“A Little Bit of Italy” from HOW I LEARNED TO TRAVEL
“I’m going build a swimming,” my father announced. “New neighbors plan to build a house next door. When that happens, we won’t be able to get a bulldozer onto our property, so it’s now or never.”
Even before meeting the new neighbors, they had secured a place in my heart. After all, they were partially responsible for a swimming pool at my house. Why wouldn’t I like them!
One afternoon months later, I was riding my sky blue three speed Schwinn bike past the just finished new house. A small, stick figure-like woman hopped out of a car parked in the driveway. She waved and called out to me,
“Where do you live?”
I pointed to the house next door. Then she continued with her questions: how old are you? Where do you go to school? What grade are you in? Finally, she pronounced
“Well, you’re going to have new neighbors in just a few weeks, and one is my daughter, Barbara. She’s nine.”
The news made a bubble of expectations in my tummy. Not only were the new neighbors bringing us a swimming pool, but they were bringing me a playmate. Playmates were in scarce supply in the sparsely built foothills of west Pasadena where we lived.
The particular thing I noticed about the woman, Mrs. Valli, besides her slight stature was her accented voice. Too young to discern what kind of accent, I simply noticed that her English, while completely fluent and understandable, had a melodic quality with each word ending with special emphasis and her “th’s” sounding a bit more like “z’s” than “th’s”.
When the Vallis moved in the following month, I met Barbara for the first time as I was walking up the hill from the school bus stop. I remember calling out to her, “Hi I’m Sherry” and hearing her reply,
“Hi, I’m Barbara.”
Barbara was slightly shorter than I. She had dark brown hair that glinted in the sun, a few freckles scattered across her straight nose and warm brown eyes. Just as we started talking, an older man with kind eyes emerged from front door. He spoke quietly to Barbara, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying because he wasn’t speaking English.
“My father says why don’t you come into our house and play?”
“Come on in,” Barbara beckoned, while her father, smiled, opening the door and motioning me inside. I would soon learn that Natale, Barbara’s father was the parent usually at home; that he was already retired and indeed twenty years his wife’s, Carmela, senior. Without hesitation and much curiosity., I stepped inside.
The house smelled new but not like my own house smelled when we first moved there. As we walked into the kitchen strange things began jumping out at me. A large gallon glass bottle partially filled with dark, purple red liquid sat prominently on the table. Then a basket of bread rolls beside the wine jug caught my eye. Clustered in the center were salt and pepper shakers flanking two small bulbous bottles sealed with corks. One bottle contained red wine vinegar; the other held a shimmering green golden translucent oil, something I hadn’t seen at home. As we walked through the kitchen there were strange aromas, I couldn’t identify.
Barbara lead me through the house to her bedroom, then asked
“You wanna play jacks? “ motioning us into the bathroom with a gold flaked linoleum floor. The bathroom? An odd place to play jacks, I thought, but then realized that rest of the floors throughout the house were carpeted.
Our friendship began with jacks that day and developed organically over a repertoire of shared past-times: swimming in my pool and hers ; hiking around the scrub covered hills where we lived, riding bikes and hanging out watching TV in the Valli’s family room during the day time, something not permitted at my house. Quickly, I was spending more and more time at the Vallis.
Much more than unlimited TV, the Vallis introduced me to polenta, garlic as an omnipotent seasoning, daily fresh baked bread, green-gold olive oil and a constant banter in Italian. I loved listening to the tuneful sounds rolling off their tongues, the intensity with which they spoke, their warmth and the continuous merriment. They were loose, much looser than my WASP-ish family. They were playful: they drank, smoked and caroused, not excessively, but enough to create the feeling of being at an a neverending party. I even began learning a bit of Italian as well as how to sip Chianti . A day rarely passed that I went to play at Barbara’s where Mario Lanza sang “Volare” and Frank Sinatra crooned everything from “April in Paris” to “The Road to Mandalay”.
Occasionally, I was invited to go with Barbara and her mother to the community they’d left behind, but still frequented. Sandwiched between Highland Park and the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, the neighborhood comprised of small, not terribly well-tended, houses, lots of people speaking Spanish-with whom Carmela could communicate because Italian melded easily with other romance languages. Here she managed the family businesses including a liquor store, restaurant and bar.
The best part of these excursions was visiting the bar filled with old Italian men where Natale played bocce ball on the hard pack, dusty earth court in a garden shaded by large oak trees. Little café tables were scattered around where the men sat casually drinking, smoking and conversing as the bocce games stretched across long warm Southern California afternoons. Natale and his friends always gave Barbara and me a turn to play bocce, and I grew to like bocce better than bowling with its intolerably heavy balls.
As I grew older, my appetite for travel extended beyond, as my father called them, “trips to little Italy”. Not only were my bedroom walls decorated with pictures of Rome and Venice, but also with travel posters of more “exotic” places such as Peru and India. At twenty, I would make my first trip “abroad” to Europe. It was wonderful, and the trips to little Italy were only where it all began.
“A Travel Poster” from THE ALLIGATOR’S TOOTH
Searching for a flat in London is no fun. Especially, when you’re looking ahead at an English winter. Most of the flats we examine are worn out bedsitters with threadbare couches, scuffed chairs and scratched tables. Small gas heaters requiring frequent feedings of shilling coins will be the only protection against the cold. After the summer in Spain, London seems large and lonely. Anna Kay and several Jamaican friends have moved back to the West Indies, so we are without contemporaries in this big, often bleak city.
The search persists day after day. The air chills, a reminder of the winter marching toward us. This does little to lift our spirits. I recall having just left a dingy little bedsitter with a shared loo down the hall in an outlying London neighborhood. The sun shone weakly through the foggy October afternoon. We decided to take the underground to downtown London to find a cheap Indian restaurant for lunch. The spicy kick of Indian food suits Robert, while I still have not completely learned to appreciate pepper. As we emerge from the Charring Cross Underground station to scout for a restaurant, a travel poster catches my eye. The gentle curves of a white sand beach banded by a wide ribbon of turquoise dissolving into deep blue defy the London gray. Coconut palms with shaggy yellow-green fronds cast soft shadows on shimmering sand while two empty orange chaise lounges relax in tropical luxury. Below the picture, in heavy bold block letters, I read the word “JAMAICA.”
“Is that where you come from?!,” I shoot an undeniably rhetorical question Robert’s way.
“Yah, I guess so,” he replies vacantly without stopping to look at the poster.
This is the moment when Jamaica begins to take a definite shape in my mind. I begin to question him, because on the edge of winter, jobless and almost without resources, taking our chances in some tropical paradise might be a better option than London. Robert raises his bushy Albert Einstein eyebrows with interest and looks back at the poster. We make a perfectly synchronized about-face and enter the travel agency to make inquiries.
Robert nods towards the travel poster in the large plate glass window. Then he asks
the gray haired woman wearing a lavender sweater accented with black-fringed silk scarf, looking at us curiously about travel from London to Jamaica.
“When would you like to depart and return?”
We look at each other questioningly. This idea is clearly not yet a plan. We attempt a quick conversation via face making, shoulder shrugging and mental telepathy. Robert tentatively suggests the coming week. When the travel agent asks about the return flight, his reply is definite,
“One way,” the definitive tone of his statement surprises all three of us!
The agent begins to scrutinize the thick blue covered binder oozing with printed airline schedules for hundreds of destinations. Finally, she locates the schedules telling us that there are British Overseas Airways flights on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Tuesday flight leaves Gatwick at 11:20 in the morning and arrives in Montego Bay at 6:40 p.m.,”
Politely, Robert tells her that we need to go to Kingston. All the while, Harry Belafonte’s honey voice floats in my ears,
Down the way where the nights are gay
And the sun shines daily on the mountain top
I took a trip on a sailing ship
And when I reached Jamaica I made a stop
The agent informs us that the Tuesday and Saturday flights continue from Montego Bay to Kingston arriving at 8:45 p.m.”
We nod with approval. Then daringly , I ask ,
“How much does it cost?”
In the crispest of British accents, she delivers the dismal news that the one-way fare is just under 200 pounds, one hundred ninety seven pounds, five to be exact.
Well, there goes that great idea, I tell myself, knowing that our net worth at that exact moment is less than one hundred ninety seven pounds, five, and we need twice that amount to buy the tickets.
Robert, however, appears to be undaunted. He continues by asking if there is space for the coming Tuesday.
The agent calls to check on availability. After some minutes, she relays an affirmative reply.
“Shall I book the tickets?” The tone of her voice is underlined with a trace of skepticism. Fortunately there aren’t any other customers waiting to make inquiries about trips to Jamaica or elsewhere, so we aren’t entirely wasting her time. But my stomach is beginning to growl with a late lunch hunger. I keep quiet. Jamaica is Robert’s territory. My knowledge, casually gleaned from a few family stories I’ve heard and conversations with Anna Kay and her friends in London is scant. We walk out of the travel agency into the cool London afternoon.
Robert thanks the agent for her help, indicating that we should leave for lunch and to confer.
On the street he suggests that a call to his Aunt Mignon’s brother, Manny, might make sense.
“He” ll be able to tell us more about going to Jamaica.”
Manny’s secretary reports that he is out of the office until 3 o’clock. We find an Indian restaurant, stop there and dive into a hot plate of chicken curry. When we arrive at Manny’s office, he has just returned from a round of golf. The London representative of the Jamaica Industrial Development Corporation, his easy salesman pitch for Jamaica charms us within seconds.
“Yes, mon, you should go to Jamaica. You will find a job, no problem at’tal.”
We leave his office decided. He generously offers us the use of a flat belonging to a distant relative who isn’t in London at the moment. We accept and stay the night to get our travel plans organized the following day.
In the morning, we go back to the BOAC office to make reservations for our air passage. Robert figures that we can charge the cost of the one-way tickets to the Barclay cards given to us by the bank when we arrived in England a little over one year ago.
The travel agent checks with Barclays when we give her the card to make the purchase. She instructs us to go to the bank and speak with the manager.
We walk briskly to the branch then speak with, a thin man wearing John Lennon spectacles.
“Jamaica, eh? You are going there to work and have family there?”
“Yes,” we insist, which is, of course, the truth.
“All right then. I’ll approve the charge if you surrender the cards.”
“That’s fine,” we agree readily.
The travel date is set for the following Tuesday, October 18. We leave the bank in a cloud of excitement, rushing to purchase the tickets. With tickets in hand we return to the flat to collect our things. That evening we call Robert’s grandparents in Kingston. They seem as excited as we are about our arrival as we are.
“I’ll tell David to pick you up at the airport, m’love” Granny Ruby promises.