I lived with my family in the countryside near a small town in southern New Mexico from the age of ten to the age of nineteen. Before that we lived in the suburbs near Chicago, until 1976, where we had a front and back yard, trees, grass and lived in a two bedroom house that had been built in the 1920’s. My family moved to New Mexico just before I turned 10, and that was a huge culture shock. Going from a suburban area, with trees and a front and back yard covered in grass to a brown, dry, hot place where the only place with large trees was the town cemetery, well, that was hard to get used to. Also the fact that it seemed like nature was out to get us, thorns, fire ants, sand spurs, rocks, dust devils and sandstorms as well as the baking sun, my family felt out of place. I remember that my brothers and I were running around outside barefoot and wearing shorts on our first Christmas day in our new hometown. According to any records I can find, it was only 60°F or 15°C, so maybe we were just crazy.
As to how I arrived in Italy, when I was in my junior year in high school, the girl who became my best friend/sister from another mother arrived fresh from Pesaro with her parents and two brothers, one just a few years younger than my friend S., who also became a close friend and the other a five-year-old. At the time I was part of a group of outsiders in this tiny border town in southern NM, all of us were from somewhere else and didn’t fit in with the jocks, farmers, cholos, cowboys or any crossbreed of these cliques. We were the school “weirdos” who accepted diversity, who respected the erudite nerdy kids, who loved the arts, participated in band, choir, drama, creative writing and any other not-cool activities we could find. So, of course, these two non-English speaking teens from the other side of the world were more than well-accepted into our group, they brought us new perspectives and we helped them learn English and how to navigate the strange cultures that existed in this small-town high school mid-80’s border town.
After graduation, S. and I enroled at the closest state university and for our second year planned on sharing a dorm room there, but just before school started she and her family were forced to relocate to Italy and they ended up in Bologna.
I straggled on for the school year, I did poorly the first semester and really poorly for my last semester. My dad called me pretty much out of nowhere and we somehow got on the subject of me wanting to go to Italy to visit my friends and he offered to buy me the tickets.
Now, this may not sound like much of an extraordinary offer, but a few things need to be noted about my father and his relationship with the rest of my immediate family. My father was a largely absentee dad, he started working out of state when my younger brother, his third child, was born. Then a fourth child, son number 3 was born, who is also special needs. Anyway, dad was largely absent and generally very forgetful of the fact that a home with four young kids really needs to have money to be able to live. I have memories of my mother crying because she accidentally dropped and wasted one of the last few eggs, of leaving the milk to drink “for the baby” as my mom didn’t have the money to buy any more. Of having the telephone cut off for non-payment, we had it off more than on most of the time, of not being able to afford to go to a doctor or dentist because mom would have had to pay up front and be reimbursed by the insurance later. Of having some ladies from a local charity bring us bags of groceries and my mom crying from a combination of gratitude and shame. He would send enough money to my mom that she would use to pay the overdue bills and buy groceries so everything was more or less normal by the time he pulled up in his rental car or his latest shiny pickup truck. Then he would play Daddy Warbucks with us, buying us those small treats that my mom could never afford, books, day trips, candy or whatever, while talking about how he blew the engine out of yet another truck (I think he went through 2-3 a year), how he was taking flying lessons so that he could buy a plane, how he had purchased a collector’s item car for me and it was sitting in pieces in some garage in Mississippi. His fatal mistake was made in my senior year in high school, our gas had been shut off, so we were without any heating or hot water, and he just showed up without sending money first. He walked into the house with all of us watching tv under afgans, I was sewing something on my prom dress (I made both of my prom dresses) by lamplight, we all looked up and just said “Hi” to him. No joy in seeing him, no “we missed you”s, nothing.
I had never seen my dad as subdued as he was that evening. His systematic neglect of his family had finally been put right under his nose and the result of his actions was that none of us thought he was all that wonderful anymore.
So, as I said, he offered to purchase flights for me through his company, my first flight was from El Paso to Las Angeles, then from LA to Milan and my friend took the train and a bus to pick me up at the airport. We took a bus, a train to Bologna and another bus to her new home in the city centre.
I arrived for what was supposed to be a summer visit in May of 1987, but that intended short visit turned into a life choice. I spoke almost no Italian when I arrived, except for a few random words like chocolate. I had studied basic French at uni, so I had some grasp of Latin-based language structure and I gradually taught myself Italian. It took me over a year before I was able to have a decent conversation with more than one person and to not be completely wiped out from the combination of concentrating on understanding what others were saying and the awful, sticky, humid 24/7 heat.
I did some pretty insanely stupid stuff in that first year, and I thank my lucky stars that nothing more serious than a bruised heart and ego came of any of my stupidity. I also had more fun going to clubs, the beach, riding trains (sometimes without a ticket), visiting cities that I had only dreamed about out in the mesquite.
I started working, at first under the table as a house maid to an accountant and her 16 year-old son, two dogs and a cat. My first official job was cleaning local government offices, then I learned to type and use a computer somewhat so I moved on to being the lone secretary to a representative. After that I worked as a secretary and translator for an architecture and engineering firm, and my current job – going on 14 years! – as a school secretary.
In the meantime, I married and had a son, bought a flat and adopted a very strange but cute cat. Not all in that specific order.