What if We Went to Italy

My husband Douglas and I spent a month travelling around Italy in the spring of 1985. We didn’t have any sort of plan other than wanting to visit my maternal grandfather’s grave at some point. He had been a lance corporal in the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and was killed in August of 1944 on the Gothic line – the last major line of defence put up by the German army as they retreated from Italy. We knew his body was in a Canadian cemetery called Montecchio on the east coast of the country, so we made sure our travels took us from west to east so we could pay our respects before heading to our next destination, Turkey.

Douglas and I had flown from Toronto to Paris, spent some time in Provence, and then took a day long train trip from Marseilles into Italy. We arrived in Bologna at about 9:00 in the evening. We hadn’t reserved a place to stay nor did we know anything about the city, but we were young and adventurous and such details were consequently of little concern. There is no way I would be so incautious now, but travelling blind was a welcome adventure when I was 24.

Train stations are usually located in the rough part of a city, and Bologna’s was no exception. We stepped outside the building into an extremely dark, mostly deserted, and downright seedy neighbourhood. There are usually taxis waiting in situations like this, but there were none in Bologna. I pulled out our Hitchhiker’s Guide to Italy to try and find a place to stay, but no sooner had I opened it than a rather scruffy young man approached us. He said his name was Marco, and Douglas introduced us in return. Marco suggested in broken English that we would be hard pressed to find a place to stay at this time of night, and that he was willing to let us bunk at his apartment. At my current age of 59 I would find such a proposal highly suspect, but at the time Douglas and I were young and trusting enough that all we felt was relief.

Marco lived within walking distance of the station, and in short order he led us to his place which turned out to be as disheveled as he was. As soon as we walked in he began frantically picking up dirty laundry from the chairs and couch and clearing garbage and dirty dishes from the coffee table. It turned out he had a separate bedroom, but there was a double mattress in the corner of his living room which he indicated would be our spot for the night. We made up the bed and then Marco invited us to take a seat. He disappeared into his bedroom for a moment and then came back with an enormous bong which he proceeded to fill, light, and then offer around. We accepted his hospitality without question and before long the busyness of the day and the marijuana left Douglas and I extremely tired. Marco took his cue from our drooping eyelids and retreated to his bedroom so we could sleep. We woke to the enticing smell of fresh coffee the following morning, and Marco served us a delicious continental breakfast along with the espresso he’d brewed. We tried to give him some money after the meal as we prepared to leave, but he absolutely refused to take it. He said Bologna had a bad rap as being unwelcoming and unsafe, and he had simply wanted to show us that this was not the case. I will always be grateful to Marco for reminding me that the vast majority of people really are very nice.

We took a train from Bologna to Florence, and ended up liking the city so much that we stayed for a full week. Florence is absolutely magnificent, with architectural delights around every corner and countless piazzas filled with glorious fountains and beautiful sculptures. It is the capital city of the Tuscany region and was a centre of medieval European trade and finance. Florence is considered by many scholars to be the birthplace of the Renaissance, and has been called “the Athens of the Middle Ages.” Much of its beauty resulted from the patronage of the Medici family, an infamous clan which held sway in the city from 1434 to 1737, producing four popes and marrying into several European royal families along the way. The Florentine dialect forms the basis of modern standard Italian due to the influence of famous residents such as Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Dante. The historic centre of Florence became a World Heritage Site in 1982, with the city playing an integral role inEuropean fashion, art, and culture to this day.

Florence is one of those cities where you can simply walk for hours and never be bored. Aside from the glorious architecture, it’s also home to several world class museums, the best known being the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace. The most famous single work of art in Florence, however, lives in the much lesser known Accademia Gallery. Michelangelo’s masterwork David graces this small gallery, and at just over 13 feet tall literally stands head and shoulders above the rest of the sculpture collection. Most other statues of King David depict him after defeating Goliath, often with the giant’s head at his feet. Michelangelo broke the mould by depicting the young king before battle, with a slingshot in one hand and a stone in the other.

It’s hard to say why some works of art become so incredibly famous. The Mona Lisa, for example, portrays a rather unexceptional woman, but somehow her smile has entranced generations of art lovers. I saw The Mona Lisa at The Louvre, having waited in line for ages to catch a brief glimpse of her famous visage staring back from behind bulletproof glass. I don’t mind saying that I was deeply disappointed. The painting itself is surprisingly small, and I found the image totally bland. Michelangelo’s David, on the other had, is well deserving of its notoriety. The subject is heroic, the execution is flawless, and the finished product is too large to ignore. It is altogether a masterpiece worthy of the name.

David was originally commissioned by the Florence wool guild to adorn the local cathedral, known as Il Duomo in honour of its huge and distinctive octagonal dome. Il Duomo is a massive Gothic cathedral which dominates the Florentine skyline and stands well above any other building. Its basilica is one of Italy’s most spacious churches, and the dome was the biggest in the world until the invention of new structural materials in the modern era allowed for even more massive ones to be built. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed, and is instantly recognizable due to its peculiar red-orange hue. This beautiful cathedral along with all the other breathtaking art and architecture scattered throughout the city make Florence a truly must see experience.

Pisa is about halfway between Florence and the port city of Pesaro where my grandfather’s grave lies, so Douglas and I decided to stop over for the afternoon to catch a glimpse of its famous leaning tower. I must say that seeing the pitch of the building in person is quite breathtaking. The fact that it has remained standing at such a precarious angle for centuries is truly mind boggling. Douglas, ever the ham, placed himself in front and to the side of the tower with his hands firmly stuffed in the pockets of his jacket so that his shape mirrored that of the structure behind him. He then began to tilt sideways and I took a picture when I reckoned he was on exactly the same slant as the tower. He scrambled to get his hands out immediately after the photo was taken, luckily doing so in time to break his fall. I still have that photo in an album downstairs, and I have to admit that it is quite brilliant. Douglas and the tower lean at precisely the same angle, creating the impression that both are being held in place by some mysterious gravity defying force.  

The basilica at Pisa is noteworthy as well. Douglas and I usually simply glommed on for free at the back of tour groups when we visited famous buildings, but our trusty hitchhiker’s guide suggested it was worth the money to actually pay at the basilica. This turned out to be good advice. The guide himself was an amiable man with very good English, and his spiel about the tower and the building was highly entertaining and very enlightening. The highlight of the tour came when he moved to the very centre of the basilica and asked us to form a ring around him. He then instructed us to remain perfectly silent and clapped his hands. The echoing response made it seem as though several people, one after the other, were answering his clap with ones of their own. We all marvelled at the amazing acoustics of the place, and then the guide motioned us once again to silence. He then sang out three notes in quick succession which shortly echoed back from the basilica’s domed ceiling, hanging in the air and forming a perfect major cord. He did this several more times, creating cords of every type, and the overall effect was truly magical. Douglas and I were more than happy to tip the guide when we eventually left the basilica. 

We got back on the train later that afternoon and arrived in Pesaro before nightfall. The next day I bought a small bouquet of flowers and we hitched a ride to Montecchio to visit my grandfather’s grave. Our driver let us off just before the cemetery and we had to climb a small rise to reach our destination. I’ll never forget cresting that hill and seeing a vista of white crosses marching off, row on row, as far as the eye could see. I knew that this was just one of myriad sites of this kind scattered throughout Europe and the south Pacific that held the markers of the thousands upon thousands of allied soldiers killed in battle. The enormity of this loss grew in my mind the closer I came to the site, until I was almost out of breathe from the shear scale of it by the time I reached the perimeter fence. So many young lives cut short. What an unspeakable tragedy.

There was a small hut at the entrance to the cemetery which contained a map of the grave sites along with a visitors’ book for leaving a message if one felt so inclined. Douglas and I found the location of my grandfather’s grave and headed off to lay my flowers. We stopped to look at other crosses along the way, reflecting sadly on the proximity of the birth and death dates of the fallen soldiers whose graves they marked. All of these young men had died at around the same time, so clearly they had fought along with my grandfather on the Gothic line in the summer of 1944. Finally we came to our destination and Douglas read aloud, “Cameron, Lance Corporal David Hugh. Loyal Edmonton Regiment. August  26, 1944. Age 35. Son of Herman McLean Cameron and Edith Cameron; husband of Margaret Jean Cameron of Ottawa, Ontario.” 

Somehow those words made the whole thing very real for me. This wasn’t just a man I’d heard about in stories; this was Nana’s husband, and Mum and Aunt Carolyn’s father. This was a man whose life and death had a lasting impact on people I loved. The enormity of this thought, and of their loss, overwhelmed me at that moment and I began to cry. I cried for my grandmother who was left to raise two young girls on her own, for my aunt who became emotionally withdrawn in response to her father’s death, and mostly for my mother who never fully got over the loss. As a girl she had been very close to her father and had drawn much of her self esteem from his attention and approval. Then the person who cared for her most in the world voluntarily put himself in harms way and lost his life as a result. This must have forced into the forefront of her young mind the question of how much she was really worth. His death hobbled her burgeoning ego and it would never recover. I saw firsthand how destabilizing the death of a parent can be when my own young children lost their father to cancer. They both suffered for years as a result, but eventually managed to work through their trauma by facing it and adopting coping mechanisms. My mother, on the other hand, refused to talk about her father to her dying day, let alone discuss or acknowledge how his loss had affected her. No wonder she was so screwed up about it.

All of these thoughts and realizations were swirling in my mind when we returned to the hut at the entrance to the cemetery. I hadn’t felt the least bit interested in leaving a message in the guestbook when I’d entered a short time earlier, but now I felt compelled to write something. I firstly thanked the keepers of the cemetery for their diligence and hard work – the crosses were immaculately clean and upright, and the grounds were scrupulously well kept. I then went on to write a short note to my grandfather. I told him who I was and that his widow and two daughters were thriving but all still missed him. It sounds silly and kind of cheesy now, but it was absolutely the right thing to do at that moment. I felt better as soon as I’d put the words to paper. Ghosts and spirits don’t exist, and I’m well aware my grandfather never received my message, but I didn’t write it for him. I wrote it on behalf of three ladies I dearly love.

Overall Italy is an incredible, beautiful country full of glorious landscapes and boasting a rich and important history. The food is excellent, the people are welcoming, and the climate is very near perfect. I would highly recommend everyone spend some time there, and very much look forward to returning one day myself. I’ve yet to see Rome, I hear Sicily is well worth a visit, and I’d like to experience Venice before it drowns in the rising Adriatic Sea. Viva Italia!

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