The mystery of Molise

As part of our effort to gain dual Italian citizenship, our family spent two weeks in the summer of 2017 in Italy's second smallest and probably least well-known region, Molise (Moh-LEE-za). 

Unlike Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, the Veneto, Piemonte, and just about every other region in the country, Molise remains a kind of enigma, even to other Italians. In fact, its lack of significance has led some to question (albeit only humorously) whether there really is such a place. "Il Molise non esiste" has become a punchline, with maps of the region labeled "Molisn't" and T-shirts emblazoned with "L'amore e come Molise--non esiste" ("Love is like Molise--it doesn't exist").

Some of Montagano's older buildings. 
There's a Molise version of the Hitler-having-a-meltdown video. The Fuhrer loses it when his generals tell him that he can't vacation in Molise this summer because "the Italians say it doesn't exist," and he furiously lists all the culinary, historic, and other attractions of the place, shrieking "There's landscapes other regions in Italy can only dream of having!" 

I also found an Italian rap video defiantly titled Nato in Molise (Born in Molise). It calls on the Molisani to appreciate what they have and insists that "Molise will survive!" 

These days Molise has begun trying to capitalize on things that until recently may have seemed like major negatives: the lack of industry, the small, ancient towns that have seen plenty of population loss over the last century and little or no redevelopment, the unpeopled rural landscape.
This is what is looks like around Montagano
What goes along with that are the traditional wines, cheeses, salumi, and pasta dishes that people are still making just the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did, and the warmth and friendliness of the people of Italy's rural South,

During our two weeks in the little Molisani town of Montagano we certainly enjoyed all of the above. Particularly the food and the really astonishing way the townspeople embraced us.

We met Giacomo one morning when we were strolling around town. What we noticed first was a black cat that turned out to be a black rabbit. Noting our surprise, Giacomo introduced himself and told us all about how he and his wife ended up with a rabbit, unnamed (it was originally given to their daughter by a now former boyfriend), and how the rabbit trims the grass on the steps outside their house, and how they have to watch out for foxes. Giacamo spoke excellent English--he lived in Florida for many years.

Then one night we were having a drink in the Circolo, the private bar nearby that's run by Fernando and Rita, from whom we rented the apartment where we were staying. Our new Montagano friends Claudio and Maria, who also lived in the U.S. for a while and speak English, stopped in and joined us.

A few moments later we noticed that Rita and Fernando were pulling tables together and laying out food, and then we were summoned to join them for the feast. This was a sort of picnic--bread, Rita's pickled cauliflower, the salame, cured bacon, and other meats the couple had made themselves, along with all kinds of other treats, all of it wonderfully tasty, and plenty of beer and wine. It was a big family meal, and we were part of the family. No one would let us give them anything for any of this.

Claudio, Rita, Fernando, their son Francesco, Sophia, and a tableful of homemade food
I do wonder whether these attitudes will change if and when Molise starts getting a substantial number of foreign visitors, instead of just a few handfuls now and then. The company that arranged our "citizenship vacation" is part of the effort to rebrand Molise as a tourist destination. Their pitch to small towns like Montagano is: if you will help people get dual citizenship, we will guarantee that they are fully qualified and have bulletproof paperwork, and they will spread the word about the wonders of Molise. 

I'm happy to keep up my end of that deal. I keep thinking how much many people I know would love the vacation we had--the people, the food, the whole experience--even if they have no interest in or qualifications for citizenship. The citizenship company we're working with is talking about offering something like that, maybe next year. I know they are determined to keep it small-scale and personal. I hope they can manage it. Certainly we are already talking about coming back.