In anticipation of a recent trip to Italy, Family and friends loaded me up with books and sight seeing suggestions—most of which I left behind in Indiana in my disorganized rush to take off and travel light. Instead, I carried 30-year-old memories of a journey I’d taken through Italy as a 19 year old student vagabond. Those memories still vividly conjured first real-life viewings of masterworks of art, the shame-by-association with ugly Americans abroad, the cheap wine, the crusty bread and cheese eaten in San Marco Square, and all those pigeons that dawdled at our feet then flew up around us. Back then, it was train stations, hostels, lingering hours on street corners with other students, buskers, backpackers, and bad-asses with big hearts. I was open wide to everything!
This time, I went to celebrate having turned 50. I traveled solo with old friends there to meet me in Florence. I had some money in my pocket, a cool black “euro bag” that defies criminal mischief, newly-purchased, ultra-light wick-away undergarments and summer wear, an English/Italian dictionary, a journal I made by slapping a postcard of a very Italian-looking doorway on to the cover of a Mead composition book, and a sense of pure openness to where each day might take me. Most of that 19 year old me came along for the ride this time. She was happy for access to a few expendable Euros and the promise of more luxurious digs upon arrival. I was happy for her fresh eyes and open heart.
I passed through Indy, Newark, Rome, Florence, and , with my travelling companions, through the Chianti region, Siena, to an Umbrian Country House on the hill near the village of Grutti. There, we sat one night on a tiny patio outside the only cantina in town alongside 40 village men and boys who ate gelato and smoked cigarettes watching Italy play world cup soccer. In the mornings, l marveled at the quality of light that shone on ancient hill-top towns in the distance; that moved with the clouds across the rolling green, wheat, and olive-groved countryside, the enormous rabbits I mistook for small deer leaping in the meadow below the house, and at my own sense of belonging in a place so far from my home.
We spent one memorable day with Monika Iris in an 8 person passenger van, taking us to see her friends all over the Chianti region south of Florence. Eleanore’s 500 year old olive farm and family villa (Mona Lisa was a “neighbor” and guest in this house way back when!), Fernando’s small 5 acre winery in Montefiorelle. 84 year old Lena’s Bar for late afternoon coffee.
Throughout the day, Monika wove her philosophy of life through the narrative of our nine hour journey. “We go with the flow here”, she said. “Good can come from the unexpected –or, not everything bad comes to harm. Take your time. Respect food, nourish your body, and support your local butcher, bread maker, your vintner”. To my inquisitive friends and I, who had a hard time resisting the urge to pepper her with personal questions, Monika steered us back to the moment, suggesting without saying it, that we Americans have a curious need for back- story or quick intimacy which is not necessarily the Italian way. Look out the window, for god’s sake. Don’t miss what’s right in front of you! At one point as we were making small talk, she said “Italians don’t ask what they’re not interested in.” Note to self: Bless your guides and consider heeding their guidance.
We did and saw many things at a slower pace over 10 days. We lazed in the intoxicating scent of jasmine, scotch broom, lavender, and rosemary. We felt perfect weather on our skin, managed the markets and shop exchanges with friendliness and humor. We leaned against cool Etruscan walls in the heat of the day, walked cobblestone alleyways worn smooth over thousands of years. Thousands.
We made tiny cups of coffee. We ate gloriously fresh food, drank wine free of sulfites, traversed the awkward territory of language, then fell happily to trying to play that music while our Italian brethren joyfully applauded our halting, gesturing efforts. Goodwill abounded! One Chef in an out- of- the- way Umbrian restaurant kissed my hand at the end of one memorable meal for my efforts to roll with the language. Another time, our waitress abandoned her service of us in frustration when we mis-ordered and mistakenly sent the wrong dish back.
Not all bad comes to harm. We learned that next time we’d keep the food to take home. Either way, we paid for the extra meal and apologized to the extra friendly management then tried to let it go.
I return to Indiana on fire to learn Italian. The pure pleasure of hearing it spoken, the serious music of it, won’t leave me. I return restored, wiser and younger at heart, sweetened back to myself and my faith in the goodness of the world. I feel my presence back home potently and with gratitude. I return having learned something by being around people who live the moment, go with the flow and don’t sweat the small stuff. I’m reading MORE about Italy now that I’ve returned than I did in preparation for or during the trip. I find this reading in light of having experienced more meaningful somehow. Thanks to all who shared their resources with me and now don’t mind my holing up with them just a little while longer.
BLR –for the Poplar Grove Muse