Noepoli is small, but I wouldn’t say you couldn’t get lost, at least initially. The streets wind like a multi-level maze, connected by stone steps and improbable alleys. There are only a handful of shops: a butcher; two bakeries; a couple “bars” (which I think means coffee, beer, ice cream, wine); and one tiny tabacchi/alimentari–a small supply of nonperishable foods and basic household products. The church is at the top of the maze, and so is where I am staying.
If you take a walk around 17:00, you can hear the sounds of the mass: prayers being chanted, voices in song. My hosts drove me the first day to the grocery store in nearby Senise (15 minutes by car). When we returned—in the midst of an unexpected, pounding thunderstorm—all the parking spots in the square were taken. “There must be a mass on,” someone remarked.
A town this small identifies a stranger instantly, and the first time I took a walk I felt a little self-conscious. I went out when the world was awakening from siesta. I could hear women chatting behind beaded curtains, and see the men of the village sitting in clusters, supervising the town. Later in the evening, children raced around the little squares, and a few teenagers lingered on steps and corners. Nearly every person gave me the look that clearly asks: “But who are you?”
People are curious, but not unfriendly. Trying to be polite, I would smile and murmur “Ciao” or “Buonasera.” (A few people continued to stare as if I were some kind of apparition.) The best phrase I learned all week was Io sono un ospite a Palazzo Rinaldi. The key word is ospite: guest. These words were usually all it took to produce a knowing “Ahhh!” and a smile. A few times I’d pick up the word for “artist,” “writer,” or simply again: “guest.”
One older man stopped to watch as I took a photo of his valley with my digital camera. He commented (at the level of Italian I understood) that the view was beautiful and I agreed, molto bella.
To my eye the majority of the village’s inhabitants are elderly Italians, but right behind them comes the substantial population of cats and dogs, somewhere between wild and fed. A particularly adorable cat mewed around my door all week, becoming so bold as to try and sneak in after I fed her once or twice. Certain parts of the village on my walks would remind me of a Highlights puzzle (a magazine my grandmother sent us when we were small). There would be an image, perhaps of a small village street, and the instruction: How many cats do you see?
Many doorways sported a plastic bottle full of water. To water plants? I wondered. For thirsty laborers? After seeing this several dozen times, I asked my hostess about the purpose. “It’s about the cats,” she said. People say that if they leave these bottles in the doorways, the cats will not pee there. She added that she is “not sure this is true.”
On my last morning a man’s voice over a megaphone announces fresh veg and produce; he parks his truck in the square. A friend and I wander over. The farmer is from nearby Senise, and he has piles of the most beautiful tomatoes, as well as eggplant, long braids of garlic, and a green the women tell us is good for the stomach. Your health is everything, one nonna instructs us. My Italian is flimsy so I confirm with my friend that the man is really saying that the long braids of lovely garlic are only five Euros. Yes, she tells me, and the women are haggling him down to four.
I look at the perfect, dirt-stained garlic, and think of the factory-precise, weak-flavored heads I pay a Euro each for at the grocery store.
A week is too short in a small town. It’s a superficial, in-and-out-tourist mentality that says you’ve “seen it all” in a day, or that there’s nothing to “do” here. The more you’re willing to engage, the more the town opens up; the more you look, the more you see. Less than an hour before I left, a man was showing us barred openings at cellar-level, which lead or led to a network of tunnels under the town. Intended centuries ago as an escape route in case of siege, the tunnels were still being played in by adventurous kids when this man was a boy. But his grandmother would chastise him that the tunnels were unsafe, and today they are blocked to keep children out.
Inside the town hall lies a massive stone carving of a knight, an ancient piece of funerary art. The wealthy man had died while on pilgrimage to somewhere, I believe the story went. The sculpture had sat outside until recent years—plain, just another stone in a town of stone stories. Perhaps people thought it was odd to choose this one to move inside and protect; there isn’t exactly a reverential concern for the fragment of church art mounted nearby. A workman’s sign is propped up against it. (“This is Byzantine!” my host exclaims, moving the sign away.)
Towns like this speak in their stillness, as well as in their movement. A week goes by before you can blink, leaving a collection of snapshot, uneven memories, piled around you like the stones.