When Giorgio and Francesca recently came to visit, their main goal (aside from seeing us) was to explore the wonders of fried food amid the booths of the Festa del Fritto Misto. Such an experience was one that should be shared they reasoned, and so they called their friends, Franco and Lilli, to come and join us in the piazza for the fat-fest.
Franco and Lilli live in Rome not far from Giorgio and Francesca. Their families have been friends for 35 years...ever since Francesca and Lilli were occupying neighboring hospital beds after delivering their first-born sons. The gals bonded; the boys, who were born on the same day at nearly the same hour, are best friends.
The fact that Franco and Lilli were in nearby Acquaviva Picena for a family event meant they should be called in; they wouldn't want to be left out. We have found that Italians don't like to do things in a solitary manner; the more you can involve in something -especially if it revolves around food - the better. They were thrilled to be included; Lilli was looking for just such an excuse to escape the "confines of family and village".
We first met Franco and Lilli about a week after our arrival in Italy. They have a beach home a few minutes' walk from the one we were occupying in Anzio. Being such dear friends of Giorgio and Francesca, we saw them often throughout that first summer. Language barriers kept us from interacting too deeply with them, as Lilli talks a blue-streak at lightening speed and refused to slow down for our dull ears.
When we announced our move to Ascoli Piceno they were critical. Lilli thinks provincial life in Ascoli Piceno is "too boring". Franco hails from nearby Acquaviva Picena; he told us that "Ascoli is a beautiful town but is piccolo piccolo. It is hot in the summer and cold in the winter." He said he went to school there and hated it. "School" was translated to us by Giorgio as "college". We thought nothing more of it, knowing there was a university and a music school in town.
So it came as a surprise when, during their recent evening visit as we strolled the streets, Franco started pointing out a few landmarks and talking about how they were used fifty years ago when he was here. Fifty years ago? He's not that old; surely he couldn't have been here in college fifty years ago. I asked about this. Having a deeper understanding of the Italian language now, I grasped the mix-up. He was in Ascoli for collegio. Sounds similar, very different meaning. The collegio was a boarding school, and Franco was sent there at the age of 9 after his father was killed in the war. No wonder he disliked Ascoli!
As we walked down Corso Mazzini and neared our door he pointed out the building that had formerly been his home for nearly ten years. It was the building next to our own, the very building that now houses offices and the senior center. The building with the garden behind that our windows overlook. He occupied a dormitory room with other war orphans and children whose recently-widowed mothers couldn't care for. It was run by church. Franco pointed out the music room, where he found his main solace (he played clarinet). The chapel of the convent section is where the seniors now kick it up on Sunday nights.
He opened the window in our apartment and gazed into the park. "The barns are gone," he said sadly. There were animals in his day...chickens for eggs, a couple of cows and a few sheep for milk, both to drink and make cheese from. The park was mainly an orto, a vegetable garden, to keep the kids properly fed. They each helped in tending the various plots and fruit trees. He was disappointed to see many of the orchard trees are no longer there. He told how he used to climb them to the top fearlessly to obtain the highest-dwelling fruits.
The building was unheated; the war was still going on and even afterwards, fuel was hard to come by. He recounts freezing in his bed with all his clothes on in the winter, while sweltering up there under the eaves in the summer. Poor Franco! I hadn't understood his derogatory comments about the city we find so beautiful. Ah, he told us, "it's changed a lot...there is comfort here now. But back then I hated it, and I still have bad memories of that time."
He looked out our south-facing window at the Eremo di San Marco, eerily lit up at night on the hillside rising beyond the city. "We used to walk up there," he said. These outings for the boys were to get them into the countryside, and they would walk up the mule tracks for five or six miles to picnic at the hermitage.
I wanted to ask him many questions about those days, but he didn't want to talk any further than these recounted memories. That's okay. Maybe next time he'll discuss it more. Even if he doesn't, we gained a deeper understanding of our neighborhood and of the soft-spoken man we met during our first week in Italy.