“O sole mio sta ‘nfronte a te…” Mario’ s light tenor voice rings out with desperate longing while singing the old Neapolitan song. We are sitting on the front steps of our house in the gathering dusk, looking for the first stars to make their appearance in the sky above the row of poplars closer to the road. There is a smell of freshly mowed grass, and when the gentle breeze stirs the leaves a little, one can even smell a faint whiff of cow dung coming from the cow sheds. Guiseppe sits one step above us. Like Mario he wears a snow-white short-sleeved vest and long khaki trousers with brown army boots, and he softly sings along. I know the words of most of their songs and when I sing along they smile, look at each other and say “Che bella voce, you be opera singer one day.”
I am curious. “Opera singer? What does an opera singer do?”
“Ah, seeng, of course, and make a lotsa money!”
Mario can scarcely comprehend that anyone in the world does not know what an opera singer is, even if it is an inquisitive seven-year-old girl with long brown plaits on the southern tip of Africa, many miles away from his beloved Bologna. In his quaint English he tells me of the marvels of opera and I listen, enraptured. Could it be that there is a place, far from here, in the wonderful country called Italy where they come from, where you can enthral people with your singing and also make a living from it? My father often reads to us aloud from the Bible about earning your bread by the sweat of your brow, and here Mario tells this incongruous tale of earning a living just by dressing in beautiful clothes and singing on stage. Mario is a great story teller and perhaps this is just one of the stories he tells to amuse me.
By the time Mario sings “La donna é mobile” from Rigoletto, Guiseppe gets up to help my mother prepare supper in the kitchen. He ducks under the strings of laboriously handmade pasta on lines stretching the length of our big kitchen, before he carefully gathers some of it for the big pot of boiling water on the stove. Our Italians do not think much of our local pasta and rather make their own, no matter how much time it takes.
My mother, wearing one of her embroidered aprons, stands in front of the Ellis de Luxe coal stove from where she supervises the kitchen activities. Guiseppe also regularly kneads the dough for the three loaves of brown bread that we need every day, while my mother stands next to him with a white cloth in her hand with which she occasionally dabs the perspiration from his forehead and face. We are all longing for soft white bread, but there is a war raging somewhere, far away, and it is prohibited to use white flour and to eat white bread, so we have to be content with brown bread.
Soon the entire family – my parents, three big brothers, my elder sister, Mario, Guiseppe and I – sit around the big oak table with the golden glow of the oil lamp overhead. From where I sit between my parents I smell the divine aroma rising from the freshly baked bread, the herby pasta sauce and the salad, glistening with the oily dressing that the Italians prefer, even though they bemoan the fact that real olive oil is not available. I can hardly wait for my father to say grace. We all close our eyes, father thanks God for what we are about to receive, the Italians cross themselves and, as one big family, we start our evening meal.
“Our Italians” were prisoners of war. They were captured in Somalia and Abyssinia during the Second World War and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp at Zonderwater near Pretoria. My father owned a small dairy at Largo on the edge of the East Rand, and needed to expand the cow sheds and cooling rooms, so he applied for permission to employ some of the prisoners of war from Zonderwater. And that is how Mario and Guiseppe and, after them, Rafaello, Antonio and Peppino became part of our lives and an important part of my youthful thinking and future development.
Gentle Mario was my favourite among the Italians. I liked the way he always sang while working. Singing came to him as naturally as breathing. He had a gentleness about him that matched his soft-grained voice. His brown eyes were rather sad, even though he often smiled showing even white teeth in a healthy sun-tanned face.
Guiseppe was taller, more cynical and sported an Errol Flynn moustache below his elegant Roman nose. Homesick for his hometown of Mantua, he was disgusted by the never-ending war and in broken English told us how San Pietro is waiting for all the world leaders to condemn them to inferno. Teasingly, my father asked him but what about his own leader, Mussolini? Whereupon he became agitated: “Especially Mussolini! Inferno! Inferno! And he will have to walk with no shoes over very sharp nails to get there. Me, Guiseppe Corti, will stand there next to San Pietro to see that it happens.” With an expression of extreme pain on his face he demonstrated on tiptoe how he hoped this mighty leader of his nation would one day suffer.
My father tried to calm him by asking what would happen when he reached the Pearly Gates. Guiseppe’s expression softened: “Ah, mister Deysel, avanti in Paradiso” and with a sweeping gesture of his long arms he swept away all imaginary obstacles on the road to Paradise. My father was thrilled to hear that according to Oracle Guiseppe he would go straight to Paradise. We all laughed and tried to forget that there was a war raging thousands of miles away.
In the mornings Mario would take me, on the frame of our bicycle, to school some distance away and collect me again in the afternoons. Along the way he would tell me opera stories and talk longingly about his wife and baby. At home he showed us photographs of his moglie e bambino, his beautiful young wife and fat baby boy. When the time came for Mario and Guiseppe to return to camp after their allotted time with us, I was in tears. The stables and cooling rooms that they built were like monuments that reminded me of the magical time that they stayed with us.
The other men, Rafaello, Antonio and Peppino, who followed in their footsteps, did not make the same impression on me. After the war we received a few letters and postcards from Italy, but it stopped after a while. Little did Mario know that, with his stories of opera and through listening to their beautiful language and songs, a seed had been planted in my mind that would bear fruit in a wonderful way later in my life.
You can buy Magriet’s book FROM LARGO TO LARMENIER by emailing her here.