As the plane made its approach to land at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport, my thoughts turned to 55 years ago, when my parents immigrated to the United States. We had lived in the small town of Popoli (population 4,500), about 100 kilometers east of Rome, whose recorded history goes back to the 1100s. Work was scarce, so my father, after spending some time working in the Moselle region of France as a coal miner, and then in East Africa working for a British construction firm, decided to come to the land of opportunity like many others before him, in order to better his family’s life.
He settled on Buffalo as his destination due to the abundance of work in the nearby steel mills of Lackawanna, where he spent the rest of his working days as a rigger, helping to unload pig iron ingots from the lake freighters that navigated to the Union Ship Canal.
I was 11 years old at the time and had just started sixth grade when permission was received for our departure.
So, after renting a car, my wife and I were eager to begin our trip to the place of my birth. I had spent the last few months reading books written in Italian, regretting not having had the foresight to retain a more-than-basic knowledge of my native tongue.
Our first surprise as we checked in to the hotel was that my cousin Bruna’s son, Marco, was the manager there. We were given the best accommodations available, as well as a table in the restaurant, always reserved for all of our meals.
We arose late the next morning, still feeling the effects of the time change. As we exited the elevator in the lobby, the young lady at the reception desk bade us good morning and told me that there was a gentleman who had been waiting for us for quite a while. He walked over, shook my hand and asked in Italian: “Franco, do you remember who I am?”
Try as I might, I could not make a connection. After a few moments, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a black-and-white photo taken in 1954 showing four young boys arm in arm skipping along the pavement. In a split second I recognized who one of them was and said, “Achille!”
We embraced, and then I introduced my wife. He then proceeded to tell, in a very agitated state, a story that brought tears to my eyes. At this point my wife, who doesn’t speak Italian, became upset after seeing the receptionist also wiping tears from her eyes. My wife followed me into the dining room and asked if everything was all right. As I composed myself I told her the story that Achille had just told me.
He said that on the day my family left for America, he ran as fast as he could to the town bus stop where our journey began, but only got there in time to see my mother and I getting on the bus. It pulled away before he was able to say goodbye. He always thought about that day, and the reason he waited this morning at our hotel was that he wanted to be the first person to welcome me back to Popoli. At this point, my wife also started to cry.
Achille also arranged for those boys in that picture, along with their wives, a luncheon at the local trattoria. The next few days were spent walking arm in arm, catching up on our lives. We decided to make this reunion a yearly event. It was evident that the passage of time had not dampened in any way a friendship that began long time ago.