Sarnano Stories: Leaving

Sometimes, the continent in which you will sleep tonight can be decided during the final boarding call at the airport.

People in backlight leaving at the airport
People in backlight at the airport. Photo: Artur Tumasjan on Unsplash.

The airline ticket had him leaving Rome in thirty days. He was impatient and uncomfortable thinking about it, flying over the Western Ocean to North America. First he had to pack and repack, decide which shoes and jackets to take, defrost the refrigerator, put his pastore abruzzese in a friendly kennel and clean the apartment in the hill top village where he lived. Then two buses, the airport and a flight to Canada with a connection in the Netherlands. If he was awake he could watch a movie he had probably seen before. By the time he landed he was going to be exhausted. There was no way around it, it was eight hours by bus from Sarnano to Fiumicino, eleven more to the customs queue in Montreal. He disliked airports, the sandwiches and drinks that were overpriced, the fixed seats with dividers which did not allow a person to rest.

He flew economy among tourists, businessmen, students, the occasional cleric and unaccompanied minor, travel agency tours. In the window seat of a wide body jet with 300 strangers he would be offered a computer selected choice of Chicken or Pasta for dinner. A brownie for desert, choice of cheap wine in a plastic bottle, the better to save the environment at 900 kilometers an hour and 10,000 meters above the earth.

An expat in Italy is a permanent visitor with a residency permit, out of place in two countries, allegiance split by territory, language and customs. Sarnano lives in  medieval clock tower time, North America is aboard the USS Enterprise, full throttle at warp speed with sound bites measured in seconds on the face of a cell phone, latest model. The new world aged and died faster, children grown and away, houses sold and torn down, cities reconstituted like potato flakes, every half century. The centro storico remained the same, small cars replacing donkeys tied to iron hooks and rings embedded in the brick walls. The gates were no longer closed and guarded when night fell.

There were other expats in Sarnano, some shortly arrived or resident for many years. Those with family occasionally returned to America, but the intervals increased and people lost touch as lives diverged. The connections weakened. Relatives who visited Italy paused for a day or two at the small town in the shadow of the mountains on the way to the excitements of Tuscany, Venice, the Amalfi coast.

You left America because it was frightening, disappointing, changed. The “best by” date had passed and the product was discounted. Relationships soured, friendships were given and sold away, abandoned or for cause. Maybe the collapse of a marriage or career. His faults, his excuses. Nearly every man is blended fiction, a fraud and failure to himself. He wondered where his country was headed; communities broken, suburbs that swallowed pastureland, the need for a new car, a bigger house. Starbucks and Second Cup faced each other, next to fast food chains with meals delivered frozen, ready to serve piping hot on styrofoam.

Leaving your country is a wandering search for a summer rainbow, clarity after confusion. Yet you never really say goodbye. Nation shapes the clay, offers a passport and creates identity in a padded photo album on a coffee table. It was the barbershop where you got a first haircut, eye glasses which allowed you to see single bricks in the building across the street, received clothes and toys, saw movies on Saturday afternoons with tall cowboys and six guns, square jawed men wearing white hats, vanquishing bad guys and Indians, heard rock and roll on the jukebox and shared a milkshake. Your mind holds vignetted photographs of neighborhoods, weed grown lots, running the bases on a baseball diamond in a chilly spring day, the elevator to top floor offices, expensive carpeted hallways, windows that could not be opened. The images are distorted below the rippled surface of a bubbling stream. You vacation in the Caribbean and return to snow, boasting of sophistication, net worth with a platinum mastercard. You still have your subway pass and high school yearbook, a trophy for team sports. Home is where love and anger come from; poisons full strength or diluted by decades. The country taught patriotism, exceptionalism, the virtue of charity with a tax receipt. He no longer understood America, what it was, what it had done to him.

He thought about soldiers coming back from Vietnam on a Pan American 707, heading back to the world wearing bloody fatigues, the stain of war in their eyes. Home was safe. You are not supposed to be afraid of shadows or hunted in the night. The white hats of childhood were gone. Fear was a companion that would stay close.

Before he left Sarnano, he packed gifts for those that knew him beyond hello. Olive oil, decent bottles of rosso piceno wine, cheese that carried the scent of hills and the flavor of a warm sun. To Italy he would bring syrup from maple trees in Vermont, a handful of earth from a grave, bark from her favorite tree. There were things to do in Canada and the US. Make a will, sell belongings, give away books and art, say goodbye. Most of the currency in his wallet was euros and memory. Only the bills could be exchanged at the kiosk.

When he got off the bus at the airport outside Rome his gate was closed and he waited to order a cappuccino at the cafe, sat where he could see check-in, the security entrance and the emptiness that only an airport speaks. The Air Canada personnel came to their stations after a few hours and he presented his passport and ticket, checked his seabag and saw it move away on the conveyor.

The flight was delayed due to weather and mechanical issues, hours watching the electronic display boards. He said hello to the airport priest, made a small donation and was blessed. A person can spend too much time in an airport. It reminds you of life’s unequal gifts, the success of retail and the supremacy of technology, putting yourself into fiberglass trays scanned for chemicals and weapons. There is little grace in an airport. Travelers are transformed into cargo, row and seat numbers, tray in the upright position for takeoff, consumers of duty free liquor with a credit card.

He saw Chinese tourists shepherded by guides, Americans with “bite me” t-shirts  and too many suitcases, looking at screens for instant translations, Africans with film wrapped trunks. English couples wear the expired smiles of empire, expecting Italians to speak the language of Shakespeare. Reading the menu in the restaurant and drinking acqua frizzante from a paper cup, he thought about the purpose of his trip, what would be gained, lost, or considered a draw.

An airport terminal is the world. Everyone has a ticket. There are families and couples, saints and sinners. Some have flights into different time zones and continents. He was round trip. The airlines don’t like one ways. A person with a return will book again; repeat customers qualify for points, the honey trap. Planes land and the travelers scatter along highways and country roads.

Destinations and arrivals become abbreviations on flashing signs. He watched the parade of luggage carts and passengers and questioned his need to board the airbus. The first step to walking away; a feeling, not a decision. That takes longer. If the plane was not delayed the doubt is ignored. Instead, you think about leg room, whether the headset works, the person sitting next to you.

He decided not to return to America. Leaving could wait, anxiety as well. He listened to the “This Is The Final Boarding Call Flight 403 For Montreal,” swung his backpack onto his shoulder, found the buses that advertised Macerata and Civitanova stations and bought a ticket from the driver, position 14, twenty three euros, a window seat with free wifi and a view. The apartment will be clean. He would get a pizza and beer at Marino’s and sleep until the sun and the song of birds woke him. He made a note to renew his Permesso at the post office.

Italy was home, to begin a journey or stay into the future, as long as forever might be. He thought of the lyrics to a song written 100 years ago, “tomorrow is made for some, tomorrow may never come, for all we know.” He smiled, happy to climb the stairs onto l’autobus, looking forward to Sarnano’s peace.