I don’t remember a thing about what we did in eighth grade World Geography, but I remember our teacher, Col. Harry Harvey, sitting on his desk, neatly parted dark hair, fierce eyebrows over a creased and deeply tanned face, swinging his legs, telling us about flying over New Guinea. As he spoke, it was pretty clear he was somewhere in the past flying that plane. The Colonel told us a lot of travel stories that year, and I loved every one of them.

I joined the AFS (American Field Service) club, sponsored by another of my social studies teachers. AFS’s mission is to foster international understanding and the club’s principal activity was running the exchange program for high school students to spend a year or a summer in another country, and for students from other countries to spend a school year in the US. There were some field trips to international events in our area, a Saturday listening to Indian music, watching traditional dance, and eating fragrant Indian food. (All of it was much spicier than anything found in our Irish-inflected household.) After some effort to convince my parents, and deciding that I didn’t want to be in another country for my entire senior year, I applied to be an exchange student for the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. There was an application and an interview or two, and then the wait.

Over several months, I nervously awaited the results of my application, alternating between the excitement of being able to go to another country, and fear of leaving everything I knew. I was accepted and assigned to go to Italy. I was not sure how I felt about that. I’d been studying French for several years, and knew no Italian at all. My parents would have to deliver me to New York for our ship’s departure. We were going to Europe on a cruise ship! My parents had been to Bermuda on a cruise, but I never imagined so glamorous a method of travel. I put things in my suitcase and took them out many times. The family agonized over what gift I should take my Italian family. (We settled on New York maple syrup.)

The SS Waterman in its heyday

Ours was the final year that AFS summer students went to Europe by ship, the SS Waterman[1]—I remember looking over it from the shore, and it seemed huge. A week later when we’d been wedged on board for a while, it seemed pretty small. I remember that my boyfriend came along to my bon voyage, but I didn’t really plan to miss him, and was anxious to be gone.

Lower bunk, Cheryl; Upper bunk, ?;
Standing, me. (Photo: L. Riggall)

The Waterman wasn’t really a cruise ship, more a transport vessel. Four of us shared a tiny cabin. Three were going to Italy. I was from New York, Cheryl from Minnesota, and the roommate whose name we forget was also from the midwest. Lynda, from California, was going all the way to Tehran—her small group had the most exotic destination. The voyage was slow, we took ten days to cross from New York to Amsterdam. Though we didn’t see it as sea-sickness, we didn’t feel very much like eating, and the food was not very good, so we stockpiled apples and oranges in our cabin’s miniscule sink, and spent our time doing homework, writing letters, reading, talking and talking.

Ronni as a Middle Easterner;
I dressed as a waiter (Photo: L. Riggall)

Every day we had language and culture lessons in the morning, activities in the afternoon and after dinner, like the costume party. Evening groups often formed around the students who traveled with their guitars. We compared notes about school, friends, family, hometowns, destination country, even what our host family said in the one introductory letter we had each received. Most of us had not traveled much, and we were hoping for the trip of a lifetime.

Lynda left us in Amsterdam. Her group flew onward, while the 23 of us going to Italy got on an overnight train to Milan with our two Italian counselors, learning to load our luggage through the windows. We crossed the Alps during breakfast. Looking out the window of the dining car scented with café au lait and croissants, I was as happy as humanly possible. There were dark green valleys, villages of white houses with red tile roofs, or maybe half-timbers. We pulled in to Milan and I got off to meet my family. A counselor shook hands with the father on the dim platform and said something to him.

“What did you say to him?” I shouted over the noise of the train station.

“I told him you were the best student in our language class!” She smiled and stepped back up the stairs to the train, waving as it pulled out.

The Fontanellas were Antonio and his wife (name now forgotten). Antonio was slight, with worried eyes, a kind smile, and a big mustache. Mamma was a proper Italian lady who knew what should be done in all situations. She never left the house without being perfectly dressed, and had her hair done every week. Lucia was a year older than I, planning to go to university, and Carla two years younger than I [2]. Raffaello was the spoiled younger brother according to both girls. Only Lucia spoke some English. I carried my tiny dictionary everywhere, and tried to catch on to what people said. Humans have the ability to forget what is not convenient, and I, too, have forgotten any problems we may have had from my inability to speak much Italian for the first couple of weeks. I remember wishing I could go out with friends my own age, and I wished we were allowed to go out with boys. Mamma and Papa had  forbidden dating to all of us, not just me.

Apartment building on a quiet street in Piacenza

Some of the summer we spent in the family home in Piacenza, a city about an hour’s drive south of Milan. The Fontanellas lived in a spacious apartment. What most surprised me were the marble floors. I had only seen marble in statues and museums, not in a private home. There was a small balcony off the kitchen with basil and oregano in window boxes, and a storage space/winecellar in the basement with drying salamis hanging from a beam in the roof. We went out grocery shopping, to the bakery, and went for walks. We talked. Every day at noon, Papa returned home for a formal lunch. The entire family had a pasta course, main course, salad, and then coffee. The adults drank wine, and we were served wine mixed with bottled water. Papa napped then returned to fabbrica (factory) making plastic containers that he owned with his brother. On some Sundays, the entire family dressed up and went out to lunch at the Albergo Nazionale just a few blocks away. Papa and Mamma were well known, and conversed with the waiters about what was good, what was new, and made recommendations to us kids.

I wanted to visit Florence because it was famous. When I broached the subject it was dismissed.

“We have no family there.” That was that.

There was family in Genoa, an aunt and uncle, so we took a very long and arduous drive through the mountains to get there. The aunt was an immense woman with a smothering hug, and she was a wonderful cook. She took us to the markets near the docks where the streets are barely wide enough to walk. She bought fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables that we helped carry home. She cooked one delicious meal after another. We went for a drive along the beach. The trip home seemed easier, and faster.

In July, the family moved to the country, where they owned a share in an ancient estate, Gozzoli. Each family owned a small house, but also received a share from the surrounding vineyards of Trebbiano grapes. The cases of wine were stored beneath the salami in the family’s storage area on the ground floor of their apartment building. Gozzoli was rustic. It had indoor plumbing, but was a lot like camping out inside a stone tower.

There was only one thing to do, walk in the country. Every day, the girls and I, and sometimes Raffaello, were sent on a walk, up the hills past the vines, along the ridge overlooking our tiny cluster of buildings, past a few fields of grazing cows, the occasional farmer or field hand. We’d often stop to sit in the shade and continue talking, surrounded by brilliant blue sky, the earthy smell of the fields, the dry spiciness of the uncultivated margins, staring at the road and the powdery white dust on our shoes.  A big turning point in my language skills was when I managed to have a conversation with my Italian sisters about the Vietnam War while sitting under the trees on the hillside. We had to be home in time for lunch, or before dark, but there weren’t a lot of rules, probably because there wasn’t a lot going on. There were other families around, but none with children our age, or if they were, we all went on the walks together.

There was delicious food at Gozzoli. Mamma did most of the cooking, but there was a truly ancient woman, the wife of the caretaker, who also cooked. I recall her being really old, but I have no idea of her real age. She dressed in a long skirt, blouse, sweater, sensible shoes, and a headscarf, all usually covered with an apron. Outside her door was the biggest rosemary bush I’d ever seen. She cooked over an open fire—I was staggered to think about doing this every day when I remembered campfire cooking on family camping trips. On the days she cooked traditional dishes for us the downstairs kitchen was as hot as a furnace, but the frittata was the best in the world. There really was nothing to do but read, walk, talk, and let our minds wander. We made up games, talked about things I was barely able to articulate, and wished we were somewhere more exciting. I got letters from home, wrote some back, and took some photos. When I got home, I painted a view of Gozzoli from a photo taken that summer on a biggish canvas. Though it seemed 3 x 4 feet in size, it was probably 24 x 30″. It hung at home for a long time, then somehow went to my Aunt Phyllis, who had admired it. (She had a generous spirit.)

Rimini wasn’t quite like this in 1968
(Internet photo)

Ferragosto is August in Italy, when everyone takes the same two weeks of vacation. Our family went to Rimini, staying in a pensione, a family oriented hotel that provided full board. We swam and sunned on the beach, sometimes stopping at a little bar for an aperitivo before returning to the pensione for lunch. The adults’ drinks came in small glasses with a tiny saucer on the top holding a couple of olives and a few potato sticks. There was no table service, the adults stood and sipped while chatting with others at the bar. After lunch there was a mandatory rest period. We kids were restless, but I wrote my postcards home, read books, and talked some more. There was a minor family meltdown when I was invited by a nice young man we’d met on the beach to a dance in the evening. We were allowed to speak to boys during the day under the watchful eye of Mamma, but not to go out. I was bitterly disappointed. Later, from our bedroom window, we could hear the music playing at the dance.

We drove south to visit to the large shrine of the Virgin of Loreto in Ancona. The view out over the Adriatic from the shrine was spectacular. We had to dress nicely for the visit to the Virgin. so there was no stop for swimming despite the gorgeous water. According to the website for the shrine, the Virgen of Loreto is the patron saint of airline passengers. She has certainly looked out for me over the years since my visit.

Another day we drove north, to Ravenna, to visit the Byzantine mosaic churches, the most sublime religious depictions I know of. I was overawed by the detail, the colors of the mosaics, the craftsmanship. Solemn-faced kings and saints stood in a long procession down the nave, showing off the vivid colors of their mosaics fifteen centuries after they were installed. The mystery and majesty of Ravenna is still unmatched by anywhere I’ve ever been.

We returned to the beach, then home to Piacenza. I was sent on one last field trip, this time by myself. I don’t recall why I went alone, but I got coaching on how to blend in. I put on my Italian dress, and took a copy of the local newspaper and set off with the goal of looking Italian in order to avoid notice. Taking the train to Milan for the day was a big adventure, my first time anywhere in Italy by myself. I started with Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, at Santa Maria delle Grazie, on the wall of a long rectangular room in what was a chapel, a refectory, or a future mausoleum. Visiting long before the controversial cleaning in the 1990s, the room was gloomy and the painting was made mysterious by the darkened colors and somber setting.

I climbed to the roof of the Duomo and stood amidst the spires looking out at the city. Before heading back to the train, I strolled the high-ceilinged shopping arcades, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, stopping at the windows of antique books, fine leather handbags, and fashionable clothing, eating a typical (but to an American, tiny) ice cream cone. I blended right in feeling like a spy or undercover agent, roaming freely in another country with no one the wiser, and only a few skirmishes with men making comments. Back on the train with my newspaper, I returned safely incognito to Piacenza before dark, inordinately proud of myself.

The last few weeks included shopping for gifts to take home, carefully coached by Mamma, field trips to local sights, ending with tearful goodbyes. I boarded another train, both sad at leaving and delighted to meet up with the friends from the SS Waterman who’d been all over Italy. Rather than heading for home, we went to far southern Italy for a group debriefing. I looked forward to seeing more of the country. Despite my enthusiasm, I remember little of the group get together in Potenza other than the heat and the pale dusty colors of the town under the hot, late-summer sun.

I was set to envy the wild antics of the others, and listened avidly to tales of walking the seashore in Sardinia, fresh peaches and yogurt for breakfast, and families with both daughters and sons that made it possible to mingle with teenagers of both sexes, go to dances, on dates. We sang along with the Italian pop songs of the moment, starting to look forward to going home. An overnight train hauled us back to Paris for our flight. We were all settled on the plane full of AFS students heading back to the US, when who comes down the rows but Lynda, back from Iran! She shared the huge bag of pistachios she’d brought, perhaps a going-away gift. In retrospect, it was good we enjoyed some of them on the plane, as the rest were confiscated when she went through customs in the US.

“They showed me the little bugs,” she admitted ruefully. We exchanged addresses and promised to stay in touch. We have been friends ever since.

I was glad to be home, and full of stories of my summer. It was senior year and time for college applications. International travel was set aside.


[1] The SS Waterman was decommissioned/scrapped in 1970.

[2]  I have a diary of my stay in Italy buried somewhere in our storage unit. When I find it, I will update Mamma Fontanella. With apologies, I never thought I’d forget any of their names.