Life Stories Of The Italians From Dobrogea

Who can even imagine nowadays that more than a century ago, Romania, going through a period of economic expansion, was a sort of terra promessa on which the seasonal workers relied in order to make money and on which the immigrants from western countries relied in order to lead a better life. Another proof of this fact is the existence of an Italian community constituted in Dobrogea, towards the end of the 19th century. "We were eating mamaliga of castagna with radiccio…" "Everything has changed now. What happens now in Romania was happening then in Italy. There were no jobs, there were no places where you could work (I mean, in this job of stonemason). Carol I was the first to bring them here. It's different now! Now many of them want to go to work in Italy." – Romano Fauro, a former worker in the quarry of Greci from Macin Mountains, explains, and his sister, Iduina Sachetti, adds: "There was such poverty back to where their house was in Italy… They made mamaliga of castagna… They came because they couldn't find a job in Italy. But after the war the Italians became rich. The village they came from looks very well, but it's situated much like this one, like Baba-Rada, in a high place: there are mountains up there and down there is the village." That is the place where many of our kin live, Fauro and Sachetti. My sister-in-law went there in the 70s, went to Italy, and, when she came back, she said: 'Oh my, it's awesome in Italy! It's awesome there!' And an uncle of mine said: 'She says it's awesome! Like I didn't know what it's like in Italy?!... Poverty! We ate mamaliga of castagna with radiccio!'" The Italians came to the settlement in Greci in many waves: the first were the Bellunians, farmers from the west of Udine province, then the Friulians, then families from Venice, Lombardy and Rovigo, brought over as seasonal workers by the German entrepreneurs who administrated the granite quarries. The Vals, Boro, Grigoretto and Sachetti families were given Romanian citizenship through a decree of king Carol I of Hohenzollern; they were given land and they built houses similar to those they had back home, in the middle of the village, where the representatives of the Ottoman administration and military had lived. A little later, after 1900, they settled in the work colony, in the shabby "shacks" built on the slopes of the mountain; "the passport owners", the Italian citizens specialized in cutting and carving stone: "There were very long houses, accommodating three to six families. That's how they lived, poor them! All in a room! Frankly speaking, the life they were leading was quite miserable, but what could they do?!... They couldn't afford too much with their salaries and, if they couldn't they would go to the boss and borrow more money and in the spring they were broke! My parents told me this! They had many children! Particularly here, at Baba-Rada, my oh my!... In one room!..." – Romano Fauro remembers. An interesting identity game has been established from the very beginning in this settlement from Dobrogea: on one hand, there was a contrast among the Romanian inhabitants who represented the majority, based on the linguistic, religious and occupational differences, on the other hand there were differences of social status and economic differences right in the middle of the group of newcomers.  "The forefathers bought some land and a shack when they came from Italy""The Italians from the lower areas" were prosperous farmers and raised animals, the price they had to pay being that of giving up their citizenship; "the Italians from the upper areas", also called "passport holders", did not have the right to own property, which because of their low incomes they couldn't buy anyway. Under these circumstances, both microgroups resorted to the mediation of the Romanians in order to be able to lead their lives there: "the Italians from the lower areas" accepted from the second generation the marriages with the natives, considering "the passport holders" a sort of "dowry hunters", while the latter, encouraged by the good faith of the Romanians, resorted to their support in order to buy property and build modest households. Of course, integration didn't happen at once and didn't lack in painful renouncements and even family dramas. Mirela Buonavetti (Turtoi, after marriage) evoked the first step the naturalized Italians took in order to escape the problem of too close relatedness. The solution they had found was far from satisfying the "elders", and, from an emotional point of view, it was placed under the sign of fatality: "At the first mixed marriage the elders died. They died! In a few months they died of grief. The first boy to marry a Romanian! It could have been fine after all, but on top of everything her name was Mandica! And "mendica" in Italian means "beggar"…Now, they could have accepted everything in the end, but her name was "Beggar"!?Fauro family was one of the first who tried to raise to the economic status of their naturalized brothers: "The elders bought a little land and a shack when they came from Italy (cause they were poor) and the great grandfather left for Italy, but there was no town hall to make some papers…something like this. He had a receipt (receipt is the word?) Yes: "I received that much money from such and such…" and my mother kept it: "Keep it, she said, it might come in handy!" And she kept it and went with my father to the town hall. And there was another Turk there, in that place, and the other one wasn't there anymore, because the first sold it and left for Turkey and this one lived nearby and wanted to take the place and he said it was his! And my mother had the proof and showed it and he didn't take it. But only later did they buy a house here, in the lower areas. They stayed for many years in that baracca, up there! And so it goes, my father's house wasn't his in the papers! It belonged to a Romanian, a neighbour. The house!... A trustworthy man!" "They were also noisier when they spoke…"It is likely that some of the identity stereotypes that generated negative appraisals within the group might be an extension of the regional ones back in the native country, a proof of that being the positioning at its periphery and late integration of "the Cataloians". These latter ones, coming from Rovigo region, settled in Greci after "a rest" of a generation in Cataloi, a village from Dobrogea, where they suffered a disastrous economic failure, in their "civilizing" attempt to become successful farmers. "The Cataloians" were hastier and noisier, had a rough language and a nonconformist behaviour. "Then the Italians from Cataloi came. They were farmers. Those ones looked more like gypsies. They were noisier when they spoke…Spoke dirtier…But there are very rich people in Italy now. In Mussolini's time they were taken outside Rome to drain land, and although they were from Rovigo, they made settlements for them there. They were given land, tools, all went well for them and now they are wealthy, but one thing is fore sure, they are still the same, that's their nature. They left our village and came back to visit in cars and everything…but they were Cataloians when they left, and they remained Cataloians still!" So, they got a local touch dictated by the economic conditions which prevented them from asserting themselves and from being integrated. The stigma imposed by the temporary co-habitation in a adverse space of adoption replaced the etnonym "Italian" or the regional name of "Rovigan". "Tic-tic! sempre povero, mai ric!"Far from forming a homogenous community, the Italians differed from one another in their lifestyles that reflected the economic status and the social position. The families of farmers were wealthy, because they had important sources of income, while the workers that lived in the work colony toiled to win their bread.The women were trying to gather a few extra money making "scarpeti" (a sort of espadrille with a sole made of strata of cloth) that they sold to the Romanians for a few vegetables or some milk for the children. From an early age, the latter followed their fathers to the quarry and couldn't complete more than two-three years of school. The work day started at dawn and ended after sunset, either under the torrid sun of Dobrogea plateau, or under the piercing lashes of late autumn rains. Luigi Bertig, one of the masters that tragically died in the quarry, left to his son Remo, now aged 79, the formula –which has become an emblem and a stigma of this much too harsh an existence: "Tic-tic! sempre povero, mai ric!" (Knock, Knock! Always poor, never rich!)Gradually, the differences faded, and the tensions within the group diminished. The decisive moment seems to have been the construction, with money from the community, of the Santa Lucia Catholic Church, around the year 1925. Up to then, the Italians had baptized their children in the orthodox church and few of them obtained their confirmation. Sunday school, the evenings dedicated to rosario, parochial meetings, housekeeping courses for the young housewives, just as the religious ones which were intended for those who wanted to be converted to Catholicism changed a lot the lives of the Italians, helping them to shape even more poignantly and to assert their identity. Although they don't have many celebrations, these acquired a great importance, contributing considerably to the consolidation and the cohesion of the group. Santa Lucia's Day was – and still is – an emblematic celebration of the Italians. "And that day they organized a big celebration: it's in December, the 13th of December! And there was a mass in the church (and this is the name of our church: Santa Lucia!) because our people go into the quarry and those things get into their eyes (what do you call them?) splinters…and Santa Lucia is their protector! In the afternoon they had a celebration at the pub…a ristorante-so it was! The owner paid for the feast: my father-in-law organized it –so it was! Everybody, the young and the rest…They danced, there was music!...The Italians had a band with all the instruments: clarinet, cornetto, accordion…I don't know how many they were: eight or twelve people that played. They were all Italians! We still do this at Santa Lucia church but it's not so beautiful as it used to be, there is no party, because there are no more Italians, peccato!..."Another celebration that the Italians that still live in the village remember with nostalgia was Ultimo de carnaval (corresponding to the celebrations the orthodox have the day before the fast). Rosita Bertig was in the 60s and 70s, the soul of the party: "We all dressed up! My, it was beautiful! We all went to the families of Italians. We sang on the road! They were all waiting for us! We made our costumes out of rags mainly, but we worked at them a lot! I dressed up like a man most of the times, because I was tall! I dressed in tail coat and did a play too! It was so beautiful!The most serene memories go back to this period of prosperity and quietness when the Italians, with their optimistic spirit and their positive attitude thought they were in the promised land. The stories remember the Sunday parties in the village pubs, where the men met to talk, to drink wine and to play "bocce" (a ball game) and "cuntillio" (a card game), in the summer afternoons when, in the shadow of the orchards, the young met at the dance parties called "jur" and the long winter evenings when friends and relatives gathered "to put heads together in secret" -around the plates with "crostui" (assort of crullers) or with "frizze" (cookies with scraps).The same traditional sweets were always made for the holidays: for Christmas, for Ultimo de Carnaval or for Easter. Nevertheless, the contrast between the way of life of "the ones from the lower areas" and that of the seasonal workers is easy to perceive even from the memories of their descendants nowadays. The first had rustic recipes, opulent and refined, even for everyday dishes: "The poor ones, had to have, in order to make a soup: a kilo of beef, and a chicken. In order to make three portions! Some poverty! But where did they find that out, if they were so poor?! They put in the soup, while it was still hot, a glass of white wine, and an egg which coagulated…so, to make it better! /…/ It's too late now to ask, you can't find anybody to ask: How on Earth did you know how to make all these if you run away from the poverty in Italy?!..." (Mirela Turtoi)The Italians were given the nickname "frog people" because they wouldn't give up this delicatessen especially not during the great holidays, like Santa Lucia's Day nor would they give up the famous dish "pasta suta" (home made egg noodles mixed with spice and mince). These were marks of the Italians for a long time, the ones through which they differentiated themselves from the other village people, and they became ceremonial dishes which were served at all traditional feasts, one could even say they contributed to the consolidation of the group. The Italians from Greci are proud of them even today, and especially with the exquisite recipes of home made meat by-products that made winter supplies last for a long time. "Jampone" and "mujetu", "ossacol" and especially the dried and spicy salami are the most tempting memories from childhood, and they were the ones which waited for the wanderers to feed on them in the welcoming houses of the grandparents and parents.Family albums added extra flavor to the stories, and I was under the impression I was part of all these parties, together with handsome men, dressed in "frustan" suits (velour), with wide-brimmed hats, and of women elegantly robust, with their sober "balcana" (ample dresses with long sleeves) and with silk shawls framing their docile heads with curly hair. "Men were very elegant: they never went out without starched collars and bow-ties! This is how it was at every party! Women with pleated skirts, skirts with gussets, never with straight skirts! Le gonere!But even clothes showed membership to one group or the other; "the passport holders" could never afford to wear the majestic, somewhat ostentatious attire of the farmers, but they were happy with much more modest clothes: "The Italians didn't have a style of their own in clothes. They were poor and wore common clothes, made of cloth, tutto made by themselves. On special occasions, yes, they dressed mostly in black; if they got married, they didn't wear flowers anymore. The apron, yes, you couldn't do without the apron! The men had frustan clothes, a kind of velvet like this, with stripes (velour, n.n.), the cap… (the hat, for those who had one)." (Rosita Bertig)Then other ages came harder and harder, in which the Italians, like all the groups scattered all over Dobrogea, strived to preserve their identity and to get over the harshness of history, together with the Romanians, in the country that received them. So they went through all the epidemics, with the defeats and victories of the moment, which always cost the ones behind the lines much too much, the famine and then communism, which, like any other extremist ideology made no ethnic differences when they took away the goods that people worked so hard for…In World War I, "the Italians from the lower area" fought for Romania and the "passport holders" were forced to enroll in the Austro-Hungarian army; in World War II, again, the latter were called to arms by Mussolini. their name is carved on the monument in the center of the village, and the huge granite lily carved by master Saviolli reminds the people nowadays of the tragic accidents in the quarry in which both Italians and Romanians died. Such tragic fate was that of Pierino Fauro: called to serve in the Italian army he died on the eastern front, at Ivanovska, in 1942, after only a few months of instruction. His sister and brother, Iduina Sachetti and Romano Fauro, remember even today the grief of the entire family at hearing the news: "All the others were mocking him: they sent him where there was danger: Man, since you're a volunteer, man! (but it was them who declared him volunteer and called him to arms in Italy!)" (Romano Fauro); "But there was another one like us, from up country, from Moldova, they called him as well. And this one (the brother, n.n.): "Mamma, I met a good friend from Romania and when the general –or whatever he is- calls us he can't speak Italian and I help him!" "Italy didn't want us anymore, she didn't need us anymore"In the 30s and 40s, when the fascist government was rising to power, "the passport holders" received help from it: their children went to the Italian school, with teachers and textbooks in the mother tongue. The naturalized ones were rejected and denied, and the community was on the verge of division again. But it wasn't meant to be like this: even harsher times for the East of Europe found the Italians still on foreign land. Looking back to those times, Remo Bertig bitterly spoke a few words: "There were good parts and bad parts to being a passport holding Italian and the same was true for being farmer. The Italians with passport had their school, with teachers from Italy, with books and canteen. In the summer they went on a camp in Italy at the expense of the Italian state. We, as we gave up the citizenship, went to the Romanian school (well, 3 or 4 years, then your father would take you in the quarry!). We served in the Romanian not in the Italian army, and the mothers or the wives didn't get a stipendio, like in Italy…Then, when the communists came to power, they harmed all of us: they took our land and their citizenship!"By an aberrant decree, in 1953, all those living on the territory of the Popular Republic of Romania were declared Romanian citizens. Most of them remained here, where they had already settled, had work places, households, and where their parents and grandparents were buried in the cemetery near the old orthodox church. I have often asked myself and, after a long period of hesitation I asked my interlocutors, why they didn't leave Romania then. "Why go back to Italy? Italy didn't want us anymore, she didn't need us anymore, since it did nothing to set things straight! And a few years ago, when we visited our relatives, the carabinieri kept me in the custom house for hours to ask me why I was coming there. I felt humiliated. As if I was a beggar; others, Romanians, with tourist visas, but who wanted to work illegally, went there just like this, and I… I told them: "Why don't you remain with your country, I'm going back to mine! I only came for a few days to see the land of my grandfathers, I ask nothing of you. And I really came back home, I didn't want to have anything to do with it anymore!" – confessed one of them who demanded of me not to reveal his identity. They don't call themselves friulans or bellunesians, venetians or rovigans now, but, discretely differentiating themselves from the Romanians, and from the other communities in Romania, Italians from Dobrogea, because, for the most of them now, after two or three generations, Dobrogea is their country. Maybe because the image of deserted Italy as described by the forefathers seemed less important than what they would have left after a lifetime here. Maybe because they "feel and speak almost just as the Romanians". Maybe because too many hard days and too many beautiful memories tie them to these place, where the Romanians respected and sometimes envied them as the most crafty masters, of stone carving, but of the parties with wine, songs and dance as well.
Cultura,16-22 June 2004

by Narcisa Ştiucă