This is probably the worst time to talk about Italian cruise liners and their captains after the recent catastrophe of the Costa 'Concordia' but, believe me, my story is a world away from that tragedy in time and space, from that kind of huge mega-ship and, above all, from the apparent lack of calibre of the officers who sailed on her. This said and saddened for the important and now besmirched Italian maritime tradition, I will tell you about a tiny episode on the long and slippery road to fully fledged ex-pat status.
So many years ago, on a beautiful sunny January morning I stood on the sun deck of an Italian ship, the 'Galileo', waving to family and friends below through layers and layers of coloured streamers. I had no idea that my life was soon to change forever. To me, I was simply starting the modern-day equivalent of the 'grand tour'. I was, as it was euphemistically called then, 'going home', going back to England to visit the land of my ancestors. Having achieved this much desired goal, now educated in my 'roots', I would return to Melbourne and pick up the threads of my ordinary every day life again, to live happily ever after in the Antipodes.
Travelling with my brother, we had planned long and saved even longer for the journey. Deciding to do it in style, we booked matching first class cabins. On departure, mine was so full of flowers from well wishers that my future home for the five-week crossing to Genoa looked like a hot house. It was also crammed with a sailor's trunk and seven suitcases into which my day and evening clothes, shoes and bags had been carefully packed, as 'dressing' for dinner was obligatory on board.
Then, somewhere between Cape Town and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I fell in love - with Pietro, the ship's captain.
In mid-April, I returned to Sydney through the Panama Canal on the 'Marconi', the sister ship of the 'Galileo'. In the meantime, Pietro had again sailed to Australia and then back to Europe, but not without leaving me an airline ticket to fly back to Rome the morning after my ship docked at Circular Quay. Of course, I was on that plane.
By the end of May, I was again back at home, this time to pack up all my worldly goods for another trip back to Italy, this time to be married. What I hadn't counted on was that Pietro, eleven days after I arrived back in his arms, would have to go to sea again, leaving me in Naples with his widowed mother, elderly maiden aunt and bachelor uncle and a cousin, thankfully, my age. Of all of them and the rest of his extended family and friends, only his cousin spoke English but she was out all day teaching. It goes without saying that I spoke no Italian.
Almost immediately after Pietro sailed for South Africa, there was an outbreak of cholera in Naples. This meant that all my possessions - clothes, books, china and all the rest of the paraphernalia that represented my until then pampered life - one and a half tons of it - were re-routed to Genoa and just seemed to fall off the map. Seeing me lonely and frustrated, Pietro's relatives, especially his mother, did all they could to cheer me up, dictionary in one hand and pencil and paper on which to draw objects in the other. Home sick but too proud to even let myself think for an instant that I may have been a bit hasty in leaving all I knew behind me without a second thought, I wouldn't admit to my family that I may have made a mistake. So all I did was write letters and postcards - to Pietro, to my parents, to my brother and to anyone I had ever remotely know in the past, even to the hat check girl at the Windsor hotel. I talked about how great the weather was, how impressive Vesuvius looked, how fabulous 'real' Italian food tasted and, very vaguely, how I was trying hard to adjust to a world where I was, as yet, unable to express myself verbally (a terrible thing for a lawyer like me) and how I often had difficulty in understanding the natives and their customs and vice versa.
But what nearly sent me home was a visit to the cemetery. Out of a genuine desire that I should know all about his forebears and feel part of the 'family', Pietro's mother asked me to go with her on one of her weekly visit to her loved ones' graves. This was then a very Southern Italian ritual. After a short bus ride, we passed through the iron gates of the cemetery at the end of a long avenue of cypress trees. We walked by some very old tombs, most in a state of disrepair and neglect, before we reached four largest buildings on this large plot of municipal land. On entering the first one, I felt my heart stop for a minute.
Today, well over thirty years later and long married to Pietro, when I think about it dispassionately, I realise I shouldn't have been so shocked. I had grown up in post-WWII Australia when Italian, Greek and other migrants had arrived in big numbers in our cities. From initial suspicion and, I remember, some resentment, the Anglo-Australian community had slowly learnt to accept and to allow those from these 'old countries' to integrate. But, there at the cemetery, I had my first real taste of culture shock. Immediately, I was faced with the power of the veneration and celebration of the cult of the dead. Smiling photos of the deceased stared at me from silver frames along row after row of walled up niches, all holding a coffin inside them. The niches were everywhere, on the floor and up the walls to the height of four or five stories, like wide shelves in a supermarket. On each one, alongside the names and ages of the dearly departed, there was a vase or vases usually filled with roses or, the flower of death here, chrysanthemums. There was also an obligatory flickering electric lamp that shone day and night to keep that person company.
Having done the rounds and been introduced to my no-longer-with-us future father-in-law, to Zia Elena, to Zio Armando and to the army of other relations, we finally left the graveyard. At that moment I missed the length and breadth of my boundless homeland and its infinite sky, something I had simply always taken for granted as 'normal'. Instantly, not only did it strike me that Italy was, perhaps, a little too overcrowded with the living but that there was hardly any space for the dead. And that suddenly seemed terribly important to me.
The following morning, when I wrote my umpteenth letter to my father, I asked him to make sure that when my day came to pass on someone would fly over and take me back home to Melbourne where, if the world were an ideal place, they could put me to rest under the wattle tree on the nature strip in front of our house. There, I'd have plenty of room and could even keep a check on the neighbours at the same time. And, much more importantly, nobody would ever need to put a step ladder against a wall to climb up and bring me some daisies.