“I do believe they are out there, guardian angels, soul mates…eager to share with us a portion of our travel. Don’t you believe there are circumstances that determine the situations, our thoughts that shape life? I don’t remember who said: “When the student is ready the teacher comes”. I think we are like a sort of antenna, able to send and receive messages at a specific frequency. There will always be someone who catches our requests and they certainly come to help us open a new door to the vastness of our soul. You have the answer in that sense of peace warming up your heart.”
– Antonio, in a letter dated July 11, 2010.
I’d heard about a website where you could find mother-tongue (madre lingua) speakers with whom to practice Italian, and in turn, they could practice their English with you. By establishing a line to an Italian pen pal (un amico di penna), might I narrow the gap and feel a little bit closer to the country I love? I registered under my il nome italiano (Italian name) Antonella and waited for the responses.
Several days passed when I received a lovely introduction letter from Antonio, a marketing executive. He wanted to improve his English for work. He was obviously intelligent and serious-minded, so I wrote him back..and it begins.
Antonio writes that he was born and raised in the north of Tuscany, not far from the Ligurian and Tuscan Coasts. He is married and has a daughter at university, is a veracious reader, an avid swimmer, and sometimes, while on his frequent business trips around Europe, a painter of landscapes.
Antonio’s letters were always introspective and soulful – they touched me deeply. Despite the language, culture and distance that separated us, we seemed to see life from similar points of view. In less than a month we were writing long letters to each other – mine in Italian, his in English. With each letter we revealed a little more of ourselves (he referred to it as “loosening the knots”). We wrote of things that we couldn’t say to our closest friends and shared times in our lives that were difficult or profound. I felt safe to express myself without concern of judgment or criticism. We had little to lose because, in essence, we were strangers – black letters on a white computer screen. We called what we had created between us “il nostro angolo” (our corner) – a special place where we could be our best selves.
It was springtime and I was back in Umbria at the same time Antonio was in Rome for business, so we arranged to meet for a coffee on his way home. For both of us the Duomo of Orvieto is a very symbolic and mystical place, so we agreed that in front of its beautiful facade was a perfect meeting point. I’d seen a photo of him a month before, but photographs never accurately portray a person’s “presence”. Antonio strikes a beautiful figure – tall, lean and handsome. He wore his white hair a bit long (as many Italian men do) and his glasses highlighted his blue eyes that were so bright a color, they were somewhat distracting. He explained he must be back in Tuscany by dinnertime and had only two hours to spend with me. It was a warm and sunny day, so we decided to walk around the narrow streets of town and talk.
Those two hours passed as if they were two minutes. The time together was so comfortable, quiet, familiar…so perfectly normal. It seemed more like a long-awaited reunion than a first-time meeting. After circling town, we returned to the spot where we started and sat down on the Duomo steps. The silence between us was deafening, but neither of us knew what words to say. He finally broke the spell when he announced it was time for him to go. We walked back to his car arm and arm, we said our goodbyes, promised to write soon, hugged and I turned and walked away. It was the last time I saw Antonio.
Throughout the year there have been occasional short notes to one another, but really, what is the point? We both know that nothing good can come from our continued contact and although I didn’t want to let it go, the right thing to do was to stop our correspondence. Antonio said his life is like a gypsy’s and he once wrote this about it: “Sometimes I figure that this life is driving me slowly but constantly and directly towards my dark night”. I think about Antonio often. I miss our conversations and wonder where in the world he might be. But like a little jewel, the memory of that day is stored preciously in a little box in that little “corner” that we shared.