AN AMERICAN BOY IN ITALY
I snapped my sixteen-year old grandson’s picture as he jogged around the perimeter of the Roman Coliseum. As he passed the prestigious viewing section where in 80 AD Julius Caesar and his cronies sat and cheered the gladiators who battled with lions and tigers in the arena below, I lost sight of him.
I started fiddling with my new camera. As blurred images swam in front of my eyes and I became dizzy with worry. Then a minute before our tour bus was about to leave for the Roman Forum, he emerged victorious and sweaty at my side. On the bus to The Roman Forum, I made sure he sat next to me.
At the Roman Forum as our tour guide, Giuseppe, kept up a lively dialogue pointing out the religious and political crumbling edifices. Our tour ended at Caesar’s tomb. The Romans have never forgotten their beloved leader and fresh flowers have been placed on his tomb every day since his death 2000 years ago. Noting that these Romans have long memories, Michael and I walked into the dark enclosure and we saw a splendid array of flowers strewn on the tomb.
Outside, adjusting our eyes to the brilliant sunlight, Michael looked around the Forum and asked if he could have some “free time.” I took his request with a worried grandmother’s concern, but I said, “yes.” He promised to be back in ten minutes and I watched him jog away and disappear. I sat down on one of the remnants of an ancient column and talked with the tour guide making sure to stay in the exact same spot, so he could find me. After twenty minutes, a creeping anxiety overtook me.
With his forgotten water bottle in my hand, I strained my eyes looking for a very tall American boy with green and hazel eyes wearing a Peace not War t-shirt. I began meditating and began taking took large, very large, deep breaths praying that he would return soon and all the while thinking irrational thoughts like: “How am I going to explain his disappearance to his parents? And “Should I call the Polizia?”
Our tour group began walking to board the bus to the Vatican. I distractedly took sips from Michael’s water bottle and willed them to walk slower.
After fifteen minutes, Michael came jogging towards me. He had wandered beyond the perimeter of the ancient walls and the guard at the gate wouldn’t let him back in without a ticket. I’m sure it was his beautiful smile and gentle manner that convinced the guide to let him back in. I handed him his water bottle and we had to run to catch up with our group.
In St. Peters Cathedral, I took his picture in front of Bernini’s sun burst window. His innocent face and the light cascading over his tussled, wavy hair, reminded me of one of Bernini’s magnificent angels that line the bridge to Castel Sant’Angelo. Later in the Vatican Museum, we marveled at the accuracy of the 15th century cartographers work displayed on the frescoed walls of the Hall of Maps. In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s magnificent paintings stunned our sensibilities. We came away with stiff necks and eyes of wonder. Back on the bus on the way to lunch at a local restaurant we were both quiet.
Michael has a conversation at lunch
While Michael ate his double dish of pasta, which pleased the waiters tremendously, two elderly ladies sitting across from us engaged Michael in conversation. Michael became quite loquacious as the conversation turned to religion.
I held my breath.
Michael has never been baptized, nor has he had any religious instruction. To him churches are museums. Yet, he charmingly engaged these two women with his version of religion or perhaps his lack of it.
He quoted from his favorite book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and I overheard him using phrases like “alternative realities,” and “living in parallel dimensions.” The two women greeted his news with interest or amazement, I’m not sure which. I kept grandmotherly quiet and ordered another glass of wine.
Later, I learned that these two elderly ladies were retired nuns.
That night Michael was pensive as we dined on our hotel’s roof-top terrace taking in the crystal-clear moonlight night with the specter of St. Peter’s dome glowing in the distance. In quiet reflective moments like this one, I wondered if I had done the right thing by not bringing a friend or one of his cousins with us to Italy. Was he bored? What was he going to do tomorrow, when we arrived in the medieval Lilliputian town of Mercogliano where no one speaks English.
I had given Michael a choice. While in the Naples area, we could take a day tour of Pompei or we could visit our Italian cousins in Mercogliano. Michael chose Mercogliano.
The next morning on the taxi ride to Rome’s Termini station, Michael was delighted as we careened around street corners with our Mario Andretti taxi driver. At the crowded Rome Termini train station, I was apprehensive about losing our luggage or even Michael, but Michael assured me with a bit of annoyance that: “Grandma, I go to work in the city with Dad almost every weekend. I know how to take care of myself.” This bit of knowledge did nothing for me as I continued to make him walk in front of me at all times, so I could see his head above the crowd and if I had a leash, I would have put it around his waist.
On the train sitting across from one another Michael made no eye contact with me pretending to be traveling alone. When our train sped past Mt. Vesuvius, looming large in the distance, I couldn’t help interrupting Michael’s solitary reverie. Speaking in my best-retired school-teacher-grandmother voice, I mentioned Vesuvius’ erupting in 79AD and its ashes and rubble burying the town of Pompei. Michael just nodded.
This is when I decided to leave Michael alone. I shifted in my seat and nonchalantly turned to the stranger sitting next to me and brushed up on my Italian phrases and pretended not to know Michael.
But I did wonder if this young teenage boy, whose only travel experience had been a trip to Walt Disney World when he was ten, would find the tiny town of Mercogliano where life has gone on in a peaceful rhythm since the Middle Ages. The only attraction was an ancient funicular cable car up the mountain.
The patriarch of this family, Modestino Argenziano is called il nonno, the grandfather. In January of 2005 I made a special trip to Mercogliano to celebrate his 100th birthday. On that cold and snowy night il nonno, with a fashionable scarf tossed around his neck and without cane or wheel chair, walked tall and erect carrying his one hundred years with dignity. TV cameras photographed his entrance into the municipio, the town hall. He was greeted by the mayor who presented him with a parchment award claiming him a national treasure.
The relatives, who were crowded into the mayor’s office clapped vigorously as he blew out the candles with one breath. Then everyone was quiet and respectful as he spoke words of wisdom into the TV camera. A grand banquet was held after the ceremony.
Il nonno’s youngest son, Virgillio recorded this momentous occasion and mailed us the DVD. Michael watched this DVD with the rest of our family and it must have made an impression on him because I found out later that one of the reasons Michael wanted to go Mercogliano instead of Pompei was to meet, il nonno.
Meeting us at the Naples train station, cousin Virgillio whisked us quickly out of the hot and stifling waiting room and into his new Panda. We whizzed along the highway towards the mountains and the air became cooler. Guiseppina, Virgillio’s wife was waiting for us in their comfortable condo perched in the center of the mountain halfway down from the old part of town called “Capo Castello where il nonno lived.
Giuseppina had prepared “zuppa de pesce” for us. Crowded in their tiny kitchen, Michael leaned over to look over her shoulder at this delicious blending of clams and mussels simmering in a light tomato sauce bubbling on the stove. But his nose twitched a little and trying to smile, he looked at me. I could tell that he wasn’t too pleased about having to eat this dish. Giuseppina saw this too. Without saying a word, she reached into a cabinet, got out a jar of her homemade tomato sauce, poured it into a pan of delicately simmering olive oil, flavored with a touch of garlic, added a handful of basil and Viola! pasta for Michael.
Michael got his camera and took a picture. This confirmed Michael’s already strong belief that Italian mothers and grandmothers always take care of their children’s wishes and when it comes to food no words are necessary, only a few gestures suffice.
Walking around the modern condo, Michael eyed the computer in the living room and politely asked with his eyes and his hands and his no-speak Italian, if he could e-mail his friends and go on face-book. His wish was granted as another unwritten rule in Italy was manifested: “Children’s wishes are to be granted.”
After dinner I settled down for a sonnolino, an Italian tradition, where you literally get under the bed-sheets with the shutters drawn and rest for at least 20 minutes. I was looking forward to the visit to Capo Castello. But rising from my nap, I had been told that il nonno, who was now one hundred and five had not been feeling well and we wouldn’t be able to visit with him. I was very disappointed.
Instead of napping, Virgillio had taken Michael on the new funiculare, a thrilling seven-minute ride up the mountain in one of the steepest and most rapid cable cars in Europe. At the top is the famous Sanctuary of Montevirgine, a Benedictine monastery built in the 12th Century on the remains of a temple dedicated to the goddess Cibele. During WWII the US military used it for radio communications.
At dinner we were given good news. When the grandfather heard that we were in town and even though he wasn’t feeling up to par, he rallied round and asked his unmarried, daughter, Vincenzina, to shave him and prepare a shirt for him to receive us.
Michael was ecstatic. This is when I realized that the main reason Michael chose Mercogliano over Pompeii was because he wanted to meet this cousin of his who was a national hero. In fact, with the true American character where everything we own is bigger and greater in America, Michael asked me as we got in the car, “Was il nonno the oldest man in the world?”
We all piled into Virgillio’s tiny car that gave us a bumpy ride on a vertiginous one lane roadway up to Capo Castello. We left the car at the top of a narrow street and walked to the grandfather’s house. The lane was so narrow that if we extended our arms two across in both directions we could have easily touched both walls of the houses. We passed by houses that usually have someone on a balcony or a doorway to say hello. I wondered where everyone was. As we turned a corner I was not surprised to find a crowd of relatives at the door of il nonno’s house waiting for us.
Michael had to bend his head down to enter the small doorway. To the right as you enter, there is a wooden bench placed near the corner fireplace that is the main source of heat in the winter. Two steps past the fireplace, is a table that seats at the most a crowd of six people. Four steps more and you are out the back door. On the tiny balcony where wet clothes are hung to dry there is a spectacular view reminiscent of the green mountains of New Hampshire.
The tiny postage stamp kitchen was crowded with sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in baby carriages. It seemed as if the whole town was there, which is not a stretch of the imagination as in this town everyone is related to everyone else. Il nonno sat straight and tall on the bench behind the kitchen table where he always sits when he plays cards with his seventy-year old son’s, Mario and Modestino. They say their father always wins. But tonight there were no cards on the table.
I immediately went to kiss him, sat down and took his hand in mine. He squeezed mine letting me know he recognized me, but he was silent. Michael went to sit on his other side and il nonno smiled when Michael kissed him on the cheek. Michael leaned towards the old gentleman as we took pictures with as many Italian cousins as we could fit into the camera’s range. I have one picture of Michael and I sitting alone with il nonno, who is wiping a tear from his eye. We did not stay long as we could see he was getting tired. Michael and I kissed everyone goodnight which took about ten minutes and then walked around a corner to another cousin’s house for something to eat.
Crowded together on a beautiful patio, with millions of stars shining brilliantly in an unpolluted ink black sky, the “light supper” went on for hours. Plates of food practically fell off the table. Grandparents rocked babies in carriages while youngsters played soccer on the street below. Michael just smiled at everyone and silently walked off and I forgot about him. This was one place where I knew he was safe.
At some point Michael came and sat down next to me and listened to my attempts at speaking the local Neapolitan dialect. Not understanding one word, he just stared in awe at the full moon rising in the distance. I felt a bit guilty for perhaps having had ignored him and put my arm around his shoulder. He leaned his tall frame towards me and said, “Grandma, I can’t stop smiling.” His gaze was directed down the narrow street towards “il nonno’s house. “What did you say?” I asked. And he repeated: “I can’t stop smiling.” Noting the quizzical look on my face he said: “It’s amazing how everyone gets along with one another. How they live in harmony.”
The next day we were driven to the train station to reconnect without tour group. That night as we were checking into the Baglioni hotel in Florence, il nonno died. But Virgillio did not inform us of his death until a week after we had arrived home. He did not want to disturb the rest of our vacation.
A few weeks later, we received a prayer card with il nonno’s picture on the front and on the back were these words: L’amore che ci hai dato non e` morto con te: vive nel nostro cuore, nella nostra coscienza, nel nostro ricordo. La fede mantiene uniti quelli che la morte separa.
The love that you have given us did not die with you.
It lives in our hearts, in our conscience, in our memory.
Faith holds together that which death separates.
Louise LoCascio Matarazzo was born in Montclair, New Jersey, in 1937, to a Sicilian mother and father. who came to the States in 1913. When anyone asked if she was Italian, her father taught Luisa to answer, “No, I am Sicilian.” Luisa has taken the stories her father told her about Sicily to write a memoir about growing up Sicilian in America. Luisa also writes poems in which she reflects upon growing up with six siblings, a long marriage with children and grandchildren, followed by divorce at age seventy-five. Luisa lives in New Jersey. She has traveled extensively through the many glorious towns of Italy and Sicily, stopping once in Puglia to teach English as a second language to high school students, She often takes along her paint box on her trips and puts brush to canvas to capture the light caressing the many landscapes of Sicily, France, and Italy.