Living By My Wits, Badly

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When I was twenty-five years old in 1955, I lived in Italy for two and a half years. I attended the Universita per Stranieri di Perugia for nine months and the University of Rome for one semester.   Because I had served in the U.S Air Force during the Korean war, I received the GI Bill which paid me a hundred and ten dollars per month while I attended school. Tuition at Perugia was six dollars a month; it was somewhat more at the University of Rome.

In Perugia I paid fifty dollars a month for a full pensione, all my meals and a bedroom about a foot wider than my wingspan. I had a window with a view of red tiled roof tops and far off, the green country side. The apartment was unheated. At bedtime my landlady – la padrona di casa – would give me a brass hot water bottle made from a spent 90 millimeter cannon shell. This is the largest caliber cannon in the Italian army.   In Italy, an important man is called ”un pezzo di novanta”: a 90 millimeter artillery piece. A big shot.

A hundred and ten dollars minus fifty left me plenty of money to play around with: side trips to Florence, Siena, Rome and to lesser destinations like Spoleto, Orvieto, Assisi. It was more money than many Italians earned in a month.   I never mentioned my income to my Italian friends. They accepted me as an Italian and I felt like an Italian. I was an Italian; my parents were born in Sicily.   Yet the moment I entered a room, Italians knew I was American, even after I had acquired some Italian clothes, even after my hair was cut by Italian barbers. Even before I spoke, they knew.   I played for Perugia’s basketball team under an assumed name. I wore Italian sneakers and the team uniform, In Spoleto, the moment I handled the ball, a voice called out from the crowd: ‘Americano, Americano‘.   He knew. “How come?”

“Because you walk like this,” Tonino performed a pantomime, something like the loose-jointed Ray Bolger as the tin man in the Wizard of Oz. “And Americans sit down like this,” flinging himself carelessly onto the chair. “Italians sit like this.”   Standing erectly, he backed carefully toward the chair and stopped, his head held high. He pinched the cloth of his trousers just above his knees, his fingers exactly straddling the knife-like creases. He lifted his trousers two inches above his shoes and sedately sat down.

“Bravo,” I said.

“No, it isn’t funny,” he replied. “In Italia e importante non fare la brutta figura.” In Italy it’s important not to make the ugly gesture, the awkward movement.   You must avoid loud speech, scuffed shoes, discordant neckties.

In Rome I shared a small apartment with Dave Sachson, an ex-GI studying architecture. It was up on the Gianicolo, the hill above Trastevere, a long bus ride from the Piazza del Popolo.   My share of the rent alone was fifty dollars. At noon I’d eat at the University mensa whose cheap meals, by themselves, could not sustain life. Some evenings I’d cook fettuccini al burro, with ghastly yellow margarine instead of butter, dusted with grated Parmigiano.

Occasionally we’d eat in a cellar wineshop in Trastevere. We made sandwiches from bread and mortadella that we’d buy down the street . You can buy mortadella in American supermarkets now, lovely stuff. The cheap stuff we ate was unlovely, the lowest grade, goat and donkey meat and worse, the Italians said sardonically.  In the wine cellar, the owner’s mother would stick one end of a long plastic tube into the bung hole of the barrel and she’d suck on the other end until she got the wine flowing. She’d fill a pitcher with the white wine from the nearby Castelli Romani.

Dave got hepatitis. I had warned him about his mania for suppli, those deep-fried little balls of rice encasing a piece of cheese. He wouldn’t listen. He returned to New York City for good after a two week hospital stay. My GI income ceased with the end of the school year and I moved out of the apartment into a rented room.   I began living by my wits, badly, by giving occasional English lessons at 1000 lire an  hour($1.60.)

Providentially, I got a letter from Tom D’ Agostino, another ex-GI friend, offering me a job for three weeks in Perugia. Tom had fallen in love with Annie Claude, an attractive French girl. They married. He entered the adult world with a steady job with the U.S. Department of Commerce in Italy. He was managing the American pavilion at the annual trade fair in Rome. The pavilion faithfully reproduced an American supermarket except for a fresh meat and fish department; no fresh fruit and vegetables either. There wasn’t much we could teach the Italians about fruit and vegetables.

It was a lucky break: three weeks’ work at an American salary would last me months. I worked as an interpreter for the young women who were hired to hand out samples of American food products. These samples included items which were cooked elsewhere and delivered to us every morning.

I had been Tom’s best man when he married Annie Claude the year before. Annie lived near Versailles. My second day in Versailles I took the train into Paris for a date with Luby Brooks whom I had met in Italy, a fashion model no less, who was in Rome for the Fabiani–Simonetta showings. She was four inches taller than I, in flats.  Luby and I had supper at a modest restaurant she knew in Montmartre. She ate very little. Afterwards she walked me around Montmartre, showing off the sights and her favorite places. After a late drink, we returned to her small hotel near the Madeleine. The front door was locked for the night and she had to ring the doorbell to be let in.   The door opened and she slipped in, after giving me a quick peck on the cheek. Or did she pat the top of my head?

This was like her earlier performance in Rome. After dinner and a late evening carriage ride through Rome’s deserted streets and piazzas, we had walked to her small hotel which turned out to be run by nuns. Locked. Grumpy Nun appeared. Luby was wily, way out of my league.

The local train station was also closed for the night. The next train to Versailles was at five o’ clock in the morning. I walked to the Champs de Elysee where I found an all night cafe.  I nursed a drink while I attempted to read a French newspaper.   At three o’clock two black American jazz musicians came into the cafe after their gig in a night club.  I joined their table and we talked for an hour.   I took the five o’clock train to Versailles but once there, I decided not to waken the family so early in the morning.   I found a bench in the sun and I dozed until eight.   The family was gathered round the dining room table having breakfast when I entered the house. I began to explain but Mr Bernard waved me short and chortled: “No need to explain, your first night in Paris. Ooh la la.”   Or words to that effect.  Everyone smiled indulgently. When I tried to protest the truth, they urged me to sit down and eat.

At the wedding dinner – wonderful food, much champagne – I sat between Annie Claude’s cousin from Glasgow (Annie’s mother was a Scot), and a French admiral in uniform. The high point of the dinner came when Annie Claude fulfilled a family tradition.   To assure happiness in the marriage, she had to drink in one draught, a silver goblet full of champagne and to retrieve in her teeth a gold coin that had been submerged deep in it. Annie lifted the goblet to her lips and began drinking, drinking, until voila!   She lowered the goblet and she displayed the gold coin between her teeth. My job as best man was to read the congratulatory telegrams that had arrived during the day. My mangled French got some laughs: when in doubt I pronounced it like Italian.

When the trade fair ended I resumed giving English lessons to those Romans who didn’t object to my American accent.   Some want-ads in the Rome Daily American specified that “Americans need not apply.”  I found Sergio through his brother whom I had met at the University.

Sergio was a thirty-five year old electrical engineer who still lived with his parents in a handsome apartment behind the Via Veneto neighborhood. He already knew some English.   We read portions of the Rome Daily American to each other.   We held the lessons after lunch, sometimes on the narrow balcony overlooking the street.   Sergio showed me some snapshots which he spread out on the table. They were dark and murky, showing what seemed to be a primitive wooden doll, propped up in the corner of a shadowy room. He fell silent, portentously.

“Sergio, what is it?”

“It is an artifact in a yet undiscovered ancient Egyptian tomb.”

“How did you get the photos?”

“Massimo took them.”   Sergio belonged to a séance group led by Massimo, the conductor of the orchestra that gave summer concerts at the Baths of Caracalla.

“How did he get into the tomb?”

“He placed placed his camera inside an old chest in his apartment.   He dematerialized the camera, then rematerialized it inside the tomb, wherein he took the photos,   Then he spirited the camera back to the chest in his apartment.”

“Sergio, that’s impossible!   Massimo removed the camera from the chest after you left the apartment. He staged the photos somewhere, then returned the camera to the chest.”

“No, he locked the chest in our presence and he gave me the key.”

“Sergio, he has two keys.”

“Have you no code! Massimo is a man of honor.”  That was the last less lesson I gave Sergio.

 

Doris was an American actress about thirty-five years old, very attractive, tough. She had had bit roles in Hollywood and she had come to Rome to find work in Italian films. She had a couple of contacts in Rome. The Italian movie business was booming, attracting many foreign actors. Clint Eastwood was a famous example. I had met Doris in the American Express office at Piazza di Spagna to which I went regularly to collect my mail or to use the toilet. She was standing by a pay-phone trying to force a coin into the slot that accepted only grooved tokens. As I passed she grabbed my arm, and she said in annoyance:

“How the fuck do you use this phone?”  I was startled, stirred, but I soon learned that that’s how they talked in Hollywood, even in the 1950s. I took her coin and bought a phone token at the counter. As she dialed, she said:

“Don’t go away.”   When she finished her call, she asked, “Do you know Italian?”

“A little.”

“Can you give me some lessons?”  We met twice weekly for two weeks in the dining room of her hotel which was in Parioli, a quiet neighborhood away from Via Veneto. We used an Italian language phrase book because she was in hurry.  One day I arrived to find her sharing the table with an Italian man and a beautiful woman in her mid-forties. She looked like Loretta Young. She was Loretta’s younger sister, Georgiana, who was married to the Hollywood star Ricardo Montalban.  He had been enticed to Rome by easy money. Because the Italian producer was notoriously dishonest, Ricardo’s contract stipulated that he be paid at the end of each day’s shoot, in cash, in American dollars. It was an interesting lunch. The Montalbans had four children, two more that they had planned for. Georgiana said that she and Ricardo, devout Catholics, had practiced the rhythm method: “It doesn’t work,” she said wryly.

I had a free lunch that day but gave no lesson.  The handsome Italian, somehow in the movie business, was Doris’s new boyfriend. He made me superfluous. Goodbye Doris, goodbye Hollywood. But a couple of weeks later Tom D’ Agostino wrote me again.

I hurried to Palermo, for the Fiera del Mediterraneo, the most important trade fair of Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The fairgrounds were on the edge of the city. I stayed with Tom and Annie Claude who had rented a house in Mondello, a small fishing port with a beach, on the far side of Monte Pellegrino.   Mondello was on the verge of becoming a fashionable resort. Our little house faced a small piazza right on the water. If you rose early enough and crossed the piazza, you could buy fish right off the returning fishing boats. The fish was still plenty fresh at nine in the morning.

The American pavilion was a large corrugated steel building which housed an integrated poultry breeding establishment. On the floor of the pavilion, the single but attached chicken pens about fourteen inches square, perhaps a hundred and fifty strong, formed a large horseshoe whose open end faced the entrance of the building A moving belt was attached to the inside perimeter of the ring of pens. The belt delivered feed and water to the chickens twenty-four hour a day. The area was brightly lit 24/7 to keep the chickens awake, active and hungry,

The chickens were ready for market in twelve weeks: the Italians were astounded. So was I. The public roamed the inside of the horseshoe to marvel at the chickens in their various stages of weekly growth. Off to the side was a pen holding two prize adult turkeys. One weighed about thirty pounds, the other close to fifty. The Italians were amazed. The larger bird could hardly move.

We installed two large incubators on one side of the atrium as you entered the building. The incubators had windows on the doors and sides so that spectators could look inside. Every morning we’d go to the School of Agraria at University of Palermo to pick up a batch fertilized eggs which had been sitting in the University’s incubators for twenty days. They were now a day or so away from hatching. We transferred the eggs to our incubators in time for the morning crowds. They lined the windows all day long to see the chicks emerge from the eggs. The egg would first tremble and shake, then wobble vigorously, then begin to crack as the chick pecked its way out. It was the most exciting exhibit on the fairgrounds. Towards the end of the day we transferred the new chicks to the front pens which were heated with overhead lamps.

Along the opposite wall of the atrium we installed a battery of rotisseries behind a serving counter. Aproned young women cooked chicken parts and dispensed samples in little paper plates.   That first week, Tom would expropriate packages of chicken parts from the freezers and take them home for Annie Claude to cook. She was a good cook, but we made an important discovery: it’s difficult to eat chicken five days in row.

For much of the day I sat, as interpreter, with the two American experts who fielded questions from the public. One expert, I don’t remember his name, was a PhD nutritionist from Purina Chow. The other man, Dr Aho, was a chicken geneticist from the University of Connecticut. We’d sit in the booth for hours answering general questions from the public and more detailed ones from farmers and businessmen. We gave away descriptive literature which I roughly translated for my own use as a reference tool. After a few days I could answer many of the questions on my own. When my experts went off to see the other fairground exhibits, I manned the booth by myself.

The Russian pavilion was almost directly across the street from ours. Russia had chosen to exhibit heavy-duty farming and mining machines. Enormous tractors, cultivators, combines, and various coal mining machines completely unsuited to the Mediterranean market. They loomed like dinosaurs in the vast gloomy hall. Few spectators. Poor hapless Russians.  Our pavilion was always crowded.

“You know,” said Dr. Aho. “They tell us our chicken is bello, tender and moist, but many say it’s not as good as the Italian chicken.”

“Sour grapes,” I answered.

“No,” he said, “We’d like to find out for ourselves. Would I take them to a modest restaurant in Palermo where they would be served the kind of chicken most people ate?” When the waiter placed their plates before them, they lowered their faces toward the roasted chicken. They eyed it and sniffed it. They cut slivers from it, they cut crosswise into the flesh to observe its grain.  They minced the flesh and mashed the bits with the bowl of their spoons, reducing it practically to its molecular state.   They ate it, chewing carefully and thoughtfully. They savored it.

“It tastes just like American chicken did when it was still barnyard fed. The flesh is leaner, darker and tougher; it’s flecked with tiny pieces of barnyard grit; there’s no trace of corn feed in the taste.  It’s delicious.”

I think over a hundred thousand spectators passed through our doors. The exhibit was irresistible: the birth of life in the incubators, the healthy, energetic chickens, the awesome turkeys in their pen, and the samples of cooked chicken freely handed out to the public. Many of our visitors were repeaters from among Palermo’s numerous poor. Tom’s boss flew down from Rome and was delighted. He arranged to return with the U.S. Ambassador to Italy.

Ambassador James Zellerbach, in private life, was president and CEO of the Crown Zellerbach Corporation, an important manufacturer of paper products. He entered the building with Tom’s boss, with Tom and with a gaggle of Sicilian politicos. He made a circuit of the exhibit, greeting each of us at our posts. The man smiling in the background of the photo is Dr. Aho. I don’t remember what I told the Ambassador. Look at me! Had I tried to say something clever? Whatever, Mr Zellerbach seems skeptical. What would have happened if later, in the States, I had shown up at the Zellerbach personnel office in San Francisco with this photograph in hand? A job? A career?   Instead I returned to Rome.

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4 thoughts on “Living By My Wits, Badly

  1. Seth Lorinczi says:

    Not too much by a long shot! I reliably start to grin when I read these reminiscences…. Thank you, as always.

    A question though: How was the palermitana chicken prepared? I must know!

    Like

    • Seth, Thanks. I remember that the chicken was golden and glistening obviously brushed with olive oil and as if cooked under a broiler. The flesh was flecked with rosemary leaves and garlic was well represented. Very simple. Maybe I’m remembering my mother’s version, who of course was a Sicilian. My mother was introduced to broiling ovens only after she came to this country. Did she also acquire other American cooking habits? Yes. Margie endorsed and improved some of my mother’s recipe’s. Sorry to be of so little help. Best wishes, Carlo

      Like

      • Seth Lorinczi says:

        No, this is perfect! Thanks much Carlo; I love food history (and Sicilian food) so I’m grateful….

        Very best,
        Seth

        Like

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