This time of year, at the peak of the tourist season, think of L’Aquilano, and more broadly, of the Gran Sasso National Park, and the thought of camping in the wilderness becomes a mouth-watering prospect. So, here we are! Thousands of us, locals, visitors and volunteers, camping around every inch of open space in the area.
Many sleep with their clothes on. Yes, of course, this is one of the coldest places in Italy, but that is not the reason for keeping clothed in the sleeping hours of the night, even in the cool of the Abruzzese summer.
The reason? Fear … This is a camping tale with a difference.
For months now, this piece of the earth has rattled everything that sits above it. Statistics tally the tremors at more than 4000 of various magnitudes, and three times since the 6th of April 2009, the quakes have been powerful enough to leave a tail of death and destruction in their wake. For my first night in the camp, the induction included 20 tremors, giving a sensation akin to living on a boat. At times pleasant, comparable to lying on a massaging chair, but at times, most prevailing was the sea-sickness feeling of being unable to keep balanced and still.
For us blow-ins, the tents and open skies offer safety and security, nothing can really fall on our heads, but for those who lived through the 6/4/09, 3.32am, 7.6 of the Richter scale quake clearly a different story. Accompanying every tremor screams of panic, aimless running, people fainting and cries of help for a recurring trauma.
For many this was the most predictable of earthquakes. After all, together with California and Japan, Italy is the place most prone to seismic events on earth. Nonetheless, no one was prepared for the big one. Why the complacency? That’s another story. Suffice to say that as a result of this one 56,000 people have become homeless, 26,000 now living in 130 camps (initially 135) around a wide area close to the Gran Sasso. The rest have fled to the coast of Abruzzo or other parts of Italy to be hosted by family and friends.
Since May Day 2009 I’ve been sporadically coming to these areas to relief other workers from their duties for a day. It may well have been a twist of fate that I should have begun full-time volunteer work in one of the camps on World Refugee Day. The scene … rows of tents, the Red Cross and other well-known NGOs, military and civilian personnel scratching around and a combination of humour and despair all around. Where had I seen that before?
Working in the camp can be physically and mentally testing, but amazingly rewarding all the same. For the main, my work consists of 10 hour shifts offering care and organising leisure activities for children and youths from 0 to 16 years of age. The rest of the time is filled with odd jobs like erecting or repairing tents, washing pots, digging holes, fixing and re-fixing stuff, occasionally providing informal counselling, philosophising on life, the universe and everything, and sporadically wondering in the villages to gain a closer understanding of what a ‘natural’ disaster is capable of dishing out to us mortals, but importantly, listening to the stories of the locals who, from time to time, wonder around in the ruins of their streets, villages and homes.
One early evening Alessia and I wondered off into the now uninhabited historic part of Coppito. In Piazza Olmetto we met Signor Gino, a sprightly 78 years old man and his four-legged friend Fiocco. Gino was more than ready for a chat and Fiocco eager for some attention.
After the usual introductions, Gino gave us a detailed account of how his father saved him from the earthquake. He woke to the tremors watching the lampshade above his head rotating out of control, the heavy wooden wardrobe going from left to right and its doors opening and shutting of their own accord. Initially dumbfound, soon Gino realised what was happening, but given the force of the tremor, he sat on the bed resigned to his fate.
Outside he could hear other residents screaming, calling out for unaccounted family and neighbours. Gino heard his father’s advice from when he was a twelve year old twig: “Gino, remember not to run in an earthquake situation. Walk slowly, measure your steps and during the tremor, find shelter under a door-frame. Wait there until safe to move”. Gino did just that, eventually reaching the safety of the piazza and rejoining his family and neighbours.
While recounting the event, Gino’s eyes welled up with tears. He told us that he only cried three times in his life, this was the fourth. The aftermath of the quake has been a real test for him. His life in retirement turned on its head in just 20 seconds. Gino told us that he wasn’t able to sleep anymore, that he kept everything in his head and was always tuning in to every sound and movement around him. As we were preparing to leave him, Gino told us that he enjoyed the chat very much. We promised him to return to visit him another night.
On our way back to the camp, Alessia looked sad and overwhelmed. She is an excellent early childhood specialist and a psychology student. Alessia disclosed that she felt hopeless and unable to think what she could have done or do for Gino. I reassured her that she had done lots; she gave of her time and listened thoroughly to his story. Alessia replied “I don’t understand”.
The following evening Alessia and I decided to go back to Piazza Olmetto. Sure enough Gino and Fiocco were there. When Gino saw us he greeted us as old friends. “I knew you two would come” he hollered happily. I noted how well and rested he looked, he said “I feel great, I can’t explain how or why, but last night I slept like a log. I woke up at 9am this morning, much to the surprise of my wife and daughter”. I glanced over to Alessia, she too looked happy, a wide smile adorned her face. At that point I knew she understood.
In Paganica I wondered alone, on a day of some significance to me but ordinary to most. Not far from the epicentre of the major quake, the landscape there is reminiscent of how I imagine Armageddon to be. Standing in the ruins I wondered how it was possible that only five lives were lost in such devastation.
Stunned by the hallucinating scene I stood still for a while, another old man approached. His gait slow and grave of those who carry more than they can bear. No introductions or platitudes this time, he went straight into the conversation. At a point he turned to me with his facial muscles contracting to attempt a smile to conceal his haplessness and said: “You are still young, I hope this is a good lesson for you. We can spend many life times building what we think is important and it takes only 20 seconds for it to crumble like a biscuit”. He looked away, wished me luck and walked off. I don’t know if I understood, but this time it was me feeling that I could do nothing for him.
So, the camping experience goes on. I’ve committed myself to it at least until the end of August with the proviso, of course, that my physical and financial resources (damn money) make the distance. There is too much to learn here, too much to gain and in an oblique sort of a way so much to enjoy.
Aside from the human tragedy, the difficulties in managing the needs of a large camp, the politics that these situations bring, the dynamics of control, the useless bickering among peers, there are also many of the pieces of the puzzle that make a meaningful life. I moved out of a tent I shared with another seven souls into a small 2x2x1.5m igloo to make space for others, and to enjoy a bit of much needed solitude. In there I keep the bare minimum of worldly possessions and that is all I need. I enjoy the best sleeps I’ve had in years. There is no scarcity of food, but a real shortage of fresh stuff, everything is in tins, and yet, I eat like a caveman and feel great.
In the camp most things are shared, there is no real sense of private property; music, money, food, clothes, tools, books, computers, jokes, parents, grandparents and moods. When the heavens bring their daily dark clouds and the ubiquitous downpours, they also gift us with the most vivid rainbows overarching the whole camp. Then, everyone stands still ever so briefly, looking up for a while, perhaps contemplating on the beauty that surrounds us, and importantly, that the rainbow brightens our day but asks for nothing in return.
The motto most often used here is “L’Aquila tornera’ a volare”, that is, the Eagle will fly again. I’d like to think that the Eagle has never stopped from flying, its usual flight just disturbed somewhat. If we can take a little from each other, and mostly from the heavens, dark clouds, downpours and rainbows included, we may be able to continue on this voyage in which this Eagle can truly become a symbol of hope.