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  • Writer's pictureShainna M. Callaway

The Italian Life in Caiazzo

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

I have been pessimistically counting down the days we have left in our little mountain farming community. Barely ever leaving our secluded home with its panoramic views of a world I can see and touch but cannot keep is an affair of the heart both tender and wretched.

These photos are from the olive groves surrounding our house by photographer, Dano Church, in early autumn 2018.

The city of Caiazzo is one of the many options where a foreign military family can choose to live while serving abroad. It is rich with culture and engulfed in an area of hidden gems of historical significance. They have everything from a castle on the highest point to an ancient pyramid in the valley below. There is the only Michelin star pizza restaurant in all of Napoli in the city center and a shop that makes mouth watering buffalo mozzarella just ten minutes down the road. These lucky locals live a charmed life in a place that has the safe family feeling of a suburb where everyone relatively knows and cares for each other. In this setting, I have been able to observe and learn about how olive trees are grown and harvested, what an orange tastes like straight from the tree, and how grapevines are pruned between seasons.

The week we arrived in Italy, I found out I was pregnant. This news rapidly changed my priorities. During the summer of 2017, there was smoke from regularly burned trash and debris smothering the atmosphere surrounding the support base for US Naval families. That summer was very dry and, with no rain, the air pollution stayed for weeks on end. I desperately wanted to get out of there for the sake of my children.

When we rode out to see the available houses in the city of Caiazzo, it was like entering a new land. There was a wonderful silence that morning accented by birdsong and the sound of wind which differed greatly from the busy neighborhoods and aggressive traffic closer to Naples. The elevation of the hilltops allowed for an obvious degree change in temperature and a strong, fresh breeze that freed the area from smog. As the realtor, a nice man named Giorgio, explained some of the sights we were encountering, I could not help but be amazed. He even detoured to show us his morning jog in nearby Capua which takes him around the gladiators stadium where Spartacus became a legend. To seal the deal on moving to Caserta province, a dove flew overhead as we looked across the valley to find its way into the olive trees nearby. It felt like a biblical sign from God, and I didn’t waver from the choice until we found ourselves living in this house.

Olive trees are nothing like I ever imagined. The trunks look like a nightmare from a fairy tale forest. They twist into contorted shapes with a bark that suffers from disgracefully aging like a powdered face that showcases more than disguises the wrinkles. In contradiction, there is an ancient and weathered beauty in it, as well. The way the strangled limbs still proudly display their pale evergreen leaves and purplish black fruits give them an aura of confidence and defiant regality. I read somewhere that the reason an olive branch is offered as a sign of peace is because the wood is unsuitable for weapons. Though, to see the wood shaped and polished into bowls and boards is amazing in its oddities with the squiggled age lines unique to each piece. This tree is a reverent feature in nearly every private residence and garden in this part of Italy.

That first harvest, I watched as the family members of my landlord tickled the branches with a long and fingered tool that vibrated fiercely to comb the olives from the tree. They had a carpet of mesh nets laid out throughout the grove to catch all the fallen fruits. It took weeks for them to finish the entire woodland that covers the hillside. I have no idea how many olives they collected or how much oil they produced.

We bought a dozen bottles to be used and shared with family and friends abroad. The thickness and flavor is nothing like I had ever experienced with the store bought brands in the USA. I was never a fan of the flavor of olive oil and preferred different fats to cook. Maybe it is the familiarity or perhaps a lack of preservatives, but this olive oil tastes better than butter. The only downside is I probably use too much. Although, we did hear someone boasting that the local olive oil is better than medicine and should be consumed regularly for good health.

The ground around the trees is also worth noting. Grandfather farmer that works the fields and grove on his trusty blue tractor tills the land every few months. The wildflowers get just enough time to bloom and seed before he’ll come through and turn them back into loose topsoil. We’ve tried to explore the land a few times only to find it is so soft from all the tilling that our feet sink easily and the feeling is like walking through mud or quicksand. I wonder how this effects the microbes, fungi, and the centurion trees.

There is an orange tree that lives right outside the fence of our yard that produced hundreds of oranges that first winter while I was pregnant and curiously none since. There are many different fruit trees surrounding our house between us and the olives. Such as pomegranates, plums, figs, lemons, and mandarins, but that orange tree is my absolute favorite. Grandfather farmer would pass by on his tractor telling us to mangia mangia (the local dialect for eat, eat) the excessive fruits of the farm.

These are some of the fruits found around outside the fence line of our yard in Caiazzo, Italy in 2017.

I never liked oranges that much before that winter that I was pregnant, so I don’t know if it was just a craving, but I ate at least two a day. They were simply divine. I know there were times when I thought, surely I should not eat another one and had to use the strength of will power to prevent me from eating a fourth or fifth orange. I believe it was the excessive vitamin C that probably helped me to deliver such a healthy baby boy. He still really loves oranges.

Could it be that all the years I did not find oranges appealing that it was influenced from the distance they traveled before I bought and consumed them? Or is it more from the difference in the way they sell oranges? In Italy, they sell oranges and mandarins with the branches and leaves still attached to them. Even when grandfather farmer first shared the fruits from his tree with us, he had left the branches and leaves attached. Does this have anything to do with preserving the flavor or allowing the inner juices to remain intact? I have never seen an orange in the United States of America sold this way and now believe it must be a mistake to completely remove them from their thorny attachments.

I have seen grapevines in the wilds of the southeast and in production rows all across the globe. In the wild, I found grapevines intrusively climbing over the understory. I enjoyed chewing on their sweet curly tendrils during my nature walks. At vineyards, I must have only seen grapevines during their growing seasons because I had thought the only manipulations they endured was being made to run along the supports provided to them.

There are a handful of rows of grapevines just above my yard on the hillside. They flourish with blue violet bunches by summer’s end. The grapes are collected and made into an effervescent wine that tastes like a juice more than the bitter astringent I have forced myself to consume in years past. I was never much of a wine connoisseur and more of just a lush in my uninhibited youth. After the grapes and all the leaves have fallen, the new growth is cut away and bundled. I’m not sure what the wood is used for after it leaves on grandfather farmers tractor bed, but I do know it is pliable for the first few days and brittle afterwards. I tested a few that had attached itself to our iron fence from the wandering reaches of one exuberant grapevine.

After being pruned, the vines appear to be more tree like with a trunk and sparse winter branches. The ropes stay in place or are replaced and the following spring new growth travels quickly along these well worn paths to begin the cycle again. Without this, I can now assume the vines would overrun their confinements and become more like the exploratory runners I remember from my childhood.

I thought I was sent to Italy for the art and to walk the steps of the masters of the renaissance fulfilling my childhood dreams of training in oil paints or sculpting marble. I never would have believed that my entire life path as an artist would veer to an entirely new course filled with a desire to know plants and the natural world around me. Italy has forever changed my purpose in this world.

Caiaz... I fantasize about never leaving your embrace. Finding myself perusing the various farmhouses for sale on the realtor website, I imagine what a treasured life I could lead if I could only remain. What do my children want, and what about my husband’s ambitions? I can only bring you with me in my heart and try to imitate the lessons I learned during my time here.

I am grateful for being given the gift of living this dolce vita. I am grateful for the fresh, nutritious foods I have been able to provide to my children. I am grateful for the way we have grown in our time here in Caiazzo. This happy town will be synonymous for family forever in my memories.

Much love and kind regards, Shainna 🌼

This photo in front of an olive grove is from Lucchesia, Italia in 2019.

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