If you are just jumping in here, please start with Part 1, otherwise, this will just make no sense at all! I mean, seriously… You can’t just jump into part 8 of a series, right?
Dateline, Los Angeles. 1984
I was sitting aboard a 747 in Los Angeles, strapped in and ready for take-off for Rome for my second trip to Italy. It was a very unexpected trip. 12 hours prior, I would have told you I would be loading my boogie board into the car and getting ready to hit the beach right now. Instead of hitting the rad waves, I’m, like totally going to, like… Italy again. Dude!!!!
This time I am flying over with Little Rocco, Big Rocco and Vinnie. My only memory of the flight was Big Rocco getting really bad heartburn. “What a shit! Hey Rocchio, gimme some Tums. I’m dyin ovah heeyah.”
The Layover From Hell
We connect in New York, and make the long, long flight to Rome. The prior year, once I got to Rome, we were picked up by my mom’s friend, and taken to a hotel 15 minutes away to sleep off the trip. But Rocco & family don’t roll like that. Once we got to Rome, we had a layover for flight #3, which would take us down to Reggio Calabria. And the layover was TEN hours! There were no “club lounges,” or even reasonably comfortable seats at the airport in Rome back then. We had the most uncomfortable seats on the planet with torture-inducing armrests. No way to lay down. No way to get comfortable. No shopping area bars or restaurants. Just a big room with concrete floors and torture chairs.
Rocco and I thought maybe we could get a bus and go into Rome. This master plan lasted about 5 seconds before we both realized we were too tired to even think, let alone walk around the city.
So for 10 hours, all four of us tried every conceivable way to find some semblance of comfort… just enough to maybe close our eyes for a few minutes. Every attempt was an epic fail, and all I could think of were Big Rocco’s eloquent words: “What a shit!“
We finally got onto our flight. Just picture The Walking Dead boarding a plane. Seriously, picture it.
OK, I think you got it now 🙂
Making Aunt Jemima Proud
We take our hour-long flight to the south, and are picked up by Rocco’s Uncle Nicola. Sweet! At least we don’t have to ride the Mussolini Train to get to Gioiosa.
But wait! Uncle Nicola had a really small car, and 5 of us were crammed into it, feeling and smelling like transatlantic baggage.
Speaking of baggage, we had a ton. My suitcases were filled with, you know… my clothes. Not too much. But Big Rocco & Vinnie? They had obligations. Apparently each time an expat would return home from the states, there you had to come bearing gifts for the entire town. There were three things expected of you:
- Marlboro cigarettes
- Pancake mix
- Aunt Jemima Maple Syrup.
Of course, the staples of life, right?
The drive was 2 1/2 hours. 32 hours after taking off from Los Angeles, we got out of the car, and …
Back Home in Gioiosa Ionica
“Hello Mr. Goat! I have missed you so much!” And then there was Nonna… and Uncle Peppe. It was a homecoming! Of course Nonna needed to feed us after having spent a year in America starving, right? I’m tired. I smell. My stomach is upset. And out rolls the pasta, the fried stuff, the sausage… and of course, Nonna’s tears. Ahhhh, I feel like I am home, but M.U.S.T. S.L.E.E.P…. NOW!
My handy red bucket was there for by bucket-o-water shower, and we headed up to the upper room full of sausage and oil, to my good ‘ol “U” Bed, and my old friends, the termites.
Michael: “Good Night, Rock.”
Rocco: “‘Nite Mikey.”
Michael: “Good night, termites.”
Termites: “tick tzk click tzk tick creek tzk zzk click tzk…”
Rinse and Repeat
The next few days were no different than my last trip. It was as though this place had been frozen in time for the past year. I was in heaven. I was where I was supposed to be.
Black coffee. Good Morning Mr. Goat. Good Morning Mrs. Chicken version 2.0. Hit the Beach. Ridiculously large lunch. Nonna’s tears. Scratch my balls when passing the witch. Back to the beach. Ridiculously large dinner. Hit “La Flora” club at night. Good Night.
What else is there in life?
Mom? What are YOU doing here?
So I get a phone call one day. It turns out that my mom made a decision. There was no way her son was going to Italy while she stayed back in L.A.
It turns out that my mother just decided to hop on a plane for Italy, called her friend Umberto, and she was staying at his house up in Soriano.
Soriano… Oh yeah, that little two-horse town we were in for a couple of days last year. Ummmmm, BORE FEST! But, whatever. To this day, I have no idea why she was there, but there had always been little I understood about my mother.
Airplane Ping Pong
It’s a great game, you should try it!
Now I am scheduled to be there for 12 days, but I was on an open return ticket. The 12 days kinda just got away from me. For some reason, I decided to go visit my mom up in Soriano for a few days, then fly back. Then for whatever reason I would go visit again, then fly back. I don’t know how many times this happened, but I remember it being a kind of constant thing. I was ping-ponging between Soriano and Gioiosa.
Keep in mind each time was a 2 1/12 hour drive from Gioiosa to the airport, and hour flight, and an hour and a half drive to Soriano, and vice versa. Each time, I found myself spending more and more time in Soriano. So why do I keep going back to this 2 horse town, anyway when Gioiosa is so awesome?
My “Other” Italian Friends
The first thing I noticed when I went back to Soriano for the second time was that it wasn’t such a dead place after all. Actually, the year before, I had only really been in town when all the shops were closed. Now it was actually pretty cool. Also, this time, we are staying in my mom’s friend’s Villa. Remember, Umberto. He had an awesome villa in the countryside outside of town. And on this trip, we actually got around the area, visited the neighboring city of Viterbo, and I met lots of new people.
There was Mimmo, of course. He and his family were the ones whose house I had dinner at the year prior when I discovered they had paintings, furniture, and an indoor bathroom. But then there was Stefano and Daniela, and Stefano’s brother Riccardo. We really hit it off. Riccardo was a local artist, and like with Enzo, even though we didn’t have a language in common, we figured it out.
During that first trip, we would have dinner with Stefano, Daniela, Riccardo and family every night. And every night, I would drive back to Umberto’s villa afterwards, passing this old, dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere. When we would leave Umberto’s villa in the morning, I would pass this old house. And I found myself thinking how cool it would be to restore something like that!
When we would go into the city with Umberto, we would go around with his family, and he had this niece named Nicoletta that was smokin’ hot. But she was only 15, so well… jail bait. Plus, I kinda did have a girlfriend back home, right?
And there were festivals, and life, and… and… and… So very quickly, I found myself experiencing in Soriano much of what I experienced in Gioiosa. How cool! I have a second set of friends in Italy, right? And what feels like a second home in Italy! So it became natural that I would hop between the two places.
And Then There Was Paola
On one of my early trips back to Soriano, it turned out that Umberto had to leave for England for a few days. Now, Umberto had been our built-in translator all this time, and my mom was there, not speaking a word of Italian and staying in his house. So Umberto asked Mimmo and his family if they could help her out while he was gone.
One day my mom had been in their store trying to communicate with them, and this girl was walking to the dry cleaners. It turns out she was the other person in town that spoke English. She helped, and they invited her to lunch since they were having a hard time communicating with my mom.
So when I arrive in Soriano, my mom tells me how excited she is to introduce me to “Paola.” Ummmm, ok. whatever.
We arrive at Mimmo’s house for lunch, and this “Paola” is there. I remember seeing her outside of their house. She was wearing a colorful shirt and capri pants… and she spoke incredible English. And she was cute… and engaging… and funny… and sweet. Oh, and she had also just broken up with her fiancé. So it is not like I wanna be rebound man, and I do live 8,000 miles away, right?
Still, we very quickly became friends, and we ended up hanging out and going places together. I really like this girl. A lot. But just as a friend. There was really nothing more to it than that.
Gioiosa Becomes a Ghost Town
My ping-ponging continued, and on September 3rd of that year I went back to Gioiosa again. But when I got there I saw something I had never seen down there:
It had suddenly emptied. I mean, for every hundred people that had been there before, there were maybe 10 now. Bars closed. The clubs closed. The beach empty. Hotels closing. WTF? It was then that I learned that vacation time in Italy was July and August, and Gioiosa was a vacation beach town that went dormant on Sep 1 every year. As much as I loved Rocco’s family, the whole town had just died.
So now when I ping pong back to Soriano, IT is the place that is full of life by comparison. And Paola and I are spending more and more time together. And we are visiting Assisi, Perugia, and so many other places. But again, just friends. We became really good friends. I even stayed hidden one afternoon so she could go try to mend things with her fiancé and tell her family she was out with me so they would not give her the third degree. “Awesome! Good luck!”
All along, I am still staying at Umberto’s house, and man… that old dilapidated house I keep passing would sure be cool to restore. Just a fantasy, though. And every time I pass it, I am on a long stretch of dirt road that I can go full speed on and kick up a radical cloud of dust behind me! Totally awesome, and I’m really not too concerned when every time I pass it, those farmers across the road from the dilapidated house shake their fists and yell at me. I mean, they’ll never actually know who I am, right? Sigh.
September 13, 1984
It’s my birthday (and I’ll cry if I want to).
Stop. Please write that down and remember every September 13th to send me a wonderful gift, ok? I gladly accept precious metals and Bitcoin.
Here is what I know is happening today:
Down in Gioiosa they are throwing me a party, so I need to fly back down there. Paola is going to give me a ride to the airport, and she invites me to have lunch at her house with her family, and I am probably gonna fly back to the states next week because I have really extended this 12 day trip to what is now about a month and a half!
But something life-changing happened in the middle of all of that.
I did go to Paola’s house for lunch. I will never forget the amazing sautéed peppers that day. Her mom was as sweet as could be, and so was her sister.
Her dad was kinda grumpy, and her brother came off as a total asshole (Sorry Sergio, but dude, you were pretty grumpy!). She also had an aunt there that truly seemed as though she hated the world. It amazes me looking back at how spot on I was with my first impressions from a single lunch with a family speaking a language I could not understand. But there it was.
Paola then drove me to the airport to drop me off for my flight. It was time to say goodbye, and as always we went in for the Italian double-Cheek kiss that everyone does as a hello or goodbye, even two guys.
But there is a moment when you move from one cheek to the other, right in the middle, in which you normally just keep going over to the other cheek in a swift, fluid action.
That didn’t quite happen this time.
This time there was a tiny fraction of a second in between that we both stopped and almost went lips to lips. That fraction of a second was extremely awkward, but we moved over to cheek #2, and said our goodbyes.
Everything Has Changed
Now I am heading down for a birthday party, but I am sitting on the plane, and that moment is just spinning in my head. WTF? I had genuinely never thought of Paola as anything more than a friend. But all of the sudden, all I want is to get back to her and go back to that moment… and stop at the half-way point of the double cheek kiss and go for it.
But Nooooooo, it would just be a short fling before I went home to L.A.. Impossible. Not worth it. But Yeeeesssssss, I mean, I really like this girl. Actually, as a friend, she has actually been everything I have always wanted in a girl that would otherwise be more than a friend!
There is something more to this.
I get to Gioiosa and I am at my birthday party physically, but my head is back at the airport in Rome, in Soriano with Paola. Rocco even notices that I am not fully there, and I tell him. I am supposed to be down here for a week, then go get my stuff in Soriano and fly home. But I just wanna get back to Paola, to that moment. I mean, Birthday party, smirthday party. I do not wanna be here.
The next day I am in town with Rocco, and I remembered that Paola had commented that she liked my watch. A watch I bought for myself in Gioiosa. Must. Get. Paola. Present!
Michael: Hey Rock, I need to get to that store and get another watch.
Michael: Uh, Rock… I also need to get back up there. I can’t stop thinking about her.
Long story short, 2 days later I am back on a plane. I give Paola the watch, but we were still in “friend” mode. AWKWARD!
But all of the new friends in Soriano had been seeing there was a spark or fifty for quite some time. Paola and I had both been clearly oblivious. Our friends (and even my own mother) decided we needed a little “push.” So they orchestrated a dinner at Mimmo’s house, and after a few glasses of wine, Paola and I found ourselves in their living room.
getting closer and closer.
And then the last thing you would ever expect happened.
She bit my nose.
Yeah… and roughly 3 milliseconds later we were kissing passionately. There it was, and it went on for some time before we went back into the dining room and everyone there had a look that was as clear as could be:
‘Bout dammed time!
That night I went home, both confused and elated. Seriously, like what does all of this mean? Everything has changed.
I thought this was an ending, but it is clearly just a beginning. I now have friends and family in Gioiosa, AND in Soriano. I feel like I belong here so much more than I do back in L.A. Everything just fits.
It is as though I had always been meant to be here. As though I was really an Italian that was accidentally born in the States. The feeling of being where I am supposed to be strengthens significantly during this trip.
And now there is Paola. I mean, I know this would be an impossible relationship, but I really like this girl. Not like all the girlfriends before (or the one waiting for me back in L.A.). I like her as in a way I have never felt before. She’s probably going to come to her senses in the morning, or maybe I will. But right now, I am seeing a glimpse of an entirely different life. I am beginning to see purpose and reason. I have no idea at this time, but my adventure hasn’t even started yet.
And that is where I will end this post in the series. The next one will be titled “An Italian Love Story.”
Until then, please post your thoughts, comments and questions below. I love reading them!