Often in life we have to close one door before
we can open another. I discovered that one fateful summer evening, while
visiting a tiny hillside town in Southern Italy. I along with my two sisters
spent a week touring the many historical landmarks of Italy, sight-seeing took
up most of our time, but our primary goal was to find the hometown in which my
father was born and raised. Closure is
not what I was seeking, but its what I got.
My sisters and I were blessed
with the opportunity to grow up in a family that was rich in Italian tradition.
Our father moved to Cincinnati Ohio from Italy in the year 1947 at the age of
18. It was there that Dad met Mom, they married and had children, two girls and
boy. Although Dad eventually lived more years in the United States than he ever
lived in Italy, he never forgot his heritage. He was very proud of being
Italian, and he took great pleasure in sharing his Italian traditions with his
American family. I was 18 years old when
my father passed away. It had been 20
years since his passing, but in some ways it felt like only yesterday.
It was in the summer of 2007 that my sisters
and I decided on taking a trip to Italy.
We flew out of Cincinnati in the evening of July 14, 2007. It would be a
long flight, but on the bright side it was a direct flight to Rome and we could
sleep all night and wake up in a different country; however, we didn't sleep a
wink that night. Call it nerves or call it anticipation of what was to be, but
either way I spent the 8½ hours staring at the back of the head of an older
gentleman seated in front of me, who by the way appeared to sleep quite well
the entire flight. We arrived at the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in
Rome mid-morning the following day. We stepped out of the air conditioned plane
and into the airport lobby, where we were greeted by a rush of hot air. I was
reminded of two disturbing thoughts, we were visiting Italy in the hottest
month of the year, and air-conditioners are not a high priority in Italy. Maybe
that's why the airline tickets were so cheap. Air-conditioning or not, we were determined
not to let this put a damper on our vacation. We managed to find our way to the
train station. We took the first train to downtown Rome, where we finally
checked into our hotel rooms, where we were able to get some much needed sleep
by means of a short cat nap.
We spent the next few days sight-seeing Rome. We would be awakened early
each morning by the sound of a thousand scooters rolling over cobble stoned
streets. It looked as if it was a race
from one stop light to the next; full throttle one minute and slamming on the
brakes the next. The men were dressed in suits and ties, and the ladies looked
just as elegant in their own business attire. There was hazy mist that hovered
over the busy streets, it was accompanied by a noxious odor not unlike that of sewage
and exhaust fumes. We always took advantage of the free continental breakfast
our hotel had to offer, it was simple and consisted of pastries and jam or
biscotti with a glass of fresh squeezed juice or coffee to drink. This would
hold us over until midday when we would sit outside a little deli and enjoy a
panini sandwich and a coke. Did you know a Soda in Italy is served with no ice?
I didn't. I was beginning to think that Italians are against all things cold.
Fortunately I was proved wrong in this assumption. It was a pleasant surprise
to discover that Rome has an ice cream stand on every other corner, "gelato" is
Italy's version of ice cream, it is not as sweet as American ice cream but when
you're dying of heat stroke it makes little difference. In the evening we would choose a different
outside diner, and there we would have a traditional Italian dinner such as
lasagna or spaghetti and a glass of wine. We viewed all the great sites such as
the Coliseum, Pantheon, Vatican, and the catacombs of Appian Way. I brought
with me some old black and white photos that my father had taken when he took a
trip to Rome back in the 1950s. My goal was to find some of the same places
where he had taken the photos, so that I too could stand in the very same spot
some sixty years later and have my photo taken also. I ended up finding several
of these locations. One particular place that comes to mind was at Saint
Peter's Square in front of the Vatican. I matched up exactly where dad had been
standing. I stood there myself as my sister took my picture. It was only after
I had taken a closer look at the background of Dad's old photograph that I
noticed the Pope was waving to the crowd from his apartment window.
Unfortunately I was unable to match that minor detail in my photograph.
After a few days in Rome all three of us were worn out; we were ready to
do some sight-seeing in a place where the pace of life is a little slower,
that place was Assisi, a small town in northern Italy that is famous for once
being home to Saint Francis, whom happens to be one of Italy's most famous saints.
The train ride was short, maybe two hours at most, during this time we took notice of the rolling hills
that were covered in olive trees and grape vineyards. It was absolutely beautiful,
like something out of a painting. In what seemed like no time at all we felt
the train slowing down, we had arrived in Assisi. The town looked majestic the
way it wrapped around the top of the hill. Overlooking the town on an even
higher peak was an enormous castle wall. I felt like we had just stepped back
in time hundreds of years. We spent the majority of the day walking up and down
the winding streets and exploring the churches that were built as memorials to
some of Saint Francis's most loyal followers. The most amazing site was the Cathedral
of Saint Francis. There we visited his tomb and paid our respects. Before we
left Assisi we once again had our now traditional lunch of panini and gelato,
then boarded the train to return to Rome.
The next day I spent a great deal of time researching railway maps at
the Roman train depot. I wanted to find the best train route that would take us
as close as we could possibly get to Castelfranco in Miscano, the tiny hillside
town in southern Italy where my father had been born. I finally settled on three round trip tickets
to the town of Monticalvo in Irpina; it appeared to be the closest train stop,
just five miles away from our final destination. I even prearranged for someone
to pick us up at the train station on our arrival so as to complete the final
few miles of our journey.
We left early in the morning on a train that headed deep into the territory of southern Italy.
At the time Italy was experiencing a drought
and a heat wave, so our view from the train allowed us to see many fields and
mountains that were consumed with brush fires.
Often there was a faint smell of smoke in the air. Occasionally hot
amber's would blow into the open windows of the train car and land in our laps.
Four hours later we arrived in Monticalvo. Only one other person exited the
train with my sisters and I, there was absolutely nothing around us but open
fields and a single room brick building that appeared to be at least a hundred
years old. We waited for what seemed like an eternity for our driver to pick us
up, but no one showed up, we all began to feel anxious and worry that our
driver forgot about us? We were five miles from finding our father's home town
and we may not even get to see it because we are stranded in the middle of a
field with no way of getting there.
We were running out of time, and had only a short window of opportunity to see
Castelfranco before we had to be back at the train station for our return trip
to Rome. There was no phone in the old building or even an attendant to assist
us. Luckily for us the one extra passenger who exited the train with us sensed
we had a problem, she was a young girl, maybe of college age, with very long
black straight hair, she spoke broken English
as she asked if we needed to use her cell phone. I quickly confirmed that we
did. I thanked her and carefully entered the numbers of the prepaid calling
card so that she wouldn't be stuck with a huge cell phone bill later. A short
while later our ride showed up and off we went.
Giuseppe was our driver, he spoke no English and we were unable to speak any Italian, but it is amazing how you can
manage to find a way to communicate when you need to. I do remember him
pointing at the temperature gauge on the dashboard of his car, it said 33
degrees Celsius. I had no idea what the conversion to Fahrenheit was at the
time, but I agreed that it was hot!
The ride was uphill the next few miles; the road wound around hills, all
you could see for miles was wheat fields. We rounded one last curve and there
it was, the town we had heard so many stories about growing up. It was a big
moment for my sisters and I both. There were no words spoken as we drove into
the town. I suspect my sisters were doing as I and imagining dad as a young
child running and playing on these very streets, not knowing the life that lies
ahead of him, waiting. Giuseppe parked the car and motioned for us to follow
him. We walked up a few streets and came to a house. The house was very small.
It was made of large grey stones held together by mortar. The stone at the foot
of the doorway had a large crack that extended across its entire length. I
reached into my pocket to retrieve the old photo taken by my father many years
ago. I noticed that the cracked stone was also present in his photo taken so
long ago. The distinguishing mark on the stone erased all doubt. This was the home where my father was born. This was
the same doorway that my father walked through many times the first 18 years of
his life, and the same doorway that he walked through one last time as he said
his good-byes to his family and friends when he left to start a new life in a
new country. It's hard for me to imagine the courage that it took to leave
everything and everyone he knew at such a young age for a place so far away and
Although we spent only a few
hours in my father's home town, those few hours were special. For the first
time in a very long time, I felt as if dad was near me, and maybe in some ways
he was. Four thousand miles from my home and many years after his passing, I
came to know in just a few hours the person my father once was. He was a man
with big dreams and the courage to go after those dreams; he cared for his
family in the best way he knew how, by being a good provider and a hard worker.
All the odds were against him, but he succeeded anyway. I left Italy with great
pride in my father, and with that peace entered my heart. I felt a sense of
closure almost as if Dad was looking down from above, smiling. Maybe all he
ever wanted was for me to be proud of him; that was something I was unable to
express in his living years. That door is now closed and another one open, I am
Eric Baldino, PROUD son of Pete Baldino.