On April 22 of 1987 I turned twenty-nine years old in Spain. After a very short visit to Forlí I was invited to visit the Spanish coast by two friends from BLINK, the Bristol Link with Nicaragua, one of the solidarity groups where I knew people.
Walking along the Spanish beach in springtime was warm weather for the mostly naked northern Europeans. I had never seen a nude beach before and would have enjoyed it more if I had not found my new Italian jacket not quite enough to block the cold.
It was near Easter I think, in any case, someone threw some fire crackers.
And then I had a memory of no memory. One moment I was feeling kind of out of place with boots, jeans, shirt and jacket standing less than ten meters from women dressed in only bikini bottoms. Next I knew, I was looking at them again from inside a depression in the sand. There was a mound of sand that I had not consciously noticed with a dip in the middle. I found myself poised nearly flat on the ground, touching spider like, only with my hands and feet, peeking over the top of the sand looking for where the gunfire had come from. All I saw was the mostly naked girls and their family exactly where I had last seen them before I had apparently dived for cover. Quickly it came to me what I had done and I dawned on me that the bangs had only been fireworks. Feeling totally embarrassed I stood back up, dusted off the sand and looked around. If anyone had noticed me jump, no one was showing any signs of it around me. I tried to calm myself and walk back down the beach to where we were staying. I felt like I had exposed myself more than any of those girls on the beach.
My hosts had some kind of cake for me, as they knew the next day was my birthday. I was too shook up to really feel it and enjoy it. The next morning it became clear to me that I was really an emotional mess. One more thing happened to show that I was there and not really there at the same time. I decided that my birthday present to myself was going to be a train ride back to Italy and distance from anyone who might want to be emotionally close to me. Vacation with lovely women in Spain was too much for me.
My walk through Florence in springtime
I had had an acquaintance in Managua, an American guy who, like me, had had a connection with Italy. He was a professional baseball trainer in Italy and did much the same in Nicaragua. He threatened to write a memoire of Nicaragua called "Missing Italy". If he never wrote it, he should still.
In my own way I had lived the last couple years missing Italy. Going back to Italy was on my mind when fired from the tractor school. When working in El Cuá I was preparing to move to Germany when the job was done, having started my bit of book work on the German language.
With the war and the losses of war, I kept telling myself that I was going to live through that war and survive to walk in Florence in springtime. This became a mantra. Friends in Italy knew I had said this. Friends in Nicaragua and Germany knew it too. It was sort of my method to keep my focus and survive the war.
I will walk through Florence in springtime = I will live through this.
There were many reasons that I went back to Italy from Spain, but I mostly my ticket went there. Beyond that I had no idea what I was going to do, where I was going to work, and only half planned to continue on to Germany to work and finish learning German. I was not thinking about the Florence in springtime pledge.
I was more of an emotional mess than I knew, but it was becoming obvious, even to me, that I was not OK and that I needed to calm down, get used to peacetime and just plain get a grip. One of my friends in Brescia tried to get through to me telling me that what I had just experienced was very unusual and well outside of what most people found normal or could relate to. I'm sure she saw signs of me being too close to the edge too.
When I got back to Forlí I started putting together the first notes that would eventually lead in a roundabout way to this book. It had taken a moment to come back to Forli and I had not even asked my hosts about how long I might stay, or start the process of finding a job. If you had asked me, I think I would have said I planned to debrief with the Forli solidarity group and go to Germany to find a place to stay and make some money. There ended up being no time to discuss any of that because on my second morning there, everything changed.
My host was Italian, sister of the head of the Communist Youth Federation who had originally invited me to visit Forli and connect them to a project in Nicaragua. Their father was the mayor and head of the local Communist Party. It was their mom who had chaired the meeting to decide to support the Cuá-Bocay project.
Her husband was a South American and the least political of the bunch. They were very welcoming but we did not know each other well.
That morning I came into the kitchen, bribed by coffee and sat alone at the table. The husband got me my coffee and seemed very awkward around me. He left. I started to wonder if maybe my visit here needed to be shorter. It was a small place and they may not have been up for having a visitor, or maybe not up for having me as a visitor.
After the jump into the sand in Spain I had lost trust in my own reactions. Other things I had done were making me think that it would be reasonable not to want me around. Maybe they were being too polite by offering me a room?
He came back in and sat next to me for a moment. Something was obviously wrong, yet he did not seem upset with me. He asked for the name of the guy I worked with in Nicaragua. I told him that meant a lot of people. Why? He did not answer. Telling me that he would be right back, he left the room again. I heard him and his wife in the next room talking in hushed voices, but not arguing. Someone got on the phone. My mind was on how to collect my stuff and get on the road to Germany.
Then they both came back as I finished my Italian breakfast of cigarette, pastry and coffee. They asked me with dispelling kindness to stay seated as sat both sides of me.
They placed the newspaper on the table open to a photo of Ben Linder,
dead in a casket.
Funny how one can do well in a crisis even when emotionally broken. From that moment on I went into action. The Forlí branch of the FGCI, (again that is the Italian Communist Youth Federation) took me around to speak out on what was happening in Nicaragua. I got in touch with the solidarity people in the US. Others got in touch with me.
My friends and the Communist Party in Forlí took very good care of me, fed me, and housed me and if I had asked for it, they would have provided a doctor. This despite my erratic and irresponsible behavior on all fronts. I feel forever grateful to them all. They even took the time to help me make a phone call to my father. We went late at night to their dad's office because of the time difference. My step mother took the call. She asked where I was calling from and I had to tell her that it was the office of the Communist Party in Italy somewhere. She let me know that the phone was probably tapped and that there were some kind of FBI type guys sitting in a car near the house looking absolutely ridiculous because they did not blend outside a farm house on an isolated dirt road. She promised to let my dad know I was OK. We both knew that I was probably going to go back and that I was not OK, but that was inferred as we ignored our phone tappers.
One of the places that the FGCI took me was called a "reader's circle" for the Communist newspaper Unità. These groups would gather for newsmaker interviews and talks. Since I was connected to an international story, they wanted me to meet local Unità readers and talk about what we were doing in Nicaragua on the project and to tell people who Ben Linder was and what my relationship to him was. I got used to it quick.
Some of the questions took me by surprise. One man asked me if in the Nicaraguan militia, we had bullets for our guns. I asked him where one would be in the army and not have bullets for their gun. The answer was Italy. To that I told them I would love to join the Italian army and spend my service near the beach at Rimini, which was not far. We got just as much laughter when I was asked how it was we spoke Spanish in Nicaragua, English in the US and French and Portuguese elsewhere in the Americas. I explained that this was based mostly on which imperial power had dominated which areas and that Spain was the top dog in most of the two continents. His reaction was to say that Italy had never done anything like that. The stunned expression on my face joined the laughter in the room and a few people asking the guy what he thought of the Roman Empire.
Two questions always came up.
1) Come mai? Literally 'how never', but used along the lines of 'how the hell'.
'Come mai' was the prefix to a sentence about being an American, who worked in Nicaragua and happened to be here and speak Italian. That was the question I was glad that immigration did not ask. I had a good two-word answer that was accepted with a laugh and no request for further explanation: 'una donna' a woman.
2) Why? Why have you made this lifestyle choice? Why are you involved?
To this I had no answer. I did not feel like I had really had a choice and I said so.
I knew that the call was going to come. It came. It was Mira Brown and Rigoberto Gadea who made it. Could I come back and help the project get back on its feet after losing Ben? Sure enough. I let them know that I was on the other side of the world, without any money or a job and... and they told me that they could take care of that. The solidarity around the project had grown, people were raising money. Could I come back and make sure that a project would get built in Bocay where Ben had been killed. I would have never asked to go back, but I could not say no.
One friend understood entirely that I did not have a choice. It was me to have this kind of life. It was me to help with this kind of thing. It was me to go back.
"Florence is there for you any time of year"
I promised my friends in Italy that I would be back soon, just as soon as this crisis was over.
Sure I would.