Travelling with kids, a family affair

I've been reading articles and blog posts with any sort of advices and tricks about travelling with kids. The amount of literature produced on the topic led me to think this was a major adventure, and I started wondering how on earth my grandmother managed to do what she did more than fifty years ago.

Today most travelling happens by plane, and most airports and airlines provide facilities for babies, kids and parents, so I asked my grandmother to tell me her story: how did she bring in 1957, at the young age of 26, six children, of the age range between six years old and eight months, from Sedilo, a godforsaken village in Sardinia, to Lorraine, France?

"Easy! We got ready and we left!"

I'm not sure whether my grandmother was reckless or brave, but the fact is that she actually left her hometown, alone (my grandfather was already in France looking for job and accommodation), with no money (or very little since she had just sold a pig!) and six little pests, to embark on a journey without any kind of facility.

I guess she was both brave and reckless, but first of all, she was pushed by the need to provide her sons and daughters with food everyday. Post-war Italy was a wreck, Sardinia was among the worst hit regions and Sedilo suffered terribly from hunger. There were no options but leave.

The preparation involved also taking the picture for the ID (photo above). The council told my grandma the photo needed to include all members, that's how the picture that now is the symbol of our family was taken. The photographer fell in love with it and displayed it for months in his shop.

I knew they started their trip in Abbasanta, the nearest train station from Sedilo, but I've always wondered how they got to the station so, artlessly, I asked her: "Did you book two cars at least to go from Sedilo to Abbasanta?"
"What car?? I stuck them all in a coach! The little money we had was to suffice for the whole journey, and rest assured that we knew when we were leaving, but we had no idea what day we would arrive!"

My grandfather's youngest brother helped my grandmother during the trip, he was 22 and, like the rest of the group, he had never left Sardinia before. They didn't even speak Italian, only Sardinian native language, let alone French.

Once in Abbasanta's train station, my mother ran to the platforms: "Grandma took me away by my hair," she told me. "She didn't have time for pampering anybody. I never ran away anymore."

"Felice," remembers my grandmother amused, "didn't want to go anywhere without pabassini (the typical Sardinian cakes), so I had to make some before leaving." Felice is my uncle, and at the time he was two. Needless to say, the smallest daughter, the eight-month one, caught the flu during the journey.

After a two-hour journey by train they arrived at the port and got on the ship. The most obvious way would have been toward Genoa, which is close to France, but in 1957 there weren't any ships travelling from Sardinia to Genoa, so my future family got off in Civitavecchia, Rome's port.

From here, they caught the train to Switzerland, where they waited for another train that would bring them to Metz, Lorraine. It was November, and temperatures were starting to go down, especially in Switzerland. The kids were not dressed with winter clothes, so the social workers provided them with blankets. "I might still have one of those blankets," remembers my grandmother. "They were very warm!"

The journey lasted three days and in Metz my grandfather was impatient to welcome his family.

My mother doesn't remember much of her first moments in her new hometown, so my grandma helps us piece together the events. Once in France, all immigrants were gathered in a former military dormitory, where they would live together for a month.

After a few days the families were allocated a house each by the mine company (because my grandfather got a job in a mine in Lorraine, 1000 mt underneath the earth surface). The house actually became property of my grandparents, who were also given the first monthly salary and one allowance for each child.

My grandmother remembers that they had never seen so much money all together so, when my grandfather got home with all that cash, they spread it out on the main table and kept staring at it, speechless. With hindsight, that money was barely enough to make ends meet, but my grandparents were used to living in such poverty that they believed they had touched the sky with a finger.

Since then, my grandmother was the family's accountant: her husband would give her the salary every month and she had the task to administrate for everybody's expenses.

This is how their French adventure started. Now that I'm an expat, every time I go to visit my grandmother she cries at the idea of her granddaughter living abroad, because I remind her of all the difficulties they had. Of course there is no way to make her understand that my situation is very different from theirs, that I have chosen this life, and that my travels are much easier.

I think that, after all, she's proud of my choice to carry on with the family tradition, and somehow, I feel I have more in common with my grandparents since I left my hometown.


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