Gatenby, Captain Charles

Summary

Captain Charles Gatenby is a New Zealander and in this fragment of his account, he describes how he meets up with Major Leslie Young and RAF Officer Dickenson after leaving some partisans. They meet charcoal burners and decide to bear East for Gran Sasso but when they nearly reach it they decide to go West of it instead. In one remote village they are turned away by the villagers and spend a desperately cold night trying to keep warm under leaves in a forest. They get close to Rieti. Near Corvaro, Young gets influenza and with a temperature of 102 they are taken in by Giuseppe and Bernadina Dimincares. It begins to snow and they are forced to stay for about two months. The villagers are kind to them but he describes, and is appalled, by the extreme poverty and dirt. Here the account ends but we know that Charles Gatenby did make it through the Lines.


The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.

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Captain Gatenby (Captured ? Camp ?) but he meets up with Leslie Young after leaving some partisans. Gatenby is reminded of Southern Alps of New Zealand (was he a Kiwi?) They meet charcoal burners. Decide to bear east for Gran Sasso and then when near go west of it. In one remote village they are turned away by all. After a desperately cold night trying to keep warm under leaves in a forest they fall out. They get close to Rieti. After crossing road and rail Gatenby sees and notes in his notebook (Very dangerous had he been captured) a petrol factory and depot.

Near Corvaro when Young had a temperature of 102 they are taken in by Giuseppe and Bernadina Dimincares (De Micheles). Describes extreme poverty and dirt. (They go over the road/rail link Rome/Pescara and down towards Anzio. See account in Young) As they get through the lines Gatenby is wounded

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‘The Rome Escape Route’ Sam Derry Harrap 1960 ‘Be not fearful’ John Furman Blond 1959

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These two books tell the excellent story of the huge operation to help over 3000 prisoners hide in and around Rome and to supply them with money and food. SD from within the Vatican with very active help of Monsignor O’Flaherty who had initiated it with the active background of the British Minister in the Vatican and the coordination of his butler. Made into film with Gregory Peck (?) JF was out and about in Rome and was recaptured but escaped near Po and got back into action in Rome within two weeks having cycled down.

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Hand written account Arthur Jobson of Queensland. Australia.

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Captured with brother July 42. In the other ship when the Nino Bixio was torpedoed (see Dark of the Moon’. Taken to PG57 Cividale nr Udine but
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at all as I am quite confident then that the Germans were too busy to bother about odd prisoners of war strolling around the country. I wish I could have known that as I could have saved myself a lot of worry and a lot of walking. Shortly after this I met up with another band of Ities and they had their headquarters in a small village in a most inaccessible part of the mountains where only a track led up to the village and motor traffic could not possibly have reached it. This band was reasonably well organised and about three Italian Captains were there, also an Italian Major besides two or three Lieutenants and I should think about two hundred Italians.

They were very keen that I should stay there and I stayed there that night and had a good meal with them also they gave me some cigarettes of poor quality Italian cigarettes but just the same they were good to me, and cigarettes I always missed. After a meal we sat around the fire in a house talking and they said that they were expecting a raiding party back fairly soon who had gone down to the village some distance away with the intention of shooting up four Fascists who lived there. About 9 o’clock these people came back loaded up with clothing, food and all sorts of things which they had stolen from these houses and said that they had shot 4 Fascists and 1 German in this village. They told what they considered to be a very amusing story. Apparently there were two Germans in this village and they had captured them and were going to shoot them but one of them produced a photograph of his family which was his wife and two children so, in view of the fact that he was married and had a family, they merely stripped him of his clothes and let him go but shot the other German. I thought how unlucky he was. This evening was spent in drinking large quantities of Vino and much singing. At one time they produced a huge Red flag with a Hammer and Sickle on it and from the conversation I gathered that they were all Communists. Needless to say I was very communistic in my views as I thought it a good policy. I drank quite a lot of wine myself the effects of which caused me to be very agreeable and before going to sleep I was quite on their side. When morning came, however, the effects of the wine had worn off and to me they were just blasted Ities again.

The Officers were very keen that I should stay but I would not. Next day I met up with two English Officers, one was a R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] Officer who had been flying a plane in the Mediterranean somewhere and was shot down and rescued from the water. With him was an English Major, a chap called Major Leslie Young of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. He had been in Tunisia only about three months before he was taken prisoner of war. We immediately found we had something in common with one another, that is, the Major and I. I discovered that he was a member of a Lodge which I also belonged to, the most exclusive Lodge in the world of which the King is a member. He seemed a good chap and after much conversation I asked if they would mind if I came along with them as they were going in the same direction. The Major whom I shall from now on refer to as Les was quite willing about it but the other chap did not seem so happy. His name was Dickenson. They had come from a camp near Parma and from his story it appeared that when the Armistice came which they had expected a few days beforehand, the whole camp of about 800 officers just marched out actually forming up in groups of companies and walked out. The Italian commandant really played the game there so it was a good show. While we were walking along he told me that he was very pleased he had met me because he did not like travelling with the chap he was with as this man Dickenson was, to put it mildly, very windy and a know-all type. However, I did not mind a bit as up till that time I had been very very lonely during the days and the days were long and the nights also lonely so it was really a pleasure to start to speak English again. They were dressed in Iti

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clothes also somewhat better than myself but I did not see that that was any advantage as the dirtier you were dressed and the rougher you were seemed to me the best way of getting about. We made quite good time during the next few days and as I have said, each day added to my confidence and I was starting almost to enjoy it. After being together for three or four days, Les and I became very friendly and were quite confident that we would get through to our people in the near future. They had maps, also, quite good ones, Touring Club Maps of Italy. However, we carefully avoided travelling on any roads at all and stuck to cross country walking. It was very hard going and the mountains were really steep and no sooner had you crossed one mountain than you had to drop away down into a deep valley and start on another one. I was still bleeding a little from this wound and it used to pain me quite a bit some days. Prior to meeting these men, I called in on numerous villages and chemists’ shops and kept the dressings changed quite frequently. However, I was very healthy and could march all day without much fatigue.

As we walked along we used to discuss all sorts of ideas for getting out more quickly besides which to try and shorten the distance for walking but at that time I was wearing only a pair of old worn out tennis shoes on the rough roads, broken rocks on the mountain sides and my feet used to get very sore. Les was more fortunate in as much as he had a pair of decent English boots when he started even though they were pretty well worn by this time. One of the best schemes put forth by Les was that we should make down to the coast, the Adriatic coast preferably and try there to get a fishing boat and by that means sail down far enough to contact our troops. We discussed this at length for days but my strong argument against it was that in the first place it would take us six or seven days walking at least to get down to the Coast which would be directly off our route and then when we did get there the chances of our getting a boat would be very slim and even if we were fortunate enough to find a boat we had no money wherewith to pay the Italian who would undoubtedly want some recompense and without any arms at all to take it from him would be rather difficult. Also, by the time we got out from the sight of land in a fishing boat during the night even if we were lucky we would probably be picked up the next day by German fighters, weeps and probably shot up on the sea besides which there was always the hazards of an open boat with practically no food or water and the possibility of storms at that time of the year.

Many arguments for and against came up but in the finish we decided that seeing that we had been so fortunate so far, we should stick on the route we were going. I often wonder now how it would have turned out.

In a way life was very interesting for us, there was the ever present danger of being recognised and picked up by the Germans or that we may run into forest guards moving through the mountains who are a body of the Fascists. We may by sheer bad luck call at the house of a Fascist when we were seeking food but against all this we were each day seeing new country, meeting new people and sleeping in a different place every night. We passed and in some cases went through many interesting villages, beautiful from a distance and yet filthy and sordid when you got into them. The countryside really was a picture. The mountain scenery really beautiful. It reminded me a lot of the Southern Alps in New Zealand.

About this time across our path according to the map, lay what appeared to be a very big forest so the shortest cut was to go through it but quite definitely from the map there were no villages about or in it and it looked as

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though we would have to sleep out. However we did not want to walk any farther than we needed so we begged a little extra food in the nature of bread and relied on finding water in the streams in this forest and off we set to walk through it. We were right about not meeting any houses or any people and the climbing was terrible. No tracks at all, just up and down one gully after another. Of course you could not see out and we had just to rely on our sense of direction to keep us going in a relatively straight path. We did sleep out that night and mighty cold it was. We were up just on five thousand feet and I was very cold when morning came. We got nothing to eat for the rest of that day and just as we were preparing ourselves to spend another night out, we glimpsed in the distance smoke so as where there is smoke there is fire and where there is fire there is usually people. – We headed for this smoke and finally met up with a group of very poor dirty Italians who apparently made a living burning charcoal. They were very friendly, gave us food and shelter for the night. Very curious they were and asked us all sorts of questions. As a matter of fact every Italian whom we ever spoke to asked us the same old questions time and time again. The first thing they would ask would be “Dove andare” which means “where are you going” and secondly “Dove venire” – “Where do you come from”, your nationality, your age, were you married or single, how many children if any and in this matter it always paid handsomely to say you had a large family, because apparently tbe Italian peasant is a really family loving man and we always found if we claimed to have many children, we got much better treatment than if we said we did not. This used to amuse us and we would make a point of speaking to Italians we saw coming first and asking him all the questions that they used to ask us before he had time even to open his mouth. They were usually tickled to death over this and thought it a great joke but just the same by the time we finished all the inevitable questions would come up again.

From news that we used to get we rather hoped that within a week or two the British Forces would be in Pescara so we decided that we would bear slightly East and make for the Gran Sasso mountain largest mountain in the south of Italy and we thought if we got on to that and got up high, we would be reasonably safe and possibly be able to move along following this course through the German reserve areas until we were pretty close to our troops. The Gran Sasso is really part of quite a big range and on the map this appeared eminently feasible so for the next week we gradually bore to the east. However, unfortunately as we got within about two days march from this mountain it became evident to us from wireless news given to us by the Italians, that there was not much chance of our forces being in Pescara for some considerable time yet so once again we changed direction and gradually worked our way back to the line which we had previously decided upon. Some time during the next day or two we had a glimpse of this Grand Sasso mountain and it must have been all of 50 miles away and it certainly looked a huge mountain. On the map its height is 2,570 metres, roughly 8,000 feet. It seemed to take us ages to get this mountain on our left as we decided to pass it with it on our left although at that time I should say we were walking roughly 30 miles across country and averaging about 18 miles on the map in a straight line.

About this time we had our first experience of going into a village and not being able to raise a bite of food of any description. All the people living in this village seemed to be dead against British troops and although we knew there were Yugo-Slav prisoners and other nationalities staying in this village, they would have nothing to do with us at all. We even tried the priest’s house and he too denied us food We felt pretty bitter about this but could do nothing about it then we asked if there was a stable where we could sleep and they said there was not, which of

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course was just lies as in every Italian village there are hundreds of stables. This made my blood boil and I pointed out to them that British troops were dying on their soil in an endeavour to liberate their country. Of course I may as well have saved my breath as their minds were made up and the Italian peasant is almost as dumb as the beasts in the field. I have since found out that the village peasant child starts to go to school when he or she reached the age of six, only four hours a day on the best of days and of course when there is any work to be done on the farm, which is frequent, they do not go at all and then every child is allowed when they reach the age of 11 years to leave, so you can imagine their mentality is very low. I remember speaking to one man and he must have been all of 50 who said he had never been further away from his own village than visibility distance. Some had never seen a train or a motor car. It seems incredible in a supposedly civilised country in Europe in these modern times. However, to get back to the matter of food and nowhere to sleep.

By this time it was almost dark so there was nothing else left for us but to push on. The road from the village as usual, dropped down into a gully through which flowed a small river. We crossed this and started on the inevitable mountain on the other side, hoping that we might find a charcoal burner’s hut if we were lucky. The night was bound to be bitterly cold as we were at quite a considerable altitude. When it became too dark for us to travel any further, and besides too risky on account of the danger of falling over the edge of some unseen precipice, we finally just lay down underneath some trees. After lying there shivering for three or four hours I finally dropped off into a fitful sleep of exhaustion. Later Les claimed he did not sleep a wink. We got up once or twice, stamped our feet and beat our hands against our sides to start the circulation moving more freely, and lay down again. Les was wearing a watch so at about 4 o’clock, an hour or so before dawn, the following morning, we decided we could stand it no longer and started to move slowly forward in what we considered to be our direction. When dawn came the ground and the trees were covered with white frost so you can imagine how bitterly cold that night was. That morning was the only morning when Les and I ever had words. It really did not amount to much, just a matter of which direction we would take and both of us were quite sure that our direction was the right one. I remember saying to him – you can go in whichever direction you like, in fact anywhere in Italy but this is the way I am going, and walked angrily away on my own. He followed anyway and by the time the sun came up we were both laughing over our foolishness and I apologised for being so rude. Considering what we had to put up with and what we did put up with later, it is amazing that we did not fall out more often and except for this occasion even right to the finish we never disagreed whatsoever.

We climbed some dreadfully high mountains that day, not much vegetation on them, covered with broken rock which was hard on our feet. Altogether a barren rocky stretch of country. We were more fortunate the following night, managing to obtain a sleeping place with some sheep. I must say although the conditions were incredibly filthy and the stench something awful, I slept like a log. We could see by the map the next day’s travel was going to take us fairly close to Rieti and there we would have to cross a main road and a railway, Main roads and railways together to us were always dangerous crossings. There was always a lot of traffic on the main roads and also a lot of German personnel guarding and maintaining the railways. Rieti itself is quite a large town set in quite a big valley so to avoid travelling on the flat country we skirted the hills until we got quite close to the road. There I spoke to

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an Italian who was working in the fields and he told me that at where we were about to cross there was a section of Germans guarding a bridge and living in a house nearby. To avoid them meant going quite a long way out of our way so we dropped down to the railway track itself which had grown on either side a fairly large scrubby fence giving quite good cover and walked along this until it ran close and parallel to the road. There we watched our opportunity and then ran across the road and up the hill which was on the other side. There was practically no cover at all and we felt quite certain the Germans who we knew to be about would be sure to see us. However, we were lucky and they did not. About a mile from the road we rested in the sun while we were lying there along came two or three Italians with whom I spoke for some time. From where we were lying I could see quite a large factory with smoke coming out of the chimney and in the yard of the factory were a lot of German trucks and while we were lying there a German convoy pulled in. I asked the Italian what was the factory used for and they told me that there was a huge petrol dump and also that the factory made synthetic petrol. I thought this was interesting enough to warrant a closer look so I moved over to within about a quarter of a mile of it and from the cover of some scrubby oak trees I saw German petrol tankers come in load up with petrol and drive away. I made a note of this in my notebook in which I have recorded anything which I considered would be valuable if ever I was lucky enough to get through.

Les at this time was suffering from a very sore heel. He did not complain much but it must have been extremely painful as I saw it often when we stopped to wash our feet in streams that lay across our path. Nevertheless it slowed us down quite a bit, not that I minded very much as with the shortage of food I was not quite as fit as I might have been and the going was mighty hard. Nothing of much interest happened during the next two or three days excepting we climbed over the roughest going we had ever encountered. Then one day we arrived at the outskirts of a village called Corvaro. There I asked an Italian if there were any Fascists or Germans in the village, and also would it be possible to get something to eat there. The Italian assured us that it would be quite safe and that we would be able to get something to eat there. We walked in and called at the first of what we later found to be of the two shops, if you could call them such, that supplied Corvaro it was just a normal Italian dwelling really incredibly filthy, millions of flies over everything , and as far as food or merchandise was concerned, practically none to be seen. The lady who ran this shop was dirty, fat and blousy, yet also quite sympathetic and bustled round to get us something to eat, firing questions all the time. She actually gave us some white bread and some bacon uncooked. We did not stand on any ceremony and wolfed this down. When we had eaten all we wanted, she offered us a packet of cigarettes and also a glass of wine. While we were having this, into the shop came some well dressed Italians. They proved to be refugees from Rome of Jewish extraction who had fled from Rome fearing the Germans and also the bombing. One spoke not bad English. They were all very friendly. During the conversation one of them told us that in the mountains nearby were living two other English Officers and wanted us to go and see them. Les and I argued over this for a while and finally decided if we could to stay the night. We asked the lady of the shop if we could and she said she was quite happy to find us a bed with the cattle so we decided to stay and use the following day which would be Sunday, visiting these two other English Officers. That was one of the reasons why we did decide to waste that next day because Sunday was always a bad day to travel. The Italians never work on Sundays and in consequence more people saw you and having nothing else to do were always

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more curious and curiosity on the part of anyone was not a thing we wanted. Before going to bed that night the husband of the lady of the shop came home. Ho proved to be a short middle-aged friendly sort of Italian with quite a sense of humour besides which he thought the world of his wife, and to me it was quite evident who wore the trousers in that establishment. His real name was Guiseppe Dimincares, known commonly in other words to all and sundry in the village as Pepino and his wife’s name which we used often later was Bernadina.

We even got blankets that night and slept quite well on a pile of hay in a shed at the back of the house. The next morning when I woke Les he told me he had had a bad night and I noticed his face was quite flushed. I went into the house und mentioned it to Bernadina and strangely enough she produced a thermometer, an Italian one, the reading of which is different to our own but I had seen many of them and could work out roughly a temperature by this. Les proved to have a temperature of 102 which was rather disturbing. Bernadina fussed round, made hot drinks and decided that a Doctor had better come to see him. As she supplied almost everyone in the village, the Doctor was quite well known and friendly to her. He came along and proved to be quite a nice chap. He said that Les had got influenza and would have to stay where he was for some days so that was that. Les and I discussed this. He was all for me pushing on as we knew the weather was about to break and unless we were very lucky it would only be a matter of days before we would be travelling in snow. However, seeing we had been together so long and also knowing full well that if I had been in his position he would not have left me, I would not hear of going on without him. Pepino seemed quite happy strangely enough. He loved talking to us and this apparently was a golden opportunity for him to talk to someone strange to the village. Les was just the same the next day and that night a storm came up and it snowed quite heavily which was no more than we had been expecting for some time. I decided then that we had more or less had it and would have to stay where we were until either our troops reached us or until the snow finished the following Spring. This was mighty depressing as we did not know if it would be possible to stay there on account of the food question and secondly, it meant hanging around for some months. These people were exceedingly friendly, in fact they could not do enough for us.

I will tell you now something of the family whom by this time I had got to know quite well. Pepino’s Mother lived with them, a fine old lady who seemed to do quite a lot of the housework. I got on quite well with her and called her Mama which everyone else did in that house. They had four children, the eldest being a girl of 14 called Marina, the second eldest, a girl of 12 called Rosina and the other a boy of 10 called after his father Pepino and the youngest a girl of about 2. Rosina was one of the most beautiful children I have ever seen. She had lovely features and beautiful jet black curly hair. A very bright child too. She quite fascinated me and I later found she was a real favourite right throughout the village, everyone of them was filthy and yet Bernadina did not seem to notice it or if she did, she did not seem to mind it. All the water for the house had to be carried from the village fountain as did every other house in that village despite the fact that it was a village of over 2000 inhabitants. This village of Corvara was built on the side of a hill and was an exceedingly old village, on it being the remains of an old castle which was built in the year 1200 odd when that country was frequented by bandits. There had been quite a catastrophe in that village about the year 1920 when a bad earthquake shook down most of the dwellings and killed about 800 people. Pepino described it all to me.

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It was rather a vivid description and he made me laugh no end when he told me he was near the old Church when the tower fell down and the huge rocks on which it was built came bounding down the hill past him. From his story he was running like hell, yet in the second breath said he was not a bit afraid. It doesn’t sound funny but if you had heard Pepino tell his story you would laugh as I did. Of course most of his story in the usual Italian fashion, is told with the help of much hand and arm wagging and all sorts of body contortions. After the earthquake, in the usual fatalistic acceptance of things, the Italians just started to build up the village again where and when possible and went on living there. While we were there, and even to this day, many of the houses they were living in are on the average all tumbled down and some of them only shells of what they used to be. The houses are all jammed close together and the streets of cobble-stones and incredibly filthy everywhere. Any refuse from the house is just thrown into the streets where the horses, donkeys, mules, cattle, pigs, dogs and fowls roam as they will. If you think this over you can imagine how dirty it is besides which there is absolutely no sanitation of any kind. I know this to be true because I stayed in and about that village for some two months and there was not a single lavatory or bathroom or even a hole dug in the ground in that village.

Like all the animals, and after all the inhabitants were only animals, whenever nature called they just went outside the door of the house and there relieved themselves and the pigs and dogs ate up what was left. Believe it or not, but this is gospel truth, I got so well-known during my stay there that I often carried on conversations even with womenfolk whom I happened to approach while moving through these streets and they were actually doing what I have described. I became quite a butt for jokes in that village when one day I foolishly asked Pepino if he had any old newspaper or paper of any description which I needed for toilet purposes. This was reason for terrific laughter and he must have later told the whole village the story. Apparently no one ever used paper there and be was absolutely rocking with laughter and tears were running down his face. He told me that everyone, right down to the smallest child, just used a stone. At first I did not believe this but seeing that his explanation brought it into my mind, I saw any amount of people carrying stones and even using them. As a matter of fact there was not even a scrap of paper in that village other than a few Bibles which the Italians treasured. No newspapers had ever come there and they were quite ignorant of what was happening in the outside world – had never heard of New Zealand nor did they know if such a place existed nor if it was in England or in China.

They knew there was a war on but did not know who was concerned in the war – not the foggiest idea. However, once a day I used to amble down to a stream about a mile from the village and there make all the toilet required for the day. Down by this stream, I frequently used to strip off and have a rub down in a pool there. The Italians seemed to get to know this by some strange telepathy and long before I ever got down to the water (and I was only two or three minutes) they were there ranging from children to old people, both sexes fairly evenly represented but perhaps the majority in favour of the women folk, I was a bit bashful to begin with but in the finish did not give two hoots and even got undressed in front of them and had my bath. Despite all these dips in this water, I never seemed to get rid of the lice which I had on me but of course I did not have any soap to use but a handful of dirt to give a good scrub. No one else in the village had any soap, I don’t think they ever used any soap from the day they were born. Some of the women-folk on a warm day used

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to stink to high heaven. There it was a common fallacy as everywhere else in the villages in Italy, that to get water on your back was absolutely fatal and they were dead sure I was courting sudden death. I was apparently quite a freak, too, because being Italians and being ignorant peasants, intensely curious, and without any reservations of modesty of any kind, the menfolk could not understand why I was somewhat different to them. Apparently the practice of circumcision was something quite unheard of in that village. So much for that and I hope this gives you some idea of how the peasant class live in Mussolini’s modern Italy, and the greater proportion of his much vaunted eight million bayonets came from the menfolk from these villages.

In thinking of and describing this village I have somewhat strayed away. Les by this time had more or less recovered, and in many places where I have said “I”, I should have said “We.” In all, he was ill for at least two weeks and was quite weak for some time afterwards. Also by this time we had contacted these two Englishmen who were living in a shepherd’s hut in a valley about three miles from Corvaro, They had arrived there about a month before we came to this village and on account of the condition of their boots and thinking they were in a very safe place, and also expecting rapid advances from our forces, considered they were wise to stay there. I remember them now only by their first name, one was called Frank and the other one Vivian, both quite nice chaps. They had made contact with some Italians in the village who were quite happy to bring them out enough food to live on and were quite convinced that they need only stay there at the outside a month. Les and I by this time were quite well known and accepted in this village. I somewhat more so, because I had filled in my days while he was ill wandering around the village and speaking to anyone and everyone and besides which I had a much better knowledge of Italian than he did, not that that was essential very much. These people spoke a dreadful dialect and they were very hard to understand. They seemed quite proud to know us and I was known as Capitano Carlos and Les as Majori Giovani because his second name was Young and there was no equivalent for Leslie. Giovani in Italy is their word for Young. In a way, they were so very friendly, I could not help but like them specially as I bore in mind the fact that I was entirely dependent on them for the food I ate.

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