I was fourteen, and it was my first time overseas. The trip was a big deal and my parents would never have allowed me to stay home. After all, how many kids got to go on a four-week all-expenses paid trip to Oxford courtesy of the Rotary Club? That’s supposed to be a rhetorical question but in case you’re curious, the answer is thirty. That’s how many kids were in my group that year, anyway. Kids from all over Canada, all between fourteen and sixteen, all of us there for a “cultural exchange”.
Oxford was a nice, old town. One of those towns that you’re happy to have been to but one that I would never have chosen as my destination myself. Under the Rotary rules, the extent of my free will was limited to ranking Germany, France, Spain, and the UK in my order of preference. Dad strongly recommended that I put France first because “a month in France will help with your French grades.”
Well, no such luck. Some Rotary governor somewhere put my name in the Oxford group, and that was fine with me.
“C’est la vie, Dad,” I said.
The other Rotary clubs around the world also had Oxford on their list and so, in June 1984, there I was, hanging out at the only burger joint at the heart of the Carfax district of the university town, with a couple of new Canadian friends, one American guy and twins from Denmark.
That’s cultural exchange. But you know kids. We wanted even deeper exchange with the other Rotary groups.
Every Sunday, we played an five-a-side soccer match against the other nationalities. Team Canada could barely scrape up a team which is why I not only made it but also felt obligated to play.
Imagine the skinniest kid you can, and then imagine that kid wearing borrowed Adidas soccer shorts, and a faded Coke T-shirt, and you have a pretty good picture of me: A rake wearing clothes. (My hair was spiky back then).
We didn’t have a chance against the Italians. They were sporting five o’clock shadows around noon – and they could play soccer. We put up a fight against the Germans and the Swedes but we lost every game, every time.
On week 3, my new best friend Terry took me aside before the game.
“Buddy, we have to win today, eh? We don’t want to go to the disco like a bunch of losers,” he said and looked me straight in the eye, his hand on my shoulder.
“I’ll do my best,” I said and to prove it, I pulled up the garden gloves I used as goalie gloves.
Every Wednesday, the local Club arranged a disco for the program participants, as a way to bring young people together. I had never been there but Terry had managed to convince me to tag along this time, the last of the disco events before we returned home.
Terry, our captain, shook hands with their captain and the referee – an Oxfordian who had guided us around old colleges – flipped a coin. Terry watched it land on the ref’s palm and grinned. He said something to the ref and then gestured for me to switch to the other net. I grabbed my water bottle and trotted across the provisional soccer field that we had set up in one corner of The Florence Park.
There’s not a lot to say about the match itself, except that after the Italians scored their third goal, my teammates went silent. No more pep talks. As usual.
After the game, after we’d shaken hands with the Italians, the referee let out a loud whistle.
“May I have your attention, please!” he shouted.
All groups shuffled a little closer, the Italians in the closest circle around him, the the Swedes, and the Dutch, and then the rest of us, the Canadians, the French, and then, a few steps behind us, a small group of Finns.
“I thought we’d do something else today. An international event, a spectacle, to determine the true masters of the universe,” he went on.
There were astonished murmurs.
“And the way we’re going to DO IT…,” he went on, raising his voice to raise our excitement level.
”… is orange relay! Pass these oranges from person to person as quickly as possible,” he said, a white plastic bag hanging from his wrist.
He picked up six participants from each group – three boys, three girls – and made them stand in a line. He handed the first person in line an orange.
“OK, so you put it under your chin and you send it down the line without using your hands.”
The Italians let our surprised woos. There was also nervous laughter. It came out of my mouth, as I stood at the very end of the Canadian line, behind Heather, a very nice girl from Barrie, 30 minutes down the highway 11 from my hometown.
When the others looked at me, they saw a young man with his hands behind his back and a goofy smile on his face, looking as cool as Snoopy when he’s Joe Cool, but inside, my heart was pounding against my chest and the reason for my goofy look was the dryness of my mouth. My smile was simply stuck in its place.
The referee blew the whistle to start the relay. The first girl, Annie, turned around and opened her neck to Terry, the first boy in our line. Annie and Terry wiggled and squirmed for a good while, while the rest of the team cheered them on. Terry turned around to face Laura who then passed the orange to Jeff.
I dried my sweaty palms in my T-shirt when Lisa stepped up to Shane. She was the girl who’d give the orange to me. I hastily glanced at the other teams. The race was still neck and neck (pun intended) and people were screaming and hollering everywhere.
Then: Lisa turned around.
“Cmn, cmn,” she said, unable to speak properly with an orange under her chin.
I got close and angled my head. I thought I had got a hold of the fruit but it slipped and started to roll down Lisa’s chest. Thanks to my quick reflexes, I stopped it by pressing my ear to her chest. Then I carefully twisted my head and let the orange roll under my chin. Or, that was the plan. As I did that, I lost control of the fruit and it fell all the way to the ground just as I heard the winning team celebrate their victory.
Terry was furious about the loss, and for some inexplicable reason – I think I just wanted to show Terry that I, too, cared about winning and losing – I picked up the orange and threw it high up in the air.
The orange ball was beautiful against the blue sky as it climbed up, up, up becoming smaller and smaller in my eyes as it reached its apex way above the treetops.
But what goes up, must – it must – come down.
It occurred to me too late. As I followed the orange, the symbol of health and sun and joy, gather more speed and, I swear, even more mass, even my brain could calculate where it was going to land. Only, again, too late.
The Italians’ victory celebration came to a sudden stop, a fraction of a second after the orange came to sudden stop on an Italian girl’s head as if she had had a target painted in the middle of her skull.
She screamed, then turned and walked away from the rest pf the group, her hands on her head. I pretended to be stretching against an old stone pine. She was rubbing her head, carefully sneaking a peek up to see if more oranges were on their way.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and in a weird way, I felt that we now felt a special connection. As I watched her pick up her bag from the grass and walk towards the iron gates with her friends, I knew I had to see her again.
My daydreaming came to an abrupt end when Terry slapped me hard on the shoulder.
“OK, buddy, let’s go. Let’s go have a burgrer,” he said.
So we did.
Four days later, Terry and I walked a flight of ancient stone stairs down to the disco. I followed Terry to a small space next to the cloak room. After all, the disco was only there for our benefit, and who knows what the space was used for when we weren’t there listening to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Wham!
Since we were all minors, no alcohol was for sale but there was a real DJ and a dance floor filled with a few enthusiastic dancers surrounded by a bunch of less enthusiastic bystanders.
There were a few other people in there, and as I got closer, I heard people chatting, some in English, others in a language I didn’t understand and sounded almost as if somebody was speaking English backwards.
Terry forced his way through the people on the outer circle. I followed in his wake.
“Hi girls,” I heard him say.
I wanted to turn around. But I didn’t.
Terry took a step to her right and I saw the girls. And there she was, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Again, I was about to turn around and flee the scene. But I didn’t. I didn’t really want to. And I couldn’t because Terry grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me closer.
“And this here is my buddy. Friend, you know. His name is Joe,” Terry told the three girls leaning against a large barrel, and pointed at me.
“Joe,” I said, pointed at my chest and gave them a small wave.
“These girls here are from Italy, Joey,” Terry said, enunciating every word in a way I had never heard before.
I didn’t tell him I had recognized one of them as the most gorgeous girl in the world. I just nodded and smile.
“I saw you earlier today, at the football,” said The Most Beautiful Girl.
“Oh,” I managed to say, “that’s too bad. I’m not very good.”
“No, you weren’t,” she said. “My name is Giulia.”
“No. Giulia,” she said. I still didn’t hear the difference.
“Pleased to meet you.”
We made some small talk about were we were from, our countries, our hometowns, and exchanged names of famous people we knew from each other’s countries. She talked about Gilles Villeneuve and Linda Evangelista while I went on about my favorite pizzas and … Francis Ford Coppola.
Then we talked about what we had done in Oxford – the Tolkien pub, punting, the colleges, the shopping – and suddenly I realized I had completely forgotten Terry and, well, the entire world around me.
“I have to leave soon,” she said. “I have a, how do you say, headache.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I replied.
“Yeah, I was hit by an orange today. In the park.”
“Did it fall from a tree? Like Newton and the apple?” I joked.
She laughed. She didn’t notice me gulp.
“No, stupid. There are no orange trees in The Florence Park .”
I was taken aback by her “stupid” and she noticed it.
“Sorry, not stupido like that. I mean a fool, a silly. It’s my English.”
“Your English is really good. Better than my Italian,” I replied.
“Thank you. I can teach you Italian. It’s easy.”
“That’d be nice. How do you count to three?”
“Uno, due, tre” she said, counting with her fingers at the same time.
I repeated it the best I could, but obviously it wasn’t perfect because my attempts made her giggle.
“OK, some more. How do you say ‘you’re beautiful’?”
“To a boy or a girl?”
“Sei bellissima,” I said.
“That’s right,” she said and smiled.
“Sei bellissima,” I said again.
It was her turn to blush and create a diversion:
“Even better! Perfect!” she said.
“And how do you say–“ I began but was interrupted by Terry’s hard slap on my shoulder. He pulled me toward two other Italian girls.
“Here’s Joe, and he’s a really funny guy,” Terry told them.
“I’m not, really,” I said and tried to get back to Giulia. Terry grabbed me by the shoulder again.
“Joe, tell the girls about–“ he began, but now it was his turn to be interrupted.
Giulia said something to the other girls in Italian. They looked worried and brushed her arm, consoling her. Giulia smiled and nodded, then shook her head, then smiled again, and made a gesture that looked to mean that they should stay.
“You leaving?” I asked her.
“Si, yes, my headache,” she said, squinted her eyes, and tapped her head a couple of times.
I made a quick decision.
“Hey, Tee, I’m taking off. I promised my host family that they’d get to teach me bridge tonight. See ya tomorrow,” I said, and hurried after Giulia.
I walked up St. Aldate’s toward the Carfax Tower, taking a chance on Giulia going to the High Street bus stop. The Oxford High Street was quiet, even though it wasn’t yet quite dark. Somebody was waiting for a friend, sitting on edge of the big flower pot outside the Carfax Tower but there were few cars, and even fewer pedestrians.
When I turned the corner, I saw Giulia standing at the bus stop on the southside of the road. The wrong side for me, something I had learned the hard way on my second day in town.
“Hi,” I said
“Oh, hi. You going home?”
“Yeah. I promised,” I said.
I was racking my brain for topics of conversation but couldn’t come up with anything. Fortunately, I was saved by the bell. Or, actually, by a young man getting thrown out of a pub. The doors opened and the man, dressed in a tailcoat and gray trousers practically flew out, landing on his feet and stumbling on trying to keep his balance. The sleeves on his tailcoat were torn off, revealing his white shirt from underneath.
He kept on running across the street, while laughing maniacally, and then disappearing into the maze that was the old Oxford university colleges.
“Wow, you don’t see that every day,” I said.
Giulia covered her mouth with her hands, she was laughing so hard.
“The happy hour must be over,” she said.
Now it was my turn to laugh.
Right then, bus number 4 came down the street, and stopped in front of us.
“I had a great time today. I hope I’ll see you around town,” I said,
“Ciao,” she said, got on the double-decker bus and climbed up the stairs.
“Ciao, ciao,” I said as I watched her get a seat in the front.
The bus rolled out again and soon, disappeared behind the corner.
“Ciao, bellissima,” I said.
I haven’t seen her since. But every time I eat an orange, I think of her.