On a cold and wet February in 1959, I boarded an almost empty TWA jet in Rome, headed for Los Angeles. A sad song played on the public address system. Ciao, Ciao, Bambina, the song said, don’t cry, wipe your tears. Everything I had dreamed about was waiting for me. I was seventeen.
I had kissed my mother, father and little brother Luigi back in Venosa, and now I was saying goodbye to Toni' who had accompanied me everywhere for the last three years, in an out of the American Consulate in Naples for this document or that. He never complained about how his life was invaded by my needs. He kept my dream alive with every visit, and every rejection from the Consulate.
I told him, I am never returning to this country.
You don’t mean it, he replied with a smile.
In heavy coats and sturdy shoes, we had traveled from Venosa to Roma by train. Snow and sleet made travel treacherous.
Winters were always harsh. I had worried about that, how difficult it would be for me if I couldn’t catch the train. Our neighbors had come over and helped shovel our way out of the house all the way to the main street where a bus took us to the station.
Mother had not wanted to tell any one about the trip, worried about people’s envy. She had given me a special amulet to wear, to guard against the malocchio. I took the necklace and the amulet off and handed it to To`ny before I boarded the plane:
"Thanks for all you have done for me." I said, hugging Toni' and taking the small suitcase in my hand as I walked up the plank. I looked back to see tears in his eyes.
I regretted nothing.I was going to a place without weather, without runny noses, winter chills and treacherous roads. My life was waiting for me in sunny California, and winter and poverty were now just in the past.
Though we stocked our cellar with everything we needed to last us until the next harvest, enough wood for heating and cooking, flour, olive oil, wine, canned goods, cured meats, cheeses, dried fruit and nuts, and a variety of legumes, all this made us richer than our neighbors, and we were grateful. Now, with my change in fortune, we would be the most envied people in the entire town.
I don't remember what I ate on the plane that entire day. I kept thinking that Mother's usual pot of beans, slowly cooking in a terracotta pot in the fireplace, dressed with dried tomatoes sautéed in olive oil with plenty of garlic and peperoncini, the food that sustained us most days was not going to be missed by me!
I will not miss the smell of pasta e fasul, I thought.
I will not miss the cold, either.
In February, and all through winter, our schools, big stone edifices were cold tombs. Children took a box of live coals with them, a heavy lunchbox, which was positioned under the desk, allowing us to pay attention, and write beautiful cursive dictations in our notebooks. Other places must have modernized their old buildings, for sure. But I was going to a sunny place the entire year!
People’s legs in the winter developed long red marks in the front, from standing so close to the fire. in front of the fireplace at home, close enough to warm the parts exposed, while our backs were still freezing. We wore layers of sweaters, and placed our coats on our beds to keep us warm at night,
Schools must be different, I thought.
No more standing in the front of the room to recite lessons. And on Fridays, in our gym, an open area ten times the size of the classroom, we ran around until we could no longer stand up, at which point the teacher guided us through stretch exercises and tumbling maneuvers, all of us stripped down to gym shorts and t-shirts regardless of the weather.
No more soaked and muddy shoes after each day traipsing to and from school. If we caught a cold, it would soon turn to pneumonia, keeping us in bed for days, drinking hot wine sweetened with honey to combat raspy cough and sinus troubles. Children and old people died after a winter cold spell.
In Los Angeles the temperature was 75 degrees when we plane finally landed.