Two Nights in Matera

I’m cursed with the gift of waking up early. It’s morning in Matera, in a cramped hotel room whose main redeeming quality is the view.  

I always leave a hotel early in the morning, before Tizi gets up, before the breakfast service.  I leave with a “biglietto di visita” in my pocket, so if I get run down by a car or knocked out  and robbed, whoever stumbles upon my body will know what hotel I belong to and inform relevant parties of my temporarily compromised condition or, worse, my demise.

When I conducted eating excursions, I discovered the utility and the pleasures of these early morning walks. The first time I took people to Venice, I did so with minimal knowledge of where I was going. I’d done my research ahead of time. Find the Scala del Bovolo. Find Do Mori. Find the Gardens. Find them and, if possible, figure out how to get to them as if from memory, as if from long experience, preferably using back roads so as to avoid the madding crowd and to show my crew how the locals live in their city. So I walked Venice (and Florence and Rome) from 6:00 to 8:00 a.m. every morning, lowered my fraud factor, and got to know the cities. (Gee, my travelers would think, he really knows where he’s going.) 

On these morning walks, I have enough Italian to engage the street sweepers and garbage men. They are cordial. 

They know I am an alien. As soon as they see me walk—no moderately sane Italian would be out walking at this hour—as soon as they see my shoes—no moderately self-respecting Italian would wear shoes like mine—they know.  

As soon as I open my mouth, they know. My words sound funny. 

But they are generous. They speak slowly, in recognizable Italian. “Go straight. In that piazza there are plenty of bars where you can get coffee.” Yesterday, in Caffe Centrale, up in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, I had a terrific espresso for 1.20 euro. I was a little bit rained on.  I didn’t care.The coffee was strong, packing the familiar blast of caffeine. The city was wet and shiny and beautiful.

The barista knew. The guy who came in after me knew. 

I feel it. It’s okay. But it’s there. Foreigner. I’m just a little bit “other.”

“And what would you like?”

The question inevitably arises. What would you like to eat? My turn to order. 

At every restaurant, when we ask, the waitress sings this little song. These are the specials of the day. Antipasti , primi, secondi. The list she recites is long and, here in Matera, the sounds are indecipherable. I recognize the cadence, the rising and falling of the tone, but it’s a fast song, She has it memorized. If you’re local you know the song and kind of hum along. I miss almost all of it (Tizi says it’s a struggle for her too), because we are five hours south of where we live over here, where I have learned the language. Here, and in most places other than our small geographical area, I can’t always understand what is said. Think New York accent, Boston accent. Think Jackson, Mississippi. Think East Texas. The difference in sounds. Only more extreme. Many of their words (especially terms for local foods) I have never heard before.

Add to that: my hearing is no longer great.

Add to that: masks. The server is wearing a mask, always. It’s a muffled song.

I learned my Italian by ear. I’m embarrassed not to understand. I feel like a toddler. 

A few days before we leave for Matera, Tizi and I visit our friends Adele and Luigi.  She’s a childhood friend of Tizi’s. She speaks the local Italian I know, as does Luigi. The Italian Tizi speaks. The Italian her mother and father spoke. It’s not dialect. It’s just the local accent. A few years back, a local taxi driver drove us to the train station before a trip to Florence. When Mr. de Biagi talked, he sounded just like Tizi’s dad. I didn’t want to get out of the car. That’s how I feel in Adele’s kitchen. She and Luigi are homies. 

Luigi is an accomplished photographer. This visit we talk about his new camera and how he edits images. I speak Italian. He tries out his English. 

“I like to work on row files,” he says. “For me it is better than the jpeg.”



I have no idea what he’s talking about. I explain to him about rows and columns.

“No no.” He shakes his head. “Row.”

“How do you spell that?” I ask.

He thinks for a minute. Spelling in a foreign language can present its own challenges.  

He spells it out. I sort of get the word, it still sounds like “row.” Then I realize he means raw

“Raw,” I say. “Raw files.”


“No, raw. Aw aw aw.  Raw.”


I smile, he smiles.  He does this thing with his mouth, says out of the side of it, “raw.”


“I can’t say that. Row. Row.”  


Later he shows me his first camera. And his second one. He’s taken tens of thousands of photos. These old cameras, he says, used the pellicola.

“I know that word,” I say.  “Pellicola.”  It you run it through Google Translate, you get “film.”

It’s a word I used 4-5 times a few years ago, then forgot. It’s also the word for what you use to wrap a sandwich. One day in a local grocery store I pointed at the box I was holding and asked a woman what it was called. When she spoke to me, she sounded like my mother-in-law. Pellicola.

A few days ago when I was wrapping a piece of leftover cheese, I wanted pellicola, the word. I couldn’t remember it. I looked up plastic wrap in my translator. “Involcuro di plastica.” I’ve never heard anyone say that.

I asked Tizi. “Pellicola,” she said. 

Sandwich wrap. Film.  Huh.

The morning walks are about orientation, getting the lay of the city. They are also about serendipity, the element of surprise, of discovery. 

When I take pictures of Matera at sunrise, Matera waking up, the views of the city are wide, so large, so breathtaking, I think it’s futile trying to capture them on an iPhone. This morning, instead, I focus on the art of signs, which, in a sense, are pictures themselves. The bakery, the osteria and trattoria, the wine bar. Nothing is open yet. The signs give me a sense of the place.

I thought it might be nice to express the idea of serendipity in Italian, so I can say, in friendly conversation, nice things have happened lately. Colpo di fortuna. According to my translation app, that’s how you say serendipity in Italian. It’s not likely I’ll remember colpo di fortuna, given the fact that yesterday on three separate occasions I had to ask Tizi for “that word in English that means good things happening that you do not anticipate.” Merriam-Webster says serendipity is “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

Even if I remember it, I’m not sure anyone hearing me say “colpo di fortuna” will know what I’m talking about. I’ve never heard anyone say colpo di fortuna.

Here is the translation, and a number of synonyms, for colpo: shot, blow, hit, stroke, strike, shock, knock, jab, flick, punch, flick, bang. It’s a great list of one syllable words, which I love about English. Good job, Google Translate. And there it is: stroke. Colpo di fortuna. “Stroke of good luck.” But is that serendipity? Merriam-Webster gives us “faculty” in its definition, which suggests agency. Serendipity is not simple dumb luck (fortuna stupida?). It’s the result of a certain way of paying attention. That element, that shade of meaning, might get lost in translation.

The other day we went to a little town called Montefabbri. It’s in our area, in the direction of Urbino. Tizi read about Montefabbri in an article about what to see in and around Urbino. From down the road, Montefabbri looked spectacular. When we parked and walked up into it, Montefabbri turned out to have little to offer. Two main streets, a couple alleys, a church. And four people. It was so quiet, it felt like we were walking through their living room. 

“Ask her,” Tizi said. A woman who just came out of her house.

“Excuse me,” I said.  “We thought we might eat lunch up here. Is there an osteria?”

She shook her head and said there was no place to eat in Montefabbri. 

Colpo di misfortuna?

She then gave us detailed directions to a place ten minutes down the road. Come to an intersection, go straight. Come to a second intersection, go right and follow that road down the hill. There’s a place on the left

On the way there we saw ravishing hillsides. What we found, where she sent us was to a local joint, in the US there might be a sign outside that said EAT or FOOD. Inside were a dozen workers having lunch, all men. It was some of the best food we’ve had this trip.

When I get back to the hotel, Tizi is awake and dressed.  She asks me what I saw. 

A car and a van stuck together on a narrow street. A sign with a monkey on it. Lots of cats. And many friendly faces. Colpo di fortuna. No need trying to find it. It finds you.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    The beauty of having the world all to yourself early in the morning. Heavenly.

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