One of the reasons why I started this project was to help fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of geography and world history. The book I read for Italy, Eva Sleeps, written by Francesca Melandri and translated by Katherine Gregor, was a perfect selection to teach me about a region and an era in Italy’s history that I knew nothing about.
South Tyrol, which is now part of the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region of Italy, was part of Austria until it was annexed by Italy at the end of World War I. ”Annexed” is an awfully benign word to describe the act of telling people who have belonged to a particular country for their whole lives that they now belong to another country entirely. The people of South Tyrol spoke German, not Italian, and their cultural identity was wrapped up in their Austro-Hungarian roots. Over the years, they clashed with the government of Italy, often violently, in their desire to break free from a country with which they felt they had nothing in common.
The story of South Tyrol is woven through the plot of Eva Sleeps. The title character, Eva Huber, is the only child of a single mother, Gerda Huber, with a messy family history. Gerda’s father Hermann is a bitter hateful man who leaves South Tyrol for awhile to become a Nazi for Hitler, and her mother Johanna is a weak-willed woman who drops dead of a heart attack when she discovers that her unmarried daughter is pregnant. Gerda has a sister who wants nothing to do with her and a brother who is a terrorist fighting for South Tyrol’s independence from Italy.
Gerda works in the kitchen of a popular tourist hotel, and her talent and work ethic allow her to rise in the restaurant’s hierarchy. However, her job doesn’t give her the flexibility to also raise her daughter, so she leaves Eva in the care of a family back in her home village. During the hotel’s off-season, Gerda brings Eva to stay with her, and those weeks are the highlight of Eva’s young life. At some point along the way, Gerda meets and falls in love with a soldier from the far south of Italy who is stationed in South Tyrol. Vito is steady, intelligent, and loves Gerda as much as she loves him. He becomes like a father to Eva, and life is good. But this is a novel, so of course there has to be a conflict.
The book is structured so that the story of Gerda’s life alternates with a present-day trip Eva takes to Reggio Calabria, at the farthest southern tip of Italy, where Vito is now dying. Gerda’s story is measured in years; Eva’s is measured in kilometers. I thought it was an intriguing saga, made even more interesting by the history lesson contained within.
Before I opened Eva Sleeps, I assumed I would be making some type of pasta dish for this blog post, and I did. It’s just not the type of pasta dish I would have expected. The cuisine in South Tyrol has roots in German cooking, so it’s very different than what is eaten in most of the rest of Italy. The book mentions the expectations of people arriving from the south of Italy: “Nobody had explained to the immigrants from southern Italy what kind of place they were going to, before they left. It hadn’t occurred to anyone in the recruitment offices in Enna, Matera and Crotone, where the Bolzano factories were obtaining their workforce, to let them know that they were about to go and live among people who spoke German, who did not eat spaghetti or even polenta, but things they called Knödel, Schlutzkrapfen, Spatzlan. They were still in Italy, weren’t they? That was all an immigrant needed to know.”
After googling to see what these dishes were, I decided to make schlutzkrapfen, a type of ravioli with a spinach and cheese filling. I found a recipe for a vegan version on the Flavour Dreams website. The pasta itself is different from what one usually expects with ravioli, as it is made from whole wheat and rye flours. Soaked cashews, almond milk, and nutritional yeast replicate the taste of the cheese in the filling. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it. The filling was fine, but the pasta – not so much.
Last year, I read a very poignant piece online by the author of Eva Sleeps, Francesca Melandri. It was written in the form of a letter to the people of the United Kingdom to let them know what they could expect from the pandemic that had just begun to ravage Europe. Italy was hit with it a few weeks before the United Kingdom was, so Melandri’s essay was aptly headlined, “A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future.” The letter is still relevant today, and definitely worth a read.
So when I checked the GlobalGiving website to see what projects they had listed in Italy, it seemed only fitting to donate to one focusing on Covid-19 aid to hospitals and children. The Francesca Rava Foundation provides beds, ventilators, and lifesaving medical supplies to support Covid-19 intensive care units in Italian hospitals; sends doctors, nurses, and other frontline responders to intensive care units in critical areas; and supplies masks and disinfectants to vulnerable communities. More information about this project is available at Coronavirus in Italy: aid for hospitals & children – GlobalGiving.
NEXT STOP: JAPAN
(Originally published on January 24, 2021.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.