A Cardinal Opportunity

By Claudia Suraga

He left his country in 1972, when Poland was still gasping for postwar air. In his pocket, he had enough to buy bread for a week. In his head, he had the yearning for this bread to come to him without riots or hour-long lines. Western Europe was not as shackled by communism as Eastern Europe was, but it too had wounds to heal before it could make room for strangers. He chose Sweden for his escape, which provided a neutral ground to start anew. The first years he spent driving trucks, doing construction work, and delivering mail. He took extra shifts, sweeping floors and doing dishes, and not once did he complain. In the evenings, if he wasn’t too tired, he would catch a movie with his favorite Italian actress; he allowed himself little but this, the dream of Italy.

Seven years passed before he could afford his own business: a coffee shop he opened six months after the birth of his first baby daughter. Seven was the number of years his parents had spent in work camps during the Second World War. His struggle was nothing like theirs. The Bible said seven bad years would be followed by seven good, and perhaps if he had been a better Catholic, it would have given him some comfort. He was a simple man, and he believed in what he picked up on the streets; he merged his new knowledge with the experience and stories of his past. After seven years of hard work, people were standing in line at his shop to buy his bread.

As time went by, the coffee shop flourished, and it made my father prosperous, enough to give me the education he never got. He believed an educated mind was the best preparation for the future. He believed it to such an extent, that he banned me from working extra hours behind the counter. He gave me pocket money not to work, and constantly repeated: “Choose your opportunities, choose your opportunities,” with the seriousness of a priest turning to God for guidance. “Opportunities,” he said, “come in all forms. You just need to keep your eyes open.”

When he found himself in some real estate trouble due to the financial crisis many years later, my father sent out hundreds of letters – one to every organization he could think of as a prospective buyer for his property. The answer to his desperate prayer for a financial bailout came from the Salvation Army, willingly paying what he requested for his building, and saving him from losing most of his life’s savings. Despite this, it was in opportunities – nothing else – that he laid his faith. 

The coffee shop was neither Swedish nor Polish: it was inspired by his Italian dreams. He took pride in serving the best coffee in town, and his little cafeteria bore an Italian name. Most of my childhood was spent there, watching people share coffee and thoughts, eating delicious cakes and reading books to the sounds of soft voices and china on marble tables. It was the place where I saw the results of my father’s inexhaustible efforts to support his family, and where I realized that I, too, had become more Italian than my blood would reveal. 

My father gave me the courage needed to keep a sense of integrity in life. For him, it took him from his native country filled with conflict to a new land of freedom and of opportunity. For me, so far, it too has been the lens through which I have looked at life. Over the years, I have learned to recognize the special tone of voice that reveals a hidden possibility. I have learned to smell opportunity. The peculiar alertness, almost like the human fight-or-flight response, is unmistakable, and it takes on a scan-and-seize model. A random collision of thoughts, a facial expression, or a sudden flash of ideas that seem to fit together are possible triggers. Sometimes it is just pure luck. Opportunity shows its veiled face, and we want to grab it, unmask it, and make it ours. 

That afternoon, he didn’t have to say much before I detected it. My sense of urgency was uncanny; I felt it the moment I picked up the telephone.

“Where are you?” he said, and I heard his childlike anticipation.

“What’s going on?”

“Come to the Grand Hotel, will you?”

“What’s going on?” I repeated.

“Oh, just come here, please,” he coaxed over the phone, “there’s a chance for something very special.” 

The Nobel festivities reach their culmination each year on December 10th when the Nobel Awards ceremony and banquet take place. Laureates from all over the world gather to accept the awards handed out by the Swedish king. Bell-shaped dresses rustle against marble floors and pair with penguin suits to provide a setting worthy of the naked display of life-time achievements. There are politicians, former laureates, royalty and other special guests. Some of them travel from afar, and that year at least one of them came from Italy. Most of them usually stay at the Grand Hotel in central Stockholm, and a lucky guest might end up having a shot at a nightcap with some of the greatest minds on earth. My father had no intention of doing that. He had heard the Italian was coming. 

He hurried us up the carpet-clad stairs and then turned left. Wood-paneled walls framed thick velvet cushions on plum-colored sofas flanked by heavy tables of glass and polished oak. He scanned the room, skipping past the American laureate and his wife. Half-thoughts emerged and disappeared in my head. The moment his eyes landed on her, I saw her too. 

Age dims beauty. What was once sharp and radiant softens and loses its firmness, but the heart once captured by the contours of a face needs no flashlight. It remembers what once was and brings that to life. This was the way he looked at her as she sat royally on one of the sofas, resting and talking softly to a small group of friends. He stared at the seventy-year-old lady until she noticed, stood up, and approached him. Silently, he stretched out his hand towards her, took her hand, and kissed it. She smiled, and the years vanished, because in that room, at that moment, she was thirty-something again, famous and bathing in the admiration and attention of a devoted fan. 

I stood a meter behind them, observing the events as they unfolded, and so did her friends. My father, regaining his sense of reality, turned to her, pointed at me, and said:

“This is my daughter. She is named after you.”

She looked at me and took one step forward. My memory fished out old pictures I had seen of her as a young woman, and I found the young version of her, too, behind her shaded glasses. I smiled, took her hand and said hi. She smiled back, a warm Italian smile, and said:

“Ciao. I am Claudia Cardinale.” 

In her time, she was the exuberant Italian version of French bombshell Brigitte Bardot. During my father’s seven years of struggle, she was his silent companion, his escape to a world of beauty and his muse. When I was born, he named me after her, and then half a year later gave his coffee shop the same name. I heard the story a million times growing up, but never once did I hear my father voice out loud the dream he had about meeting her. Then, by chance, he happened to have the TV on while shaving during a broadcast from the Nobel activities. From the corner of his eye, he captured a glimpse of someone familiar, someone of importance to him, and rushed down to the hotel where the guests were staying. He called me on the way over. 

Smiles were exchanged, pictures were taken, and an old light in my father’s heart was relit. On the way out, he leaned towards me. “Opportunities,” he said, “come in all forms. You just need to keep your eyes open.”