This is the seventh installment of a series meant to illuminate the first study abroad trip for UConn student Sten Spinella.
On the way to my cousin’s house, we realized that we enjoyed similar recreational activities, and Vale touted his Bob Marley poster and trip to Amsterdam. But, as I would come to realize during this excursion, Vale is much more than a twenty-year-old fun-seeker. He studies economics at the University of Genova while many of his friends have to go to private schools in order to finish their high school education. He’s been dating the same girl, Julia, for a year. They are romantic and would never do anything to hurt each other. His father left when he was three, his mother died when he was seven. There is a tattoo of her name on his arm. Francesco and Rosa Crocini – his grandparents – are obviously very proud of the young man with scattered facial hair, a clever smile and a wiry frame. From Sunday to Thursday he is in Genova attending to his studies and shying away from things like the disco and video games. During his off-days he plays for a club football team and stays with his grandparents in Lerici.
Before I get to his grandparents, I should say that Vale is a cousin by marriage. I’m not very good with genealogy, but this is my take. A man whom my sister and I consider our uncle, Charlie Crocini, is the first cousin of Francesco, meaning, of course, that their fathers were brothers. Charlie’s father came to the U.S., Francesco’s did not. They have not seen each other for forty years. My grandmother, Lee Spinella, is supposedly “an important figure in the family,” according to Francesco, but I’m honestly not sure how her, or I, for that matter, are related to the Crocinis. I should probably know that. It is one of those things where we consider them closer than our family tree says they are. Digression complete.
Francesco is a short, pot-bellied man with a Mediterranean complexion and a sturdy white mustache. He speaks English passably well and he treated me just like family, encouraging me to speak Italian, cooking dinner for me the first night, setting up a room for me with the help of Rosa and inquiring into my life. He had lived a fascinating one, traveling to countries all over the world, from the U.S. to China, to work his way up in the shipping and fishing business, but he was born and raised in the beach town of Lerici, and is loyal to his home. Rosa spoke no English but communicated her affection for me by touching my stomach, back and shoulders, and smiling broadly at me whenever we were in the same room. Vale translated what his grandparents did not understand. I was with the all-Italian version of my Italian-American aunt and uncle, Charlie and Helene.
After meeting the grandparents, Vale took me on the back of his scooter to the top of Montemarcello, one of those politically insignificant, small, attractive townships in Italy. The ride up was almost as spectacular as the view. I held on firmly to the side handles of the scooter, my feet planted on the metal stirrups, as Vale sped up the mountain side, skillfully managing twisting roads at increasing altitude. The only way to describe these roads is to invoke the high-speed, precarious car chases of the James Bond franchise that occur on a mountainside with an impressive vista below. While the majority of the twenty-minute ride was shrouded by trees and bushes, occasionally the view of the sea and the civilizational outcroppings would break through, becoming more awing each time as we went up the mountain.
Vale parked the scooter near a grouping of three small restaurants where people coolly sipped Coca Cola, cappuccinos or wine, and we walked 10 minutes on a dirt path. I did not know where I was going.
What we came to was, without exaggeration, the largest and most inspiring view I had ever seen. I went to the edge of the fence and saw that there was no end to the water either to the left or right of me. Here I could see almost all of Cinque Terre and Lerici, the proud establishments and honeymoon areas dotting the coast. When one travels, they naturally seek grand views of wherever they are, to try and gain a more holistic understanding of the place in a short amount of time. Further, the largesse is inherently magnificent, whether it be nature or manmade. In the case of this particular view, it was both. Now, I had already seen the beauty of Florence and Lucca from a great many angles, and would find myself in other breathtaking vantage points throughout that weekend and when I returned to Florence. It is as if each one was better than the last, whether I’m at the top of the Duomo bell tower, the Piazza Michelangelo, or Forte di Belvedere. Yet this was special.
Vale, who had seen this and everything he would show me that weekend already, was prepared to leave after two minutes, although he insisted Italy’s aesthetic allure never wore on him, that never did he take for granted the place he grew up in. I made him stay another 10 minutes. It was incomprehensible that I could be this high up, looking down at this much of the world, so far away from the tiny North American state I had been cooped in for 21 years. Boats sailed below me. The sun shone behind faraway mountains. The red yellow blue pink and green tenements laughed. And there was the end of as far as the eye can see, the nothingness and eternity of the end of the water in one, that I glared into.
On the way back down we grabbed a beer in another little town just outside of Lerici. I took out my wallet and Vale’s hand flew to shut it.
“No, I treat you as my special guest this weekend.”
And he truly did.
We walked to a rocky shore, but before we could get there, four girls hanging out in a grassy area by the water called out to Vale and smiled as he approached.
“These are friends of my girlfriend,” he told me as we came closer.
“Vale!” They yelled. He smiled and kissed all of their cheeks, introducing me. I was shy because I did not know their language, but I managed a handshake and a “Mi chiamo Sten” to each one. The girls had Vale take a picture of them together, and we said goodbye.
“They seemed to like you a lot,” I said.
“Yes, they are nice,” he responded.
“They are good-looking, yes, but they are too interested in social media and the disco. That is not my scene.”
Another thing I would find out this weekend: non-native English speakers can be both blunt and profound, either on accident or otherwise.
“Ah, I understand. But your girlfriend is not like that?”
“No, she is concerned with other things. She is different from them.”
We took a liking to a certain rock and began sipping our beer there. Vale rolled a hashish and tobacco spliff, a staple of he and his friends. There were girls further down on the rocks who were wearing only underwear. They smiled our way and asked if we were smoking a joint. Vale told me what to say back in Italian. He seemed disgusted with them, thought them promiscuous. The interaction was hilarious. He did not want to speak to them at all, so whenever they called to us, he told me what they said, then told me how to say in Italian what he wanted to say back. They left after about half-an-hour, and Vale calmed down.
“My country, we do not care about politics,” Vale said. “We don’t care about anything. We are far behind other countries, and our government is corrupt. We are not like America. In America, you are able to make something of yourself. Here, if you want to make something, there is so much paper and laws.”
I tried to tell him that’s where he was wrong.
“The American Dream lives on stronger among the people of other countries than in the people of my own. The idea that you can work your way up is a myth and usually only proven by the privileged,” I said back.
“Maybe this is true, but I see our cousin David, or Adam, and what they are doing in Boston and in Singapore is impossible in my country. You finish university and cannot find a job.”
David Crocini is a real estate developer out of Boston, Adam Crocini is in restaurant administration, based in Singapore. They are both my cousins.
“But this is becoming more true in the United States every year. People find it harder and harder to find work when they finish college. I swear to you this is true. And, you know, at least your leftist politics are actually leftist in this country. In mine, a moderate Republican and a far-right Fascist will end up running against each other for President. And the moderate Republican claims to be left!”
“You mean Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?”
“Trump is no good. He is like Berlusconi.”
For the first of many times this weekend, I was forced to explain the international embarrassment that is the rise of Donald Trump.
“You’ve pretty much nailed exactly what is wrong with my country right now. Trump has shown half our citizens to be ignorant, racist and uneducated. My country is in the midst of an existential battle between sense and nonsense.”
“My country is racist too,” Vale responded. “We show blacks and immigrants to be bad people in our news, but I think Italians do the same things, the journals just don’t show that.”
“Our countries really aren’t so different, in that respect.”
“I hate racism and racist people. I think you are just dumb if you are racist. People in Italy, just say that they are racist, and I just say, you are stupid. My grandfather is a liberal. You told me Charlie is a conservative. I wonder what he think of this.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more my friend.”
The sun was getting low over Lerici, so we turned back and temporarily ended the conversation.