Winding down my European adventure after two years by visiting Rome for the 1960 Olympics – then recovering with a taste of village Life in the hills of Abruzzo .
Via Borelli, Roma. September 1960
Dear Mum and Dad,
Well, I have finally made it to Rome after our jaunt around southern Europe – just in time to watch some of the Olympic Games.
Rome is terrifically crowded as you can imagine. We arrived at the Olympic Stadium just in time for the afternoon programme of the athletics, including the final of the 100 metres and the high jump.
The stadium was built in the 1930s and adapted for the games. It is where the opening and closing ceremonies and the athletics are held and is in a lovely setting at the foot of the wooded slopes of Mount Mario. – It has been a perfect day if a little hot, and it is so good to finally be here.
There are lots of venues for the different sports categories scattered throughout Rome. The Italian Forum complex is nearby where there are two swimming pools and tennis courts usually used for the Italian open – the Flaminio Stadium and the Olympic Village were built especially for the games. I hear that Australia is doing quite well according to the number of medals won, though our swimming so far isn’t quite up to the same standard as the Melbourne games.
A tremendous amount has been done to improve Rome for the Olympics — roads and bridges built, and all very modern. Even so the city is packed. We drove down the famous via Veneto at one o’clock the other night and every cafe was fully occupied — inside and out! It was a very gay sight, with people from every corner of the globe.
I am staying at the moment with an aunt of Peppino’s, her son who is a major in the Italian army and his wife and two very lively young sons — five and three years old respectively in their apartment..
They are a very kind and pleasant family, and the temptation to stay home instead of seeing more of the Olympics has been strong, so I have been taking it all quietly over the last couple of days. This is no doubt a natural reaction to the intense travelling I’ve been doing.
At last some mail has arrived from you! I was getting quite anxious. There has been terrible confusion with the post. I had written to the bank asking them to forward mail and money here, and had to write a second time, and here it is, about eight letters all up — three letters from you, mummy, and a very newsy one from you Leonie — how your writing has improved!
I was hoping to also have news from Lourdes to see if I will go there for a couple of weeks to help with the pilgrims, as I make my way down to Spain -my last major destination before returning to Australia.
We have been able to continue to see a bit more of the games than planned, as it became possible to buy tickets for about 15/- just before each performance with standing room only. Tickets for the athletics that I had purchased in Rome had provided us with wonderful seats, but it was also quite worthwhile buying the cheaper tickets now.
It was really exciting to be there on the last afternoon when all the finals were on, though somehow I never managed to be present when the Australians won a gold medals.
However, I certainly saw Dave Powers run a wonderful race in the 10,000 metres, which lasted for nearly half an hour, round and round the track. He was always amongst the first four runners and finally won a bronze medal by finishing third. It was very tense and exciting and I am not sure who was most exhausted at the end, him or me!
Everyone has been talking about Herb Eliott who made history by running a brilliant race and breaking the record in the 1500 metres. A young Ethiopian also received a lot of attention by winning the marathon running barefoot! He became the first black African champion. One thing that really impressed me was how gracefully the black American athletes run.
The horse riding events were held in another beautiful location in the Piazza de Siena, which is within the famous Villa Borghese Gardens with the Pincio Hill in the background.
We accessed it from the Spanish steps at the top of Via Veneto. I loved watching all the beautiful horses and I nearly went there again on the day that the Aussies won most equestrian events outright, so I was furious on hearing the final results, to think that I had missed seeing how it all finished!
You have no doubt heard all about it. Bill Roycroft had fallen in the cross-country race, was concussed and broke a collarbone, but he quickly let himself out of hospital and, with his arm in a sling, rode in the final high jump, won it and as a result our team’s combined effort gave Gold to Australia. He is the talk of the games — what a hero!
I take back what I said about the swimming. I now hear that Murray Rose has done it again and won gold in the 1500m. They are calling him the world’s greatest swimmer ever! and young Dawn Fraser did well too.
We managed to get tickets for Sunday, which was the last day, and what a day it was!
The final horse events were held in the early part of the afternoon, though no Australians were riding this time– they had already done their bit already!
It was a beautiful evening, and at 6:30 PM, just as the sun was beginning to set behind the hills, the final closing ceremony began.
This was really something to remember — flag bearers of every nation were present and the stadium was absolutely packed with cheering people as each national team went by in the parade waving their colours. There was such an atmosphere of happiness and informality in the air. The Italian flag was ceremonially lowered and the flag of China where the next games will be held in four years time was raised.
There were speeches made and anthems sung, and at the point when the Olympic flame was extinguished, when it was almost dark, and almost as if an invisible signal had been given, the crowd quite spontaneously began to light torches made up of screwed up pieces of newspaper, programmes, and anything that they could lay their hands on that would create a flame.
It was almost dark now and suddenly the whole stadium was lit up! – It was a very moving sight and quite an emotional experience. — Such a feeling of excitement and celebration — suddenly everyone began talking and laughing with everyone else around them, stumbling from one language to another. It was as if for one brief moment we were blessed with the chance of feeling what it could be like to live in a united world!!
That night at midnight, there were fireworks from every one the Seven Hills of Rome encircling the city.
Every car in the city seemed to be out searching for the best spot to see the display, and you can imagine the traffic jams. The miracle is, that with all the wild driving for which the Italians are reputed, there is very rarely an accident.
After the display there was a magnificent blaze on one of the hills, and as the wind came up it seemed as if the whole of Rome would end up in smoke, but it turned out to be nothing more than a lot of leaves and debris that had caught alight and it was soon under control.
With the holiday over, the next day Peppino returned home to Chieti — a town about 100 miles from here on the Adriatic coast, and I found a room to stay in for a few days not far from where the Meneghini family lived. Up until now, while Peppe was there I had stayed in their home. They had all been very kind, especially Gheta, the daughter-in-law, and I have been having dinner with them each evening since.
I happened to mention one day the strange craving I have sometimes for peanut butter -I don’t know where it comes from because I didn’t ever eat it that much at home.
The next day on the dining table appeared a jar of peanut butter, (and also a pat of butter, which Italians really eat). It is almost unknown in Italy, but she had gone to the trouble of finding it in a supermarket.
Yesterday I had fun taking the two little boys for a walk — they are really wild little devils, who have spent the last three months in the mountains, and who nearly go mad locked up all day in a flat in the city.
You were asking Mummy when the Oriana would arrive in Sydney. The date is 30 December — disappointing that I am missing Christmas again. I heard that there was a possibility of
flying home from Perth to Sydney for the same price once we arrived there, but then discovered that this was only offered to first-class passengers. Pity!
I will send this letter off now. I am sorry that you too have also had the anxiety of not getting mail from me. The Bank had always been very helpful up till now, so I guess we can’t complain too much.
I loved hearing that you have all had a good holiday together, especially while Leonie was home from boarding school, and that dad was enjoying a cruise up to Hayman Island.
You certainly made the most of your time in Melbourne — not just one, but two trips to the theatre. I would love to see Porgy and Bess — there are great songs in it. — And I’m relieved to hear that you met Frank’s new girlfriend and like her. He’s been having a very hard time of it lately, by the sound of things.
It’s ages since I have had news of aunty Glad and uncle Fred, and I’m sorry that it had to be Uncle’s broken arm that brought them to Wagga. – cant imagine him trying to control an auction with his arm in a sling! I do hope it is mending well. — please give them both my love.
And of course I send lots of love to all of you too.
23rd of September 1960.
Just after my last letter, I received a telephone call from Peppino from the above address inviting me to spend a few days at his family home, so here I am on the other side of central Italy near the Adriatic coast about 200 km north-east of Rome in the Abruzzo region, — it took only four hours by train to cross from one side of the country to the other!
I have been here for a week now, and it’s really about time I made a move, but it has been so pleasant that I hate the idea of organizing myself to get on the road again.
The train brought me to Chieti which is the capital of the province of Chieti in the region of Abruzzo, where the family live for the greater part of the year.
It is a pleasant, prosperous city built on the Pescara River with a mountain range in the background, and only a few kilometers from the Adriatic coast, where there are long stretches of beach.
There are lots of archaeological excavations going on here connected to the university, indicating a very ancient past, and I might get a chance to explore museums and Gothic churches — (there is a big one!) — before I leave, but right now, as you see I am up in the hills in the tiny little village of Rapino about 15 miles from Chieti, having a wonderfully restful and enjoyable time away from big city distractions.
Peppino’s family always escape the summer heat here in their old family country house where it is cool and peaceful, and go down to the coast for shopping and swimming when they need to.
The family consists of “Papa”- the patriarch, whom I address as Avvocato, is 72 years old, a – he is a semi-retired lawyer with a legal practice in town with another son, a lawyer, and there are three daughters, all married with two or three children each and all living nearby, and of course the second son Peppino who will probably be joining the law firm now that he has graduated.
Then there is “Mamma” who is really the head of the family, as most Italian women are, especially when they get to be grandmothers. The Signora is 67 and could pass easily for 57 — a lovely looking worn an — very strong and warm at the same time.
The climate up here is cool and pleasant, and on a clear day one can also see the sea in the distance.
There are children and grandchildren coming and going the whole time. One day the table is set for six, another day for 15. They are an affectionate lot and wonderfully hospitable.
The Signora seems to produce enormous meals with a minimum of effort, and sometimes I almost come to fear mealtimes as no one ever takes me seriously when I say that I have had enough, thank you, and then heap on extra serve.
The weight increase is beginning to show but I’m not worrying — I am feeling much better as a result of the country air and exercise and a succession of delicious home-cooked meals.
The village and surrounds are populated almost entirely by the contadini — we would translate this word as ‘peasants’, but in fact it means country folk — and there are just a few little shops including a pharmacy, which is owned by Peppino’s cousin, Maria Grazia.
Everyone in the area has their tiny bit of land, with a few sheep and pigs, an ass and some poultry, and of course few fruit and olive trees and a good supply of vegies growing – especially tomatoes .
Today I saw one woman tugging a donkey loaded on either side with a basket of grapes, while balanced on top of her head was a container holding the week’s washing!
My presence in town is a new source of gossip for them, where everyone likes to know what everyone else is doing, and they tend to look at me as if I have come from the moon.
Foreigners are a rarity in these parts.
The family has some property here but it is going to rack and ruin for want of labourers — they have nearly all emigrated. However, there are plenty of well-loaded fruit trees, and my exercise lately has been climbing up the fig trees and picking the fruit. Today we were busy putting a lot of the figs out to dry, once having gotten rid of the ants.
It is interesting to hear all the tip bits of history and some of the people stories.
This house has been in the family for several centuries. It was shelled during the war and the Germans lived in it for a while.
The war front remained here for 10 months towards the end, according to Allied propaganda, because their troops had to cross and capture the great river Moro.
I got to see it the other day — this big River — it was not as wide as Yerong Creek and was twice as dry!
Last night we all went to a delightful concert this into the songs of Tosti — or to give him his full title — Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti. The occasion was to honour him because his remains have been brought back to the village where he was born-he died in Rome in 1916. He was a composer songwriter and for some years, the singing master to the Royal family in England, and had become world-famous in the early part of the century. His friend, Edward VII had knighted him and all of the great singers of the time sang his lovely romantics songs, apparently including our Dame Nellie Melba.
I had vaguely heard of the name Tosti and I immediately recognised several of the songs once I heard the melody, so I’m certain that you will have known them too, and no doubt remember his name. Everyone was enthusiastically humming along, especially to the songs from a collection he wrote called the Canti Populari Abruzzi.
There was an old fellow in front of us who beat time to every note, and after a while out came a handkerchief, and finally he had to go out of the hall before it was finished, as he was so upset. They are the sentimental lot!
The other day, we visited a monastery up in the mountains where there is a secondary school seminary. It is a tradition among the peasant families that they send one of their sons to the seminary — usually the eldest — at the age of about 11 or 12 – so that they can get a free education.
Many of them become priests without any real vocation and a lot of them come out early. Those who make it there become priests and are then able to help provide an education for their younger brothers, as they are now usually well off by comparison to their families at home. – I have gradually become aware of the tremendous amount of land that is owned by the Church all over Italy, as well as religious buildings and apartments.
However, to get back to the monastery, we were there because there were two families depositing their little boys there that day. It was to be their first day at boarding school. The scene of parting was so tragic that the Signora and Antoinetta, her eldest daughter were in tears as well, so, this time it was we who had to leave the scene in a hurry!
I don’t have a set date to leave for Spain yet, and I hope to find news from you when I get back to Rome, so I will get this edition of ‘tales from the countryside’ into the post when we are in town in the morning.
Lots of love
Fifth October, 1960.
Dear Mum and Dad,
Here I am still at the same address — I think the family have given up wondering when I am going to leave, and are now more or less accustomed to having me around.
I have been having a really happy time here, appreciating feeling almost part of an extended family and being very aware that this is quite a rare thing to experience – quite a privilege, in fact – and a rare change from being a tourist or just one more foreign student.
There is no one around here speaking English so this has pushed me to improving my ability to express myself in Italian more fluently, even though I make endless grammatical errors and often have to search around for the right words — and I guess this means that I am communicating much less self-consciously.
I had a very exciting moment the other morning when I woke up and recollected a dream in which I had spoken in Italian!
That was a big moment! It felt like a real breakthrough.
Speaking of sleeping, I haven’t told you the wonderful way they have here of a warming up each bed before settling in for the night — up here near the mountains the nights are already starting to get colder.
First, a light wooden box- shaped frame about a foot high is placed between the sheets, and then a bed warmer-a large copper pan with a lid and a long handle is filled with hot coals from the open fire or the stove, carried up to the bedroom and slipped inside the frame.
After about half an hour, when you have cleaned your teeth and put on your pyjamas and said goodnight to everyone, the pan and frame are removed and you slip under the blankets and just let the gentle warmth seep into your bones and send you off to sleep! It is the most luxurious experience, and I’m going to find it hard to ever going back to using the hot water bottle.
The weather has been delightful — plenty of sunshine and only an occasional spot of rain, so I have spent a fair bit of time out in the open, still picking figs and going for walks exploring the countryside, and also visiting some of the nearby towns and villages.
I have been keeping an eye out for some new clothes, which I badly need , especially an overcoat. My old blue one has become very shabby – been meaning to replace it ever since I arrived in Europe and that’s almost 2 years ago! I didn’t have to look far — the Signora had bought herself a new one at a sale last winter and found that it didn’t suit her. It is charcoal grey, very simply cut and a lovely quality and it had cost her about £13, and offered it to me for eight pounds if I liked it. I did, so took it to a tailor who did a few little alterations beautifully for 30 shillings, and we are now both very happy with the arrangement.
Italian tailors are very skilled and there is a great range of beautiful fabrics available, so many people have a favourite tailor or dressmaker to create clothes for them at reasonable prices.
I have also been looking at wrist watches and I have found a simple gold plated watch with a black suede wristband which I like, priced at £10, and reduced by a couple of pounds as the jeweller is a great friend of the family!
for Janet’s 21st birthday. I could also buy one for Jan for her 21st. Uncle George could bring it home in time for the big day. What do you think?
I will meet him in Rome instead of Madrid. I have put off going to Spain for the time being. I played with the idea of travelling south from here and across by boat for a brief visit to Athens– it seems a pity not to put my feet on Greek soil while in Europe — but I have had to be realistic – my bank balance wouldn’t allow it and Spain as well. I am lucky to have covered such a lot of territory and had so many rich experiences in the last two years already!
While I have been in the village, I have spent lots of time listening to yarns about the various local characters around the village and there are plenty of them. They are an extremely individual lot who trust nobody and are not to be trusted.
There is the old fellow who owns the local all goods shop who plays cards every evening with three old cronies, with this difference. He always insists on playing for lollies that he supplies from his shop. When he loses he pays with lollies that he has bought for next to nothing, and when he wins he insists on being paid at the selling price of the lollies.
This has gone on for a long time and you might wonder how long it would continue before his mates have the courage or the wit to challenge him.
An Italian’s response would probably be to assume that the old man’s friends have their own reasons for leaving the weekly ritual just as it is and simply leave it be.
I have learnt quite a lot from them — their easy-going tolerance and understanding of one another’s foibles.
I remember an incident not long after I came to Perugia, sitting out on the lawn in front of the Italian university dining room talking to one of the students, when a friend of his joined us, very excited because he had a new car.
He carried on about all its wonderful features and how amazingly fast he had been able to travel from point A to point B.
I had been there long enough to know that what he claimed was basically impossible.
After he left I asked his mate why he had let him get away with such a tall story.
He drew my attention to just how happy it seemed to make his friend to be believed, and simply said that one day he could need cheering up and might well need an audience to listen to him and help him feel better about himself also!
I loved the salutary story about a local in the village who figured that he would like a television set. It was election time, so he went to the Liberal candidate of the nearby town and suggested setting up party headquarters in his home, and, by way of attracting new members, installing a television set in it for the time being.
It worked and in no time friends began pouring in each evening — owning a TV set was well above the means of just about everybody — and everyone tended to stay on till about midnight when the program is finished, though it is doubtful that watching it ever prompted them to discuss politics.
A few weeks later the wily fellow again approached the hopeful candidate, pointing out that he and his sons were having to rise very early to start work, but were no longer able to get to bed early and so were losing precious sleep, so by way of compensation, suggested a little rent for the room ?
Next he pointed out that the opposition Christian Democrat candidate was giving away spaghetti, bacon and other goodies as a way of attracting more votes. Dutifully, the candidate came good with an even better supply of foodstuffs, giving the task of distributing them to his trusted organiser! It seems that his family benefited but they were never seen to reach potential voters.
Needless to say, the hopeful Liberal lost the election, Very few locals including the hero of our story voted for him, and when he came to reclaim the TV set, was told he only had a right to the cabinet – all the workings inside it, valves etc, had had to be replaced –so it was no longer his. They tell me the TV set remains there to this today, still in good working order!
Enough of all this rambling! I will report next once I reorient myself back into city life again, get my breath back and prepare for the Spanish adventure and finalize plans for the long sea voyage back home.
Till then I sends lots of love to all the family….. am experiencing lots of competing feelings already
P.S. On the bus back to Rome.
I missed the first bus that would allow me to meet Uncle George at the airport. By the time I had said all my farewells. travelled down to Chieti, changed my money and bought the two watches I had my eye on it had left me behind! Not a bad thing because it gave me time to say my good-byes to all the relatives as well.
At each home I was encouraged to drink yet another coffee, and accept packs of delicious sandwiches, and other treats to support me through the four hour journey. Meantime I was feeling sadder and sadder at having to leave. Even the rain set in as we crossed the first ridge of mountains and it looks as if I am leaving the good weather behind as well. It had been so pleasant during my visit and the countryside had become dry enough for us to spend the last couple of days helping with some burning off. It had become as dry as chips – a bit like the Riverina in summer.
Bye again, we are coming into the city and I will be able to post this straight away… in the meantime lots o love to you all….”
More letters will follow soon describing winding up in Rome before heading to Spain. – my last opportunity to get to know the city better and particularly its historical layers starting with what remains of ancient Rome – an amazing trip back in time.