Bernalda, or “Vrrnall” as it is known in local dialect, is a town of about twelve thousand residents. It is not too small, not too large, a comfortable size for most. It is strategically-located within easy driving distance of larger cities; Matera, Taranto, Bari, Potenza. In fact it is a constant battle for local businesses to hold onto their customers, with attractive options nearby such as the huge chain supermarkets full of piles of merchandise; so large that the women working there wear roller skates to get around. Many an inspiration to start a business here ends in apathy; there are too many better-placed competitors nearby. There has not been a movie theater in town since about 1986 when the old building, which hosted traveling plays as well as a sporadically-used movie screen, closed its doors. That was a sad day, but we are used to making our own fun here.
An indispensable part of the day is the passeggiata, which is a slow human parade that moves back and forth along the main street from about dusk until midnight. You need to be dressed for it, because you will be inspected and judged accordingly. Bernalda is more like a town in Puglia–built on a plateau and gridlike–than a Lucanian town, and its main street is unusually straight and its sidewalks wide and accommodating. When I first came here I was amazed at the number of people who would dress elegantly and set out alone or hand-in-hand or in groups to trudge, slowly, up and down the street for hours. It is a wonderful testing ground for that new outfit, new hairstyle, official declaration of a newly-formed couple. The shops are open and tables are set out, lights are on in windows showing the newest arrivals in clothes and shoes. It is an endless mixer to which everyone is invited. It is one of those aspects of Italian life that I have observed with interest but never participated in. I have my puritan work ethic after all, and there is always work to be done, and walking slowly will not accomplish anything.
I ask myself–actually many Bernaldesi ask themselves–on a regular basis, “With two sidewalks of equal width on both sides of the street, why do folks walk on one side only?” This may have many answers, none of which fully explains the phenomenon, and none are conclusive. What is stranger still is that every few years, unfathomably, one sidewalk will be abandoned in favor of the other. Suddenly, everyone will be slowly proceeding in identical fashion on the shunned side of the main street, and the favored side will be empty of people, bits of paper littering the pavement. Crickets. Like the mysterious flipping of the magnetic poles, one day it happens with no warning.
What I have always admired, observing longingly from my American independence and love of empty spaces, is the constant socializing that people here do so elegantly. It is an entire town partaking in a slow dance, a waltz which brings them out and among each other, an evening “grounding.” It isn’t so important whether the dance is proceeding up one side or down the other, as long as everyone hears the music.
painting: “Il Basento” oil on canvas, 22 x 19 inches, 2011