December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Street voices of yesteryear

By |2023-04-06T02:30:20+02:00March 13th, 2023|Apulian Days|
A street vendor and his "Ape."

here was a time when the village was alive with voices, voices of artisans who sang while working, voices of housewives leaning out of windows and balconies and chatting with people standing downstairs, or leaning out of windows and balconies on the opposite side of the street. There were the shouts of children merrily playing in the street and of mothers summoning them to lunch or dinner. Most of all, there were the voices of sellers, peddlers, repairers, and all kinds of dealers. They all had some sort of call they would repeat as a refrain, usually with the same tone and pitch of the voice. They slowly paraded on their Vespas, motorbikes, or “Ape” (the ubiquitous Piaggio three wheelers), or pushing their bikes, incessantly relaying their refrain, sometimes in Italian, more often in the local dialect or in blend of the two. In a village that could enumerate only a few shops, street sellers provided a dependable, friendly, and cheap door-to-door service. Elderly people, who could not walk to the shop, especially in winter, would conduct their transactions leaning out of the window. If they lived upstairs, they would lower a basket, tied to a rope, from the balcony or the window. Inside was the agreed upon sum of money. The seller would take the money and deposit the requested merchandise in the basket, which was rapidly retrieved.

The costermonger with his horse and cart.

The peddlers’ voices were often grave and monotonous. The man who sold only three items kept repeating, “Patate e cipolle. Patate, cipolle e sale. Cipolle e sale,” from street to street. (“Potatoes and onions. Potatoes, onions and salt. Onions and salt.”)

Pitchmen and costermongers publicized their products almost every day:

  • “Mile e pire, mile e pire, mile e pire” (“Apples and pears”);
  • “Chi vuole lo pepe? Fa bene lo pepe” (“Who wants pepper? Pepper is healthy”).

In the second instance, each sentence had a musical effect, starting in A, rising to E, and dropping again to A with the last syllable.

The boy who sold eggs cried “Ci ole ove?” (“Who wants eggs?”) in a musical fashion,  and on a rising scale C-D-E-E-E- F, with a descending final in E-D (“Ci-iii-ooo-le–o-ve”).

In summer, an elderly fishmonger would pass dragging a bike. Behind the saddle, tied on a rusted iron carrier, was a crate full of “ricci di mare” (sea urchins, “rizzi” in the Salentino dialect), a local delicacy. The urchins were covered with a hopsack, which the man kept wet, throwing some water on top of it, stopping at every public fountain. His call was a single word, repeated three times on the same tone: “rizzi rizzi rizziiii”. It reminded me of the refrain of the Irish folk song “Cockles and Mussels, alive alive, oh.”  Actually, Salento is not that dissimilar from Ireland: same dry-stone walls along the country roads or delimitating the fields, similar dry stone cottages, same poverty. And, from both lands, people emigrated by the thousands to newly discovered lands.

During the long hot summer afternoons, children could not wait for the ice-cream seller. He was heralded by his voice echoing in the streets (“Gelati!”), while his calves painstakingly pushed on the pedals of his three-wheeled cart.

Those were times when everyone had some object or tool in need of a skillful hand to put it back into use.  The concept of a Circular Circuit of the Economy, that global warming, the Covid pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine, is urging us to implement, was first introduced in the mid-1960s, though it was mainly popularized in China at the end of the 1990s. However, it had been empirically put into practice in the villages in my region and in the rest of Italy (and I think, all over the world) in the course of many centuries. Almost nothing was thrown away or definitively discarded.

There was an old man, who shuffled along every morning, pulling a dilapidated big pram full of rusting flatirons, broken iron pipes, battered old pans, and what not, crying “Ferro vecchio, alluminio vecchio, rame vecchia, ottone vecchio” (“Old iron, old aluminum, old copper, old brass”). People gave him metal objects beyond repair, which he would sell to scrap dealers for a few liras to supplement his meagre monthly pension.

Other trades, now almost forgotten, were (I give the definitions in the local idiom), “mmulaforbici” (scissors and blades grinder), “conzalimbare” (earthenware washtub repairers), and “umbrellari” (umbrella menders). I still have in my ears the cry of the “umbrellaru”, in the typical intonation of the Abruzzo dialect, “Uei, l’umbrellaaru, accunsateve l’umbrelle” (“ehi, the umbrella mender is here, let’s repair your umbrellas”).

Frying and deep-frying was (and still is) a common way of cooking fish and vegetables in southern Italy. Olive oil was almost exclusively used in the past. The fried oil (and the sludge, that the Salentino call “murga”), was preserved by the homemakers and handed over to collectors who combed the streets crying “Murga, murga, ci tene murga, murga, murga aehh!” (“sludge, sludge, who’s got sludge, sludge, sludge aehh!”). They sold this waste matter to factories that would process it and turn it into Marseilles soap. The homemakers would often receive a piece of soap in exchange. The “murga man” is one of the few who still raises his cry in the village streets.

Some of these street sellers had devised an approach that was a bit more sophisticated. One of them toured the village in a tiny little three-wheeler Piaggio overloaded with soap, bottles of household ammonia, bleach and washing-up liquid, boxes of washing powder, toilet paper, dishrags, dishtowels, floor cloths, dusters, and even toys. A red plastic toy-donkey with wheels under its feet or an iron tricycle were always hanging from the roof of the jalopy, as it proceeded, frightfully rocking, on the uneven slab pavement of the old town. My daughter Alessandra, who at the time had just progressed from the crawling to the walking phase, fell in love with both toys and she raced on them through the house for a few years afterwards. She still fondly remembers them. The man had a sort of French hunting horn and he would stop and blow it at the corners of streets and alleys, announcing his arrival. Women would come out and start chatting with him and haggling over the price of the merchandise.

The umbrella mender.

Alfredo (a name that triggered the singing of the celebrated aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata”) had a white van overflowing with household products, and especially trousseau items that the mothers would buy and store for their daughters (a rich trousseau was once a remarkable asset for a marriageable girl). He would display linen tablecloths, richly embroidered double sheets, pajamas, woolen vests, silk petticoats and dressing gowns, lingerie, linen towels, soft terry towels, and bathrobes. Alfredo was probably the most technological among his colleagues. He had a recorded audiocassette tape that would go on and on, diffusing the same announcement from a loudspeaker fixed on the roof of the vehicle, his voice starting with a rising tone and ending with the final vowel of each section decreasing like a turbo engine grinding to a halt: “La medicina, lu flit, lu sapuneeee. Pettini, pettinesse, aghi pe la macchinaaaa. Camicie maglie, calze, fazzoletti asiugamaniiii.” (“Bleach, insecticide, soap. Combs, barrettes, needles for sewing machines. Shirts, woolen vests, socks, handkerchiefs, towels.”)

The “banditore di piazza” (“town crier”) merits a special mention. Town criers were the precursors of modern advertising industry. They roamed the streets announcing special sales of goods, normally comestibles, at the village shops. Sometimes they would blow a horn or roll a drum to rally people. In my village, a garrulous whistle signaled the arrival of Virgilio, the local “banditore”, who soon started to deliver his announcements with full details about the quality and price of the goods, always ending with a final exhortation: “Mangiate, popolo!” (“People, eat!”). People of my generation still remember him for his impromptu poems, which he recited when he was invited at some family celebration or to eulogize a deceased person at the funeral. A glass of wine and a few coins were his well-deserved compensation.

However, there was one single and singularly unintelligible cry. In summer, at least once a week, someone would drive his truck at immoderate speed in the streets around our house, while we were drowsing the sultry August afternoon away. He kept shouting at full throat something that sounded like “Ake pacoke!”, that we could not link to any kind of known merchandise. Only sometime later we learned that he was crying, in a variation of the Salentino idiom “Oh, ke bracoke!” (Oh, what fine peaches!).

About the Author:

Aldo Magagnino was born in Alezio (Apulia). After a career as a teacher of English he now works fulltime as a literary translator. He now lives in the Apulian town of Presicce, a few miles from Santa Maria di Leuca, land's end of the Italian boot, with his wife, two dogs and a variable number of cats.