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Dancing on the Riverwalk: the ‘Papa’ I want my boys, his grandkids, to remember

'Papa' meeting grandson Matteo — reporter Stefano Esposito's younger boy — for the first time. | Family photo

I could hear the astonishment in my father’s voice. I didn’t need FaceTime to see his creased brow or hunched shoulders, his hands thrust out.

“But, Stefano, I don’t understand. Why can’t you go to a café, find somebody and ask them if they have a place to stay for a couple of weeks?” my Italian father wondered when I called him at home in Florence.

America baffles Papa. The United States won World War II. It put a man on the moon. Only in America can you buy those little black address books that fit perfectly in a jacket pocket, my father insists. And only in America do they sell — for a good price — those tiny, Christmas-tree-shaped brushes ideal for cleaning between teeth.

So Papa couldn’t fathom why it was so hard to find him a place to stay on the North Side of Chicago in the summer. And why I couldn’t tour the apartment we eventually found on Airbnb.

“Because, Papa,” I said for what seemed the 50th time, “you’re only allowed to look at it online — at the pictures. Papa, did you do that?”

“I can’t find them,” he said.

My father had said this probably would to be his last trip to America. He might be the fittest octogenarian I know, but, still, he’s 86.

I wanted him to be happy here. I wanted him — and my stepmother and sister — to enjoy meeting my youngest son Matteo for the first time.

And I wanted my sons to get to know Papa.

He’s an extraordinary man. He was born on the southern Italian island of Capri, a place so beautiful I often wonder how anyone could be lucky enough to live there.

It was not so lucky for Papa. He was 7 when his father died. To help his mother take care of his younger brothers, he quit school and worked as an apprentice carpenter for his uncle. Without an education, he left Capri, taught himself four languages and spent nearly five decades taking people on coach tours of Europe.

Papa can charm anyone — from professors to Midwestern farmers seeing Europe for the first time to our English country butcher with the blood-soaked apron and missing front teeth.

My father has a mischievous streak. Once when I was a teenager, we bought some “trick” pepper candies that Papa handed out to strangers on a fishing trip off the coast of Devon in England. In the very English way, no one complained — they just spat them into the sea when they thought we weren’t looking. Papa and I laughed so hard we nearly choked.

I was delighted to see my family when they arrived. Papa was not quite so delighted with the Airbnb. He said it looked like a “museum.”

He didn’t like the espresso in Chicago — too bitter. The baristas? Incompetent. He didn’t like the gelato, either — not made with real milk. And when we took a waitress’ suggestion for a red wine at a pizzeria, he took one sip and told her: “Don’t recommend this wine to anybody — and this is half a glass.”

I cringed.

Papa had some points, though. Like why do some people in Chicago pay $5 for a pastry made the day before that’s now stale? And why is a glass of water actually just a dribble of liquid with a logjam of ice?

But why did he have to complain quite so much?

What I wanted my children to see is the Papa who mocks convention, who ignores the norms of what’s expected for someone his age.

And they did.

Like when Papa sat beside a stranger on the L and, radiating charm, asked, “Have you ever been to Italy?”

I have seen him do this hundreds of times. Within five minutes, the stranger wants to know where to eat in Florence, what to see in Rome, what to avoid in Venice.

For a short time, it was as if my father was back at the front of a tour bus, microphone in hand, sharing secrets that only he knows.

We made our way to the Riverwalk. Surely Papa would like this. He did. At one point, hearing a James Brown song playing, he started to dance. I pointed my i-Phone at him. I’m looking at the video of him now — in front of a café, hand pressed to his stomach, hips swiveling, grinning, seemingly with not a care in the world.

My mother tells me that, when Papa was a young man, people would clear the dance floor to watch him.

I hope my children were watching as my father danced. That’s the Papa I want them to remember.

“Papa” dances along the Riverwalk. | Stefano Esposito / Sun-Times
“Papa” dances along the Riverwalk. | Stefano Esposito / Sun-Times

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Stefano Esposito.
Stefano Esposito. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

FATHERHOOD: AN OCCASIONAL SERIES

This is one of an occasional series on fatherhood by Sun-Times staff reporter Stefano Esposito, the dad of two young sons.