Allie Stewart Photography
Allie Stewart Photography

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The Past Becomes Present

March 2017. 

This place is a story I am still learning how to tell, though I am not positive that I will ever figure it out. In fact, I am not fully convinced that this story is mine to tell, but I will attempt to find a narrative of it for the sake of testimony. 

I had been living in Italy for a little over two months at this point, the amount of time in which you think you know a place but have really only touched the surface. This destination was a point of travel that I had long awaited, which was humorous for how little I actually did know about it. The town was titled Ovindoli, a mountainside layering of residences in the region of Abruzzo. I had heard the name forever on the tips of tongues of my relatives, of my ancestors, but I had rarely spoken it for myself. Here I was, minimally speaking Italian and maximally optimistic, venturing to the town that my great grandfather was from, with nothing but Trip Advisor plans virtually stacked within my pocket. No one in my family had since returned to this place; in fact, I was the first to even return to Italy, which made me realize just how significant this moment was. It was about noon as I left my town of residence in Rome - titled Boccea - and left for the Termini station, scanning my seven euro ticket and climbing aboard a train to a place that I, despite research, knew nothing about. After arriving at the tiny hut of the Celano-Ovindoli train station, I stood with my backpack on my shoulders, glancing up at the mountain above me. It was completely silent. I began to peak around the station, around the corner store and coffee bar and colorful houses around me. No one was around. Finally, I ventured into another door of the train station. “Mi scusi?” I smiled through the glass wall between us. After a poorly-executed Italian conversation with a middle aged man of few words, he helped me conclude that my plan to go by cab from this town of Celano to Ovindoli, on the other side of the mountain, would never work. Why, you ask? Celano has three known cab drivers, with each of their names and phone numbers displayed on signage outside of the train station. One driver had recently quit out of frustration, the other had disconnected his phone number, and the last had the day off. While I can giggle at the misfortune of this circumstance now, I was left feeling very confused and hopeless in that moment. My trip to Ovindoli was only intended to last a day, and I still had many hours ahead, all with a massive mountain in the way of my view of the place my ancestors called home. Just as I started to assume that my day would consist of the dried apricots in my bag and a seated view next to the railway, I noticed something odd about halfway between the bright homes of the town and the top of the mountain: a castle. It was there, somewhere along my footprints tracing along the cobblestone streets, that I selected the most important decision I made while in Italy. I wove through the unknown streets, popping into a flower shop and a bakery to speak with locals, and continued my way upwards. About forty minutes later I found myself at the entrance of a medieval castle that seemed both extremely out of place in this town and also like it belonged nowhere else in the world but here. I pulled several Euros out of my pocket and handed them to a man in a booth, climbing up large stones as I entered the aging facade of the building. I was the only one inside, and if I thought that the center of town was quiet, this was a complete vacuum of space and time. I stepped up to the edge of the castle, as I was now atop the roof, peering over and noticing this view of what seemed like the entire world as I walked around the periphery. This town that I had never heard of, and would likely never return to, felt like an important part of me in those moments. It would never be my own to keep, but the images of it would be. I can still see the way the sun bounced off the puzzle pieces of the colors of buildings, the way the mountain sang the song of blues and the farms in the distance strummed green grasses. I can still see the leftover snow of the mountaintop that something in me guaranteed the citizens of Ovindoli, just on the other side, could see as well. I wondered how many times my ancestors had seen this snow, had seen this mountain, had guessed at what the town around the hill looked like. Moving through the castle, my mind was rooted in these possibilities. 

After leaving the medieval fortress and its spectacular views, I moved across the highest streets of Celano, finding soon that any plan that I had for dinner at the heavily-researched restaurants I had selected would become a bust. I suppose Wednesday simply wasn’t the day to go out for dinner in this town. I trekked through more streets until I decided that it would be best, in the golden hour of starting to lose sunlight, that I head back to the station. Once arrived, I walked into the coffee bar nearby and, before I could order an espresso, I started up a conversation with a group of old Italian men who had just gotten off work. They asked me where I was from, and were shocked to meet someone from outside of their town. They each confessed stories of their grandchildren leaving for America and never returning back to their Italian hometown, a narrative much like that of my great-grandfather. They told me they had each never strayed from Celano, and never expected to in the days ahead. Here, I found myself sharing Peroni with several men that reminded me so deeply of the person my great-grandfather and his friends could have been. We sat there for another hour or two simply speaking about our lives, all the while dismantling the stereotypes that we had held onto without even realizing it. When my train began approaching in the distance, I hugged each of them goodbye, knowing this exact moment would never come close to repeating itself. It was meant for this place and time only and, for that, it was undeniably precious. 

I will always dream of the blue mountains and green lands and houses of every shade. I will always wake with a certain notion that those cobblestone streets were meant to be walked by feet as foreign to them as my own, all the while Italian grandmothers watched from above, questioning if I even knew what those moments meant. I’m not sure that I ever fully will, but I’d like to think that in the days ahead, I will comprehend more about those memories than ever before. The experience did not end when I took the train home that night. It began.

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Allie Stewart