In the movie HEIDI, with her Uncle in the alps, Heidi finds herself. Not in Italy, or Wisconsin, or Camp Cottontail, or one of the many apartments in Southern California. Not with any of the families or relatives, with or without children that she had lived with, that I lived with. Not with a stewardess in Copenhagen or flying the polar route, but with her uncle. Traveling, that week of traveling with Zio Pietro I felt for the first time my own volition, a pleasure in movement.
Zio Pietro taught me the fundamentals of cars, and individual limitations. The one we were driving couldn’t go past 160 even though the speedometer offered more. I soon knew by sight every car on the road. He was a whisperer with the ladies too, the way he listened to engines, to them, before shifting. Zio understood high strung models and went only as fast as his car would take us and kilometers were faster than mph.
His girlfriend was Czech and we were bringing her blue jeans. Maybe bringing me to meet her was also a message. The impossibility of their relationship. Their children would be like me drawn and quartered between nations and families. We were in the moment summiting the earth and sun in no time we were sailing again. When I was thirsty Zio stopped at a farm with goats and cow bells to buy milk straight from the milker. The flavor was pastoral and the carton, triangular.
In Prague, the restaurants and people were austere. They weren’t Italians. They didn’t have menus or pasta or cocoa-cola or food or any kind. How Pietro even communicated with his model I don’t recall. My mother and father spoke French but they couldn’t make sense of one another.
From the grand hotel in Prague we went to meet Zio Pietro’s girlfriend’s parents. The apartment was tiny with antique furniture in tiers around an upright piano. We could barely fit ourselves in and I sat on Zio’s lap. They apologized for not having a phone the they were on a waiting listing. And the rest is lost in a tunnel.
Every summer, when I returned to Italy, I recognized a distance and change in my relationship with my uncle. Really with all of my family that I didn’t understand. The last time I saw Zio, he gave me a Jadeite beaded necklace. He was married and his daughters were punching at balloons letting out the air and squealing. It must have been a birthday.