Saturday, April 19, 2014

Author Joe DiPietro presents an immigrant story from another side

Saturday, April 19
America is a country full of immigration stories about ambitious but penniless foreigners who forsake the security of family, friends, familiar customs and a common language to start over for the hope of making a better life for themselves and their children. But Joe DiPietro gives this plot a thought-provoking twist in his play “Over the River and Through the Woods,” and though it was four years ago that I saw the production at Tacoma Little Theatre, the message has stuck with me.

Joe DiPietro
The main character in the play has an Italian grandfather who immigrated—against his own wishes—as a teenager to America. The grandfather, Frank, speaks about the cruelty of his own father, who would only buy him the very simplest of toys every year at the Christmas bazaar in their little town in Italy. What kind of a man is so stingy that he would deny his son the merest pleasure of having a nice toy?

“Every Christmas morning,” Frank said, “on the cobblestones in town, there would appear this—this sea of vendors—their carts covered with toys—and what I remember the most is the colors—bright reds and blues and oranges—like a rainbow of toys. And my father would carry me in his arms and take me to the first cart, and he’d point to some tiny, dark toy, while I’d point to the biggest and most colorful, but my father would shake his head “no” and we’d move on to the next . . . and we’d do that again and again until we had gone to each cart. And then he’d buy me some little gray toy I barely wanted, and I’d start crying, and he’d carry me back into our house. I always resented him for that—hated him for that.”

And when Frank’s father finally did scrape together a few lire, what did he do with it? He put his scared 14-year-old son on a ship to America, all alone, “and said ‘good-bye, that’s where you’re gonna live.’ I hated him for that, too.”

Starting life from scratch in an unfamiliar country is a daunting task, but most immigrants at least do it by choice. They realize full well what they are doing and why. It took Frank most of his life to understand what his own heartless father had been thinking. Frank found a good job, married and had children of his own, though he still remembered with bitterness the hardships he had been through first as a little boy growing up desperately poor, and then being sent away when he was still barely out of childhood. Shortly after Frank came to America, though, his father got tangled in a fishing net, hit his head on the side of the boat and was never found.

“Eight years from the day he sent me away,” Frank told his grandson, “I returned to my hometown so my mother and sisters could meet my new family. It was during the holidays, and on Christmas morning, I took your mother in my arms and carried her outside, and there they were—all the vendors, like they never left—with all their blue and red and beautiful toys. And your mother pointed to the brightest and prettiest, and any one she’d point at, I bought for her. And when we came back in, our arms full with this rainbow of toys, my mother took one look and said: ‘That’s what your father wished he could do! But we barely had enough to buy food on Christmas. That’s why he had to send you away. So you could make for yourself a life he could never give you.’ ”

Every spare centesimi his father saved had gone to send his son to America, where he could escape the condemnation of a life of poverty and desperation. Instead of despising his son, as Frank had assumed, his father had loved him so much that he had been willing to trade a life with his son and grandchildren nearby for the knowledge that he had done the best he could do to give them a future.

“I always thought my father was a bastard who wouldn’t give me anything,” Frank concluded. “Turns out—he was giving me all he had.”

The story is partly autobiographical, so these events likely actually occurred. And while DiPietro came from an Italian family, the story has broader application. In a New York Times interview, DiPietro said, “This is my family, but it’s all ethnic groups.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wildlife and hiking in the hills of Elba

A peninsula juts out behind Lucy, one of the views
from the top of Monte Orello.

Tuesday, April 15
After borrowing a book about Elba hiking and biking trail maps from Elisabetta, Lucy and I set off uphill in mid-morning to see if we could intersect with one of the trails. In about 10 minutes, we found markings that showed we were on the right track, and in another 25 minutes, we had reached the peak of Monte Orello, which is only 820 feet above sea level but still gave us great views of the island and surrounding waters in almost every direction.

Fragrant wild flowers bloomed all around us, attracting a plethora of butterflies and bees, while geckos skittered over the rocks to avoid us. We found a pond, fenced off for safety, and our presence also prompted numerous frogs to dive off the banks and swim out to the middle. We also encountered a porcupine, but he had been dead long enough to have nearly dried up, so all that was left was skin, bones and quills. We saw no large animals nor any people, but in many places the ground had been dug up by cinghiali, wild pigs, searching for tender roots.
The camera flash illuminates the first
room we entered in the WW2 bunkers.

At the highest levels, we found four old bunkers, remnants of World War 2. One had at least two rooms below. We’ll never know if there were more, because as we entered the second room, we disturbed some sleeping bats, and they swished out past out heads. One touched Lucy’s shoulders with his wingtips as he overtook her from behind, and at the very same time I heard a chorus of banshees shrieking—or possibly that was just Lucy, letting me know the bats were coming.
Lucy leaving the batty bunker much
more quickly than she entered it.
There were probably more bats still sleeping, but we decided to give them their privacy and leave the bunker tunnels. Instead we broke out our goodies and lay on top of a bunker, munching, talking, feeding ants and resting our heads on our backpacks. When we returned to the B&B, we read, relaxed and watched half of the movie The Next Three Days before realizing we didn’t like it. Not wanting to return to the nearby overpriced restaurant, the only one in the neighborhood, we made do with the food we had and just enjoyed our time together.

The second photo below is of the dead raccoon.

Our long climb towards heaven on the island of Elba worth the effort

Monday, April 14
For our sole train-trip “vacation within a vacation” during this year’s stay in Italy, we lifted our bicycles aboard in San Salvatore at 9 a.m. for the first stage of a three-day, two-night trip to the isola di Elba, Toscana’s main island. We transferred at Lucca and Pisa—stopping for a two-hour bike ride and stroll in Pisa—before arriving at Piombino Marittima, taking all regional trains—a real bargain at only 12 euro (about $16.60) per person one-way for three hours of train travel, with an extra 2.50 euro for a bike. By comparison, a one-way ticket from Tacoma to Portland on Amtrak would cost from $35-48 for a three-hour trip. We then took a one-hour ride on a ferry to Portoferraio, Elba’s main city, arriving at 4 p.m.

Relaxing moments after arriving at our bed & breakfast.
The bed and breakfast I had booked, Tra Cielo e Mare, should have been only three kilometers from the ferry landing, according to the directions I had printed from Google Maps—but alas, Google failed us miserably this time. Several of the reviews had warned about not following the map given on the Venere website, but I had used Google instead and thought I would be OK. I only remembered that the reviews complained about the road being rough, which I figured wouldn’t be an issue for bikes, but there were other issues I had overlooked. We arrived at the location marked on the map and saw no sign, but luckily we found a man weeding his garden and asked for help. With a knowing smile, he nodded his head and glanced skyward. He has been asked for this information countless times, he said, even from people with GPS-directed cars. His house is Via Colle Reciso 1, but the bed and breakfast is Via Colle Reciso 80, which is another five kilometers further, up and over the top of a Mount Orello on a rough dirt road. We would be much better off going around the mountain and hitting Via Colle Reciso from the other end. It will still be quite a climb for bicyclists, he said, but we had the distinct impression that starting from this end would be a mistake.

Having already erred by not reading the reviews more carefully, we decided to follow his advice. Even with the proper directions, it was about five kilometers further, but we didn’t have to go over the top of the mountain. The first three-kilometer leg took us on a busy arterial that climbed slowly around the perimeter of the hills, so we were able to ride up the incline on our single-speed bikes. When we hit the other end of Via Colle Reciso, though, we did face a two-kilometer walk up a steep hillside, pushing bikes and carrying backpacks. Altogether, what I had mapped out as a 20-minute bike ride took us two hours, and we badly needed showers and a change of clothes when we arrived. The name of the bed and breakfast means “between sea and heaven,” and as it was about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, we were closer to heaven than the sea. On the positive side, though, we had a spectacular view of Portoferraio and the surrounding hills. Also, since one of the activities we had considered doing on Elba was to hike up a mountain, we were already almost there.

The circle indicates where Venere and Google think the B&B is located. The X marks where it actually is. The arrow shows a gap in the trees where we would have come down Mount Orello had we continued on Via Colle Reciso starting at address 1 and looping around the right side of the hills.

After cleaning up, we faced the question of where and how to eat dinner. Noting that we had arrived on bicycles, our hosts Elisabetta and Sergio offered to provide us bowls of pasta with meat sauce, and we should have accepted. But we didn’t want to impose on their hospitality, and besides, we had passed a hotel with a restaurant about a mile back. Sergio called the restaurant to make sure it was open and then drove us to Le Picchaiae, which was hosting a group of Germans who had arrived on a tour bus. The restaurant had just re-opened for the season and did not yet have printed menus, but Luca, our waiter, listed the possibilities. We chose to share single orders of cream of carrot soup and a seafood risotto for our first courses and a single order of a seafood platter for the secondo. We should have stopped with the primi, both of which were excellent and ample, and then we could have split a dessert dolce. Instead, Luca delivered a generous platter of seafood, including shrimp, lobster, prawns, scallops and swordfish. That’s a lot for a single serving, Lucy remarked, and Luca didn’t respond directly. Indeed, we couldn’t quite finish off the plate and told him we would skip dessert.

Tramontana, or sunset, from Tra Cielo e Mare.
We couldn’t find Luca when it was time to ask for the bill, but another server told us we could go directly to the cashier and the bill would be delivered there. That’s when we received the shock of finding that our total bill amounted to 80 euro, or $110. I asked to see the itemization and found that the bottle of water cost 5 euro, the soup and riso 25 euro, and we had been charged for two servings of fish at 25 euro each. When I mentioned that I was not happy with the total, the manager came and confirmed it was correct. I really couldn’t deny that we had received two servings worth of seafood, even though it came on one plate, so I paid the bill without further comment. As we walked back to our rooms in the light of a full moon, we vowed that we would not eat there the next night and that I would mention my displeasure in an online review. We kept both promises.