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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Calabria: What's that?

February 5, 2017

Tags: Calabria, Mezzogiorno, Cosenza, Crotone, Catanzaro, Vibo Valentia, Reggio, Norman Douglas, Capo Colonna, Eudora Welty

Hera's column, Capo Colonna


When I began this project, I quickly ran into a problem I had not anticipated. “What’s that?” a writing friend answered when I told her that I was working on a book about Calabria. It is an all too familiar reaction. Although millions of Calabrians have made the United States their homeland for more than a century, Americans are clueless about the place. Even other Italians--northerners--often go blank when I mention Calabria. When I mention Calabria to newly- arrived Italians living in San Francisco and the Bay Area, their comments, usually with no-no shakes of the head, are almost predictable. “It’s a mystery to us.” “It’s a dark place.” One Silicon Valley tech brat from the North boasted, “I’ve never been there.”

Calabria came out of the dark, however. In 2017, in its annual survey of the best places to visit that year, The New York Times singled out Calabria.

So this quick picture of its landscape and a criminally brief history of its origins orients you. Calabria comprises the lower quarter of Italy’s iconic boot, the toe that kicks Sicily into the Mediterranean. While the Mediterranean’s seas (the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian) surround Calabria on all three sides, what geologists call the “Calabrian arc” has a large impact on the lives of its people. This spine of rugged mountains in the Apennine system extends from Calabria’s border with Basilicata down to the tip of its toe. The terrain is seismically and volcanically active and regularly experiences earthquakes. Four ranges in the arc are part of Italy’s park system and draw skiers and hikers. From this spine, the mountains slope and sometimes plunge down to narrow plains where agriculture is possible and two seas, the Ionian to the east and the Tyrrhenian to the west. Unruly coastlines, as if drawn by a child, define Calabria’s iconic profile. Calabria is about the size of Connecticut but with half the population; it is 154 miles long and 31 miles wide, at its narrow center. From some of the central towns, including Catanzaro and Marcellinara, one can see across Italy to both seas.

Calabria might be mysterious, but it is not dark. The region is Italy’s Deep South, the Mezzogiorno (“middle of the day”) and enjoys nearly 250 sunny days a year; in winter, bright sunshine breaks even through the winter rainy season.

About two million people live in Calabria, and they have always been a motley collection. Italy retains regional dialects, despite universal education and widespread telecommunications that tend to standardize language. Calabrians continue to speak dialects specific to their cities and towns. When my father, a native speaker of Italian, visited Milan in the 1960s, he complained that he could not understand a word that people there spoke. I feel the same about Venetians. The region is one of twenty national administrative units and comprises five provinces, from north to south: Cosenza, Crotone, Catanzaro, Vibo Valentia and Reggio. Travelers often skip over Calabria and much of South Italy, preferring the Roman and Renaissance glories of Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio (Rome) and other northern regions. Italophiles stoke their passion or buy up farmhouses in Tuscany, Lazio (Rome), Umbria and occasionally Sicily. Their preferences hearken to the Grand Tour of Italy, which was de rigueur for gentlemen, intellectuals and aristocrats of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sophisticated travelers began dribbling into the South in the eighteenth century in search of its classical antiquities, but not all made it to Calabria. Mozart visited Italy three times between 1769 and 1773, and on one trip he got as far South as Naples and spent a month there. Goethe was another famous European to visit the South, but he too avoided Calabria and sailed directly from Naples to Sicily in 1786. In Italian Journey, the book he wrote about his adventures, Goethe called Naples “a paradise in which everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness.”

Alexandre Dumas dove into Calabria wholeheartedly, visiting several times in the 1830s and completing his book Capitaine Arena in 1835, which contained his report on the trip. He also wrote several stories about the Calabrian brigands (outlaws) that appeared in his newspaper Il Independente, which he founded and directed in Naples where he lived for three years, supporting the Italian independence movement. Dumas described Calabria as “a magnificent region; in summer it roasts as in Timbuktu, and in winter, it freezes like St. Petersburg. Moreover one doesn’t mark time only in years or in centuries as in other countries, but according to earthquakes.”

In April 1841, Arthur John Strutt, an English painter, writer, engraver, and archaeologist, set off from Rome and walked through southern Italy to Palermo and back to Rome a year later. His book A Pedestrian Tour in Calabria and Sicily was published immediately. George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea, published in 1901, remains in print and is one of his best-known works. Writers and artists were not the only visitors to the South. Because of the merchant traffic through the port of Naples, the United States had maintained diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Naples, which included the entire south except Sicily, since 1796. When business picked up U.S. President James Madison appointed a consul general to the Kingdom in 1809. In 1816, with Sicily joined to Naples, consular relations continued with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

I have taken the title of this book from Norman Douglas’ Old Calabria. For English-speakers, Old Calabria remains must reading, even though now it is one hundred years old. It has remained in print continuously since it was first published in 1915 and was most recently reissued in 2010. No one can write about Calabria without reference to Douglas’ magnificent work. More than a travelogue, this compendium of history, sociology, archaeology, natural history reaches deeply into the region. He uncovers Italy’s most complex historical layers¯ not just the Greek and Roman but also the Muslim, Jewish, Gothic, Norman, French, Spanish, Albanian, and native.

At the end of Old Calabria’s 300-plus pages, Douglas sums up the region and his ambivalence about it. He takes us to what is left of the Temple of Hera Lacinia (Juno), the patroness of women and childbirth, at Capo Colonna, on the Gulf of Taranto. When the Greeks built it in the fifth century BCE, the structure had 48 such columns and a roof of marble tiles; even then, it was considered the most splendid temple in Magna Graecia’s mainland. Located near the busy and thriving port of Kroton (today’s Cotrone), the temple’s purpose was more than religious; it also provided a comforting landmark for passing sailors who could spot it on its promontory overlooking the sea. In the sixteenth century, Bishop Giovanni Matteo Lucifero plundered the temple to obtain marble and other materials for his residence in Cotrone.

The temple had mostly vanished by the time of Douglas’ visit. A single valiant column had survived vandalism, earthquakes, wars, and other misfortunes, and he took a photo of it. Reflecting on this solitary place, Douglas offered some advice for travelers: “Calabria is not a land to traverse alone. It is too wistful and stricken; too deficient in those externals that conduce to comfort.” But then he calls on us to visit, because “the joys of Calabria are not to be bought, like those of Switzerland, for gold.” In the closing paragraphs, he summarizes what pulls him to Calabria: “Such torrid splendor, drenching a land of austerest simplicity, decomposes the mind into corresponding states of primal contentment and resilience. There arises before our phantasy a new perspective of human affairs.”

When I arrived at this off-the-beaten-track site in mid-winter, it was deserted, as was the Capo Colonna Archaeological Park, which has a small but smart museum built into the earth to minimize its environmental impact. A stiff wind stirred wild grasses growing in the temple’s yard and battled for dominance with the heat of brilliant sunshine. Hera stands valiantly, although authorities have built a wire fence around her. Nearby is a modern lighthouse nearby, and beyond that, miles of wind farms that collect the energy of Aeolian currents that buffet the coast.

Anyone writing about Calabria enters into the midst of things, in medias res, not from the beginning but surrounded, like Hera’s column, with past, present and future. We must begin somewhere, however. Calabria is one of the oldest outposts of the European experience. Its “civilized” or organized past extends back to at least 10,000 BCE and blazes through the stream of antiquity into the major currents of world history. Calabria’s future could vault the region forward in unexpected ways. Calabria moves slowly, however, almost glacially, despite a past bursting with innovation and passion, soaring success as well as failure. From its crucible of human events much of Western civilization bubbled and flowed onto the planet. But Calabria’s corruption, organized crime, and racism have been and are deep and repulsive. Poverty and social conditions that drove Italians to the United States, Canada and other points on the globe still exist and continue to drive young Italians, both north and south, elsewhere. Nonetheless, a new generation is holding on, wanting to make their lives in the South, a place from which their ancestors and more recent predecessors fled. As they are plant themselves into Calabria, firmly and in some cases defiantly, they are meeting their tangled roots.

To find my personal history submerged in the many flavors of the Calabrian concoction thrills me. Douglas is right: No one should traverse Calabria alone. Anyone who does visit is never alone, because it is filled with its many “shades” whose imprints are visible in today’s Calabrians. From the moment I first read Old Calabria, Douglas has been a companion. He has not so much pointed me in one direction or another but rather expanded my senses to what is around me. He himself has been part of that deep draught of what he called “a new perspective of human affairs.” Indeed, as I write around the time of his book’s centennial, I am astounded at how much of it is still relevant to Calabria’s dynamic life today. The place remains a potent brew of heroes, villains, great artists and scientists, courageous young people and humble strivers, a “torrid splendor.” Especially in Calabria, the present is straight line out of the past. Visiting this place is an adventure beyond the stereotypical view of Italy as art and food (though Calabria includes plenty of both). Eudora Welty has said, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” The reader who understands Calabria’s history, people and contemporary life gains insights into a civilization.



The Making of a Geek

January 11, 2017

I should have known that at some point in my life I would become a geek.

Perhaps living in the orbit of Silicon Valley has done this to me. No humanist can be averse to science, just as scientists cannot neglect history and the arts. Einstein, a dedicated amateur violinist, said the theory of relativity occurred to him by intuition: “Music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.”

My adult interest in science started when “Star Trek” was a failed television series. I repeatedly watched episodes as Captain Kirk piloted the starship Enterprise to new worlds and into forbidden themes like cultural dislocation and race relations. I was just off the starship Columbia where I had fulfilled my science requirement with a course in astronomy for non-astronomers, which was designed to soften the science blow to delicate undergraduate brows.

When the series returned with Jean-Luc Picard, the aloof historian and archaeologist, I became a determined Trekkie. I bought a Starfleet pin and wore it on trips even though I guessed people would think I was crazy until a flight attendant told me she had one too but couldn’t wear it at work.

Many people in the space program got started watching “Star Trek,” including Charlie Bolden, the current administrator of NASA. His scientists are exploring warp drive, and he likes the Federation of Planets (a cosmic UN), which his agency is working toward. Astrophysicist Neil De Grasse Tyson, a tireless science advocate and environmental activist, and I share a devotion to Trek. Stephen Hawking thrillingly appeared as himself in one episode where Commander Data played poker with holograms of Newton, Einstein, and Hawking. (Data is the Enterprise’s android who tries to become human by acting in Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes stories and playing the violin and poker.)

Over the 35 years we lived in New Mexico, I developed an interest in the history of the atom bomb at Los Alamos. Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories (based in Albuquerque) started to shift some funding from weapons development to energy research, and while the budgets still tipped toward weapons, a quiet struggle continued among scientists about righting the balance. Several books had covered figures like Oppenheimer, Teller, and Bethe. During the furor over Three-Mile Island, for a story on nuclear energy, I interviewed Norris Bradbury, Oppenheimer’s successor. (The solar-heated library at Los Alamos is named for him.) A quiet scholarly man, Bradbury told me that the nuclear reactor in a plant is safe, but outmoded “plumbing” is dangerous. When I was working on a New York Times story about the 50th anniversary of Los Alamos, I realized that no one had told the stories of many people who had worked there during the war years and were dying--not just the scientists but also the lower level people who were mechanics, janitors, cooks--and wives. Some critics have suggested that “Manhattan,” the WGN series about the bomb project, is unrealistic. Although it takes dramatic liberties, it captures the culture, science, and mood. It also reveals the lives of the mostly invisible women at wartime Los Alamos.

When we moved to the Bay Area, the science bug bit again. My breakthrough experience was a course in the Fromm program at the University of San Francisco. Delirious with anticipation, I signed up for a class in elementary algebra taught by a retired math professor from the University of Chicago. I expected a small group but from the first day, the classroom was packed with gray heads. For weeks, we solved equations together on the blackboard and diligently did our algebra homework. (When was the last time you did algebra homework?)

My interest in science remains scattershot. I’ve been reading Thomas Forrest Kelly’s Capturing Music, a history of the invention of musical notation by Guido D’Arezzo, a medieval Umbrian monk. (Undoubtedly, the book also piqued my interest because Guido is my father’s name.) It’s a beautiful book, with lavishly illustrated pages of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and a handy CD. The story grabbed me, because I had always taken for granted the notations in my piano books. Musical notation happened mostly because of new music that began to appear about 900 years ago. Monks had always learned music simply by aurally memorizing straight-line Gregorian chant (the way I learned it in Catholic grammar school.) As music became polyphonic, the singers needed guideposts to hang on to. Voila! Written notes, staves, sharps, flats, etc. The book’s difficulty increased in complexity, as the music history grew more complex. The book evolved into a story about mathematics, cutting time into little pieces, giving it measures such as tempo, pitch and dynamics.

The popular press and arts produce plenty of fodder for newly-minted geeks. I read The New York Times’ Science Times--the paper’s most popular special section--every Tuesday. Every day I get terrific postings on Facebook from I Fucking Love Science. Yes that’s its name and it’s a serious site. Today, posts offered new NASA’s new maps of the oceans and information about the dreadful Zika virus. Sci-fi movies have grown in popularity and sophistication. (I exclude such pop adventure movies as “Star Wars.”)

Recently, my science interest hit home across the sea. A cousin in Italy has started La Nuova Scuola Pitagorica (The New Pythagorean School) dedicated to the Greek philosopher, mathematician and vegetarian. The organization is based in the modern city, Crotone, Calabria where Pythagoras settled in the sixth century BCE, when it was Kroton. My cousin is a humanist who writes about Pythagoras’ interest in peace and women’s issues. The Aquinian essays he sends to me are in highly-literate Italian, and reading them is a challenge that sharpens my senses.

Finally, Christmas brought me Mary Beard’s SPQR, A History of Ancient Rome. Not much science. Beard does calculate the size of Roman army and the empire’s population—not an easy task. But I’ll bet she used algebra for it!


San Francisco Chronicle

March 10, 2014

Family dinner hour 'sacrosanct' in White House, our house


A New Yorker story recently described the first family's dinner hour as "sacrosanct." As I have learned, our own family's dinner hour has resonated across time, space and generations. The conversation began innocuously enough on my daughter Carla's Facebook page.

"I have always felt it was important to get a nice dinner on the table for my family, but recently I am wondering if the effort is worth it," she posted. Then Carla sparked an ember that within hours spread across cyberspace: "My high school friends will recall the sacred 'dinner hour' at 224-12th St." (This was our home in Albuquerque, where Carla and her brother, Nick, grew up a couple of blocks from what have become memorable "Breaking Bad" locales - like the Pinkmans' house.)

Comments from friends around the country came quickly.

One classmate, Jenna, wrote: "I modeled our dinner hour after your family! Even as a kid I was impressed with your family's commitment, especially as my family rarely ate together. That said I cannot pull it off every night. I shoot for four nights/week where we sit, talk and have no other distractions (no reading, etc). Thanks for reminding me that it was the Robbins family that planted this seed!!"

Our dinner hour continued my Italian family's practice of eating together every night - plus big gatherings on Sunday afternoons. For our own dinner hour, the time between 6 and 7 p.m. was inviolable - as in "sacrosanct" - and all my kids' friends knew about it. No phone calls, but the friends had a standing invitation to join us. Besides the meal, the table was set for our humanity; we talked, laughed, fought, yelled and even cried. So indelible was the dinner hour that Carla wrote about it for a college admission essay.

Leah, a close childhood friend, chimed in: "My mom was super militant about the family dinner and she was an amazing cook who had the time to plan lovely dinners so it always worked out. I loved it and remembered it fondly with the goal in mind to replicate. However my babysitter leaves at 5 p.m., and I am a decent cook who basically has an hour and change to whip something together for the family. I am with Jenna, in that my goal is try to do proper family dinner three to four times a week, and the rest of the time we wing it. If Mike is on the road like this week, I cook for the kids but eat my dinner standing at the kitchen counter."

LeeAnn not only seconded the family dinner but also included a link to "The Family Dinner Box of Questions," available on Amazon. We had nothing quite so organized, although we regularly turned on the news, which, in our flyover time zone and before CNN, came on at 6 p.m. Once my husband idly asked our then-first-grade daughter who was the father of our country, and she answered, "Walter Cronkite."
Andrew wrote of painful moments: "We try every night, but someone always sits with kids and eats something - maybe cheese and crackers - even if we are going out. Although it can be upward of a long hour and sometimes ends with my face in my hands saying 'Please, for the love of God, finish your milk.' No one leaves the table until the last person is done."

Karen offered an idea: "Get the older kids to plan and cook dinner one night/week. You get a break and they learn how to cook! My daughters are great chefs now because I started them early." (I did this; now grown, both my kids are terrific cooks.)
Patrick, who lived around the corner, admitted imperfection: "I remember your family's dinner hour. I always thought it was great. We have the same thing now in my house, only it is more like 15-20 minutes." (Not to worry, Patrick. If we finished dinner before 7, the sacred hour could end early. As Carla and Nick grew up, they often had after-school activities, but I tried to get us down for dinner before or after those.)

Meredith, also from around the corner, different house, is having doubts: "I recently started working full time and still manage to cook dinner for everyone most nights. I have wondered, though, about how to get out of it!! What does everyone do if you don't do a family meal? I also love the idea of having your kiddos plan and cook. I have great memories of all our cooking adventures together!"

In a later post, she reported on a family dinner game. "We did a little vocab quizzing at our dinner last night. Word: prodigious. Ethan 'Big, like your butt.' "

Jocelyn reported on new findings that she had read about: "Big ongoing study written up recently on kids' emotional resilience, security, etc. Turns out that sit-down dinner, and any number of structures we feel pressure to execute in our lives, not so important. What mattered exceedingly was a having a shared family narrative, an understanding of family stories and identity, and that kids were brought into the narrative actively. Kids who have this, do much better in all kinds of scenarios. Yay! Dinner could definitely be a great vehicle for that, but there are many ways to create. " (For those who were guilting on this.)

Carla asked, "Is the dinner hour a thing of the past?"

Juliette answered, "I say keep it alive!"

After 1491, What do we do for American Indians?

March 6, 2013

Tags: American Indians, Native Americans, 1491, Charles Mann


So what can we do for American Indians? I often hear that question. Most recently, it came up during a book club consideration of Charles Mann’s 1491, which was published in 2005. Mann gave readers an eye-popping look at indigenous peoples in the Americas before the Europeans started streaming in. He reported on archaeological and historical records that portrayed a hemisphere teeming with people of diverse cultures. Some, like the Aztecs, were highly-structured societies, with classes, hierarchies and enormous wealth. Others, for instance in the New England area, were more “democratic,” with decision-making spread among all levels. (more…)

Getting Healthy, the Native Way

February 22, 2013

Tags: American Indians, Surgeon-General, American Indian physicians, American Indian doctors, health, Mark Bittman, health care, alternative medicine


Mark Bittman, in his column in the New York Times, recently remarked that few Americans know the name of our current Surgeon-General. Her name is Regina Benjamin, and she is, in a sense, “the nation’s doctor.” But Bittman contends that she is not doing much to keep us healthy. Benjamin is especially weak in addressing the role of “big food” in making us one of the unhealthiest industrialized nations in the world. American Indians have some of the worst health outcomes in the U.S. But can we learn anything about getting healthy the Native way?

American Indian healing is centuries old. And as far as Indians are concerned, it works! In a survey taken at an Indian Health Service Clinic in Milwaukee, 38 percent of patients said (more…)

Bones Make a Difference

February 12, 2013

Tags: Richard III, American Indians, American Indian remains, Native Americans, repatriation, skeletal remains

The people of Pecos and Jemez Pueblo accompany the remains of their ancestors―behind them in the white semi-truck―to their final rest. Photo by Cary Herz.

Bones! American Indians must have felt the pain of remembrance when the remains of Richard III were displayed, and the world responded with a “frenzy of forensic romance,” according to Newsweek. The monarch’s bones had rested serenely under the asphalt of a parking lot in England until researchers found them and confirmed his identity. He met a gruesome end at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485, and his body, which showed signs of two lethal blows to the head as well as “humiliation” wounds after death, was simply stuffed into a grave. Richard violent death ended a (more…)

State of the American Indians Nations, A Speech

January 29, 2013

Tags: American Indians, American Indian sovereignty, National Congress of American Indians, Embassy of Nations, State of the American Indian Nations

The staff of the National Congress of American Indians gather at the organization’s new headquarters, the Embassy of Tribal Nations, in the heart of the diplomatic enclave in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Congress of American Indians.

Since 2003, every year, the president of the National Congress of American Indians presents the State of Indian Nations. The message is timed precisely - just a few days after the State of the Union address from the president of the United States - and it reaffirms the sovereign status of nearly 600 tribes and nations.

In the State of the Union message, the president reports on the condition of the country and sets out his vision and agenda for dealing with issues and problems. The U.S. Constitution mandates a regular report from the president to Congress, and since 1790, since George Washington produced the first such report, an American President has delivered a State of the Union either in writing or in a talk. The message is not simply a (more…)

Dissing American Indians, Part III: Send the cops away

January 15, 2013

Tags: American Indians, American Indian crime, American Indian police, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Indian law, Indian sovereignty, American Indian self-determination


What happens when American Indians call the federal cops to investigate a rape or a murder? Too often, nobody answers. On reservations, when the feds drop the ball, understaffed tribal police departments are unable to cope with the resulting mayhem.

Step back about a 150 years. At that time, white America was mopping up. Settlers, developers, mining and timber interests, and railroad companies were chewing up much of Indian country not just stealing land but also slaughtering bison and destroying other sources of Native sustenance. To stop Indians’ understandable resistance to this wholesale grab, the U.S. government sent the cavalry and finally entered into treaties to end the Indian wars. Indians laid down their arms and gave up much of their lands and resources. In exchange, the federal government set aside some lands for reservations in exchange for food, education, health, and policing for reservations. (more…)

American Indians, Part II: Victoria’s Dirty Indian Secret

January 9, 2013

Tags: Victoria’s Secret, pow wow porn, American Indians, Indian, Native Americans, war bonnet, regalia

Karlie Kloss struts onto Victoria Secret’s runway with ceremonial war bonnet and layers of American Indian jewelry. No Indian woman would be caught dead with such a getup. Credit: http://www.change.org/petitions/victoria-s-secret-apologize-for-using-a-native-american-headdress-in-their-2012-fashion-show

Victoria’s Secret has a dirty Indian secret―”pow wow porn.” During its annual show at the end of 2012, the lingerie company sent one of its favorite scantily clad models out on the runway wearing a long American Indian war bonnet and draped in turquoise and silver jewelry. Within 24 hours, reaction to this offensive display of corporate ignorance found its way onto social networks and then into the national media, including the Huffington Post. (Victoria’s Secret is an equal opportunity offender. Earlier in the year, the company also released an Asian-themed line of lingerie that a writer in Jezebel Magazine "traded in sexualized, generic pan-Asian ethnic stereotypes.")

Victoria’s Secret’s outrage was one of the more extreme instance of whites appropriating Native beliefs or items in order to hype some product or activity. In 2009, several people died when an (more…)

Dissing American Indians, Part I: A Month a Year

January 7, 2013

Tags: American Indians, Native Americans, Native American Heritage Month, All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)


November is Native American Heritage Month. It’s a good opportunity to acknowledge our oldest inhabitants, but a month a year just doesn’t do the job of revealing the rich Native heritage and more importantly the lives of contemporary Indians and their communities. White Americans’ continual disregard for and ignorance about Americans is the most basic form of disrespect.

Perhaps we were luckier than most Americans in our access to American Indians. Living for many years in Albuquerque, NM, a place with a significant percentage of Indians, we had many opportunities to meet Native people. Just thirty minutes away was San Felipe Pueblo, where friends welcomed us for family and holiday celebrations. About 30,000 of New Mexico’s Pueblos live in (more…)