The tall elegant building in Merchants Street comprised the departmental offices of the ‘World Travel Agency’. The cruel scorching sun of a Maltese summer seemed to have spurned people to seek a shadier and a cooler spot for their holidays.
Indeed the efficient busy clerks of the agency were having a rather hectic time. One by one they booked their eager clients to spend their holiday in different Mediterranean countries.
In the queue, a shy young girl was anxiously anticipating her first holiday abroad. “One sea ticket to Sicily please, on the first departure next week”. The tone of her voice gave away her eagerness and her anxiety.
On that lovely day in June, the ‘Star of Malta’ cut through the waves like a sharp baker’s knife, forging ahead unobstructed by the calm and friendly Mediterranean sea. With her hands resting on the cold railing of the good ship, Maria was thinking of home.
She had just lost her job as a dentist’s nurse in Valletta. Maybe it would be for the best. She had hated her job, the patients, the sight of blood, the cries of the children afraid of the dentist; the whole clinical environment was not to her liking. On her return she would seek a different job, a salesgirl, a stationery assistant maybe, but certainly she did not want anything to do with dentists.
Sicily was a beautiful island, her friends had told her, not far away from Malta. She would see the little towns, climb the slopes of Mount Etna, dip in the blue sea, enjoy her meals of Italian pasta, admire the beautiful architecture, buy some souvenirs for her family and friends.
When the ship berthed in Siracuse, Maria, tired and weary, sought refuge at the ‘Albergo Amigo d’Italia’. She had a lovely room there, overlooking the bright twinkling lights of the port. From here she could see the little passenger boats as well as the smaller fishing crafts, coming and going like a beehive of activity.
The other window, nicely fitted with venetian blinds, overlooked the grand Via Umberto – a long wide road attractive with the colour of shop windows and the striped curtains squeezing out the hot sun.
She met him on the next day while strolling down the ‘Corso Matteotti’. He came on her from nowhere. “You are a stranger” he said as if she had a notice pinned on her giving away that information.
“Allow me signorina to show you some of the lovelier spots of my island”. Even if he had not said ‘My island’ she would have guessed that he was a Sicilian.
He was a typical Italian youth as Maria imagined Italian youths would be, different in character from the youths she normally met in Malta.
His black tousled hair matched perfectly with his dark Latin complexion and his manners were definitely local. What an imprudent young man he was, she thought at first. But she soon changed her mind as he engaged her in amiable conversation. He was, in fact, such a nice young man, with good manners.
“My name is Antonio” he said “and I come from Ragusa, some few miles away from here”. Maria pursed her lips and did not know what to do, then she looked straight at him and snapped back “Thank you; please tell me from where I can get a taxi”.
He did not like these words, they did not show any compliment at all. “Forget about the taxi; there aren’t any for strangers” he said “but do you want a guide?”
then she smiled at him. How could she help it? Antonio was not only a good looking young man but he never lost heart either, she thought.
“Very well” she replied “show me around”. “Wait a minute” he said “You have not yet told me your name”. “Maria” she said “Maria”.
They crossed over from Corso Matteotti to Piazza Archimede in the centre of the old town. They found themselves before an imposing monument of great historical importance.
“That is Guiseppe Garibaldi” said Antonio proudly. “He was instrumental in uniting Italy”. Maria went near to the monument and touched the cold hard marble. “What a grand monument, he must have been so loved by his people”.
“He certainly was signorina, to this very day” replied Antonio with a proud smile on his face. He was pleased that Maria was taking interest in Italian history. “Please tell me more about him” she said.
Both of them sat on the beautiful marble steps that form the pedestal of this great monument. They watched the people moving around the Piazza and Antonio was telling Maria all about Giuseppe Garibaldi and his adventures.
He narrated how, with his one thousand red-shirted soldiers, he embarked from Sicily towards the Italian mainland, freeing different states, then meeting King Vittorio Emanuele in Rome.
Garibaldi, along with Vittorio Emanuele and Cavour, are the architects and fathers of united Italy. “But he was more than a soldier” said Antonio. “He was always willing to help oppressed people everywhere and was unaffected by the lure of wealth and power.”
Then he took her hand and showed her around the fine places of his island – the long sandy spiaggias, the indoor lidos, the big piazzas with statues in the centre on which white pigeons played on their heads. He showed her the old churches, all artistically decorated with marble monuments, paintings and tapestries.
He also took her around the many lovely gardens that make this island so beautiful. She liked all these things and wanted to see more. Perhaps she wanted to see more of Antonio than these places; she did not know exactly what her heart actually wanted.
Ten days of a lovely holiday passed so swiftly. She liked to have more time to stay with Antonio, wandering all around his island. But she couldn’t! Maria had to go back to Malta tonight.
She met Antonio that evening and went to the beautiful ‘giardino’ just behind the hotel. That evening, passing through all the lovely scenery, Maria felt Antonio’s hand grasp her even tighter. If only he lived in Malta or if only she lived in Sicily, she thought.
The fresh scent of fresh flowers filled her with delight. “When will you come back?” said Antonio trying hard to hide the feelings of a man madly in love for the first time. Maria looked lovingly into Antonio’s eyes, piercing them through and reading their feelings. “Soon” she said “Very soon”. He took her in his arms and both lovers were engrossed in a passionate embrace. She felt the strong supporting arms of this friendly Italian and she remarked. “Tell me something Antonio, do you go up to all strangers and introduce yourself?” He looked at her questioningly and smiled. “No Maria, not to all strangers, but I could not help doing so to such a lovely Maltese girl as you!”
Maria returned home after a week of bliss. As she rummaged in her handbag, she saw the card Antonio had put in her bag before they parted and gasped – “Dott. Antonio Speranza –Dentista”