Photograph of a garden showing in the foreground a wine bottle on a table with a bench, and behind it a hedge and some trees.

The Garden


“Class affects the mind, we know that, and it’s difficult to communicate this.”

I once asked you what tattoo you’d get, if you ever got one. You said you wouldn’t, but had a ready answer: a simple sketch of a Sequoia tree. How come? You said “It’s about my grandma and grandpa” and played ‘Sequoia’ by Offlaga Disco Pax for me to see.

It all started with the story of the garden.

Can you tell me that story again?

When I was a child I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. After school, and in the summer, I’d go play with my siblings and cousins, and grandpa would always take us to the garden. A beautiful garden with fragrant roses, with tall trees and evergreen ivy twisting and turning around them, and with all sorts of corners to hide in and stone benches to sit or lie down on; my sister especially felt like a princess. And so we grew up in this garden, where we played and he’d make a swing for us and all that.

But then, in the summer, something would change. These other kids would turn up, and so it wasn’t just us anymore, because… because for a long time I thought that the garden was mine, that is, my grandfather’s, and then at some point I realised that, well, it wasn’t: my grandfather worked for a kind of padrone,1 same as my mother, etc. And it’s not like this is a trauma, but let’s say you start realising what it is… well, not realising, because that came later, but you start seeing that there was something differentiating us from those kids.

As you know, my grandfather was a mezzadro2 so he worked for this noble family. Ex-nobles, actually, because nobility was no longer legal in Italy, but they kept exercising a sort of power since they owned land. So a mezzadro was someone who worked for the landowners: he’d usually be given a house and the land to work on, and he’d have to share what he produced. So these people had – have – this villa, in the centre of the village, a very nice villa. My grandfather was the custodian of both the land and the garden: he’d take care of the plants, arrange them, fix things etc, and I was practically born there; my first house was right by it.

So when in the summer the real owners came, there’d be people in places where I could normally play freely, and I’d be told, “It’d be best if you didn’t go there. Don’t go there.” Because there, close to where my grandparents kept chickens and wood, there now was a beach umbrella, belonging to these blokes who’d come from Naples to play ‘Lords’.

And it’s not that you see that place as something you own… it’s more about the reaction to the fact that you can’t use it anymore. So it’s more… through negation rather than affirmation. And that was… strange! You think, “How come? I go there everyday”. You’re free, and then, overnight, like a ghost, there’s a sense that “No, that’s not yours” – it belongs to a boss, a master, and it’s as if he has an inalienable right to it. And this was accentuated even more by the fact that they’d turn up so rarely; maybe for Easter and summer, that’s it. So, it was even stranger…

Like that motto: “la casa è di chi la abita”.3 Because that’s what it’s really like: I knew every corner, the little hiding spots, what’s behind every leaf, that specific part of the staircase… and when you’re a kid all these things are a great adventure, an entire world. Starting from above, going down, going round, going up the stairs…When these people were there, this adventure was off limits because you couldn’t pass in front of them.

And then the thing is, they had children our age, and we’d play with them – while my mother cleaned their house. You don’t see it then and there, but in hindsight… sure, there’s equality as kids, but I’d play with the owner’s kids while my mother was cleaning their house. Playing with them was fun, because it was nice to have new kids around, but it was an external factor. I felt that it was them who were my guests, it was them who had come to play with me. Not me with them. Because for me, the padrone was my grandfather. Because he was the padrone! He had the keys, he knew where things were, he fixed things. So I had a sense of property, but it was the wrong kind.

Houses belong to those who live in them, things belong to those who use them, to those who need them.

This isn’t something I narrate as a culminating event. I didn’t figure it out suddenly one day, but slowly, through the years, by reading and growing up and interpreting it; re-reading it. If I have to identify when I understood what property is, as a way of setting a memory around it, even by forcing myself, that’s what comes to mind. It was a series of things, re-interpreted in reverse, that make you say: houses belong to those who live in them, things belong to those who use them, to those who need them.

Class affects the mind, we know that, and it’s difficult to communicate this. Because certain things, no matter how much you talk about them… how much you try to… not explain, but narrate them, because I can’t explain what it means to have a grandfather who doesn’t speak Italian,4 and addresses as ‘Don’5 some old man who just got here from Naples, and you’re standing there and you’re 8 years old, you go to school and are intelligent or clever enough and say “hmm… why does my grandpa, who’s dressed poorly, who’s dirty and holding a hoe, call someone ‘Don’”, when I knew at that age that Italy was a Republic and that damn nobles didn’t exist anymore.6 And yet you see your grandfather who was (in my eyes) a padrone of a place, and he’s acting…not like a slave, but he has this reverence towards a sort of power.

Then again, kudos to grandpa, because he did at a certain point start feeling vengeful.

When he was told we were good at school, that we had become dottori,7 he cried, he was moved, and he’d always say “Oh! How wonderful! The time of the Signori8 is over! Now you’ve done well too!” I mean he always had this mentality, not of a servant, but he didn’t know any better. And when he grew old maybe he realized that in order to have something he had been…not a servant, but he’d been subjected to a series of padroni. And lately I remember his pleasure in the words: “È fenut lu temp de li Segnuri!”,9 simply because we had graduated from University…it’s incredible.

Note: This is based on a recorded conversation. N did most of the speaking, and M transcribed, arranged, and translated this story from Italian to English.

  1. Boss, master, owner. 

  2. Sharecropper 

  3. A house belongs to whomever inhabits it. 

  4. Speaking a local dialect/language, and some or no Italian, is common for many people across the country, especially for older generations in rural areas. 

  5. Honorific for a male member of the nobility, especially used in the south of Italy. 

  6. The Italian Monarchy was abolished in 1946 through a constitutional referendum, abolishing the legal status of nobility as well. N was born in the early 1990s. 

  7. Dottori’, literally ‘Doctors’, is used to mean university graduates, so in this sense it is not related to completing a PhD or being a doctor. 

  8. Equivalent to ‘Lords’. 

  9. “The time of the Lords is over” in the local dialect. 

The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.