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.

For an aerial view of Civita di Bagnoregio, watch this short video on Youtube.

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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.