Calabria - all Greek to me!

Wed, 07/28/2010 - 10:51

Words by Kevin Revolinski

Ah, Southern Italy!
The scent of almond blossoms and bergamotto - the lemon-like fruit unique to Calabria - wafting through the air, the clanging bells of old churches rising over the red-tiled rooftops, the sweet chill of a lemon granita in your hand, and the gentle chatter of Greek along the streets and in the doorways of the shops. Greek?

I had been living in Reggio Calabria for several months and was already impressed by how different the Calabrese dialect was from standard Italian. But it hadn’t prepared me for the sign I found as my friend Giovanni and I drove up into the mountains from the Ionian coast to a small village called Gallicianà. It was all Greek to me.

Illustrious inhabitants

More than seven centuries before the birth of Christ, southern Italy had yet to see the Romans. It was the Greeks who occupied the shores of Calabria and Eastern Sicily, forming Magna Grecia or Great Greece.

The area was home to such renowned characters as poet Theocritus and mathematician and inventor Archimedes, and it remained part of the Greek Empire until the Romans annexed it in the third century B.C.

The Romans brought their own settlements but remained respectful of the Greeks, allowing them to maintain their own language and culture. In fact in Rome, Greek was treated as a second language and the city maintained a sizeable Greek minority into the Christian era. Many geographical names in the area are prominent figures in the Odyssey: the monster Scylla is now the town of Scilla overlooking the Strait of Messina, and Aeolus, keeper of the winds, gave his name to the Aeolian islands just north of Sicily.)

Giovanni and I found an old, white-haired man sitting with his legs crossed alongside a whitewashed wall. Like curious children who come across a foreigner, we started asking him how to say things.
‘How do you say ‘water’?’ ‘Nerò’ he replied. Some argue that the language this man was speaking survived through all those centuries up here in the mountains, stubborn to thelast. The isolation and the pastoral life permitted them to keep to themselves well into the twentieth century.

Writing on the wall?

The Romans brought Latin to the land, and along the coast many people picked it up. But all empires come and go; the Byzantine Empire showed up in the sixth century and brought the Neo-Hellenic language of Athens, a more recent form of Greek. In fact, they brought the name Calabria itself.

Calabrian Greek survives primarily through an oral tradition, a language of shepherds and villagers, though some written examples survive, usually in Latin script. A few local groups have occasional concerts, sometimes in exotic settings like the haunting abandoned Greek village of Roghudi deep in the Amendolea Valley.

Leading lights

After visiting Gallicianò, I met with Carmelo Giuseppe Nucera, the president of an organization seated in Reggio and Bova called Apodiafàzzi. The name means ‘the light before the dawn,’ appropriate for a group that is making real progress in bringing Greco-Calabro culture to light but has a long road ahead.

Until Parliament changed the law in 1999, the Italian constitution hadn’t included Greek speakers in the regions of Calabria and Apulia as minorities to be protected. But nothing had been changed off paper. Each local community had to apply for inclusion to receive benefits. Apodiafazzi’s purpose was to promote that and keep the projects moving forward.

Some estimates put the number of Greek speakers in Calabria at about 5000. ‘There are nine communities which have applied for inclusion in the regional law of October 2003. I told you that 20% of these communities speak Greek, but truly that is just a guess. Part of the law calls for some kind of census.

Do you know that the total number of speakers in all these communities is estimated to be about the same as the number living here in Reggio? Many moved to the larger city for work years ago, so Reggio has the largest Greek-speaking population of them all.’ In fact, offices were recently opened in Reggio, Bova and Roghudi (the modern one) where information and even translators and interpreters are available.

Uphill struggle

All the legislation lays the groundwork for a process that must be taken up by the people themselves. One article allows public broadcasting time for the language, another makes Greek optional in the elementary schools. Families will need to encourage their kids to learn. But even more importantly, teachers need to be trained and hired.

What was being done about that? I asked.
The University of Messina, just across the narrow strait of the same name in nearby Sicily, will offer a Masters course, he told me.
Graduates will be eligible to teach.

But Dr. Nucera’s goal is not to simply maintain an archaic tongue among the hills of Calabria. ‘We don’t want to teach a dead language. The children should learn Modern Greek. They should be able to go to Athens and speak and be understood.’ He showed me a dictionary of Calabrian Greek and its modestcontents. ‘It is better for them to learn a useful modern language and include the truly Calabrian words.’

‘What most people don’t realize is that the Greeks here were renowned champions when the Olympics first began.’ He drew out a pamphlet with a picture of two ancient coins on it. ‘You see these? They are in commemoration of an Olympic victory. Anassila di Reggio, the ‘tyrant’ of Reggio in 480 B.C., was a champion racer.’ The coins featured a man in a light cart being pulled by mules.

And the tradition is no longer a thing of the past: musicians – some, in fact, from tiny Gallicianò – performed at the 2004 Olympicsin Athens. As I left Dr. Nucera, I felt optimistic that Calabria was undertaking another Olympian challenge from which it would emerge victorious.