The town of Hot Springs has a lot character, with its history of healing waters and bathhouses.
Knowing that, I hoped we might meet some curious locals when Don and I traveled there. We met a few, but the person I'll remember best was "Uncle Harry". He wasn't exactly a hillbilly from the Ozarks though. Harold was a retired chef from Italy.
Quiet at Night
It was a warm evening in September when Don and I wandered down from the Admiral Hotel, past the old bathhouses.
I noticed a man dressed in a dapper, white suit and hat seated outside the Plaza Hotel. He might have been an interesting character.
But it was inside this cozy little Italian restaurant where we met some folks sitting at the bar. Don had lots of questions for bartender Daniel, who had been serving up drinks for 25 years.
I was intrigued with the gentleman seated at the end of the bar. He spoke with a charming Italian accent, with just about everyone. At one point, he left his seat and headed into the kitchen.
The man in the white shirt came back carrying a steaming plate of fettuccine and a basket of bread. Daniel handed him a 7up and the man frowned and pointed to my glass. Daniel fetched him a glass of Pinot Noir, but the man fussed that it wasn't filled as high as mine. I laughed and we started talking. "You're Uncle Harold?" I asked, since everyone seemed to call him that. A few others jumped in to brag on Uncle Harold.
"Uncle Harold was a big name chef in Chicago!" He'd moved from Italy to Chicago in the sixties, where he worked as a chef until the 1980's. I was eager to get the details of his career in the food world. I wanted to picture the restaurants where he worked and to know what his favorite dishes were and who taught him to cook. But Uncle Harold spoke fast and his accent made communication tricky. He got a little impatient when politely repeated his words for confirmation... "So you said you worked as a chef since the 1960's?" "Yes. That's what I just told you."
My ears started working better when he talked about Italy. When he said he grew up in the town of Lucca, I lit up. I had fond memories of visiting the magical village as a child. I told him I was 11, but I remember it well from my diaries and the postcards I bought there. He asked if I remembered old wall the surrounded town.
He reminisced about how the city wall made Luccas so special. "We didn't have cars!" he recalled. And that reminded me of my childhood reaction to Venice which also didn't have cars. "I remember it felt like a kids playground, where we could roam and play without traffic and beeping horns!
I wondered where my old postcard collection was and wished I could show a few to Uncle Harold.
I found them when I returned from the trip and I wondered if Harold had gone to this Cathedral!
As we sat in that funny little bar, the 2 of us kept reflecting on our own memories of the same town. I asked if he knew of Villa Garzoni, which wasn't far from Lucca. The beautiful park, built in the 1600's, had a grand staircase and manicured gardens and fountains and waterways. He did know the park, that was in nearby Collodi, where the author of Pinocchio spent time in his childhood years.
Uncle Harold seemed about the same age as my dad. In fact he laughed and joked in a way that reminded me of my father. So I shared the memory of my dad in that very garden, being tossed into the fountain by the students we were traveling with, from Florida State. I had seen him climb out laughing and dripping, but I worried to my mother. "Why would they...!" "Your dad is one of their favorite teachers." My mom tried to assure me.
So Thanks, Uncle Harold!
It was fun to meet you and learn about you. But mostly you brought up forgotten memories of a place that seems like a vague dream. I've never met anyone from Lucca and you made me realize there really was such a magical place. I didn't make it up!
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To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers