Thursday, March 7, 2013

Recollections of my first trip to Italy and an elaborate joke that failed

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I took my first trip to Italy in 1996, when I was 43 and teaching journalism, photography and graphic design at Peninsula High School. Though it fulfilled a nearly life-long ambition, the notion to go at this time occurred spontaneously and only a few weeks before the actual voyage. Thinking back, the preparations are still a blur.
My daughter Sandra, a junior in high school, was finishing a one-year stay in Poland as part of a Rotary Club exchange program. Now she and another American student wanted to do some traveling around Europe, including Italy, before returning. It had been challenging enough for us to let our little girl live with other families halfway around the world, but now she wanted to travel around strange places, Italy included, with no adult supervision. Wasn’t Italy the place where males pinched foreign girls in the bottom? Isn’t there some famous photo of Italian guys leering at an American woman? Sandy had asked our permission, reassuring us that she and her friend were now experienced and mature travelers and they would support each other. They had already spent the money to get to Poland, and it would be a shame not to see the rest of Europe as well, she pleaded. We told Sandy we would think about it and get back to her.

Maybe my Italian cousins could take them under their wings, we thought. That would be asking a lot of cousins I had never met. Back in 1966, my sister Linda and brother Roger had been on a European tour. When the tour went to Firenze, my relatives had met them at the station and introduced them to the extended Italian family for a day or two. Roger had been a minor and couldn’t leave the tour group, but Linda went to some of the homes for an unforgettable experience. A few of my older cousins had been there for visits as well.

Suddenly it occurred to Lucy that I should be the one to escort Sandy around Italy. She knew it was a dream of mine to go there and meet the relatives, and this would be the perfect time, she said. I gave her many reasons why this would not be a good time. For one, I would still be teaching school for three days during the time Sandy would reach Italy. I didn’t even have a passport, and doesn’t it take about six weeks to get one?

But Lucy is a determined woman, and she made up her mind to make this happen. She found out how to get an expedited passport and set me up with an appointment. Then she helped me find someone to substitute for me during the last few days of school. She even packed my suitcases, because I was working feverishly to get my grading done and leave instructions for my substitute.

As hurried as we were, though, we did take time to come up with a devious plan for how we would tell Sandy what was happening. We told her to go to a certain hostel in Venezia, where she would be met by cousin Pietro Spadoni, and he would escort her around Italy. I didn’t even know if we had a cousin Pietro—the plan was for me to pretend to be Sandy’s Italian cousin. She was not convinced she needed an escort, but we insisted and she agreed. She and her friend took a train together from Hungary that passed through Croatia and Slovenia and arrived in Venezia together, where they spent a couple of days. Her friend departed to go to France, Spain and Portugal while Sandy waited to meet her “cousin.” In the three weeks since Lucy and I had cooked up this plan, I had grown a mustache, Lucy had bought me a fedora (I never wore hats) and I had practiced my fake Italian accent.
I felt a bit dazed as I exited the airport and asked at the information desk how to get to Venezia. I had been greeted by several aggressive uomini offering to take me by water taxi, but the information agent recommended I take a blue bus. I had not had time to research anything about the city, and I wondered how a bus could carry me to an island, but it turns out there is a bridge. Once there, I asked at information again how to get to the Ostello Venezia, and I received instructions about buying a ticket for the vaporetti and at which stop to get off. I arrived and checked in several hours before Sandy and I were to meet, so I explored a bit and then returned. There she was!

“Buon giorno,” I greeted her heartily. “You must-a be Sandra Spadoni. I am-a you cousin, Pietro.”

“Wow!” she said. “You look so much like my dad! I can’t believe it. The resemblance is amazing!”

“He must-a be one bell’ uomo,” I replied.

OK, actually that’s not what she said at. That’s just how the conversation went in my imagination; it’s how it should have gone. Instead, she recognized me immediately.

“Dad? DAD! What are you doing here?

“No, no, I am not your father. I am Pietro, il tuo cugino.”

“No, you’re my dad, and where did you get that silly hat? And what’s with the mustache?”
I had to give up. My disappointment at having failed to fool her couldn’t match our joy at being reunited after nearly a year, and we had two weeks together that neither of us will ever forget.

I don’t remember where I put my photos
of this trip, but this picture I found online
is how I remember my appearance.
I recently asked Sandy about her memories of our encounter, and she wrote: “When I first saw you come out toward me all dressed up with your wee mustache starter and hat, I immediately recognized you, but it was a shock! It was a wonderful surprise, since I hadnt seen you for almost a year. I think that was your best practical joke ever (even though you didnt trick me). Come on, you are my one and only papa. I should hope I could always recognize you, even in a fedora.”

This was almost 17 years ago, so I can forgive her faulty memory about my mustache. As I recall, it was a thick and full bush of pure manliness.
We spent a day in Venezia before going to Firenze and then Montecatini, where we met the real Pietro Spadoni, along with many of our other cousins.

Sandy is the one who showed me how to look at the train schedules and ask the ticket agents for the lowest fares. To save money, we ended up taking a slow train in the middle of the night from Venezia to Firenze. It arrived about 5 a.m., and since there were no trains leaving for our cousins’ smaller city of Montecatini until later in the morning, we had to hang out in the chilly early hours with no place to go. At around 7:30 a.m., we saw people running to get in line for something, so we followed them and got in line too. It turned out to be for the Uffizi Gallery, one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world. We paid the entry fee and went inside to look at art by Giotto, Botticelli, da Vinci, Raffaello, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Titian and other renowned artists. Amazed as we should have been by these works of genius, we became separated for quite a length of time. Afterwards, we discovered that we had both fallen asleep in different rooms because of our exhausting overnight trip and chilly early morning wait outside. 

Afterwards, we continued on to Montecatini and spent a good part of a week at the home of Enrico Spadoni and his wife, Enza, along with their children Alessandra and Simone. We were treated to banquet after banquet of exquisite home-cooked meals. We dined with Enrico’s brother Loriano and his wife, Gabriella, and their sons Fabrizio and Pietro. Alessandra took us on a personal tour of famous landmarks in Firenze, and Enrico showed us a fortress that was once a sort of vacation getaway for the Medici family, though at the time we didn’t understand the historical significance of the Medici name and couldn’t understand the Italian tour guide. 

Gianfranco Del Terra, the husband of another cousin, drove us around the local countryside, taking us to Montecatini Alto and San Salvatore, where he showed where my nonno lived before he came to the United States. Gianfranco is the only one of the cousins who spoke English fluently, and he helped me translate a little speech I had written which I wanted to translate into Italian to read to the other cousins. It went something like this:

“My family instilled in me at an early age a pride in being Italian and in all things that are Italian. Because of this, I have always wanted to come here, not just to see the famous sights, but to understand what it is like to live as an Italian. Someday I hope to return not just for a visit but to live here long enough to really understand the day-to-day life of the people. Thank you so much for your hospitality and for sharing your lives with us.”

We encountered many more relatives, taking a day trip to Pisa to see the famous torre and meet cousin Raffaello Lazzaroni, a professore of chemistry at the university there. We also briefly went to an outside party to celebrate the first communion of a young cousin whose name I can’t remember. It reminded me of our Spadoni family annual Fourth of July parties, though since I spoke little Italian at the time, I really didn’t get to talk to anyone in the short time we were there.

Sandy and I then continued on to visit the Vatican, Rome and Milan, and we took a long ferry trip on Lake Como, from Lecco to Bellagio and back. By the end of my trip, I had become convinced that Sandy could take care of herself and that she would be safe traveling in Europe, so she went on to explore Paris and England before returning.

Here are Sandra’s most vivid memories of our time together: 
  • Taking that slooooooow night train with the sticky Naugahyde brown seats to Florence. The dang thing kept stopping so you couldn’t stay asleep. I love night trains, but not when they stop. 
  • Being in a haze at the museum in Florence because we were so sleepy, then taking a nap on one of the benches and being late to meet you at the exit of the museum—but I guess you fell asleep, too, because it all seemed to work out.
  • Sharing a single room in Rome to save money. 
  •  Visiting our relatives in Montecatini. We went to Montecatini Alto, and I thought that would be a nice place for a wedding.
  • Walking around Milan together. I always picture streets from there whenever I read about furniture designers in Milan (why do I read about that? I don’t know...guess it comes up in magazines or something).
  • Somebody at some point thinking we were romantically linked. Oh, those Italians.

1 comment:

  1. Nice recap Paul. Loved the Peter Sellers picture as it gave me a mental image that was good for a chuckle! There is one of the largest machinery shows in Milan due to the large furniture industry in the area so your thoughts on furniture design are on target.



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