Latest News: Photos by Pete Grafton (Le Patron) and from his collection of acquired photos are now appearing online at the companion site
Ciao Ciao Bambina: Italy 1964
It is late August, 1964: a dusty deserted roadside in Calabria. Either side of the road are olive trees.
Le Patron is hitch-hiking north of Reggio Calabria, the mainland port and ferry crossing for Sicily. His objective is another port, Bari, over to the east, on the Adriatic side of Italy. It is late afternoon and there is little traffic on the road. A pick and shovel repair gang a few yards up the road are occasionally pecking at the road verge. Le Patron is trying to understand a bus timetable tacked to a concrete shelter. One of the gang saunters over to Le Patron. He wears a dust stained vest and his trousers are held up by a bit of string, improvising for a belt. Le Patron splutters out pidgin Italian, but before he can finish his incomprehensible sentence the Italian smiles and says in a perfect Brooklyn accent: “Da bus goes at seven turty.” Besides the British 8th Army, American army units also travelled this road in the summer of 1943, heading north.
Twenty one years before, almost to the month, Allied forces tanks, heavy artillery and jeeps would have jam packed the road, heading north, whilst up at Salerno the main allied thrust would have been taking place. In 1943, before the bus shelter had been built, in the middle of what seemed empty countryside children and adults would appear, cannily cheering the Allies on whilst asking for cigarettes and what ever else they could get, or barter for. A significant commodity in the bartering system was sex. (1)
He’s a youngish man, in his early thirties. He’s smiling and encouraging me by gesture to take a look at the black and white studio photo of his wife and two young children, that he’s just taken out of his wallet. “My wife, Maria, my son, Roberto and my little girl, Caterina.”
There’s a fearful, threatening black curtain hanging down from the sky, claustrophobically bearing down on the growing maize.
To the left there is a hurrying, receding blue sky. The buildings on the outskirts of Bari look as if they will give no protection to the Apocalypse that is about to unleash. And then it starts: the roll of thunder, the sheet lightning and goblets of rain smashing the windscreen of the Fiat family car, the wipers working manically to clear the sheets of water distorting the view of the road ahead.
In the twenty minutes it takes to arrive at a small block of flats in the centre of Bari the rain has stopped and the black shroud is moving on to put the fear of God into people and animals in the fields from where the car has just come from.
Le Patron had managed to get a lift into Bari with a youngish professional couple and their son. The car was a new four door shiny black Fiat sedan, and at the front of the four storey brick built flats were two sodden palm trees, still dripping. Around the flats was a low brick perimeter wall with high metal railings. The entrance to the block was up two wide steps and then through a metal framed door with a full length frosted glass panel. There were buzzers for the eight flats and eight letter flaps. Le Patron followed the small family up the stairs to the first floor and was shown in to the flat on the right by the husband, the attractive wife and their young son. It was the first time he had been in an Italian home.
The floors were shiny wood parquet, and the rooms were furnished in a spare, modern way. Le Patron had never seen a home with parquet flooring before. It was very foreign, in an interesting ‘cool’ way. It was almost like one of the rooms in La Dolce Vita where Steiner, intellectual friend of Marcello Mastrianni’s character lived, or so he thought.
The husband and wife spoke enough English for Le Patron to understand, the husband more so. The wife prepared lunch, and then afterwards following the lunch the husband showed Le Patron into a room with two single separate beds for the siesta. He and Le Patron occupied the room. Unlike the husband, Le Patron couldn’t sleep. Having a siesta after a meal was not something his 19 year old British body or culture could adapt to. Lying awake he wondered where the son and wife were having their siesta. There didn’t seem any clues as to whether this was a spare guest room or the son’s bedroom.
After the siesta Le Patron and the husband went through to the living room where the wife and son were watching Little Lord Fauntleroy, dubbed into Italian, on a television standing alone in the corner, on its futuristic stick legs.
When the film finished there was a brief announcement, the logo of RAI – the Italian state TV – and the channel closed down. It was late afternoon. The TV service would begin again in the evening.
Later that night in the Bari campsite where the family had kindly driven Le Patron, he thought about the wife telling him about the RAF raid on Bari during the war, asking why they had done it. She was not angry, but perplexed. She had been 17, she said, working in the Bari Telephone Exchange when with no warning – no siren – the bombs fell on the harbour area.
It was years later that Le Patron realised he had spectacularly misunderstood the circumstances of the bombing of Bari. Looking back he realised she had been asking why the RAF didn’t prevent the bombing of Bari.
An estimated 105 Luftwaffe planes bombed Bari on 2 December, 1943, and in just over one hour sunk 27 Allied supply and cargo ships. There were 1000 deaths of Allied seamen and service personnel, and also an estimated 1000 Bari people were killed, although accurate figures for the civilian deaths are still unavailable as many Italians left Bari and went out to the countryside, staying with friends and family members, fearful of further attacks on the town, and some of those fleeing civilians died from gas poisoning. What no one knew in Bari at the time of the immediate attack (including the skipper of the boat) was that part of the cargo of the bombed U.S. John Harvey was mustard gas.
In the first 24 hours medical staff in Bari did not realise that the injured they were treating had been gassed. The full story did not become widely known until 1967. Of 628 hospitalised military victims suffering from mustard gas poisoning 83 were to die. It is believed the figures for those civilians who fled Bari, and subsequently died from mustard gas complications is higher.
The RAF command covering the Bari area though it highly unlikely that Bari would be a Luftwaffe target, believing the Luftwaffe in Italy was too thinly stretched. There were no RAF fighters based in Bari. The attack has occasionally since been referred to as a “Little Pearl Harbour”.
Mustard Gas was waiting to be unloaded as part of a potential Allied counter measure to German threats to use gas in their Italian rear-guard campaign, although the alleged German threat is disputed in some accounts. (2)
Turning to dusk, somewhere on a country road to Rome, a long, long way south of Rome, the driver of an Alfa Romeo drops Le Patron off. The earth is a terracotta colour. During the drive through olive groves and fig trees, every now and then and always suddenly, out of nowhere, a lone boy would leap out in front of the car with a fist of figs. “Fichi! Fichi!“, and just as quickly and agilely leap back as the driver flicked him to one side, driving on. It seemed a precarious and fruitless way to earn a few lire.
As Le Patron looked at his Shell filling station road map of the area he was vaguely aware of a small figure sauntering along the road towards him. He seemed to have a Dick Whittington staff slung over his shoulder, with a bundle of belongings hanging on it. As he came up Le Patron could see he was about 16. In very good English, Oxford English, he asked where Le Patron was headed for. “Rome.” “I am going to Rome too! My name is Ugo, and if we travel together we can stay in my Uncle’s flat in Rome.” Wonderful. What luck! A young Italian who knows his way around, with a relative who has a flat in Rome. It was too good to be true. In the end, that’s how it turned out to be. This was Ugo.
Le Patron never did quite work out how long he had been on the road. He was certainly travelling lightly. His technique for trying to hitch a lift was the same as the sellers of filched figs. By now it was getting dark. A set of lorry headlights approached. “I stop this, Peter” he said and threw himself into the road, waving his arms in a crossing motion. And with the agility of the fig sellers he jumped just as quickly back as the lorry bore down on him. “Son of a bitch” spat Ugo. Le Patron, a little fraught at the thought of being with this maniac until they arrived at the fabled flat in Rome, said he would try hitching the next vehicle. This suggestion had to be negotiated, as Ugo said his technique was the one that worked. He knew best. Le Patron quickly learned that with Ugo, everything – the silliest, stupidest, daftest thing had to be negotiated. Ugo always knew a better way, and couldn’t understand why you couldn’t see it. It was so clear. It was so obvious. What was your problem? And always mentioning the Uncle’s flat in Rome.
So, after a negotiation that was as frustrating and brain exploding as a UN session running into the middle of the night on a contested sub-clause, with a shrug of the shoulders Ugo finally let the Patron hitch the next vehicle.
The next vehicle stopped. Ugo said it was luck, and his method was the still the best. We were dropped off about twenty kilometres up the road, near a small camp site and we set up for the night. Le Patron had a spirit stove and soon the water was boiling and he made coffee. Having just one aluminium cup, part of a compact army type set, he offered it to Ugo who took it, sipped and, with eyes opening startlingly wide – cartoon like, as if he had been poisoned – sprayed it out at high velocity. “Ugh! That isn’t coffee!! That’s disgusting! What do you call this!”
The thing was, when he wasn’t being totally exasperating he was amusing, and sometimes interesting, particularly as a gateway into some political aspects of Italian life. Fascism, for instance.
A few days before, Le Patron had been amazed and shocked to see in a village posters advertising a forthcoming Mass commemorating the life of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini had been captured in the north, and then shot by Communist partisans on the 28th April, 1945, a few days before Hitler committed suicide. His corpse was strung up, upside down, alongside that of his mistress in the suburban square of Piazzale Loreto in Milan. Le Patron mentioned the posters to Ugo and how surprised he was.
– “So? Mussolini was good for our country. He did great things. He was a great man”
– “But he was a fascist!”
– “What about Hitler? He was a fascist”
– “No, he was a National Socialist.”
– “What about Franco? He’s a fascist.”
– “Franco’s bad for his people.”
Slowly making our way closer to Rome over the next two days, the clincher came when, out of the blue, and in sight of Rome Ugo informed Le Patron that he would have to buy a suit – he too was going to buy a suit – if we were staying with his Uncle. A suit!
A suit would instantly pauperise Le Patron. His budget for hitching around Europe for three months was £4 a week, give or take: hard earned and hard saved money – £50 – from working on building sites as a labourer during the preceding 5 months. A bloody suit!!
Le Patron had been aware that Ugo’s pockets seemed to be sewn up all the while Le Patron and he had been together. The thought had crossed Le Patron’s mind once or twice that he was being taken for a ride. On reflection, the truth, Le Patron thought, was that this 16 year old from a middle class background was used to other family members paying his way. Papa, and Uncles. The good Italian coffee that he drank at home would be made by his mother, or grandmother, or sisters or aunts. He’d probably never made a cup of coffee in his life. And wouldn’t know how to. He would be proud that he would not how – that was not man’s work. This was Italy. His father had probably already wired his brother – the Uncle in Rome – the money for a suit and shoes, and what ever else was appropriate. Coming from this background – he didn’t get an Oxford English accent from nowhere – he would have no conception of a life lived differently, whether for a 19 year old from Britain, or a dusty Sicilian peasant with patches in the arse of his trousers.
Ugo could not understand why Le Patron could not afford to buy a suit. Rationality did not enter in Ugo’s understanding of the world or people. We were back to a late night session at the UN on a torturous sub-clause. “Basta! Basta!” Enough! Le Paton had had enough. It was time to part company, here and now, at the roadside.
Parting company was a melodramatic scene – How could I do this to him? Weren’t we friends? etc, etc, over and over again. And when that didn’t work, the reproachful look. The long reproachful look. The guilt inducing look.
Another side of Italian politics, besides Italian fascism, was Italian communism. Banned by the fascists in 1926, post 1945 the Italian communist party quickly became the largest communist party in western Europe. It was the opposition party to the catholic Christian Democracy party (Democrazia Christiana), and at various times controlled many Italian town and city administrations.
On 22 August, 1964, Le Patron saw large posters with heavy black borders suddenly appear in towns and villages. The Italian Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti had died on holiday in his beloved Socialist Motherland at the seaside resort of Yalta in the Soviet Union. The message was straight forward: “Togliatti È Morto“. Communist Party members would have been busy overnight, printing, distributing and pasting these posters. “Profonda emotion in Italia e nel mondo” – “Deep emotion in Italy and the world“ – the Italian communist daily paper l’Unità” claimed the day after his death. Outside Italy, apart from national communist parties and nervous strategists in the American White House, no one else would have heard of him, apart from maybe some followers of football who might have wondered if Togliatti had once played for Juventus or AC Milan.
The American strategists needn’t have worried too much about the Italian Communist Party and its leader destabilising the status quo in western Europe. Since 1945 all the Communist Parties in Western Europe were following the Moscow dictated “Democratic Road to Socialism”. No threat of revolution. In hindsight Togliatti has sometimes been criticised, within Italy, for following Moscow’s line, rather than supporting local political and industrial actions by his own communist party members.
“The Ties that Bind”
Another part of Italy, another side of Italy, another lift. A young man, training to be a surveyor. It had been a good ride. As Le Patron gets out, he gets out too, to open the boot where Le Patron’s rucksack is. As he hands Le Patron the rucksack he asks how old Le Patron is
-“19!! How is it you can travel around like this. Don’t your parents object?”
He is astounded, and envious, and deeply frustrated bangs the roof of his Fiat.
– “For me it would be impossible. My Mother, she would say ‘How can you do this to me? How could you do this to your sisters? You can’t leave us! For three months?’ It would never end. It would go on and on. You are very lucky.”
It took some time before Le Patron realised that there wasn’t an absence of husbands and fathers in Italian households – they were so rarely mentioned. It was always the Mother, the Sisters, the Grandmother, the Aunties. Had there been high casualties amongst Italy’s men during the Second World War?
No. The answer was, of course, this was a catholic country: Mother/Madonna ruled.
And the other side of the Madonna was the whore. And the Madonna/Whore polarity was stark in the South, particularly in Sicily. And in 1964 bringing shame on the family could end in an honour killing. It would be a daughter, a sister, or a wife who would bring dishonour to a family. A step down from honour killings would be ‘abductions’ and ‘kidnappings’, staged to circumvent dishonour to a family. Pietro Germi covered this particularly in his stark Sedotta e Abbandonata (Seduced and Abandoned) 1964, and in Divorzio All’Italiana (Divorce Italian Style) 1961, he shows a cynical Marcello Mastrianni using Italian law and the honour killing of his wife to marry his young niece.
Le Patron’s planned hitch-hiking route in Italy, having crossed the Yugoslav border a few weeks before was to head for Sicily. Sicily was a potent symbol of poverty and corruption. In the Spring of 1964 he had read Danilo Dolci’s To Feed the Hungry. It had left its mark on him.
Le Patron was very ignorant about Sicily. Danilo Dolci had not mentioned Taormina in his To Feed the Hungary. Taormina was where Le Patron had been dropped off late afternoon having hitched from the port of Messina. It was an old town but buying peaches he realised something was wrong. They were double the price he had been paying elsewhere in Italy. And then he saw a poster advertising that Marlene Dietrich was playing at the local exclusive nightclub. Without knowing it, he had arrived at a favourite spot of the Med Yacht Set. The near empty campsite was on a cliff edge. Way below, in a sparkling sea – a holiday brochure blue – and so clear you could see the bottom and brightly coloured sub tropical fish, people with snorkels and flippers snorkelled, whilst in the distance Mount Etna puffed slightly threatening. Le Patron was desperately bored with the holiday brochure setting. He had come to Sicily looking for ‘authenticity’ and had ended up in a place that had as much relevance to Sicily as the English singer Cliff Richard had playing at the Sun City venue in apartheid South Africa. (Queen also played in apartheid South Africa and their lead guitarist Brian May couldn’t see what the problem was, when they were slapped down by the U.N. and the British Musicians Union).
But Le Patron was going to have to cut his search for authenticity in Sicily, and start heading back. His finances were starting to run low.
The notion of “Authenticity” is tricky, difficult to explain, and probably shot through with dubious and naive emotion and intellectual inconsistency and sloppiness. But for Le Patron in the Italy of 1964 it meant a tiny Fiat 500 stopping when he was hitching and the bulging family inside – (there really was no room, and the occupants could probably have got into the Guinness Book of Records for how many people you can get in one car) – apologising for not being able to give him a lift and pushing a bunch of white grapes into his hands for roadside sustenance until he got a lift, and waving him goodbye as they drove off; it meant a young lad telling him to hop onto the back of his Lambretta three wheel van with deliveries to a nearby campsite, and then insisting he takes some bread and cheese and fruit from the deliveries when he arrived at the site.
Or being off the beaten track in a hilly, hot landscape in what seemed a deserted village on a slope of a hill, with noonday shadows as black as death and the light as white as phosphorous – the sort of high key lighting used in Fellini’s 8½ (1963), or that came naturally in the films shot in Sicily by Pietro Germi (Divorce Italian Style 1961, Seduced and Abandoned 1964) and by Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, 1962).
It was an afternoon and a weekend. The street was very wide, with low, rudimentary white buildings on either side. Looking up and along the main street – the only street the village seemed to have – in the direction Le Patron would be travelling out of the place were Lombardy poplars stationed at the village cemetery and the cross and the statute of the Madonna.
There were no people, no cars passing through, not even a sleeping dog in the shadows. The prospects did not look good. And then, from nowhere, he became aware of a group of middle aged to elderly men in their weekend best dark suits, hands behind backs as they passed him in the middle of the road, some talking, some nodding. They didn’t seem to notice the stranger in their village. They continued in the direction of the cemetery. They reached the edge of the cemetery and then leisurely about turned and strolled back down again, passing Le Patron without acknowledgement.
After they disappeared from view – did they go into the village’s one bar? – Le Patron can’t remember – a middle aged woman in widow’s black was quietly standing beside him, proffering a chair, indicating with a hand gesture for him to sit on it. He smiled a thanks, she smiled back and he watched her disappear into a dark beaded open doorway behind him. After a while (two vehicles had driven along the street and not stopped) she reappeared and beckoned Le Patrol to follow her through the darkened doorway. He was immediately in a low ceilinged room and at treadle operated sewing machines – Singer sewing machines – young girls and older women were efficiently working. Another woman in widow’s black gave Le Patron a cool glass of home made lemon juice, and a small plate of home made almond biscuits, and there were smiles all around, including modest ones from the young unmarried girls. There was little attempt at talk, smiles and gestures were enough.
One of the women in widows black was concerned that I got back to the chair, with my lemon drink and almond biscuits, in case I missed a car. Le Patron can’t remember getting a lift, but he obviously did, and neither can he remember if or when the empty glass and plate was collected. And typing this, he wonders how and where the young girls are now. They would be in their mid to late sixties now. Did they vote for Berlusconi?
When did sewage and piped water come to their village? And Indesit washing machines, which saved them the chore of washday slapping and lathering and rubbing of clothes in the communal wash trough? How many married? How many went into a convent? How many are grandmothers? Do any still sew? Do they watch game shows on RAI, or soaps on Berlusconi’s Italia 1 channel? How many have iPhones?
And the group of men who walked up to the cemetery are now in it, six feet under.
Where was that village?
Ciao ciao bambina.
1. see To Feed the Hungry, Danilo Dolci; Naples ’44, Norman Lewis.
2. see online link to Air Raid on Bari .