My first trip to Italy was in 1998, and since then, to the best of my calculations, I have made over 25 separate trips and spent almost two years of my life in what now seems like a second home to me. I love Italy’s dramatic landscapes, its incredible food, its music, and the emphasis on enjoying life to its fullest. But the glue that has bound me to the country for an 18-year-long love affair is undoubtedly the cast of characters that has become such an important part of my life over the years. I will be eternally grateful for these people and the entrée into Italian life that they have given me – one which few tourists get to experience.
One of the first friends I made in Italy was Christian, a serious young man with a sarcastic sense of humor who grew up in the Veneto region. I have been invited to many memorable dinners at his family’s home, often served outside in the garden, surrounded by greenery, flowers and fruit trees. I call Christian’s mother, “Mamma”, despite the fact that she’s only two years older than me because everyone else does, and she embodies all of the stereotypical characteristics of an Italian “Mamma”. According to Christian, she is happiest when preparing and serving food. When I am invited to dinner, I try to avoid eating for the entire day to prepare for what I refer to as a “Mangia-thon” as Mamma brings out platters of succulent fruits picked in her garden, a vat of her intoxicating spaghetti with mixed seafood, and then main courses of grilled fish, shrimp, chicken, or even horse meat with lemon, a very Venetian dish, all the while urging us to eat with the combined plea and command, “Mangia, mangia!”. There are then vegetable dishes and salads, and always, dessert, coffee, and after dinner liqueurs. When her guests finally surrender with a “basta!” (enough!), Mamma seems deflated and sad. One time, after refusing her offers of more food, I changed my mind and said that yes, I would love some cookies with my coffee. As she ran into the house to fetch them, Christian rolled his eyes and said, “You have just given my mother a reason to live for the next few minutes!”
Mamma also has a habit of criticizing me for not being more fluent in Italian despite my frequent visits. She does this right in front of me in Italian, and for a few years, I only knew this because Christian told me what she was saying. Of course half the time she speaks in Venetian dialect making it impossible to follow anything she says, and after all these years she’s learned no English at all. But there finally came a day when, on one of my visits, she again started to criticize me for not knowing more Italian, and this time, I knew what she was saying. I smiled at her and said, in perfect Italian, “Well, I understood exactly what you just said about me!” The other guests erupted in laughter at her comeuppance, and though she turned as red as the tomatoes in her beautiful garden, even she had to laugh.
The last time I visited, I knew that I’d found a place in her affections when Christian, who is now a strict vegan, begged her to create a vegetarian meal for a group dinner. But when she learned I was coming, she rushed to the fish market and made me a gigantic portion of her seafood spaghetti that she specified was only for me, much to Christian’s consternation as he grumbled that she must like me better than him!
Another member of my Italian family is Christian’s lifelong friend Emanuele; however, Christian nicknamed him Ciube. Ciube is Italian for “Chewie” or Chewbacca, the hairy sidekick of Han Solo in the Star Wars films because of Emanuele’s hirsute appearance. Ciube reminds me of a happy puppy dog, greeting me by throwing an affectionate arm around my shoulder, looking deeply into my eyes and asking how I’ve been since we last saw one another. He is a member of a band called The Beards, and they have produced several CDs of traditional music from the Veneto region, as well as tribute albums to both Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. It’s amazing to hear a group of men who speak with very thick Italian accents do a version of “Ring of Fire” and sound like they’d been raised just outside of Nashville. The Beards went on 10 city tour in the U.S. a few years ago, and Ciube’s prized souvenirs from the trip were the 10 speeding violations he’d accumulated, one from every state they’d visited! “Matt, I can no longer drive in your country; you have too many driving rules!”, he proclaimed.
One of my favorite memories was the night that Christian, Ciube and I drove to a camping area across the lagoon from Venice, and as we sat gazing at the lights of the city and drinking a couple of beers, we talked about life, language, and pop culture. I swear we spent a half an hour comparing the names of the characters from old TV shows like, The Addams Family in English vs. Italian. They were as amused by the English names for the young daughter, Wednesday, the hairy Cousin It, and the disembodied hand called Thing as I was by their Italian equivalents: Mercoledi, Cugino “EEET” (as they pronounce IT in Italian), and Mano (which is Italian for “hand”).
A bit further south, in a small village near Padova are Claudia and Marco, whom I originally met through Christian. Claudia has got to be among the sweetest and most considerate people I have ever known, often leaning over to me during group dinners and asking if I am following the fast-paced Italian conversations and then filling me in on details I miss. Although she is shy about speaking English, she really has a wonderful command of the language, though she always struggles with slang and colloquialisms in English. One evening when she was making dinner for me, she told me I could help by “dressing the table”, and I chuckled and told her that while we “dress a salad”, we “set the table”. She furrowed a brow and displayed the same frustration I feel when I think I’ve used an Italian expression correctly, only to learn I’m wrong. But her frown dissolved into a hearty laugh when I asked, “Wouldn’t it sound a bit strange and a little sexy to talk about UN-dressing the table after dinner?”
Claudia is married to Marco, a somewhat shy man with black hair and ice blue eyes. He understands English quite well, and really tries to speak in English, but it is a struggle for him. I’m always imploring him to speak slowly in Italian to me and that chances are good that I will understand, but he stubbornly searches for just the right English word. On one occasion he was desperately trying to share an Italian proverb with me, and after almost 30 minutes of Claudia trying to suggest words and me trying to guess what Marco was trying to say, he proudly proclaimed, “When a man has been burned once, he then fears the fire”. Almost on cue, all three of us dissolved into laughs as we could not believe he’d just spent so much time trying to convey such an anti-climactic message. After that, Marco sent me a text or a Facebook message saying, “Matt, I will be sure to find more proverbs for your next visit!”
When I was invited to their very small wedding I was deeply honored and thrilled that I was able to get to Italy to attend the ceremony. Before I arrived, Claudia warned me, “In Italy, when there is a wedding you can expect that all we will do is eat for about three days!” Had I not already agreed to come, that would have clinched it for me, and she wasn’t kidding. It was a fairytale wedding, held at a small, intimate little church in the countryside and the happy couple was taken from the church to the reception in a horse and buggy while the attendees followed behind on foot on a beautiful April afternoon. It is a memory I will always cherish.
Claudia and Marco are also avid travelers and we love sharing our travel experiences and dreams. They love tropical beaches and have journeyed from Greece and Sicily to such far-flung places as Maui, the Seychelles and the Turks & Caicos islands. We also love good food and have shared countless dinners at local restaurants or at their home. Claudia and Marco once told me that I am a very special type of friend that the Italians call, un amico nel cuore – a friend of the heart, and I couldn’t think of a more beautiful way to express my feelings for them as well.
In nearby Verona lives my friend Luciano, whom I’ve known for almost 10 years now. Luciano is originally from the south, Puglia, but has lived in Verona for many years. He is a talented graphic designer by day and a pub owner by night, but despite a frantic schedule, he never fails to make time to visit with me when I am in the area. He has a smile that could light up all of Europe and loves to chat about travel, politics, media, and his dreams for the future. One day he would love to immigrate to the U.S., but due to the seemingly insurmountable limits that the U.S. imposes on potential immigrants from Europe, he will likely go to England. In anticipation of this, he has really studied English and his language skills have increased tenfold since I’ve known him. He loves playing online games with people from all over the world, and frequently asks me about the meaning of certain slang terms or idiomatic expressions that have been directed toward him online. I have had to gently counsel him that many of these terms are not compliments and are in fact things he should never, ever say to anyone in person! Still, his sweet and optimistic spirit is contagious, and I always part company with Luciano feeling better about myself and the world.
Down in Rome I added a surrogate “Mamma” and two brothers when I wandered into a popular restaurant about 15 years ago and experienced some of the most amazing food in Italy. I returned to the restaurant on another visit to Rome six months later and was astounded when the two waiters, brothers named Enrico and Daniele recognized me and remembered so many details about me that I was convinced that they hadn’t had any customers since my last visit! Since then I have dined at their restaurant countless times, and have sent dozens of friends there to sample the best food that Rome has to offer. These days when I visit, the boys greet me warmly and refer to me as their red headed fratello or brother, and their mother, who is the head chef, runs out from the kitchen when she sees me to bring me a sample of a new appetizer she wants me to taste or extra desserts for me and my friends. On those rare occasions when I’ve forgotten to make a reservation in advance, they always find a way to fit me in.
A few years ago, rummaging around in a tacky gift shop in Rome, I happened to notice a calendar officially entitled “Calendario Romano,” but online informally it’s called the “Hot Roman Priests Calendar.” It featured black and white head shots of handsome men wearing priest collars. Rolling my eyes and wondering, “What will they come up with next?” I thumbed through it and stopped dead in my tracks when I opened the calendar to January and saw a beautiful shot of Daniele, looking quite dapper in his priest collar. Of course the myth that these were actual Roman priests had been shattered by this revelation. On my next visit to the restaurant, Daniele came to greet me and I exclaimed, “Padre Gennaio, come stai?” (Father January, how are you?) Poor Daniele covered his face in embarrassment and sheepishly asked if I had been shocked, but I reassured him that it was a beautiful photo of him and that it had given me a good laugh.
Another dear friend in Rome is Fabio, one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met. He works by day in the telecommunications industry, but like me, is a free spirit who loves to travel and live life to its fullest. During many of my visits to Italy, Fabio has taken me on day excursions to the coast at Nettuno and Anzio, to the volcanic mountains and crater lakes of the Alban Hills, and to the beautifully situated hill town of Castel di Tora near the border of Lazio and Umbria. He has also shown me lesser known Roman ruins, monuments and viewpoints, and has introduced me to an all-night doughnut baker and some great gelato shops, in Rome. He even provided me with a classic Roman experience: riding on the back of his motorbike winding through traffic in the Eternal City on a warm summer night.
One day we were exploring his old neighborhood, and in the shadows of the apartment building where he lived as a child, he showed me a field that contained a number of ancient Roman tombs where he’d played as a boy. Thinking back to my own childhood, I said, “In America we used to play cowboys and Indians when we were kids. What did you play?” Looking at me with an expression that told me the answer was obvious, he replied simply, “Gladiatori” – gladiators, and of course I found myself laughing hysterically. What ELSE would a little Roman child play as he crept around the ruins of columns and tombs virtually in his own back yard!
Another peek into Fabio’s childhood came when the topic of Halloween came up, and he expressed a strong hatred for the holiday. When I asked why, he explained that as a child, his mother was always coming up with obscure costumes for him to wear. One year he was Pulcinella, who according to Wikipedia is “a classical character that originated in commedia dell’arte of the 17th century and became a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry.” Another year she wrapped him in robes and a crown and declared that he was “The Prince of Russia”. As he reflected on this, I tried not to laugh, but it was almost impossible. Suddenly his face took on the look of a pouty young boy as he said in a far-off voice, “I just wanted to be a robot or Superman!” Ah, the scars of our childhood never quite go away!
Tullio, who grew up in Tivoli, just outside of Rome is also a member of my extended Italian family. He always refers to me as “fratello”, which because I am an only child, means a lot to me. He and I share a passion for volcanoes, and together we conducted the very first social science research survey of the people who reside close to the Vesuvius and Etna volcanoes. He loves the U.S. as much as I love Italy and I remember one time when he heard the “Star Spangled Banner” playing, he nudged me, pointed to his arm and said, “You see, it gives me gooseflesh when I hear your anthem. I love your country.”
We still laugh at the time when we were making the ferry crossing from mainland Italy to Sicily to visit Mt. Etna. A policeman stopped us at the ferry and eyed the car suspiciously, and then actually asked Tullio to get out of the car. Though I didn’t speak much Italian then, I got the feeling that the policeman was looking for drugs and that as he was questioning Tullio, he had spotted something suspicious on the floor of the car. I didn’t know Tullio well at the time, and momentarily wondered whether we were going to be busted for illegal drugs. The policeman knelt down, scraping at something on the floor and then bringing it to his nose to smell with a look of triumph on his face. “Oh Lord, is it pot?” I wondered. “Could it be cocaine? What has he found?” The triumphant expression quickly turned to one of embarrassment and disgust as the policeman muttered, “Cioccolato!” (chocolate!) and waved us through the police barricades. Tullio and I laughed all the way across the Straits of Messina.
A two or three hour drive south from Rome, but located in a totally different world from Rome, the Prisco family lives in one of the densely populated and highly vulnerable cities of metropolitan Naples directly beneath the famous Mt. Vesuvius volcano. I met Salvatore, the head of the family, while Tullio and I were conducting our research in the area. Salvatore and his brother Ferdinando owned a gelateria, and Tullio and I would stop by their place each afternoon for a refreshing ice cream break before continuing our work on the hot, muggy slopes of Vesuvius. We soon became welcome friends, and the gelato started to be “on the house” as we got to know Salvatore and his sons, who also work at the gelateria. They spoke virtually no English, so it was a real test for me to try and communicate with my Italian, made more difficult by the fact that they speak in a strong Neapolitan dialect, which is characterized by a lot of SH and B sounds that are not so common in standard Italian. For example, the Italian words scuola and ascolta (school and listen) sound more like SHKWOHLA and ASHKOLTA, and to my ears many words simply sounded like, “BUSHTA BUSHTA.”. I actually made Tullio laugh several times because I seemed to pick up the general sound of the dialect easily and had great fun imitating it.
One time when I was in the area and stopped by the gelateria, Salvatore graciously invited me to the family home for a dinner, and despite my misgivings about how we would all communicate, I gratefully accepted. When I arrived at the family home that evening, one of the first things Salvatore did was order his daughter and four sons to “Parlate Italiano, non Neapolitano!” (Speak Italian, not Neapolitan!), and as he did so he gave one of the older boys a playful smack on the back of the head. Every so often one of the boys would forget the rules and would receive a smack on the head from either Salvatore or one of the other children, accompanied by emphatic shouts of, “Bushta, Bushta!” I sipped my wine quickly and tried not to laugh at the scene, which really seemed like a comedy skit about the stereotypical Italian family.
There was so much head-smacking and so many screams of “Bushta, Bushta!” at the table that night that it was hard to carry on a conversation, but I did speak with Salvatore’s wife, who seemed to be very nervous about living so close to what is probably the most famous volcano in the world. At one point she asked, in Italian of course, “When will Vesuvio erupt again?” Of course no one knows this, but after some red wine and a good meal I playfully responded with, “Forse cento anni… o forse domani!” (Maybe in 100 years or maybe tomorrow!) Her eyes widened and I instantly realized that I had made a big mistake joking about this issue with her. Throughout the rest of the evening, amidst more shouts of “Bushta, Bushta!” and the never ending smacking of heads, she would look over at me and ask, “Domani? Veramente?” (Tomorrow? Really?) At that point I wanted to smack myself on the head for giving this poor woman a case of paranoia regarding the eruption of Vesuvius!
And then there is my American friend Brent, who moved to Italy 25 years ago and almost single-handedly restored a 1,000 year old stone house into a lavish and magical B & B on the quiet, non-touristy side of Tuscany. He and his partner then started a goat farm and began to make a name for themselves in producing top notch goat cheese. Every time I visited he would entertain me with hilarious stories of the problems he had with unreliable farmhands or insane Italian bureaucracy. He once said he planned to write a book about his adventures in Italy, and intended to wipe away the glitzy Hollywood image of Tuscany by calling the book, “The Sun Doesn’t Always Shine in Tuscany”. He has since moved back to the U.S., to start an equally successful goat farm in upstate New York, and though I am happy for his success, Tuscany has never been quite the same for me since he left.
This year, despite the fact that I have lived in California for 35 years, I sent more Christmas cards to addresses in Italy than within California. Travel has always offered endless rewards for me: adventure, novelty, rejuvenation, a greater sense of confidence. But on that first visit to Italy almost 20 years ago, in my wildest imaginings I could never have guessed how deep my connection to this country and its people would be, or that over the years I would gradually assemble a whole new family who make me feel welcomed, accepted and genuinely loved, even when I’m almost 6,000 miles away from “home”.