We’re Going Home

It was late May, 1982 and I was sitting on a wooden bench at a roadside bus stop in a small Italian town.  In my mind, the Beatles’ song “Two Of Us” was playing on repeat loop as I silently watched the traffic lurch and weave, honk and gesture in that aggressive way Italian drivers have perfected.

I was twenty-one at the time and halfway through my seven-month study abroad trip.  This was my third journey into Italy.  My travel partner this time was John Edmund, a fellow exchange student from Alfred University and the valedictorian of our class.  John and I “knew” each other in a small college kind of way, but we weren’t particularly close.

Let’s Visit Uncle Joe

It was John’s fault that we were sitting there waiting for a bus.  John and I had been sharing a room in the international student dormitory for the past month.  As our mid-term holiday approached, John surprised me by asking if I’d travel with him to Italy. 

I remember agreeing with some reluctance.  I had a poor opinion of Italy; I felt it was dirty and coarse.  I preferred the clean and punctual northern-European countries.  Still, I had no better plans for the holiday, and I knew the loneliness of travelling alone.

We had travelled first to Florence, then to Rome, and it had been a good trip so far.  The art, the architecture, the history – I was seeing a better side of Italy.  Even the bustle of the city streets and the volitile way the Italians acted seemed less threatening to me.  I had to admit, it had been a good trip, right up until that morning when John said, “Let’s go visit my great-uncle Joseph.”

“Who?” I asked, my mind still struggling to shake off the last cobwebs of sleep.  Uncle Joe was John’s grandfather’s brother.  He lived in a town not far away from where we were staying in Rome.  John had met Uncle Joe once back when John was a young boy. 

I asked some further questions, alarm rising in the pit of my stomach, and John replied: no, he hadn’t kept contact with Uncle Joe after that visit; no, Uncle Joe didn’t know that John was currently in Europe; yes, he was sure that Uncle Joe would remember him and would love to have us visit.

This did not sound like a good idea to me.  Being self-sufficient and shy to a fault, I was sure that John’s distant relatives would want very little to do with him, and nothing to do with me.  I tried to explain my concerns to John, but my words just weren’t getting through.  The idea of visiting his ancestral home had taken hold on him.  There was no stopping him from going to visit his great-uncle, and I couldn’t keep myself from going along too, as if sucked along in his wake.

Homecoming

We had to take a local train to a small town to catch a bus to his Uncle’s even smaller town.  By the time John led me to the bus stop, I had resigned myself to a painful death by embarrassment.  No doubt I’d burst into flames under the withering stares of a group of Italian strangers as they guarded their home from the unwelcome American stranger.  The final straw came when John read the posted bus schedule and commented that there was only one bus to his Uncle’s village scheduled for that day.

“My mind screamed, “You’ve got no way back to Rome tonight!  Leave!  Now!  Before it’s too late.”

John sat down on the bench to wait for the bus.  Then a strange thing happened: my butt sat down next to John.

This surprised me so much that my thoughts were stunned into silence.  For half a minute, maybe more, all was still in my mind.  Then quietly, that Beatles’ song rose out of my memory, its words half remembered, its melody soothing and calming me.

…Two of us sunday driving/ not arriving/ on our way back home.

We’re on our way home.

We’re on our way home.

We’re going home.

 That song played like a theme song for me as we waited on the bench for the bus.  It played as we rode that bus, watching all the other passengers exit until only the two of us and the driver remained.  The bus climbed up steep mountain roads, weaving between pastures and fields as we drove far out into the countryside.  Finally, our bus turned off the country road and onto a lane made of ancient stone pavers, turning a corner and coming to a stop in a small town plaza circled by a dozen stone houses.

John was out the bus door as soon as it openned.  I made my way off the bus at a more reasonable pace.  By the time I stepped down from the bus, John was already surrounded by two dozen people.  Half the town had turned out to gawk at the strangers from the bus. 

John was valiantly wading through the crowd pointing at a piece of paper he was holding with his great uncle’s name written on it and asking, “Do you know my Uncle Joe?”  No one in the crowd spoke English, not that it mattered that much.  It was all but impossible to hear anybody speaking over the noise and bluster of the gathering crowd.  We were apparently the most excitement that these villagers had seen in a long time.  More doors were opening, more people were joining the fray.

Then, just when all looked lost, a young man not much older than us was hustled into the center of the crowd where we stood.  The crowd grew quieter as he explained that he was attending the university and was studying English.  Then he listened as John explained why we were there. 

It took a couple of tries, he wasn’t used to John’s American accent, but eventually the man’s eyes grew wide, and he turned and spoke to the crowd in Italian.  They roared and cheered.  He turned back to us and explained that yes, Uncle Joe lived in their village.  John was also related to the English speaking man and a good portion of the crowd there in the plaza.

Uncle Joe was the Postmaster.  He was hurried out to the plaza and he greeted both John and I as long-lost family.  It was immediately decided that they would shut down the post office and the town one store early, and prepare a feast for us.  The women in the crowd bustled off to their homes to prepare the meal.  Meanwhile, some of the men and a number of curious boys gave us a grand tour of the town, which dated back to early Roman times.

Soon it was time to eat, and we sat crowded around a long table with at least twenty of John’s relatives.  We had a tasty, traditional Italian meal: pasta as the first course, meat for the second, and wine through out.  What a happy gathering!  We bonded quickly with our new-found family.  By the end of the meal, we were laughing at each others’ jokes, correctly interpreting them through hand gestures and inflection before John’s cousin could interpret.

That visit meant more to me than I could express at the time.  John’s family welcomed a stranger into their home and adopted him as a son.  Years later, their open acceptance stands out clearest of all of my travelling memories.  I couldn’t repay their gift to me, I couldn’t even properly thank them, but I’ll always remember them.  And perhaps it’s not too late to work at taking after my adopted side of the family.

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One Response

  1. Hai amore per gli italiani…
    — Antonio Vincenzo Longobardo

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