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Sicilian Sculptor (07/01/19)

M parents traveled a lot when I was a little kid—they loved their cruise ships—and so I got to travel along with them. At that time, cruising the world was not my idea of a good time, but later in life I came to understand the value of these adventures. And adventures they were!

I was eleven, we were in the middle of a long Mediterranean cruise, and had just slipped into port in Palermo, Sicily. As was normal, we disembarked, and I was on my own. Yes, I had to grow up quickly to be wandering the streets of a foreign country all by myself.

But I was completely happy doing so, and too naïve to think anything bad could come of any of it.

As I wandered through a particularly interesting neighborhood of Palermo, old Konica camera and bag full of film in hand, I came across a gorgeous old house with a dozen or so stunning sculptures on the front facade.

As I was taking pictures, an elderly Sicilian man came out and said hello in Italian. Though I had an idea what he was saying, I really didn’t speak much Italian and apologized to him for only speaking English.

He came up to me, put his arm on my shoulder, and in perfect English asked if I could keep a secret. Sure. He proceeded to tell me that because of his business, he was fluent in English—just didn’t share that with a lot of people.

Cool, a local that spoke English, and could start answering the long list of questions that started rambling out of my mouth. I wanted to hear all about the neighborhood, who he was, what business he was in, and more important, where did all the beautiful sculptures come from?

Giovanni was his name, and the sculptures where his. His business was exporting stone around the world. He laughed as he told me he spoke about a dozen languages, at least enough to get through business transactions when needed.

We were now sitting on the steps of the front porch as he asked me why I was out wandering the streets without my parents. Though he said the city was safe, he did not approve of my parents just letting me roam on my own.

I told Giovanni I was from Napa Valley in California and we were sightseeing from a cruise of the Mediterranean. He had never been to California and now that he was retired, hoped that him and his wife would someday be able to travel the world and see the sites in the US.

At that point the front door behind us opened, and this adorable older lady came out and exchanged a few words in Italian with Giovanni, only to quickly head back into the house with a giant smile on her face.

A few moments later, Sofia, Giovanni’s wife, came back out to the porch, introduced herself, and put down a tray of glasses, pitcher of lemonade, and a basket of fresh pastries.

Giovanni said they had been married for over 50 years and had several kids and dozens of grandchildren. As I was drinking freshly squeezed lemonade, which I remember being so darn good, Giovanni asked about my school and interests.

I told him that my hobbies were art, architecture, and photography. I also shyly admitted that I collected stamps, and that I had just spent nearly all my vacation allowance buying stamps from the Vatican when we were in Rome a few days prior.

We talked about Rome, the Vatican, the current Pope and about the stamps that I had bought from the Vatican. Giovanni had a huge smile on his face and told me to wait a few minutes while he stepped inside. I sat on the porch drinking my lemonade, looking at the beautiful sites around me, thinking this was actually turning out to be a really fantastic vacation.

A few minutes later, Giovanni returned with several old leather books in his hands and sat down next to me again. As he opened the first book I was in awe—pages and pages of stamps from Italy, and especially from the Vatican. New stamps, old stamps, strips, panes—a beautiful collection.

He said he had been collecting them since he was a child, some 80 years of stamps.

We spent quite a bit of time looking through the stamps, page after page, with magnifying glass in hand. Back home this would have classified me as a total nerd, but I was reveling in every minute.

As I was looking at the stamps I looked down at my watch, and realized I needed to be back on the ship, and fast. I got up, thanked him for his hospitality, the look at the stamps, and the wonderful lemonade, and pastries which we had never even touched.

Though I was in a hurry, he told me to wait just a few more minutes while he hurried inside. When he and Sofia returned back outside, they handed me a wrapped brown paper package bound in twine. I said thank you with a puzzled look on face. In perfect English, Sofia told me she had been waiting for this moment, and the stamps would now have a good home and she knew I would enjoy them.

She then also handed me a basket filled with the pastries from earlier. The basket was lined with this beautiful material. It was made from a shimmering red fabric with black geometric and organic patterns overlaid with stunningly beautiful gold printed characters. The characters were not of a language I recognized, but the fabric was so stunningly beautiful.

I was beyond believing what was happening and told them I couldn’t take the stamps. But they insisted, saying their grandkids had shown no interest for them, and they knew they were going to a good home. They told me to come back and visit them if I was ever in Sicily again.

I was in tears, thanked them both profusely, exchanged big, lasting hugs with both, and proceeded to run at full speed all the way back to the ship.

I got back to the ship, hid the package deep in my luggage, and parked out on a deck chair. I ate every last pastry in the basket.

I never shared with my parents the story of the stamps—and I definitely didn’t share the pastries!

Five years later, we were on another ship, another cruise, this time just visiting ports in Italy, and to my delight, Palermo was again on the list—but only for a few hours.

Now a teenager of 16, I remembered every road to Giovanni and Sofia’s house and ran as fast as I could to get there. I’d even left my camera in the room on the ship so that I didn’t waste any time getting back to see my friends.

Out of breath I got to their door and knocked. A gangly teenager about my age opened the door and rattled off a greeting in Italian. I told him I didn't speak Italian, but asked if Giovanni and Sofia were home.

At first the kid looked a bit sad, then looked at me with curiosity, and asked in broken English if I was "David from Napa California?" I was excited they remembered me, said yes, and asked if I could say hello?

The kids head dropped as he told me they had both passed away a couple years back, Sofia passing only a few months after Giovanni had.

I was devastated and could not fight back the tears. I stood on the front porch crying for quite some time, then straightened myself up, apologized for bothering the kid at the door and began to walk back to the ship.

But before I could get a few steps, the kid asked me to come in, there was something he needed to give me. Once in their beautiful old house, the kid reached for a dusty brown paper package tied in twine and handed to me. He said his grandparents had left it there all those years in the hope that someday I would come back.

Their grandson told me not to open the package till I got home, that I would understand why. I said thank you, left the house and slowly walked back to the ship. I couldn’t believe my friends were gone. It had only been 5 years. If I could have only seen them sooner.

Now I was a 16-year-old foreigner walking through the streets of Palermo on my own, tears streaming down my face! Lost? Yes, in a matter of speaking. I wandered back onto the ship, put the package in my luggage and sat on the bed and cried.

After what seemed like an eternity we got back home from our cruise, I was nearly crazy from wondering what was in the package. As we got to our house, I ran into my room, slammed the door, and proceeded to open the twine and brown paper package.

Again, I couldn’t stop crying. As I unwrapped the package, a beautiful gold-framed photo of Sofia and Giovanni appeared, along with a beautiful strip of Vatican Stamps.

And a hand-written note.
“To our dear friend David from Napa. May you grow up having a life filled with wonderful adventures.
Forever your friends, Sofia and Giovanni.”


#Italy #Sicily #Vatican #friendship #stamps #Giovanni #Sofia #lemonade #fabric