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"America! America!"

Angelo Volto.jpg
Vercelli nebbia.jpg
Photography by Davide Vella

Autumn, not the one with golden leaves and clear skies, but the Vercelli, humid, foggy, cold, came early that year. We had a television in the house that preferred to project on the screen the fog that was outside instead of intelligible images. The only entertainment, on Saturday evening was going to the cinema: there were the Italia, Astra, Viotti, Corso, Civico and Verdi cinemas. That

evening, with the fog also in the city, so thick that it could have been "cut with a knife", the only film that I would have liked to see was at the Civico, right in front of the Lanino. The famous opera house, downgraded to a cinema, who knows why it wasn't open that evening.

It must have been for the story of the donkey … [A few years earlier, due to an obligation of ancient grandeur, the trustees of that prestigious institution they had set themselves to represent Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saëns, with such a shortage of money to scratch the bottom of the pans. The orchestra was ragged and the service personnel less than reliable. For the apocalyptic finale – when the tenor would have placed his hands on arms stretched out against the two central columns – which were cardboard tubes filled with talcum powder, so much to make a fuss that you can't see anymore – the "temple" would have collapsed. The shrill violins and enraged cellos would attempt to reach the volume of the Wiener Symphonische Orchestra in the final bars of the Walkirie Ride. At the last moment, the nonagenarian and undernourished sacristan of the parish of Sant'Antonio, around the corner from the Civico, he had had the untimely idea of passing away, so that the delicate task of making to collapse the world passed to the drunkard on duty, a certain Borasini Celio, with a lot of recommendations, especially that of not drinking further in order not to fall off the ceiling on the horns of the unfortunate Samson.


I was annoyed that they had organized a meeting for students of my age without the management telling us anything. Of my school I was the only one. I had an impulse of gratitude for the donkey. At the table, at the head of the room, four or five boys were already seated and girls. There were only a few empty seats in the audience. I had been one of the last to enter.

In essence, this American Field Service was looking for "suitable" boys and girls to send to America for a year. I would have immediately thought that it was a hoax had there not been those peers at the table, each of whom recounted their own experience. They were all very be confident in public speaking. They were definitely part of those "suitable" people who spoke about little later. Applicants were invited to an initial interview (at that time at USIS, United States Information Service, the American cultural institute in Turin) then, if he entered in the shortlist of the best, at a second interview. If he was chosen, he left a month after the end of the school year and stayed somewhere in the USA for a whole year, in a family American, with a son or daughter of the same age, who acted as a "brother/sister" for everything school year.

This seemed to me unattainable, for me, at that time. At home we had no means, then America seemed so far away... In those years people didn't travel like today. There were planes, but people went overseas mainly by sea, with a ship. Emigrants, almost always, do not they returned or, if they did, it was after a life spent working and saving a penny for buy a house and some land in the village.


There were more than fifty boys and girls at the meeting, from every part of Piedmont. We were all crowded in the beautiful courtyard of an elegant building in Piazza San Carlo. They used to call us one by one. The cultural attaché asked me questions about the economy of my area, the Vercelli area, on the Italian parliament, on the type of studies I was doing, on sport, alternating between Italian and English.

After two weeks I received a second invitation. I was starting to get scared. Not at home I mentioned this “folairà” of mine. But I was adamant that, despite the second invitation, I would not have gone beyond the final barrier.

At the second interview there were seven of us. Two weeks then came the response: I was leaving for California at the beginning of July. Between the instruction sheets there were also the name and photographs of my American family.

My head was spinning. Now I could not tell my mother. I told Angelo first.

Cold, impassive, strong in the face of all the trials that fate had sent us up to then, we he thought about it for a few moments, then he said to me: “Well, this is good for you. It will change your life.

We prepare what needs to be prepared.” Not a word more.

For some time he had shouldered the role of head of the family and the most important decisions adopted calmly, but resolutely, not without bickering and remonstrances on the part of mother, who always considered him“ën fabiòch”. It was all to say, but if ever there was an arm of Angelo was the one who came out on top, even if in truth, there had been very few arms wrestlers.

“Go tell mom…”, he told me shortly after.

Eh, yes, as if it was a trifle.

“Mama, i vaggh n’America…”

Angelo Mamma.jpg

A friend took me to the American consulate in Turin, I returned to Vercelli by 1pm and another car was ready to take me to Milan central station.

I arrived when the group of AFS students from all over Italy - a hundred - were getting on the train.

They were, like the young people at the Lanino conference, very smart boys and girls, well get ready, dude. We immediately made friends and, as the train crossed half of Europe, we spent the night singing and joking, until dawn, which caught us sleepy and hoarse in voice, a a step away from the port of Rotterdam, where the ship that would transfer to the other was waiting for us shore, in front of the statue of liberty, one thousand two hundred young people from free Europe.

The American adventure had begun. I flew over the entire American continent, from Ellis Island to San Francisco Bay, when the sun was not yet descended on the Golden Gate.

My brother, without saying a word to me, took a year to repay the loan and I owe it to him if I received the necessary visa in defiance of the incompetence of the bureaucrats.


America! America!

God shed His grace on you

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

It was 1962. I was sixteen. I was studying foreign languages at the Bernardino Lanino institute.

Angelo was twenty and worked for the Manzoni firm. He found it hard to reconcile the tedious work with a well-established musical vocation. He already played like a virtuoso, even if he had really had no teacher. He gave small private concerts. Its reputation is was quickly consolidating: no one in our small town had ever heard it played, since alive, as it should be, a classical guitarist and what Angelo, even then, was getting from his guitar left the narrow musical circles speechless: he had in his repertoire not only Sor and Carulli, but also Tarrega and Villa Lobos (so, at first glance, I remember those names, but there are there will undoubtedly have been several others).

At home, in the evening, three sound sources were distinctly heard, one completely impassive to the other two: Angelo who repeated the same lines for the tenth or twentieth time, chasing perfection, the mother who sewed and complained aloud about the cost of living (“a l’é gnì tut car mè 'l feu, s'i andoma anans parèj mi sai pròpi nen cmé ch'i faroma …” [“became everything dear as fire, if we go on like this I really don't know how we will manage …”]) and I who, in the absence of voice recorders, recited passages in foreign languages with my head against the corner of the wall for better hear the pronunciation bounced off the walls converging at right angles.

He went to sleep early ("the lights on the coast n'euj ëd the head!"[“light costs an eye of head!"]). After turning off the only light bulb in the kitchen, Angelo continued to recite the sheet music just left on the lectern, mum thinking"cmè ch'i l'avrìo fàit"and I a to pronounce the foreign words I had just read with closed lips, making me too well realize that they were far from perfect.


The latter, never warned, had the bad inspiration of place your hands on the two columns not at the end - as expected - but at the beginning of the work. And the grandiose performance ended there, because the Celio pulled the rope of the catastrophe and for a little does not kill the elderly Samson, who did not have time to get away completely …  The episode became known as "the story of the donkey", from the name of another formidable fiasco, that of triumphal march of Aida, even the one that ended in a sea of laughter)].

When the Civico was not open they said: "It will be for the story of the donkey". And that was a evening from “history of the donkey”.

In the throes of disappointment at being deprived of the only weekly entertainment (it was too late for arrive in time to one of the other cinemas), I turned around to go back to Piazza Cavour, where we lived.

Lanino's ground-floor hall was brightly lit. Strange, what could never be there to light the two big chandeliers? I was about to pass by the entrance that I passed through every school day, when a boy and a girl, about my age, came forward and they asked, "Why don't you come hear the American Field Service presentation?"

I don't I knew what it was, but those three English words, for what little English I knew then, they had been pronounced well, better than the ones I babbled against the walls of the house. “Well, a lot What have I got to lose?” I asked myself, “I was going to go home and get back to studying… a lot it is worth coming in here to hear what story they tell us.”


At the end of the presentation, resigned to my role as an "unqualified player", I was about to leave when the same boy and girl who had invited me in came forward again and asked me if I had taken the application form. Without waiting for me to answer, they gave me two or three copies and, smiling, they said: “Try it, you have nothing to lose”.

Monday morning I was in class on the second floor of the same building when I found the forms in my pocket. I was bored out of my mind in that math class (I've always hated numbers and the starkly factual reality they represent) and I secretly started filling one out.

Name, surname, age, language/languages known, school I attended… I must confess that if it hadn't been because the lesson was an ordeal for me I would never have looked for that diversion to kill time. However, I was still of the same opinion: I was not part of that social category that could afford to go to America the way one took the train to go to

Turin or Milan. But nevertheless, thanks to my visceral rejection of mathematics, I filled out the form. And, just to continue on that path of unattainability, the next day I put it in an envelope and sent it.

After a week I received an invitation to go to Turin for the first interview. It was a school day. I had to go to the principal to ask permission. When Antonia Bongianino knew what it was about, she became incredibly enthusiastic. I thought she would refuse, as a conservative executive that she was, and instead she not only gave me permission to go to the interview, but offered me a round-trip train ticket.


[“Mom, I'm going to America…”].

“Why, folastron, ch’ët vè n’America? By pé or by bike?”[“How, crazy, are you going to America?

On foot or by bike?”].

“Nò, nò, it lo diso pròpi për dabon … I vaggh n’America.”[“No, no, I'm telling you about serious… I'm going to America.”]

At the second reiteration he understood that I wasn't joking.

I told her the whole story, from the first evening in the Lanino salon, to the two interviews and then to confirmation. I showed her photos of the family that was going to host me in California.

She didn't show emotion either. She was orphaned of both parents and hard proven by life. He accepted large and small events with resignation, but also with stubborn will never give up.

“A venta ch'it prepares 'n nice para dë shoes and quàich ëstrass dë butete andòss ch'ët faghe

nen brute figure there in Mérica” [“You need to prepare yourself a nice pair of shoes and some rags to put on so that you don't make a bad impression there in America”].

What I didn't know is that 240 thousand lire was needed for "pocket money" which the American Field Service would then reimburse me each month for current expenses. It was a a figure equal to three times Angelo's monthly salary. The request had been sent to him in the capacity of householder. Instead, I was exempt from all other expenses.

Angelo did not mention it to me until long after my return from America.

We didn't have that amount. Angelo spoke about it to his boss, who told him that Manzoni would never, ever give him he would have advanced a lot of money. Angelo did not give up. He went to Milan, asked to speak with the general manager and was able to come home with the amount needed for my stay.

Then the Italian bureaucracy got in the way. I could not get the one year visa if my passport was not valid for a couple of years. The military district he didn't give me permission because in a couple of years I was of age for military service. Angel he contacted other families of fellows and studied the regulations well until he was able to obtain the period of validity required for my passport. The fact is that the morning of the day in which I had to leave by train from Milan to go to Rotterdam and embark for New York I still I did not have a visa for the USA.

For him, the American adventure began with the first letter to Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco, in which he proposed to the famous composer, then residing in Los Angeles, a new repertoire for the guitar.

Angelo was so afraid he wouldn't answer. Castelnuovo not only replied to him shortly, but enthusiastically welcomed the proposal of this unknown guitarist in Italy, sending him a first score.

He who didn't even have the money to buy his first guitar had opened a new chapter to the guitar repertoire. When ten years later I crossed the great seventeenth-century portal of Harvard, with the touch and the purple toga of the doctorate in foreign languages and literature, I remembered those days when Angelo had faced almost insurmountable difficulties to allow me to make a career academic in the most prestigious universities of the new world.

In English I would call him “a peaceful warrior”. In Italian a silent and tenacious brother who never hesitated to make every sacrifice for my future.

And I'm sure that among his students there will be several who can say the same thinking of those who, like him, were his master not only of art, but of life.

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