- Historic Sites
“certain … Complications”
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
In 1925, sixteen-year-old Luigi Barzini—who has since become a celebrated journalist—arrived in America aboard the Italian ship Duilio. For middle-class Italian immigrants like Barzini, the reality of America was not the shocking ghettos of the city—the image of the new country that usually greeted the poor—but rather the cultural shock of American ways. In the vignettes on these pages, excerpted from his new book, O America: When You and I Were Young , to be published this month by Harper & Row, we are treated to some of his affectionate backward glances at various perplexities that delighted and assailed him.
The first American girl I kissed was on board the Duilio —a charming blonde of my own age, sixteen, with an angelic face, thin arms, and a delicate bony bump on the back of her neck. Her name was Natalie. I considered myself an experienced roué at the time, having a few times illegally visited a pleasant family brothel (I was admitted because I looked older than, and was tall for, my age) in Milan. There I had been introduced to the mysteries of love by a motherly and compassionate woman with white silky skin. She was particularly devoted to the Holy Family and, over the double bed on which she entertained her visitors, had hung a very large lithograph of bearded Joseph, pink-cheeked Mary, the dimpled Holy Child, the Ass, and the Ox. It was embarrassing to undress and do the rest under their steady gaze. I had also spent a few feverish and sweaty nights in the room of a young maid of ours, that very summer while the rest of the family were at the sea, when I had been left alone with her for three or four days to prepare for an examination, which I naturally flunked.
Therefore I behaved like an experienced and responsible man of the world when one night Natalie suggested a walk to the upper deck to look at the full moon. I was no fool. I smiled, took her by the hand, and said, “ Andiamo pure . OK, let’s go.” I realized she was a flirt but also what was commonly known in Italy as una ragazza per bene , a nice family girl, therefore a dangerous girl, the American equivalent of the well-brought-up daughters of mother’s friends whom one avoided at all cost and did not risk fiddling with, for the fear of histoires , fuss, annoyances, family feuds, and possibly lifelong consequences. I knew how to keep them at arm’s length all right and to avoid danger. So I went confidently into the night, holding Natalie’s hand and humming a tune. What I did not know and was about to learn was that, with American girls, even the very young, a boy did not have to make up his mind which girl he liked best and exactly how far he would allow himself to go. It was all done for him.
Natalie led me to a dark corner behind a lifeboat, looked at the moon, sighed, quoted the lyrics of some contemporary song as if they were a poem by Shelley, clung close to me, then raised her white face with half-open lips, and shut her eyes. She smelled as good as a freshly baked cake and was as appetizingly tempting. Before I knew it I was kissing her. I kissed her once again, then a few more times, and held her as tight to me as the melted cheese on a cotoletta alia bolognese . I found this enchanting, infinitely better than wrestling with the maid. A few seconds later (or perhaps at the same time) I shivered in terror. What had I done, what insane passion had carried me away, why had I yielded to this adolescent bacchante, what would happen to me, to both of us, as a result of a brief moment of irresponsible forgetfulness? What would her mother say and do if she found out?
Her mother was definitely a lady, an imperious and awe-inspiring lady, all fluttering mauve and gray veils, white face-powder and rouge, jangling bracelets, dangling strings of pearls, and a long gold cigarette holder. She would surely discover everything. In a moment of weakness or pride, Natalie would tell her what I had done. The next day or two I waited for my fate with Spartan fortitude. Nothing happened. At all hours of the day and night, Natalie and I hid in unknown and deserted corners of the ship to kiss and cuddle. We danced with each other endlessly and exclusively every night. Her mother did nothing. She said nothing. She did not even seem alarmed. She apparently suspected nothing or, if she did, could not care less. She beamed benevolently on us. She even called me “Dear Luigi.” One morning, however, on the promenade deck, she waved to me and asked me to sit down on a chaise longue next to her. She said she wanted to talk to me. This naturally made me very nervous. I got even more nervous when she started, in a solemn and somewhat embarrassed voice, “There are a few things I must tell you, Luigi.”
Here we are, I thought, this is it, I called it down on myself by my demented behavior. Whatever she says, whatever she asks of me, she will be right, I thought. I have behaved like a mascalzone , violated a trust, compromised her pure, trusting innocent Natalie. God help me.