Edward Alban was born Luis Eduardo Albán in Ecuador, (1938) and has lived in Savannah, Georgia since 1952. He has taught Economics at Auburn University, SUNY Potsdam, Armstrong State University, and Savannah State University.
Since his retirement in 2000, he has traveled throughout Europe and South America and pursued his new avocation for languages and literature, publishing poetry in regional literary periodicals, as well as two larger works, which include Stories that Words Told Me, (Authorhouse 2007), and a novel Dialogues of the Sleeping Mind, (Dog Ear, 2011).
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
On the plane, I couldn’t find any movies that engaged my interest. Instead, I did crossword puzzles and listened to music. One of the albums I heard was by Vittorio Grigolo, a young Italian tenor who is, in my opinion, the hottest voice in Italy since Pavarotti. After Grigolo, I switched to a Beethoven album that had the Egmont Overture, parts of the 5th Symphony, the 6th and the 9th. What a treat! The music was stirring, electric and so fitting as we flew into a bright new day over the Alps. The majesty of the mountains was like a visual coda to Beethoven. Very soon after that we were in Milan, which is practically on the foothills of the Alps.
Trains are so totally integrated into the transportation systems of Europe that it is easy to move from plane to train. We actually caught a train at the airport itself. It took us to the Grand Central station in downtown Milan where we would catch another train for Genoa, our destination for the day. What surprised me was how long it took us to get there. The Milan airport, Malpensa, is far, far out. I would guess it could be a much as 40 to 45 miles from downtown. The train stopped three or four times before reaching grand Central around 11 am.
We had a two-hour wait before our next train to Genoa and it seemed hellishly long to sleepless and tired travelers. To compound matters, Milan was hot, in the 90s, and the AC at the station barely made a dent on the heat.
But there was a guardian angel. She was a pretty, short-haired blonde in her twenties that sat beside us and made the hours fly by.
“Do you speak English?” I began.
She gestured a distance between two of her fingers to indicate she knew a tiny little bit. At that, I thought, well then, in that case I’ll have to trot out my Italian. I can’t remember what I said to her first. It must have been one of those standard introductory phrases which give the impression that I know more than I do. She beamed at my effort. “Ah, bravo! You speak Italian.” But I had to back pedal quickly and set the record straight. “No, no. Sono imparando.” (No, no. I’m just learning).
In the course of a few minutes my Italian limitations would come out painfully. I don’t know if it was the weariness, the heat and the lack of sleep, but I couldn’t think of the simplest words at times. I told her I spoke Spanish. We talked a little about languages. My wife told her she knew French and added that, fortunately, the Romance languages are, if not sisters, close cousins.
Our Italian friend didn’t quite get all that and it fell on me to clarify it. But I couldn’t think of the word “cousin” in Italian. This is one word where Spanish and Italian don’t come close at all. It is “primo” in Spanish. Curiously, this word also exists in Italian, but it means “first” or “before.” So, I began with a long roundabout way to get at the word I needed, saying in Italian: “If your father has a brother, and that brother, your uncle, has a son, then what relationship would that son be to you?”
“Cugino?” she said hesitantly. Her hesitation was not about the word, but about not knowing what it had to do with anything. Now that I had the missing word I could clear up the kinship of the languages that my wife had tried to convey. The Romance languages may be cousins, but they are not kissing cousins. At times they are more like distant cousins that don’t talk to each other.
We told her where we were from; what we did; where we were going. She told us she was from Puglia. Did I know where that was? I most surely did! It’s on the heel of the boot of Italy. I tried to say that in Italian, but I stumbled because I’d forgotten the word for boot. “Il tacco delle … delle …” Then she helped me out. “Delle stivole.” Ah, yes!
She was a good sport and didn’t mind having to play charades at times when my Italian would limp. This young lady would be the first of so many warm, friendly strangers that would add joy to our sojourn in Italy. Travel, I have found, entails more than places, mountains, rivers, buildings, food or language. In the end, it is people bonding with people; humanity embracing humanity in pure acts of friendship that make those casual fleeting encounters so gracious and so memorable.
Her train left at 12:30, half hour before ours. It would take her seven hours to get home. By the time we said goodbye, it was almost a tearful farewell.
Let me begin by saying that this is the last time I’ll refer to this great city by its English name. I could choke the Brit who saw fit to drop the “v” from its Italian name, Genova. Why on earth did English have to do that? What is so hard about saying Genova? Genoa sounds so made-up, so conflicted. It is downright ugly to me. I am hereby launching a crusade to reinstate the jettisoned “v.”
The train ride from Milan was around an hour and 45 minutes. We traveled on the Freccia Bianca (white arrow), one of the better, faster long-distance trains. There is also a Freccia Rossa, which we would use in days to come. The train ride was so silent, so smooth that I could have slept easily. But I was interested in the terrain out of the window, which was flat.
From pictures and maps I knew that it is hilly around Genova. I understand the mountains come right down to the sea. Half of Genova is, in fact, on hill slopes. It was not until the last fourth of our journey, when we were close to Genova, that we ran into mountains. We didn’t see them as such, but we noticed them because the train started burrowing through them. The tunnels became more and more frequent and longer. Then, after a really long one that began to feel spooky, we resurfaced into daylight and into the Genova station. The sea had its effect on the climate. It was cooler in Genova than in Milan.
Genova is the sixth biggest city in Italy with 650,000 inhabitants. Milan, for the record, is the second biggest with 1.3 million people. Genova is the capital of the province of Liguria. This province extends along the western sea shore of Italy. It is long, thin and curved like an eyebrow over the Gulf of Genova. It extends all the way from the border with France, ending right at Monaco. From there it curves down to its southern border with Tuscany. Genova is, and has always been, a sea faring city. It is a major port city even today. Not for nothing, the great navigator Christopher Columbus was born and raised here.
This is the third time I visit Italy and I have always missed going to Genova. For this trip, I wanted to correct this. I had a personal reason, something like a sentimental mission to go there. Back in the late 40s and early 50s, when I was a kid in Guayaquil, Ecuador, my mother’s mother was married to an Italian from Genova. He had a deli where he sold Italian goods: prosciutto, salami, cheeses, wine, panettone, turrone, chocolates and other goodies. I loved to go there and fill up on the exotic foods.
The name of the store was La Liguria. Stefano Lanata, Don Esteban to us, was its proud owner. It was a hangout for the Italian community in town and Italian was always heard there. From those early days the language fascinated me. I caught a lot of words. At times Italian and Spanish can be very, very similar. I remember something that Don Esteban used to say:
Mangia forte, caga forte e ridete della morte. (Italian)
Come fuerte, caga fuerte y riete de la muerte. (Spanish)
Eat heartily, crap out heartily and laugh at death. (English)
Don Esteban was also a great cook. He would fix for friends and family a dish that I have passed on to my wife: chicken spaghetti, which is simply divine! How could I ever forget his generosity and the exposure to so many good things? But I also remember Don Esteban the man. He was a strapping fellow, about 6 feet 2 inches tall; had curly blond hair and blue eyes the color of the Ligurian Sea. He was kind, generous and soft spoken. A gentle giant. I thought of him as some sort of Italian Santa Claus. Unfortunately, he went broke. He was too generous, too kind to run a business profitably. For a while he stayed with us, but he was too proud to be a charge on others. He left Ecuador suddenly in 1954. Soon after that I came back to the States. I never saw him again. My family came in 1956 and over the years we lost touch.
But even after 60 years, I still remember him fondly. I could sense how much he loved his Italy, his Liguria and his Genova. At times, at the mention of his mother his blue eyes would get teary.
I am sure he is dead by now. I feel I have no other recourse to connect with him than to be in the land where he was born and grew up. I had to come to Genova. By simply being there and by seeing with my own eyes what his eyes saw, by tasting Genovese cooking, I could belatedly tell him: now I know what you missed so dearly.
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