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Marching As To War
by Richard Stanford
2011-07-03 09:34:04
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The bus drove away, leaving me alone on the highway surrounded by a flat plain of wind-swept grass.  On the other side of the highway, I could see the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea, the waves quietly ebbing the shoreline.  Behind me I could see the village of Ostuni, its white houses perched precariously on the side of a low-ridge mountain.

img_0359_400I found the house at the end of a dirt road.  I had met an American couple in Luxembourg and they said I could stay in their place as long as I wanted.  In exchange, all I had to do was paint the outside of the place.  After six months of hitch-hiking and youth hostels, I was in dire need of some rest, the chance to take in the Mediterranean sun in the heel of the boot of Italy, drink some red wine, and watch the waves.  I was making my way across Europe and this was an interlude before I set off for my final destination - Israel. 

But first, I had this house to paint.  It had white stucco walls with smooth, curved edges, as if they had been eroded by the sea's wind.  This was going to be easy, or so I thought and the following morning I headed off for Ostuni.  The sun was beating hot and bright as I walked along a dirt road across a wide open field.  From a nearby copse of trees a pheasant took flight.  An instant later a shot rang out followed by the hiss of a bullet passing over my head.  I hit the ground.  I’d only been in Italy for a week and already people where trying to kill me.  Another shot.  The pheasant cried out with an explosion of feathers and plummeted to the ground.  I looked to the opposite side of the field.  I saw a man running towards me, laughing while carrying a rifle.  I thought, oh God, this is it – killed on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere by a crazed Italian.

He helped me to my feet.  I felt drunk, the blood draining from my head, my heart pounding.  I had no idea what he was saying but I could tell between his chuckles that he was trying to apologize and gesturing that I was in his line of fire.  The pheasant?   With his hands he gestured a series of erratic swoops in which he clearly blamed the pheasant nearly causing me death.   He asked me where I was going and I pointed to the village.  He waved me to come with him.  I shook my head - the last thing I wanted was to be seen entering the village with a man carrying a shotgun and one that he had almost used on me.  But he would not take ‘no’ for an answer..  He ran over to the dead pheasant, picked it up by the legs, shook out the last of the bloody feathers and waved his hand for me to follow him.

We walked the dusty road then made our way up the steep hill to the village of Ostuni which perched itself on a hill overlooking the dry plain and the Adriatic in the distance.  We continued to communicate with gestures with which I told him I needed to find a hardware store.  He knew exactly where to take me.

The chaotic white-glare of buildings began to take shape as we entered the village and walked along the narrow cobblestone streets.  Everyone greeted my guide, pleased with his bird-kill and unfazed by the shotgun.  My almost being shot by him was also history. 

We came to a storefront which my guide indicated was what I was looking for and a wave he left me.   There was a rusty wheelbarrow parked out front and the windows displays were empty.  There was little inside that indicated it might be a hardware store.  There was a bare counter and behind that a few bottles clear fluid and four brand new hammers hanging on the wall.  A middle-aged woman came out from the back and fortunately she understood a little bit of English.  Yes, she said, this was a hardware store and yes I could buy white paint and brushes and whatever else I might need.  There would be a problem with the paint, however.  As I could tell from the village everyone painted their houses white and so there was always a shortage of it.  She had a can in the store and I could have that one but I would have to come back in a couple of days if I needed more.

And so it was over the next few weeks I would make the trek to the village – each time ready to hit the ground in the event the mad pheasant hunter had the need to hunt for supper - buy a single can of white paint only to come back in a few more days to pick up another.  I never quite believed the woman in the store; I always felt this was some kind of delaying tactic on her part to keep me in the village longer and in some meager way stimulate the local economy.  It never crossed my mind that this was simply the way people did things here and that my notions of time and work and deadlines were best forgotten.

The painting was easy enough and I learned to follow the Italian way of working: paint in the morning, rest in the afternoon, paint again just before dusk.  It was during the dusk shift that I attracted an audience of one.  A man would come by, sit a short distance away and watch me paint.  He would lean on his walking stick, puff away on his pipe, tip his straw hat to me and walk away as the sun set over the mountain.  This went on for five days.

On the sixth day he walked over to me.

He introduced himself as Franco.  He was a gnome of a man, in his early-40's, with sparkling blue eyes and a mischievous smile.  He spoke fluent English in a slow, musical rhythm. "Would you have a match, please?  I seem to have run out."

I gave him my lighter and he lit up the aromatic tobacco, the flame reflecting on his smooth, sun-baked cheek.  "You are from Canada."  I felt a tinge of paranoia that he would already know this about me.  "Please, do not be offended," he said. "In a small village, it is easy to know such things."

"Yes.  Montréal," I said.

"Ah, Montréal.  A beautiful city.  I lived in Toronto for many years.  Not as beautiful but interesting in a cerebral way."  The allusion totally escaped me.  "It is indeed a shame to be travelling as you are and having to work."

I explained the arrangement I had made.  He said: "Ah, then you have time."

"Time for what?" I asked.

"I hope you won't think me too forward but I would very much like to talk with you about Canada.  I would be most honoured if you would join me for dinner."


"Of course.  The sun is setting."

I cleaned myself up and ten minutes later we were driving north along the coast of the Adriatic, shimmering in the last rays of light.  I had no idea where Franco was taking me but there was something about him I trusted.  If we was planning to kidnap me, well, good luck collecting the ransom.

As he drove, he told me his mother and father were killed during the war.  When the war ended, an uncle brought him to Toronto where he lived for twenty years.  He worked in various jobs until he had saved enough money to return to Italy.  With one boat, he started up his own shipping company.  He now owned a fleet cargo ships but his major business were the ferry boats out of Brindisi that operated up and down the Adriatic coast, and passenger ships which sailed to Greece, Cyprus and Israel.  He fondly remembered his time in Toronto.  "The people there were very good to me.  Were it not for Canada, I would not have my ships.  Nor would I have my life."

"How do you mean?" I asked.

Franco said nothing at first.  He looked ahead then glanced over to the dark waters of the Adriatic.  "That is a story for another time.  First, we will eat."

He turned off the highway and drove up a twisting mountain road.  A sign indicated we were heading for Altamura.  Franco took each turn with the surety of a race car driver.  Just before Altamura, we turned on to a dirt road, slipped down to a valley, and came to a stop in front of an imposing three storey building.  I got out of the car and admired the mansion.

"The shipping business must be good," I said.

Franco laughed.  "No, no, my friend.  This is a monastery.  But do not worry.  I have not brought you here to convert you but to feed you.  Come, please."

I followed Franco through a side door and down a long corridor where the aromas of basil and onions aroused my appetite.  We entered a huge kitchen where several brown-cloaked monks were preparing a meal.  They greeted Franco warmly.  Franco gestured in my direction saying, "Canada, si. Canada."  The monks' arms opened up to me and each shook my hand warmly. 

While Franco was engaged in animated conversation with several of the monks, I walked over to the large wood stove where one of the monks was working feverishly.  He had just finished chopping up a large amount of leeks, onions, carrots, celery and fresh garlic and he was sweeping them all into the pot of hot olive oil.  The pot erupted into a volcano of aromas.  The monk looked at me, smiling: “Mine-stro-ne” he said with glee.  As the vegetables were cooking he added basil, oregano, rosemary, pepper and bay leaves.  The smells brought tears to my eyes.  He quickly chopped up some mushrooms and threw them into the mix.  Then he took a half-full bottle of wine and emptied it into the pot.  Once the boiling wine settled down he added in fresh tomatoes, green beans and romano beans.  The monk lowered the heat put the lid on the pot and with a flourish said, “Finito”.  Indeed.

The table was readied for a feast: bread, bowls of salad, and several unlabelled bottles of wine.  I knew little about the lives of monks but I figured these were not the ones who had taken a vow of poverty.

We feasted on the minestrone soup, as well as penne salad with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and spinach, fettucine with mushroom sauce, cheese, fruit, fresh baked bread and wine.  They were Benedictine monks and while they had indeed taken a vow of poverty, they grew their own vegetables, and made their own wine and bread.  Between the monks' limited knowledge of English and my ignorance of Italian, we made our way through dinner with a series of hand gestures and fractured phrases while Franco filled in the blanks as the interpreter.  Most of the time, however, they simply looked at me with bright smiles and nods of the head while heaping more and more food on my plate.  By the end of dinner I understood that any Canadian was welcome here at any time in their monastery and we did not even have to be Catholic.

It was already arranged that we would stay overnight.  Franco, I learned, came here frequently and had his own room.  I was also given my own room for the night and as I lay in the comfortable bed enveloped by an eerie silence, I wondered why Franco had brought me here.

In the morning, I awoke to the sound of the monks singing in the chapel.  When I got to the kitchen, Franco was there looking disgustingly bright-eyed.  After some breakfast, he said he wanted to show me something.

Sunlight filled the small valley and fired the branches of the pine and chestnut trees.  Franco led the way past the bountiful vegetable and flower gardens, and the monks' vineyard that stretched up the hill.  Occasionally a bird broke the silence of the morning quiet. 

"These monks live as I wish I could live," Franco said. "Only I do not have the courage.  For them, a vow of poverty does not mean starvation.  It means a life lived simply.  They may seem isolated from the world, but they are very sophisticated.  I learn a great deal from them."

We came to a clearing, encircled by trees and flowers.  In the middle were twenty-four white, wooden crosses.  They were the graves of Canadian soldiers who had been killed in January and February 1944.  There were a couple of older soldiers: a sergeant aged thirty-eight; and a thirty-one year old private.  However, the rest had died in their early twenties, and there were a couple who were nineteen - the same age as me.  But that is where the comparison ended.  Unlike them, I did not have a care in the world.  I was free to go wherever I pleased, without fear.  They did not have the chance to see the next day of their short lives.   

"I owe these men my life," said Franco. "These and the others who lived.  They are the reason I come here."  I asked him what happened.  "I was 12 years old when Mussolini's Blackshirts came.  My parents hid me in the hills behind our farm.  My father fought them.  They shot him and my mother.  I watched our farm burn.  Then I ran.  I survived in the hills for three years, only moving at night.  Then, in the winter of '44, the Canadian Army came.  They were good men.  Brave men.  They fed me, gave me clothes, treated me like a human being.  Many of them were from Québec.  They called me l'enfant sauvage."

As I looked at the graves, I tried to remember the few stories my father had told me.

"What is it you're thinking?" Franco asked.

"My father never talked much about his time in the war.  He once told me about their landing in the south of Italy and fighting their way up the coast.  I remember something about Ortona, I think.  He told me he lost many friends there.  He'd go quiet and say nothing else."

"Yes, that was a terrible battle," Franco said. "Maybe I met your father.  What is his name?"


"I do not recall such a name.  Does he look like you?"

I shook my head and smiled, "No, not at all."

Franco looked at me, raising a questioning eyebrow.

"He doesn't, honest," I said.

"Ah, I see.  So, in our own ways, we are both orphans." I had not told Franco anything about my past but it was a measure of his perception that gave him the ability to see the unspoken truths.

As we walked back to the monastery, I told Franco what Joseph looked like back then, based only on the photographs I had seem of him in uniform.  We concluded Joseph had probably not come through Altamura.  But that did not diminish the debt Franco felt for those dead soldiers, and by extension, my father.

As we drove back to Ostuni, I realized for the first time what my father had done.  Once in a while, he would tell me stories of the war but they were evanescent.  He would get to a certain point, then stop, fall silent.  Until now, I had never understood how painful those memories may have been for him.  Maybe he had seen many kids just like Franco: homeless, alone or dead.  Maybe he was more than the sad man I knew, more than the father unable to express his emotions, more than the man burdened with unspeakable memories.  In my mind, Joseph was becoming someone else: a man with the courage to endure the horrors of war; to have liberated kids like Franco; and with the nerve to bring a stranger like me into his home.

I continued painting the cottage and every day at sunset Franco would come by and treat me to dinner.  I never went to his home because he really didn't have one.  He had apartments in Rome, Napoli and Brindisi or he would take a cabin on one of his ships and sail to wherever it was going.  I asked him once why he never married or settled down.  "Those years in the mountains made me a restless man," he said. "I don't think I could ever stop in one place."

A month later I finally finished painting the cottage.  It was time to head to Israel.  The night before I left, Franco took me for dinner.  As we were having our last glasses of wine together, he said, “So my friend, why Israel?”

“Well if you haven’t figured it out yet, I was adopted.”

“Ah, so this is your revenge upon your adopted parents?”

“No, it’s not like that.  My father always regarded me with varying degrees of incomprehension.  He’s a quiet man, never one to reveal his emotions.  There was this emotional distance that grew between us over the years, the kind of thing that gets so wide you can’t jump over it.  But he was never mean to me.  Anyway, it was more curiosity than anything else.  I got some non-identifiable information from the adoption agency and it confirmed a lot of what I felt and it certainly made the drift between us even wider.  It was a common enough story for 1947: a 17-year old girl, unable to support herself gives her baby up for adoption and the father, also 17, came from an orthodox Jewish family.  He’d gotten a goyim pregnant.  Not good.  This was not entirely a revelation to me.  I always had a feeling but I could never put my finger on it – my nose, maybe, but not my finger.  A little while later I went to a synagogue with a Jewish friend of mine and I decided then it was time to find out what my real feelings are.”

“You know, Israel is a very dangerous place right now,” said Franco.  “I’ve heard it said that things may explode there.”

“I’ve read that, too.  But it’s coming up on Yom Kippur so nothing is going to happen.”

“I trust you are right but if anything does, you know how to reach me.  In the meantime, take this.  Please.”  He handed me an envelope.  Inside was a passport for free, unlimited passage on any of his ships. "You are as restless as me, and when you are that restless, you need your own monk," he said with his glowing smile.  "I'll see you off in the morning."

Later that night, I phoned home to tell my parents where I was heading.  My mother answered the phone but while we were talking, I heard the extension being picked up.  Joseph did not say anything but I could hear his breathing.

"We're going to wire you some money to the embassy," my mother said.

"No, it's not necessary," I insisted.

"You've been gone for over a year.  You didn't have enough money to last you that long.  It'll be enough to at least get you back to England."

"Yeah, I can swim home from there."

"Now don't be cheeky," she said. "I don't want you hitchhiking anymore.  Too many perverts out there."

I smiled.  If she only knew.  "Dad," I said.  "You there?"

"Yes, I'm here," he said.

"I want to ask you something.  When you were in Italy, did you ever go through Altamura?"

There was a long pause.  I heard his breathing stop then become strained. "Yes, I was.  We lost a lot of good men there."

"I know," I said. "I've just been there.  Do you remember an Italian boy, name of Franco?"

"Franco.  Franco.  Oh yeah, I do.  We called him l'enfant sauvage."

"I know.  Well, he made it.  He's the one who brought me here.”

"No kidding.  That's great, though I'm not surprised.  I remember he had that look in his eyes.  I think he thought himself invincible."

"He still does.  When I get back, I'll tell you all about it."

In a quivering voice he asked: "Are you heading on to Israel?"

I told him I was sailing there on one of Franco's ships.

"I understand," he said. "I wish I had your passion.  Just be careful, okay.  I've been reading about things in the newspaper."

"What things?"

"Rumours of war."

"There's always rumours of war, Dad.  But that's what they are - just rumours."

"No," he said emphatically. "Rumours of war always lead to war.  Just watch where you go, son."

We said our good-byes, my mother tearful as always.  I realized it was the first time I could remember that Joseph had called me son.

Franco drove me to the pier in Brindisi the following morning and I told him about my conversation with my father.  "How does that expression go? What goes around, comes around?" Franco said.  "And now I've met his son."

"He may have survived in body," I said, "but I'm not sure he survived in spirit."

I sensed Franco flashing through his own memories - on the run, alone, afraid.  "It is very difficult to survive such things with your soul intact.  Make sure it does not happen to you."

Franco stood on the pier, waving to me as the gangplank was pulled up.  The port side of the ship was lined with people three and four deep exchanging shouts to those on the pier or simply casting their good-byes to the wind.  Through the confusion I saw Franco's sparkling eyes, the pipe anchored in the side of his mouth, his straw hat pushed back exposing his high forehead, and I photographed his image in my mind.  It was October 1973, a few days before Yom Kippur.

"Buona fortuna, Paul!" he shouted to me.  I never saw him again.   

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