Opera Cantata and Green Beans

Updated: Jun 23, 2021

I was surprised to suddenly hear a soft and yet powerful female voice rising from the dining room cabin on the river boat yacht. It was not a simple cover song by an 80’s band, but far from it. There was no canned music or drum machine, just a solo singular female voice. It was an opera cantata. The depth and tone were impressive, passionate, and mesmerizing to the senses. It had begun low and brooding but now the heat was being turned up slowly yet purposely - as if the vocalist was tending to a smoldering ember. I turned away from the ship railing and saw an attractive blonde woman wearing a deep emerald green chiffon gown poised in front of a seated dinner party of about 30 guests. Her hands clasped at her waist in a kung fu type grip. Gazing above the heads of the seated guests, she may as well have been on stage in Prague or Vienna, but tonight she was performing on a dinner cruise along the River Avon in England. The woman was in full command, in full confidence and she seemingly lived for captive evenings just like this. Her voice electrified the seated guests only mere feet away from her inside the yacht. Some guests knew her and clearly adored her. Others, like me, were in a state of disbelief and remained, as they say in England, gob-smacked. She finished the cantata abruptly. I recall it leaving me wanting. That’s it? I thought to myself. It had been like a mini dessert, too wonderful for only a few bites. The guests broke into a thunderous applause, the clapping echoing off the banks of the River Avon as we meandered down the lazy river that Shakespeare had once called home. It was a soft late spring evening in 1991.

It had been over a year since my days of sleeping on a conference room table at the Interlink English School. My college girlfriend had joined me in Italy and was teaching English, however I had landed a job at an air compressor company in Zingonia. I was the import liaison for an Italian importer of British built air compressors based near Stratford-upon-Avon, England. My employer was half Polish and half Italian. I wince at the jokes he would have endured in the 70’s in the States when I was growing up. No one seemed to like him and after a few months at his company I began to understand the reasons. One of the girls in the office once told me after a bizarre meeting where no one understood what he wanted: “ Paul, she said in Italian, he isn’t like the fixed menu at the trattoria. With him, you never know what you’re going to eat for dinner.” Of course, leave it to an Italian to create a work environment analogy using food. The job was fine but paid less than the teaching and ultimately cumbersome for an American working in Italy without the correct visa. I left after 6 months to return to teaching.

Our apartment was in a small village outside of Zingonia called Arcene. It had a bar, a bread shop and an appliance store. That was it. The quaint cobblestone alleyway from that Italian postcard was nowhere to be found. We had managed to locate a top floor mansard apartment in a large 3 story home on Via Leonardo Da Vinci street. We always laughed at that street sign turning onto our street after teaching. Arcene was a lot of things, but none of them had a thing to do with Leonardo Da Vinci. Our landlords were a married couple, Franco and Elisabetta along with their son Alessandro and then there was Elisabetta’s mother, “Ghita”. We never knew but surmised it was short for Margarita. In the two years we lived there, Ghita never did figure out our names. I was often my girlfriend’s name and consequently my girlfriend got called Paul. We finally gave up correcting her and just said Buongiorno instead. The last time I saw her she was snapping green beans into a large silver bowl lecturing me about how we had left the Spring before and hadn’t said goodbye prior to returning to the States. “You both snuck out in the middle of the night!” And to her credit, that was true, but to catch our flight from Milan. I didn’t attempt to interrupt or pose a defense. I just took it like a man - who had a girl’s name. All summer the green beans had been growing happily in her garden but in the Fall they felt Ghita's wrath who clearly had been waiting for us to show up to give us a piece of her mind - whatever our names were.

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