Crossing the Rubicon
Susan P. BlevinsMy feet clattered eagerly up the gangplank of the ferry which was to take me to my new life in Europe. I could not stop myself from smiling excitedly with anticipation, as I looked down at the silent and still figures of my parents below, on the dock. My mother was weeping at the thought of losing her only child, and my father glowered his displeasure at me. I was too thrilled at the thought of leaving to care! As the ferry chugged its way out of Newhaven harbor, I felt elated. I could only think that I had done it! I had managed to break out, and now I was heading for the unknown.
I’d known ever since I was a child that I didn’t belong in England. I never felt I fitted in. I was always being told to be quiet and decorous, but I was obstinate, and all I wanted was to be boisterous and expressive of the creative life force I felt surging inside me. I was always the one who was picked on and bullied in school, and I never knew why. The worm eventually turned when I was in college and I stood up to my tormentor. I was never happy in England, with the bourgeois constraints of ladylike behavior, walk don’t run, never whistle, be seen but not heard, play piano for the guests, don’t speak until spoken to. My friends today cannot believe I was once meek and mild, when they witness my passionate (aka noisy) involvement in discussions. But I was, my early personality dampened by the oppressive English climate.
My life changed with my first real job at age 18, as a secretary at the Glyndebourne Opera House, buried deep in the hills of rural Sussex. Glyndebourne had an even more esteemed reputation than Covent Garden, and many singers who subsequently became world famous, were first heard singing there. Luciano Pavarotti sang with us at the very beginning of his career, with the pure voice of an angel, and I have my starstruck photo with him from when I was 19 and he was 29. He was fondly referred to as Passion Flower by all the young women working in Admin.
Above all, I was exposed to joyous, expressive, noisy Europeans for the first time in my life, Italians, French, Germans, Austrians, all full of life and creative expression, and I fell in love with all of them.
My days as a secretary would have been so different in an office somewhere in a city, but here, in this artsy, musical environment, I had as much freedom as my heart desired. For starters, when it was a lovely day, I moved my desk outside and did my work in the garden. I attended most rehearsals each day, and every evening performance of the season for the two years I worked there. When there was no room in the auditorium, I sat in the orchestra pit, and if that failed, I stood in the wings and watched. I was drunk on opera, music and life. I was very lucky to have that job because I applied for it before I had even finished my secretarial training, in the autumn of 1962. I turned up for my interview in a pretty white frock with large navy spots on it, a white and navy straw hat perched on my head, white heels and white gloves. The perfect secretary. They needed someone immediately, but when they saw my burning desire to work there, they waited for me to complete my final trimester of college, and I started working for them on 1st January, 1963. My duties were not limited to secretarial work. I also worked the old telephone switchboard sometimes, plugging people in and out, and listening to conversations too, of course. I occasionally manned the Box Office, and most evenings I stood behind a table in The Covered Way, as the vestibule was called, always in my long evening gown (home-made by me), asking people to donate to the Arts Trust. I was the happiest I had ever been in my life.
I lived in the small town of Lewes, just a few miles from Ringmer, where Glyndebourne is located. I had a one-room apartment that was so small I could sit in the bathtub and cook myself an omelette on the stove at the same time. My usual, impoverished dinner was two beaten eggs with sugar, instant coffee and milk. Life was so simple back then. My mother bought me my first car, a used maroon mini, which I named Carlotta, because the registration was CAA.
It was during this magical time that I went abroad for the first time. At the end of my first season working there, two of us from Glyndebourne set off across Europe to Austria, in a little Austin A-40. I was sick with excitement as we crossed the Channel, and could not believe my eyes as I saw grapes adorning houses and farms in Germany, heard a local band playing oompah music, and finally arrived in Vienna, poor but passionate. The whole experience was beyond my wildest dreams. We trooped over to the State Opera House and queued up for hours for a ticket. We only needed one because we went backstage to see Luciano Pavarotti, and he gave us a magnificent seat in the Orchestra Stalls. We swapped back and forth for each act between the expensive seat and a bench high up in the gods. I felt myself being pulled more and more away from England.
In the spring of the second year I worked at Glyndebourne, I took my mother to France in the mini, and we both had an eye-opening time of adventure and excitement, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, trying weird new food like snails, and getting lost frequently. All this confirmed my growing sense that life could be much more exciting than it had been so far.
During these two years, being around Italians and their joie de vivre, I felt myself being drawn more and more to Italy, land of love and music and handsome men, and it appears that all along I was destined for Italy, because I met an Italian girl named Iris, same age as me, staying in Lewes to learn English, whose father was the head of the hospital in Pesaro, a small town on the Adriatic. Fate gave me an additional push at this point because his assistant, Benedetto, was looking for a signorina to teach English to his two small children. My friendship with Iris blossomed, and she wrote to her father about me, who passed on her assessment of my sterling character to Benedetto. He and his wife Mimmi said they would like me to go and live with them. I would get bed and board and a very, very small stipend.
I knew then, without the slightest doubt, that I was meant to leave England and start life anew in Italy. I had to fight tooth and nail to get permission from my parents, who were dead set against my living “on the Continent”, as they referred to Europe, but the obverse of stubbornness is perseverance, and I had the burning conviction that I was destined to go there, so ultimately I overcame their objections.
I left the shores of England by ferry on 6th September, 1965, age 20, arriving by train at Pesaro on the 7th. As it turned out, I never lived in England again. Once I arrived in Italy I knew I had come home, who knows, perhaps evidence of past incarnations in Italy? The Italians kept telling me I had a Renaissance profile, and I lapped it up. Only when I was living in Italy did I feel myself escape from the little box where I had been imprisoned, free at last to spread my wings, my spirit released to become who I was meant to be.
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