Easter in Umbria

Thanks again to Lynn for chronicling our adventures in Benano! 

Easter is a big holiday in Italy, marked by a week-long series of events in every town and small village.

DSC_0189On Palm Sunday, the small village of Benano kicked off the week with a special ceremony. The priest arrived from nearby Castel Viscardo just before dark on a cold rainy evening. Despite the cold, his feet were clad only in plain brown sandals such as we imagine Jesus would have worn.

The priest walked around the village stopping in houses where the residents had invited him to provide a special blessing. After a few words of conversation and a brief prayer in each house, the priest returned to Benano’s central courtyard. Here, he blessed the eggs that village residents had brought out and “palm leaves” which looked suspiciously like olive branches from the local hillside. The priest led us in a responsive reading and hymn that was familiar to me, even though I don’t speak Italian. Following this, we had a short procession to the Benano chapel for the Palm Sunday mass.

On Monday night, we attended a wonderful Pasqua (Easter) concert at the Oriveto Duomo. The inside of the church was beautifully lit because the concert was televised. This offered the added benefit for us to see the art and architecture better than ever before. The concert was performed by members of the Roma Philharmonic, featuring Uto Ughi, a world famous violinist. The music by Beethoven, Mozart and others in that setting was truly heavenly.

I’m sure there were other events during the week, but our next experience was on Good Friday. About 9:30 pm, we drove to the nearby village of Castel Viscardo. All the lights on the main street were turned off, so the only light was provided by red and white candles in windows and sitting on the sidewalks. From a distance, we heard, via an outdoor loudspeaker, the mass that was being celebrated in the church. When it ended, a procession from the church was led by residents dressed as Roman soldiers.

The soldiers were followed by a man dressed as Jesus, carrying a large cross. Behind Jesus were people dressed as his disciples and family, followed by more soldiers, the local priests and three people carrying large decorated crosses. Next came a brass band playing a tune that somehow reminded us of the movie, “The Godfather.” And behind the band walked almost all the rest of the Castel Viscardo residents, carrying candles, pushing baby carriages and shushing their small children into silence. The procession continued all the way through Castel Viscardo down the main street. We straggled along behind in awe of the pageantry.

On Saturday, the day before Easter, one of our Benano residents came to the door bearing two gifts: a bowl of three hard boiled eggs that had been blessed by the Priest on Palm Sunday, and a wedge of the sweet Easter bread that is traditionally eaten on Easter morning.

Tomorrow, of course, Italians will attend church for the traditional Easter mass. We have invited some friends over for a brunch, which will include the blessed eggs and a special homemade Easter cheese bread. I found the recipe on the King Arthur Flour website, and bought most of the right ingredients at a local store (at least, I hope I bought the right items—the labels are in Italian and the quantities are in grams). Wish me luck!

Buona Pasqua.

Good Friday, Eggs, and Easter

One day last week, our neighbors told me that … the priest (??) … Benano at 5:00 …. blessing … (??) … eggs (!??) … on Good Friday afternoon. (This is about how it goes when you try to converse in a language that you’re not very good at.) So I wasn’t clear about what was going to happen — and if they had really said something about eggs — but I was determined to be there for whatever was going to happen.

At the appointed time, a crowd of women gathered with the priest in the piazza right below our front steps. We chatted while getting ready to do whatever we were going to do with all those eggs. We soon understood that we were to have brought our own eggs, so Paul ran back inside and returned with a bowlful of eggs and, in the ensuing conversation, got a couple of women to agree that it would be fine for him to take these pictures of the blessing.

After the event - retrieving our eggs and wishing each other a "Buona Pasqua"

Eggs blessed, we were ready for our next Easter ritual: the Good Friday procession. The choice between the various processions in the area wasn’t an easy one. The woman in the hardware store had told us earlier in the day that her village, Castel Viscardo, had a beautiful procession that included people dressed as Roman centurions. In the neighboring village, Torre Alfina, the headliner was to be the local marching band. We opted for the procession in Orvieto, figuring it would be the grandest.

There are no instruction manuals for these things. We just followed the crowd to a church that featured neither marching bands nor Roman centurions. Instead, we became part of a procession that we wanted to observe. People were handing out candles, and every time I put mine back in a box, someone else would come along and put another candle in my hand. So the procession got started and we managed to drift off and find some gelato instead.

Easter Mass back in Benano was one that we’ll never forget. After six weeks here, many of our neighbors are now as eager as I am to engage in whatever conversation I’m able to muster. They warmly greeted us and effusively congratulated me on my progress with Italian, confirming that half the fun of learning this language is the affirming responses from ordinary Italians. When a neighbor invited us to her house for coffee after church, we gladly accepted and had a wonderful conversation – all but a few words in Italian – and learned more about this lovely place I can now call home.

Neighbors, Good People, Friends

I thought I was imagining things. I heard shoveling outside while I was snowbound without shovel or boots. I stuck my head out the door and realized I had been hearing the sound of goodness and generosity. Our neighbor was shoveling the heaviest snow I’ve ever seen off my steps and porch. My frustration at my inability to articulate my thanks is measureless.

We had a surprise snow storm yesterday. I was in class in Orvieto when it began. By 11:15, they closed the school. My hilly and winding drive home was getting harrowing when I had to stop – for the first time on my drive – because the few cars in front of me could not get up a hill. I had a chance to look around, and discovered I was almost in front of a school with a parking lot. It was the one and only good place within walking distance of Benano where I could leave my car safely. I had no way of knowing it when I parked the car, but the rest of my route was virtually undriveable. I counted my blessings with each snowy step home.


When it finally stopped snowing last night, I stuck the umbrella out on our porch to measure the snowfall (and maybe some drifting). The tip went down 7.5 inches. I couldn’t see the steps — there was just a slope down to the piazza. In the first picture (the one of my hero with the shovel), you can see my footprint in the right foreground. The wet snow topped my ankles easily.

And that wasn’t the end of it. Mid-morning, there was a knock at the door and the woman on the porch began, in perfect English, “You don’t know me…” She’s a neighbor I didn’t know I had. She and her husband live in Rome and have a house here that they visit on weekends. Because her sister was visiting, they happened to be here yesterday, and got stuck in the snow. One of the full-time residents told her about the English-speaking woman staying all by herself in the big house (that would be me). My new friend brought a few New Yorkers and New York Review of Books to help me while away the hours.

I’m surrounded by good people and new friends. I feel very lucky.