The speedboat and ferry trails left furrows of white wake on the deep azure blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea. As he watched from his window seat high above the peninsula, the white and blue commingled, and his thoughts returned to his childhood, to his first trip to Italy, to relatives, to mountains, and to an ocean liner that left white wake on the expanse of open sea . . .
My most vivid childhood memory was leaving America. I was 10 years old.
In the summer of 1963, my family decided to return to Italy to visit family members they had not seen for over a decade. We remained the entire summer. How my working-class parents were able to finagle three months’ leave from their jobs still remains a mystery to me. The hazy memories of long summer days spent in lazy suburban dullness were to be interrupted by this epic voyage of juvenile discovery. Months of planning, visits to a crowded travel agency whose walls were plastered with posters of ocean liners, poring over room charts next to cut-away models of those same liners, and finally tickets to board.
I could not believe we were travelling to Italy; or anywhere for that matter. But now, beyond the regular trips to Montgomery Wards to purchase gifts for relatives, clothes for my sister Marianna (lots of petticoats and little-girl-cute) and for myself, toiletries, dry goods and coffee, as well as a veritable minestrone of sundry items – beyond these excursions, I did not know what to expect, who we would meet, what we would find. Indeed, the more the blue travel trunk filled, the more I believed that perhaps we were on a one-way trip to the future.
Italy, to my 10-year-old mind, was a place I had only seen on the classroom globe; distant, small, an odd place shaped like a boot. It felt like destiny was leading me from a state carved by the glaciers into a snow mitten to a country resembling a high-heeled boot. I remember telling an open-mouthed class about the upcoming adventure on the day before school ended. They all shrugged. Some were excited that I would be traveling on an ocean liner, pictures of which we had only seen and read about in books.
I, however, knew that the yearly shipment of new and used clothes, shoes, coffee and other dry foodstuffs, photos, and the inevitable letters in light blue envelopes rimmed in red and blue stripes; I knew that those huge boxes that my mother wrapped in old white linen, sewn together in stitches that reminded me of the stitches on the face of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, and the large address written in indelible blue ink by my father; I knew that those yearly care packages, once decaled and stamped, stickered and tagged by our local post office, crossed the ocean by ship; I knew that we were about to travel that same ocean and meet those persons who opened our packages.
The trip from Detroit to New York was a myriad of suitcases, steamer trunks, taxis, sweating and cursing by my father. My sister and I were very anxious if not uncomfortable. Where, indeed, were we going? We had discussed, as only young siblings are able, of the many sights we might see and the aunts and uncles we would meet. But we had never imagined that our summer-long European sojourn would begin in Michigan Central Station.
Eighteen stories tall and all its windows blown out, the gigantic Michigan Central Station represented both Detroit’s rise to industrial greatness in the early 1900s and its long, painful fall into economic depression in the 1960s. The imposing marble archways (crafted by Rafael Guastavino, a Catalan engineer who modernized traditional tile vaulting) were amongst the first sights for many immigrants who had sought a new life and fortune in the region’s booming manufacturing sector. In retrospect, our passage through the storied building in the summer of 1963 on our way to Grand Central Terminal in New York was amongst the last occasions to take the train. As the appeal of train travel gave way to the desire either for speedy air travel or for the open road – largely behind the wheel of a car manufactured in this very city – the station began its a long steady decline, closing its doors in 1967.
Despite the romanticized version of train travel presented in the movies, our overnight train ride was smelly, crowded, dark, and uncomfortable. We slept in berths; sister and I on top, mother and father below. The night was long and noisy, constantly interrupted by people and porters, voices and rumblings, clanging and banging. Then, amidst the clatter and clanking and endless stream of passersby, we arrived, at morning light, in New York. More trains, endless suitcases and travel trunks hauled by armies of porters on flat-trucks, unlimited expanses of people bustling to wherever and for whatever purpose.
We climbed into a New York City yellow cab; then New York Harbor and a short walk along a wet and smelly harbour pier, surrounded by massive towering ocean liners that lined our path. One of these behemoths would be our floating home for the following eight days. In the harbor, huge skyscraper ships were being pushed by tiny and colorful tugboats spewing water fountains in the air. All around me children were screaming and porters barking, creating the sweet yet salty redolence of harbour life; a mixture of sensory explosions. Walking along the wharf towards our ship, the sun was blotted-out by the overwhelming black and white hull of a passenger liner. Years later I learned that the huge floating building was the RMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest seafaring ship in the world at the time.
As we boarded our ship I remember walking up a long ramp, noticing the huge ropes that issued from its nose and held the ocean liner to port, lifeboats swaying overhead, people hanging from the multilevel railings, and the huge identifying lettering: LEONARDO DA VINCI.
I had heard the name and remembered the ship from the plastic model that had sat on a shelf at the Detroit travel agency where my father booked our trip. I remember reading in the publicity brochure describing the ship that it was the first of what was to become a new fleet of four sister ships, each named for a famous Italian: the artists Michelangelo and Raffaello, the explorer and first immigrant Cristoforo Colombo, and Leonardo Da Vinci. Italy had been left without a fleet of passenger liners after World War II. These four ships would establish it as a major European player in the lucrative Mediterranean-New York run.
The significance of those famous Italian names and the life-altering experience of the upcoming trip would become clear to me years later. In my university years, I recall that I somehow felt destined to pursue my career in Italian Studies because of them.
I still jealously conserve that worn and yellowed publicity booklet given to us by our travel agent. The pearl of the Italian line, the brochure declared, was the Leonardo da Vinci. The SS Leonardo da Vinci was built to replace the ill-fated SS Andrea Doria that sank after it collided with the Swedish-American line ship, the MS Stockholm, in 1956.
The brochure highlighted these details: Launched on 2 December 1958; maiden voyage, 30 June 1960: length, 230.60 metres; beam, 28.20 metres; draught, 9.5 metres; 4 x Ansaldo steam turbines; propulsion: twin screws; speed, 23 knots (service), 25.5 knots (maximum); capacity: 1,326 passengers (413 first class, 342 cabin class, 571 tourist class), in liner service. The brochure unfolded to display a map of the ocean liner, illustrating its internal compartments.
As the pride of Italy’s ocean-going fleet slowly veered out of harbor it was accompanied by a multitude of waving hands, teary eyes, hand-blown kisses, and the harbor’s screeching horns bidding the SS Leonardo da Vinci a safe journey. Then suddenly water. Nothing but water. An expanse of sea water; interrupted only by the white furrows painted on the deep blue palette by our ship’s trailing wake.
Life onboard the SS Leonardo da Vinci was a veritable holiday: white linen, huge dining room, dinner music, and waiters. I had never eaten in a restaurant and, being served anything I wanted, without my parents cautioning me regarding cost seemed miraculous. Meals were served by waiters with white gloves and sparkling white jackets. Plates were removed by others in blue uniforms. We sat at our own table, always the same table. It all seemed so inevitably formal, but somehow normal and yet sublimely unusual.
Everyone on board seemed happy, yet anxious to reach our destination. In the interim, life was good. Children’s movies, shuffleboard courts, swimming pools. It seemed like the entire universe was on board this ship. My sister and I spent hours in the children’s on-deck pool. It was always crowded; my mother and father were always nearby talking to other parents as they watched us. Shuffleboard was also fun, but my sister was too young to play, so we spent time playing board games and eating ice cream. Tons of ice cream.
My most constant memory was water. Deep blue and endless water. Everywhere. I remember spending time staring at the white wake, watching it flow from beneath the ship, moving upwards and outwards as the powerful engines churned our vessel forward. It never stopped, never lessened. As the white furrow stretched into the distant horizon behind the ship it softened, melting back into the deep dark waters it had momentarily disrupted.
Our cabin was below the water line. The thought now makes me shudder. It was reached via ramps, many ramps, of white metal stairs. At the end of each ramp was a painted white door with a large white wheel that locked the door when turned. These were emergency hatches that were to be locked shut in case of flooding. The thought still chills me.
Directly in front of our cabin a small open area held a desk and chair in one corner. It was inhabited by a portly crew member dressed in a white uniform that reminded me of the rotund Sgt Garcia from the then-popular television series Zorro. Plump and mustachioed, the jovial deck hand taught me how to play Scopa, a pastime he relentlessly pursued while seated at his small corner desk.
Scopa is a traditional Italian card game whose origins are lost in the arbours of history. Playing cards are believed to have originated in China, and then spread to India and Persia. From Persia they are believed to have spread to Egypt, and from there into Europe through both the Italian and Iberian peninsulas in the second half of the 14th century. Thus, European playing cards appear to have an Islamic derivation.
In Italy, the earliest literary reference to card-playing is found in a notation in a 1378 Italian document, “ludus qui vocavit naibbe” (a game called cards). In the Chronicles of Viterbo it is noted that “in Anno 1379, fu recato in Viterbo il gioco delle carte, che in Saracino parlare si chiama nayb.” (In the year 1379 there was brought to Viterbo the game of cards, which in the Saracen language is called Nayb.) Information beyond local ordinances against playing cards in public (Siena 1377) and similar, often spurious references, are many.
Not surprisingly, given the myriad of peoples populating the peninsula throughout the ages, Italy has 16 different official regional packs divided to four different decorative styles: northern Latin, Southern Latin, French, and German. Both Piacentine and Napoletane, by far the most popular versions, are representative of meridional Italy and are influenced by Spain, where this style originates, as southern Italy remained under Spanish rule for centuries. There are for suits: coppe (cups), ori or denari (golds or coins), spade (swords) and bastoni (clubs), with face cards ranging from one (ace) to seven, and three cards representing court figures: fante (knave, having a value of 8), cavallo (knight, worth 9), and re (king, worth 10).
I remember playing Scopa with the deck crew every day. They probably allowed me to win because I always had a pocket-full of caramelle.
Then, on a bright warm day we saw land. An imposing set of rocks rose out of the waves. I did not know it then but we were about to enter the Mediterranean Sea through a narrow passage flanked by gigantic rocks; Gibraltar to our left and Monte Hacho to our right. Together they are known as the Strait of Gibraltar. Jebel Moussa (Mount Moses) is the name given to the mountain in the northernmost part of Morocco on the African side of the Strait. These two mountains are also known as the Pillars of Hercules, the end of the known world for ancient Greek seafarers.
We docked in the port beneath the formidable rock. Passengers descended the ramps and went ashore. We remained onboard. As I leaned over the rail, mesmerized by the sight, a bevy of small boats, laden with all sorts of wares, approached the ship on the water side. Merchants were everywhere! Floating stores with peddlers barking up at the passengers. The wares made their way up to the decks via rope that had been lowered alongside the ship. I was spellbound. The colors were breathtaking.
A few days later, we entered the Bay of Naples. I have never forgotten seeing Naples that first time. The buildings, all stacked atop one another somehow reminded me of the miniature Christmas village in the Hudson Department Store Christmas window back in downtown Detroit – minus the snow, of course. The harbour was chockfull of ships coming and going, and leaving those ubiquitous white streaks in the deep and profoundly blue water. Long white winding roads snaked up the surrounding mountain sides, mimicking the boat wakes, but more consistent and lasting.
Mount Vesuvius calmly surveyed the scene. It would rumble the night before our departure for New York months later, causing us, and the other patrons of our hotel, to spend that final evening in Italy under the stars in a crowded piazza, huddled with others in front of the hotel.
The ship seemed to take forever to reach port. It was being escorted by small tugboats that were similar to the one I had seen in New York harbor. Then pandemonium with the suddenly frenetic crowd. Bumping into luggage, run-over by travel trunks, pushed along, desperately holding onto my father’s hand. We seemed to be moving towards and into the dining room. I wondered why? We had already eaten breakfast. Weren’t we leaving the ship? Then I noticed a large exit-way on the side of the ship and the gangplank full of exiting passengers. Our ingress/egress door was part of the dining room wall; and I had never noticed.
As we came out into the blue sky and warm air of Naples, we were swarmed by an excited and overwhelming crowd of relatives waiting for a glimpse of returning brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, never-seen nieces and nephews, elder parents. Being pulled along by my mother now, it was no easy feat to maneuver the crush. I remember looking back towards the shrinking ship, when I was suddenly grabbed and held aloft by a newly-minted uncle and overweight aunt. Hugs and kisses and tears abounded. My mother’s brother, Zio Filippo and his wife, Zia Ada, seemed awfully affectionate. Their tears, especially Zio Filippo’s, washed my face with unexpected love, as he hugged me. He was especially taken with Marianna and she welcomed his arms with unexpected happiness.
Zio Filippo was a jovial character; Zia Ada less so. He regaled us with all sorts of information about people I did not know. But of course my mother kept pace with his answers, feeding him with unending questions. Brother and sister together again after 20 years. A lot to catch-up.
A black car was waiting for us and, as we drove through the streets of Naples, I was mesmerized by the colors and sounds and traffic and people that filled my field of vision. Dearborn had never been this alive and animated. People everywhere: cars, bicycles, scooters; people walking, smoking, talking, yelling; venders selling, children running, old women pulling grocery buggies, shuffling along in slippers. It reminded me of those elementary school films depicting ant farms. I had never seen such commotion, never experienced such excitement.
We eventually arrived at destination and stopped in front of what I thought was a hotel. I had understood that we were to have lunch at my aunt’s home and I was expecting a house, having grown up in the Midwest. We had indeed arrived at Zia Ada’s sister’s home, but it was on the fourth floor of a seven-storey tenement, the likes of which I had only seen on television.
I had the sensation that everything down at street-level was viscerally attached, noisy, crowded, and rambunctious. When I looked upwards I saw people peering down from what seemed wire cages suspended on the side of the building: balconies! I had never seen balconies before! And then, as we stood on the sidewalk waiting for our luggage to exit the taxi, and being sideswiped by passersby, I made a remark that was to haunt me forever ,given that my father repeatedly reminded everyone we knew of my innocent commentary for years afterwards. Though it was sunny and hot, I felt drops of water on my head. Looking up, I noticed a veritable jungle of clothing hung to dry. It was suspended across the street, around those endless balconies, across doorways, and hung limply from windows. The sky was a patchwork of colors and humanoid shapes, all peering down at me and all dripping on my head. In my American innocence I cried, “Where are we, in Africa?” My father’s future consternation at my choice of career path stemmed from my decision to make this African landscape the focus of my future studies.
We entered the tenement building, leaving the suitcases and noisy steamer trunks in a corner of the ground floor landing. My father and uncle entered a cage that moved vertically. I walked up the stairs that surrounded this unknown technology with the women, finding it odd that I could see my father and uncle as they slowly rose up through the floors and that I was actually racing them to the fourth floor.
The door, or at least half of the oddly narrow painted green door, opened and people pulled us into the room; more hugs and tears. I had never been in an apartment. It was nicely ordered but crowded. Living and dining space were in the same room – as was everything else, it seemed.
Lunch was an extended affair. Antipasto, broth, pasta, meat, salad, cheese, fruit, coffee and sweets. This was our homecoming; we were the long unseen relatives who had to be impressed; we were weary travelers who had to be fed. Not long on ceremony, my sister and I checked out after the pasta. I wanted to explore the outside world; my sister was simply cranky.
I remember the ceramic floor being cold as we moved towards that suspended cage that from the inside seemed like an extension of the dining room. Indeed, the inside opening resembled a window nicely decorated with ceiling-to-floor drapery. I had never stood on a balcony and the anticipated pleasure of being out into the open air and looking outwards and downwards was overwhelming. I had often remained perched high above the ground in our pear tree in our backyard back in Dearborn. But this was an entirely novel and exhilarating difference. The addition of the drapery made the adventure all the more fanciful and fairy tale-like.
I remember my mother yelling at us to be careful as we extended our heads through the balcony railing and peered down into the street. Just in time! A basket attached to a thin rope grazed my head as it wound its way down to street level. How odd, I thought. Baskets were being lowered from different balconies above us as housewives purchased fruits and vegetables from a fruit cart that had wandered into the neighbourhood. A fruttivendolo! The only neighbourhood venders I knew drove milk trucks. The fruttivendolo barked out his produce as he loaded the baskets: cocomero!, pomodori!, fagiolini!, patate! He seemed to have an entire grocery store on his cart. I noticed that baskets on their way down contained money while those on their way up were full of goodies. A convenient way to shop, I thought. It beat Kroger’s!
What I found most interesting was the noise at street level. Cars, mostly scooters, children playing, the fruttivendolo barking his produce, a true cacophony that made up, I would come to know, the heart of Spaccanapoli, which is the road that originates in the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter) to the Forcella district, and cuts the city of Naples in two; hence the name.
The area abounds with famous churches: San Giuseppe dei Ruffi, Chiesa di Santa Maria Donnaregina Nuova, Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli, to name a few. The monumental Complesso degli Incurabili comprises a series of important Renaissance buildings that include the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo, the Oratorio della Compagnia dei Bianchi della Giustizia, the Ospedale di Santa Maria del Popolo degli Incurabili and, of course, the historic Farmacia degli Incurabili (Pharmacy of the Incurable), a splendid Baroque-Rococo style building that was a laboratory for drugs and a meeting place for the Neapolitan enlightenment elite. Local artisan cubbyholes, pastry shops and the intoxicating aromas of open-air fryers add to the magic and lore. This historic area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
The sole means of reaching Sulmona (our final destination) from Naples was via the one-lane national road that wound its way over and through the high Apennine mountain passes. Something about the timeless enormity and monolithic constancy of mountains attracted me. I may have been only 10 years old, but as we travelled through them by car I saw green vistas and barren grey rocks that would form an indelible imprint on my soul. Permanence, sanctity, calm, beauty; rockscapes hewn in ages of hardship, severity, poverty and want. I was too young to understand the conflicting sensations that seemed to mingle and beckon me to call these mountains home.
We were traveling the historic Via Della Lana, better known as the Via degli Abruzzi. The road connects Naples to Florence and once rendered the Abruzzo region a hub of the peninsula. Remote mountain villages named Cittaducale, L’Aquila, Popoli, Sulmona, Castel di Sangro and, in neighbouring region Molise, the city of Isernia, became strategic waystations for diplomatic missions, military expeditions, cultural exchanges, and business. The road facilitated the transportation of goods, made twelfth-century Florentine merchants wealthy, and permitted the Savoy royal troops to rejoin Giuseppe Garibaldi’s army of liberation in Teano in 1860. The history of this road encapsulates much of the history of the greatest epoch of the peninsula, the Rinascimento.
Built by the famous Medici family in the 1400s, the Via della Lana wound its way from Florence to Rieti, L’Aquila, Sulmona, and Castel di Sangro before emerging onto the plains of Campania and the port of Naples. The road was necessary due to the ongoing wars for territory between Florence and Pisa, the nearest sea port to Florence (Pisa was a port in those days), rendered improbable by years of animosity. The ports of Genoa and Venice were also enemy territories. Hence, the need for a direct route of communication and commerce with the southern port that opened Europe and Asia to Florentine trade and eventual Medici fortune. The road south was a natural evolution of the relationship that the Medici of Florence had maintained with the region of Abruzzo since the mid-1200s.
The early Medici were thus wool merchants who maintained herds of sheep in the mountain plains of Abruzzo. It could be said that the Medici built their fortunes on the backs of Abruzzesi shepherds and that the birth of Modern Western civilization that was to become the splendor of the Rinascimento owes its philosophy of humanism to the naturalizing humanity of shorn sheep. Da cosa nasce cosa.
I was obviously not reflecting upon the historical underpinnings of my trip through the mountains as we wound our way on the now paved road. Instead, my youthful attention was drawn to the milestones, actually marking kilometers, that dotted the roadside at regular intervals. The rectangular hewn rocks painted with white numbers on a black rectangular box never seemed to end, a rosary of ascending Roman numerals that signaled to the driver the number of kilometres driven or kilometres to go. To me they were simply numbers to nowhere, since I had no idea of our final destination.
Equally surprising, but not as alarming as it was to my mother, was the low cement parapet that framed the steep and curving mountain road. It seemed the car would break through the ridiculously low barrier at each turn, sending us headlong onto the boulders below. As we were tossed to and fro at each interminable hairpin turn, my mother would implore God, the saints, and the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to protect our sky-bound vehicle and save us from sure disaster. It was a cloudy and rainy day. I remember because at one point my mother asked the driver to stop so that I could relieve my 10-year old bladder. He stopped on the side of the road. There were no other cars in sight and he gestured with a wave of his hand that I get out and do my business. As I stepped out onto the green grass of what seemed an endless pasture, I noticed that the socks in my sandaled feet were wet from the damp grass. I guess I was unwilling or did not know that I was expected to pee right there, exposing myself to the open sky. So I turned and peed on the taxi’s rear tire. It seemed the right thing to do at the time. I was used to peeing in urinals, with a definite target to aim at. I can still hear the driver’s imprecations and see his white tousled head, and his fiery eyes now reminding me of Charon –Dante’s infernal ferryman – as he berated me for soiling his vehicle.
Many years later I was to meet this same taxi driver again in Sulmona as he waited for fares in the town’s Piazza XX Settembre. I remember asking if he knew of drivers who had regularly made the trek to retrieve returning immigrants from Naples in the days before super-highways. He informed me that indeed he was the sole taxi man in town; had been so for years. I shared my memories of my childhood taxi ride through the mountains. Imagine my surprise when he became sweetly furious, having the lad who had urinated on his car standing before him! His ire abated over a glass of wine and lunch, my treat.
As nighttime approached and the sun’s rays formed long shafts of light that separated the lower valleys from the higher peaks, the mountains acquired a shimmering glow of rosy hues, while the valleys and slopes became animated with clusters of lights. Beautiful, odd, unexpected. It all seemed so magical. As darkness fell and day dissipated into the forests, these village lights appeared as earthly constellations. I would come to imagine these twinkling stars in my memories as beckoning beacons calling me towards my ancestral valley.
The Valle Peligna is located in central Abruzzo. It is ringed by the Maiella and Morrone massifs to the east, Monte Genzana and Monte Sirente on the West. A myriad of small hamlets and corner communities sprout throughout the valley. On its plain lie the towns of Pratola Peligna, Popoli, Vittorito, and many hamlets including Campo di Fano, Corfinio, and borghi with romantic names: Fonte d’Amore, le Marane, Case Iomi, le casette.
The valley is outlined by the mountain villages of Roccasale, Pettorano, Pacentro, (whose most unfavourite daughter is Madonna Valeria Ciccone), Introdacqua and Bugnara. They nestle precariously on the mountain slopes surrounding the valley and held strategic defensive positions when such position was of vital necessity.
The Paeligna region is surrounded on every side by high mountains, covered for the largest part of the year by snow, and was described by the ancients as the coldest region of the peninsula. The valley was a pivotal region in ancient times, and not in the least because of its flourishing vegetation and Paeligni linen, wines, cereals, olives and highly-prized honey. The Romans coveted the area and remained belligerent with its inhabitants for centuries.
Sulmona is one of the few towns to boast a legendary history that associates it with Rome. Ovid writes that Sulmo was founded by Solimus from Phrygia. Legend has it that he arrived on the shores of Lavinium with Aeneas after the fall of Troy. This alternate version of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus in the 8 BC is a rewriting of the warrior history of the Romans and a coveted link with the culture of Greece. Today, Sulmona is the largest of the valley cities, boasting a population of just under 25,000. It is an old, solid, and very provincial community with a substantial cultural history.
I don’t remember arriving or driving through Sulmona, but I do remember our taxi turning into an area that appeared to be a small parking lot. Instead of cars, however, people occupied most of the spaces. This was Piazza del Plebescito, a sloped triangular area surrounded by small shops and the neighbourhood church, Santa Maria della Tomba.
Our taxi meandered through the square and turned into what appeared to be a narrow alley. We came to a stop and immediately people began to flow out of the many arched doorways. Others were hanging from balconies, crowding around the taxi, screaming, hugging, crying; a cacophony of emotions. These were my relatives. I had never seen or heard anything about them, but they seemed to know me as they hugged and kissed me. They lifted me off the ground and passed me along the assembly line of love. My younger sister held tenaciously to my father’s neck, unwilling to let loose despite the many disembodied hands that clutched her arms and legs.
The raucous melee seemed to abate when a miniature figure clad in deep dark blue emerged from the throng. Her hair was so white that it had a yellowed hew. It was wrapped in a bun and made her facial features the more prominent. A large nose, small but lively eyes, a toothless mouth, and white hairs upon her chinny-chin-chin. My sister took one look and, as she recoiled against my father in a futile attempt to escape her clutches, proclaimed for all to hear a horrific and piercing scream: “A witch! A witch!” Thankfully, her cries were in English. Nevertheless, her incessant squirming achieved its purpose, as my father delivered her from a certain demise. The three of us strove off for an ice cream cone at a nearby caffè.
Italian gelato has a way of soothing even the most disgruntled of little girls. When we tranquilly walked back to the scene of dismay, the taxi and all the people were gone. What remained was a dark, ill-lit alley with voices cascading onto the cobblestones, but no one in sight. As we moved through Via Panfilo Serafini beneath balconies laden with clothes and flowerpots, we stopped at door number 14. They all looked alike to me at that age: old, brown, worn, with huge knockers with odd shapes. Nothing resembled the screens and front doors of suburban Detroit.
We entered the narrow doorway. A flight of very worn stone steps led up to a landing with two doors. As we passed door number one, it opened and from the tiny room emerged a man pulling up his zipper. I could see a dark, dingy, closet sized room; I espied a stained commode sans toilet seat, and no sink! Goodness me! Door number two held more surprises for my awe-stricken eyes.
My grandmother’s home consisted of two rooms. One apparently served as kitchen, living, and dining space. But I saw no kitchen, no sofas, no fancy table. Just people. All the people who had greeted us when we arrived were now in this cramped space; a space where my grandmother had raised eight children, including my mother! My eyes wandered over faces increasingly disinterested in me, and concentrated instead on the plates of cheese and prosciutto displayed before them. My eyes turned towards my grandmother.
She had placed a kerchief over her hair and was busy stirring a black cauldron that hung over a raging fire in the large fireplace. The interior walls of the fireplace were darkened with smoke. Chains with hooks hung from the inside, away from the fire. A blacked pot sat next to the fire. It was covered by an equally black lid. My grandmother was seated on a miniature chair. She was inside the fireplace! Because the fireplace lintel extended out into the room, she was precariously close to the raging fire!
Now, I had read descriptions of hunchbacked witches busy toiling over cauldrons in just this sort of fireplace in my fairy tales; I had heard of children being boiled and eaten by wicked witches in the tales of Grimm; I had even seen Walt Disney depictions of long-fingered hooked-nose and spell-brewing evil crones at the movies; but I had never seen one up close.
Perhaps my sister was right. Perhaps this entire voyage of discovery was nothing more than a short trip into a long boiling stew! Before I could complete my maniacal machinations, my grandmother beckoned me. Rather than saving me as he had done with my sister, my father pushed me towards her! Was this the end? As I moved closer and my face felt the radiant heat of the fire, my fear intensified. Then I was right there with her! She placed her arm around me and drew me near! With her free hand she reached into the pot with a fork! The noise abated. Everyone was watching, waiting. But waiting for what! If I had known about the Fates at that tender age I would have cried out for mercy at this moment that I was about to be tenderized and served to the assembled. But no.
As the fork emerged from the rolling water it held a strand of spaghetti! My grandmother held it out to me: “Mangia! Prova!” I had heard those words before, recognized the gesture that my mother had so often made to me. She wanted me to taste the pasta! As I pulled the strand from the wooden fork, she smiled, caressed my cheek. I ate the offering, the crowed clapped. Was this a trick, or had I passed the test? For a moment all seemed right with the world; at least for now.
I looked around the very crowded room and gazed into all the smiling faces. My 10-year-old eyes noticed an old man seated off in the far corner. He was smiling at me. He sat there, leaning forward, his chin resting on his hands that were cupped on his cane. A straw hat hung from his fingers. He raised his right hand and waved at me to come towards him. I saw sparkles in his eyes, a large, red nose, a great sprawling white mustache, yellowed in the middle hairs from tobacco stains, white at its handle-bared extremities.
I, too, would grow just such a mustache at the age of seventeen, but that’s another story. My father, whose leg I was leaning against, told me to go to him. “Vai, è nonno.” Nonno. I had never heard those words before. I knew somehow that they meant grandfather; but in my Detroit world devoid of relatives and a past, I remember feeling afraid. What did he want from me?
As I moved closer, I could see dandruff on the shoulders of his dark brown and stained jacket. It was unlike any jacket I had ever seen. I thought jackets were for Sunday dress. This jacket was old, worn, frayed at the cuffs; the wrinkles were secular. As I drew near, I noticed his shirt collar, small and withered, it too frayed and yellowed. A thin dark tie loosely hung beneath the open top button. I could see a dirty, sweat-stained undershirt beneath the open buttons of his shirt. I had never seen an undershirt with buttons. I had never seen an undershirt made of woolen fibers, accustomed as I was to the white cotton tees of my youth.
His hand was still motioning me to come closer. He pulled me towards him. Imagine my surprise when I heard him say in English, “I’m your grandfather. We have the same name.” It wasn’t the English I was used to, slurred and heavily accented, but it was English nonetheless. My defenses fell. I noticed a small cigar butt he held between his fingers. It was unlit but still gave off an awful stench.
The infamous Toscanino. He spoke to me for a while, about the cities of Boston and New York. I learned that he had worked there. As the story goes, he had stolen his older brother’s steamer tickets and passport, had left for Naples several days before the scheduled departure date to beat his brother’s, and he had traveled to America. He was thirteen.
These vivid recollections in Italy contrast sharply with my other recollections of childhood that seem to blur into one endless summer of long boring and unfruitful hours and elementary school days of catholic doctrine, classroom shenanigans, and personal heartfelt romances.
I remember sleeping on a small bed that night. It was directly behind the door that separated the bedroom from the dining area. I remember that it was an inordinately high bed placed directly against a dirty wall; the mattress crackled whenever I moved. It was filled with dried corn husks. My parents slept in the large bed in the center of the large room. My sister, exhausted from all the meaningful caresses and kisses, was already slumbering. A massive looming armoire occupied the opposite wall and hovered over the entire scene.
That first night’s experience was topped-off with my tiny black-bedecked grandmother entering the room and blurting patter to me as she placed a ceramic pot beneath my bed. It was a night vase. I had never seen one. Yet, somehow, I knew what it was for and that I had indeed arrived in an alternate world – one that would occupy my attention for the next three months. One that would somehow penetrate my soul and rewire all my internal configurations.
Franco Ricci is Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Ottawa. Author of numerous publications on Italian topics, his most recent work, The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign, is considered a pivotal study of television’s greatest drama. A forthcoming book, Preston Street/Corso Italia: A History of Italians in Ottawa, will be available in Fall 2020.