Sunday, April 01, 2007

Salvatore and Giovanni

On Thursday night I was paged to the front of the store just after closing time. Two men were standing by the till and talking to Lina. One of them was wearing a brightly colored ski jacket, the other was in a coat much too thin for this weather. Lina looked at me and mouthed the words “say no” as I approached the counter. I greeted them and Lina said that they wanted to exchange euros for Canadian dollars. I told the men that there was no way for us to do that. I could smell the faint hint of an expensive cologne.
“No bank here?”
“No. There is a bank in Norman Wells. I‘m sure they could do it.”
“How far away is it?”
“About an hour away.”
“One hour?”
“An hour or an hour and a half.”
“One hour?”
“One hundred kilometers.”
This registered with the man.
“Okay. There is bus there?”
“No, no buses. You can fly or drive. Rent a truck.”
“Fly? Too expensive.”

I wondered how two men could get to Tulita from somewhere in Europe (I couldn’t place the accent) without stopping to exchange their money. And if they had come this far, why wouldn’t they pay a few hundred extra dollars to get to the next town? A town with finer hotels and a few restaurants.
Meanwhile, the man’s friend noticed our bank machine in the corner. He called out to him. The man looked at me.
“Your machine work?”
“It may work for you,” I said, not knowing if our humble little cash machine could exchange euros in some European account for Canadian dollars.
They consulted with the machine and seemed satisfied after a while. They then left the store. I would have struck up a conversation with them and asked them what brought them to Tulita, but they seemed fairly mad and unfriendly, so I just let them go.

On Friday morning there was a truck waiting for us outside the store. It was only half a load, but we spilled a pallet of pepsi as it was coming off the truck. It turned a one hour job into a two hour job. A can of pepsi will freeze fairly quickly when it is 20 below.
Nicole called me around 11:00. She was laughing.
“There’s these two guys at the hotel. You’ll never believe this. They’re from Italy and their spiritual advisor told them they have to be in Tulita on Monday morning to receive some good luck!”

If ever there was a story for CBC radio, this was it. I asked Nicole to invite them over for dinner if she saw them. But she didn’t have to, because I saw them first. As soon as I waked out into the store, there were the Italians in their ugly ski-suit glory. I ran over to introduce myself. The man said his name was Giovanni.
“How about you come to our house tonight for supper? Chicken?”
“Yes, chicken? Good. Come here,” he gestured towards the front door. We went over and he pointed at a snowmobile.
“We want to rent one of these?”
I knew locals would rent their snowmobiles to oil companies. I asked a few people, and I got a few names, but after a few phone calls I had no luck in locating a skidoo for them. I told them I would try later.

Nicole, being the saint that she is, cooked dinner for four that night. I left work a bit early, and a few minutes before eight, I walked over to the hotel to get them. Giovanni introduced me to his friend, Salvatore. Salvatore spoke almost no English, Giovanni later explained to us. Giovanni had traveled throughout Europe when he was younger, and had spent several months in England. So his English was ok. Giovanni had asked him along on this trip for that very reason.
Cooking dinner for Italians is probably difficult enough when you have access to fresh vegetables and meat. We apologized for the quality of our humble salad, with its wilted lettuce and mushy tomatoes. The two men puzzled over the Kraft Italian dressing on our table. Salvatore eventually came up with a name for it that Giovanni agreed with. In broken English Salvatore spoke about the high quality of food and fashion that all Italians enjoy.
We learned that the two men work at a car dealership on the island of Sicily. Salvatore was the owner. Giovanni a salesman. He produced a business card that showed logos of everything from Ford to Jaguar and Porsche.
At times, the two men would argue for five minutes at a time in Italian. Nicole and I sat in awkward silence as they gestured and spoke over each other, only to calm down. Sometimes there was an explanation of what they were arguing about, other times, the subject was changed.
Eventually the subject changed to what had brought the meant here. Salvatore spoke while Giovanni translated, sentence by sentence. Salvatore had been consulting an astrologer for many years now. This particular astrologer was highly regarded, and even consulted with Prime Minister Berlusconi himself. His method was different from most. He was able to pinpoint the exact location on earth one should be on their Birthday in order to achieve the best influence from the stars and planets. In past years, Salvatore had traveled to New Orleans, Africa, and Australia to celebrate his birthday. This year, the Astronomer had told him Tulita, Northwest Territories, Canada.
It was clear that Salvatore believed this without a doubt. He was not embarrassed or shy to share this information with us. He had just dropped thousands of dollars to jump on a plane and fly to the middle of nowhere in order to have good luck. This made perfect sense to him.
The two never did get to go for a skidoo ride. I tired calling a few more people over the next few days, but without any luck. Salvatore mostly stayed in his warm hotel room. I dropped by to see them on Sunday. He had managed to find a soccer game on Fox Sports. One of the teams was Italian.
Giovanni ventured out throughout the weekend in his conspicuous snowsuit, but found the -40 windchill too much for his face and hands. The locals were more or less ambivalent to these strange visitors. I would have thought that someone else would have taken an interest in their story and invited them out for some traditional northern food.
Because of their broken English and my own lack of time, I decided not to bother with a radio piece and instead submitted a story about the men to the News North. Apparently they didn’t like my story because they never replied.
They flew out on Monday morning: Salvatore’s 53rd birthday. He only needed to be present in the very early morning, the time which corresponded with his birth in Italy in order to receive good luck. I soon have to write them a letter and let them know that their story didn’t make the cut. They promised Nicole and I that if we ever come to Sicily, we are welcome to stay at their homes. I told them I’d be happy with a test drive in a Porsche.