Friday, May 21, 2010

The Émigré

One spring morning in 1982 when I was 24 years old I climbed onto my Yamaha SR500, loaded with luggage and ten million lire ($4,000) rolled up in some dirty underwear and I rode for the Swiss border some ten hours north. I left behind my family home shown below, and my sisters and a country way of life to which I have never returned.In those days Italy had currency exchange controls to prevent capital flights abroad as tax evasion and an uncertain economy made many wealthy people seek the security of a Swiss bank for their savings. Thus it was that when I crossed the border to Lugano and removed my cash roll from it's noisome hiding place (I was waved through the border and my security precautions were, as usual, excessive), not one person batted an eyelid when I walked into the bank young, dirty and looking for dollars for my discredited Italian currency. I was off to America. There is a burden, even today in being the sole male heir to a family history that goes back hundreds of years. The castle that was my summer home in my childhood had it's foundations laid in the 12th century and in the 20th century it very often seemed that progress and the outside world had left us behind. Paved roads didn't show up until the 1970s and even though electricity was available running water was not always on tap. This next photo was taken where I took the picture above, looking the opposite way. It shows Dolores, now a grandmother, carrying water on her head to her home on the unpaved streets of my village. In the background you can see Eliseo starting his Vespa, a machine that today would have a scooter lover in the US drooling but in those days, the 1960s it was as much transport as one could hope for in these backwaters.I grew up in a world where fields were ploughed by oxen and a drive to Rome. 90 miles to the south, was an all day adventure until the Autostrada was opened, a four lane wonder which wound through the Umbrian valleys like a taste of the modern world outside our mountan fastness. In the picture below I have triangulated my home town, marked by a green arrow. Top left is Orvieto, a famous hill top town producer of wine and tourists. It sits astride the Autostrada labeled these European days as E35 (to Italians it's know at the Autostrada del Sole, the Highway to the Sun). To the right is Todi, a tiny market town now too a tourist attraction but when i was a kid no one knew where the city was. The provincial capital is Terni, a somewhat ugly industrial city of 120,000 people to the bottom right of the map. In the middle, unmarked in "here be dragons" country, was my home.My wife has never reproached me for denying her the chance to live in a genuine medieval castle and for that I am grateful because it was a miserable existence.
No wonder I wanted to escape to the bright lights of the world outside. Unlike myself my sisters wanted nothing more than to settle down ad live here amongst the salt of the Earth. My sister Elizabeth married this man's son. He's long gone but half a century later they are still married in the same place with two sons and one grand child.We youngsters lived a schizophrenic existence, our summers were three months of total freedom in a place (not unlike Key West) that time had forgotten. My sister Tish in the blue pants posing with our gang from the village. About 1965 when I was seven and many families lived on that particular hillside.It was a bare bones peasant life for people who didn't own castles and sharecrop thousands of acres of land. This man below showed me how to plough a field with his oxen one afternoon. One furrow and I was exhausted, but he did the job from dawn to dusk until his fields were finished. We only had two tractors and they helped where they could but the sharecroppers did the bulk of the work in full on Biblical style. That's me with the black hair in the back row pretending to be a proper middle class English boarding schoolboy, jacket, tie and proper deference to authority. I never spoke of my summer holidays roaming the countryside living as close to nature as it was possible to get outside the pages of Lord of the Flies.
My sisters hated their jail time in England. Here they are, rebellious teenagers aching for Umbria. They are the two big haired girls standing on either side of the lone Asian student in the middle of the picture. They are twins and were ten years older than me, so they enjoyed torturing me when they could.The village exists still at the end of a mile long road, tucked out of sight yet discovered by a few American families that snowbird there in summer homes where my peasant neighbors lived with outhouses, bare electric light bulbs and dirt roads. That same road saw religious processions and a full on Fellini-esque existence. If you want to know what my life was like check out Amarcord, set on the Adriatic Coast of Italy before and during World War Two and it is as close to the weirdness of growing up here as I can explain.When I look back on my youth I feel like a time traveler, someone who has seen the world as it was when modern conveniences were not even a dream. There was one pay phone in the neighboring village when I was a child. If my mother wanted to call her husband who spent his summers "working" in London (chasing skirts actually, which led to an acrimonious divorce in 1970 and longer Italian holidays year round for me) the business of making an international phone call took hours. We would gather in the shoe repair shop where the communal phone lived and while the cobbler worked on repairing the shoes I played with his shoe nails and lumps of hardened glue while my mother spoke to the operator, gave her the number to call and waited for a call back. "London is on the line" the operator would say and we could hear, one at a time, a tinny reverberating voice with a long lag from a place a planet away. It was harder to hear than it was to listen to astronauts walking on the moon.Perhaps it was a more innocent time, it was certainly closer to nature which we are told is a good thing. Summertime was the period of the harvests and our family owned a stationary threshing machine that trundled around the countryside behind a tractor from farm to farm threshing the crops and sharing the wheat to pay for winter seed and keep families fed until next year. The harvest was a communal time of long labor and huge meals eaten in vast gatherings. This picture has survived the decades and shows a portion of the workforce having a quick lunch, pasta, bread meat and wine served by the no nonsense woman overseeing the operation. You can't smell the sweat or feel the itchy dust on your skin or hear the crickets chirping in the bushes all round. But this was where i spent my summers away from the strictures of Latin and Geometry and French classes in faraway England.The woman shown below is dead, the girl is now a single woman living in Rome learning to become a Notary which is a hugely lucrative career in bureacratic Italy (if you want to feel the real pain of government bureaucracy, live in Italy all you Tea Baggers). The little girl in the middle is a total babe now with children of her own. When I met her after 25 years away she recognized me but I had no idea who she was until she reminded me with a laugh. Two of the seven pictured below are dead now, the girl is a middle aged widow of the boy to her right, and of the boys shown who have survived none live in the village now. We all emigrated one way or another, I was just lucky to learn English and have the money and education to cast my net further afield.
My brother in law courted my sister on this Vespa which they still own, but he refuses to ride since Italy enacted a helmet law. His sons have the motorcycles he always envied me but could never own himself.
He is a grandfather now, and motorcycles remain a theme.My sister is 62 and serene in her life choice. She isn't on very good terms with her twin who is married outside the church and lives a couple of miles away. I eschew family drama when I go back to visit but I have to split my time equally between the two families which makes me crazy. People think life in the backwaters is some sort of Rousseau style noble savage existence but I can tell you every insult, every act of bad manners , every moment of thoughtlessness becomes a historic epic recounted around the winter fire place and rage is stoked and after all this is the land that gave the world the word vendetta. I am well out of it.
My mother died three years after her divorce. The village closed in around her death bed and tended to her as she lay dying of a brain tumor for the last six months of her life. She lay in the Gothic castle her physical functions shutting down as the tumor ate her brain. I continued my crazy life, living in boarding school and spending my vacations sitting by her bed watching her fade away. I was called into my housemaster's office one day in June and he told me mother had died that morning. "Yes sir," I said, "Thank you sir," and went back to French class. "What happened?" my seat mate asked. "My mother died," I replied as I got back to the important business of translating Balzac into schoolboy English .
She was the last of the landed aristocracy that ruled over these mountains and she got a proper funeral, walked from the castle in her coffin to the cemetery five miles away. My father told me not to go, so I wasn't there. Just one more act of bizarre cruelty in a life I cannot comprehend looking back.Note the death bann carries the government tax stamps in the bottom right hand corner. This is Italy after all and no one can post an announcement without paying the tax!
My mother had always wanted me to ride motorcycle, machines she loved and remembered from her father riding a Harley Davidson before World War Two. This is Giovanni's father admiring my insanely powerful 650cc Benelli Tornado, Italy's answer to the Triumph Bonneville. I was 19 when I was trying to kill myself on this machine, no helmets, no gloves no boots. Is it any wonder I am rather scornful of the wittering newbies who mumble ATGATT before they dare approach their machines. I survived, so can you. Time has passed and I wear much of the gear most of the time to protect my middle aged bones. Mellito has aged too and he is now in his 80's tired after a life of doctoring. I remember him above and after my quarter century absence I came back to find him like this.
His son, my childhood buddy is gray haired now.
And time has had it's way with me, seen here with Tish in Sicily when Mount Etna erupted.
Giovanni and I used to ride our mopeds all over the mountains. 50cc bikesare legal in Italy for 14 year olds and back then there was no need for helmets, tags or insurance. We spent our summers riding all the time on gravel roads on hillside tracks and learnikng to not fall off as gravel rash could ruin a summer.
We live with those memories inside us, but from the outside all you see is two middle aged fifty year olds riding motorcycles far too powerful for their age. Last summer we rode the Tuscan Alps, me on a rented K1200S BMW, 170 horsepower and quite insane.Giovanni on his four year old R1200GT tourer with only 120 horsepower I think, and incredibly comfortable. He takes the armor out of his motorcycle gear, on the grounds it makes him look fat and he has never dropped a motorcycle in 40 years of riding. Whatever.
We pause on our travels to let Giovanni the cardiologist smoke a cigarette and for me to take pictures, here on the Via Cassia, the old Roman road, still in use through the Tuscan countryside.(Umbria is prettier but I am partisan after all these years).We reminisce when we stop. talking about our childhood, the myths and realities, the people who are dead and gone, the rides, the women we chased and the loneliness of growing old so far apart.
I miss terribly the fact that this summer I won't be there and I blame Goldman Sachs fair and square for keeping me away.