Memories of Ruoti

About two years ago I was asked by a young friend in Italy to send her some reminiscences of a summer spent in her home province some years before she had been born:

I spoke to a member of the cultural association of my town , called “Gruppo Folck” , with who I collaborate last year .
This year he is working on the excavation of San Giovanni , and he is seeing for the italian translation of prof. Small’s volumes.
We’d love to know about your experience about the excavation and about the passed time in Ruoti.
Is possible for you to send a little piece of text describing it? We’d love to have a valid opinion of a external person.
Make me know and if you want, I’d like to have more information about your professionale career. Are you still interested in archeology?
Thanks for your attention and your availability.
Maria

My Italian is abysmal, but I replied:

Sarei felice di scrivere un testo su quell’estate. Ho bei ricordi della valle e del Dottore Small. Scriverò qualcosa (in inglese) nei prossimi giorni. E ‘un onore per aiutare con il progetto.

And, in return:

Maria
I wiil enjoy about it.
Thank you very much!

So, I took a day and remembered and composed “a valid opinion of a external person” of the beauty of that Italian summer in the valley beside Ruoti . . .

 

Ciao Maria

Ho scritto un piccolo libro di memorie di quell’estate a Ruoti. Ho incluso particolari ricordi dei professori S. e. B. e alcune riflessioni su come Ruoti continua a influenzare me tanti anni dopo. Non sono sicuro se è esattamente quello che vuoi. Per favore fatemi sapere se vuoi qualcosa di più o meno lungo o disposti in modo diverso.

Il testo è di seguito in inglese:

 

Memories of Ruoti
John Richardson

In the summer of 1983, at the age of twenty-one, I arrived in Bagni di San Cataldo as a student in the University of Alberta Classics field class in Roman Archaeology at San Giovanni di Ruoti. I had just finished my B.A. majoring in English and Classics and was about to enter the Master’s program specializing in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Actually getting to “do” archaeology was a childhood dream come true.

I had not met Dr. Alistair Small before I arrived, but Dr. Robert Buck had taught me Latin. In my second undergraduate year, Dr. Buck had taken our class of raw Latin students from reciting “amo, amas . . .” to Book Six of the Aeneid. For driving us so hard, I will forever be grateful to Dr. Buck.

Reading Aeneas’ journey to the underworld in Latin left me fascinated with the very idea of Cumae and the Sybil’s Cave. One day early that summer, as Dr. Small was driving the project’s van with a number of students crammed inside, he called out that we had a free weekend coming up. “Is there anywhere anyone would particularly like to go?”

I immediately shouted out “Cumae!” from the very back seat.

I saw Dr. Small cock his head to the right and then he said “Really? Cumae? We’ll have to see what we can do.”

Dr. Small said to me later that he was glad of my suggestion as, when he had been an undergraduate, a visit to Cumae had been a transformative experience for him. And he did, indeed, arrange a weekend at the American Virgilian Society’s beautiful Villa Virgiliana in Cumae. I floated through the ruins and lounged in the Villa’s library, translating Aeneas’ prayer to Apollo into English verse. I look back on that visit as transformative as well.

I also look back and realize that Dr. Small was a bit of a force of nature, managing the complicated archaeology of San Giovani, wrangling the motley crew of students and teaching them with a quiet but undeniable authority. I was certainly not an outstanding student that summer. I was not a patient or meticulous excavator, but the experience under the tutelage of Drs. Small and Buck and of the dedicated staff is something I will be forever grateful for. It was an honour and a privilege to be a small part of that amazing project. The next year I was further honoured when Dr. Buck sat down across from me as a member of the examining committee which granted me the degree of Master of Arts.

On weekends, excursions were arranged for the students, but our weekdays were spent right there on that slope opposite that beautiful hilltop town, Ruoti. The summer was very hot — I can only remember a day or two with rain. Each day we could look up from our trenches and admire the town. Each evening we could look across the valley of the Fiumara di Avigliano at the lights of Ruoti.

At some point in our studies each of us was sent to Ruoti for a day or two to work in what was called “The Pot House.” This was a simply descriptive name — pot shards were classified there — but we were all amused that in English a “pot house” is a term for a house where one would go to secretly smoke marijuana. I remember the Pot House being a shady, cool relief from the heat of digging.

Our usual days would begin as the sun was rising, with some bread and jam and wonderful strong coffee ladled into cups from a huge cauldron. As each student finished, he or she would set off down to the dig site. We’d be a long straggling line, some walking alone, some in groups of two or three. By the time we reached the site and spread out to our assigned trenches, the temperature began to rise rapidly.

We would scrape and dig and document until about noon when a car would arrive from Ruoti with what I remember to be the finest lunches possible: fresh bread, Crema Bel Paese cheese in foil wrappers, juicy tomatoes and prosciutto. We would make ourselves sandwiches and wash them down with homemade wine from the farmer’s cellar. To young students from Western Canada in 1983 prosciutto was strange and exotic and a few always declined their share. This was to my benefit as I often had an extra helping or two and developed a life long love of prosciutto.

After lunch most of us would slowly make our way back up the hill. On some days some would brave the afternoon sun and earn a little money by staying on to work a few extra hours. Sometimes we’d stop at a restaurant in Zippariello for limonata and enjoy the breeze and the view of Ruoti from a balcony. Afternoons were spent resting, chatting, exploring the woods, and waiting for dinner.

Dinner was always wonderful, and our server, Donata, was a delight. In fact, our hosts — all of our hosts, the people of the valley — were warm and generous. I remember in particular a young boy, Sebastiano, who spent time with a few of us, visiting, smiling a lot, although he spoke no English and we knew vanishingly little Italian.

I carried a little Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera with me all the time, but, in those days of film, I took what now seems a ridiculously small number of photos. Most of them are blurry and grainy, but those photos, after twenty-five years, were the basis of a series of twenty-four paintings which I exhibited a few years ago in Edmonton.

Sometime after returning home I got to know a few old members of the Canadian Army’s Loyal Edmonton Regiment, veterans of the Liberation of Italy in World War Two. In conversation we learned that when they had been my age, forty years earlier, they had passed Ruoti, perhaps walked the same roads I had walked. The connection between Canada and Ruoti runs deeper, it seems, than just the memories of a few Canadian archaeology students.

After that summer, I got my Master’s degree, published articles and a few poems. I painted and spent twenty-one years working in the family business. I started a family of my own. I remain very interested in archaeology, but, unlike some of my colleagues that summer, I never pursued it as a career. Today I paint and write, translate Old English and Latin poetry, and spend a great deal of time visiting friends and neighbours. I think, in many ways my life today is much like those days on the hillside across from Ruoti. I have been shaped by those days. Today I excavate memories, my own and others, rather than Roman stones, but Ruoti still shines for me on its hilltop across that sunny valley.

 

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One comment on “Memories of Ruoti

  1. This is very beautiful and evocative. How lucky you were to have had that experience and how lucky we are that you’ve shared it.

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