Buena Fortuna by Moreno Giovannoni

Buona fortuna!

Ugo’s father and grandfather and half the village had been to America. They hated San Ginese for the poverty and the mud and the cow shit and the pig shit. The San Ginesini took to going to America with such fervour that it was as though they had been waiting for her to rise up on the other side of the ocean ever since God had made His promise to the chosen.

It was as if the Lord had said, “I have seen the misery of my people in San Ginese. I have heard them crying out and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come to rescue them and  show them the road to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now, go. Go to America. Bring yourselves out of misery.”

***

When he’s a little boy he listens to them talking about America, those who have been and come back, and he starts to dream. He hears the words from the Bible about the milk and the honey and the streets paved with gold.

The shipping agents visit the villages and give away postcards depicting giant chickens, monstrous carrots, colossal cattle and silver coins growing on trees and he sees these images in the tavern as the men pass them around.  This is what he will have in America. Everything there is abundant.

He’s a dreamer and reads books by the light emanating from his lumino, a beautiful word for a round olive oil-filled tin lid in which rests a strip of linen for a wick, burning its small flickering flame on a saucer on the chair beside his bed in his bedroom nook under the stairs.

***

Eight men sit around a table in the tavern, sucking their cigars and drinking their sweet coffee and rum with a sliver of lemon peel. While four of them watch, another four play, slamming their cards down with a shout, shooting gobs of phlegm into a strategically placed spittoon and telling stories about their time in America.

One of the old men curses the ship that brought him back to the pile of mud and shit that is the village in Tuscany called San Ginese.

Oh that it had sunk, that curséd vessel that brought me back to this pile of mud and shit!

he old man speaks of the horrible storms they brave as they sail from Genoa, out of the Mediterranean Sea, through the Pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar, and across what is really just a short distance to New York. The waves are so high and the troughs so deep and the ship leans so hard that you can wash your hands in the ocean as it rises before you like a sudden mountain.

There is work in America, as much as you want, thick wads of green banknotes at the end of the working week, freedom to move on, if you don’t like the boss, and always another job to go to.

***

And they would go to America and then become lost over there and when they returned to San Ginese they would still be lost as if they could not find the place they had left but kept looking for it, anywhere, somewhere, but it was always elsewhere, on top of a hill, along the walking paths between the villages, in a field, inside a stable or a pig-sty, inside a woman, a wife, a neighbour’s wife. You could see the men wandering about in the courtyards and between the houses, aimlessly at first, and then slowly they would give the appearance of settling back into their lives again, but remained as sad as trees that have had half their roots hacked off. Such trees can barely feed and water themselves and are in danger of toppling over in the gentlest breeze.

At night, after their card game, they shuffled stiffly out into the mud and went home. As they slumbered restlessly in their beds, dreaming their dreams of the America they had lost, their laments could be heard above the snoring of the cows and rabbits, the heavy breathing of the chickens and the snorting of the pigs (who never slept for fear of the butcher’s skewer). The wives of the returned men hardly slept at all. With their hearts set on regret the men tossed and turned and woke their wives, who by morning were tired and sad and were pitied by the women whose husbands had never left and slept deeply the sleep of the innocent.

The road to America is hard.

Yes, they went to America and made money, if they were lucky, but their hearts broke. They caught a disease, a deep sadness that has always afflicted soldiers fighting away from home, soldiers who were otherwise fit, a homesickness that killed them, whether they stayed or returned home[1].

***

Ugo married and his first son was born and he, the wife and the baby, all lived in his father’s house with his father, mother, two brothers, one sister-in-law and one nephew. His young wife wasn’t happy and threw a broomstick at her mother-in-law and walked out with the baby to her own mother and father’s house, one hundred metres away.

Ugo’s older brother had taken the spare cow and the fields that their father had bought with American money. There were not enough cows and fields left to support Ugo’s family.

So there he was, restless and empty and bored, living days without routine, his life frittered away, almost gone. The lumino burned and spluttered and flickered gently in a tin lid filled with olive oil.

Then, because the Americans had closed their doors, he wrote to the Canadians and the Australians. The Australians wrote back immediately. There was scarcity in Australia, there was a famine, the country hungered for people and demanded to be fed.

So he packed a few things in one famous suitcase.

 

***

On the day he left San Ginese it snowed and the road up near Clementina’s house had iced over. It hardly ever snowed in San Ginese so this was a day he never forgot. During the night the snow had covered the whole world, including the roof of the pink house at Gan-Gan, on the flank of the hill on the right, which had been bombed during the war. The snow had formed small heaps on the steps in front of Clementina’s, where Bucchione started his run down into Beàno in the little wooden cart that his father Paolino then chopped up with an axe.

He paid Giuseppe Dal Porto to drive him to the train in Lucca, and Bucchione and Sucker went with him.

The road out of San Ginese up to the crossroad winds twice, sharply, and is very steep. Albo the milkman, who was Gimi’s brother and the Dead Boy’s uncle, had been doing the milk collection round with his donkey, which had five large churns strapped to its sides and was now climbing towards the top of the Speranza hill.

Giuseppe Dal Porto blew the horn as the car approached. The donkey was struggling to maintain its footing on the frozen bitumen and kept falling onto its backside, performing a kind of frenetic four-hoofed dance.

Ugo, buona fortuna, Albo called out, waving, as the car crawled past.

Buona fortuna!

 

 

‘A Luciana

***

Tommaso G. was from a town called Morrone del Sannio in the province of Campobasso which is in the Molise region. Morrone del Sannio borders on the municipality of Lupara, the name of which suggests a relationship with wolves and is also the Italian name given to a sawn-off shotgun, but neither of these facts is of any significance to this story. What is of some relevance is that in the Morrone del Sannio district an ancient tradition of human sacrifice to the gods was replaced a long time ago by the compulsory practice, for youths on reaching the age of twenty years, of abandoning their home and going in search of new lands. This is what Tommaso G. did. [2]

He left Morrone del Sannio in 1957 and sailed to Port Kembla in Australia.

At the same time as Tommaso G. left Morrone del Sannio, Ugo the Factor departed from San Ginese on an icy January morning and, passing through Melbourne and Mildura, where he stopped for the grape harvest, also arrived in Port Kembla. Along the way he saw Genoa, Naples, Messina, Las Palmas, Capetown, Fremantle, Adelaide and Station Pier, Port Melbourne. San Ginese had no tradition of human sacrifice, so the reason Ugo the Factor left was to seek his fortune, not to pacify the gods.

Ugo, who had just finished picking grapes, caught the train from Mildura to Melbourne and then another train from Melbourne up to Sydney and then back down to Port Kembla. [3]

Port Kembla in those days was an important steel town and the town’s big steel company gave work to twenty thousand workers. It was said that at any single time three hundred workers were leaving and another three hundred were being employed to replace them. Ugo quickly found work.

But on the first day, when he arrived in the steel town, he asked at a café for directions to the Italian boarding house and discovered it easily enough. There was a vacant room and he took it. Tommaso G. was already there, obsessively singing, humming and whistling a song in the Neapolitan dialect, which was unusual because he wasn’t Neapolitan.

It was a sentimental song, popular in Italy at the time, although Ugo had never heard it in San Ginese where he had not developed an interest in the wireless.

Ugo and Tommaso decided they would share the shopping for groceries. Tommaso would cook and they would eat together. There were many times when Ugo was overwhelmed by sadness. He missed his wife and baby son who were back in Villora, the tiny hamlet in the town of San Ginese, and he was grateful for Tommaso’s company and home cooking.

They did not have a tablecloth to spread out over their small kitchen table so Ugo laid out old newspapers instead. He set the table while Tommaso prepared the evening meal.

Tommaso’s specialty was a spicy and aromatic tomato sughetto which he stirred into a large pot of drained spaghetti which rested on a newspaper tablecloth in the kitchen of the Italian boarding house in the town of Port Kembla, in the State of New South Wales, in Australia in 1957.

 

***

You have to believe, better still, imagine, that he is singing now as he cooks the evening meal. He is cooking and singing at the same time. Or, as has just been explained, is humming or whistling the song, in the kitchen of the Italian boarding house in the town of Port Kembla, in the State of New South Wales, in Australia in 1957.

The song he sings is ‘A Luciana. [4]

The song he sings is about a young woman from the Santa Lucia district of Naples. She wears a red shawl and a hair comb. It is interesting that in the song she remains nameless and is simply referred to as “the woman from Santa Lucia”. Men lose their minds whenever she passes by. But this young woman is determined to safeguard her honour and is very difficult to approach. Besides, her father and brother keep a watchful eye on her, and her uncle is a local organised crime chieftain and is also very protective. Despite all these obstacles there is a young man who still desires her. He describes his condition as one of being cooked slowly. When he sees her strolling by it is enough to make him suffer the tortures of hell for a week. And all he wants, or so he says, is to remove her hair comb and let her hair fall down over the shawl and around her shoulders. Or so he says. So Tommaso is cooking the evening meal and himself is being cooked slowly. And he’s singing the refrain: lo scialle russo e pettinesse.

Tommaso sings in the bath and in the kitchen and Ugo listens and sixty years later as he dozes in his son’s lounge in north-east Victoria, enjoying the sun that streams in through the French windows, he remembers only the words of the refrain: lo scialle russo e pettinesse – the red shawl and the hair comb.

***

While Ugo was missing his baby boy and wife Morena[5], Tommaso, who had some money saved, was dealing with the Australian authorities so he could bring his betrothed Luciana to Australia. It is interesting that Luciana is also a reference to the young woman in the song.

Tommaso probably saved Ugo’s life during those few months they were together. Not only did he cheer Ugo up but he also fed him spaghetti with a rich, nutritious sauce at a time when Ugo was emotionally exhausted and had lost his appetite. The shiftwork didn’t suit Ugo and he always lamented, to his sons and anyone who would listen the difficult time he had in that period of his life. Shift work ruins the digestive system, causing stomach pain, fainting, high fever and death.

Ugo, who had never been out of San Ginese and was naive and trusting, struck up a friendship with a Calabrian that Tommaso didn’t like. Tommaso warned Ugo about this Calabrian. Ugo, not having had time to go to the bank, was carrying on him four hundred Australian pounds that he had earned picking grapes. Tommaso agreed to hold the money in safe-keeping so that if the Calabrian looked among Ugo’s belongings he would not find it there.

Returning home after the night-shift one morning Ugo found that the hinges on his suitcase had been forced. Other boarding house residents had also had their belongings searched and some had money and precious items stolen and the Calabrian had vanished.

Tommaso, who had hidden the money safely, handed it back to Ugo.

***

One Sunday Tommaso and Ugo were relaxing with their boarding house friends, kicking a round ball up and down the street, when Tommaso fell and dislocated his shoulder. He was in great pain but refused to see a doctor. He wanted to pretend that he had hurt himself at work to at least get some sick pay.

The next morning Ugo, with great difficulty, helped Tommaso get dressed. The pain from his shoulder had grown worse. They nevertheless both went to work. The men had been working in a pit, cleaning out moulds which was risky work and Ugo agreed to help Tommaso with his plan. When Tommaso gave the signal Ugo cried out and the supervisor came running over to where Tommaso was writhing around on the ground clutching his shoulder as if he had fallen off the walkway to the pit.

They brought a stretcher and took him to the hospital. The plan succeeded and he was given paid leave for two months plus some compensation.

After that he could only cook with his left hand as he had to wear a plaster cast which encased most of the right side of his upper body, yet the food he prepared was as delicious as ever.

Ugo left Port Kembla not long after and went to Red Cliffs near Mildura to pick more grapes. Many years later he visited Tommaso once in Melbourne but then lost touch.

***

As for the young Luciana, Tommaso’s betrothed, whom he was sponsoring to come to Australia, one week before she was due to leave for Australia she died of a heart attack. This was unexpected and rare in one so young.

The gods had betrayed Tommaso G. and had reinstated without warning the tradition of the human sacrifice of a young person. This was despite the fact that Tommaso G. had fulfilled his part of the bargain by leaving in search of new lands. If he thought that would spare him the suffering of a human sacrifice he was clearly mistaken.

Translation of a note handwritten in Italian by Ugo, my father

Memories of thirty years of my life in Italy before coming to Australia.

I was born in Tuscany, in the province of Lucca, in a small village in the municipality of Capannori, named after its patron saint, San Ginese. Physically the area consists of small hills, all of which are well-cultivated, with vineyards and olive groves. It was paradise. While it is no longer so well looked after it is much loved of German and English visitors who have their summer homes there.

I was born on 20 December 1927. I left for Australia on 1 January 1957. Others of my family had emigrated before me: my grandfather, whom I knew very well because he died in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, and my father. Both emigrated to the United States of America, but both returned to Italy after some good fortune (i.e. after making some money) and both died in Italy. A brother of mine emigrated to Australia but returned to Italy after just a few years and died there. I have been back to Italy many times and while my father was alive he would always say to me: “Why did all the others in the family who emigrated return to their native land to die and you refuse to?” My father was very sad that I would not follow in their footsteps. …

I now want to go into some detail about what my father said of the day I was born. I was born at 11 o’clock at night. As you know in those days women did not go to hospital to give birth. If all went well they would give birth at home. They were assisted during labour by an expert woman who had done some training, i.e. a midwife.

An hour before I was born there was a great storm which did not stop until two hours after my birth. My father used to say that because I was born on a stormy night I behaved differently to those who preceded me.

***

I am descended from a family of farmers who worked the land they had owned for several generations. We lived very well and lacked for nothing. However we knew that one day, after my father’s death, we would have to divide the land into four parts and that four families would have been formed and the land would not have been able to support them all …..

[1] Translator’s note: a mental illness that the English botanist Joseph Banks wrote about in his journal and called Nostalgia.

[2] Translator’s note: By the way, this Tommaso is not the Tommaso Giovannoni from San Ginese who killed Folaino, whose story is told elsewhere.

[3] Translator’s note: “Up” and “down” here are in relation to a Melbourne point of view, Melbourne being where the writer lived.

[4] Translator’s note: The song can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOaY8O9FkYA

[5] Translator’s note: who is now buried in the cemetery of a small town in north-east Victoria

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