By Jack Sheedy
As I work toward finishing a biography on the oft-misunderstood poet Thomas John McSheey, I recently came across an interesting story that I thought I might share during this Lenten season as it illustrates just how oft-misunderstood he was on a rather regular basis, particularly in foreign countries.
While in his mid-20’s he toured Italy by train, writing and sketching as he went, journeying from his ancestral home of Naples (McSheey’s mother was Italian) to Rome and then continuing onward to Florence, and eventually arriving at Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy, known for, amongst other things, its fine cheeses, Parmesan being perhaps the most popular.
As McSheey stepped off the train and onto the station platform at Bologna, he consulted his pocket Italian-English dictionary and then approached the first person he happened upon, a portly middle-aged man with a robust mustache.
"I sto cercando di formaggi,” he butchered in his Boston-accented Italian, to which the mustachioed man stroked his whiskers and smiled.
“Sorry lad, don’t speak the language,” he replied in an English accent.
“Oh good, good,” exclaimed McSheey. “You speak English.”
“That’s because I’m from England…Surrey.”
“No need to apologize – I just assumed you were Italian.”
“No, I said Surrey, not sorry. I’m from Surrey, in England, just south of London.”
“Ah, yes, now I understand. Pardon the mix up. I’m from Boston…Massachusetts...in the United States.”
“Yes, I know where Boston is located,” responded the middle-aged Englishman. “Now, lad, what were you attempting to ask me in Italian – some bit about some woman named Margie?”
"Margie? I don’t know anyone called Margie. Hmmm,” he said, consulting his dictionary. “Oh, no, no, I said ‘formaggi.’ I’ve come to Bologna in search of cheeses.”
“In search of Jesus? You don’t say?” said the older man as he reached into his sweater pocket for a pipe. “Just like the Magi. Now I understand. You’ve come like the Magi on a pilgrimage in search of Jesus.”
"I really don’t know anything about this Margie you speak of,” replied McSheey. “But yes, I have come in search of cheeses. I understand there are places I can visit, to witness firsthand. I have an affinity for cheeses. Can you help me?”
“Why yes, my boy, yes, I can help you. In fact, you should join our little tour group for the day. We’re visiting some of the city’s landmarks. I don’t think anyone in our party will mind – having a young American pilgrim joining us. After all, we share your affinity for Jesus.”
“Oh, that would be wonderful. I could learn a lot being in the company of other enthusiasts of cheeses.”
“I am sure you will learn plenty. We have a number of theologians in our group.”
“I don’t see the connection,” remarked the young poet. “But yes, I would very much like to tag along.”
So, McSheey spent the day with the English tour group visiting various churches and basilicas throughout Bologna, somewhat confused all the while. When the day was nearly done and as the Italian sun cast its last long rays between the ancient buildings, the mustachioed Englishman asked, “So, young man, how did you enjoy the tour? Pretty impressive, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, quite impressive. The basilicas were astonishing. And the artwork. Amazing. But I came here in search of cheeses…”
“I know how you feel, lad,” replied the Englishman, taking a puff from his pipe. “Some folks can spend their whole lives searching and searching and still never truly find Jesus.”
“You said a mouthful,” uttered the poet.
“Speaking of a mouthful,” said the portly man as he sprang to his feet, tapping the spent ashes from his pipe. “Why not join us for dinner. We’re dining tonight at a wonderful restaurant that serves the best risotto, of course grated with the region’s choicest Parmigiano-Reggiano.”
To which McSheey exclaimed, “Parmesan! Finally!!”
Jack Sheedy is the author/co-author of six books, including Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest.