I quickly settled into my job and military life. Our unit was small so I got to know every member in it – probably more so than the others as I had access to all their military and personal histories.
Everybody in the platoon but Harold and I were from the Deep South. One of the guys was Ralph Spagnolo of Italian heritage, but he too was from Louisiana or Alabama. Ralph invited me to go with him to a place on the Italian coast where his family was from. I was going to pass it up as I didn't have a whole lot of money. “Don't worry about it,” he told me, “We can do it on the cheap.” Through the on base Special Services, we bought Third Class train tickets. They Donut Dolly also gave us tips on how to travel as cheaply as possible. We exchanged our entire month's paycheck in U.S. Dollars – getting special permission from our platoon leader to do so.
Each of us carried a backpack with changes of clothing and ponchos for the daily rain showers we had in Bussac. However, with our GI haircuts, clothes and shoes, nobody was going to identify us as anything but what we were. We caught the shuttle bus into Bordeaux and walked the mile or so to the big, gray, iron and glass train station. One of the tips we'd received was to buy snacks and stuff from the stands outside the station and definitely NOT on board the train. We also bought a bottle of cheap red wine to quench our thirsts. Our Post Exchange Swiss Army knives took care of the corkscrew need.
Only the very well-to-do French had cars in 1959. Most were either the Citroën “Gangster Wagon” as we liked to call the Avant [see picture below] that always caught my attention as the way the front doors opened or the little “upside-down-washboard” car whose name I can't remember.
Everyone else traveled by bus or train so the station was huge with endless tracks. Even back then, the Europeans provided pictures to help travelers – although I always got the impression the French did so begrudgingly. So, we had little trouble finding the right train. Aw c'mon now? You don't expect me to remember the route we took do you?
I do remember the Third Class seats were wood, but shaped so it wasn't too bad. I also quickly found that out backpacks made excellent cushions, not only to sit on but to use as a pillow. We left early in the afternoon and passed through miles of countryside with open fields or wooded areas, interspersed with towns and villages. It was certainly a far cry from the sprawl of houses I grew up with in Southern California. We seemed to stop at every single village along the way with lots of people getting on and off.
Oh yeah – there were express trains but were a bit too steep for our limited budgets.
As neither of us spoke more than a bit of “Bar room French” we got lots of dirty looks from everyone, especially the conductor who clearly showed his disgust every time he came by to once again check our tickets. I figured Ralph knew a little bit or that his Italian might help us. Oh yeah? He didn't speak a word of Italian.
“My parents came to the States to be Americans, not Italians. They never spoke Italian in front of me and made it a point that English was not our language.”
Every once in a while, French Gendarmes would board to pass through the cars checking passports. We only carried our US Army ID Cards as all European nations accepted them as valid ID and we didn't even need visas to go from France to Italy.
Passing into Italy was truly like entering a new country!
They grayness of France disappeared in an instant. The people. Their clothes. Their attitude. The towns and villages. The Italian policemen who came on board, smiled at us and one even tried to speak English. He was curious at Ralph's name and beamed with delight to learn he was going to visit the village his family came from. He even took the time to write down some directions as to which train depot to change to what train and some other tips on getting to where we were going.
And the train passengers surprised us beyond belief. They welcomed us! Americans! Their friends. Their liberators. An Italian family moved into the seats around us and freely shared their food and wine with us. All eagerly tried to ask us about America using the universal signing. They also happily tried to teach us Italian. And sever of the attractive young Italian lasses smiled as to warm our “souls.”
It took us almost three full days to reach a small fishing village on the western coast of Italy. In addition to our backpacks, we each had a colorful blanket-poncho and cloth traveling bags for food and other little things. Almost everybody in our car rose to shake our hands and some of the ladies kissed us. One family was getting off at our station and took us in hand, insisting that they be our guides. They, of course, recognized the name Spagnolo and it turned out they were related to Ralph – as was almost every individual living in the village.
I don't remember Ralph's father's name but we were greeted as the wandering son returning from a far land. Even the village priest was a relative. There was no staying in a hotel or inn. We were led to probably the biggest house in the village where the Patron, another relative, made us welcome. He was something like the assistant mayor or something similar, had some impressive college degrees, and spoke pretty good English. We each had a huge bedroom with 18' ceilings and a big four-poster bed covered with feather comforters. A maid even came to take away our kinds ratty clothes, a manservant replacing them with a complete casual outfit – it seemed one of the Patron's boy had gone to Rome and those were his clothes.
We had only taken two week's leave and the train trip took three days each way. That meant we could only stay for 9 days. I don't think the party stopped from the time we arrived until the time we left. Ralph was family. And, because I was his friend and we served together, so was it.
We went out on a fishing boat a couple of times – I think it was a way to find out if Ralph had lost the instincts of his ancestors. At least neither of us got seasick and we worked as hard as we could, not exactly being sailors or fishermen.
The food? I won't even try to describe to amazing smells, aromas, tastes or just plain delight of the endless dishes placed before us.
“Mangiare! Bere!” The demands to eat and drink filled out ears. And everyone wanted to dance. Dances that Ralph and I had absolutely no idea how to do. But, that didn't matter. We were hauled into the village plaza or patios or porches to make total fools of ourselves.
The time came to leave. The conductor look at us in amazement as we made our rounds of so many people there to send us off. Hugs and kisses and handshakes. It was truly a time of sadness at such a wonderful time coming to an end. We waved back as the train pulled away from the depot. Neither of us spoke during the long train ride back to Bordeaux. We were too busy remembering the wonderful time we'd had and the superb people we'd met.
And no! There's no way I'm going into details of just how wonderful some of our encounters had been. That's none of your business.
Ciao – until my next post.