Civita di Bagnoregio – The Dying City

Photo: AndreaPucci

Photo: AndreaPucci

I first visited Civita di Bagnoregio twenty years ago. Through the fog of mist and rain, only the memory of the dank odor of damp tuff and the image of desolate alleyways endure. Most appropriate for the Italian town that is known as La Città che Muore—the Dying City.

I saw her again ten years later, on a golden November day. Gloriously clinging to her high rock amidst a vast valley, Civita etched herself in my memory as she resisted her epithet.

No cars, no busloads of tourists. Only a Vespa buzzing past as I climbed the 300-meter long footbridge to the Porta Santa Maria—the only one left of the original five city gates. Sculptures of lions grasping human heads witnessed of an older resistance, when the city threw off the yoke of feudal oppression at the end of the fifteenth century. A worthy entrance to a place little changed since the Middle Ages.

When I entered the tiny souvenir shop behind the gate, the shopkeeper laid aside her needlework to share Civita’s tragedy with me. “Although the city looks like she’s been pulled from a fairy tale, in reality she’s been suffering from erosion and earthquakes. In 800 B.C., the Etruscans founded Civita on a large plateau between two valleys. However, the plateau wasn’t solid rock—it was brittle volcanic tuff.”

“So it just weathered?”

“About 1500 years ago, the erosion increased when the area was deforested to create farmland. The rivers and the rain had free reign and steadily washed away the sides of the plateau, leaving nothing but a narrow ridge.”

“And the earthquakes?”

She nodded. “Two earthquakes, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, reduced the ridge to a pinnacle. And the erosion continues. A hundred years ago, Civita could still be accessed by a donkey path. Now we need a bridge.”

I suddenly became conscious of the fragility of the ground under my feet. “Aren’t people afraid to live here?”

“Most families fled after the last earthquake, because their houses were damaged. Despite the recent restorations, there are now fewer than ten residents.” Her face softened. “One of them is Maria. I’m sure you’ll meet her.”

Strolling through the narrow streets, I marveled at the omnipresent traces of history. The windows of a facade showing the blue sky—the house probably swallowed by an earthquake. Column stubs of a Roman temple in front of a Renaissance church. An alleyway ending in a chest-high wall that prevented me from stepping into the void. The grindstone of an ancient olive press that used to be operated by a donkey-powered treadmill until the 1960s.

I could not imagine that one day this timeless city would slide away.

As I rounded a corner, a soft voice greeted me.

“Buon giorno, signora. Do you want to see my garden? It gives a good view over the Calanchi Valley.” Blue eyes under silvery, well-groomed hair gently beckoned to me. Her right arm hung limp against her floral dress; her right foot was bent at an awkward angle.

Maria.

“I’d love to, grazie.” I reached inside my purse and placed two Euro in her opened left hand.

She smiled. “You will also love my little museum.”

On one side of her yard, a wall displayed a collection of worn garden tools, Etruscan artefacts, and giant potsherds.

“Look, there’s a Roman armor piece.” Maria pointed to something that could be a breastplate.

On the other side, the oblong garden invited me to walk to its far end, where a surreal landscape awaited me. Across the valley, gulches cut through barren hillsides, leaving sharp crests of white clay. In the distance rose the purple silhouette of the Apennines Mountains.

I sat on the wall that enclosed the garden, absorbing the view and the silence, amazed that such destruction can birth such a beauty.

This year, I returned to Civita, hoping to spend time in Maria’s garden. The small town was still perched fiercely atop its pinnacle, seemingly unaffected by wind and water. Flowerpots adorned balconies and staircases. From an open window, the aroma of garlic and tomato sauce wafted towards me. Cats were dozing in patches of sunshine. But I didn’t find Maria. Her garden was closed, the artefacts removed.

At the souvenir shop, I learned that Maria had deceased.

As I left Civita that day, I realized that the city is dying. But it is not only because she is losing her ground. She is dying because she is losing her souls.

***

This article was first published at the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge.

Human trafficking from Nigeria to Italy

 

childtrafficking

 

Sadly, the following story–first submitted to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge–is based on facts, although the girl is fictional. I combined a personal testimony of a girl we met in Orvieto, with details I read on the Internet.

 

 


Hope

My name is Hope. I’m from Nigeria. I’m the girl on the street you try to ignore as you hurry past. Just before you turn your head away, I see your cold eyes, the corners of your mouth pulled down. Don’t worry—you don’t have to buy what I’m offering. But why do you despise me? Is it the color of my skin? My poverty?

I lived with my family in a village in Edo State, the South of Nigeria. My parents were jobless. We were always hungry— sometimes, my mother cooked tree leaves for dinner.

When my brother met a man whose niece in Italy would have work for me, I was thrilled. I could help provide and give my little sister the opportunity I never had—to go to school. The man promised, “You’ll get rich working as a hairdresser.” I’m good at plaiting hair. He even advanced me the travel expenses. Little did I know that it was a ruse.

Before I left, my brother took me to a juju priest for good luck. The grim man, all dressed in red, cut off some of my hair and took blood from my hand. Then he made me kneel before him and swear to pay my debt and be obedient to my sponsor and his niece; otherwise the evil spirits would torture me and take my soul. He marked my forehead with clay, so the spirits would recognize me. I longed to go to Italy, but the pictures next to his shrine scared me—the horribly disfigured faces of girls who had broken their oath.

I didn’t travel alone. We were crammed into the open back of a truck, more than thirty Nigerian girls. At day time, fine desert sand penetrated our clothes as we drove under the scorching sun. At night, the escorting men raped us. I struggled to break loose, but they had knives. “You’d better get used to it,” they scoffed. Some girls complained that they didn’t get paid for the job. They were going to Italy to be prostitutes and mocked me when I said I was going to be a hairdresser.

To cross the Mediterranean Sea, we loaded into a rubber raft, which almost sank under our weight. We had no food, no water. One of the girls fell into the choppy waves. She screamed, but the boat continued steadily forward.

When we arrived in Italy, I found out the other girls were right. The niece had no hair salon; she was a madam. She said that I would have to work hard to pay my debt—50,000 Euro. I had no idea it was so high. At first, I cried every night standing on the curb, shivering and barely dressed. Tears attract no men and no money, so Madam beat me often. Running away was impossible—the evil spirits would find me. I just tried not to feel anything.

One night, I met Victor. He didn’t want sex; he just gave money. He asked my name and talked with me. “Hope, do you know Jesus?”

“Yes. My grandma told me about Him—said she liked Him more than the other gods she worshiped.”

“Jesus is the only God. There are no others. And He loves you.”

“How can God love me?” I wondered. “I do bad things.”

Victor read from his Bible how Jesus blessed and restored women like me. “If you want, I can help you start a new life.”

“No. My oath…the spirits—”

“Jesus is stronger than any evil spirit. You’re safe with Him.”

Victor got me to a women’s shelter where Madam cannot find me. I also met his wife. She teaches me about Jesus and helps me to get my documents, so that I can find a real job.

For now, I’m still on the street, but instead of selling my body, I sell fabrics and other household items. I don’t make much money, but I can send all my earnings to Nigeria. My family is proud of me. And my sister is going to school! I pray that Jesus protects them from the evil spirits, and from the men who threaten them because I escaped.

I’m not afraid anymore.

“You want to buy tissues, ma’am?

“Sir, do you need socks? Two pairs for five Euro only.”

My name is Hope. I’m from Nigeria. Please, don’t ignore me.

***

For more information on human trafficking in Nigeria, see:

A Gem of Hope

chrissie

 

My best friend, Chrissie, died in a car accident when I was almost sixteen. When the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge called for autobiographical stories, I wrote the following story about our friendship and her death, which “shocked me and rocked all securities in a phase of life that is insecure enough in itself” (Destination Italy, page 73).


Chrissie and I

Chrissie and I were like sisters; straight blond hair, glasses, and acne. Side by side, we faced our inferiority complexes. We wrote in each other’s secret diaries. Together, we fell in love with faraway idols and with schoolboys who vaguely resembled them—and who, like our idols, didn’t notice us either.

A rap on the door drags me out of deep sleep. The grey light of dawn breaks through the caravan windows. Who can that be, at this hour? I hear my father getting up. Soft voices, a muffled cry. Then my father enters the small room, his eyes horrified. His mouth utters the unthinkable.

Woodpeckers and blackbirds provided the music for the campsite where our families each had a caravan. Moss was the sofa where we did our homework–and giggled about that handsome teacher. Lying on our backs, we gazed at the endless sky through pine tree crowns and dreamed of future fame and fortune. Throwing cones at sturdy trunks, we complained about how our parents just didn’t understand us.

“Nooooo!” I stumble out of bed. “How—what happened? She can’t—nooo!” Passing by a mirror, I catch a glimpse of my contorted face, my heart-broken wails reaching far beyond the caravan walls.

The dike of a highway in construction served as our belvedere over the world. We pondered love and hate, peace and war. We wrote a letter to the US President, urging him to end all the fights on earth, as well as a letter of rejection to the marriage proposal from a French boy Chrissie had met during a holiday.

Amid the tumult of Monday morning class, I lay my head down on my arms. The school desk rattles under my sobbing body. “Hey, why are you laughing?” My classmate’s eyes reveal her shock as she sees my tears. The rector enters the room with a solemn face. “This weekend, a terrible accident took place…” Soon everyone is crying.

The portable radio in Chrissie’s bicycle basket broadcast our favorite pop songs. We sang along at the top of our lungs with Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, while we cycled to the park where we would eat our sandwiches and drink our Cokes. We spent hours recalling last Saturday’s experiences–our first-ever visit to a discotheque, where we had drunk beer and collapsed into fits of irrepressible laughter, nullifying our painstaking efforts to look mature through a lot of makeup.

A brief look—an everlasting image etches itself into my mind. That can’t be Chrissie—she never wore her hair like that. Where are her glasses? What’s that small Band-Aid doing on her left temple? My vision blurs, my legs give way.

In her moonlit bedroom, I was lying In Chrissie’s romantic four-poster; she slept on the couch. We talked far into the night about faith, heaven, and God. All of a sudden, we were overwhelmed with inexplicable joy. Unable to stop smiling, we decided that God must be in the room.

The enormous church is too small to contain all the mourners—the entire school is here. Among hundreds of teenagers, I’m anonymous. Who am I? I was Chrissie’s best friend. Now she’s gone.

We drank tea and burned incense. In the smoky room, Chrissie told me that she would meet a group of young Christians. Despite the divine experience we had shared, I didn’t want to join her. How could a loving God be in control, while the world was full of injustice and suffering? How could I believe in creation, while science claimed evolution?

The majestic sound of organ pipes fills the church. The mourners, hesitant at first, start singing in unison, “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want…”*

After that fateful night, when Chrissie died on the asphalt after being hit by a car, I was left to sail the stormy sea of life alone. Unmet expectations, bad choices, and hurtful disappointments tossed me around, dragging me in the wrong directions.

It was not until I met my Christian husband that I recognized that Jesus had always been there, ready to capture my heart, refill me with joy, and put another bubbling smile on my face.

I now cherish the countless treasures of faith that Christ bestowed upon me. Among them sparkles this gem of hope—Chrissie and I will meet again.


 

* Psalm 23, arranged by Francis Rous. Copyright: Public Domain.

Just Trust God for a New Day

my_just_trust_story_1-333x500

 

 

When writer and blogger Arabah Joy called for Just Trust Stories to support the release of her book Trust Without Borders, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about being barren and yet trusting God for a child. At the beginning of October, Arabah published my story on her blog.

“A New Day” tells about the first morning after we met our daughter—the first morning after the last chapter in Destination Italy.


 

A New Day

Addis Ababa, November 26 2008, 5 a.m.

An amplified male voice awakens me. Lying on my back, eyes closed, I hear the call to prayer from the minaret of a local mosque. The melodious sounds wash over me while my sleepy mind retraces the journey that brought me to this Ethiopian hotel room.

More than four years ago, at the age of forty-three, I hoped for a child. One year later, the onset of early menopause crushed my hope. My womb would remain forever empty.

Meanwhile, my husband Jan and I had moved to Italy. Apparently, a child didn’t fit into God’s plan for our lives in this new country. But why had He planted the love for a child inside of me? I struggled to understand.

Then one day, God touched my heart through a sermon.

Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;

break forth into singing and cry aloud,

you who have not been in labor!

                                   —Isaiah 54:1 ESV

Although the pastor was referring to birthing spiritual children through preaching the Gospel, I felt God promising us a real child. I meditated about the women in the Bible who became pregnant in their old age—Sarah, Elisabeth—and decided to give my desperate desire to God, simply trusting that His will be done.

Several months later, something shifted inside me, and a new longing came to life: to mother any child, no matter whether by birth or otherwise. I had pondered adoption previously, but fearing it would be too difficult, I set it aside. Now it was as if Someone had pressed a seed firmly into the soil of my heart, and this seed germinated. Patiently, I let the sprout grow until I was sure it was viable before I shared it with Jan. He agreed that we should begin the adoption procedure. We knew that if it were God’s will, we would overcome any problem.

As we moved forward in the adoption process, we felt God guiding us at every step. To our great joy, we were approved for adoption despite our age; Jan was fifty-six and I, forty-five. A prophetic word led us to the right adoption agency—one that was willing to consider our preference for a girl and licensed to work in Ethiopia, a country to which we felt strongly drawn.

When they told us of seven-year-old Aisha, we accepted without a moment’s hesitation. After another six months, the adoption process was complete.

Yesterday, we arrived in Addis Ababa and went to the orphanage to meet our daughter. Two and a half years after God’s promise, we wrapped our arms around our girl—the most beautiful gift of God.

A movement next to me calls me back to the present. I open my eyes to gaze at Aisha. Last night, after we invited her into the “big bed,” she happily fell asleep right away. Although murmuring and stirring, she’s still sleeping.

Hoping to nod off again, I roll over on my side.

Suddenly, I feel a child’s arm around my neck. I turn my head and meet two wide-awake eyes above a beaming smile.

Not wanting to awake Jan, we sneak out of bed; I beckon her into the bathroom. I whisper and gesticulate, trying to transcend the language barrier that still separates us. “Too early.” I point at an imaginary watch. “Sleep.” I fold my hands against my cheek.

Aisha follows my gaze to the bed, then shakes her head. She takes my hand and leads me to the window where she pulls back the curtain and triumphantly points outside. Lifting up my weary eyes to the pale sky, I concede. It’s dawn.

I look at my daughter’s face, which sparkles with anticipation of this new day, her new life.

My exhaustion gives way to love, and I kneel down to hold her tight. Then she says it—the one word we both know and have longed for. “Mama.”

Overwhelmed by God’s faithfulness, I realize it is indeed a brand new day.

Two of a Kind*

cat and dog“Max, no! Go back.”

I groaned as I struggled in vain to push our Golden Retriever back inside the house. He lunged at the cat, which narrowly escaped climbing the nearest tree. Her hisses and snarls mingled with Max’s staccato barks.

Why did Vincent ever get this dog? I told him it would go after Molly.

Using my husband’s favorite ham, I managed to lure Max back into the house.

After cuddling a purring Molly, I headed for the car. Two pairs of gleaming eyes stared at me through the car’s side window.

“Okay, boys. Let’s get you back to your Mom and Dad.”

Sweat beads had formed on my forehead. I switched on the air-conditioning and eyed the eight-year-old twins in the rear-view mirror.

“Why do dogs and cats always fight, Grandma?” asked Jason.

“Because they’re different kinds of creatures, I guess. They don’t speak the same language.”

“They don’t talk, Grandma,” he scoffed. “They just hiss and bark at each other.”

“Yeah,” added Harold, his twin. “Just like you and Grandpa. But you don’t climb a tree!” They rolled with laughter.

“Watch your mouths, young men. Don’t make fun of me.” But a smile made its way up my face at the image of my sixty-five-year-old self, sitting on a branch, hissing at my husband.

The kids were right; Vincent and I squabbled a lot. For no apparent reason, I would grumble, or he would raise his voice.

I sighed as I merged the car into the highway traffic. It’s probably what forty years of marriage do to a couple.

Vincent’s work had always been demanding. I homeschooled our two daughters and later, combined volunteer work with a busy social schedule. Vincent had never developed any hobbies, so when he retired five years ago, he expected me to spend most of my time with him. I wasn’t ready to give up my activities; spending time with my husband was just one more item on my agenda.

Feeling neglected, he bought Max so that he would have a friend around when I was busy. Still, I felt constant pressure to entertain my husband.

Maybe we never really adapted to this new phase in life.

Grandma?” Jason interrupted my thoughts. “If God made both cats and dogs to live in our homes, why are they so different?”

“Good question, honey. I think they both have a role to play in people’s lives. But their roles are different. Cats are quiet company. They can stay home alone. Dogs can be real buddies, but they need more attention.”

“Why doesn’t God help them to understand each other?”

“Well, maybe they would get along better, if they were able to listen to Jesus.”

“So why don’t you and Grandpa listen to Jesus?” asked Harold. “You’re the same kind, aren’t you? It should be even easier for you to be friends.”

I almost missed the exit. “Harold! How Grandpa and I are getting along, is none of your business.”

The boys were quiet until we reached our destination. In the silence, thoughts about my marriage gnawed at my mind. Maybe it is time for a change. But how?

***

Upon my return, I telephoned a fellow volunteer to confirm tonight’s meeting. As I waited for her to answer my call, I realized that the house was empty. Vincent was probably walking with Max, now that the worst heat of the day was over. Or he took the dog for a swim. I smiled–they made a good pair.

Suddenly, a thought popped up. Why don’t you surprise Vincent with a dinner for two?

When I got my friend’s voice mail, I heard myself saying, “Hello, it’s Martha. I…uhm…I can’t make it tonight. Sorry. I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye.”

***

I just finished a garden-grown bouquet when Vincent came back. I quickly reached for the lighter.

“Max, no!” The dog stormed into the living room and was about to ruin my long dress with his filthy paws.

“Sorry dear, I didn’t know you were home.” Vincent entered as I lit the last candle. His eyes scanned the set table. “What–?”

“Surprise!”

“But…why?”

I wrapped my arms around his waist. “Because we’re two of a kind. And I love you.”

Vincent enveloped me in a powerful hug. “I love you too, darling.” He kissed the top of my head.

I looked down to see Molly brushing up against Max, who sat peacefully on the floor, wagging his tail.

 


 

*Another article (fiction) that I submitted to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge. The topic was “Cat and Dog.”

Spiritual Desert

image

The year following my baptism in 2005, I suffered from a depression. I nourished wounds from the past, questioned present pains, and tried to solve my problems through introspection and motivational self-talk. I was lost in an area run dry–until God spoke to me through Palm 63.

He said, “Cling to Me. I am the Answer to all your questions, the Solution to every problem.”

It was my breakthrough. Pride and bitterness dissolved as I reached out to Him and surrendered my all.

He healed me and led me out of my spiritual desert.

Psalm 63 is still important to me, especially verse 8.

My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.

It has become the anchor that holds me close to the Source of Life.

Inspired by Psalm 63, I wrote the following haibun.

——————

I’m walking–no, trudging.

Where am I? 

My feet trip over a rock hidden under the cover of darkness. Branches slap my face, thorns scratch my skin. A sharp pain shoots through my hands and knees when they hit the rough ground. 

Moaning, I get back on my feet and stumble on.

Where’s the path?

My breath comes in raw gasps. Bitterness burns my mouth, dry despair my soul.

Water.

Evil reaches for my legs, encircles my spinning thoughts. It weaves a web of lies–I’m stuck. I squirm, I twist. Deceiving threads tighten around my heart.

Help

A Voice calls my name. I hear
and cling to Him. Praise!
All’s calm, I’m free, my path’s clear.

The Healing of the Ten

image

Goedemorgen! Good morning! Buon giorno!

Speaking multiple languages is a blessing–most of the time. Sometimes it is confusing. I’ve Dutch, English, and Italian Bibles. Which one do I read today?

Italian, my third language, has become our daughter’s first. My husband and I speak Dutch most of the time. I write and read mostly in English.

As I shared in last week’s post, having to communicate in second or third languages can leave me insecure and frustrated. Often I feel like Moses. “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he [Moses] said, “ Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” (Exodus 14:12-13).

It’s even harder for my husband, Jan. God has blessed him with a creative mind and with visionary, planning, and building capabilities. However, linguistic abilities are not among his greatest talents. Yet God uses him in Italy to preach, teach, and counsel. His Italian isn’t perfect, but people are edified and encouraged by his messages. God’s messages.

Every now and then though, eyebrows raise and mouths fall agape.

“Now Jesus healed ten lepri. How many did come back to Him?”

I heard someone chuckle as Jan met eyes with the people in the room. “Only one! Out of ten lepri, only one returned and believed.”

A giggle. Another one. Suddenly, it dawned on me. Joy filled the place as we all burst into laughter and explained to Jan that the Italian word for lepers is lebbrosi. Lepri are hares.