Via Boito

by Mitchell Lee Edwards
from The Ensign, March 1981

The train was crowded, so I stood by the door and gazed out the window. It was hot, and the scorched Apennine Mountains seemed dry, brown, and uninteresting. "You'll love the Appenines," said a man selling oranges at the station. Impressive or not, they weren't foremost on my mind. I was a new zone leader, and I wanted to baptize.

The Florence station was large, and I had to stop several times to rest my arms before arriving at the taxis with my two years' supply of white shirts, ties, and books. A big, smiling taxi-driver shouted, "Vieni qui ragazzo!" I staggered towards him and dropped my bulging cases in front of his car. "Via," I gasped, "Boito."

Friendly and outgoing, he pointed to several landmarks as we worked our way through winding streets to Via Boito -- my new apartment. I didn't pay much attention to him -- my mind was on zone conferences and zone visits and interviews.

Elder Lewis was standing out in front when I pulled up. Tall, blond, and sun-tanned, he stared at me as I fumbled through my pockets in a frantic search for lira. A teacher had told me in high school that first impressions often determine success. There I was, a new zone leader, and I couldn't even remember where I had put my money. Feeling like a failure, I finally asked Elder Lewis if he had 1,500 lira.

Fare paid, we carried my suitcases up the stairs to our second-floor apartment.

As I had hung up the phone a day earlier, I had thought to myself, "Me? A zone leader? They can't do this to me. I'm already tired of trying to be a perfect missionary, and now I'll have to push for statistics and numbers and enthusiasm even more."

I had in my mind a picture of what I thought I was "supposed to do," and I was determined to do just that. Early in my mission I had decided that the only reason for being in the mission field is to baptize. So now there was one major goal in my head: to "psyche" the zone into baptizing as many people as we possibly could. It was my goal -- one that I thought a young fireball zone leader should have.

"What was Reggio Emilia like?" Elder Lewis asked as I hung up my ties.

"Great!" I blurted out. "We were teaching twenty discussions a week, selling ten copies of the Book of Mormon, and putting in eighty hours." I thought it sounded impressive.

"E beh," Lewis replied, which means, loosely translated, "Do you want a trophy or something?"

I couldn't figure out why he wasn't excited about my statistics -- goodness knows he couldn't have been doing much better. At least it didn't seem possible. But, then, maybe zone leaders were everything I thought they were. Maybe they really did teach thirty lessons every week and stay out of the apartment for one hundred hours. Would I have to start working that hard? Not wanting to pursue the thought, I went to see what was on the stove for lunch.

There were two other elders living in the apartment with us; we talked for a while during lunch, but the conversation began to drag after a few minutes. Trying to pep it up with a little enthusiastic baptism talk, I gushed to the other two, "Elder Lewis and I challenge you to a baptismal contest this month." Silence. "Whichever companionship baptizes the most eats the pizzas of their choice at the other's expense. Do you feel up to it?"

Another painful moment of silence. Then, "Yeah, I guess so."

"Well, Elder Lewis, we'd better get out there early in the morning tomorrow, because I l-o-o-ve pizza." I looked to Elder Lewis for some supportive comment; but he was busy grating Parmigiano cheese over his spaghetti. I looked around for a hole to crawl into.

Something was wrong. I was doing my best to be a fireball, baptism- conscious zone leader, but it wasn't working. Maybe I lust wasn't trying hard enough, I concluded.

After district meeting Elder Lewis suggested that we visit Brother Bilotta, first counselor in the branch presidency. "He usually gives us something to eat and occasionally makes us stay and eat a full dinner with him." I interjected, "Maybe we can ask him for the names of all his friends, so that we can start teaching them." Elder Lewis remained silent.

The evening progressed, but an opportunity to ask Brother Bilotta for his friends' names never materialized. True to form, he offered us something to eat, and then insisted that we stay for supper. It was great fun; we laughed a lot, looked at pictures of the Bilotta family vacations to Sicily, and ate almost a kilo of Italian "bel paese" cheese. It was late when we arrived at our apartment, exhausted but wonderfully full. We knelt and prayed for more baptisms in the zone and for our families and girl friends, then climbed between those itchy Italian sheets. I had completed one day as a zone leader.

"We were called here to be suocessful," I said in my talk at a zone conference a week later, "and that means teaching fifteen lessons, selling ten copies of the Book of Mormon, and working eighty hours every single week!" Though Elder Lewis and I hadn't even come close to doing that the previous week, I nevertheless thought it a good challenge. The missionaries seemed rather excited about it, so I felt good about my presentation. I had said just about what I thought a zone leader should say, and I was content. For a season.

As we drove home from Brother Bilotta's house that evening, I tried to get up courage to tell Elder Lewis that I thought we should be workingr more. "Do you think zone leaders should be examples for the rest of the missionaries in their zone?" I ventured.

"Yeah, I think so," he replied.

I took a deep breath, and said, "Do you think we're being good examples?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Well, I don't."

The sound of the tires on the cobblestones muffled the few words he mumbled. I stared out the side window and silently prayed for the ability to say what I really had in mind. I tried several times, but the words wouldn't form into a coherent sentence.

"Elder Lewis," I finally blurted out, "I don't think we're teaching enough lessons or putting in enough hours to warrant going to Brother Bilotta's house every other night. We're the zone leaders here, and I think we should have the best report forms in the entire zone. At this rate, we'll have the worst." We arrived at the Arno and turned left, giving me an unobstructed view of the wide, dark river. He broke the silence.

"Elder Edwards, I don't really care about your report form. I may not be entirely right in going to Brother Bilotta's house when there's nothing else to do -- I'll admit that. I'll even admit that I'm not working as hard as I probably should be. It's probably a bad attitude. But you're not blameless yourself. You live for that report form. Your life is determined by the numbers that show up there each week. You really don't care if you've helped someone, or if you've grown to love someone, or if you've developed a love and respect for this people and this country. As long as you have your numbers on your report, as long as you impress others with your 'baptism enthusiasm,' as long as you're 'Joe zone leader,' you're happy. You're cold, and you're statistical. And I don't think that's right, either."

Silence. I looked out at the fog as we drove along the Arno river, and slowly and deliberately thought to myself, "He's right."

I didn't sleep well that night, but it was perhaps the most significant night of my mission. My mind raced backward. "You've got to love the people," my bishop at home had told me. It made sense to me at that time, and I wrote it down in my journal. How could I effectively work with the Italian people for two years if I didn't have a strong love for them and a respect for their way of life? My older brother had said to me at the airport, "You think it's hard to leave America? Wait until you try to leave Italy after working there for two years and developing a love that will never die. One of the greatest treasures of your mission will be the love that you'll develop for Italy and Italians."

And Dad had once said to me, "Mitch, you'll be amazed at the bonds of love that you'll develop with people over there. You'll praise Italy and Italians the rest of your life. You'll feel sort of like an 'adopted Italian,' and you'll carry with you the rest of your life a desire to return to Italy."

As I lay there in my Via Boito itchy sheets, it all hit me like a brick wall. I did not love Italy. It was a nice place and all, but I often found myself passing judgment: Everything was decidedly old and run down and archaic. Too many carbohydrates in the food, too hot and humid during the summer. Too many apartment buildings in the cities, lousy roads in the country. Everything was too small and too old and too cramped.

And toward Italians, my sentiments were occasionally anything but loving. After a bad day, I often succumbed to my own biases: Too heavy. Unschooled. Too casual. Steeped in tradition, and living in the past. Too emotional and outspoken. My mental list started to frighten me as I looked at it with new perspective.

Where, and why, had I gone wrong? I was only trying to do my best, and I thought that teaching a lot of discussions was a good measure of success. I'd decided early in my mission that good missionaries have good report forms every week. I wanted to be a good missionary, so I became an expert at getting good report forms.

My desire to teach and work hard was not bad -- on the contrary, it was honorable and desirable. But I was missing something very important-and until Elder Lewis mentioned it on the way home from Brother Bilotta's, it had never occurred to me. I had failed to even try to love, understand, or appreciate Italy and its people.

As Elder Lewis and I were tracting several days later, the Roman walls on both sides of the small cobblestone mountain road caught my attention in a way they never had before. "Just a sec, Elder Lewis. Can we stop here for a minute or two?"

"Why?"

He cracked a little smile as I said, "I just want to look at this wall for a moment."

We sat down on the cobblestones and watched the wall in silence. I traced the chisel marks of a Roman stonecutter, examined the mortar that had tenaciously held those stones together century after century, noticed the oxidizing stub of what was probably a lantern support, and eyed the Italian ant that crawled upon it, oblivious to the wall's history and obvious cultural significance. After a minute I said, "OK, I'm finished. let's go on."

As we made our way down a narrow, dimly lit, winding road late one evening after tracting, we passed by a small fruit stand tucked away in a little opening in the stone wall. Beside it sat an old man, probably in his eighties, bent over and looking at his worn shoes. He slowly raised his head and looked at us with tired eyes as we walked by. I paused, tapped Elder Lewis on the shoulder, and we returned to the old man.

"How much is a carrot?"

In a weak, humble voice, he slowly replied, "Centro lire."

"Give me the biggest one you have."

As his crooked hands searched through the box for a large carrot, I searched my pockets for a hundred lira piece. I had nothing but a thousand lira bill, and was about to tell him to forget it, when I noticed his face. Tired and rough and wrinkled, his face nevertheless seemed to emanate a warmness -- a sort of light. I finally decided it was his eyes -- they fairly glowed with that cheerful warmth. An Italian warmth. He handed me a large fat carrot, and I handed him the thousand lira.

He slowly looked at the bill, and then apologized, "Mi displace, non ho cambio. Mangia la carota," and tried to give the money back to me.

"No," I said, "go ahead and keep it. It's now yours."

He thought I didn't understand the price, but I insisted, "You've worked hard today- keep the change and buy yourself a fruitcake. They bake good ones down on the corner."

When he finally understood, the most innocent, genuine smile I've ever seen broke out on his face, and tears came to his eyes. Calling us angels, he kissed our cheeks before we slipped away.

"Did you see his face?" I whispered several minutes later. "Did you see that look in his eyes? It was so..." I struggled for an adjective. Warm, beautiful genuine -- all ran through my mind, but they didn't fit. "It was so...," and then the word came. It was perfect. It was so Italian.

Elder Lewis and I began to find deepening satisfaction in working with Italians, and we became near "workaholics" as a result. Our desire to be with the people became almost overwhelming. I would see an old man, probably a shoemaker, walking home with a big loaf of fresh Italian bread, and I couldn't hold myself from running up to him and talking. The smell of fish in the open market, once repulsive to me, began to stir my sentiments. I was slowly falling in love with the people, the country, and the Italian way of life.

Instead of returning to our apartment for lunch, we'd duck into an alimentari and buy a hunk of cheese, a loaf of hard, chewy bread, and a clump of grapes, and sit in Piazza della Signoria or on the banks of the Arno or on Ponte Vecchio or just on some "Italian looking street," and talk with Italians as we consumed our "gourmet" lunch. In testimony meeting one Sunday, I found myself saying to the branch of Italian Saints, "Something is happening to me, and . . . well . . . I'm not quite sure what it is. I'm starting to feel like I belong here; like my name should be Eduardo instead of Edwards. I guess... well... I love you all."

I began to notice that Italians did things differently than we Americans do them, and it fascinated me. Italians buy bread and vegetables daily, and always in the morning. It used to anger me that no one would ever be home in the mornings. But understanding them, we'd go to the bakeries and the open-air fruit markets and plunge right in to talk with the people as they did their shopping., They'd listen to us, and they'd invite us into their homes. We began to teach more. Our greatest joy was going to the markets and the docks, presenting our message to the Italians in their language, "on their turf."

We were welcomed into more homes, talked with more people, taught more lessons, and were happier than ever. It was a miracle, and the counsel of my loved ones at home became my creed: love the country, love the people. Only then will miracles happen.

Like the miracle that happened with one of our investigators, Pasquale. Pasquale wept as we spoke of the reunion with our loved ones after this life. God speaking through prohpets again to man seemed perfectly logical to him. He even bought two large pots and planted tomatoes on his apartment balcony after reading a speech by President Kimball in a conference report. We prayed with him, fasted with him, laughed with him, shed tears with him. We studied with him, testified to him, thought about him. We loved him.

Halfway through a lesson on temples and temple marriage, he stopped us and asked us to be quiet a moment. He wanted to think. I thought how Italian that was, to ask for a minute to think, and I smiled. He took a deep breath and finally said, "Elders, I want to be baptized Sunday."

It was a beautiful ceremony -- the music by the sisters was perfect, and the testimonies borne were touching. Pasqaule came up out of the water and smiled a warm, innocent smile. I thought of our old fruit vendor. Perhaps someday I'd learn to smile as they did. Elder Lewis, Pasquale, and I embraced each other. His life had changed. And so had ours.

When I was transferred a week later, I was sad yet elated. I had been with Elder Lewis only a month, and it had passed all too quickly; we would have liked to work together five. Our initial conflict had been painful, yet it was the catalyst that had changed our missions. I had learned to love a country and a people; he had learned to be more effective in sharing his love. Together, we had found a great joy in sharing what we loved so much - - the gospel -- with a people that we loved with all our hearts.

As we ambled through the foggy cobblestone streets of Florence that night on the way home from Pasquale's apartment, I felt a lump in my throat. "Can you believe the progress Pasquale's made? He'll be a bishop some day," I said.

"Stake president," Elder Lewis replied matter-of-factly.

"First we have to baptize a stake, though."

We spontaneously quickened our pace, and finally broke into a jog as we made our way home through the fog-filled streets to Via Boito.