Italy: Family, Food, Festivity – Part II

Friends and family have been asking: “What was the best part of your trip?” As expected, the sites were mind-expanding and the food tantalizing. But the next time I visit Italy, not much will have changed along those lines. So my answer is: “The people.” We spent three months with sweet and enthusiastic students, faculty, and staff and made side visits to see Italian friends and family.

 

My Italian professor from high school, with whom I’ve been in contact for nearly twenty years, came up to the villa to speak on Machiavelli’s The Prince. His son, Paolo, a documentary filmmaker, Skyped in to discuss his film Terra di Transito (Land of Transit) about the immigration crisis in Italy. When we went to Rome, we met them for an incredible authentic Roman meal at Giggetto in the Jewish district near the Porticus Octaviae. The next day I had lunch with my high school friend and her husband, and we took a long afternoon walk along the Roman aqueducts in the Archaeological Park a few blocks from their home.

 

 

Our semester wound down with a trip to the Casentino Valley. Of all the rainy days to have, this was the best: beside a roaring fire in the common room of the Castello di Porciano, a restored Medieval castle Dante once stayed in that is now a hotel and museum. The students were studying for their final exams; I was preparing for my last class on Petrarch; and Chuck was keeping Ariel entertained.

 

After leaving the castle we headed to Poppi, where we toured one of the most intact and intricate castles I’ve ever visited, complete with a library containing 14th century copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy (no pictures allowed). From there, our bus wound through the mountains to La Verna, where St. Francis is said to have received the stigmata (and where we saw his 800-year-old blood-stained robes). More things added and checked off my bucket list.

 

At the end of our semester abroad, we made our way south to the town of Ferentino to see my host parents. This kind and generous couple hosted me for an academic year when I was in high school. I hadn’t seen them in 11 years. My host sister flew in from London and rode down from Rome with my other host sister and her two eight-year-old twin girls. We had a weekend of fun and then my host brother and his wife joined us for Sunday lunch.

 

Ariel was delighted to meet the twins, who, like her, had Micky Mouse pajamas. We enjoyed fresh veggies from my host father’s garden as well as my host mother’s homemade pasta and famous ricotta pie. (My mouth is watering just remembering it.) Sadly, their fruit and olive trees were scorched by a hard freeze–it seems Tuscany wasn’t the only part of Italy that endured a bitter winter.

 

While in Ferentino, I also reconnected with my professors and had dinner in the historic town of Alatri, inhabited for nearly 4,000 years. The huge stones of the acropolis, placed without mortar, were legendarily believed to have been stacked by Cyclopes. We enjoyed a rich meal from 9 to midnight while Ariel slept peacefully in the pram.

 

Saying goodbye to such great people was the hardest part of this trip. I am more aware than ever of the incomparable joy and fulfillment of having a good meal with good people. We have tried to maintain this spirit since being home, not wanting to take anyone or anything for granted.

It’s been a whirlwind summer, though–Chuck worked on the cabin until June, and then we began the slow process of packing up our home and looking for an apartment to rent until we can finish the cabin. I have been hired at Harding University as a Professor of English, so we definitely didn’t want to continue commuting 100 miles a day. We’ll miss our friends and family in Conway, but living close to work means more time with Ariel and less stress.

The Italians have an expression, “piano piano,” or “little by little.” We may not be in the cabin yet, but we’re going from 2500 square feet to a two-bedroom apartment. We’re storing some heirlooms and other keepsakes we’ll have to go through at some point. But the more we let go, the greater the value of what we decided to keep, and the more headspace we have for old memories and the new ones to come.

Italy: Family, Food, Festivity – Part I

We’ve been home from Italy a few weeks now, getting used to a different grind.

But first, a few reflections of our semester abroad. Assumptions I had before leaving: we’d eat well and we’d see amazing sights. That’s Italy, right? We’d been before—but never quite like this: living in a villa with 33 students, a 4-month-old in tow, the backdrop a cold and wet Tuscan spring.

 

Whether we were hopping a ferry to Capri or simply taking the tram into Florence, each day was “un avventura,” an adventure. Every time we buckled Ariel in her car seat she grew wide-eyed and kicked her feet. She was at ease on the move, even lulled to sleep by the bumpy cobblestones.

The directors, students, and Italian staff at the villa became Ariel’s clan. She thrived on the attention, squealing at the friendly faces she saw each day.

Despite sub-par weather on many of our outdoor excursions, we enjoyed dozens of incredible sites. One of the highlights was our afternoon visit to Pompeii—amid a 90% chance of afternoon showers, the clouds parted just as we finished lunch and purchased two large umbrellas.

I did not realize Pompeii was so huge.

Visiting the city, decimated when Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. and preserved for centuries under lava and ash, was on my bucket list and technically still is since I want to go back. Plus, although excavations began in 1748, much of the city is still unexcavated. A new discovery was made just days ago.

Just when I thought I’d reached the best day of the trip, the next morning we headed for Capri. An old gentleman with muscular hands said, “C’e’ un po’ di mare oggi” (there’s a little sea today) as he gave a gentle swishing motion with his hand. The expression, I soon learned, was an understatement. But after a little sea-sickness I was fine as we took a cab to Anacapri, the highest part of the island, and worked our way down.

We seemed to have the island to ourselves, as only one more ferry ran that day due to the wind. We visited the villa of San Michele, built on the ruins of one of the villas of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who left Rome in 26 AD and never returned.

I ate possibly the best seafood I’ve ever had, walked on wooden slats over a church’s hand-painted ceramic tile floor, and bought a pair of handmade sandals by a cobbler in business for over 50 years. Our spirits were light under a brilliant blue sky as a cool, crisp wind ushered us from one beautiful scene to the next.

Next day we were up with the sun to travel to Paestum to see some of the most well-preserved Greek temples in the world (Greece included). They are some of the only temples which visitors are allowed to walk into. The archaeological museum on the grounds was full of pottery, carvings, and artifacts found at the site and was one of my favorites from the trip.

 

We stopped by a buffalo mozzarella farm on the way to our beach-side hotel. We settled in and watched the sun set, then sleepily made it through a delicious dinner (the hotel owner served us broccoli greens and zucchini from his personal garden). Ariel was not thrilled by her little wooden crib, which did not allow her to fully stretch her arms out. After much fuss, we finally got some sleep before our early alarms woke us to pack for the journey home. A couple miles from our hotel we stopped to visit a WWII-era German machine gun post built to ward off American soldiers in Operation Avalanche. We then headed to Naples to the archaeological museum, where Ariel saw her first mummy and a collection of Egyptian statues of women breastfeeding.

We ate a sack lunch waiting for our train, then sped home at 298 km/hr, reaching the villa in time for dinner.

March was a whirlwind. We were either on the go or very, very sick. We missed the trip to Sicily due to all three of us recovering from chest colds, it lingering the worst with Chuck. One of us was always waking up the rest with a coughing fit. I hadn’t slept so little since Ariel was first born, going over two weeks without more than two hours of sleep at a shot.

We had the best caregivers, though—the directors and staff bought or made us food, picked up our prescriptions, and a doctor famous for her work in hematology even made house calls to check on us. April 1st, Easter, marked a shift in the weather, and consequently our health.

Ariel with chocolate Easter egg

Side Trip

*Written on 5/30 but would not post!*

The journey itself is my home.
–Matsuo Basho

Today we’re taking our home-journey on the road…to Scotland! Ten years ago were married there, in Tulloch Castle (once owned by the Bane clan and still bearing the coat of arms).

We’ve left wet Arkansas, which is expected to receive more rain next week, and hopefully when we return we can pick up where we left off on building our cabin.

In the meantime, our little Bane clan (nine people, three generations) is making a pilgrimage to the “home country.” We’re clad in raincoats with scarves on the ready.