would not fill a book. However………..
When I first moved to Rome he began speaking to me in Italian …….
“Where’s the wheelbarrow?”, he would ask, when I phoned him.
“Is it in the elevator?”, and
“Hello, beautiful girl.”
These were the only three phrases he knew and it revealed his history of having worked with Italian labourers on building sites. (He told me once that what Italians didn’t know about concrete wasn’t worth knowing.) As the Project Manager he needed to be able to ask them these questions and many of them didn’t speak English. He also heard them often trying to chat to women passing by. I never knew my dad could speak Italian, or how much he liked it until I began living there, and he gleefully repeated all his known phrases to me every time we spoke.
My dad first encountered Italy as a young man on honeymoon in the early 1960’s. He and my mother arrived by ship from Melbourne, Australia, along with hundreds of Italians returning home to look for brides and for family visits. They docked at Naples. Dad said he had never seen men cry until that moment. He said the ship erupted with crying men, hours out of Naples, as soon as they could see land, and that the crying didn’t stop for hours until they docked and were met by crying mothers. He was very impressed with how manly Italians could be and yet how much they could cry.
As an engineer my dad was very interested in buildings, art, furniture, design. All the things Italy offered an abundance of. He and my mother toured around the major cities, he documenting everything in slides – the Duomo in Milan, the Vatican in Rome, the canals of Venice and the Bay of Naples. His love of design shows through in each of his photographs.
Several decades later when my dad and my step mother visited me once in Rome, we stopped in a piazza in front of the Pantheon, a beautiful, round Roman temple, right in the centre of the modern city of Rome. We took a seat at an outdoor cafe. The waiter arrived and my dad asked for a drink I had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce, even though I spoke fluent Italian and he didn’t. The waiter responded in the affirmative and without a glance backwards took off and brought back what ended up being an alcoholic, cherry liquor in a tall glass with soda water, and a blob of vanilla ice-cream floating in it. Something he’d remembered that he had drunk last time he was in Rome, in 1960.
He told me that one of the saddest days of his life was after that first trip when he and my mother arrived back in Australia, after spending over six years travelling and working in Europe and Asia (during which time my brother and I were born in Malaysia). He loved the influences of Europe and Italy, and felt Australia was very quiet and very far away when he first came back. He was completely understanding of my need and desire to stay and live in Italy and encouraged me to stay as long as I liked. He told me that he could walk around a piazza every day and not get bored but that once he had seen somewhere in Australia once it was enough for him. It never entranced him the way a European city could. I felt the same.
Growing up I remember Dad was very popular with his Italian employees, so much so that they gave him gifts of live birds, home-made salami’s and other incredibly smelly foodstuffs, cakes, eggs and tomatoes. Once I came home from school to find mum in a bad mood and a strange Italian bloke in our back yard hammering together a cage for the doves he had brought over for my father.
“What are we going to do with those?”, she asked my father. “We don’t know anything about birds!”
“It’s a sign of respect, darling. He wants to give them to me. I have to accept them.”
Dad provided a huge party for his builder’s labourers at Christmas with as much beer and food as they could eat. He also gave them money from his own pocket when they needed it. Once it was to pay the funeral costs of a labourer who had died at a work site he also worked at. He loved the exuberant hugging and kissing and emotional displays he got included in as one of them. He never lost his fascination for Italian men and their camaraderie from the moment he had that first experience on the ship with them.
He loved that my Italian husband Alfredo, called him Giovanni (Italian for John), and taught him even more words in Italian.
“How are you? I’m good thanks, how are you? I speak Italian. Do you speak Italian?” He would repeat over and over, every time he saw my husband. He plied Alfredo with dozens of questions every time he got the opportunity.
“What’s the name of the football team based in Turin? Where is the city with the round, white houses? What dialect do you speak? How far is it from Bari to Brindisi? Do Italians eat much meat?”
He never lost his interest in or passion for history, geography and all things Italian, and treated Alfredo as though he was a living specimen of a culture he found endlessly entertaining and inspiring. His daughter (me) who was actually a Social Anthropologist he never asked anything of. I wondered if he knew anything about the depth of my knowledge and association with Italy, the country I had lived and worked in for 17 years. I sent him postcards and wrote him emails with photos of everywhere I travelled, long before I met Alfredo. One day he got out a huge Atlas to confirm a conversation we were having, just the two of us, about a certain part of Italy. It fell open naturally at those pages and I saw inked in lines drawn all over Italy and other places I had visited. He had traced my journeys and plotted them all on the maps in the Atlas, using the postcards and emails I had sent him.
He understood my need and desire to live there but when I was back in Melbourne, towards the end of his life, he often expressed anxiety at the thought of me returning. Last year we were shopping for some dinning furniture and took him with us. We were in an Italian furniture design shop whose headquarters was in the south of Italy, the region Alfredo is from. As I touched the furniture I sighed and indicated how much I missed it. He turned to Alfredo and said in a menacing but joking way “No, she is not allowed to go back now.” My blood ran cold as the thought of disappointing him hit me. Returning was always an option for me.
My dad passed away 1 month ago. In those last days of palliative care, I sat and held his hand and looked in his eyes and told him I loved him and heard him say it back. Whenever Alfredo spoke to him and called him Giovanni, he responded with a smile and tried to speak in Italian back. I am glad I don’t have to disappoint my dad by returning to a country I love. I am glad I am now free to go. And I am glad I returned to Melbourne, to spend these last years with him.
I am glad I inherited his love and passion for travel, for history, for geography and for learning about new languages and cultures and I will always take him with me where ever I go.
Vale, Giovanni, Vale.