It had long been a dream of mine, as a boy growing up in Turin, Italy, to come to America to be a country singer and a pilot, Italian accent and all. Talk about a mountain!
“You want to become a whaaat? A singer and a pilot? In America? Are you crazy?
A boy who wanted to sing. A boy who wanted to be a commercial pilot. One voice came from the heart, the other from the mind.
It was a preposterous dream that made a lot of people laugh. I had fallen victim of Hollywood and all the glamorous movies that occupied my Sunday afternoons: cowboys, flyboys, singers. I had fallen in love with the American Dream that, for me, was not to be attained in my own country, chastised, as I was, for having been born illegitimate.
The four years spent in a convent during grammar school had taught me resiliency, leadership, smarts, debate, and the nuns, with their unending Ave Marias, made sure I would know how to sing.
At twelve I was already working to support the house budget as a busboy: part-time during the school year, and full-time during summers. I hated being a busboy but that first part-time job, little did I know, would eventually open the doors to my dreams.
My mother made sure I learned how to shop for groceries, how to cook, how to sew my socks and iron my shirts and pants. I was becoming a man; a man with a burning desire: dreams of freedom; dreams of America.
Lesson: First prerequisite for success: a burning desire.
“One day, somehow, I will go to America.” I kept saying to myself. When logic and reality stepped in to sink my ship I fought like a tiger: “I’ll show them! One day…I’ll show them!”
My plan was to leave Italy and learn a couple of languages. First, English, the language of pilots, then French, the language of business. With that in my bag, I thought, I would be ready for something, even something in America. But how? I would just have to keep on dreaming and believing; have faith, somehow…somehow.
Lesson: Faith moves mountains. Don’t let anyone scuttle your dreams.
No one believed in my dreams. I became known as ‘the dreamer.’ I was shunning logic and reality. I was being unknowingly primed by my ambitions to go against the tide; to not fit the mold. Criticism generated a rebellious spark within me: “I’ll prove them all wrong!”
Bizarre circumstances and opportunities began to appear out of nowhere. The first, an offer of work in England for the summer I turned 18. I latched onto that with no hesitation. Two years later I was fluent in English. Then immigration, having found out I was singing part-time instead of studying, threw me out of the country with two weeks notice. OK. So what? Goal accomplished.
Where do I go? Well, Paris, of course! I had to hitch-hike my way from Calais to Paris. Paris, here I come, flat broke. C’est not Magnifique!
The first year as an illegal immigrant was one of the toughest years of my youth. Through a friend I had met in London I found a job packing boxes of books onto trucks. My pay was abysmal. It afforded me a can of pork and beans every two days. I had been given a claustrophobic storeroom with a sink and a cot to sleep in. I had become a slave. I didn’t have the courage, nor would my pride allow it, to let my parents know.
Now my determination to learn French as quickly as possible became obsessive while I began sending letters to Alitalia, the Italian airline, once a month, seeking employment. It would take me nine months to secure it, but by the time I was interviewed, I was trilingual and eager to move up in the world. I would celebrate my 21st birthday, New Years Eve, in Paris, with a proper work permit, strolling the Champs Élysées and feeling like a million bucks.
Cockroaches, parasites, slave labor and canned meals were all in the past. The future was waiting. Then, as fortune would have it, I met Romy, an Italian guitarist. He asked me to join him as a duo in a club in Montmartre, and singing took off.
At Alitalia, I quickly became a skilled ticket counter and reservation’s agent. When asked to work overtime or on Sundays I always did it voluntarily, eager to please. It elevated my status and, within a year, the perks started to come in. I was given first class tickets anywhere in the world I wanted to go: Beirut, Casablanca, the Holy Land, Rio…I thought I was on top of the world. It lasted four years. Thank goodness. I was getting comfortable.
Lesson: Never begrudge going the extra mile. Always improve yourself and stay out of the comfort zone.
I was willing to work and learn; to go the extra mile in everything I did, and I got noticed.
Then, back home, there was some drama with my Mamma and found myself in Rome.
One morning I’m having an espresso with my friend Marco who worked for a Canadian airline.
“I can give you a job in Canada as a flight attendant but you need to leave Saturday morning,” he said.
“Marco. It’s Wednesday!”
“I know and you have to let me know by noon today.”
“Marco, it’s 10:30! I have a life, an apartment, a girlfriend!”
“Call me. By noon!” and walks out the door.
Lesson: Opportunities have a weird way of appearing out of nowhere and require immediate decisions.
This was one of them. Learn how to handle fear: Face Everything And Rise. A voice said ‘OK. This is it. Let’s see if you have the guts to upend your life in two days.’ Would this be my ticket to America?
T.S. Eliot said: “You never know how far you can go until you risk going too far.” On Saturday, I was in Canada. America was just next door. Amazing!
Five years of flying around the world and with a commercial pilot license in my pocket, it was time to make Mamma happy and get married. After all, I was 31 now!
We had just returned to Vancouver from our wedding trip in Italy.
“Now that we are married, what do you want to do? Singing or flying?” she asked.
“Singing.” I heard myself say. I couldn’t believe it. Thousands of dollars spent in flying lessons. It just came out of nowhere.
“Then, do it!”
“But how? I have no connections; my guitar is busted…”
“Do the first thing that comes to mind that is in alignment with what you want to achieve,” she said.
I got up from the dining room table (a trunk on the floor of our newly rented studio) and went to see the owner of a club where I had sung in previous years. That night, yes, that very night, after an absence of two years, Bongo Mike came in and asked me if I would be interested in a summer gig in Anchorage, Alaska, but we would have to audition for it. Let me ask you: do you believe in God? In miracles? This was uncanny. No. This was Divine intervention.
“Let’s go get it!” I said.
With no instruments and a “knowing” that I would be able to get the job, the following day we flew 1600 miles to audition for a Latin gig that a friend of a friend said we could possibly get.
Lesson: When you don’t know where to turn or what to choose, do the first thing that comes to mind that is in alignment with what you want to achieve.
The following day I was auditioning with a borrowed guitar for the owners of a Mexican restaurant who had heard me sing “La Bamba” over the phone of that famous friend of a friend.
“Do you have a trio?” he asked me after I had finished the set.
Of course, I didn’t.
“Can you start May 1st?”
“Yes, we can.”
Bongo Mike was thrilled with having a job. I still had to fly Romy in from Paris!
And the rest is history.
Seven months later, with the trio gone – a small case of deportation, I would open as a solo in a hotel downtown and pack the lounge for six months. The Spaghetti Cowboy was alive and well and singing in Anchorage, Alaska. The added bonus was that now I also had a US commercial pilot ticket. I was rolling!
I was on top of the mountain. Nobody in Italy was laughing anymore.
Then…immigration threw me out of the country with two weeks notice! Déjà vu.
But that’s another story for another time.