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A Glass of Wine and a Shibboleth For Transplanted Peoples

A Glass of Wine and a Shibboleth For Transplanted Peoples

Rosato in Apulia

Apulia is one of Italy’s largest wine-producing regions and, my family being oenophiles, we relished the presence of good wine during our visit. Accompanying the excellent Pugliese food were a number of regional wines, but the most memorable was a Salice Salentino rosato, made from the Negroamaro grape.

We tried the wine in the town of Calimera, which we visited in order to experience Griko culture. The Griko are a small community in Southern Italy of Greek origin who retain their Hellenic culture and language. Having Greek heritage ourselves, we visited Calimera (which means “good day” in Greek) to ascertain how recognizable this culture is today. The largest concentration of Griko people is in Apulia’s Salentine peninsula—Italy’s heel—and Bovesia, in Calabria, the toecap of the boot. They represent the last clear living proof of a Greek presence in Southern Italy that dates back to the 8th century BC.

I had no idea what to expect. Would it be ouzo and ‘opa’s around every street corner, or only the hint of a Hellenized surname here and there? Upon entering the town’s environs, a sign read ‘kalos irthate’, (Greek for ‘welcome’), which boded well.

Calimera has a makeshift museum dedicated to preserving and showcasing Griko culture, and it was to this we headed. The small town was bathed in lazy, golden afternoon sunshine. A middle-aged, balding man with sun-weathered skin greeted us in the entrance hall, seemingly surprised to see any visitors. His Italian welcome was met by a Greek response, and, while evidently taken aback, he smiled and extended another greeting, this time in the Griko language. As he began explaining the museum’s layout in a vernacular both bizarre and familiar, we realized we could understand one another. His name was Gaetano, and he left us to inspect the collection of exhibits—farm tools, traditional and festive clothing, and, most enlightening of all, letters, poetry, and songs, written in Griko—crammed into the few rooms available.

Soon after, he beckoned us into a small garden and was eager to offer us each a glass of chilled local Salice Salentino rosato: ruby quartz in color, fruity, and simultaneously refreshing and full-bodied. We managed to a hold conversation, which represented an instantaneous marker of kinship, a kind of shibboleth we’d been subconsciously hoping for.

It was clear that Gaetano was proud of his heritage, and also of the rosé he had offered us. While undoubtedly both man and wine were local, very much products of the Salentine Peninsula, they share a foreign root. Viticulture in Southern Italy was introduced by ancient Greek colonists in the 8th century BC, the cultural forebears of Gaetano and his kin. Like the wine, the people have developed in their own way into something unique and Italian.

But sadly, there is a sense of loss, almost decay, which pervades the culture. Gaetano claimed that the Griko identity has been eroding for centuries as a result of gradual Italianization, and more recently due to Mussolini’s aggressive nationalism and the onset of mass media and globalization. Consequently, the number of self-identified Grikos is dwindling. The population today stands at around 80,000, he told us, swirling the last of the rosato in his glass, and far fewer that actually speak the language. But Gaetano also spoke of a popular movement to introduce Griko language classes into the school curriculum in Griko villages across Italy’s deep south, in a bid to preserve and strengthen the culture.

Leaving Calimera, I surveyed the scene: a sleepy, sun-bleached town, rows of gnarled, ancient olive trees, cicadas chiming in arrhythmic, atmospheric song. In the town’s quiet, leafy park stands an ancient Attic burial stone, a gift from the Greek government to recognize the region’s Hellenic heritage, inscribed with the words ‘Zeni su en ise ettù sti Kalimera’ (‘You are not a stranger here in Calimera’). After such a fine welcome, I felt as if the words were directed right at me.

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