As it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to teach English as a Foreign Language under the new EU work-visa restrictions, we altered our plans from living in Portugal to that of touring Europe. After all, neither of us had ever been outside the US before, and we’d already gone to the trouble of arranging to be foot loose for a while. So when we got up one morning in Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres, the Portuguese forested mountain hot springs resort on the Galicia border, I wasn’t at all surprised when Marianne said, “I have to go to Italy.”
As soon as we returned to our apartment in Aveiro, I walked down to the Riatur travel agency to see Rudolfo Silva about train tickets. Rudolfo spoke excellent English, and, like the woman in the small post office near the Beira Hotel, the lady who served sandwiches at the Lusomundo Mall, and Raquel Lorena, the estate agent who found us an apartment, he made our stay there so much easier.
Not having anticipated touring so soon after arriving in Europe, we’d neglected to acquire Eurail passes while still in the states, as required, and were consequently out of luck. But Rudolfo was not deterred by this technicality. Indeed, the Portuguese—as a poor nation--had long learned to work around such dilemmas as a matter of course, and after a couple days Rudolfo came up with a plan. Because we had a street address, as opposed to a hotel, he managed to obtain us 60-day, Portuguese resident, train passes at roughly half the price of Eurail.
Excited about a new adventure, we hurriedly boxed and mailed household stuff to the states, purchased a new backpack for Marianne, and dropped off our keys and cell phone that only worked in Portugal with Jolanda Delfina, Raquel’s Angolan assistant. Then, two days later, after getting me a chiropractic adjustment from Dr. Antonio de Sousa, we were off to France and Italy. But when we arrived at the Aveiro train station at dinner time, the station agent informed us the train workers were going on strike (some runs were already shut down), and she couldn’t say whether or not we’d make it to Spain--let alone France—anytime soon.
So we walked across the street to the Tricana de Aveiro pastelaria and ordered sandwiches. A half hour later we heard a train whistle coming from the south and headed over to the platform, checked our bags, found the club car, and ordered a round of beers for us and the New Zealand newlyweds who’d been on the train all day after accidentally boarding a train south when they wanted to go north. At ten p.m., we reached the border at Vilar Formoso, where a community street dance under colored lights was in progress, and after a short festive delay, we were off for the upscale Basque seaside resort of Biarritz.
At dawn, after a sleepless night smelling sweaty feet and listening to the snoring of the other four sleepers who shared our coach compartment, I put on my shoes and staggered down to the dining car for orange juice, coffee and pastry. Marianne joined me after a bit just as we passed through the pine-forested granite slopes of the Western Pyrenees, where Basque farmers were already feeding their stout, short-legged, mountain draft horses their breakfast. Light drizzle and coastal fog rolled across as we stopped at towns with names consisting mostly of the consonants x, k, and y, before dropping down to sea level at Irum and rolling past Hendaye where we waved good bye to the New Zealanders.
After a few days in Biarritz, punctuated by a night of partying with doctors attending the psychiatrists’ convention (some of whom--wearing bathrobes, toilet-plungers and lampshades--composed an impromptu jazz band in an open air bar), we headed for the Parque Nacional de Pyrenees in a quaint mountain village above Lourdes. After the craziness of Biarritz, we found the picturesque town of Cauteret just right. We found a pensioners’ hotel with set or a la carte dinners and spent several days walking trails along the glacial streams, watching petanque matches, and dining on fresh trout, crepes and fine wines. We also found a cute little casino attached to the movie theatre/gymnasium where we played roulette one evening until we blew our gambling allowance and got to bed just before a thunder and lightning storm illuminated the snow-capped peak above our hotel.
The train ride from Lourdes through Toulouse to the Rhone River delta at Arles took us all day, and when we finally settled down for a Mediterranean salad dinner, the sun had already set.
We chose Arles as a stop because of the famous Camargue ponies who inhabited the marshes between Arles and Stes-Maries-de la-Mer, where thousands of Gypsies hold an annual caravan festival on the beach to honor the Virgin Mary, do a little trading, and carry on with lots of music and their version of rodeo/bullfight, chasing circle-horned Mediterranean black bulls around on dappled gray Lusitano horses and all-white Camargue ponies. What we hadn’t realized in advance, was that Arles, as the once Roman colonial capitol of now-day Provence, also has a marvelous museum, as well as an intact coliseum, arenas, and other ruins we discovered serendipitously, around which the modern small city has been built. Nor did we realize that the marshlands were also seasonally home to thousands of pink flamingoes from Africa.
After rolling through Cannes, Antibes and Monaco in the old polished-wood and brass and leather cars without air conditioning, we stood at the open windows with French and Italian families catching sea breezes and floral scents when we caught sight of the Italian flag waving above the coastal town of Ventimiglia, where we paused long enough to exchange currency and grab a lemon soda. Only then did we really begin to experience the excitement of our quest to visit the Southern Apennine village Marianne’s father and aunt had been born in.
The days we spent swimming and dining in Finale Ligure—what we called the Italian Riviera—on the Golfo di Genoa, began our immersion in the culture she’d inherited and I’d known through my aunt and her parents from the same general region inland from Napoli. Being in a small seaside resort frequented almost exclusively by Italians, we quickly took to the uninhibited, fun-loving atmosphere where children played below our windows late into the night.
After a short visit to see our former Transworld School classmate Cacey, who was teaching English in Florence, we made the long hot trip south to Caserta, the center for touristic activity in Campagna, and found the comfortable Hotel Amadeus not far from the station. This, we figured, would be the perfect place to begin our search for Marianne’s relatives and the old family farm.
Early the next morning, after a couple espressos and canolis and fruitless efforts to find an English-speaking hotel staff person, we walked over to the tourist information office to get help using the phone book that made absolutely no sense to us. Oddly, no one there spoke English, either, but we did discover the gorgeous marble palace and gardens with horse-drawn carriage rides that was formerly the Queen of Versailles’ cousins’ country estate back when the French ruled the area.
After a few frustrating days looking for a translator, it dawned on us that maybe Caserta had an English language school. The irony that we hadn’t thought of that sooner did not escape us, but when we asked of the hotelier, “Escola Ingles?” he, too, smiled, laughed, and answered, “Si, si.” And so, armed with hand-motion directions, we wandered off in search of the school, that, by lunchtime, we’d located at the top of the stairs between two cafes. Full of anticipation, I knocked on the door, which was answered by a short man who stuck his head out and told me he was in the middle of a lesson, but would see us tomorrow at noon before they closed for the summer.
We could hardly believe our good fortune; nor could we sleep that night, so we watched an Italian phone-in TV program on which a woman dressed as a fortune teller took calls and read fortunes from tarot cards to watchers who happily used their credit cards to know how their lives would turn out. Then, after several cappuccinos and canolis, we walked back to the school. This time, the door was open, but the man was gone, and a woman behind the counter was speaking on the phone in Italian.
We sat down on the bench and waited until she finished, and inquired if she spoke English. She answered, “Yes, I used to live in Zimbabwe. My name is Jane. How may I help you?”
After giving her the information we had about the D’Angelo family, including her grandmother’s maiden name and the name of Ferdinand’s village of birth, she began phoning numbers in the book, but kept coming up short. She then asked, “Are you sure he was from Avignano? Could it have been Avellino?”
Marianne handed her the slip of paper her mom had written on years earlier, and Jane studied it briefly before announcing that it had been misspelled, and that we were most likely looking for Alvignanello, a twenty-mile drive through the country from there. Jane tried another number, and after explaining in Italian to someone on the other end what she was doing, said in English, “They know who you are, and she’s going to get your cousin on the line, but no one there speaks English.”
After a few more minutes, Jane said, “They’ll expect you on Sunday. Look for a man in the plaza next to the tobacco shop at ten a.m.”
Well, there was no way we could sit by in Caserta for two days, so we rented a car and drove up the Amalfi coast, pausing over night at Praino, and rose early Sunday to try our hand at getting lost on the narrow back roads leading into the mountains just north of Mt. Vesuvius. And we did pretty good at getting lost, until somehow we arrived at a T intersection inhabited by a throng of cyclists standing beside a blue and white sign that read, “Alvignanello,” with arrows pointing both directions.
How could we lose? We tossed a coin, and a half hour later we entered an old stone country town with a café and tobacco shop where old men played cards, and one middle aged fellow with hazel-colored eyes stood looking around, and Marianne announced, “That’s my cousin!”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“He looks just like my uncle,” she replied.
After hugs and kisses, he drove us past the church up a dirt lane to his home where his wife Maria waited, and parked in the basement in front of the huge wine barrels. We then climbed the stairs to the entry where photos of Abraham Lincoln and Che Guevara were prominently displayed. Maria served us lunch, after which we pulled out the birth certificate photocopies we’d brought to help identify Marianne’s place in the family, and mostly sat around smiling and looking at pictures of people we didn’t know.
An hour later, their twenty-something son arrived, followed over the next hour by arrivals of other people of all ages whom we had no idea of, but who all seemed interested in seeing Marianne’s documents, eating, and chatting away in Italian while we sat there smiling. I thought to myself, “This is OK, but it’d be nice to at least know who’s who.”
Then, with the living/dining room jammed with people gabbing away, two more young men walked in, one of whom approached us and said, “You must be the Americans. I’m Tony Testa. They asked me to stop over to translate.”
An hour or two later, after wearing Tony out, we realized every body present was related to Marianne, and had come from all over the valley just to see her. That was why they had said to come on Sunday, when everybody could make it. The last to arrive was a fellow described as the postman, whom I had Tony ask about the location of a village named Cantalupo, where my Aunt Anne is from, but was not on any of our maps. In Italian, he grinned, pointed and remarked, “Just over those hills, one valley over.”
Next, we took a walk through the village to see Marianne’s grandmother’s two ninety-something sisters, and stretch our legs. Rounding a corner, a handsome, white-haired, mustachioed gentleman was announced by Tony as, “Luigi, another cousin!” Next, we were escorted into the small stone home where two elderly women and their cook were eating lunch, and broke into tears as they saw Marianne and recognized the younger face of their sister who’d left for America over a half century ago.
On our way back to Alfonso and Maria’s, Tony said he had to go, but that after a rest, we’d be walking up the hill to Luigi’s farmhouse where Marianne’s father was born. Marianne thanked him and complimented him on his excellent English, to which Tony replied, “I’m from Connecticut. I come here to spend summers with my grandparents.”
That evening at the farm, while Alfonso and I walked through the grape vineyard and olive orchard, Marianne enjoyed more hugs and the admiring looks of Luigi, who we learned through Tony, had worked in New York as a laborer during the rough times immediately after World War II, and was thus able to keep the family in Italy supported. Now retired with a monthly union pension check from America, Luigi had gotten work in America due to the efforts of Marianne’s now-deceased mother Jean. It was at that point we understood Marianne’s near-celebrity status during our brief visit.
Later, under midnight stars, eating prosciutto and melon and drinking Luigi’s wine at cousin Giovanni’s place, I understood what blood ties are all about. They’re who you are, and even language barriers don’t matter.