The February wind held a chill but the sun felt warm enough to melt ricotta as Giovanni and I drove through the winding roads up from the Ionian coast on a beautiful day in Calabria, at the toe of Italy’s boot.
Giovanni, a 30-year-old pub owner, was my student where I was teaching English in Reggio at the time. On free days, he taught me about life in southern Italy. That day, we’d gone in search of a village called Gallicianò, but when we found a road sign, it was written in Greek.
The rugged terrain seemed best suited for goats and the tenacious oaks, olives, and some almond trees exploding with white blossoms. But oranges and lemons glowed brightly in the sun. The small village clung to the slope, redolent with bergamot—the lemon-like fruit unique to Calabria that gives Earl Grey tea its essence.
The road narrowed to walks among a cluster of white and gray hovels with red-tiled roofs. Abandoning the car, we stepped through a minefield of goat droppings. Reggio seemed a million miles away as I stood listening to whispering breezes that carried the clanging of tin bells and bleats of goats down from the slopes.
“Welcome to Magna Grecia,” Giovanni said.
More than 2,700 years ago, southern Italy had yet to see the Romans. The Greeks occupied the shores of Calabria and Eastern Sicily forming Magna Grecia, or Great Greece. Here the poet Theocritus and mathematician and inventor Archimedes walked the earth, and it remained part of the Greek Empire until the Romans annexed it in the third century B.C.
The Romans tolerated the Greeks, folding them into the empire, and even treating Greek as a second language in Rome with its sizable Greek minority into the Christian era. In Reggio, I’d met the late Franco Mosino, a professor who contended that it was in fact these Western Greeks who developed the Greek alphabet and wrote “The Odyssey.” Many geographical names in the area are prominent figures in the tale: the monster Scylla is now the town of Scilla overlooking the Strait of Messina, and Aeolus, keeper of the winds, gave his name to the Aeolian Islands just north of Sicily.
An old man sat on a bench along a whitewashed wall sorting a burlap sack full of tiny olives in the sun. We hailed him but I didn’t understand his Italian reply.
“Calabrese dialect,” Giovanni explained.
Giovanni asked him some questions. The man didn’t smile but raised himself up with some pride and spoke. Giovanni’s face brightened. “Greek!” he cried.
Like curious children who come across a foreigner, we rambled through a list of words. “How do you say ‘water’?”
“Nerò,” he said.
Through Giovanni, I asked him about the local youth: What do they do? What do they like? Do they know Greek?
He said “nenti” a lot (“nothing” in dialect) and shook his head slowly the way a tired old man does. His fingers looked bruised from the purple olives he sorted, in stark contrast to his bright white mustache and wiry hair spilling from under a wool driving cap. His tanned face showed wrinkles deep and smooth as if even they had been worn by the years.
“There is no work here for the young people.” He pointed to a flawlessly constructed stone embankment that supported the next level of houses. “I built that wall. Forty years ago.” Houses shared walls with the neighbors or were separated by a small garden with perhaps a goat or two staring out through a gate. In the center of town stood a simple church with a Greek placard out front that translated as “The Street of La Signora of Greece.”
Fewer than 400 people lived in the village and surrounding hillside houses, and not all of them spoke Greek. The older residents communicated in Greek at home, but the children possessed only scraps of it. “There used to be three teachers here, elementary teachers. There used to be a doctor. Now there’s nothing. The young people don’t want to learn anything. The only thing they want to learn is to drive,” the old man told us.
Many of the elderly in all of Calabria are bilingual, choosing the regional dialect over pure Italian at home. So has Greek in these tiny pockets evolved and survived. The Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire came in the sixth century, infusing the old with the neo-Hellenic language of Athens and leaving the name Calabria. Tema tis Calavrias was the western outpost of that empire. This peculiar regional dialect has become known as Greko in Calabria (Griko in Salento, Italy’s boot heel), an amalgam of ancient Doric Greek dialect, Byzantine-era Greek, and Italian. It survives primarily through an oral tradition, though some writing still exists, and in recent years, local writers have created original works in it.
An organization based in Reggio and nearby Greek town Bova, Apodiafàzzi—meaning “the light before the dawn”—has helped bring Greco-Calabrian culture to light. When I visited in 2003, they counted 5,000 Greko speakers in Calabria, which is home to nine Greek-origin towns. A minority-rights organization has that number at 12,000 today, and a 1999 Italian law grants certain protections to this endangered language and culture.
Back in Reggio, I met with Dr. Carmelo Giuseppe Nucera, the president of Apodiafàzzi at that time. “Most people don’t know or don’t believe it, but many of us are descended from the Greeks. Look at the surnames. Thirty percent of them are Greek in origin.” He looked up at the ceiling as he thought of some examples. “‘Crea.’ It means ‘meat.’ ‘Romeo.’ It means ‘from Constantinople.’ ‘Chila,’ ‘man with fat lips.’ ‘Chardia,’ ‘heart.’ … Even the former mayor’s name, ‘Falcomatà’ meant ‘calderaio,’ coppersmith. So you see? It’s not just a few speakers in some villages.”
At that time, his organization was preparing to send a group of singers to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
“What most people don’t realize is that the Greeks here were renowned champions when the Olympics first began,” he said. He drew out a photo of two ancient coins. “You see these? They are in commemoration of an Olympic victory. Anassila di Reggio, the ‘tyrant’ of Reggio in 480 B.C., was a champion racer.” The coins featured a man in a cart pulled by mules.
The Museo Nazionale in Reggio has many artifacts from the days of Magna Grecia, including two rare bronze statues, “Bronzi di Riace,” found in waters nearby. Two of only four in the world, they are arguably the finest examples of Greek sculpture. But the only way to see them now is to visit the last vestiges of Magna Grecia in southern Italy.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com