Life goes on: Christmas in Italy’s earthquake hit towns

The biggest fear for many residents in earthquake-struck central Italy is that their villages - farming communities with rich culture and centuries of history - will become ghost towns after deadly tremors left huge areas uninhabitable.

Life goes on: Christmas in Italy's earthquake hit towns
Destroyed homes. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Thousands were left homeless by three major quakes earlier this year, many are still living in 'containers' or prefabricated homes after months spent sleeping in tents or cars.

But they are determined to stay.

“People in San Pellegrino are strong, brave and resilient,” says Denise Abel, a British woman who has been living in the quake-hit  town for four years with her husband.

“There's a strong sense of community, and many refused to leave, needing to be with their animals and land.”

Abel's own home was severely damaged by the quakes, and her husband's work has been affected. He relies on the internet and phone, which have been erratic since the tremors.

“Christmas this year will be very different for us,” Abel tells The Local. “Usually our house is full of family who travel to us from Milan and from the UK. They will not be with us this year and we'll miss them, but we have good friends in San Pellegrino.”

Denise Abel's home before the earthquake. Photo: Private

In Italy, Christmas retains traditional roots, with family and religion often at the heart of the celebrations.

As well as destroying and damaging many homes, the earthquakes left many of the region's medieval churches unusable. One of the most significant cultural casualties was Norcia's Basilica di San Benedetto. Rubble and the crucifix from that church are on display in Rome's St Peter's Square over Christmas.

And in the affected towns, there has been a push to get things back to normal in time for the festive season.

“Norcia made a determined effort to reopen at least the Main Street before Christmas, with a ceremony to switch on some Christmas lights,” said Abel.

Amatrice. The Christmas tree has been lit up. This is how life returns, the future is under construction.

“This year our Christmas dinner will be in the communal tent, cooked by someone else! It will be the first time in my adult life I've not cooked for Christmas, which feels strange,” she adds.

Denise Abel's home after the tremors. Photo:Private

In Amatrice, the town which suffered the brunt of the casualties in August's quake, communal dinners will be held in the canteens which have been set up, with a celebration on Friday night, complete with Christmas music and decorations.

Just a week ago, a skydiving Santa descended on the town to distribute gifts and sweets among local children, an event which mayor Sergio Pirozzi said helped “normality return”, while admitting that Christmas would not be easy. He has asked each resident to bring a flower to the town's memorial on Christmas Day in order to remember the 299 quake victims.

Many of the towns are hosting Christmas markets to promote local produce, and all in all, over 150 initiatives have been set up to help residents over Christmas, both in the affected Le Marche region and the coastal cities where many displaced residents are staying.

Regional president Luca Ceriscioli said he was convinced that “no-one will be alone” this Christmas. “It's necessary to have a sense of community, and this message has been heard loud and clear, he said.”

Judith Mathias, another British expat who bought her home in San Ginesio 11 years ago, has been able to return to her home after spending several weeks in a hostel. She told The Local she had put up Christmas lights and decorated the living room, from where she will be speaking with family and friends at home over Skype.

“We want them to know we are OK this Christmas.”

“I've also made Christmas puddings to have along with delicious Italian seasonal delights and several bottles of Prosecco,” she added. “And there are lights up in the town too – San Ginesio is open for business!”

A woman sells panettone, Italian Christmas cake. Photo: Judith Mathias

Mathias said she has been impressed by the tireless work of firefighters and rescue workers, and by the resilience and warmth of the locals.

She recalls the fear after the first tremors: “Our house was originally a holiday home, and in July this year we moved here permanently with our lurcher dog, Shaun. It was such a beautiful place – then the earthquakes struck.

“After several nights sleeping in our car in our clothes, our house was deemed safe and we were settling back in and relaxing again when in October the tremors started again. Our house shook violently from side to side, at first we were unable to move, but we managed to get out with Shaun and an emergency bag we had kept by the door.”

As for what 2017 will hold, it's far from certain how long it will take to rebuild homes and get the local economy back to how it was. But both Abel and Mathias are determined to stay.

“We have been warmly welcomed by the Italians – who always want to stop and talk about our dog! – and the firefighters, volunteers and rescue workers from all over Italy have been amazing,” said Mathias.

Abel agrees. “This year has been a very difficult year for us, with Brexit worries as well as the earthquakes, but the firefighters and civil protection department have been real stars.

“We are determined to have a good Christmas, and that next year we will carry on with our life here.”

In San Ginesio, local shops are open for business. Photo: Judith Mathias

If you want to support the residents of towns affected by the earthquakes, the Valnerina Online website offers a good list of places where you can buy food from the area, in order to support local farmers and artisans.



Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.