If I May Have Italy


My bedroom door rested slightly ajar, pulled open by the breeze coming through the open window. From the other side I heard rumblings of life in the kitchen. I rose out of bed and placed my cool feet on the rustic wood floor dragging them slowly across till I reached the window sill. I stretched open the shutters and climbed up onto the cement ledge, reaching for the sweater I’d left draped over the door of my armoire.

You may have the universe if I may have Italy
— Giuseppe Verdi

Outside the window the hillside was awakening. The sun drenched the vineyard below the stone deck. The pool remained shaded by the house. The water laid silently still for all but the gnats that skimmed the surface leaving small lines across the marbled teal surface. The sound of cicadas buzzed through the vineyards as the cool morning began to drop off but it’s dampness still soaked into the dewy moss oozing from the clay layers of the terracotta roof outside the window ledge. Nicolo, the owner of the property, was tinkering with tools and old jars of nails in the garage beneath my room. From time to time I could see his white bandana and scruffy shirt through the leaves of the apricot trees as he emerge on the path to the main house.

I remember smelling the apricots from where I sat, the ripest of them, lying fruitlessly on the gravel below waiting to be collected and made into a sweet spread. The smell was carried through the damp morning air so delicately you could taste them. I could still smell the rosewater soap on my hands, taste the grittiness of the wine we’d sipped the night before and feel the soot on my skin from the dusty terroir. The details all seemed vaguely familiar, like an old story I had once been told. One that I was now living.

I remember taking a long look out at the vineyard and contemplating the enchanting view from the farmhouse. I thought about how we’d found this place, gotten lost and stumbled upon it. We had planned to meet Flora, the owner, in town one afternoon. Having arrived early we walked through the village, stopping for stamps at the ufficio postale and for snacks at the general store. Visitors were abstract here. We were watched by the locals as we strolled down old streets.

My father showed me homes that reminded him of the one where he’d grown up, in a town just a few 100 kilometers away near Agnone. Once we’d explored everything there was to explore, we left town ready to find Flora’s farmhouse on our own. A few u-turns and dusty back roads and we’d created memories we wanted to forget. After an hour spent arguing over directions, we were defeatedly and hopelessly lost.  We pulled into a local residence to ask for directions, a beautiful stone farmhouse set back off a vineyard down a long dusty gravel road. It all seemed vaguely familiar. We were greeted by a tall curly haired Italian woman named Flora. “You’re here”, she told us, “You found us!” We become the punch line in some sort of classic Italian joke, stumbling upon the exact country home we were looking for. Flora welcomed us and graciously apologized for the trouble we’d had in finding her home while she showed us around the property. It was separated in three parts, the main living quarters that Flora and her husband Nicolo lived in and two private apartments with their own stone decks - ours situated in a small nook off to the side of the property set in amongst the vines. It was there that I woke up to the enchanting tuscan scene in the morning described above.  

 
 
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Mornings on that trip had been the most charmed of all. I think back to the homes on the hillside on the Amalfi Coast near Praiano, watching people appearing at open doors, shaking out mats on the balcony, turning corners down small streets. 

I imaged how the light and fresh air must feel in their homes, as I sat on our sun drenched hotel balcony. I pictured their kitchen tables and the spreads that covered them.  I thought of the kids waking up for school, kicking around the soccer ball, celebrating the big win from the football match the night before.

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I reflect too on the nights we had at that farmhouse, ordering pizza from the local restaurant in Vagliagli. Thin crust margarita. We sat in those wrought iron chairs in the vineyard for hours, contemplating the beautiful serendipity of this trip.  

A few days earlier we had just happened to stumble into Siena on the eve of the Palio and watched the entire town emerge from their districts, divided by the colours of their jerseys, to watch the practice run in the main campo. Thousands of people filled the square and crowded the balconies above, as their horses too arrived in costume. School children sat cousin to cousin pridefully cheering for their districts. Family friends cheered across the square, sparring with each other through song.

In front of me, one woman wore a blue and yellow scarf. Her district's colours. It was folded in half and tied loosely around her shoulders, hanging slightly to one side. On the bottom folded corner, a note. Tre Luglio, Mille-Nova-Trente-Novanta-Tre. The 3rd of July, 1993.  I don’t know what the date meant, perhaps it was the year their horse won, but the traditional of it all was unmistakable. Generation after generation attended the event. Every age, every year.  They’d sing the same songs, argue the same disputes and celebrate the victories. The rehearsal ended in a dead heat, a draw. The horses had false started too many times to get a clear sense of who would win tomorrow's yearly race. As the crowds dispersed and we followed Siena’s winding streets to the city walls, we watch families returning to the district neighbourhoods that have divided the city for centuries.

Another day we’d spent in Florence. We met a local guide, a friend of a friend, actually recommended by the most amazing teacher who’d taught me about the history and reverence of Florentine art. Bernardo was a close friend of Madame G.’s when she’d lived here the year before, working for Gucci teaching Italian employees to speak French. We met Bernardo in the main square next to the replica of The David. He was a small older man with hair trimmed short, wearing a structured green shirt with big square pockets on each side. He felt familiar like my own Zio Igino, soft and sweet. In one hand he carried a red and white grocery bag, his lunch, filled with a few small tupperware. His brown velcro sandals were ready to lead us through the history of the public art. He didn’t look like an artist, but the way he spoke about each sculpture, describing the stories they depicted, the details of each slab of marble and how they had been so thoughtfully carved by these great artist, proved unmistakably his love of art. How can you be from Florence after all and not have an innate appreciation for the sculptures, paintings and architecture that surrounds you?

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He told us stories of the Medici family, how they commissioned so many of these works and why being so, many of the sculptures mimicked their facial features. He pointed out small details carved in the backs of heads made to resemble the face of the artist who sculpted them. He showed us his own favourite drinking fountain, one you’d only ever find in Florence, spouting crisp cool sparkling water. SPARK-quel-ing, he said as he tilted forward to take a sip from the spout.  We ended that afternoon eating cotoletta di vitello e patate and risotto con asparagi at a grouping of small tables across from the entrance of the Academia, inspired by all that we had seen.

I had always wanted to be there, at that table in the piazza, on that windowsill of the farmhouse, walking amongst those sculpture, listening the the vespas and the coastal spray, eating fresh apricots and sipping Chianti among the vines. And there I was, marvelling at it all.

My grandparents are Italian, my father in fact was born there. They moved to Canada when he was four years old. They had a simple life in Italy in a village called La Cuppella, an Italian slang for a top a little hill. They lived in a small stone house with a wood fireplace to warm them on cold nights. My father and his siblings slept across the street in the loft of the barn. A far cry from where I was, sitting peacefully on my windowsill. After the war, my grandfather started saving money for a ticket to cross the seas, leaving Italy when my Dad just only 6 months old. He later saved money so his family to join him. When my grandmother Carmina and her four sons left Italy, they packed up all they had into a large black metal chest and headed to Naples to embark on their voyage across the sea.

My father (left) and his family in the dinning room during the crossing from Naples to Halifax.

My father (left) and his family in the dinning room during the crossing from Naples to Halifax.

My father as a baby with his older sister and brother. 

My father as a baby with his older sister and brother. 

My grandmother returning to visit the village where they lived.

My grandmother returning to visit the village where they lived.

My father remembers none of this of course, being such a young age at the time, but I often reflect on how daunting it must have felt. My father hadn’t ever even seen a boat before they embarked on that long trip at sea. Only two generations removed, my life had been so different from my grandparents. The same views that to them were boundaries and limitations, were to me,  endless landscapes I could freely explore. It think that’s what captivates us all in Italy. It is the history of the place. To wander down a small path, sleep in a home or eat in a piazza where you know generations before have done exactly the same. That history is so beautifully preserved. Whether it’s in the tradition of community life on the coastal hillsides, in the regions whose soil have produced endless barrels of wine, in the main squares that continue be the meeting place for life and laughter and competition, or in the works of art that were once touched by the hands of inspired artists. Everything old is new again only seen with fresher eyes and we are able experience history, not in dimly lit exhibits of a museum, but in the most serene moments,  looking through the open shutters of a window peering down into the valleys and vineyards below.

 
Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.
— Anna Akhmatova