These weeks here are definitely turning out to be less than solitary. Yesterday my new friend Angelo and I went to Norcia, which was hard hit by a fierce earthquake more than three years ago. Angelo’s a driver; he’s got a Mercedes van and he takes groups around Italy and into Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. He lives in a church building in the next town over with his constant companion, a sweet little dog name Titi.
After days of blazing sunshine, yesterday showed Umbria’s moody, foggy winter side. We climbed into the van, with the dog happily riding between us and headed south. Perugia’s commercial suburbs gave way to mountains. Somewhere near Spoleto you go left and into a 4 km (roughly 2.5 miles) tunnel. When you emerge, you’re in the Valnerina district.
It wasn’t an idle trip. Angelo knew some people who helped build the first new structure in Norcia since the earthquake—a lab and public rooms for Norcia’s kids. The building’s nice enough. What was remarkable about it was how it came together—a unique collaboration between Benedictine monks, Harvard Medical School psychiatrists, and the National Italian-American Foundation (NIAF). The Harvard guys are Richard Mollica, Director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma and Eugene Augusterfer, of Harvard’s Global Mental Health Center, and they specialize in helping traumatized people deal with the aftermath.,
After the quake, the foundation sent the Harvard-NIAF team to the area. But how would they connect with the traumatized locals? They found a connection in Padre Basil, a Benedictine originally from Arizona, who moved to Umbria and immersed himself fully the community. The three men met and the Americans got to know the Norcia community. It’s a proud little city with a long gastronomic heritage. Its pork products are famous throughout Italy, so much so that a slang term for a pork butcher from these parts is “norcino.”
Eventually, the Harvard people, Padre Basil and NIAF decided to build the center, with the foundation kicking in $450,000 from its earthquake relief fund. The town’s high school was damaged by the quake and the kids attend classes in borrowed spaces. They needed labs for their science classes, a space for gatherings, and spaces for counseling. That’s where the Italian Trauma Center came in and helped coordinate the efforts to build it.
The three men share a few characteristics: They’re lively, extremely friendly and just ooze kindness and concern. Those traits were on full display as people gathered for the ribbon cutting. Officials, local cops, disaster recovery people, and the curious milled around beforehand. The project’s architect, Mario Solinas from Perugia smiled wanly as he looked around and told me, “Can you imagine? This is the first new building in Norcia since the earthquake and it took private funds and initiative to build it.” Others nodded and compared the slack recent government efforts to the aftermaths of previous tremors.
The pre-inaugural gathering soon got a big energy injection as high school kids trooped up the road, their boisterous voices carrying far as they enjoyed a morning off from classes. Soon we were all rounded up as the school principal, the architect, local officials, and the Harvard and Trauma Center teams gathered to cut the ribbon.
Both national anthems were played, the Italians telling one another, “it’s the American one. No, we don’t have to know the words.” When the Italian anthem, officially called “Il Canto degli Italiani” came on, the kids and their teachers sang along boisterously, cheering one another on and challenging themselves on sheer volume.
Finally, the speeches, which were mercifully short, and short of boasts. If anything, the theme was community, cooperation, and survival. Fun fact: After disappearing for years, the local river reappeared after the quake. The speakers took it as a sign of rebirth.
They aren’t out of the woods yet. Behind the center is a still-incomplete new school. The kids may be able to use it next academic year. Or not. Here’s hoping. I have a feeling Padre Basil won’t ease up on his efforts to get it finished.