The first time I came to Italy, it was 1997 and I was 18 years old. My parents, Emil, and I were visiting Amu Jamil, one of Dad's oldest and best friends from Baghdad, and his family. They were, at the time, living in the south of France in a small town near Nice. Jamil and his family were very spontaneous; one morning one of them got it in their head that we should drive into Italy. So we did.
Our goal was to get to Florence, but we only got as far as Portofino and Santa Margherita (of the Pinot Grigio fame) that night. Point A is Nice, Point B is where we ended up, and Point C is where we were trying to go. Whoops a daisy!
We stayed in a hotel overlooking the sea and ate delicious food and drank chianti, and my father and Amu Jamil had their arms around each other at all times singing "Forget Domani" over and over and laughing and smiling. It was two days of pure letting go, forgetting anxiety and troubles, eating and drinking deliciously, and literally, not having a care in the world.
The second time I came to Italy, it was 2001 and I was 22. I'd just finished my undergrad and traveled to Urbino to do a 3-week long piano study. I hooked up with Lauren, a 19 year old classical pianist from Boulder, and Matt, and 18 year old composer from Janesville. The three of us were inseparable for those three weeks.
Every morning we woke up leisurely and walked the two miles into town. The town center was located at the top of an immense and steep hill; there was even the option of paying three euros to take an elevator - that was built into the side of the mountain - to the top. But we always walked. It was like an incredible reward every day, trekking along the busy street outside our dorms in a single-file line, climbing that giant hill, and as we approached the top, taking in the beautiful Renaissance architecture, smelling the espresso wafting from the cafés, and watching the well-dressed citizens go about their business. This is a cell phone picture of a printed picture - see if you can see the steepness of the path in the way back of the picture.
We had a pretty regular daily routine: we'd buy coffee and pastries at a little shop on the Piazza, and then head over to the University to practice and have lessons.
After a few hours, Matt and I usually stopped for a slice of pizza in town, eating it sitting on the curb or standing against a building. We'd then walk back to our dorm rooms, back down the hill, for siesta. Lauren and I were roommates, and we'd lay around talking about boyfriends and love and stuff for hours. After siesta, we'd walk back into town, get a gelato, and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in our Master Class. We always had to wash our hands in this half-broken and I'm sure ancient fountain outside the school between gelato and class. Some nights after class, we'd go back to the University for dinner in their cafeteria where we sampled delicious gnocchi and fresh vegetables and cheese. Other nights, we splurged, staying in town and finding a little restaurant for dinner. Our standard order:
Una bottaglia di vino di casa rosso - tre bicchiere - e una prosciutto e melone, e una pizza margherita.
It's the only thing I still feel completely comfortable saying in Italian. We had long, slow meals and drank wine late into the night, talking and laughing and learning about each other. Occasionally, we'd head over to a table at the Piazza and sit and watch people, sipping on limoncello or cappuccino or more wine.
We took a day trip to Venice, where we spent a few hours walking over canals and flirting with beautiful men passing by. I remember watching a gondola float under a bridge I was standing on. In it was a man belting out a song I couldn't identify, but knew I'd heard out of the mouth of Pavarotti (via my parents' old records). I couldn't believe it was actually happening right in front of my eyes. The man in white in the first gondola is the singing man.
Leaving Italy, we flew out of the Rome airport at about 4 am. I remember looking longingly at the black sky and hoping some day to come back. It had been a 3-week journey through food, drink, music, and people. It was luxurious and lovely.
And I did come back. The third time I came to Italy was yesterday. It was another long and annoying journey, as has been the case on this current trip. We'd driven two hours from Fethard to Dublin, flown 2 1/2 hours from Dublin to Frankfort, then ran for over half a mile through the stupidly gigantic Frankfort airport in an attempt to make our connecting flight. Although I ran more and faster than I have in about 20 years, we missed our flight.
Thankfully, we rebooked and were in Rome about 3 hours later. But I was on edge; sick of traveling and flying anxiety, exhausted and hungry, desperately needing alone time and probably a shower. Rough start to this beautiful country I have come to love so much. But within about five minutes of being in Rome, we passed a man in the street playing an accordion and singing, and these other things just started to melt away. After about an hour of rest and some cold water splashed on faces, we ventured out for dinner. It was a small restaurant down the road from our hotel with tables crowded next to each other and signed pictures on the wall of all the famous people who had eaten there. Most of the pictures featured the owner of the restaurant kissing the famous ladies on the cheek - but I did spot one of him kissing Burt Reynolds as well.
We ate prosciutto and melon, caprese salad, and deliciously fried artichokes.
We each ordered a different pasta and sampled each others'.
Dad ordered gelato to split at the end of the meal. Ridiculously decadent. Today we toured parts of Rome and Vatican City, then ate pizza and a meat antipasto for lunch (eat your heart out, Delicious Food!). Now we're back at the hotel for siesta and the window is open to let in a slight breeze that gently moves the sheer curtains, as well as the voice of an invisible man singing somewhere outside. And somebody practicing their flute.
It all feels so unreal, even when right in front of me. This country that has me smiling all day, the people who somehow get by on spending their days leisurely drinking espresso on the street or eating the most delicious food that exists. Spontaneous singing and accordion playing. Not to get all Eat Pray Love on your ass or anything, but really, this country is unlike any other - it emphasizes pleasure, luxury, relaxation, happiness. It really seems too good to be true, but then you remember, no. We're right here, and it's real, and that guy is seriously singing O Solo Mio. Believe it.
Dearest Italy, are you for real? Regardless, thank you, and good timing. I needed a little fantasy world in my life right now. And I cannot wait to write about the fourth time I came to Italy. And the fifth. And so on.
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