Summer experiences as a teenager in Italy

The 1970s in Italy were known as the "Years of Lead," because of a series of shootings and assassinations related to the Red Brigades terrorist group. But despite that climate of uncertainty and fear, the 70s were for me a time of exploration and personal growth. I was a visitor there in the summers of my youth, rediscovering the city of my birth, Torino (Turin), and I have fond memories of that period.

I was in my early teens and everything held interest for me. The city was in fact an enormous stage. Torino was, and still is, a place of wide, tree-lined avenues, pedestrian areas, and piazzas set among buildings of typical northern Italian architecture. Early in its history, the Romans came and built up an existing settlement, transforming it into a walled town. It sits on the banks of the Po River that flows down from the nearby Alps, and its location on the fluvial plain offers majestic views of the mountains.

My family would visit my grandfather in the summer. He lived on Via Luca della Robbia, a street of apartment buildings and small businesses that faced onto a small triangular park covered in gravel, with benches and a children's play area. My family would visit him in the summer. He was in his late sixties, a widower, and he shared a home with his sister. The house backed onto a small tool and die factory that rented the space from him. My early memories of that place were of my brothers and me playing in the dusty courtyard that also served as the driveway for the factory. The machines ran pretty much all day, but neither they nor the daily deliveries ever stopped us from a good soccer game with a beach ball.

I visited many relatives, during those summer vacations, in various parts of town. The best way to get around was on the Number 6 tram that started its run from in front of a discount shoe store around the corner. I still remember the smell of new leather wafting around the transit stop. I would usually travel with my parents or with my grandfather. My "nonno" was an elegant dresser who never went anywhere without his Borsalino fedora or a jacket, no matter how warm the weather. He was a dignified man and we all admired him.

The streetcar would roll down Corso Francia to Piazza Statuto and on to the center of town near Piazza Castello. Each trip opened up new experiences for me, as I had grown up outside of the country and wasn't used to the way of life there. Most mornings we'd stop at the market, where under tent-like canopies, we'd catch up on the neighborhood news, surrounded by the smells of fresh produce and the sounds of vendors shouting the specials of the day. My grandfather would tell us stories about many of the people we'd meet and I soaked it all up.

The undercurrents of life in Torino would flow through these trips. The proud locals, known as "Piemontesi," would grumble about the influx of laborers from Southern Italy, drawn to the city by the many manufacturing jobs generated by the auto giant FIAT, whose factories were located in and around the city. These working families from Calabria and Sicily would bring their own traditions and lifestyle to Torino, and the Piemontesi didn't always like it. The city had, for a short period in the 1860s, been the capital of Italy, and the residents clung to a certain collective sense of decorum . They were shocked by the number of migrants who shared apartments in poverty. One story that made the rounds was that some families even filled their bathtubs with soil and apparently tried to grow tomato plants in them, instead of using them for regular washing. I have no idea whether this was true or not, but it left an impression on me, more because I became aware of the divisions between people than the alleged facts of the story.

Torino's downtown, in contrast to some of those large affordable housing developments, is still a place of stately promenades. Fancy storefronts are set back from the street under some of the longest porticoed pedestrian areas in the world. Its coffee houses rival those of Paris or Rome and the espresso and chocolates sold in them are among the best in the world.

But the 1970s in Italy, as we said earlier, were turbulent years. The Red Brigades, a Marxist-Leninist terrorist group, were conducting a bloody campaign to topple the government and force the country to abandon its membership in NATO. Several prominent officials were assassinated. Terrorists kidnapped wealthy industrialists for ransom money. Banks and jewelry stores were also common targets for robberies. As a result, many of these public buildings were turned into fortresses, with bullet-proof windows and guards standing watch with automatic weapons in hand. I was fascinated by police activity on the roads, with officers driving very fast through traffic in their Alfa Romeos, sirens wailing. It was somewhat disconcerting as a young teenager to see all of this, but also somewhat thrilling, to tell the truth.

In my quieter moments, I enjoyed walking the avenues with their large trees, the roads radiating out in Roman fashion from the center of town in all directions. In the autumn, I relished the unique smell of charred leaves, burned when the trolley poles from the streetcars sparked on the wires near the tree branches. The fall also brought out street vendors selling roasted chestnuts, a delicacy in the region.

But the summer brought the most pleasant experiences for me. And while the whole city was fascinating, it was my grandfather's neighborhood that brought it into focus for me. The time with him was special. He was a retired foreman who had worked at a custom vehicle body shop, overseeing the transformation of standard production cars into ambulances, hearses and other special-purpose vehicles. He enjoyed our visits greatly, and would sit at his worn, wooden table in the kitchen, holding on to his glass mug filled with his favorite red Barbera wine; a pose that on that large table sometimes made him look like a shipwrecked sailor who had developed a fond attachment to the lifesaver that kept him above the waves. He would look at us over his rosy cheeks and we would talk about everything.

He was a rotund man with an impish sense of humor and was a joy to be around. At the age of 67, he once joined my brothers and me, suit and all, in a maniacal sprint along more than sixty meters of sidewalk to see who'd make it home first. He was astoundingly fast and I can testify he did not come in last. We might've killed him that day; but he had a source of inner strength that came from somewhere deep and mysterious.

In the mornings, I'd accompany him to buy milk, eggs and a newspaper at the dairy on the corner. I still remember the shop owner vividly; a tall, bald man in his sixties with a dramatic horseshoe-shaped indentation in his forehead that was said to have been caused by a horse or donkey kicking him when he was young. I never found out how accurate that was, because I was far too embarrassed to ask him myself, just as today I would be reluctant to ask someone in a wheelchair what dreadful accident led to their legs being paralyzed. By looking at him, I could certainly believe the story, but I couldn't get my tongue to move.

Just a few doors down from the dairy, people would go in and out of the local bar, a typical Italian place that served coffee of all types in the morning and then started serving alcoholic drinks at around noon. Most nights after dinner, my brothers and I would accompany my grandfather for a stroll and he would buy us gelato and then stay and chat with the barista and the clientele over a "caffe' corretto," coffee bolstered with a shot of cognac or grappa. While he talked, hat on the counter, we'd compete against each other on the pinball machine. Those were magical summer nights. The entire neighborhood seemed to step outside after 9 PM, as adults and children alike descended on the little park. People walked their dogs, children played and couples sat on the benches and talked and talked; sometimes until after midnight. A watermelon concession, set up on one end of the parkette, lit up with fluorescent lights, offered lawn chairs and attracted customers until the early hours of the morning.

I remember sitting at the window of my grandfather's house watching the girls come and go, stealing furtive glances at them and they at me in a kind of unspoken game. I had a particular crush on a tall girl with black hair, who used to walk up and down in a short dress and high-heeled sandals, always in the company of friends, joking and laughing. She was a bit awkward, too. Flat-footed, she walked with a slight limp because for some reason one leg was shorter than the other, but that never seemed to bother her. We had a connection going, and she warmed my young heart. Then, one night, I felt my feelings plunge into my stomach like dishwater going down the kitchen drain as I watched her stretch her long legs and straddle the back of a green Kawasaki, wrap her arms around the waist of a twenty-something guy from across town, who then powered away to somewhere or something far more exciting.

My Torino is tied to that neighborhood and that period of my life. As I grew older, I learned and appreciated other aspects of the city and its people. Over time, I changed and the city changed; but in my mind the memories of that corner of Torino, at that particular time, won't.

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