Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Story Time: Ortona

Or, "The One Where It All Pays Off"

Monday morning I woke up around 8, it's hard to sleep much later with five roosters in the yard ;) I was the only guest and breakfast was ready. Pastries from the local bakery, my first fresh fig from the neighbour's tree, and apricots and peaches also from the trees outside. All that washed down with Italian style espresso coffee. So yummy.

The B&B is owned by a guy named Mario, who is just slightly older than me, and his parents. Now if this were a movie I'd be able to tell you that we fell in love and I stayed in Italy forever. Unfortunately I'm going to spoil the ending and let you know that is not what happened, but I still had a wonderful time. Mario was born and raised in Ortona and his family bought this house in the country when he was a kid. It's only about 10 minutes from the city of Ortona but the bus system is really spotty. When Mario heard why I was there he volunteered to drive me into town since he was going in to run errands anyway.

He did a degree in Sociology focusing on the impacts of the Battle of Ortona on citizens. He interviewed hundreds of seniors that had been young teenagers during the war and recorded their experiences. Because of this he is incredibly well informed regarding the Battle and how it progressed through the countryside. On the way in to town he stopped a few times to show me areas where the Allies had progressed, and specifically the route the Canadians took. This is the kind of information that you wouldn't get from just coming to the area on your own and Mario was full of it. For example in the photo on the right,the line of trees is where the Moro River runs into the Adriatic Sea. The cemetery Melville is buried in is named after that river.

In town he dropped me off first at the Museum of the Battle of Ortona and we made arrangements to meet a few hours later. The museum clerk was wonderful as well. She speaks excellent English and explained what the collection featured and then left me to view it on my own. For a locally run, unfunded museum, it's really impressive. Lots of displays without being over crowded. Also, the narration progresses in a linear format, along a time line, so I was able to follow what was happening leading up to the day Melville was killed.

This room really got me. I use the term "room" loosely. It was really just three oversized photos arranged together with an Italian bible and a cross with Canadian poppies on it in the centre. The images are all casualties and it reminded me again why I was there. Because, even though I never knew him, Melville was a son, brother, and uncle when he died and many people felt the loss. And again, he's just one. One of millions of young men killed in another senseless war.

After viewing all the exhibits I chatted with the clerk a bit and she gave me tips on sights to see around town. She also confirmed that she recognized me because I had "liked" their Facebook page a few days before LOL

After the museum I walked around town finding the things that the museum clerk had pointed out like the churches that were destroyed by the bombings and the one building that wasn't rebuilt. I was by the "Price of Peace" monument when Mario pulled up. We had made plans to meet in a different part of town but he drove by and saw me and stopped. He took me up to Piazza di San Francesco, which was dubbed "Dead Horse Square" by the troops. On the square is the church where the famous "Christmas Dinner in Ortona" took place. Melville was supposed to meet his older brother Cecil there but instead Melville was killed on Christmas Eve :( As it happens Mario was born in a hospital just one street off the square and his dad worked in an office building facing the square for years. It's a small world.

It was HOT that day. Clear blue sky and hot sun so Mario and I stopped in at one of the cafes. We had a frozen coffee concoction. Kind of like a frappuccino that you eat with a spoon. It was very refreshing. After that he gave me the option of staying in town and exploring or coming back to the house and joining his family for lunch. I think I've already communicated how tired I was of cities, even cute little ones like Ortona, so I opted go back with him. It was an excellent decision. There was a refreshing breeze blowing at the house and I took my laptop outside and sat in the shade at a picnic table and uploaded some photos.

Lunch was incredible. I could eat like that every day. We started with a rice based Minestrone and even though it was hot, it was really refreshing. That was served with fresh bread.Next was a platter piled high with just-off-the-vine beefsteak tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and fresh (as in I watched Mario's dad pick it and carry it into the house) basil all drizzled with olive oil and served with paper think prosciutto. As we were finishing lunch the sky got dark and an epic thunderstorm rolled in. Epic as in there was marble sized hail that covered the ground. Mario's friend Michele is staying with them for a month and working and he had to run outside to move his wife's brand new car under cover so it wouldn't get damaged. The rest of us just stood and watched the storm. It was over in less than a half an hour and then the sun came back out but the heat was gone. I spent most of the afternoon just relaxing and uploading photos.

Around 5pm Mario took me down to the Moro River Cemetery to visit Melville's grave. The sky was still really angry looking and the grass was damp but the storm had moved on. I've visited a lot of cemeteries on this trip. During the first two weeks we were at Commonwealth cemeteries daily. In Berlin I went and found my friend Brook's grandfather's grave. And yet, being here, finally, was really special. The cemetery is similar to all the other ones but with Italian influence. I commented to Mario that the marble for the headstones was different (the other cemeteries have concrete stones) and he smiled and pointed to the South East and said "Yes, it's from my mountain" (I guess when you're born and raised in a place you can claim the local mountains ;))

I took my time at the stone and Mario gave me space to just take it in (he also took the above photo of me and emailed it to me later). There is something different about seeing your own last name on a stone, and seeing the date engraved there. December 24th is also my dad's birthday. It wasn't until later when I was signing the guest book that I realized that the day I visited was June 24th which made it exactly 69 years and six months since Melville was killed. In that time, to my knowledge, myself and my uncle Mel, my dad's older brother, who was named after Melville, are the only people who have visited.

There are 1,615 soldiers buried there including 1,375 Canadians. Mostly young men who gave their lives helping to liberate a small town in a country far from home. And now they rest there forever. It's a sobering thought. Mario kept saying that me visiting was a "good thing". It doesn't seem like enough but I'll take his word for it.

After the cemetery we headed into town again and went for a drink at a coffeeshop/bar owned by a friend of his. We hung out for awhile comparing our wildly different lives but bonding over the fact that we both feel a bit disconnected at times. He spends his winters in Africa equipping hospitals in war zones (aka saving the world) and then runs the B&B in the summer. I am on this grand adventure and have been away from "home" since January. We had a lot to talk about. 

We headed back to the house for dinner around 7. Europeans eat late and the Italians are no exception. Dinner was magnificent. Fresh fish (heads still attached) that Mama had purchased from the wharf the day before, stewed veggies, potatoes with basil and more of that fresh bread all washed down with red and white wine. During dinner Mario was having an epic argument over politics with his mother. I didn't understand a word of it (he stopped to translate a little bit so I got the gist of the conversation) but it was hilarious to watch them. Michele was agreeing with Mario, Mama was having none of it and Papa was just observing the whole thing. It was awesome. I just sat back and tried to absorb how fortunate I was to have found these people. After all of my struggles to actually GET to Ortona, and then to be welcomed into their home and included in their family was wonderful. After the meal Mario and Michele invited me to go out for ice cream but I was exhausted from the emotions of the day and declined. There's a "what if" for you ;) If I had gone maybe the story would have ended differently ;)

Tuesday morning I got up, had breakfast and Mario took me to the bus station. As beautiful as the train ride was, it turns out the bus to Rome goes a lot faster. He didn't just drop me off at the station though. He took me in, made sure I got the right ticket and then walked me to the bus I needed to be on. After travelling on my own for so long it's nice to have someone care for you. Then with a "??" (kiss on both cheeks) he as gone. 

So that's the conclusion to that part of my adventure. It really was the climax though. I feel like everything I've been doing in Europe was leading up to being in Ortona. It's a journey that started years ago and the final scene with that cast of characters couldn't have been any more perfect. Of course I had a few days in Rome afterwards but being in Ortona will always be a special memory for me. Thanks for sharing my journey <3 font="" size="4">


Rachel said...

That is a wonderful experience! Very heartwarming and I'm glad you were so well taken care of.

Veronica said...

Awesome story - and what a perfect ending ;)