It was a bright, sunny winter’s afternoon in Savannah, Georgia when my family and I boarded a Yugoslavian freighter bound for Savona, Italy. An anticipatory feeling of excitement was in the air as fellow passengers boarded throughout the day and settled into their cabins. At nightfall we all gathered on deck to watch our ship leave port and move out to sea. There was a jubilant festivity among us all. Eventually, I saw the captain of the pilot boat wave a cheery goodbye before he sped back toward land. Fifty of us passengers plus crew were alone in a vast ocean far from the safety and comfort of civilization. The dark night, once filled with laughter and chatter, had fallen silent except for the lapping of the black sea. I walked back to the cabin. Crawling into a bed that was no bigger than a cot, I drifted to sleep as the sea rocked the ship like a cradle.
Perhaps because it was in the middle of winter, my parents, siblings and I were the only family on board. I at age twelve was certainly the youngest. The majority of passengers were taking advantage of their retirement years globetrotting. Entertainment on a freighter is largely left to one’s own making. Our ship had a pool, but with it being the winter months, it was void of water. There was a small bar in the lounge where every day the same bartender served alcoholic and soft drinks. There were well cooked meals to look forward to; I seem to remember the waiter was the bartender. The most popular freighter travel activity was to stand on deck, gaze at the sea, and simply enjoy the thrill of adventure. Otherwise, entertainment amounted to plenty of reading, writing journal entries, and making conversation with fellow passengers. Here were people who came from different parts of the country (we had traveled to Savanah, Georgia from California). We had little in common except for the fact that we had all chosen to be at the same place and time to embark on a trip across the Atlantic. Despite our wide range of age and backgrounds, a camaraderie developed between those of us on board.
When it came time for my family to disembark in Savona, I was sorry we were leaving our traveling companions as most were continuing their journey to the freighter’s final destination. I felt most sad that we would not be seeing Stewart again. Stewart, traveling with his wife, was retired. He had been a comic strip artist by profession. One day he handed me a drawing he had made of our family. Each of us in the drawing were doing something we typically might do: My father playing the piano (he was a composer and music professor), my mother singing (she was a singer), my sister and brother playing cards, and I eating saltine crackers (I must of eaten a lot of saltines while hanging out in the lounge). For years following, I coveted Stewart’s gift. Before we disembarked I told my mother we had to say goodbye to Stewart and ask him for his address so that we could write to him. We found him sitting on the ship’s deck. One of the few developed pictures from our trip is a candid photograph taken of my mother and myself with Stewart before we disembarked.
I have a dim memory standing next to my mother on a street in Savona as my mother courageously tried out her self taught Italian with two Italian women. The women were having a difficult time understanding and being understood, but they ‘bent over backward’ trying to help us get where we needed to go. We needed to get a train to Munich to pick up our brand new Volkswagen camper. We planed to camp in the summer months, but first we returned to Italy for a four month stay in Florence.
My memory of Florence is, for the most part, disconnected fragments. I have an image of myself sitting in the back seat, aghast, as my father or mother (which one I am not sure) tried to navigate our Volkswagen camper through the city’s ancient, narrow streets. I have a misty recollection of strolling past one of Florence’s parks as grandparents and children, with their cocker spaniels, enjoyed an interlude of sun before the next rain. I have a lasting impression that to live in Florence is to be immersed in architectural and artistic gems of the Renaissance. We often touristed museums and historical landmarks; The Last Judgment underneath the dome of Il Duomo di Firenze by Giorgo Vasari and other Frescos shouldn’t be missed. What left the most lasting impression, however, were the mundane trips to the market or to ballet lessons that took me through evocative old streets or through Piazza della Signoria. Piazza della Signoria has a number of Renaissance sculptures such as Michelangelo’s David.
Soon after arriving in Florence, we rented a villa owned by a countess. With a peach stucco exterior and green wooden weatherworn shutters, the villa was situated up a steep hill away from the noise of the city. There was a spiraling staircase in the entrance that led to large bedrooms on the second floor. My sister and I shared a bedroom that had two single beds with straw mattresses. The opposite wall had a built in, unused, fireplace. We often found ourselves lulling the time away listening to a popular music station on the radio. The radio announcer’s enthusiastic “Radio Due! Firenze!” was followed (enough times that I remember it clearly) by the 1978 hit “It’s A Heartache” by Bonnie Tyler.
The villa had ‘secret’ passages leading to other apartments. Beneath the staircase there was a door that led to one such passage. Coming home after being gone for the afternoon, we sometimes found the door mysteriously standing open. A story began to swirl that the countess’ son (described as perhaps suffering from some sort of malady) was seen lurking in the passageway. One day my sister and brother used a second passage on the premises to visit two college age women from Switzerland; they were renting adjoining apartments. It is bizarre that my sister was never able to find the passageway again.
While my father was sitting at the piano working on a music composition, two young men drove past the living room window on motor scooters. I don’t think my father realized the young men were laden with suitcases and stolen goods. Pausing his tinkling of the ivories, he waved and called out, “Good Afternoon Boys!”. We found out later that the American family who rented the small cottage on the same grounds had been robbed.
I have a strong memory of my mother and I walking in rain through the city’s narrow Medieval streets, dodging umbrellas. We were on our way to Scuola di Danza Hamlyn so I could attend my ballet lessons. Having reached the ballet studio, we walked through the spacious square shaped courtyard that led to the front door. Past the front sitting area sat a small receptionist desk in the corner of a corridor that led to the dressing rooms and studios. Photos of dancers lined the corridor wall. Students were not allowed to enter the dance studios on their own. I along with other students stood in front of big closed doors until our teacher arrived and led us into class. My classmates were so friendly to the new American girl! Departing after a ballet lesson they would call out, “Ciao Ciao Erica!”. They were not shy to hold my hand and rub it to make it warm while exclaiming in Italian that my hands felt cold. Scuola di Danza Hamlyn still resides at Via Maggio 7, 50125 Firenze as it did when I was there many years ago. Recently I watched their promo video, and I am surprised how much the school today looks as I remember it did so many years ago!
“Santa Maria! Santa Maria!” , exclaimed my classmate. The hum of a growing audience could be heard emanating from the other side of the closed curtain. Both nervous and excited, ballet students were on stage practicing steps the last few minutes before the curtain would rise. The ballet school’s recital was being held at the Pergola Theatre; a beautiful theatre with a rich history dating back to the year 1656. My class’ dance was structured on a theme of children playing in the park. Girls dressed in fine pretty dresses would not play with the poor girl who (me) was dressed in rags, so she (me) made friends and danced with the nice gardener. The piano’s last notes ran down a scale. At this moment, I waved to the gardener and ran off stage. Following the performance, my brother, who had been sitting in the balcony seats with my mother and father, told me that as I ran off stage (committed to be off stage just in time with the very last note), I barely missed careening into a heavy park bench that was used as scenery. I never was aware of the danger, but he made sure I knew I had narrowly adverted catastrophic disaster. Such are my lasting impressions of dancing at the famous Pergola Theatre.