Ok. I’m back! I had promised myself to keep this blog going, but right after I started it, I had a distraction that descended on me like thick gravy on rice. Travis got a sudden month-long TDY to Italy (for those not indoctrinated with AF acronyms, this stands for “Temporary Duty Yonder”). And for those indoctrinated with AF acronyms, you understand these types of TDYs don’t come around too often.
About 6 months ago he was selected for an intensive language program with the Air Force for Italian, usually involving 5 am skype lessons several days a week and the vague and ambiguous prospect of eventually having an immersion experience, and most likely at a school in California. But this trip came down suddenly and very unexpected. “Can you be in Siena, Italy in 2 days?!”, literally was the way it came through. I immediately started scheming up ways that I could hop on that one, only to eventually discover that he would be living with an Italian family who made no such provisions for pesky dependents along for the ride. Not gonna lie, I was a little worried that he would have some hot Italian mama who wore Prada and stilettos around the house, spoiled him with her sensational cooking, and would make it dern near impossible for me to compete when he eventually returned home. Thankfully, this was not the case, but his family was actually 3 women: Marcella, a semi-retired teacher, her 97 year old mother and Elena, the Romanian housekeeper.
Clearly, there was no room for me in this plan, but nonetheless, I found a way anyway. With my bestie Natasha in Budapest (just a short flight from Italy), and a cheaper flight to Budapest from Singapore, which I was miraculously able to make it to via a Space-Available flight, the stars aligned and I was able to tweak my grand scheme to have the ultimate European palette cleanser. Or palette indulger, I should say! I spent about 2.5 weeks in Budapest, including weekend trips to Prague and Vienna. I only get to see Natasha about once or twice a year, so the surprise “Naticakes” time was a huge blessing. Natasha had to work during the week, so I explored Budapest mostly on my own, hitting up every museum and attraction. I’m especially proud of the fact that I know more about Hungarian history now that I will probably ever find useful!
Later I met up with Travis in Siena. While he finished his program and continued to live with Marcella, I rented a bedroom from Karina, a lovely woman in town who was extremely hospitable and actually taught me a little language. Though her origins were originally Polish, her amazing cooking proved to be 100% Italian. Though I tried not to interfere with Travis being “immersed”, being in separate households felt like we were dating again in a romantic town 🙂
After Trav finished his school and passed his harrowing full-day final exam (which required a near perfect score to stay in his program), we had just a few days left in Italy and celebrated by taking off for Venice and Verona. In between cities, we took a subtle and serendipitous detour to visit a little town with no tourists at all, few who speak English, and no tall buildings. This was Monticello Conte Otto, Travis’ hometown between kindergarten and third grade. Travis’ family lived there at a time when his dad was stationed at a nearby Army base which no longer exists, and it had been about 22 years since Travis had been there.
In the years I’ve known Travis, I’ve heard so many stories of this place. The little town where they were the only Americans. The pizza place where they would eat every week. The school where Travis got in trouble for kicking out Maestro Paolo’s car tail-light after he took away Travis’ dart gun (can we say Air Force brat?). The house with a nearby field where Travis and his sister Kelly once ran away from home. His best friend Alessio Scambi who introduced him to speedos.
After settling into the only hotel in town, we set out to find Travis’ kindergarten, or “Asilo”, where he would use as a base to find the pizza place and his house. After walking around for a bit, we discovered it was actually right up the street from the hotel! I served as photographer, documenting Travis holding onto the fence, looking into the playground as dusk set in, and trying to remember the place. But I could tell by his bewildered expression that something was off. It was different in his memory and the place almost unrecognizable. But he was sure it was the correct Asilo, so we carried on.
Later we found the pizza place. I think Travis had this grandiose vision that he would walk in to find the same man who used to shovel the pizzas into the brick oven, get to pop the bubbles from the dough the minute it comes out, and then be able to sit down and savor the tastes of yesteryear. But the place was different. There weren’t any tables to sit down; it was take-out only. The menu looked different. And there were a couple of young dudes behind the counter who told us that the original place was a few doors down but had sold many years ago. Disappointed, we didn’t even stay for pizza. We wandered around town that night, taking pictures of random things, getting plenty of stares from curious locals, confused as to why a couple of American tourists had landed in Monticello, and all the while Travis trying to educe relics from his childhood. Fun as it was, the bewildering let-downs made Travis feel as though some of the magic of his Italian past had vanished. They were memories that can no longer be relived.
“Things have changed a bit,” was pretty much all that Travis said about the disappointment, but I couldn’t help but over-analyze and get a little philosophical on what all of this means. It was a reminder that we have to squeeze every ounce of goodness out of every place where we go because we probably won’t have the chance to do it again.
I lived in central Arkansas until I was 26, and the first time I really felt this bittersweet feeling was when I left to take a job overseas. I remember eating pizza out of a box in the floor of my house with my mom and girlfriends after disseminating my worldly possessions to my friends and family. I knew in my gut that if I ever moved back, things would feel different. I felt it again when I left Oman after living there for 8 months. Happy as I was to be getting married and moving on to a sweeter life, I realized that I would never again be returning under those circumstances and with those friends– some of whom were serendipitously located in this random place at the same time that I was. I would no longer be having afternoon runs or hikes with them in the mountains, or spend weekends on the beach at the Oman Dive Center. No more enchanting desert days, or shisha and sangria at the Shangri La with friends and colleagues after a long and hard work week. It was a time and place that could never again be recreated.
Then I felt it again when I returned to Little Rock, and discovered that so many things had changed in just 2 short years. Friend dynamics were different. Some friends had moved away. Some family had moved away. The band had broken up! Some businesses had closed. Others were open. We actually had a lottery! I drove by my old house and it was no longer mine. Okay, maybe with the exception of Ed and Kay’s Restaurant down in Benton (which somehow seems to be forever frozen in time: same food, same pies, same waitresses who never seem to age, same hairstyles, and same Kay at the cash register–all exactly as I remember it as a small child), even things in slow Arkansas are constantly in motion.
Now I find myself in Japan, which I missed more than I realized I would when I was away. After encountering too many grumpy non-smiling service people in Hungary, or standing too close to hot-blooded Italians who don’t queue well, I was thrilled to return to the land of kindness and courtesy. I experienced the joy and mystery all over again when you purchase something, have a smiling lady earnestly wrap it up for you, tape up the bag, and then come out from the counter to politely hand it to you with a smile, a bow, and a highly-pitched arigato gozaimaaaaaas!
Our time in Japan is a new era with new friends and new memories. I don’t want to ever take this time for granted, or any place we end up in our 3 year Air Force stints, because I’m reminded that this time and place, and with these people, can never again be recreated. For the people who really hate it here and hate living on the base, they should realize that some of the children here are bound to return one day just to try to relive some of the memories of their childhood. Instead of always looking ahead at the next location to live, the next job, the next project around the corner, let’s enjoy today; what we have now. Because tomorrow, chances are, it won’t be the same!
I can’t help but recall the lyrics of an old Forester Sisters song that used to make me teary eyed when I was about 14:
We will not pass this way again
So let us take our time
And think of where our hearts have been
And those we’ve left behind
We will not sing these songs again
So let us sing them slow
And think of where these songs have been
And where they’ve left to go
We will not hold these hands again
Or stare into these eyes
So let us know that we were friends
With no good reason why
And now for a less-sappy, more cheerful ending to this story… after being disappointed in Monticello, the next day, Travis and I discovered that we had actually visited the wrong Asilo and the wrong pizza place! The haze of 22-year old memories had led us to the wrong streets, and his neighborhood places that we were searching for were all on the other side of town. We found the correct Asilo, and it looked very much the same, but with newer cars in the parking lot. We also found the correct pizza place, and though it looked the same, the old man wasn’t there, and they weren’t serving pizza at lunch. Again, it wasn’t the grand experience that Travis had envisioned, but at least there was some gratification in knowing the place still existed. We got Trav’s old address from his mom and found his old house which turned out to be beautifully landscaped and very well-kept. The old man who lived there was the same old man who rented the house to Trav’s family back in the day, and happened to be outside at the time. He lit up when he realized who Travis was, fondly remembering the Pattons, and insisted that we come inside and poke around. Finally, something that was pretty much the same way that Travis had remembered! Overwhelmed with nostalgia, Travis took a mischievous slide down the banister in the same style that he did when he was 5. He asked the old man about his best friend Alessio Scambi who lived behind them. The old man confirmed that the Scambis still lived there, but Alessio had moved away, started a family…and was making new memories in a new time and place.