JOHN, THE AMERICAN IN FORIO
SEVEN YEARS AGO HE CAME TO OUR GREEN ISLAND…. NOW HE CAN NOT LEAVE
In Forio the American is a familiar figure. A tall, slender man with long hair tied back in a pony tail, a gray goatee and moustache, and in his teeth an unlit Cuban cigar he acquired from De La Concha, a most famous tobacco store in New York. In the summer he takes his morning coffee at an outdoor table at La Piazzetta. During the winter he goes to Bar Roxy, and sits inside to escape the chill. He buys groceries at Di per Di near the cinema, and afterwards hoists the heavy plastic sack over his shoulders and hikes up the mountain to his apartment on the ground floor of Villa Giuseppe Regine, on Via Mortola. He is quiet, enigmatic. Since his arrival nearly seven years ago he has lived alone. For a while a young calico cat named Pushi kept him company, but the poor animal died suddenly a few months ago.
What brought the American to the island? What does he do?
Maestro Giuseppe Iacono first encountered John Palcewski in November, 1999, when he was co-owner of a computer store near Monterone. Maestro reports that John came in the door and asked him if he would find him an English-speaking attorney who would look over a lease for an apartment he was planning to rent. Of course he complied.
The strange and complex process that eventually brought John to Italy began in April, 1997, when he received an email from a girl named Maria, who told him she’d just read a story of his on an internet literary magazine, and she enjoyed it very much. His picture, she said, suggested he was a very intelligent man. She described herself as slim, blonde, green-eyed, and athletic. And quite drawn to intelligent men. And by the way, she said, she was from Ischia.
“By an extraordinary coincidence,” John says, “I was familiar with the island. I knew it was the location of the famous Nestor’s Cup, on which is scratched one of the earliest known examples of alphabetical language--a language specifically meant to preserve Homer’s great oral epics. For a romantic intellectual writer like me, Maria’s connection to this history was utterly compelling, even before we actually met. The more she wrote to me about growing up on that exotic island, the more I was drawn to her.”
As everyone knows, these Greek words are scratched on the artifact:
I am the goodly cup of Nestor. Whomsoever drinks of me, the desire of fair-crowned Aphrodite will immediately seize.
Scholars say the inscription might have been an experiment to see if writing could replace chanting. John says with a grin that there is absolutely no question this 800 BC love spell was a tremendous success. “I fell madly, deeply, and completely in love with Maria. I was, and will remain forever, in Aphrodite’s grip!”
Maria told John stories of her childhood in the village of Buonopane, and visiting her Nonna every summer on the nearby island of Ponza. She described her battles with her strict father, Giovanni. Her running away from home at five and hiding for three days in an empty barrel in the cantina of one of his vineyards. John found her tales fascinating, and he was elated when Maria suggested that he might write a book. Yes, of course. A book about her life.
In November, 1999, John knew he should visit the island to take detailed notes and lots of photographs. He thought three weeks would be enough time to get a good feel for the island he was going to write about. Maria helped him get a hotel reservation in Forio. He looked forward to a most intriguing adventure. But he was not prepared for what would happen to him when the ferry from Naples pulled into Forio Porto.
“When I saw the yellow dome of St. Gaetano, and the old lookout tower, and the colorful boats in the harbor,” he said, “I was overcome with a feeling that this place was entirely more special than I had imagined. It’s impossible to describe the deep emotions that literally overwhelmed me as I walked the streets of Forio. Everything about this place was both attractive and strangely familiar to me, and on that very first day I knew—beyond any doubt—that I had to live here. Permanently. I did not question my decision, and I didn’t need to analyze why. It was something I just had to do. And I did.”
After settling into his new home, John began writing a novel about the woman he loved.
In August, 2002, Maria—still in America—received the shocking news that she was not Giovanni and Restituta’s natural daughter, but rather had been adopted by them in 1964 in Naples. At first Giovanni refused to give her any details. “We raised you,” he said. “That’s all you need to know.”
But finally Giovanni revealed the name of Maria’s biological mother.
Stunned, Maria called John long distance. She said she couldn’t believe the story. It was too bizarre, too improbable. It just couldn’t be true. Was there any for him to find out for sure? Surely he could do some checking. After all, he was a writer, a professional journalist. John immediately agreed, and set to work.
Where was the famous star in 1963 prior to Maria’s birth on January 14, 1964? He looked through one of her authorized biographies, “Sophia,” by Stefano Masi, which reported she was in Naples with Marcello Mastroianni making a movie that won an academy award in 1965 for Best Foreign Language Film. In it she played a pregnant woman.
According to Masi, “The Neapolitan episode [of Sophia’s 1963 film “Ieri, oggi, e domani”] was, in some way, prophetic: during the shooting Sophia realized that she was pregnant for real.” But Masi goes on to say that the actress “lost the baby in the fourth month of her pregnancy.”
At the time Sophia was married to producer Carlo Ponti. Would he have accepted the baby, had it been carried to full term? Probably not. Was abortion an option? Not in the 1960s in Italy. Adoption? Well, that would have been the only reasonable option. And the movie studio almost certainly had a great interest in keeping the whole thing secret. Sophia had a lucrative career ahead of her, and she simply could not afford a scandal.
There was more. Throughout her childhood Maria was always told how different she was from other members of her family. She looked like none of them. They were stocky, dark skinned, dark haired, dark eyed. Maria was slender, fair, blonde, and green-eyed. Most significant, she was the only person in the entire family named Maria. Neither Giovanni nor Restituta would ever explain why they did not name their daughter either after themselves or their parents. Maria is the name of Sophia’s sister.
And still more. “Between Strangers,” released in 2002, is Sophia’s 100th film. It was written and directed by Edoardo Ponti, her son. In it she plays an unhappily married woman who reveals a dark secret, for which she is very ashamed. And that is, many years ago she gave up a daughter for adoption.
In one scene, Sophia as Olivia says to Max: “You don’t know how I felt holding my daughter in my arms. If only I didn’t let her go that day.” She pauses. “My father didn’t take my daughter away from me, Max. I gave her up myself.”
“Olivia, you were only a child,” Max says.
“I could have held on tighter. You can’t imagine what a strong and beautiful woman she is now.”
“Where do you think she got it from? Hmmm? Where do you think she got it from?”
And finally, photos of Maria show an unmistakable resemblance to those taken of Sophia and Marcello in the 60s. Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Marcello and Catherine Denueve, also resembles Maria.
John shared with Maria all the information he had found. He told her while this was a somewhat persuasive circumstantial case, it was not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The only way to resolve the issue, he said, was either DNA or a confirmation or denial from Sophia. Maria replied she would never submit a DNA sample. Why? “First that woman abandoned me,” she said. “Now I’m supposed to prove it!” Maria instead asked John if he could find a way of contacting Sophia privately, and put the question to her. He said he would try his best.
He wrote to literally hundreds of investigative reporters, journalists, editors and literary agents throughout the US and Europe. He outlined the story and asked them if they would help him get in touch with Sophia. The vast majority of these people did not reply. Those who did reply were highly skeptical and dismissive. They seemed to believe that Maria and John were greedy charlatans, hoping to make some money with a false maternity allegation.
In August, 2003, After nearly a year of failed attempts to contact Sophia privately, John gave an interview to a reporter from Il Golfo, hoping the story might spread over Europe and the US, and perhaps thus prompt Sophia to reply. The story did indeed go around the world. Most significantly, no journalist or investigative reporter ever uncovered any evidence to disprove the maternity allegation.
Despite that Sophia remains silent. She has not confirmed or denied she is Maria’s mother. A lawyer who manages Sophia’s marketing image initially told John he would ask Sophia to comment, but then he went silent. John’s subsequent letters and emails were unanswered.
In May, 2005, Maria finally agreed to submit a DNA sample to American Medical Services, a respected world-wide laboratory. John notified Giovanna Cau, Sophia’s attorney in Rome, that the sample had been submitted and hoped that Ms. Loren would be kind enough do the same. Ms. Cau wrote back saying that she no longer represents Sophia, and does not know who does. This was still another in a long series of dead ends, frustrations.
I asked John why Maria has not taken legal action to compel Sophia to address this issue. There is, after all, a sufficient amount of circumstantial evidence to support asking the question, and it’s a question that Maria has a legal and moral right to ask.
“There are two reasons,” John replied. “One is that Maria does not want anything from Sophia, other than the truth, one way or another. Another is that she does not have the financial resources to hire lawyers.”
In October, 2005, John completed the writing of DROWNING, a novel that describes in meticulous detail the entire story of his convoluted romance with Maria and the acute emotional tailspin she went into when she learned of the adoption. It’s a long and sometimes painful narrative. And in March, 2006, John completed MEMORIA NERA, a personal memoir. Both have been accepted for publication online at PulpBits.com. (Maestro is happy to say that he is in the process of translating both these books into Italian, and will submit them to publishers on John’s behalf when they are complete.)
This, then, is the narrative of a man came to Ischia to unearth the roots of his passion. It is also the story of a secret that will not or must not be revealed, which involves him, his Maria, and very important persons. Many of us know this secret, which after all only hides the drama of one who is also searching for a lost identity. It’s strange! But looking into John’s eyes I sense that he has found and embraced his identity here, in Forio, on the Isle of Ischia, and now he is determined help the woman he loves to do the same.
When you walk the narrow streets of Forio and you encounter John, the Americano, as we call him here, you’ll have more than one reason to greet him and smile, because he represents a life dedicated to the search for love, like that narrated in the epical books, or like that of many other foreigners, important or less, who walked through our streets and felt compelled to live in that they called “Earthly Paradise”.