I went willingly. I walked along streets familiar to me from my childhood. Guinea cantina was first opened for business by one of my greatgrandfathers and had been inherited from my grandfather, “the American,” the first of the family to be called Guinea and who had made a fortune and bought some land and small farms. In the cantina I’d had a sort of initiation into life. My grandfather, who lived with us, would take me with him, and I stood by him, enraptured by the card games, and by patrons who drank up Guinea to five litres of wine. Even after I stopped going to the cantina I felt a sense of belonging to it, and was happy to know that the place of memories and life lived on, thanks to the efforts of my aunt and cousins. I’ve always had a poor tolerance for the closure of places, houses, relationships and friendships. Maybe that’s why I’m never the one to bring closure, Guinea but all of this has no bearing on the story of my cousin Gio.
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Even without knowledge of Italian, or a word of French, Gio had made his fortune, thanks to his way of being and doing things that made him an agreable figure.
After many work experiences, he’d found a steady job in a mechanics shop far away from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, on the border between France and Italy, for the construction of the Frejus tunnel. He earned respect for his work ethic and know-how and after a few years he was invited to work in a large shop at the Centre for Nuclear Energy in Geneva. “I move about like a gypsy, but wherever I go, they love and respect me.” When he returned, to the village, every time I ran into him he would speak, without affectation, but almost amazed and intimidated, of homes he’d bought and savings he’d put away in the bank.
The paesani who knew him, and who came back for the summer, spoke of the wonders of Gio, who was able to move about in his new world with the effortlessness of someone who had been born in it. He could talk to businessmen and bank managers, workshop supervisors and salespeople, French women and people from his own country. He kept, as it happens, close ties with the large community of paesani. His smile and his skill to make engines sing, to give them new life, had made him relatively well off. My aunt and my uncle, Lina and Vito, thought it no less than a miracle. Gio had made it. In their hearts they had expected it, even though they had lived with fear and trembling Gio’s life journey far away from home.
One summer about ten years later Gio returned with Annie, who came originally from Cameroon. Later, their child Michel, Michele for us, joined them. At first his aunt and uncle looked upon him with suspicion, but soon accepted Annie as their daughter and doted on their nephew who kept the name of his grandfather, and his grandfather’s grandfather, alive. Michel was growing up to be slender and beautiful. His dark complexion wasn’t a novelty. The Calabrian Gio was darker than his Cameroonian partner, who was the quiet type and always followed with a smile her husband’s endless storytelling. When Gio was busy translating for his wife and son, he was so amusing that those who knew him thought they were watching an ancient farce from the village.