Part I: Italy
I say I’m not a world traveler, because I’ve only ever been to Europe a few times. I hardly think Europe qualifies as the world.
The next few blog posts are a compilation of some traveling stories I have up my sleeve after a few years of traveling to London, Paris and Milan. I hate talking about all the traveling with my friends, because most of them have never left the country and I don’t want to brag, so I just return from Paris and Rome and London chock full of cool stories about the people I’ve seen, and silently stow them away for another time.
Now is the time. Why? Because if I don’t write about them soon, I’m afraid I’ll forget about them.
So here goes.
First, I’ll start with Italy, since that was the first trip of the four I have to talk about.
I went to Italy for my sixteenth birthday, with my 90-year-old grandmother, who insisted on seeing her family one last time (her words– she was fond of being morbid).
Before leaving, I managed to study a few Italian vocabulary words as I sat at the back of my French class. Ironically, I should’ve paid more attention to the French, because apparently the relatives with whom my grandmother and I would be staying only spoke French and Italian. Anyway, I prepared myself in whatever small way I could. I prepared myself, mostly, to eat foods I wouldn’t like. (I am the pickiest eater in my family; though half-Italian, I don’t like lasagna, tomato sauce, beans, ziti, or ravioli. You can imagine my father’s full-Italian frustration.)
The day of our departure arrived and, honestly, I don’t think I slept at all the night before. But when we got to the airport (after leaving my iPad at security– never made that mistake again), we realized something was wrong. My grandmother’s connecting flight from Ohio was late, and so we missed our flight to Milan. We would have to go the next day, which I didn’t particularly mind– I mean, I was going to Italy. This trip had been a dream of mine for almost two years.
After two days without sleep, a ten-hour flight in front of a woman who spoke loudly, quickly and nonstop in some language neither my grandmother nor I could identify, we finally made it to the airport in Milan, where we were greeted by my grandmother’s sister, my great-aunt Maria.
My great-aunt is an interesting woman. A former fashion designer for Leonardo in Paris, she is now retired and engaged to Antonio, a kindly doctor who owns four hospitals and a beach villa in Capri. Her Milan apartment is decorated in Oriental rugs, but it has a Parisian vibe that I can’t explain. The first week of our three-week venture was spent in this apartment, with a tiny dishwasher and a line for washing. I don’t remember anything from that first week except this flat that smelled like roses and kind old people.
That’s not exactly true. I do remember this one time Maria took me shopping to Gucci, Dolce & Gabana, Giorgio Armani and Prada. She went in every store like she was grocery shopping at Walmart. Each place had guards at the front– big, nicely suited men with forbidding sunglasses and earpieces. I walked in each store like I was already guilty of something. I refused to touch anything, which now seems ridiculous of me, but at the time, I was extremely clumsy and accident prone, so it was probably in my best judgment.
After a week of these ridiculous shopping trips in which I spent as little money as I could, my grandmother, Maria and I travelled by train to Orsogna, my grandmother’s hometown.
On the train, we met two kids who looked no older than fifteen. Clearly brother and sister, both had the traditional Italian black hair, ivory skin and deep brown eyes. I never learned either of their names, but they told us they were learning English. They both seemed intimidated by me, a real American in the flesh, and hardly spoke except to tell my grandmother that they thought my butchered Italian was very nice.
We arrived in Orsogna and met two of, like, a hundred cousins. Davide is tall, with black hair, laughing black eyes framed by rectangular black-rimmed glasses and the first shadowing of a well-trimmed black beard. He speaks both English and French very well because of his job (something about economics.) He married the amazing and beautiful Gioia some years ago.
I first went to Italy with my family when I was eight years old, to celebrate Christmas. At the time, Davide and Gioia were dating. This fact, touring the Colosseum, standing on a rooftop, and my Uncle Erenio’s one blind eye are the only things I remember from that trip.
~End of Digression~
My grandmother’s family owns a strange house. It’s actually an entire apartment complex, old and well-built. A century ago, the huge, tiled foyer was a sort of garage for the family carriage. The detailed ceilings and solid marble floors with heavy oak doors put me in a historical heaven. At the back of the building sat the squalid ruins of a bombed-out church from WWII. (“Sorry about that,” I said.) The stairs were slippery and dangerous. On the second floor (because the first floor was all foyer and lobby) lived my English-speaking professor cousin Valerio and his quiet wife, Maria. Valerio played the violin every night. Davide and Gioia lived in the flat next to them, I believe if I’m remembering that correctly. We’ll get back to them later.
My aunt lived in a huge apartment on the third floor. A long tapering hallway led into a huge living room. The kitchen, bedrooms, bathroom and TV room branched off from the hallway. By far my favorite room was the kitchen, bright and large in Italian standards. The living room had a wraparound balcony from which I could see the church across the street, and, breathtaking, the mountain and valleys and fields below the village. Across the alley, more extended family lived in another set of apartments and worked in the shops below. My other great-aunt, Michaelina (my almost-namesake) is an English teacher and easily the single kindest person I have ever met in my life. Short, rather fat, speckled and crooked-toothed, Michaeilna loved me, cooked especially for me, and taught me much of the Italian that I know. After meeting her for the first time in my memory, I wished I had been named after her after all.
Davide and Gioia were my main tour guides for Orsogna. Davide often had to go out to work, so when Gioia could spare some time from working at home, she took me shopping and let me tag along to her family’s house.
Gioia’s family’s house is enormous. It’s a huge crumbling mansion of a place, with unfinished stairs (they were renovating), moving boxes, papers and just stuff everywhere. They were preparing for the wedding of Gioia’s brother, Marco. I got to stuff invitations and hang out with Gioia’s adorable mom. I kept an invitation, just because it is so beautiful.
Gioia and Davide took me to an open-air teen club down the street from the apartments, which I was nervous about. I am not a party person, okay. People around my age were dancing, smoking and laughing with their friends.
Karaoke was involved, if I remember correctly. Due to my non-party-person status, I didn’t take part in the smoking or the drinking, even though it was technically legal for me to do so. I sat and watched and soaked up the language and the teen culture.
After a little while, we went for a walk around town to help me get acclimated. As we walked, Davide and Gioia told me about their life in Parma. Davide and Gioia lived their after they got married, and adored every second they spent together there. And I talked about my family, too. And my friends, my school, how little Italian I knew, how glad I was to be there. I went back to their apartment with them afterward to see pictures of their wedding. And that’s when I got to see their apartment.
I won’t attempt to describe this place, because I’ve just tried, and it was an awful description. Believe me, this place was huge and beautiful, all clean lines and polished wood. My favorite part about this place was the loft, with modern-looking stairs to the top. This was Davide’s home office, and it was strewn with papers and files, but one thing stood out: a globe. A massive, old-timey globe that Davide used to show me where Orsogna is on the map. And I showed him where my hometown is. I traced my fingers across the distance between the places. The globe itself wasn’t much, but the conversation with Davide about all the places he’d been was priceless.
Davide and Gioia decided to take me to the beach, two hours away. I’d spend five or six days– in truth, it was probably only three or four, but my memory twists time– with them in their condo in Numana.
This. Place. Was. Awesome. Their flat in Numana remains to this day the most adorable place I’ve ever set foot in. It was tiny, which is what I loved. It had two tiny bedrooms, a small living space with two incredibly comfortable blue couches, a small flatscreen and an adorable rug. The best part? A spiral staircase leading to the loft kitchen. Bright and airy, it looked like something out of a Pinterest post in my Dream Home board. The loft kitchen opened up out onto the rooftop dining area, where you could see, across the street, an enormous field of sunflowers.
Sounds like something out of a movie, right? Well, it was.
That week, I spent most of my time with Gioia, since Davide had to work. We went shopping in the local town, and Gioia commented to me on the fashions that we saw in her adorably accented English. We went to the beach, which is all smooth pebbles rather than sand, and you don’t need a towel because the pebbles are so soft, you can just lay on them. We shooed away hawkers, and ate a very American lunch at a little beachside cafe. One day, Gioia taught me how to make my favorite: tiramisu from scratch. We spent a good part of our afternoon baking the tiramisu, and by the end, we looked once again like something out of a movie: powder in our hair and on our fingers, a little dough on our cheeks and all eyes sparkling. It was the best gosh darned tiramisu I’d ever had. At night, Gioia, Davide and I watched all three Lord of the Rings movies in Italian with English subtitles. This is mostly how I learned Italian. One night, Gioia and Davide took me to a nearby town, Sirolo, where we walked around a festival.
After my days in Numana, I went back to Orsogna with all my cousins for a big goodbye dinner. Now, the thing about this dinner is that I don’t remember where we were, exactly. I remember being close to the ocean, and I remember partaking in a ceremony that very much resembled the locks on the bridges of Paris, and I think I remember some sort of lighthouse looking structure but that’s about all I can do for location. I do remember the long litany of relatives– all at least thirty years old and above– and me sitting at the head of the table, cutting my prosciutto and arugula pizza with a knife and a fork, while my cousin Luigi looked on and teased me in accented English.
“You eat a-pizza-like an American,” he told me, his mouth full of something doused with red sauce. We banter for the rest of the night in an open-air Italian restaurant (a real Italian restaurant). It was the best meal I’ve ever had.
That was a long post, huh? Sorry about that. I do tend to ramble when I get excited.
Stay tuned next week for my post about my first adventure to London and Paris!
That’s all from The Leatherbound.