Puglia and Zagreb, Summer 1995
Those early months at home with my baby flowed along in a sweet, slow rhythm of the hot Italian summer. Each time I lifted Molly up out of her cot and inhaled the scent of her downy head, my heart expanded more with love. To add to my joy, after weeks of frustrating attempts while in the hospital, we were now expert at nursing. Molly fed constantly and I felt triumphant watching the soft spot on her skull pulse with each gulp. She drank until her eyelids drooped drunkenly, her cupid bow mouth slipped away from my nipple, her breath rising and falling with mine.
My fantasies of being a mother, of living in Italy with a loving man and my baby had become reality. I basked in each moment. Waking in the morning, making pots of espresso, shopping in the market for basil and fresh cheeses, cuddling up with Molly and Neil in the darkened bedroom for afternoon siesta and finally, watching night descend dramatically over the Adriatic. I savored it all. Neil often came home and made lunch with fresh bread, arugula and mozzarella. We ate on the veranda overlooking the rose garden, Molly beside us or in our arms. Life felt too good to be true. The war across the sea still raged but we were ensconced in our dream. Sometimes the summer squalls that moved across the Adriatic delivered violent thunderstorms that reminded me of the bombs that fell through our courtship and I held my child close.
Neil made friends quickly and sometimes his new best friends were dubious. Lorenzo was definitely shady. Recently fired from his job at the UN base, Lorenzo was rumored to be Mafia. But Neil pointed out “in Southern Italy, who isn’t?” The guy had a car to sell and Neil wanted to buy it.
“It’s just gorgeous! A Maserati! And he only wants 10 grand for it and I could definitely resell it for a lot more either in Zagreb or back in England.”
Neil had been trying to convince me to buy the car for weeks before Molly’s birth, but it seemed such an unnecessary indulgence when I was already worried about how much money we were spending. I’d been dipping into my savings to sustain our sweet life. And besides, Lorenzo gave me the creeps. Yet only days after the birth, probably delirious from hormones realigning in my body and the joy of finally bringing my baby home, I caved and gave Neil the money.
I could hear the Maserati a mile away. “Oh my God, Neil! It’s way too loud. You need to get the muffler fixed.”
“It’s supposed to sound like that!”
“It’s… never mind! I will, I promise. But isn’t it beautiful? Come take a look – the steering wheel is made from wood. This is a boyhood dream!” He swung me off the ground.
“Well, good: you have yours and I have mine!” I kissed his rough cheek and nuzzled into his neck, inhaling the familiar scent of cologne sweat and less potent but still there, cigarettes.
Everything felt right with the world. For the past four years on mission I had saved almost all of my salary. So $10,000 didn’t feel like much of a dent. A significant gesture of love and trust for Neil; I believed his assurances he would eventually sell and make a good profit when we left Europe.
Italy’s famous bureaucracy was bewildering. Transferring ownership of the car entailed jumping through many hoops. We had the car and Lorenzo had our money for over two weeks before the necessary documents were in order and ready to process. Neil and Lorenzo went together to the lawyer’s office to finalize the sale. Later that afternoon, the doorbell rang. I opened the door. Neil stood on the threshold, his face twisted with panic.
“Did you forget your keys, honey?” I asked, stepping back from the door, shocked at how pale he was. “What’s happened? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
“It’s been nicked,” he mumbled without looking at me.
“The car. It was nicked. Stolen.”
“I wish I was. I picked up Lorenzo and we went to Caravigno to meet his lawyer. I parked the car right outside and when we came out it was gone. Gone. And not only that – our house keys, all our documentation, Molly’s birth certificate, our wedding certificate, the folder with all of that was in the car.”
“You’re kidding me? Shit! Did you go to the police?”
“Yeah. I filed a report. What they do here is take the car and then call the owner and demand money. You pay if you want the car back.”
“Car-napping? That’s crazy! Do you think that’s what’s going to happen?”
“I hope so. But I’m not waiting – I’m going to go talk to one of my mates who knows the mafia bosses in Brindisi and see if he can do anything.”
Neil talked to everyone in the heel of the boot of Italy until finally the word on the street was that nobody would do anything because too many people were involved. Even the local radio station made a plea for our papers to be returned to us, to no avail. The car was gone, our money was gone and I bet anything that Neil’s good mate Lorenzo is in his driveway today, polishing our Maserati.
The car theft dulled the gleam of our Italian life. Our joy at being there melted in the relentless August heat. Streets were eerily empty amplifying my feeling of isolation. Siesta time, the afternoon hours when families gathered at home to share a meal and rest, had lost its charm for me. When Neil came home for lunch, I ventured out alone onto the sweltering streets to buy milk or run other errands and felt irritated by the closed shops. I no longer felt in synch with Italian life, the dream-like quality of our lives, squelched by this mean theft, oppressive summer heat and my loneliness.
In September, Neil was assigned by the UN to go back to Zagreb. New York headquarters had decided only UN staff could hold managerial positions and as Neil was a subcontractor for the United Nations, he could not stay in Italy. Posts in this sunny port city were reserved for UN personnel only.
“As usual us contractors are second-class citizens even though half the time we’re the ones working harder than the overpaid United Nations prats,” Neil complained bitterly. He was disappointed. I felt ready to leave.
“Hey! Don’t forget I’m one of them!” I tried to joke. “At least you reap benefits from being married to one of us overpaid prats.”
“You know what I mean. It really winds me up how bloody stupid this system is.” Neil’s sunny demeanor was fading. He loved his job at the Brindisi base with his office looking out at the harbor and staff of devoted employees.
“When?” I asked.
“Two weeks time.”
“Wow. Okay. Well, we can do it. Look, we’re together and Molly’s healthy, we’re healthy. We’re moving on to the next adventure. Please don’t let this get you down,” I pleaded. The last thing I wanted was to Neil to descend into depression and sleep all day like he did in Zagreb.
Driving north along the coast we passed endless meadows of sunflowers and grape fields being harvested. When we lived in Croatia and Bosnia we regularly traveled to Italy for light, laughter and good food. Leaving now was bittersweet – it was the end of our Italian fantasy and Neil felt he’d been unfairly demoted. As we sped along the highway, I reminded him that we’d still only be hours away from Trieste. We were just off on yet another journey and anyway, after living in Sarajevo under siege, he could live anywhere. And I thought, ‘as long as you have a job’. I worried my pep talks would not be enough. Recalling how miserable he was when jobless in Zagreb, I knew he needed structured days and regular validation to feel good. And of course with a baby, I was sure there’s no way he’d sleep the day away.