In 1964 I joined the Peace Corps. Along with 17 other trainees, I spent four months at Syracuse University boning up on the local language, Chinyanja, and learning about African culture and life in Malawi, where we would spend another month of training prior to heading to our posts, spread throughout the country. I lived in a small Africa village in the middle of nowhere. My job was to develop an African-owed business, a project I might add, that was at best only mildly successful and at worst a complete flop. Yet, I loved every minute of the experience and fell in love with the most joyous people on earth, the Malawians. Five years later, after my Peace Corps assignment and a two year stint working for the Malawi government, I returned to the U.S.
I had gone to Africa an idealistic young man ready to change the world. I returned home having found that the world had changed me.
This past week, fifty-four years later, I am participated in a reunion of my Peace Corps group and their spouses, several of whom I knew in Malawi. We’ve spent five days catching up, reminiscing about our years in Africa, laughing, and celebrating more than five decades of friendship.
I find it difficult to describe my feelings with this group: There is abundant love and caring, and joyous camaraderie, which is much akin to what I have come to experience in Lucca, in Italia.
The group first got reacquainted, after fifty years, in Miami, Florida in 2014 – most of us had not seen one another in all those years. We never left the hotel room, except to sleep and eat. We spent hour after hour reviewing and reliving our lifes in Malawi and since. We discovered that we all had similar, almost identical experiences – somewhat failed projects, jubilant relationships with Malawians; in essence, life altering experiences.
Tears streamed down my face as I spoke of my life since returning home: my career, coming out, falling in love with Donald, my daughter and grandkids, and my love of Italy and the Lucchesi. I felt the warm embrace of the group. And, I shed a few more tears as others told their tales of life since their days in the vast continent.
After fifty years, all of us, including our spouses, who now were a part of the group, bonded more than any of us could have ever expected or even imagined. On the last day of our reunion I read a story that would later become part of my book, Becoming Italian: How to Butcher a Beuatiful Language, Fall in Love, and Stay Young. By the end of the evening, the group decided that our next reunion had to be in Italia, in Lucca. So, two years later the same group of Peace Corps volunteers and spouses joined Donald and me for an unforgettable week in Lucca, where we, once again recalled our African adventures and took in the delights of the walled city.
Perhaps the highlight of the week was “Italian Night,” when 20 Italian friends joined together with the Peace Corps group, and, despite having little to no ability to communicate in the same language, created an amazing night of joy and frivolity. Aside from the wonderful Italian food and vino, it was reminiscent of being back in Malawi with a people who spoke another language, adhered to a diverse culture, yet lived life joyously.
That jubilation is why I have become such an Italophile. To live a life of joy is thrilling.
Enjoy these pictures of our Italia reunion – we’ll be in Sarasota, Florida come 2019.