and talk about our dog! – and the firefighters, volunteers and rescue workers from all over Italy have been amazing,” said Mathias.

Abel agrees. “This year has been a very difficult year for us, with Brexit worries as well as the earthquakes, but the firefighters and civil protection department have been real stars.

“We are determined to have a good Christmas, and that next year we will carry on with our life here.”

In San Ginesio, local shops are open for business. Photo: Judith Mathias

If you want to support the residents of towns affected by the earthquakes, the Valnerina Online website offers a good list of places where you can buy food from the area, in order to support local farmers and artisans.



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La Bella Vita: Exploding myths about Italian food and how to make words smaller

From making sense of Italian grammar to understanding what's seen as 'authentic' Italian food, our weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Exploding myths about Italian food and how to make words smaller

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

*If you signed up for La Bella Vita newsletter but did not receive it this week please email [email protected]

Everyone in Italy is talking about Italian food this week. Not unusual, I know. But this time, it’s mainly because the government has announced plans to put Italian food forward for Unesco intangible cultural heritage status. This led many people to ask exactly which dishes would be included in the bid – and how exactly do you define ‘Italian food’, anyway?

One highly influential and controversial contribution to this debate came in the form of an interview published in the Financial Times with Italian food historian Alberto Grandi, who “has dedicated his career to debunking the myths around Italian food”. In it, Grandi made bold claims including that panettone and tiramisù were postwar inventions which relied on industrial processes or ingredients; carbonara is more American than Italian; and pizza was unknown in most parts of Italy before the 1970s.

It’s safe to say these ideas didn’t go down well at all with most Italians. In the below article, reporter Silvia Marchetti explains why the interview caused such a big public outcry and why she believes such claims ignore “millennia of rich food heritage”.

Why claims Italian cuisine is a ‘modern invention’ have angered Italy

Whatever you think of Grandi’s argument that the popular idea of Italian cuisine today is based chiefly on postwar advertising and political propaganda, there’s one thing everyone can probably agree on: there really are an awful lot of misconceptions out there about what constitutes traditional or authentic Italian cuisine.

Here are a few such ideas that you’ve probably encountered, and a look at why they can be safely discarded:

Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing

Neapolitan pizza. Is there any truth to claims that pizza was unknown in most of Italy until the 1970s? Photo by Nik Owens on Unsplash

And if you’re in Italy at the moment, have you noticed that things feel a little different lately?

Not only are the days brighter, but once the temperatures rise over 15C towns and cities seem to burst back to life after being (slightly) quieter over winter. Aperitivo hour moves outside, there are more motorini zipping up and down the streets, and there’s a spring-cleaning frenzy as homes are cleaned from top to bottom and wardrobes overhauled in preparation for la bella stagione.

Here are some of the sure-fire signs that spring has arrived in Italy:

Eight signs that spring has arrived in Italy

Easter is coming up and it is of course a very important celebration in overwhelmingly Catholic Italy, marked across the country by countless processions and events, plenty of good food, and hopefully some good weather too. Here’s a rundown of everything to expect during an Italian Easter:

The essential guide to Easter in Italy

One thing that makes Italian such a beautiful – and complicated – language is the large number of different suffixes which tack on to the ending of words and change their meaning. A common type is the diminutive suffix, which is the type of word ending that makes a thing smaller, or maybe cuter (think gattino, libricino, or fiorellino).

But as pretty as they sound, these endings don’t always seem to have much logic behind them. Here’s what you need to know about ‘shrinking’ Italian words.

Etto, ino, ello: How to make Italian words smaller

Remember if you’d like to have this weekly newsletter sent straight to your inbox you can sign up for it via Newsletter preferences in “My Account”.

Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]