Journey to Italy 1963

This contemporary account which I wrote recalls how a mixed party of Italian children were returned home by one of the international long distance trains which were a normal mode of travel in those days.   It has nothing to do with charity work per se, but it illustrates what a very different world existed then even though it was little more than 50 years ago.   The journey began in the Golden Arrow, the all pullman steamhauled express train to Paris.  In these days of mobile phones it reads as quite a revelation as to how difficult it was at that time to make a long distance call.  The French were the great leaders in International trains, and it is quite true as stated in the essay that other countries were apt to "borrow" some of the better coaches.


      Victoria 10,30am, and a ragged crocodile of Italian children were heading for the Golden Arrow surrounded by various somewhat frantic looking adults – a  middle aged lady with an enormous black hat wanting material for her new book, a voluble Italian trying to convince an Englishman that his bed in Naples was in a perfectly respectable building; an older man engaged in pretending to swallow sixpences for the amusement of the children finally producing them again from some unsuspecting child’s ear, the press, porters and a large assortment of other people clinging on to the mass of luggage, water jugs, food and childrens’ hands which flung themselves haphazardly from the center of the party. Eventually the youngsters were installed in the pullman car, and having engulfed the cubes of sugar, which had been placed so conveniently on the tables, they established their feet firmly on the seats, so by standing up they could lean out of the window, and hug for the last time their English foster parents. At, eleven o’clock precisely the train moved solemnly out of the station - destination Europe.   Longuyon, Thionville, Strasbourg, Mulhouse, - the names of the stations passed with monotonous regularity, - long grey platforms ©f desolation.  Night was falling and the grey vanished into blackess. This was the dull part of the journey.  

    By three o’clock in the morning we were leaving Basle.   We edged out of the station and began the climb towards the Alps which soon would surround us. Suddenly a storm broke. Lightning reflected itself in the lakes leaving behind a vision of strange hulks of mountains, but the thunder was muffled by the endless clatter of wheels upon the iron rails.  The train slowed and a glimmer of light entered the carriage window, It increased in intensity until it was a sudden vivid glare, and then it passed again into nothing. Almost immediately it as followed by another and another - street lights, platform lights - Lucerne – then once more obscurity.   The sky cleared somewhat, a moon appeared, and suddenly the vision became real.  Before us was the shimmering lake of Brunnen and beyond lay mountains white with the first snowfalls of autumn.   We turned inland and began the long ascent - of the St. Gotthard Pass, Superb engineering takes the railways over valleys and chasms, through gorges, on ledges, flinging it from one mountain to another and eventually diving through nine miles of tunnel beneath the summit. As the dawn advanced sharp rays of sunlight flooded through gaps between the rocky peaks, momentarily dazzling, and then vanishing as the train rounded another bend.   Gradually the glimpses became  more frequent, and when we eventually emerged from the long tunnel the sun had risen and its golden light began to warm the cold clear air around.   The descent is similarly full of splendour.   We approached a spacious valley with an avenue of waterfalls like silver toppling from the high cliffs on either side.   Three times the railway spiralled inside the mountains and on each occasion we entered into a lower valley than before, and in each time the cascading waterfalls attended our path.   There is no finer prelude to Italy imaginable.

    There were thirty of us altogether, fifteen children from the House of Urchins, being 1ooked after by Salvatore Piscopo, who works with Father Borrelli; ten girls from an orphanage in Alberobello (Apulia) run by a teacher, Professor Longo, accompanied by Arella, herself an orphan from the home; Ann, a medical student; Father Daley, an Oxfordshire priest; and myself.   On arrival in Milan it was necessary to make a telephone call to a family in Varese with whom I had stayed when learning Italian.   In England telephoning is simple. One dials a vast collection of numbers and letters, waits until the phone is answered, and then places threepenny bits in a slot at a convenient rate of about one a minute. In Italy, the principle is the same, but the practice is decidedly hazardous. We began our call by going to a bookstall and buying a large number of metal discs. Having found a telephone cabin nearby, Salvatore began some intensive dialling.   After about ten minutes I suggested that perhaps we could ask the operator what the code number for Varese actually was. This was exactly what he had been enquiring but the operator could not find it, "What about the directory?”.  The dialling was abandoned, and a few minutes consultation revealed that the directory did not know either. The problem was partially solved by a red-faced irate Italian, who required to use the phone without waiting for it. "This call-box is for Milan only", he explained in a. voice that suggested it was his private line.  To get the provincial towns we had to go to the other end of the station.

    Having managed. to sell our metal discs at a rather reduced rate, we proceeded to another part of the terminus in order to acquire more discs of a different shape. “What was the code number for Varese?”  The gentleman behind the counter gave us a number which we could phone in order too find it out. Yes there were two alternative codes, according to which part of the town was wanted. We got through on the wrong line, were  transferred to the right one, and. finally I rejoiced to hear the voice of my friend at the other end. After thirty seconds of conversation it became obvious that the discs would not last out. We had already pushed three into the machine but the time bell was determined not to be silenced. Salvatore dashed out to the counter, placed himself at the head of a long queue and arrived back with another dozen discs in

less than a minute. They did not fit; he had got the city ones again. The situation was desperate. Did the family understand when I was arriving at their house? What was that about tortoises?   Salvatore reached the provincial counter. “It’s on Sunday I hope to arrive, not Monday”. The infernal bell was ringing again and making it impossible to hear a word of each other's conversation.   Salvatore was arguing with the man behind the counter.  I pushed the rest of the discs into the machine and shut my eyes.   "Ti rivedremo” - we shall see you – my friend was saying; - the line went dead and Salvatore arrived that moment - just too late. ‘Ti rivedremo’, - it seems that I was expected in Varese.  We had only just enough time left to join the others on the platform.  Ten minutes later the train pulled out, and the telephone call was left far behind, but the fifteen unused metal discs went with us.

    The network of European railways operates in such a way that while long trains of luxurious Wagon-lits and mahogany paneled restaurant cars are leaving France for south Europe, somewhat shorter trains with an undoubted excess of wooden benches are setting out on the return journey. It was not surprising therefore that, September here, and the summer season half gone, whereas the Yugoslavians were boasting of increased restaurant facilities on all local trains, it had been quite impossible for us to obtain even a morsel to eat, the entire way from Calais to Milan.   Moreover on this particular occasion even the Milan to Rome portion seemed devoid of food.   Arrangements had been made for the children however. They were to be fed on  spam sandwiches watered down with the "acqua potabile" gathered from appropriate taps at the large stations. We, adults, obtained a lasagne pie at Bologna, (hardly enough to satisfy our hunger) which we ate on the way to Florence, a part of the journey which is spent almost entirely in darkness beneath the Appenines apart from ten second glimpses of light from time to time, revealing the "Autostrada del Sole, with its exciting bridges, viaducts, and tunnels.      Shortly after Florence, someone pulled the communication cord in mistake for a ventilator handle. It took twenty minutes to undo the damage and the carriage became unbearably hot. I bad an ice-cream, beautifully cold and fresh, from the bottom of a portable deep-freeze which had suddenly arrived in the corridor. It was a fatal decision for the ice was so cold that it stuck to my tongue and left a raw mark for the rest of the trip, After the initial pain had subsided, I remembered I had a tin of sausages, and one of strawberries, in my case. We opened them in the corridor (so as the children did not see what they were missing) with a six inch sheath knife belonging to one little eight year old, and ate as best we could without a spoon or plate. In spite of this and the lasagne pie we were still hungry and were finally forced to begin upon the spam. All thirty of us were eating.   Chiusi, Orvieto, and the historic lake of Trasimeno had been passed.   What a relief it was to reach Rome.   A rather obese Thomas Cooks agent was leading us to our next train, happily recounting the difficulties he had with his stomach, delighted to find us such a sympathetic and attentive audience. 

    We did note with pleasure that the Rome to Naples train did have a restaurant car (a stolen French one).  It was the rear carriage and we were in the front one. Anyway about an hour later, Ann., Father Daley, and myself, set off to eat, leaving Arella and Salvatore in charge of the children. After we had climbed over numerous Italian families returning to Sicily with all their children and  possessions in the corridor, and passed through a miscellany of overcrowded coaches, including a wagon full of sheep, we were somewhat surprised to find our way barred by a locked door. The luxurious meal for which we were hoping would have eluded us yet again, had not Father Daley solved the problem with remarkable foresight. The lock was of such a simple type that it could be opened with a strong pair of pincers, and amazingly Father Daly had just a pair in his pocket. For the Italian coach attendants, as he opened one 1ocked door after another, it was the greatest miracle they had ever seen the church perform. In triumph led by our priest we entered the restaurant car and not surprisingly we were the only occupants, so it was with considerable respect that we were served. By the time we had eaten our way through Taglatelle, Scaloppina alla Marsala, and plenty of Vino del Vesuvio, it was ten thirty in the evening, half an hour before our arrival in Naples.


Arrival was full of confusion. I was greeted with a kiss on each cheek from Professor Longo who looked after the little girls at their orphanage in Alberobello.  Two  girls who had been taking photographs for International Help for Children in Naples were there, and Eileen Walters, who worked for the British Institute and who was our principle contact there, and it seemed one hundred and one other people. Luggage was quickly passed out of the carriage window, and the children lifted bodily out of the carriage door. Eventually the entire party stood on Naples station and it was then that a conspicuous absence became apparent. The van from the House of Urchins which was required to transport the children, could not be seen.   Thirty minutes later after several phone calls had been made, it appeared.   First of all the ten girls were to be taken to the Convent where they would be staying the night before leaving for Alberobello the next morning.   It was an open type van, and they settled themselves in the back with their luggage, enjoying the fresh night air and the stars above.   The Convent was near to the House of Urchins and only a ten minute journey, so the boys were to remain

with us at the station until the transport returned, However the driver-was a Neapolitan; moreover he thought that he knew a short cut to the Convent, with the inevitable result that twenty minutes later he found himself explaining to the police, somewhere in the back streets of Naples, what he was doing with ten young ladies in the early hours of the morning. Thirty minutes later he found his way back to the House of Urchins. Fortunately at this point a helper suggested the girls should leave their luggage at the "Casa" and proceed to the convent on foot, for the street in which it stood was too narrow to admit traffic, and in any case it was only five minutes walk away. Unbelievably this solved the problem, and in five minutes they had reached their destination.

    Meanwhile the van arrived back at the station, this tine with Father Borrelli, who sleeping in the “baracche”, as he was accustomed to do, had only just received the news of his urchins return. We talked until one o·clock in the morning trying to arrange the next few days activities. Finally Father Borrelli and Professor Longo went to the House of Urchins, Ann and Eileen to the Convent, and myself to a nearby hotel, Twenty-two hours after rising to witness the crossing of the St Gotthard Pass, I was able to sleep once more.   Not everyone got to bed so soon, The girls were made to stuff themselves with soup and spaghetti until two in the morning, while Profesor Longo discussed with Father Borrelli the advantages of English family holidays for their children until three. It mattered little for Father Borrelli has trained himself to manage on only three hours sleep a night, and judging by what happened next Professor Longo did not need much more either.    

    Precisely why the professor decided to take himself and the ten girls to Confession at seven o'clock next morning is a mystery. Maybe he felt England to be rather pagan. The fact remains however, that at this particular hour they were to be seen making their way to a nearby Dominican church. Thc girls were still dressed in the rather brief shorts they had been wearing the day before, the like of which are not customarily seen in Naples (except amongst the tourists), and which are certainly not for church going. Arella, in her embarrassment, made the children kneel down in the middle of the nave hoping to conceal their large expanses of bare thigh. Presumably the Virgin went short of prayers that morning because this move successfully obstructed the access of a number of would-be worshippers who were accustomed to light a candle or two on their way to work.   Father Fernando Durrelli, the parish priest of this church had two ways of entering his room. He could either come in through the door, or alternatively, with the assistance of a fire-escape, a drainpipe, and a number of adjoining roofs, he could come in through the window. On the morning in question, someone had accidentally locked his door from outside leaving the rooftop route the only means of exit. It was a delightful morning, warmer than it had been for a week, and he was only too pleased to have an excuse for a minute or two of fresh blue air. Contentedly he slid down the last few feet of drainpipe with his long white robes flying around him, and it was as he reached ground level that he came face to face with Professor Longo. Frofessor and priest were old friends, but this meeting, Fernando assures me, was completely coincidental. However a friendly Confessor is always a welcome find, and soon the formal proceedings were underway without a hitch.   The orphanage in Alberobello is called Casa della Divina Providenza and it seems to me that the Professor's life revolves around the successful intervention of Divine providence.   Admittedly as a spectator I was a little surprised to see a waiter entering the church carrying a cocktail tray and a Martini bottle, but it transpired that it was only a morning tonic for one of the elderly Fathers whose dwelling lay behind the sacristy. 

The children did not return to the Convent unti1 nine. Their train to Alberobello left at eleven.  It gave only two hours to give them breakfast, take them to the station and settle them in their carriage.  his was in fact   accomplished, and all that remained was for the luggage to be loaded from the  House of Urchins Van into the compartment.   Although five people spent ten desperate minutes running around the station, they just failed to notice the van at the back of a taxi rank with the driver asleep in his seat.  There were many more incidents, amusing and serious, on our journey to Italy, but the story would not have been complete without this final Neapolitan touch which ended with the children leaving for Bari less ten suitcases.


1 year later Miss Olwen Dixon who worked in Rome with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN and was at the same time a volunteer liaison officer for IHC  met a group of 30 Borrelli boys and was asked her to provide a meal for them while the train was stopped in Rome. She wrote as follows:

I decided that a plate of spaghetti would be just the dish for the boys and started making phone calls. No one was interested, I could have a sandwich for 2/6, a banana for 2/-, or the full works for 15/- (per head, of course) but yes, we could have no spaghetti!!   At the 11th hour one of my friends in the office suggested asking a Mr West for advice. This gentleman has some connection with the YMCA. I phoned Mrs West as I felt two women could speak spaghetti perhaps more profitably. In a couple of sentences I gave her a potted history of IHC and my current problem. Without a second's hesitation she said that as she had the workmen performing that day, preventing her from leaving the house, she herself would make 30 portions of pasta.   For the next couple of hours the phone buzzed in both directions and by mid-afternoon she'd prepared a dish of hot pasta, noodles and tuna fish - plus an iced fruit cup drink - and laid on paper beakers, plates and plastic forks.   My helpers organized themselves wonderfully. Whilst they waited for the Wests' arrival, I shot off to the arrival platform to register my presence. Fortunately the train was a through one and so there were no complications of changing trains and platforms. We commandeered one of the marble seats on the platform, pans placed in the centre and 2 girls either side to dish out, a queue of lads either side!   The Italians as a race are nothing if not curious, so it goes without saying that we had an audience. One fellow nudged me and asked who was selling this pasta "it looked so good". (He hung around to the bitter end in case there was any surplus, but the lads licked the platters clean.) No doubt there is some rule somewhere which says such behaviour on Rome Grand Central Station is just not allowed, but the operation was commenced and completed so quickly that by the time anyone might have thought about it we'd gone ... leaving no traces!

Two other articles from the same period give some idea of the amazing achievement of these local committee families in integrating the Scugnizzi.  

Our new Committee in Portsmouth can give an example of the kind of understanding foster parents throughout the country give to these underprivileged children. Mrs Moore had Achille Testa and this is what she writes::-
During the first week of Testa's visit he was very shy and unhappy. It appeared that he had a serious inferiority complex of some kind and I got the impression that I would never be able to manage him or get through to him at all. He absolutely refused to get into bed and decided that he wanted to spend the whole night out in the street. All attempts to get him inside were futile until when I finally turned every light off he came quietly in and slept on the floor beside his bed. This went on for nearly a week and then he came in a little earlier each night. During these first nights he would not remove his clothes or shoes but now at the end of two months we seem to have made remarkable progress. He now takes off his clothes and wears pyjamas in bed and generally gets there soon after 9.00 p.m. Other improvements in his behaviour include such things as walking up the stairs instead of going up the drainpipe! He doesn't break any more of the neighbours' windows and lie is managing very well to be friends with the younger children. He has a complex about people making fun of him and up to very recently was always ready to pick up a brick and throw it at anybody whom he thought possibly was mocking him. If he got upset for the slightest reason to break the nearest window was the ultimate challenge to him. We are pleased to be able to replace five windows that he has broken because fantastic although it may seem, the outcome of all this naughtiness was that Testa began to fit in better and understand his surroundings.   Through arrangements made by Sister Annuntiata (a local helper and supporter of IHC) , Testa has had his eye squint corrected and the services of two famous local specialists were at our disposal. He now realises that he looks very much more normal without a squint and spends quite a time examining his face in a mirror. There are very many more incidents one could write about Testa but to sum up, I would say that his holiday in Portsmouth has been very worthwhile in every possible way.

Giuliano  came over with the second of Father Borrelli's parties in 1961. Having no family to go back to in Naples, it was arranged that he should stay on here on a long term sponsorship. Up to last year he was with two families in Edmonton, when he experienced a period of uncertainty after leaving school. However, it was eventually arranged that he should go to Portsmouth where he has a job as an apprentice chef. Sister Annuntiata of Portsmouth committee writes:-   "I went to see Mr. Knowles, the Head Chef, the other week. It was most encouraging to hear him say that this Italian boy was one of his best workers. He finds Vincenzo hard-working and keen to get on. He is strictly honest and always owns up if he has made a mistake in the preparation of the food, where others would try to cover up the fault. He fits in very well with the other workers and his time-keeping is very satisfactory though he lives some way away. He knows less than the others, but makes far better use of the knowledge because he is very ambitious to get on."

From Modena on the 60th Anniversary of the Founding of Boys' Town (Citta dei Ragazzi) comes this article from Laura Randighieri, a teacher, who frequently used to escort the IHC parties from Modena to England.   The first party came in 1955.


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