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The International Writers Magazine: Italy Remembered

Brian H. Appleton

When I lived in Livorno in the 1960’s in my early teens, we had family friends named the Carpers who lived in a palazzo in Antignano. An American bachelor architect by the name of Van Kampen originally from Saratoga, N.Y. lived on the top floor. He and I became good friends as well. We had all known each other in the 1950’s in Athens, Greece working for the US Army Corps of Engineers but I had been very young then.
In the back of this palazzo, a garden descended to a private beach with a little pier where we sun bathed and tied up Van Kampen’s dinghy after we took it rowing. I would spend all day snorkeling in their little harbor in the summer and often on Sundays we would come for barbeque. Harry Carper was a great cook and a great raconteur who could be extremely funny and I loved to listen to his stories. He had originally come from Winchester, Virginia. He had a way of rolling up croutons and ketchup and mustard and chopped celery and other ingredients into the burger before he eked out the patties which kept them very juicy. He had a repertoire of famous stories like his "Screaming Eagles" story which took place with some American colonel in Turkey but we won’t go into that here.

His wife Oria was a first generation American who had lived in San Francisco. Her sister lived in Orbetello and was married to a doctor and had never become an American and her parents lived in the little village named Torniella where she had grown up on the road between Grosseto and Siena. I remember what an attractive and handsome woman Oria had been. She reminded me of Sophia Loren only not as tall. She loved to sing all the latest Italian pop tunes of the day like "Roberta ascolta mi" and "Renata, Renata, Renata…" and she liked Sinatra too.

Every Christmas my family and I would visit with the Carpers who went on to have two daughters and raised them in this palazzo. I remember Harry handing out cigars the day Gioia was born and I can remember her crib and her room with a view of the sea from its window.

They always had a huge Christmas tree with angel hair and those ornaments with the little glass tubes and the bubbles that rise up them that you never see anymore. They also had those painted glass Christmas ornaments with entire nativity scenes. No Christmas was complete without seeing their tree. Often we would go together to the Piazza Republica which was covered with trees for sale and help each other load them on the roofs of our old ’50 style Ford and their –’50 style Buick with that row of chrome holes up by the front fenders.
I watched their two girls grow up from babies into their early twenties. Gioia and Janet, became like younger first cousins to me. We would often go on long hikes along the cliff’s of Antignano together and I remember how once I got a little sun stroke and had to lie down on the ground and they were both leaning over me solicitously worrying if I was alright.
Frequently we would end our hike when we reached the Califuria Restaurant which had a great view of the glassy almost purple Mediterrean Sea far below with the surf pounding on the rocks. I had often gone spear fishing along that rugged coast line with my friend Joe, who was a super athlete. He and I and my brother would rent a bicycle built for 5 or 6 from a specialty shop around Piazza Cavour in Livorno and pack a picnic and our snorkeling gear and two or three girls to join us for an all day outing to those cliffs.

I remember once I caught an octopus in a tide pool. In those days the sea life was not frightened off or over fished because there were so few people visiting these remote spots. I remember at first I had only seen two of its arms intertwined and undulating from under a rock and I thought it was two eels fighting until I saw the suction cups and then I grabbed it and flung it out of the water. Eventually I let it go because I had not yet discovered how tasty they were to eat.

Ristorante Califuria was the scenario of many wonderful parties and dinners with our friends. Walking back along the cliff to return to their palazzo was even more perilous than the walk there because not only was it dark but we were rather tipsy from the wine by then…so we would mince our way along in a single file often holding one hand of the person in front of us and one with the person behind us, for all the world like a string of circus elephants.
I remember once when I was about 16, I went just with Oria Carper alone to the restaurant for lunch; she was like an aunt to me.
After we were seated we noticed that at a table across from us two gentlemen were having a very quiet and deep conversation as if they were planning a political coup and Oria and I started making up a story for each other about who they were. One had long gray hair and they both looked very dignified. We decided one was Professor Gian Franco and the other Conte Rabaroo. We made up the conversation we imagined they were having.

The way the young boy waiter was scurrying about trying his very best to take good care of them gave us the impression that they were regulars and considered important guests. At one point Professor Gian Franco asked for oil and vinegar and the young waiter embarrassed that he had forgotten to bring it out went running off to the kitchen
only to come scampering back as fast as his little legs could carry him with the little tray of salad dressing. Somehow just at the threshold he managed to trip and the bottles of oil and vinegar smashed on the marble floor under their table and coated them from the waist down with liquid. To their everlasting credit they went on talking intimately as if taking no notice of what had just occurred. The little waiter was almost having apoplexy by now. He ran back to the kitchen and came out with a huge bottle of talcum powder or Boro Talco as they say in Italian and began liberally scattering it under the table on their pants legs. They went on talking taking no notice whatsoever even though by now a cloud of powder was rising out from under the table which was thick enough to make anyone cough.

It was all we could do to not die from oxygen starvation while trying to suppress our laughter. It was a vignette from a comedy to die for…

Oria was quite a character. Another time we were riding a public bus and one of those inspectors who come around about once in five years to see that you paid happened to show up and asked for her ticket. She had tossed it into her purse and when she went to retrieve it to her dismay she discovered about 40 old tickets she had tossed in on earlier occasions. The inspector began to get annoyed and impatient and short with her as she unraveled and flattened out the tickets looking for the right one. Finally the rest of the riders jumped to her defense. "Can’t you see she is an honest woman, why are you harassing this poor lady…etc." Finally he was receiving such a hazing that he left her alone and got off the bus at the next stop and everybody cheered. This was such an epitome of the Italy I know and love…

At any rate, one summer, Oria invited us to come to Torniella and stay for several weeks with them in her parent’s stone house which she and her sister had grown up in. Her mother who had flawless snow white skin and hair had been blind for many years. She would hold your face with both hands when she greeted you so she could see who you were through her fingers.

It was an amazing two weeks. Each morning the mothers and daughters would form a line at the Fornaio with their casseroles for him to bake. It was a great chance for them to catch up on all the village gossip.

Oria was a great chef also and she would often make us stuffed zucchini blossoms and deep fried artichokes the consistency of potato chips "alla Gerusaleme" and stuffed mussels and homemade pasta. Her father gave us homemade red wine, home made olive oil, home made mustard, and the fresh bread coming from the baker everyday for breakfast and fresh eggs from their chickens with those orange yolks you don’t see in the store. I remember the day we arrived we were all eating Bacelli and Peccorino together in the kitchen which opened onto a balcony. I don’t know why the sheep cheese and the large raw peas tasted so good together but they did.
One day Oria took us through the woods to a meadow in which a river meandered through and we spent the day swimming in it and Harry and my brother and I decided to build a little damn with river rocks in order to deepen the swimming hole. We spent several days at it and our engineering project was successful in that we could now stand in water up to our necks. I remember on the edge of the meadow were strawberry trees, nespole and I would eat the almost sickly sweet fruit until I felt like a stuffed goose.
Another day Oria took us on a long walk up into the mountains to show us a cabin that was still there where she and her family had hidden from the Nazis when they had occupied the village. She showed us the tree that she had climbed every night to tie up a bundle of their food in it so that wild animals would not steal their salami. She had carried her mother’s mattress on her back from their house in the village to this cabin at that time so that her mother might be more comfortable. Now many decades later she was having back trouble as a result of it.

When the American soldiers arrived as liberators they gave chocolate bars to all the kids and it was from that time that Oria had come to love the Americans and decided that she would one day live in San Francisco. It was a good choice as San Francisco is the only city I know of in the USA that is full of Luchesi. You can actually hear Tuscan in North Beach and watch old men play Boci (lawn bowling.)

I will never forget those days in Torniella with the Carpers. There was wild mushroom hunting for Porcini under the chestnut trees, there were tiny wild strawberries in the woods, there were sensuous deep red cherries to enjoy and stain your clothes with and always the sounds of children’s laughter as they played in the streets, the white haired old men sitting round playing cards in the village square, the whistles of the streaming swallows… a timelessness…the sleeping cats and dogs in the thresholds of the doorways in the long shadows of the afternoon siesta hours…

Here is the view of Torniella and the castle of the vassals of the Aldobrandeschi. Oria once told me a story about how the game keeper’s daughter and the son of the count had fallen in love and married and lived happily ever after although the nobility had disapproved. I don’t remember all the details but I will ask my mother who might. It sounded something like Lady Chatterley’s Lover with a happy ending.

About ten years ago Gioia and Janet drove their mother across the United States and staged a reunion for her at a private dining room in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco with their old friends from the time they lived on Chestnut Street. Poor Oria was in the process of losing her memory to Alzheimers just as my father had and so she could not remember me but that didn’t stop her from singing Frank Sinatra songs with me or quaffing a glass of Prosecco together…Harry had died years before. I remember Oria once telling me how she had taken care of both her parents on their death beds in their home in Torniella until the very end and how hard it had been… bathing them and changing their bed clothes and sheets…

I don’t believe that Janet or Gioia ever fully adjusted to life in America and lived somewhere between Italy and America emotionally speaking belonging to neither fully and to that I too can relate. Last I heard they had moved Oria to a nursing home in Canada and lived near by, but even that was years ago now…I have lost touch with them
after what seemed like a life time of friendship. Things change and it has just slipped away but not the memories…
How quickly life passes and when we take a moment to look back, what we remember most are the few moments of joy, the good times spent with friends, the exceptionally successful party, the carnival, the Palio…those are the little daisies growing in the fields of grass from which we made the little crown to adorn the head of our baby sister to her endless delight when we were ever so young…

© Brian H. Appleton December 2007

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