The characteristics historically used to define the Abruzzesi are ‘forte e gentile’ (strong & kind), a description first penned by the C19th Italian journalist Primo Levi. But this defining blend of strength & kindness exists to this day, and the reach of its charm exceeds well beyond the borders of Abruzzo, a testament to how far & wide the people of Abruzzo have travelled the world to provide for their families.
In this, the first of a new series, put together with the help of journalist Raffaella Cartledge, we take a look at the Nonni (grandparents) through the eyes of their grandchildren whose futures they helped to determine.
Lily Lapenna MBE grew up in Italy, London and the US. Her mother’s parents were from Abruzzo and her father is half Abruzzese. She is the founder of the social enterprise, MyBnk which empowers young people to take charge of their future by teaching them how to handle their money and to set up their own enterprises. Since 2007, it has helped over 175,000 young people in more than 800 UK schools and youth organisations, and now works internationally in countries such as Italy, Turkey and Uganda.
Peppino and Lea Marcozzi, Teramo
Nonno Peppino, my mother’s dad was born in 1920 in Teramo. His wife Nonna Lea, was born in 1923 and was originally from Penne, in the province of Pescara.
Nonno Peppino was a lawyer. From the start of his career, he decided to use his skills as a lawyer to support those less fortunate. He mostly worked pro bono and he was driven by such a strong sense of social responsibility. His clients were farmers who had issues with their land-owner, or ‘paesano’ who suffered from mental or physical health conditions.
I learned about his huge social impact from people who came to visit us. He never bragged about what he did.
We became close friends with everyone in the community. He welcomed refugees from Albania who came to Abruzzo after the war, accompanying them on their first steps in rebuilding their lives in Abruzzo. By using his strong network he was able to help find them homes and jobs.
Both my Nonni became friends with the first Africans merchants who sold goods on the beach in Giulianova. Nonna Lea often invited Ali to our family table. Ali would tell us about his life in Senegal, and every year he would show us pictures of his family. He ignited my curiosity about Africa and it is no coincidence that years later in my early 20s I went to volunteer in Africa and it is where my social work started.
Every Sunday Nonna Lea would take us to visit an elderly disabled lady. We would spend whole afternoons there. As children, we dreaded the idea of another visit, but Nonna would tell us stories and get us to share them with the old lady and despite her rude manners, we never skipped our visits. Nonna taught me the importance of learning from old people and the true unshakable commitment to their care, even when they seem ungrateful. Nonna often talked about “il valore di un sorriso” (the value of a smile) and it has a contagious power. She had the most beautiful smile.
In their house we felt a sense of joy: Nonno always had funny stories and ‘barzellette’ (jokes) to tell. I laughed so hard and felt that complete sense of happiness that only Grandparents can bring.
Nonno Peppino used to hang out daily with a young ‘paesano’ (country boy) who was disabled and who had learning difficulties. They became good friends and when Nonno passed away, he came to our house and cried uncontrollably, saying he had lost his best friend. My Aunt Daniella said from that day on she would be his best friend, which she is to this day, so Nonno’s legacy lives on…
As per Italian tradition, the day Nonno Peppino passed away, we opened the house for two days. The casket was kept open at home. Hundreds of people knocked at our door to say their last good-bye to Nonno. Farmers came from villages that we did not even know existed, they told us their story of how Peppino had changed their lives for the better.
Nonno is my moral compass. When I don’t know how to respond to one of life’s challenges, to make my decision easier, I simply ask myself how would he have reacted?
If you have an inspiring Nonni story and would like to help us bring ‘forte e gentile’ up-to-date, please do email us with your story.