Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book. — Cicero
It’s true. I’m at it again. I’m writing a book. This public admission is what I am counting on to inspire my getting to the finish line in my lifetime. It is not a travel book, per se, but the excerpt here is a story about travel. About the first time I agreed to go to Italy. About how the decision changed my life. About how I have come to love the south. I hope you enjoy the story. And if you’re inclined to come with me and Tim to see what all the fuss is about the Mezzogiorno, we’ve got a fantastic Harvest time experience planned for October, which you can read about in the Tours section. Let me know this week!
I didn’t want to go. Italy was never on my bucket list. Why? Because I grew up with a father who never wanted to go, a grandfather who never went back, friends of my grandfather who did go back and returned with horror stories about being financially drained by their relatives. So I decided that Italy was not a place I wanted to go. “If you’re American, they think you’re rich,” Rosario had said. “All they want is your money,” Enrico had said.
We were not rich. We did not go.
Also, there was never any mention of actual family back in Italy, so I never knew if I had anyone to visit. Did my nonno have brothers and sisters? Who knew? Did my nonna have a family there? No one talked about it. In fact, there was a lot of confusion about where my grandparents were even from. For a long time, I thought Clemente came from near Viterbo, in a small village called Acquapendente, and that Maria came from a village of 2,000 called Montano Antilia, not too far from Salerno, in Campagna. Only recently, thanks to ancestry.com, did Tim learn that my nonno came from outside of Siena (we’re Tuscan!) in the small commune of San Casciano dei Bagni, one of Italy’s prettiest Italian villages (borghi piu belli d’Italia). Nonna’s roots have still to be confirmed.
It turns out that I had traveled to England, Wales, Canada, France, Belgium and Bermuda long before I saw Italy. It came about because (1) my husband decided it was high time I put aside my prejudices about Italy and go, and (2) some friends from church were organizing a trip and asked us to be part of the group. The decision to go changed my life.
In the fall of 1999, our friend Tom called and asked if we would like to be included in the planning stages of a possible trip to Tuscany. He said he had gotten information about villas from an agency and wanted to put together a small group to talk about it. We said yes, and soon found ourselves part of a group of eight people who would travel the following June and launch ourselves into an adventure in the little village of Cistio, northeast of Florence, in the lovely (unknown to us) territory of the Mugello.
And so it was that Tom and John, Jack and Patrick, Sandi and Katie, and Tim and I set off in two ridiculous Fiat Multipla SUVs in the days before cell phones and set off for parts unknown. Of course, we went to Florence, several times. We went to Lucca and walked around on the city wall. We went to Pisa for the Luminaria di San Ranieri on Sandi’s birthday. We ordered a gorgeous whipped cream cake from the local pasticceria on John’s birthday. Patrick recited Shakespeare for us at the teatro romano in Fiesole. We met scorpions. We gaped at the monstrous Benetti yachts in the harbor in Viareggio. We saw rain so hard we thought our villa would be washed down the precarious mountain on which it was perched. We fell in love with the wine, with the olive trees, and with the fresh air and sense of freedom that we experienced there. And I wrote.
Italy was the first place that truly inspired me as a writer. Before that, it was all assignments. Here was the stuff of family, of tradition, of fear, of desire . . . here was a culture I could sink my teeth into and that, in some ways, I felt I already knew a little about. And I thought, sadly, about how bad it must have been in the early days of the 20th century for my grandparents – and thousands like them – to leave this countryside for the complete unknown. To risk everything. To lose everything. To start anew. The ocean crossing alone would have scared me to death.
During those two weeks, we bonded as a group of friends and we bonded as travelers. Group travel doesn’t always work out (as anyone who’s tried it can confirm) but this trip worked. We ate breakfasts at home, had lunches out, and dinners were often just heavy antipasti in the garden. We learned how satisfying cheese, salami, and crusty bread can be when accompanied by wine, olives, friends, and stars.
We explored the museums and churches of Florence, and John, our historian, told us which were the can’t-miss sites. Being face-to-face (so to speak) with Michelangelo’s David and then Donatello’s David (which, by the way, I prefer) . . . seeing Boticelli’s Birth of Venus and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise was more extraordinary in every way than I imagined.
We drove around a lot, stopping at wineries, some of us climbing up to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome or the towers in San Gimignano for breathtaking views. We strolled through the small, wonderful city of Borgo San Lorenzo near our villa and were welcomed into a corner table at a local restaurant for one of the best meals of our lives. We let it happen, and there was no going back.
Since this trip, nearly 20 years ago, I have returned to Italy many times. I have traveled to Sicily, to Milan, to Verona and Vicenza, to Rome and Venice, to the Ligurian Coast, the Cinque Terre, Como, the breadbasket cities of Modena, Mantova, and Parma. I have seen the Ferrari Museum and eaten great food in Bologna. I have been awe-struck by the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna and by the quiet beauty of Ravello and the Amalfi Coast (off-season). And then I discovered Abruzzo, which for me is the gateway to the Mezzogiorno. Southern Italy. And that’s where I found my heart.
Giuseppe Garibaldi famously said, after the unification of Italy in 1861, that now that they had made Italy, it was time to make Italians. This has been an ongoing struggle, especially between the north and the south, whose diverse economies and ways of life continue to create tensions in the country. So I am the product of both the north (Tuscany) and the south (Campagna) and, while I admire and appreciate the Tuscan sensibilities, I have found a home in the south.
It is a little ironic that my first trip to Italy was centered on Tuscany; we even spent a day in Siena, but couldn’t find a restaurant that was open so we moved on after taking in the Piazza del Campo (where the famous Palio is held every summer) and then gaping at the huge fresco of “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” in the city hall. I was so close to my nonno’s origins and had no idea. I will go back, this time armed with more knowledge about Clemente. My next trip to Tuscany will be like going home.