I was 18 years old, an Italian citizen in Italy, and yet a refugee from communist China. My Italian father, dying of heart failure, had been born in China and this was his first visit to Italy. My Chinese mother had never even dreamed she would ever leave her country. Fresh off the ship with no money and nowhere to live, we were shuttled off to Catania, Sicily and placed in a school that was half buried in rubble. As you might imagine, my novel Journey from Shanghai was fueled by this period of our lives.
There was my sister Maria, 11 years older, and the only one of us who was able to assess our situation and plan a course of action. She isn’t here anymore, but we sometimes shared a laugh over this particular episode:
A cub reporter by name of Totuccio Biondi interviewed us on arrival and returned the next day to ask me out. Hoping for a meal not consisting of bread and tomatoes I consented with alacrity. Totuccio then took me walking, and walking, and walking. He pointed out the imperial palace, damaged by Allied bombing, the interior of the opera house designed by Bellini and sumptuous in crimson velvet drapery, and next he walked us past the movie theater whose marquee advertised “The Yanks are Coming” starring Steve Cochran. All the while, the volcano Mt. Etna fumed over our heads.
By now I was faint from hunger and at last he did buy me an ice cream though not for himself. Our date over, Totuccio delivered me to the broken gates of the camp.
Next day I went out to draw water from the communal pump, and a Sicilian woman, one of entire families who lived in the camp, pointed at me and called me a putana.
She was joined by another woman who shook her head and told me I should be ashamed.
All was explained later by a third woman who told me I should not have gone out alone, unchaperoned, with a man. This lady had lived in Naples, in the NORTH, and understood that foreigners could be ignorant of Sicilian custom.
A few months later, after we had found an apartment in Rome, I received a letter from Totuccio. He addressed me as his fidanzata (fiancee). That figured. He knew the rules, I hadn’t, and the sly little skunk asked me out regardless. He never did come to Rome to claim his bride.