Under the Influence…
We’ve all had lots of time to think. I’ve written a dozen dystopian blog posts in my head. And I’ve pondered over Italy and what it means to me and others. And still, I can’t help thinking, how have these past three months influenced what Italy means to me, going forward?
Through the magic of photography, I can return to many familiar places in Italy, even to those before I was born. There are albums my mother made for me, with pictures of my grandparents, uncles, aunts and father in Sicily. I recognize the rooftop of the building in Palermo where my great grandfather and his extended family lived. I sat outside there in 1971 sipping a caffe latte that my aunt Vittina made for me. Years earlier, she made coffee for her daughter and parents, and they posed for a picture. The bay of Palermo, Panormus, and the bright, brilliant sun which shines in Sicily. The dead center of Sardinia. All quiet, all still, no wind, the sun above, beating down. A large meadow in front and the bleating of the sheep and the occasional bell clang of the large white dogs who oversee the flock. A shepherd is taking us on his daily circuit. His wife will meet us for lunch, with freshly made malloreddus and ricotta, figs and a liter of Vermentino.
Who is it that comes to mind? Many, many people. But the one that is popping up is Francesco Giuntini, in Rufina. We’ve grown up and older together now. But his wit, his sense of timing, his devotion to the grape and wine and Tuscany and Italy, is memorable. And his wines, they are the sentinels of his youth and his children’s youth, and ultimately of their ageing in time, as well.
The elderly waiter in Fiesole on a hot summer day. Both of us, dressed up in coats, he with a tie. Sitting in the loggia of the former monastery, eating a soup of beans and crusty white bread, washing it down with a Tuscan rosato. Humble food for such a majestic hotel. This is one of the places where I learned what “to serve” meant. And to the career cameriere, it was everything.
Sitting in a bathtub at midnight in Positano, spraying water all over me to cool myself while sipping a Coca-Cola from the minibar. Meanwhile, sleep was impossible, for outside revelers were singing their beloved football anthems. My wife, imploring me to come back to bed, me wishing the room (and all of Italy) had a ceiling fan. And ultimately the clamor dying down, along with the heat, for a few last precious minutes of rest.
Walking in Pozzuoli, being swarmed by youngsters wanting a 20 lire coin, hundreds of them, tugging at my jeans and my army surplus shirt. Laughing at my desert boots. We stop at a nearby caffé where I get some change for my little friends. And then we go into a shoe shop, specializing in cork sandals, and they argue over which one I should buy, to replace my ugly boots.
San Benedetto del Tronto. My Emerald Coast, my Costa del Sol. I long for a stay there. Take a room in a hotel by the beach, get up in the morning and take a splash in the water, and sit outside and read and bake a little, waiting for lunch. Those wonderful little seafoods they grill, langostino and calamari, washed down by a glass of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo or Falerio dei Colli Ascolani. And then, inside for a little pisolino, a snooze. The dreams that one has on those long, hot summer days, with the breeze from the window, which swirls the curtains as if it were an apparition. And now, in my mind, it plays out that way.
Paths high in the hills of Trentino Alto-Adige. In July, summer, all of Italy is packing for their monthly vacation to the beaches, to the mountains, to Cuba, to the Grand Canyon. And meanwhile, I look at a map and decide which day hike will be the one that we take. We find one, about 10 kilometers in length, not too drastic, but a good day of hiking. We go downstairs to our little hotel, and pack a lunch of cured meats in little buns of bread, mini-sandwiches. And apples, and water and a little sweet chocolate treat. And off to see the mountain top.
To visit the relatives of my youth once again, to sit and play Briscula or Zicchinetta with my aunts. And for my grandmother Giulia to be there, as she was always the best cheater at cards and had the best stories. I long for, more than grieve. But as it is not to be, I lament the lost opportunity.
To take my mother to visit her relatives in the hills of Calabria. Not just a place, this Bucita is, for it has become to me a lost island, floating up in the morning dew. I’d love to have shown her the town, the fields, the buildings, to drink the wine and eat the eggplant and complete the circle. We had one moment when it might have been possible, but my wife was too sick to take the trip. And I couldn’t leave her at home. And so, we lost that connection.
My mother would be celebrating her birthday if she were alive. Alas, she would be even more ancient now than when she passed away four years ago, barely missing her 102nd birthday. But now she travels with me to Italy, from time to time, in the dream world. There we are, with my aunts and my grandmothers and my father and my sisters and everyone who is alive or no longer here, on this great big giant magic Italian pullman bus, going to all the places I’d love to show them and have them show me.
No doubt, we’ll all get back to our Italy, whether we live there or we live on an island far, far away. People still need to bury their dead and mourn their losses. I’m in no hurry to get on a plane. We’re far from a normal scenario, in any case. But the promise of Italy, the illumination I feel when I step onto Italian soil, still shines within. In the meantime, we wait, we hope and we look forward to better days.