The best mistake I ever made began on December 18th, 1984. I had just arrived at San Vito Air Station, Italy – a small dot-on-the-map in Southern Italy’s Puglia Region and fresh from a one-year “remote” tour of duty in Thule, Greenland serving with United States Air Force. Thule, Greenland was – and I presume still is – right in the middle of an ice flow, not far from the north Pole, and one of Greenland’s few inhabited settlements. After 5 months of darkness, 5 months of daylight and 2 months of twilight in Greenland, I was ready for a change and Italy seemed to offer it.
Upon arrival, one of the first questions I asked was the name of the nearest Italian town where most of the American service members were living, because I wanted to head in the opposite direction. I’ve spent most of my life overseas and I can tell you, it is far more interesting being immersed into the local customs and cultures of a country by living with the locals and not homesteading with other Americans. Anyway, within two days of settling in, I was already making plans to find an apartment. Easier said than done, as I had no car. Not to be deterred, I hit the road off base – thumb extended and looking for a ride into the city of Brindisi which sat about 20 kilometers away – and where I hoped to find a place to call home for next 3 years.
In short order, I got a ride into the city, purchased a newspaper and began wandering around – trying not to get overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds, yet at the same time attempting to track down several apartment listings that I’d circled in the classified ads.
Brindisi is not a big city by any means, but I managed to get lost more than once while attempting to find apartments. My Italian was not that good, and most of the Italians I attempted to speak with wanted to help I’m sure, but were just as limited as I was when it came to communicating. I spent most of the day like that – full of stops and starts, looking like a deer with headlights shining in its eyes, and searching for street signs that just didn’t seem to exist.
The day flew by and by now it was 6pm and I was trying yet again to find an apartment:
Located at Via Alessandro Manzone’ n.15. Even with a map it’s difficult in Brindisi to find street names. I’m writing this in 2006 and things have changed a bit – most streets now have signs. But back then, people maneuvered more by landmarks than by street signs. Whatever the reason I found myself on Via Carmine’ instead. The sun was going down and I needed help. Call it divine intervention but at precisely that moment, I looked up and found that I was standing in front of a “Palestra Aerobica” or Aerobics Gym. Looking back on it I’m not sure what my logic was – maybe it was my jock intellect kicking in – but I reasoned, “Ã¢Â?Â¦I can get help from the people in the gymÃ¢Â?Â¦!” Plus I think in the back of my mind I felt I’d need a place to work out in the future. At any rate, I entered into the somewhat familiar atmosphere of loud music, perspiration, and lots of bodies jumping about. In the far corner, I noticed some free weights.
An older guy working the front desk looked up at me, and in my half English/half Italian attempt at speaking, I asked where the Via Alessandro Manzone’ n.15 was. This guy just stared at me like I was an alien (and come to think of it I was) and he mumbled something to an attractive girl standing by a water cooler who came over to me and spoke in equally broken English, “Hi…! You waitÃ¢Â?Â¦! Then she spun around and walked into the locker room. A few minutes later the girl returned with a friend in tow: a young woman in a shower robe, still dripping wet, her hair wrapped in a towel. The nameless friend pointed to her and said “She…GiuliaÃ¢Â?Â¦” I was spellbound. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howled, lightening crackledÃ¢Â?Â¦.a volcano eruptedÃ¢Â?Â¦.and my knees turned to jelly. I don’t know if it was love at first sight but it was something I hadn’t expected. Some raw emotion that made my heart skip a beat and made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
“HiÃ¢Â?Â¦my name is Giulia and this is my gym, can I help youÃ¢Â?Â¦?” She extended her hand and I firmly grasped it. I was elated! Someone that spoke English! I hurriedly spilled out my dilemma. Giulia looked at me smiling. “Please slow down so I can understand…!” I repeated that I was lost and she explained where I made a wrong turn. I then asked if I could come to the gym and work out. She explained how much it cost. I said I would be back and I departed. Suddenly the address of that apartment wasn’t nearly as important as this young woman I’d just met. In the back of my mind I was also wondering how the heck I was going to get back to the base.
Maybe I’ll save the courtship for another story, but needless to say, I showed up at her gym the next night. And the night after and the night after. Six months later we were married.
A lot has happened over the last 20-plus years. Most of the same people who said our marriage would never last are themselves divorced, separated or dead for all I know. In the meantime, Giulia and I have been all over the world, and when I retired we decided to come back to Brindisi – the same small town where it all started – and settle down for good.
I honestly don’t remember if I ever found that apartment or not. But thanks to the best mistake I ever made, I found something a whole lot better.