I’ve always told my kids it’s nice to share, but not everything. Bea was asthmatic, and every cold she caught seemed to morph into pneumonia. Since pre-school, they’d had it drilled into their heads not to drink from someone else’s cup. And, of course, when you’re traveling, don’t drink the water!
Years ago, while traveling in Italy…
…we had a long train ride from Naples….
…to La Spezia.
We were delighted to have a compartment to ourselves. The kids sketched and I knitted, while Thom read aloud to us from the YA novel, Donata, Daughter of Venice.
When the train stopped in Rome…
…a middle-aged couple came in, lugging bags, suitcases, groceries, and a 2 liter water bottle. I smiled politely, and we scooted over to make room, but I was privately disappointed to have to share our quiet space. They stowed their stuff, Thom tucked away our read-aloud, and I determined to catch up on my travel journal.
The man introduced himself as Giorgio, and his wife as Leah. Giorgio spoke very good English, but it was different. It sounded to me like he was speaking English with an Italian-Australian accent, an unexpected blend of cultures. As we left behind Rome Giorgio told us he was born in Italy, but lived in Australia. Their daughter studied in Pisa, had met someone, and now they were returning to the Old Country to attend her wedding to a nice Italian boy. Then Giorgio kindly offered us a drink of water from his bottle…which I politely refused. We couldn’t afford to get sick while on vacation.
“Please,” insisted Giorgio, perhaps assuming my reluctance was due to shyness. He filled six little paper cups with water, one for each of us. I took the cup, wishing there was a potted plant I could discreetly pour my little helping of hospitality into. Cups in hand, both kids watched intently, to take their cue from the Queen Mum of The Land of Do Not Share. I lifted the cup to my lips. Yes, and then I sipped, ignoring everything I knew about contagion, as well as the shocked stares of my children, and the smarty pants expression on my husband’s face.
Giorgio shared much more than water. As the train rattled along, he told us, step by step, how to cook his favorite Italian dishes. He told us we really couldn’t leave Italy not knowing how to make our own tomato sauce, or white cream sauce, or garlic sauce.
“Brown, but don’t burn the garlic,” he said. He dictated recipe after recipe, and I wrote it all down in my journal. Canneloni, parmigiana eggplant, chicken breast filet. “It is not difficult!” he assured me. Leah nodded in solemn agreement.
We passed a field of sunflowers. With tears in his eyes, he pointed and said, “Itsa beautifulla!”
I heard that heartfelt expression many times on our train ride. When we passed farms, olive groves, or little villages, his eyes would mist up. Overwhelmed, he shook his head and said again, “Itsa beautifulla!”
“You must miss Italy,” I said. “Why did your parents leave?” Giorgio said his family wanted to escape the pain and aftermath of post-war Italy…
…for a new life in Australia. He said Italians made up the one of the largest minorities in Australia. Like the Irish, who came to build the railroad in America, Italians provided cheap labor in a rapidly developing country. Just as the Irish faced discrimination, and were confronted with “No Irish Need Apply,” the Italians were told, “If you don’t like it, go back to Italy.”
Giorgio was a teenager, wanting desperately to fit in. Money was tight, but his father must’ve understood, because he bought him handsome new cream-colored shoes and matching trousers. To show off his new shoes, Giorgio and his brother walked out on the town. A gang of boys started following. They laughed at the shoes, tossed ethnic slurs, kicked dirt on the brothers and the prized shoes. Devastated, Giorgio went home. In his backyard, he took a knife and shredded the shoes beyond repair. His father couldn’t understand, but Leah did.
Giorgio was seventeen and Leah was fourteen. Both were born in Italy, the children of Italian immigrants to Australia. Once they found each other, they never looked back. Well, hardly ever. In time, Australians came to respect Italians as hard workers, and recognized the contribution they made to the country, much as we now celebrate Irish-Americans, at least on St. Patrick’s Day.
When Giorgio and Leah got off the train in Pisa…
…we felt we were saying goodbye to friends. We finally had the compartment to ourselves, but we didn’t whip out our read-aloud book. We needed time to think about Giorgio and Leah, and the story we had been privileged to share.
Of course, Thom and the kids teased me about sharing a cup with total strangers. But you’ll never know what you’re missing if you aren’t willing to share a compartment on a train, accept a drink of water from a stranger’s paper cup, or walk a mile in another man’s shoes.
All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck
NAOMI BALTUCK ~ is a Contributing Editor and Resident Storyteller here at Bardo. She is a world-traveler and an award-winning writer, photographer, and story-teller whose works of fiction and nonfiction are available through Amazon HERE. Naomi presents her wonderful photo-stories – always interesting and rich with meaning and humor – at Writing Between the Lines, Life from the Writer’s POV. She also conducts workshops such as Peace Porridge (multicultural stories to promote cooperation, goodwill, and peaceful coexistence), Whispers in the Graveyard (a spellbinding array of haunting and mysterious stories), Tandem Tales, Traveling Light Around the World, and others. For more on her programs visit Naomi Baltuck.com