Our friends Elena and Michela, sisters, arrived from Italy for a visit a couple of weeks ago.  It was their first ever plane ride and, obviously, their first visit to the USA.  We ran ourselves ragged seeing the sights the Phoenix-Tucson area offers, and each day I asked them what had impressed/amused/irritated them the most.

The answers were pretty much the same each day – everything is bigger here than in Italy (cars, roads, even the host at communion); everything is so clean. Elena was fascinated by the Adopt-a-Highway program, something which does not (yet) exist in Italy.

But the thing that amazed them the most, over and over, was how friendly and welcoming people here are.  (Interestingly, when we moved to Italy we were struck by how very welcoming people there were to us.)   Elena and Michela both enjoy meeting new people in new situations.  Michela has a special gift for drawing people out.  Her secret?  She just walks up to people and starts speaking to them in Italian; they are completely charmed.  Then it’s my turn to insinuate myself as translator, and before you know it, we all have some new friends.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than in Picture Rocks, north of Tucson.  The famous Mrs. Harris took Elena, Michela and me to the fascinating and beautiful Arizona-Senora Desert Museum.  If you’re ever in Arizona this is so worth a visit –  you can learn about all the Sonora Desert plants and see all the animals that are residents, including (among many others) the Harris Hawk

and the dozy mountain lion.

But the really exciting part of the day happened as we were on our way home.  A big red fire engine pulled in to the gas station where we stopped to tank up.  As Michela is an avid amateur photographer, Mrs. H marched up to the firemen and asked if it would be alright if Michela photographed the truck.

Of course! was the answer.  They couldn’t have been nicer.  They opened up all the doors and secret compartments of the engine so she could photograph them, and explained what all the different tools were and how they are used.  Then they got permission from the Fire Chief to give Michela a ride to the fire station in the truck.

(Not the best picture ever taken of Michela, but one that shows her glee.)

Back at the fire station the kindness escalated.  We were all given Fire Department tee shirts – deep blue, my color!  Then they found a helmet for Michela to try on, and before we knew it, she was all kitted out in complete fire-fighting regalia.

We were given a tour of the whole building – including the kitchen where the smell of cooking brisket got our appetites revved up.

Some of the firemen who weren’t present at the moment were summoned, and we took pictures of the whole  group in front of the beautiful fire engine.

They showed us the small plastic name tags that they each have attached to the inside of their helmets with velcro.  Anyone who goes into a burning building removes his name tag and leaves it with those remaining outside.  That way, as one of the firemen told us, “they’ll know whose mother to call.”  It was a reminder that much of their work is hot, dirty, hard, dangerous and unhappy.  They each removed their name tags and velcroed them to a strip of cloth for Michela to take back to Italy, a symbol of a new friendship – it was a real hands across the ocean moment.

Picture Rocks Fire Department employs about 64 people, men and women, and covers an area of about 64 square miles.  They are very likely to be called out numerous times daily, because in addition to fighting fires, they are the emergency response team.

All in all we spent about an hour and a half at the fire station – it was the highlight of the sisters’ visit to Arizona, and certainly one of the most interesting and moving experiences I’ve ever had here. Every member of the team was generous and kind to us, for no reason other than that that’s how they are. It was humbling.

And oh yeah – they gave Michela the helmet to take home, too – a real helmet that had been damaged and can no longer be used.  Our friends left on Thursday evening, and they had an interesting time packing around that helmet.  But they, and the helmet, have arrived safely back in Rapallo with some memories which we hope they will never forget; we know we won’t.

Here are a few more photos from our visit to the Picture Rocks Fire Department which, I have to imagine, is the best Fire Department in the world.

Fire Chief:  Kathy Duff-Stewart - 27 years service with the department!

Fire Chief Kathy Duff-Stewart, 27 years service with the department!