etween 1995 and 2002, I worked as a volunteer for the Comunità Emmanuel (CE), a charity in Lecce, in the south of Apulia. A Calabrian Jesuit priest, Father Mario Marafioti, and a group of Leccesi men and women of “good will” had founded it in 1980. In time, Father Marafioti’s Comunità Emmanuel became one of the most respected and active charities in Italy, developing a series of vital services, particularly for the socially excluded and outcast. They provide help to families in need, and shelter and detox therapy for drug addicts. They also created refuge centers for victims of domestic abuse, reception and integration centers for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing from wars and famine, and, last but not the least, welfare and rehabilitation hotels for people with mental disabilities. Thousands have benefited from the dedicated work of permanent staff and the commitment of scores of volunteers who, over the years have devoted part of their time to our “brothers in need.” The concept was that of the “bank of time”: time would be “lent,” without interest, for the implementation of dozens of projects at a local, national, and continental level.
I mainly lent my time and skills in foreign languages in a project funded by the EU, acting as a translator, interpreter, coordinator, and representative for CE at transnational level. The Echo-Horizon project carried out by CE, in collaboration with other organizations and charities from Germany, Belgium, Finland, England, Scotland, and Spain focused on the rehabilitation and possible job placement of mentally disabled people.
CE’s project included the updating of their bookbinding and copying workshop, run by one of their cooperatives, the introduction of new technologies and the development of telework together with the creation of a laboratory of electronic publishing. The aim of the project was to favor social and work integration of people affected by mental disorders.
I took part in six meetings with our transnational partners, three in Belgium, in Ghent (or Gand, as the French speaking community has it), and the other three respectively in Helsinki, Inverness, and Lecce, to coordinate our actions and to monitor the development of the project. Each partner was responsible for the organization of a meeting. Father Marafioti would bless me before I departed on each journey. “Go, pilgrim, you who received the gift of tongues, and speak for us!”
Ghent, the capital of the Flanders, at the confluence of the rivers Scheldt and Leie, fascinated me. It was the first northern city I had a chance to visit after London. Sprawling along the rivers and crisscrossed by canals, the city proudly displays its ancient buildings mirroring in the waterways, and the imposing St. Bavo’s Cathedral. Inside the cathedral is the celebrated 12-panel oil polyptych Ghent Altarpiece, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Jan and Hubert van Eyck (1432).
Over the centuries, Belgium acquired a certain fame as for its care of the mentally impaired. According to the tradition, it all started with the cult of St. Dymphna, an Irish virgin, the child of a pagan king and a Christian mother. Dymphna was fifteen when she was martyred for spurning the incestuous advances of her father, who insisted on marrying her to replace her deceased mother. When she learned of his plan, she fled Ireland to the Continent, accompanied by her confessor, St. Gerebernus. They found refuge in Gheel, Belgium. By a mere chance, Dymphna’s mad father managed to find them. He had Gerebernus killed in front of Dymphna and when she remained adamant in her refusal to be his wife, he personally beheaded her.
There were many reports of St. Dymphna miraculously curing the mental, emotional, and neurological afflictions of pilgrims to her burial site in Gheel. She was canonized in 1247 and named patron saint of the mentally ill. Her patronage also extends to incest and rape victims and runaways.
The people of Gheel venerated Saint Dymphna and the cult of the virgin saint spread all over Belgium. Families started to take in the throngs of pilgrims who traveled to Gheel to be cured of their afflictions by the intervention of Saint Dymphna. In many cases, their families abandoned them and they spent the rest of their life in Gheel as “boarders,” becoming part of the household and working in the houses or in the fields in exchange for room and board. This custom continued until the twentieth century, spreading to other regions of the country. When mental hospitals were closed all over Europe, in the wake of the movement started in Italy by the psychiatrist and neurologist Franco Basaglia, the Belgian family-care system had already gained international attention. It became one of the most successful methods for the treatment and rehabilitation of mental patients. It had already been adopted by CE long before the closure of the Lecce mental hospital and the “case famiglia” (family houses) were already a feather in Father Marafioti’s cap.
On my first travel to Ghent, in 1995, I got there round midnight. The Virgin Airways flight departed from Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci airport in the afternoon with a four-hour delay, due to a national strike of the air traffic controllers. There was an additional delay before landing at the Luchthafen Brussel-Nationaal. From there I boarded a train to Brussel’s Central Station, and then a night train to Ghent. I had closed the door of my flat behind me at 6:00 am, to get to Brindisi on time for my 8:30 flight to Rome, the first leg of my journey. At the time, Brindisi was a small airport, with very few international links (generally only in summer), and since I lived at the end of the world, to get anywhere I had to catch at least two planes. Three, more often than not. It takes less than one hour to fly from Brindisi to Rome but, for some inscrutable reason, on that day they had us circling over the capital for another hour.
When I exited the Ghent station, I was starving, since they had served nothing on board, except two uninviting drinks, one the color of dark chamomile, the other a queer shade of azure, both of which I declined. On my way to my hotel, which was a few hundred yards from the railway station, I saw a couple of snack bars selling chips and rolls with fried chicken, among other delicatessen. I did not stop, since I was in a hurry to get to the hotel, hoping they had kept my room, notwithstanding the delay. It was at 4:00 pm that they were expecting me.
The hotel was closed. Hermetically closed. All lights were out. That was a time when mobile phones were not the obvious appendage of the traveler and, what was worse, I could not even find the hotel telephone number. I stood for some time staring, stupefied, at the locked door. I walked round the corner, into a dark alley. There was another locked door, but a rectangle of paper was stuck on it. At the feeble light of the lamppost planted on the corner, I read the message: “Dear Mr. Magagnino, the key is under the pumpkin at your feet, the big one.” I looked down and there they were, two kinds of Halloween pumpkins! I moved the bigger one aside and found the key. I opened the door and dragged in my luggage. When I switched on the light, I saw another message pasted behind the door. “Your room is no. 106, first floor. The key also opens your room. Breakfast is from 7 o’clock. Good night, Mr. Magagnino.” Still astounded, I climbed the stairs to my room, put down my luggage, and went out again in quest of food.
It was nearly one o’clock when I came back to my room with a couple of rolls with chicken, a tub of chips, a bottle of water, one of Abbaye d’Aulne Trappist beer, and a bar of Côte d’Or plain chocolate. While eating my solitary dinner, I could not help thinking what an extraordinary country this was, where families had been putting up, often permanently, mentally troubled pilgrims since the Middle Ages, and where it seemed to be perfectly safe to leave the hotel key under a pumpkin for an overdue guest. And, to top it off, they made such exquisite chocolate!