The beautiful images of the desert in the "English Patient" looked
alive, bathed in the wonderful colors of the sunset. I had seen those
colors; I had lived in Tripoli.|
It started when I was six years old. My father had decided to move the family to Lybia, and so there we were in Tripoli in 1936.
Mussolini wanted to show that the new Roman civilization would absorb Lybia into Italy. Il Duce wanted Tripoli to be an elitist city, at the avant-guarde in architecture, agriculture, and education.
Tripoli was the White City, as the buildings were all washed in white. We lived in the building of the Banco di Roma, across from the government building.
The architecture in the city was a mixture of Arabic and Romanesque. Portals protected people from the sun during their walks. I still remember the shops under the portal of my building. The West corner was all occupied by the majesty of the bank. Moving East, there was a shoe shop, a bookshop, a barbershop, and the last one was the deli shop or "salumeria."
Life was easy; my father was a doctor well-paid by the Italian government and able to maintain a productive private practice in pediatrics. He was making good money and was a content man. The only problem he created for himself was the sense that his children did not measure up to Il Duce's expectations. He wanted his children to be cultured, articulate, well versed in music, elegant, and self-confident.
At that time, he had six children; three girls and three boys. I followed the three girls; I was the first male in the family. I was told that my arrival was greeted with a great deal of pride and joy. Finally, my father could show that, "he had blood in his veins." He had been bothered by previous remarks after the second daughter, "you must have water in your veins." A son was a son; daughters were girls.
The first four children were close in age, being born in rapid succession; the other ones were spread out as if my parents needed some perspective in order to decide to have more progeny.
I felt that after having had me they did not want more children. But mistakes were made, I thought. On the other hand, I remember my father wanting to have another child to meet the requirements of "la famiglia numerosa." To be considered a large family with tax breaks and bonuses, the number of children had to be seven. Thus, when my sister Flora was born, it was not a mistake, but a good investment. When later on, my youngest brother was born, I did not have a way of explaining it. I decided that my father was getting senile.
My father invested in his first four children the enthusiasms and ambitions which were to dissipate later on for the last four. He wanted to give the best to them. He ordered books by the hundreds, and the four children dutifully read and enjoyed them. They discussed among themselves the plots, characters, settings, endings; each of the children had their favorites.
A piano teacher would come home everyday. Unfortunately, I was dismissed after a few weeks in which I seemed to make progress. I remember la signorina praising my fingers which could spread beautifully over the keys. I think that I offended her, when, "innocently" I asked her if she could have children and laughed at her embarrassment. She said to my father that I was not learning and it was not worthwhile for her to continue giving me piano lessons. For the first time I was excluded from activities which, until then, had been shared by the first four. My father was angry at me and it was then that he started calling me "moron."
Around that time, while dining, my father started talking about Ida Galatti. She was one of his patients. He described her as adorable, verbal, secure, filled with the social graces we were lacking. Shirley Temple in Tripoli.
It is true that I was sitting opposite my father, but, certainly, he used to look at me with intensity as if his words were directed particularly at me. He used to say, "When I ask her, 'What is your name?' she answers with no hesitancy, looking into my eyes, 'Ida Galatti!'" My father would continue, "She conveys to me, in this simple interaction, the quality that I would like you to aspire to and achieve." And as often as everyday, we had to listen to, "What is your name?" "Ida Galatti!" The eyes of my father would brighten, his voice would imitate her voice and accent (she was from Bologna). He would look at me with some contempt in his face and make me feel like a real moron.
Who was this Ida Galatti? How could she have seduced my father to such an extent that he would turn against his children, especially me who was supposed to be the heir of whatever of significance that existed in the family. How could he do that? OK, she was beautiful and smart, wearing nice clean clothes and moving around as if she were dancing. Her voice must be music; and so what? I counted too!
OK, I could be rough, stupid and shy, lacking the elegant touch, with a cracking voice, no good in music, eating too much----but after all, I was his first son, the one who validated him as a man with blood in his veins. What the heck was happening? Oh, how much I hated Ida Galatti!
During the days I would think of her, making fun of her, undressing her, spanking her, peeing on her, putting my finger in her little ass, stuffing food in her cherry-lipped mouth, making her fat and ugly. She had become my obsession. In my private moments, I would practice her accent in spite of a nauseating feeling emerging from inside and making me sick and tired. I had to develop a style to be noticed and praised by my father. I had to do it.
One afternoon, my father asked me to accompany him to the barber shop; we both needed a haircut and my mother wanted to make sure that I was going to get one. She told father to take me along.
The barber was working on my father; I was sitting along the opposite wall waiting for my turn. I could see my father in the mirror facing him. Suddenly, I saw his face illuminated by a wide smile. He jumped out of the chair with the towel around his neck. Quickly he moved out of the shop. Astonished, I saw the barber looking out with the scissors in his hands. He was smiling too. I looked out just when my father was reentering the shop, holding a little girl by the hand. Who was she? The face looked stupid, betraying her discomfort. My father continued to smile at her. He took a coin from his pocket and held it in his raised hand. He asked, "What is your name?" While stretching her arm to reach the coin she answered, "Ida Galatti." She failed to get the coin; my father was laughing benevolently. He lowered his arm and again asked, "What is your name?" "Ida Galatti" she answered triumphantly as she secured the coin in her hands. My father bent down to kiss her on the cheek; she rushed happy to her mother waiting outside.
Before sitting, my father looked at me with a look on his face that said, "Do you see how good she is?" I looked at him, my face expressing puzzlement, disappointment, anger, hurt, indignation, and contempt. That little monkey had been the source of my despair. I felt relieved. How could my father dare to compare us with her? I could not understand or forgive him. I continued to look at my father in the mirror, my face conveying my feelings with intensity, which got to him. He became serious and uncomfortable. My look had penetrated him and probably made him feel like a fool.
In the evening, my father invited me to join him and my mother at a movie. He took us to the new movie house--the Miramar. It was in the open, with the section close to the screen having director chairs gathered around small tables. A waiter brought us pastry and lemonade.
I was still angry at my father, barely touching the pastry in spite of his encouragements, "Try this, it is very good." "Not now, thank you." Without realizing, I was impersonating the sophisticated person of my recent fantasies. My attention was on the singing of Diana Durbin, who was more fun than Shirley Temple. Poor Shirley, she had been contaminated by my associating her with Ida Galatti.
The following evening, I went out with my father and mother. A horse carriage took us along the coast. My father allowed me to sit by the driver, who gave me the reins. I drove the horse with no excitement, feeling that I was doing a favor to the grownups.The barber shop look was still on my face whenever I would gaze upon my father.
For a week, I was the companion of my parents in their evening activities.Their friends started commenting about me. "He's a little gentleman," the ladies would say when I greeted them with the appropriate bow. I would hear a lady saying to my mother, "He is so handsome, look at those bedroom eyes." Compliments about me abounded and, yet, I continued to give the look to my father who seemed to be appreciative of all of us and did not mention Ida Galatti anymore.
My sisters had noticed the attentions of my father toward me.They were happy for me, and made me feel that I was lucky having my father finally discover how talented I was.They made me feel that I had a good thing going for me, and that I should enjoy the attentions of my father. I started to feel happy about my fortunes, and the prestige bestowed upon me. I started to smile at my father, and soon I developed an eager, greedy look toward him. My look was telling him "Please, take me out with you tonight. Please, let's have fun together. Please, please."
That look brought about my demise. As we were dining, my father looked at me and slowly said, "moron!" I knew that he had regained his balance; I was finished.