October 21, 2010

ITALY: How I met Zio Matteo

SERSALE, Southern Italy / Watercolors / October 21,  2010

Zio Matteo
By Mimi Torchia Boothby
of Watercolors

I am of Italian heritage and I still have a lot of ties with the small town in southern Italy, Sersale, where my grandfather was born. Last summer I read a blogger’s tale about an old man who lives in Sersale, named Matteo Torchia, who celebrated his 100th birthday last April.

The town threw him a big party and there was a fuzzy, blurry, little video of him in this huge hall full of people dancing. The video is here.

I decided I was going to find this man, who if still alive, would be 101 years old. After all, not only is he the oldest guy in Sersale, but he is probably the oldest Torchia alive in the world as well, and that happens to be my surname.

I never met a centenarian before and it seemed rather poetic that the first one I would ever meet was a guy with my own last name.

So when I got there this September, I started asking around. I asked my cousin Santina about him; she had never heard of the guy. Zio Matteo? But she liked the idea and started asking others as they arrived to greet me, did you ever hear about this guy who is 101?

One of the younger cousins spoke up, “My little boy saw him in school, I’ll ask him if he knows where Zio Matteo lives.”

The next day, I was given more information; truly, all the cousins liked the idea that I wanted to look for this man and I was informed that he hung out up in the piazza near the pharmacy, so I headed up to that neighborhood.

Sersale is a small hill town, the only places to be found that are flat are the piazzas. All the streets are very steep and curvy, and most of them are too narrow for me to drive a car in, so all of this coming and going is on foot.

There was a bit of confusion about him; I knew him as Zio Matteo, (Uncle Matteo) but even though his name is actually Matteo, in dialect he is called Mattia di Paola. So when I originally asked about Zio Matteo no one except the young people knew who I was talking about because everyone else in this town speaks only dialect.

Anyway, the first day I went up to that piazza looking for him, the road was being repaired, and there were no old men out at all, so I gave up. The next day I returned and asked some people if Zio Matteo had been there today, and no one had seen him (did they actually understood who I was looking for?).

On the third day, someone pointed out the exact spot where Zio Matteo and his friends usually sat; and I could see three old guys were up there so I hustled over to this bench overlooking a cliff with a tree shading it and asked them if they knew where Mattia di Paola was. One old guy told another that he must take me to Zio Matteo's house.

This very strange man who walked like a chicken with his head thrust forward led me into a part of Sersale that I had never seen before called La Colla, the oldest part of the town. It had streets that were extremely steep and narrow, where in parts you can touch the walls of houses on both sides of the street at the same time.

Finally after a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs, we were there. 30 was the street number above the door. This tiny little blue eyed old man walks out, perky and bright, and the weird guy that led me there disappeared into the maze of streets.

“Yes,” he says, “I am Matteo Torchia,” and I told him “I am a Torchia too!”

I told him our family’s nickname (Cristariella) and his eyes lit up and and he started reciting the names of my grandfather's siblings - he knew them all. He even knew that my grandfather never returned from from America to visit.

He told me how he survived the Spanish Flu in 1918 but that his mother died. He told me a good deal of his life history, he has been interviewed a lot recently, so he was prepared.

Finally, he stood and looked at me as if to say;”I’m one hundred and one years old, I don’t have a lot of time to waste, what was it you would like to know?”

So I asked him what did he eat that enabled him to live so long. He responded with gusto; “EVERYTHING! “I eat meat, pasta, beans, vegetables, coffee, wine, everything, everything!”

The only thing he doesn’t do is smoke. I asked him if I could take his picture, and he said, “Ok, just one.”

I shook his hands and said farewell and spent the next 20 minutes trying to get back down to some place I was familiar with because I was completely lost.

All I could say after I left him was "Che Carino!"
(how cute!)
By Courtesy of  Ronni Bennett
TIME GOES BY / The Elder Storytelling Page