I’ve never taken a two-week vacation. I wasn’t even sure if I would like being away for that long. Away from my extended family and friends. Away from my car, my bed, my home, my tractor, my pets. As the eighth day dawned on our 15-day Italy trip, we were in Manciano, a tiny hill town in southern Tuscany, and there and then I became profoundly convinced that vacations of longer than a week in duration were not only going to be well-received, but would be something I would seek for the rest of my life.
We had high expectations for Italy. All I had heard from friends who had traveled there, things I have seen and heard on television, in books, and online had me hungry for ochre buildings, narrow cobblestoned alleyways, interesting doors and windows, art, food, flora and fauna.
I approached this vacation, however, with a concern: During a trip a few years ago to Montreal, Canada, the Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal (http://www.basiliquenddm.org/en/) taught me that I have a physical and emotional response to grand architecture. I was overcome with reverence for the beauty displayed for me to see in that grand basilica. I didn’t know this about myself until I got weak in the knees at the sight of that holy place. The gold leafed, blue-hued interior of Notre Dame took my breath. I remember the smell of burning candles, their small lights dancing fresh with hope for answered prayers offered up by believers who took the time to pray for the people and situations for which they prayed. Here and now, almost 15 years later, I still carry the memory of the soaring arches above us and the feeling that I was looking at the face of God.
Knowing places like that would be everywhere I looked in Italy gave me pause. I didn’t want to be a blubbering tub of goo during this vacation and have to check my man card, just because of my deep love of grand architecture.
“Allora” is a conversational habit among the Italians, which basically means “so, then, well.” I heard it so many times during every day that I couldn’t have counted them, even if I had tried. So — allora — we began with a long, transatlantic flight, my first, and found out firsthand how grueling a flight like that can be. Once it became painfully obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep back there in the Alitalia Airbus A300 flying cattle car it was too late for Ambien. I didn’t want to start my first day in Italy groggy from still-active sleeping medication. So (allora) I soldiered on through the flight. Even the cute, green cappelli and the deep, red lipstick on the ample Roman lips of a couple of exotic Italian flight attendants couldn’t shake me from a miserable night on a plane.
We got to Rome-Fiumicino airport, hailed a taxi and headed toward one of the many firsts I experienced on this trip. Our flat, rented online on Airbnb.com, was perfect. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a quaint little kitchen and lounge, a clothes washer, nicely sized showers and a world of restaurants and cool things to see awaited us just outside the door. The Airbnb process is fun, inexpensive compared to hotels, and gives you a glimpse of the life the people live who own the space you rented.
Right off the bat we dived into pitchers of house wine, heavenly, simply adorned pizzas (which are generally delivered to your table unsliced) and the charming Italians. Language barrier aside, we communicated well, in spite of the fact that everyone you encounter will say “yes” to anything you ask them. I pondered that for few days after we were sure that our driver, Gabrielle, knew exactly what we were talking about when we proffered the Aflac duck as a universally-known centerpiece of the place we came from. Turns out, he didn’t know from the Aflac duck. He didn’t have a clue what we were talking about, but we couldn’t tell from his nodding affirmation, his head bobbing as if we were talking about his sister, whom he has known from birth.
Although this familiarity is charming, it tends to throw you off when you’re trying hard to communicate. Allora, many times during the trip, I had to circle back and carefully watch him and others we talked to, to make sure we were really on the same page and that each side of the conversation was “on the same sheet of music.”
We started our trip in Rome and I got a surprise as we walked up the steps to the entrance to The Vatican, which is ground zero for grandness. There is likely no place on earth that houses more significant art, grand spaces and grand architecture. Surprisingly I was rock solid. As I took it in and was bathed in the glow of the bright sun on an otherwise bitterly cold day in December, I appreciated the sights of priceless works of art and was moved by the antiquities we were able to see, but I didn’t get the emotional twinges I expected to come.
The emotion didn’t come from buildings and art, maybe because Cancer had gotten between the me of today and the me I was 14 years ago when we walked into Montreal’s Notre Dame. This trip wasn’t, for me, about what I saw while we were there. When I looked at the face of the person I most love in the world through the golden filter of a setting Tuscan sun, I knew it wasn’t going to be about buildings and art. Instead, the most cherished thing I’ve taken from Italy is how Italy made me feel. How I felt in my own skin while we were there, is something I’ll remember for as long as I have a memory.
I recently encouraged one of our sons to collect experiences, because an experience collector is someone who is always interesting to be around. There are always stories to tell about places you’ve been where you felt complete. I felt whole in Italy. Fed. Loved. Wrapped in beauty and only a few steps away from wine, cheese or coffee, all of which the Italians do better than almost everyone.
Here’s list of all the cities and towns we visited during our 15 days: Rome, Manciano, Orbetello, Porto Ercole, Porto San Stefano, Orvieto, Siena, Saturnia, Scansano, Grosseto, Murlo, Montalcino and Florence. Each of these mostly small towns had something great to offer us. The one thing they all had was impossibly great food. Even when you spent a little too much time in front of that fresco or sculpture before making your move toward the restaurant you chose for lunch and when you arrived there was a line out the door up the cobblestones — you knew that lunch at that place wasn’t going to happen — but the alternate you chose, sometimes by simply closing your eyes and pointing, turned out to be your new favorite place.
From 30,000 feet, here’s what I got from Italy: The proposed high-speed rail connecting Atlanta to Columbus has to happen. The possibility of making the Columbus Metropolitan Airport, Atlanta’s sixth runway and all the collateral travel that could happen by train, opening up adventures in both cities is not a good, but a great idea.
And, there is simply no excuse to ever serve another pasta dish made from store-bought dried pasta. My pasta machine arrives tomorrow and I don’t ever intend to serve another piece of dried, packaged pasta from my kitchen.
The most important thing Italy has taught me is how to be present in the now. Here’s how I got that lesson: Seven days into our Italy vacation, we came in very late from dinner and turned on the TV in our villa. After languid days surrounded by incredible scenery, drinking wine and eating otherworldly food, our eyes bathed with scenes of sheepherders, stunning architecture and ancient cobblestones, the small television screen delivered the obscenity that our country has become like a slap in the face.
While we were worried about the slight possibility of rain and what new version of a white boar (cinghiale) dish we might order at the next Tuscan restaurant, Americans were spewing questions and comments about Mariah Carey’s lip syncing disaster on a Times Square stage. While we were swooning over pastoral fields and olive groves, our country’s new leader was in some kind of toxic Twitter fight with some country or another.
I couldn’t watch it.
That an entire nation, maybe still the greatest nation in the world, could be so lathered up over such completely stupid, insignificant shit was an embarrassment to me in the presence of our charming, bodybuilder Italian driver, Gabrielle.
How much better is was to walk away from all of that noise and just be interested in a conversation over lunch, or at a gallery or over some sight, sound or smell that we encountered right then. Just being there in the moment, not sure what day it was, or even where we were, was something that I will hold close for the whole of my life. I will try to do a better job of being present as we shake off the jet lag, unpack our belongings and reintroduce ourselves to life in the United States of the Deep South.
Here is a list of some of the things we learned about Italy. Some are funny, some are puzzling and others are just damned interesting.
I tried mightily to use as much Italian as I could. Several weeks with an online Rosetta Stone language class didn’t do much to prepare me, mainly because of the velocity of speech in Italy. By the time I thought I had recognized a word or a phrase, things had moved on so far down the road that got lost before I got started. Except for New Year’s Eve, where I boldly greeted everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, with a hearty wish for a good year. “I said, “Buon Ano (I pronounced it Buon AnYo).” I peppered everyone I saw with my Italian Good Year wish. Only, I found out that I had saying something close to “Good Asshole.” The correct way to say it is, “Buon Anno (sounding more like banana).” That was the first time I got that “stupid Americano” look.
The second time came when we visited our first grocery store. The sight of what looked like fresh-off-the-tree citrus fruits, some of which I couldn’t recognize, caused me to grab a big juicy looking fruit — which still had its stem and leaves attached — and hold it up while encouraging the rest of our group to come and see it to see if they knew what it was. One should NEVER touch fruit or vegetables in an Italian grocery store. There are plastic gloves there for you to put on when you intend to touch those things. Who knew?
Another interesting find: Italy’s gift to the world is painting, sculpture, pasta and antiquities beyond belief. America’s gift to Italy is music. American music is loved and the Italians surround themselves with it. Coming from every genre, music in public places, restaurants, and shops comes almost exclusively from the United States. I asked Gabrielle about that and he said, “We think American music is beautiful!” He was able hum along with almost all the music, even though he had trouble with the lyrics because of the language divide.
In Italy, everything moves at a slow pace. Everything except for cars in traffic. Italians are aggressive drivers. If you go slow on small or large roads, you’ll soon have a gesturing, angry driver right on your tail, shouting, to us, incomprehensible R-rolling curses and almost clipping your bumper as they pass, while the American passengers grip the arms of their seats at 120 kilometers per hour. Allora (So), if you’re going on an extended Italian vacation, hiring a professional driver is a must. They will assure that you do everything on your Italy to-do list, make sure you pick great restaurants, accompany you there and make sure you’re viewed as a special guest and then get your drunk ass back home at the end of the night.
Italy is all about experiences. And experiences are what make a life. I think this trip has changed me forever. Cancer is what caused my first “New Normal,” and our Italian adventure has caused me to shift into my second “New Normal” gear.
In Italy, shops close and open in ways that Americans, at first, don’t get.
In these stunning hill towns, shop owners promptly close their doors at 1 p.m. so patrons can scatter off toward their chosen lunch places to fight crowds for small, tight tables. Long lines form at restaurant and toilettes, and you have to deal with lots of stairs, loud staccato conversations and cigarette smoke as lunch gives way to jugs of local wine, your next favorite dish and two hours of conversation.
After copping a wine buzz and looking forward to another limone gelato, maybe your sixth of the week, then you’re standing in line again to pay and heading back out into a sea of beautiful people, so many of them smoking cigarettes, shrouded in black against the cold but sunny Tuscan winter day.
The language is so beautiful. It is spoken with emotion and with gestures. The Italians get the whole of their being into the discussion. Body language, hand gestures, shoulder shrugs and generous sprinklings of grazie and prego. It is music to my ears and although my few weeks of Rosetta Stone online language work didn’t even come close to giving me even a traveler’s command of simple conversation, I slowly became more able to pick out a few words from the high velocity conversations going on around me as I watched old men reading newspapers at a gas station pubs and drinking beer and caffe at ten o’clock in the morning.
I’m going to try to step away from the jangling 24-hour news cycle. To not let myself slide back into the things that make America ugly. I’m going to walk more, probably drink more, have longer lunches and dinners and continue to try not to sweat small things. My pasta machine arrives today and I intend to learn how to make great homemade pasta.
High gasoline prices ($7.50 per gallon), small cars, tight roads, cold spaces, short showers, no clothes dryers, businesses that close at odd times during the day, throngs of shoppers and people in the streets, museums, street performers, cozy restaurants, incredible wine, pasta and bread, aggressive drivers, my least favorite lasagna was light years better than any I’ve had before. The limone gelato is so fresh there are sometimes lemon seeds in it.
I mourn the end of this trip, with Italy forever tattooed on my brain and I plan to dream and plan my way back there again.
Here is a slab of pictures from our trip. I guess you’ll notice, like all my traveling partners did, including my incredible wife, that I didn’t take many pictures of us. I know what we look like. I want the memory of the things I saw to stay with me, so my pictures generally are of things I saw, not of the people with whom I traveled.