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L’AQUILA, Italy – The three bottles of red wine sit corked on the table, exactly where they were that night almost four years ago when a deadly earthquake hit this mountainside town in central Italy.
Circling his gaze around to the cracks in the white plaster walls of his house, which he’d moved into just 10 months before the disaster and is still paying for, Lucio Paolucci says that he has no idea when – or even if – he can move back in.
“I hope so, I hope, but by now it is four years, and nothing much has changed,” he says. Mr Paolucci’s house, like many other buildings in the hilltop old town of L’Aquila, has a long history, dating back to the 1300’s.
The earthquake, which struck around 3.30 am on April 6, 2009, killed 309 people and left 65,000 more homeless. Pointing to the bottles, Mr Paolucci says they are a relic of the days before the earthquake.
“I keep them there like that as a reminder, a keepsake,” he says.
A reminder of the lively, busy town that L’Aquila was before the disaster.
But now, outside Mr Paolucci’s door, the winding, cobbled streets are mostly empty. A teenage couple looks up, disgruntled at the sound of footsteps interrupting their nuzzling on the steps below the San Bernardino church, burial place of the eponymous saint.
There’s nobody else around.
Walking around to the right from the church, it’s the same story around the old citadel, save for a couple of elderly women, arms linked as they huddle against the Apennine mountain cold, murmuring to each other as they flinch against the chilling breeze.
Everywhere, buildings are closed and streets sealed off, as Italian army patrols block people trying to sneak into abandoned homes in the “red zone” in the deserted old town.
The city’s Chamber of Commerce is on a street leading into the main square, the Piazza del Duomo. But it is shuttered too, the walkway outside grimly garlanded with photographs from the earthquake.
Speaking in her restaurant in a corner of the piazza, Rosetta Giuliani says that her house came down in the earthquake.
“Completely crashed,” she says, her Italian-accented English musically-emphasising the final syllable. Giuliani and her family now stay above her restaurant, where before the disaster customers lined the counter each morning, gossiping and gulping down espressos.
There’s nobody else around now.
Outside, set against the backdrop of snow-clad mountains, the empty town square echoes disconcertingly to the yell of Lady Gaga blaring from a stereo perched on a lone chair on the cobbled yard.
“No business here now,” Giuliani sighs, plonking down a 100-page book of photos of the disaster and its aftermath for us to leaf through over coffee. “We live with this every day still.”
Across the square, Santa Maria del Suffragio, better-known locally as the Anime Sante, is open, but like all the other old buildings in the area, it’s being held together by bits of criss-crossing struts, scaffolding, bolts and cables.
The church was built in 1713, a decade after a much deadlier earthquake and killed between 2,500 and 5,000 people.
“Before the last earthquake, people did not go into this church so much,” says Paolucci. “It was thought of as bad luck,” he adds, pointing out a Latin inscription on the baroque facade over the door, chiselled onto a banner carried by a Grim Reaper bust.
“Help not death with tears, but by prayers and alms,” the motto says.
There have been many prayers said in a town where even a pope was inaugurated — Celestine V, in 1294, in a ceremony attended by Italy’s most famous poet, Dante Aligheri, among others.
That Pope, a sometime hermit who was 84 when elected, resigned after just 161 days in office, another eerie foreshadowing of today.
Watching Italian TV news about the newly-ordained Pope Francis, chosen earlier that week after the surprise February resignation of Benedict XVI, Angelo Lisi, 26, says that despite the town’s rich and compelling history, there’s not much reason to stay around.
“I was in Edinburgh last year and I will probably move abroad again when I save some money here,” he says.
In the meantime, gallows humour helps. On the door of an Internet café closed since the earthquake, there is a sign that reads, “404 error: building not found,” a play on a common computer error message.
Paolucci says that locals call the town “Kabul,” mocking the slow pace of reconstruction and the soldiers standing guard around the old darkened streets.
The moniker expresses the sense of neglect that locals feel, a spin-off from the poor state of national governance, they believe.
Italy is currently without a government after inconclusive February elections, a vote that came after the fall of the last government under Prime Minister Mario Monti, an administration seen as a European Union-installed economic protectorate. Before that, Italy was governed by the scandal-happy Silvio Berlusconi, who boosted his popularity in L’Aquila — temporarily at least — by providing shelter after the 2009 earthquake.
It seems nobody is popular here now, however, after four years of stagnation.
“The government, the politics in this country doesn’t help,” says Lisi. “You see the news about Italy, it is chaos.”
Humour and chaos. And music too. On a biting cold Friday afternoon, the sound of an orchestra glides across the otherwise ethereal silence in the centre of the town. Paolucci, who is an orchestra member, says they are practicing for a concert the following day. “Beethoven,” he adds. “We perform to raise people’s spirits.”
Perhaps the music helps take people back to the days before the disaster. “It was nice here before the earthquake,” says Lisi. “It is Friday evening. In the old days, this part of town would be full of people – sitting, chatting, drinking wine, having dinner.”
Now, though, there’s nobody else around.