Italy

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As I spoon the melting hazelnut gelato from my tilted bowl, Susan says, “I think I’ve had too much wine. Maybe we should go back the hotel.”

“Are you kidding? Seize the day. We’re in Italy. It’s all about the wine. Let’s go somewhere else,” I say.

We leave the restaurant and stroll, living la dolce vita. We approach Caffe Veneto, with a glassed in patio, crystal chandeliers, and live music.

“Are you ladies ready for dinner?” asks the host.

“We just had dinner,” I say.

“A glass of of wine?” he asks.

“We had a lot of wine, too,” says Susan. She turns to me. “Let’s go back to the hotel.”

“Ladies, you’re in Roma. Enjoy yourselves. Have another glass of wine,” he says.

“Yeah, Susan,” I say. “Let’s have more wine.”

“Not me,” says Susan. “Maybe a coffee.”

The host, Antonio, leads us to a candle-lit linen-covered table. Over my glass of wine and her cappuccino, he and Susan hit it off.

The piano player, Stefano, sings “That’s Amore” and “Volare.” As his fingers dance across the keys, he nods for me to join in. I leap from my seat. We make music together, singing “Unforgettable.” Pedestrians curiously watch me on the other side of the glass. I’m amplified on the historic Via Veneto, but I’m no longer self-conscious. Antonio and Susan dance in front of the piano, sliding sideways as waiters weave, carrying silver platters of lobsters and colorfully garnished whole fish. Soon they prepare to close the restaurant.

“Are you tired?” asks Antonio.

 

“Why?” asks Susan.

 

“Do you want a ride on my Vespa?” he asks.

Susan turns to me, her eyes narrowing. “What do you think?” she asks.

“Let’s go,” I say.

“We don’t know them. We could be kidnapped,” she says.

“We know where they work,” I reply.

Victoria, the server I danced with earlier, passes me. “Victoria,” I say, “Antonio and Stefano want to take us for ride. Can we trust them?” I ask.

“Yes. They’re fine. I’ve known them for years,” she says.

“Come on, Susan, when in Rome,” I say. I hop on Stefano’s Vespa.

Susan plants herself on the sidewalk, arms crossed. Antonio smiles, extending his helmet.

“Come on, be brave,” I say.

Susan cracks a smile and accepts it. We take off like rockets downhill. The wind shakes the hair sticking out from my helmet. At a stop, Susan and I look into each others’ grinning faces, a moment of thrill, anticipation, and invigoration. We speed through the Eternal City’s curves, passing miniature cars, historical buildings with floodlit columns, and luxury hotels with Christmas lights climbing several floors toward the moonlit sky.

A long, straight stretch appears ahead, the Circus Maximus. Antonio and Stefano race our motorized chariots. We cheer them on. A few turns and I’m breathless. We’re circling the lit up Colosseum. My mouth drops open. Susan shakes her head. In the side mirror, I see a glimmer in my eyes and an incredibly wide grin I haven’t seen in ten years.

We enter Piazza Venezia, a circle of honking cars, darting Vespas, and crowds of pedestrians. The Victor Emmanuel Monument is massive and breathtaking. It screams, “This is Roma. Hear us roar!”

In the center is a gigantic Christmas tree. It radiates in synchronized red and white, starting from the bottom, building momentum toward the starry sky. I shout “Buona sera!” as I wave to the tourists snapping photos below it.

We turn onto a pedestrian street. We brake and dodge passerbys. People huddle in a line in front of a store ahead. Antonio and Stefano brave the line of shoulders and elbows.

“Incredible!” says Susan. “What’s this line for?”

“I’ll find out,” I say. Customers emerge cradling a box of something looking creamy and chocolaty. We get our own personal box. We create a new huddle on the cobblestone, canopied with Christmas lights strung between centuries-old homes.

 

“This is the best tiramisu in Roma,” says Antonio.

I unlock my little treasure, a fluffy white pillow dusted with chocolate. My spoon sinks into the crafted layers of espresso, ladyfingers, and sweetened mascarpone. My tastebuds water. I taste the heaven and close my eyes.

“Do you like?” asks Stefano.

“It’s the best Ive ever had,” I say. I scrape the box, savoring every bite.

“If we went back to the hotel, none of this would’ve happened,” says Susan.

“I know,” I reply.

“Thank you for urging me to seize the day. I’ve never felt so alive,” she says.

 

“Me, too,” I reply, reaching my hand toward her. Our smiles light up; our eyes crinkle. We hook hands. We’ve discovered that our bravery in seizing the moment is the key that unlocks our happiness.

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Shopping in Rome, (well in most of Europe) there are different social norms and customs that patrons are expected to know.  In the United States, people paw the merchandise, carry it around and then usually leave it somewhere it doesn’t belong.

This. Does Not. Happen. In. Italy.

Entering into a shop is like entering into someone’s home.  (While the larger mall like stores are more lax in this custom, for this article, I am addressing the small shops.)  When you enter into someone’s home, you immediately greet them.  This is expected in an Italian shop as well.

Vendors are ready to wait on you.  They want to serve and they are attentive.  When you walk in, say, “buon giorno” and smile.  They will greet you as well and may ask something along the lines of “Che cose’?”  This means loosely, “what would you like?”   It is expected that you do not touch the wares. Italians are very meticulous in their belongings and they frown upon the idea of someone else trying it on and touching it. In fact, if you are choosing to try it on, it is almost an unspoken expectation that you plan to purchase said garment.

Wha?????  How do I know I like it?  How do I know it will fit?  Trust me.  The salesperson will have sized you up correctly the moment you darkened their doorstep.  They will know precisely what size you need.  (An aside here is it may not be the size you want.  Sorry.  Their sizes are different anyway, so it doesn’t matter.)

If you are looking for a particular color, they will be happy to help.  When you walk into a shop, the first thing you may notice is that it is very sparse.  There may be one or two mannequins dressed in an ensemble, but that will be it.  The wall are usually lined with drawers or doors that host the goods.  Italians do not like to be overwhelmed with too much at once.  Much in the way they prefer their meals to be presented in unadorned sequence, they use the same principles for clothing stores.

You may like the scarf or the skirt on the mannequins so you can point to it and say, “Lo mi piace.”  This means “I like it.”  Suddenly, before  your very eyes, there will appear a bevy of this particular skirt or scarf or shirt in an array of colors and patterns and sizes.

If there is a certain color you are looking for, it would be a good idea to learn how to say it in Italian. (Most of the shops are housed with salespeople who can in fact, speak English, but they are so happy and proud of you when you attempt the native language, it’s adorable.)

Once you have decided what you will purchase, you can say something like, “Lo prendo.”  This means, “I’ll take it.”  This is the best part.  The salesperson will whirl you up to the cash register and prepare your new belongings for their journey home.  They use tissue wraps and ribbons and beautiful reusable bags with zippers.  It is a treat in itself to watch them.  The excitement overtakes you as you make your lovely purchase.

Try and maintain your dignity when you leave.  At least go around the corner before you begin squealing in delight.  Once, I purchased a scarf (well I made my husband purchase a scarf for me) on the via Condotti and I was so proud of myself for not tearing the package open and rolling around the streets on my new treasure.  That kind of behavior is an entirely different article.

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The afternoon was chilly and my espresso was cold.  On the plane, shivering under my thin blanket, I’d dreamt of drinking in this piazza, a space as bright as sun-ripe tomatoes, wafting of baked bread and roasted peppers.  I’d come to write about living beautiful, about how, if we less fortunate non-Italians were bold enough to consume less and love more, we could taste this dream too.

But Rome in February was tired and grey, a party carried on too long, and I was one of the last guests to shake myself up from my stupor and see it through the painful lens of a hangover.  My companions in the café, the few other remaining attendees, huddled beneath beige coats, their hands curled around hot drinks, hardly speaking.  This piazza was the bleakness of Chicago made all the more bitter for its unfulfilled potential.

Uninspired, I decided to leave, to seek evidence for the Dolce Vita in another piazza, a piazza where I might trip over artist’s easels while staring at ancient ruins, gelato running down my chin.  I looked for a waiter and found only the eye of a floating statue halfway across the square, skin painted silver.  He shifted arms to point at me, refreezing his face to an expression of over-exaggerated joy, as if he saw in me a long-lost friend.  Uncomfortable under his gaze, I looked down at my stale coffee and wondered if his forwardness or my stiffness were to blame for the moment.

I left a few euros on the tray for the waiter.  Nobody said anything to me as I left.  I wanted to be chased after, to be lured to stay with promises of tiramisu and a violin serenade.  I wanted proposals of love from dark-eyed men and dire predictions from wizened gypsy women.  I wanted to be pick-pocketed of the ten euros I left so temptingly in the back pocket of my trousers.   I wanted to be seduced, but Rome wasn’t interested.

My boyfriend was in the hotel when I returned to him, curled up on the windowsill, sketchbook in his hands.  He was drawing the street below, with its red-tiled pizzerias and second-story windows with flower boxes.  In his sketch, it was raining, and the ivy streamed down from the windows like tears.  Beneath the canopy of a closed restaurant were two figures, huddled together in shelter from the shower.  The pencil-lined figures, with their damp hair and dripping sweaters, were smiling.

The rest of the week was as grey and cold as that first afternoon.  The coffee cooled quickly, so we held hands to keep warm.  Our breath was visible in the cloisters of churches and one afternoon it rained drops so icy that we were forced to spend an hour inside a cramped bakery.

 The dream that the photographs of Rome promised me were fictional composites, a carefully composed story of a vacation and a lifestyle of eternal sweetness.  But in Rome that year, I didn’t see those dreams.  Compared together, reality can be the bitter, ugly stepsister of the Cinderella fantasies sold to us.   Travel, for me, is about seeing that uglier stepsister and liking her not because she is ugly but because you are brave enough to see that her ugliness is actually beauty.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Read Part 4

“The Dream Begins,” Italy: Blood and Sacrifice Part 5

There are many explanations for déjà vu. Precognition, or prophecy, the overlap between short term and long-term memory, or if accompanied with hallucinations it could even be considered a form of neurological illness.  When I was eight I had a dream about an island, seven of them actually. Maybe I had heard about them, or seen them somewhere? That’s what I told myself at least, but the truth was I hadn’t. The dream was so powerful I woke up the next day and drew what I remembered. I went to my father and showed him my drawing.

As I gave him my drawing I spoke, “Dad, what is this?”

He didn’t respond verbally. He looked at me thoughtfully for a second, took the drawing and led me into his study. He took out an atlas and found the page he was looking for.

“This,” he said.

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It wasn’t exact, but it was pretty darn close.

“Do you want to go here?” He asked me.

“Where is it? What is it?” I replied. He chuckled.

“It’s Hawaii, and that’s a pretty good drawing.”

Seven years later he would call me to his bedside. His body was weak, ravaged by numerous tumors and ninety pounds lighter than his normal weight. The strong mind he once had was now in another place.

“Son, come here,” he managed to utter between coughing fits. I went to his side, where he waved a hand at me and with a twinkle in his eye and strength in his heart he spoke out, “closer.” I put my face next to his. He grabbed my face between his feeble hands and looked at me with a tear in his eye.

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“Son, life is too short. Go see the world.”

He then kissed my cheek and hugged me as best he could. The next day the man who taught me right from wrong, the man who gave me the greatest advice on his deathbed, was gone. One month later I began what would become a lifetime journey to see the world. It started in Hawaii and would eventually span five continents, countless countries, close calls, life, death and love.

To be a part of this world you first need to understand it. To understand it you need to live it, not just read about it. Traveling encompasses so many conditions.  Maybe we’re an art major, or we like to cook and drink wine, so we base our travel plans on those conditions. It could be the displacement of family, friends, or lovers. It might be the simplicity of just relaxing and do nothing. For me it was always the human condition and that sense of déjà vu. So many times my emotions outweighed my thought process. Wherever I went I had to go at all cost, as if my soul was calling out from ages past. As I’ve gotten older and look back at all the places I’ve been to and what has happened it all makes more sense.

Lying down in my bunk watching the moonlight on a night train from Rome to the deep south of Italy back in November of 2000 I had no real plan, but I knew it felt right. I was headed to a place that had captivated my imagination and where hardly anybody spoke English. It was the perfect place to get lost.

“The Dream Begins.” November 13th, 2000.

On a night train from Rome headed southeast all I could think about was the description of the place I would call home for what I thought would be the next two months.

“If you want to write a story come to where I am from,” said Sergio.

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I met Sergio in Florence the previous summer. He was visiting his ex-girlfriend, who I had also met through a mutual friend. This group of friends, all Italians, had become my main core of friends during my summer sojourn in the majestic Renaissance city. I won’t go into too many details here, but Sergio and I GC-QX5 Imagehit it off right away. He spoke some English, had lived abroad, was extremely intelligent and for some reason I felt he had been through some crazy things.  When he told me I was invited to his home whenever I wanted to come it was intriguing.

“You must come. The seawater is as the Caribbean.

The people are warm and the women have olive skin, long dark hair and their beauty is like no other. There is great food and great wine and the land is red. You will be inspired like a Renaissance poet was with his beloved Firenze.”

I wanted to go right then and there, but timing was everything and that summer timing was not on my side.

Coming Soon: “The Dream Begins,” Continued.

Read all the articles in this series.

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I’ve decided that now I have two birthdays’ dates: the day I was born and the day we have arrived in Gravina in Puglia, Italy: July 24.

Father of three and grandfather of one, my husband became a very sentimental person and decided to get the Italian Citizenship to honor his grandfather Felippo Losacco. Could be the right time to pursue what life still can offer to us and we may enjoy it.

Living in the USA since 2003, when we finally decided to gather all the documentation, we found out that the Italian Government now requires that all documents have to be originals. And, as we would be leaving on vacation soon, we decided to get his grandfather’s birth certificate personally in the city he was born: Gravina in Puglia. I have to confess that I would never, ever imagine how this decision would be giving me a new meaning in my life.

Until we get there, maybe because we had so many things to think about, like to book the tickets, the hotels, the car rental, things to learn about Italy, the excitement of the trip itself, I have not realized its magnitude.

Filippo Losacco, my husband’s grandfather, was born in Gravina in Puglia on February 2nd, 1878. Around 1896 he left Gravina with his sibling Salvador Losacco and went to Brazil, leaving behind their parents, Nicola Losacco and Donata Cataldi and their little brother, Nicola Losacco.  As far as we know, they never saw each other again.

Gravina in Puglia is magnificent. Walking down the street we could feel the whole great love that our grandfather lived in that city with his parents and brothers and how courageous he must have had to leave the city and his family.

Suddenly, all the emotional arrival made me understand how he could leave: because that city encourages men to be brave.

Now I was sure his Gravina helped him; a place where he could extract the courage to live far from there, taking with him the will to win and given him the support to follow his new life, always thinking in his beloved parents and brother that still lived there.

Gravina in Puglia and the “Sotterranea” and its “habitat rupestre” still kept stored in its soul so much courage to thrill us. The city grew and maintains the dignity of their ancestors and all the struggle of a people to survive every day with faith; those who built every inch of each house in the city, La Basilica Cattedrale di Gravina in Puglia, il santuario Madonna delle Grazie, la Piazza Notar Domenico, la Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi, everything gave him the foundation to be a real man and built the family which I belong today.

How much love sprung from my heart in that moment! It was as if I had always belonged to that city. I wanted to run and shout “My Gravina, I came back,” and kiss the ground that my grandfather played and was happy when he was a child there, so deep was the feeling of love and identification.

Gravina in Puglia is also our town now. We are Italian by sanguine descent and Gravinese by heart.

We were completed enraptured, impregnated by the love left in the air by our relatives. We could feel it!

And this love, the “Sotterranea” that strengthen us, his honorable and hardworking people, those who left and those who stayed in Gravina, brought me a new vision of how being a real human being and the courage of to being like a bold Gravinese can be, like our grandfather. For all that, I found out, at age of 60, that I can be brave as a Gravinese and this saved me, not only the day, but my life, because it gave me a new purpose, a new motivation.

That trip, from that moment on, I flourished. Gravina in Puglia brought me a new beginning and the emotional feeling that I looked for, my entire life, to be able to write with passion.

Gravina, with its magical atmosphere, gave me, like a gift, the properly emotion to find the right words to describe the life beyond expression.

We went there seeking for our origins and we fall completely in love for the city, for the people and we left our hearts and souls there.

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Read Parts I, II, and 3

“Realization,” Italy: Blood and Sacrifice Part 4

Salvatore’s team won the game and as was custom after every game of calcetto we headed to a pizzeria to celebrate. It wasn’t about the celebration of victory it was about the celebration of life and being with close friends. Nicolas and Salvatore hadn’t seen each other in seven years. We arrived in Brindisi the day before after a rough and snowy twenty-four hour drive from Gaeta.   One of the things I love about Italians and Italian culture is that you can arrive on a moments notice and within thirty minutes a five-course meal and an abundance of wine has been prepared for you without complaint. Not only do they not complain they celebrate the arrival of a guest as if he, or she were family. Since I was with Nicolas, whom Salvatore and his family considered a brother and a son, I was also considered in the same light.   Without any notice of our arrival and knowing we would stay for a week they scurried to find us a place to stay, as their apartments were full with their extended family. Within fifteen minutes of our arrival we had a place to stay at no cost. With bags in tow Salvatore told Nicolas that when we entered the building we could come and go as we pleased at whatever time of day, or night, but that under no circumstances were we to speak to anybody. I didn’t get it at first, but after witnessing what we saw at the pizzeria the following day it all began to sink in.IMG_5973

Following the victory at calcetto Salvatore invited us to the pizzeria with his teammates and friends. It was a warm and sunny afternoon and so we sat outside. Beer and wine flowed with abundance. I felt good, although I couldn’t understand what anybody was saying and that frustrated me. Italian, unlike German was so beautiful, lyrical and poetic. Don’t worry Germans I’ve learned to love and appreciate your language as well. When I first heard Italian I felt like I was in a fairytale. It sang to me. I wanted so badly to communicate in their language that it ate at my psyche. I think this is when I first knew, subconsciously, that Italy and Italian would play a major role in my life.

As we sat there drinking with Nicolas translating and just being merry it happened. Around seven unmarked and marked police vehicles sped by with lights on, but no sirens. They suddenly stopped about fifty yards away on our side of the street. Many men in masks with machine guns got out of the vehicles and went inside a building. My heart began to pound. I began to speak, but Nicolas gave me a look and nodded his head indicating I should keep my mouth shut. Salvatore got up and went inside the pizzeria to use the telephone. Other men in masks stood guard outside the building, ready to pounce on anything that moved.

Nicolas leaned in and whispered, “Whatever you see, or hear, you didn’t see or hear, got it!”IMG_5672

I nodded.

After ten minutes the police officers came out of the building with three people in handcuffs. Some women followed and began yelling. The three individuals were put in three different vehicles and off they went. The whole operation took no more than twenty minutes. We ate our pizzas in silence. Later that night Nicolas and I returned to our hotel. We entered the building and Nicolas nodded to the lady at the front desk. She nodded back and handed him the key to our room. As we walked towards the elevator we saw three scantily clad women with long dark hair escorting a few gentleman towards a room. I smiled, but said nothing. When we got in the elevator Nicolas pushed the button for the 4th floor. Exiting on the fourth floor we headed towards our room. More scantily clad young women and men were walking about. Some of the women even winked at me. My head began to spin. The past two weeks had been crazy and today I got a glimpse of a part of Italy that was a hotbed of current political activity and represented in every newspaper around. We arrived at our room and went inside. Nicolas closed the door behind us and locked the door. In a whisper he asked me if I knew who Giovanni Falcone was. I told him no.

“What about S.C.U.?” (Pronounced sku).

“No. Sorry what is that?” I asked.

He then went into his backpack and got a pen and piece of paper.

Quietly he scrawled out the meaning of the acronym S.C.U. It was the first time I had ever seen the name, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Sacra Corona Unita.

 

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Coming Soon:

“The Dream Begins,” Italy: Blood and Sacrifice Part 5

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ItalyItaly: Blood and Sacrifice Part 3 (Read Part I)

How many of you have asked yourself if you could go back and do it all over again it would be different, it would be better. How could you be so dumb and make those mistakes? You would have achieved your life long dream, your happiness.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately things happen the way they are supposed to happen and to question it is useless no matter how hard you try. More often than not in the moment you fail to realize what is truly going on and therefore take for granted the importance of that moment and as a consequence do not cease the moment for what it’s meant to be. That is the balance of life.

Brindisi Italy, 1993:

It had been a year since I left southern California for Europe. I landed in Frankfurt with too many bags and made my way to Munich, where I would see and visit a friend I grew up with.   After a month in Munich with her father’s help I found a job at a ski resort in an alpine village called Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps, on the German side of the border with Austria. The job was affiliated with the United States military, although it was a recreational facility and I was a civilian. It was here that I would meet the people who would change my life and take me down a path that would reverberate beyond borders and future generations.

One of those people was a nineteen-year-old American named Nicolas. His father was a Captain in the US Navy, stationed in Gaeta, roughly sixty miles north of Naples and his mother was an American diplomat living in Rome. It was because of Nicolas that I found myself here in Brindisi on this mild February afternoon watching his friend Salvatore play a game of calciotto.

GC-QX5 ImageIn the United States basketball courts are a dime a dozen. Pickup games are in every city and town. In Italy the pickup games are soccer, or football as they say, or better yet calcio. Calcio is the lifeblood of Italian sport and rules all else, even to the point of life and death. Before Italians learn calcio they learn calciotto, which is a form of calcio, however it is played on a much smaller field with five to seven players on a team. The goal nets are also much smaller. In a way it’s like American indoor football, where the fields are smaller and the goalposts are narrower. On this day I was with Nicolas watching Salvatore play a game of calciotto with his friends. Nicolas and Salvatore had known each other since they were four years old, having gone to school together at daycare and then elementary school here in Brindisi. Nicolas spent a good part of his youth in Brindisi while his father worked his way up the ranks of the navy.

Two weeks ago IMG_0827Nicolas and I left Germany under hurried and anxious circumstances. What we knew was that one of our friends was in jail somewhere in Germany and the other nine were waiting for us in Prague.

We also knew, much like Romeo with his beloved Verona, that we were banned for life from returning to Garmisch. With Zebra in jail Nicolas and I became the backbone, the two the others looked to for guidance, however the two of us were in Italy.

On that fateful day two weeks ago we were all given six hours to pack up our lives and leave, or face arrest and prosecution. We were made to sign papers of our banishment and given an explanation that to this day, in some regards, remains a mystery.

We were all American civilians, expats living in Germany working for the American military. We had no real home and nowhere to go. Nicolas and I were roommates in Garmisch and I already knew his family, so he invited me to Italy, but I was the only one.   The plan was to go to Italy for a few weeks while things cooled down in Germany. From there we would meet the others in Prague to hash out a plan.

Before we could do that however we first needed to get back to Garmisch to pick up something extremely valuable. That was the hitch. It was possible, but risky. What we hadn’t counted on was that his father with his higher up military connections would look deeper into our affair. We weren’t going anywhere until he found out what he wanted to know.

Read all the articles in this series: Blood and Sacrifice

 

 

 

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I sit under a pillar of a city turning to ruin. Pompeii. How I wish I could’ve seen the people roaming around the common, the smiles and laughter. My mother trusts me enough  to sit here without causing too much trouble, being the boisterous son I am. The longer I sit here the more I feel at peace, I feel like I belong here. I am filled with courage as I think about the day of this great city’s demise. I slowly lay back on the pillar and close my eyes…

When I awaken, I am surrounded by Romans chatting with each other, bargaining for armor and daggers. A small girl knocks into me as she chases a mischievous boy. She whips her head and waves at me as if to apologize. I nod to acknowledge her. The boisterous chatter erupts from the many people, they all speak in Latin.

I can hear the hooves of a mule carrying various supplies in bags and carts hit the cobblestone path beside me. Suddenly, a shaking knocks me down to the floor along with some supplies from the small cart. I brush myself off and stand back up seeing blood run down my knee. What happened? I look up and see Mt. Vesuvius spewing out gases and ash so high I cannot see the top. A small boy starts crying, but the parent shakes her head and remarks “It’s only smoke.” That seems to calm him down, and he stops crying. The people continue with their daily lives, but something is wrong. I know something terrible is happening.

The clouds of ash cover the sun, and it turns dark. Many people look confused at what is happening. I have never seen anything like this. The sun is gone, and it isn’t from an eclipse. A woman looks at me as small rocks fall into her hands, then bigger rocks. I see a man collapse, blood running down his head. We have to get out of here; I know what will happen next. Panic sets in and people start fleeing to the openings of the city. I can see the ash cascading down the mountain. The reds and greys envelope all sights of green. I have to get out. I shove people out of the way. Run. I need to make my way to the gate. The small rocks pile up so far that they are up to my knees, and are wiping away the blood from my cut.

I’m almost to the gate. I’m surprised I can see it, considering the amount of bodies trying to cram through. I am so close to getting out when I hear a scream for help from a small girl. I can’t leave her here to die. I whip around and push everyone out of my way. I try to focus on her screams, but the cries of everyone else cloud my mind. I continue to trudge through until I break through the crowd. I target the screaming from a small hotel, abandoned. I run in to see the little girl who ran into me from earlier. Trails of tears stain her cheeks, and she is curled into a fetal position rocking back and forth. I run over to her and pick her up into my arms. There is no time to talk. I start coughing, the fumes are collecting in my lungs, almost causing me to double over in a coughing fit.

The gate is now almost empty, so I don’t have a lot of trouble getting through. The little girl’s face buries deeper into my shoulder as the smoke gets heavier. I can see the ashes plowing closer and closer towards the city. We aren’t going to make it. I see a cart with a horse and a rider running through the gates past us. I know what I have to do. I run after the cart which causes me to hyperventilate. The fumes go into my lungs with every breath I take burning the insides. I can see my vision go darker. I have to make it. I reach the small cart and lift the girl up to place her in it. She looks at me and with tears running down her crystal clear blue eyes. She gives my forehead a kiss, and I place her in the cart. She is safe from this unknown fiery disaster. I take a deep breath in relief as I see the ashes kiss my burning skin.

I open my eyes. Mother? Where are you? “Jonathan!” I hear her call. “There you are!” I wave smiling. She takes me by the hand and leads me to the exit gate. “So how did you like Pompeii? How did it make you feel?” I look back to the ruins and nod to her. “Brave.”

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jeffrey Blancq Rome Italy

jeffrey Blancq Rome ItalyItaly: Blood and Sacrifice Part II (Read Part I)

Roma Termini had changed in seven years. It was bigger. There were shops, restaurants and a newness that propped up with new millennium money. Before, Termini was dirty and dank. Prostitutes, vagrants and of course the ever present gypsies lined the outside waiting for the unsuspecting tourist. While three begged for your money and harassed you a little rascal was deftly feeling around pockets, belts and inside your shirt with scissors until he, or she found what they were looking for and then clip. More often than not they found their treasure. Ali Baba himself would have been proud. Now it was cleaner, newer. Those same prostitutes, vagrants and gypsies were still around, but they had gone underground. The 90’s were over. Italy was trying to shed its image as a dangerous place where the mafia ruled, the aforementioned gypsies clipped your pockets right in front of you and as rumor would have it people were drugged and taken off night trains anywhere from Rome headed South only to wake up the next day without a body part. I’m not sure about that last part, but I did hear the tale more than once. Over the squeaks and clanks and horns of the trains, as well as the bustle of locals and tourists from around the world the female voice over the loudspeaker monotonously rang out arrival and departure times. My train was arriving from Milan. Knowing I had fifteen minutes to spare I made my way to a new wine shop located at the northern end of Termini and looked around. I found what I was looking for, a bottle of Cesanese del Piglio. I grabbed it and headed toward the register. The clerk rung up my purchase and looked at me. He spoke to me in English. I responded in Italian. He smiled. “Buon viaggio,” he said. I smiled back. “Grazie.”

Jeffrey Blancq Rome ItalyI made my way to the platform and waited with my two backpacks, a large duffle bag, my good luck charm Ferrari cap, a bottle of water, some cheese and bread and the bottle of Cesanese. I double-checked my ticket confirming my car and bunk number. Anyone who’s ever been on an Italian train knows how impatient people are to get on. I had a reservation and was in no hurry, so I waited until everybody had boarded until I made my move. There was a lot of hustle and bustle on the train, however there was nobody else in my compartment. Maybe it was my lucky night. I made sure my passport and my money were secure in my money belt strapped to my waist and situated down my pants. If somebody did want to rob me, or worse they were in for a Hell of a fight. My dad was a cop, so was my brother. I was well trained. After stowing my belongings I went out to the aisle of the train and stuck my head out an open window. I took in all the sights, sounds and smells. With me I could always close my eyes and tell you what country, city, or place I was in based on the smell. Roma Termini had held many memories and would hold many more. I was nervous, yet I felt at peace. I felt at home here. In the aisle of the train there are seats you can pull down.  As the conductor’s final whistle blew and as the night train began to trudge out of the station I pulled down one of those seats and took out my knife, my water, cheese and bread and the bottle of Cesanese del Piglio and grinned. I was exhausted, but not tired. There were many stops ahead until I would reach my final destination the following morning. The train picked up speed and the clanking of train tracks and wheels gave the indication we were changing direction. The engineers were in control and the industrious North was now to our backs. .

I cut some cheese and bread and opened my bottle of wine. The night air flowed pleasantly through the train, cooling those that were hot and warming those that were cold. A young man about my age in the next compartment sat in the aisle next to me. In Italian I offered him some wine, which he accepted.

“Where I’m from wine is the elixir of life,” he said in Italian.

“Oh yea, where are you from?” I asked back in the language of where I was.

He responded in Italian, but it wasn’t Italian. He laughed. He took a drink of wine and spoke in English.

“My friend welcome to the real Italy.”

Little did I know then the importance of his words.

Jeffrey Blancq Rome Italy

 

 

 

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Jeffrey Blancq Rome Italy

Jeffrey Blancq Rome ItalyWhen people ask me how it all began it becomes a jumble. It would be like asking someone how they entered an ancient labyrinth. You know how you entered, but once inside the direction you thought you were going was only a mirror of what you thought you believed.

It was a warm and pleasant mid November night in Rome. Walking around Roma Termini people seemed to be in good mood. The new millennium had finally arrived. That summer I had been in Florence realizing a dream to learn some Italian and spend quality time in Italy. My plan was simple. Go to Florence for the summer to learn Italian, a little Italian culture and maybe meet a beautiful dark haired olive skinned beauty to have fun with. Seven years before I had been to Italy under very different circumstances. At the time I started something, but didn’t finish it. More on that later. I could kid myself all I wanted about why I was here now, but the truth is I had to come back.Jeffrey Blancq Rome Italy

“Why Italy?” People always asked me.

“Why anything?” I responded. With travelers oftentimes there is no why. It’s a feeling. Some choose France, or Spain, or South America, Africa, Australia, or Japan. It could have been something we heard, or read. Maybe a movie, or a song? We fell in love perhaps. For me it was Italy and the experiences I had had over time. Experiences that cut deep and left scars, both good and bad. Experiences that transcended who I was and who I would become. It was the language, the culture, the food and the people in all their glory and their dark history. I always believed that to understand a place and the people who lived there you needed to know their language, their history and the land they called home. For many in Italy la Terra, the land, is their blood and sacrifice. It’s what created how they are, how they speak and how they express themselves. The root to knowing how things ticked was learning their language. Once you did that doors opened up and it could also save your life. Learning a language takes discipline and time. It’s not about staying for a summer and expecting to keep it in the foggy recesses of the brain. Yes I learned some Italian this past summer, however it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I needed more. I had to finish what I started, no matter how long it took, or I would forever be trapped in a world where I didn’t belong.

Read Italy: Blood and Sacrifice Part II