Like all boys growing up in Rome during the 1930s and 1940s, the author was expected to join the Balilla—Italy's fascist Youth Organization. With political divisions running deep in the families within his palazzo, he and his motley group of friends were recruited into the underground Resistance. Racing around Rome on bicycles, they smuggled messages and weapons for the partisans. Later, the author fled to the Italian countryside and narrowly avoided German mop-up operations—despite being sold out by his most trusted of friends. But this is much more than a war story. Lyrical in language, rich in sentimentality, and possessing the magic of a classic Fellini film, Romagnoli's memoir is a charmingly told tale of the search for manhood and the bonds of family and friendship.
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About the Author
G. FRANCO ROMAGNOLI cohosted the first American television program on Italian cooking, The Romagnolis' Table, for which he coauthored two very successful companion books. He taught seminars on Italian culture and cuisine at Boston University and wrote several books and articles on Italian culture, including Italy, the Romagnoli Way (with Gwen Romagnoli) and A Thousand Bells at Noon: A Roman Reveals the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City. The author passed away in December 2008.
G. FRANCO ROMAGNOLI cohosted the first American television program on Italian cooking, The Romagnolis’ Table, for which he coauthored two very successful companion books. He taught seminars on Italian culture and cuisine at Boston University and wrote several books and articles on Italian culture, including Italy, the Romagnoli Way (with Gwen Romagnoli) and A Thousand Bells at Noon: A Roman Reveals the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City. The author passed away in December 2008.
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The Bicycle Runner
A Memoir of Love, Loyalty, and the Italian Resistance
By G. Franco Romagnol
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 G. Franco Romagnol
All rights reserved.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1939, VICTOR Emmanuel III, of the House of Savoy, Sovereign of Italy, King of Albania, Emperor of Ethiopia, was sixty-nine years old and five feet tall. In that same summer, I was almost five feet tall myself and in a few months, fourteen. I do not know what Victor's aspirations were then, but for me the most cherished one was that I would soon stop wearing short pants. After our family returned to Rome, the family tailor would turn my older brother's knickerbockers inside out and refit them for me. I could stand the wait until then because even if I had received the almost new pair of almost long pants right away, I would not have worn them. These were the last few days of summer vacation at Cattolica, and the only thing I was going to wear, I had promised myself, was il mio slip, my scant triangular bathing suit.
Cattolica was a small fishing village on the Adriatic coast, a quiet family place, with a few hotels and guesthouses open only for the summer. A few miles to the north was Riccione, and a few miles again was Rimini; both bigger, fancier, and more expensive places than Cattolica. They were also the favorite summer resorts of the Mussolini family, and as such they attracted big shots and fashionable, moneyed people. Each mile south toward Cattolica marked a descent in status and affluence. We came to Cattolica simply because in his boyhood my father had summered here, long before vacationing on the Adriatic had become fashionable.
My mother, younger sister, older brother, and I — escorted by my father — had arrived in the middle of June to take possession of the fisherman's house we always rented for the season. During our vacation, my father would shuttle back and forth every weekend between us and Rome, sometimes staying with us for a full week. He described the four-hour train trips as the price he had to pay for the joy of being a temporary bachelor "on the loose" in the sweltering city. My mother did not seem to appreciate the whispered jokes about summer bachelors and summer widows that provoked such hilarity within their circle of friends, and I certainly didn't make much sense out of them.
Someone might say that at almost fourteen I should have known better, but I didn't. Nobody had felt it necessary — or perhaps, considering my childlike appearance, appropriate — to explain to me the facts of life. My knowledge of these arcane facts was patched together from secretive confabulations with kids my age or gleaned from hearsay and imagination. Actually I am grateful, now, that my parents did not diagram for me the exact workings of the nuts and bolts of the construction of life. The way we figured it out, my friends and I, lying in the shade of an overturned boat during the day or on the cooling sands of a summer night, it was much more complex and fantastic than reality. Even though I was close to adolescence, the hormonal awakening had not corrupted my feelings for the opposite sex. I had been in absolutely platonic love many times already, making up adventurous fantasies in which I played all the heroic parts. Rescue and unrewarded sacrifice were essential elements of these dramas, with the real heroines of the day — teachers, schoolmates, comely maids, sisters of friends — absolutely unaware of the amazing ordeals I dreamt up for them.
My major preoccupation that summer was being almost fourteen and looking more like ten. It weighed heavily on me. How could anyone, friend or foe, let alone a girl, take me seriously? And yet in a year I had grown half an inch: there was hope. For my propensity to swing from everything swingable I had earned the nickname Scimmietta, Little Monkey. Now I had graduated to a new one: Selvaggetto, Little Savage. It wasn't much better, nonetheless I had been promoted from the animal kingdom to the human race. "Savage" I could take, but that "Little" hurt.
Probably it was an appropriate nickname. Amid the clean-cut, scrubbed, and well-behaved middle-class group of vacationers, I must have stood out as a miniature, scrawny Tarzan.
In the Italy of 1939, conforming to fads and fashions was of primary political importance, and striving for status was an essential task. Consequently, lower civil servants, small merchants, and minor professional people simply had to do the right thing and send their families on a vacation, whether they could afford it or not. Vacations provided a big stage on which to show off, compare ranks, act out hopeless aspirations.
Costuming for the play was all-important. The wardrobe was incomplete without pre- and after-swim outfits, morning and afternoon clothes, and appropriate dress for the passeggiata, that crowning event of a vacation day. Before or after dinner, people would stroll up and down the main street in their best garb, or sit at a café to sip a coffee or have an ice cream, watching and being watched, estimating and judging each other's deceptions. At any time, but especially for the ritual of the passeggiata, the children were meant to be the family's showpieces. Walking fashion plates, they had to embody the family's affluence and good taste, its status, education, and manners, and they had better meet this responsibility. The passeggiata was the downfall of many a child's nervous system.
It was of mine.
Perfect demeanor was rewarded by an ice cream, or soft drink or pastry — your choice but same price — but let there be any melting, dribbling, or other soiling of the immaculate wardrobe, and the rewards would be withdrawn for days. In my childhood years, I was a virtuoso ice cream dribbler, a master white-sailor-suit spoiler. More than once, when denied my own ice cream, I managed to run head-on into another white-sailor-suited, ice-cream-licking innocent and make a mess of both of us.
But this summer was going to be different. When we first arrived, I made my pronunciamento. I would wear only, and always, my bathing suit. Not surprisingly, I found an ally in my father. "Let him," he told my objecting mother. "It's his last chance. He will grow up —"
"To be a savage," she cut him short. "You are going back to Rome and I'll be left here to deal with a savage. What a figure I'll cut!"
An otherwise intelligent, pragmatic person, my mother was a fanatic follower of fashion's dogmas, of the accepted dos and don'ts of the moment. My looks upset her even more than my behavior. A few days of total exposure to the sun had turned me into a brown pygmy, and seawater and sand, along with the inexplicable loss of my comb, had transformed my hair into a veritable fright wig. I was decidedly skinny or, as Mamma despairingly defined me, undernourished. What she meant was unfashionable. Proper children from proper families had to be plump, rosy, and constantly combed.
On this last item, to tell the truth, Mamma had given up on me. That spring I had begun my fight against wearing hats, or plastering my hair with brilliantine, or molding it under a hairnet at night, the common practice of the day for unruly hair. Mamma had retained the upper hand, however, in our battle by reproving me constantly for my unsightly coiffure. So I came up with a solution worthy of a Solomon: I simply took a pair of scissors, cut my brilliantined hair, wrapped it neatly in the hairnet, and presented it to her.
"There!" I declared. "Now it will keep combed forever." Victory! I had, however, wildly underestimated my parents' reaction. To win one freedom, I lost another. I was confined at home and kept out of sight — the family idiot! — until my hair grew to a reasonable length and its shortness could no longer suggest that lice (oh, how low-class!) had attacked. For the duration of my house arrest, my mother, following her principle of immediate justice, had added a few physical bruises to the moral ones. My father did not speak to me or even acknowledge my presence, the most hurting punishment.
I do not mean to suggest that my parents did not love me. They loved me very much, and I them. The pity of it all was that my attempts to rise to their level of beauty, intelligence, and self-assurance so often ended in disaster. Many times in the darkness of a despairing night, once the emotional hot flame had cooled, I reached the conclusion that I was not part of the family at all, that they had just found me abandoned in some garbage heap and, out of the generosity of their hearts, taken me in and brought me up as one of their own. When I tried to compare myself with them, it was a disaster, great enough to uphold my theory.
There was my mother. A tall, Junoesque beauty, always fired by unmasked feelings, attractive with the knowledge of being so ...
There was my father. Tall, handsome, athletic, elegant in thought and manners ...
There was Marco. Two and a half years my senior, six feet tall, with the looks of a Greek god (Adonis, I had heard him called by the whispering girls on the beach — and I hoped it was a dirty word), an A-plus student, a champion at sports ...
There was Anna. Three years my junior and almost as tall as I, as graceful as a reed, Nilotic in her beauty, a charmer, constantly charming, the doll of the beach ...
And there was me.
I had been generously allowed to be part of the group but had been unable to show my gratitude and love with some practical action that would please them, like getting plump, keeping combed, or just simply growing up.
These morose attacks of self-pity did not last long, nor did they, fortunately, depress me seriously. The world would soon see my worth. In a few months I would be fourteen, things would change.
For the moment there wasn't much to do but let the days go by, enjoy the childish games on the beach, and wait.
Waiting was the trademark of that summer. Waiting was in the air. Everybody seemed to be waiting for something to happen, or not to happen. There was a lot of uneasy talk among the grown-ups about England and Munich, Germany and Poland. These names had been popping up throughout the summer in the one o'clock radio newscasts, and the official announcer mentioned them with the same excitement and high spirits as if he had been talking of an upcoming World Cup soccer game. Except that the official voice seemed to know already which one was the winning team. There had been more and more martial songs on the radio, along with words and phrases such as "Vindication," and "Third Invincible Reich," "Marching Ahead Toward Ineluctable Destinies," and "Inalienable Rights."
Even the carefree atmosphere under the beach umbrellas had been marred. Sooner or later the ladies' conversations would switch from fashions, needlepoint, and general gossip to international affairs. My mother, not a political person, had more trouble than most adjusting to the new situation. Even with Signora Paoli, her most simpatico of summer friends, my mother's peal of laughter sounded forced and hollow when politics came up. Signora Paoli was the wife of the Fascist prefect of the city of Piacenza and its province. Signor Paoli was a balding, round man, a family man. The mid-1920s had found him a jovial wine merchant of reasonable wealth, and circumstances had brought him slowly into the Fascist political arena and then to prominence. Since his last weekend visit, Signora Paoli apparently understood it to be her duty to fire sarcastic broadsides at the Polish, French, and English military. In accordance with the propaganda party line, she made bold — especially for a lady — allusions to these soldiers' sexual inadequacies, and my mother felt it her duty to laugh. She knew very well that my father did not approve of party lines, especially the boastful, blustering kind, but she was afraid that sooner or later he would say something out of order in the Paolis' presence and get into trouble. To balance this possibility, she went along with the jokes. After all, simpatico is one thing, political foolhardiness another. Then too Signora Paoli had been most cordial, kind, and friendly, and all without the least condescension, quite unusual for a person of her status. Even if the Paolis were not huge stars in the Italian political firmament, here in Cattolica they glittered.
I had become friendly with the Paolis' son, Vincenzo. A few months older than I, for his age he was a giant, but not terribly imaginative or bright. I soon found out that the relationship had definite advantages. In Vincenzo's company, minor mischief was overlooked. When we bought snacks from an obsequious beach vendor, for ten cents we got twenty-five cents' worth of goodies. Caught drilling peepholes in the girls' dressing cabanas, we got only a bland reprimand from the cabanas' attendant, instead of the standard beating. Besides, my holes were too low for a rewarding view, Vincenzo's too high to do me any good.
Signora Paoli looked benevolently on our association. She was pleased, she confided to my mother, to see Vincenzo act like a boy his age and not like a polentone — a dull, big blob of polenta. To conform to the official mold, a Fascist boy had to be strong, courageous, a smart aleck and a bully. And a winner. Slow, oversize, dumb polentoni — or undersize, losing ones, mezzecartucce (half-loaded cartridges) — were scorned as anti-Fascist and un-Italian. For boys, the official template was Balilla, a Genoese street urchin who in 1746 threw a stone at an occupying Austrian soldier, yelling "Enough is enough!" His defiant, accurate pitch was the example that fired up a popular revolt, and freed Genoa from Austrian domination. The Opera Nazionale Balilla (the Fascist youth organization) was named after him, and every young member belonging to it was called a Balilla.
Vincenzo and I, together, made one Balilla. I had the daring and speed, he the muscle. With that kind of teamwork, we could pick and choose our membership in any of the gangs on the beach and could commit, unpunished, all sorts of minor sins. We stayed away from the major ones, the premier of these being "bad language," a sin not tolerated and, as we had been warned, punishable by death, it being vulgar and inappropriate to our age and station in life; it was much preferable to be caught committing murder than to be heard saying dirty words.
Soon the temptation to commit major sin arose. Vincenzo had been informed — by an expert on the Orient, he assured me — that we could use the most foul language under our parents' noses and get away with it. There was, the informant said, a most revolting, brutally dirty, blasting Chinese curse so terrible that not even Chinese people would dare to verbalize it; they could only express it in sign language. Make a V with the index and middle fingers of your left hand and stick your nose through it: the Chinese curse to end all curses. Yes, it deserved to be put to the test.
Among the peddlers who plied the beach was a diminutive, nattily attired, most gentle middle-aged Chinese man. How he got to Cattolica — or even more amazing, how he made a living out of his trade — was a mystery. He carried strapped around his neck a mahogany box with brass fixtures and an incredible number of small drawers, all full of costume jewelry for the ladies and wooden puzzles for the children; festooned around the box were ties for the gentlemen. Sometimes he trailed behind him, high in the sky, Chinese kites in the forms of eagles or dragons, and sometimes he would let us, just for a moment, hold the string. He sold very little but, constantly smiling, did not seem to mind spending hours showing off his merchandise and describing it in a most broken Italian. We liked him and he us. He just happened to be the perfect foil for testing our rebellious, dirty-language, antiparents scheme.
Vincenzo convinced me I should try it first. He could not; considering his father's position and the Chinese's nationality, he could have started an international incident.
Excerpted from The Bicycle Runner by G. Franco Romagnol. Copyright © 2009 G. Franco Romagnol. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: OF MEMORIALS AND MEMORIES,
1. A BIRTHDAY,
2. THE BEST OF ENEMIES,
3. BOOK AND RIFLE,
4. ZIA ELENA,
5. DON GIRÒ,
6. THE CRAZY MAIONESE MAKER,
7. A FOUNTAIN OF ROME,
9. ROMA, OPEN CITY,
11. TO CAMP,
13. COLONEL JIM,
15. SOME PEOPLE ARE LUCKY,
16. "I WOULD HAVE MUCH PREFERRED ...",
17. THE PARTNERSHIP,
18. THE DEAD ARE DEAD,
19. SMILE! CLICK!,