When I was a kid in school there was a popular syllogism going around that said:
“God is love.
Love is blind.
Ray Charles is blind.
Therefore Ray Charles is God.”
As we arrived at our villa in Cannara yesterday, after a day in Rome, my slightly jetlagged brain creakily came up with a new syllogism for our time in Italy:
“Umbria is called is the ‘green heart of Italy.’
Home is where the heart is.
Therefore Umbria is our home.”
I think to be completely accurate it should be “Umbria is our green home.” Or green Umbria is our home.” Or “Umbria is our home. Green.” I’ll keep working on it.
But you get the point. I hope. We’ve written it pretty much every time we arrive back here in Umbria, in Cannara, at our villa la Fattoria del Gelso. Coming here is not just like coming home. Coming here is coming home. And as we finally arrived here at the villa in the early evening, after a series of “introductions” to Umbria, the group of five who had gotten to know one another just the day before had, in the span of only 24 hours, grazie all’Italia, become a group of friends.
Italy has a way of doing that to people.
If my memory of high school chemistry serves me correctly (I will endeavor to stop dredging up memories of childhood), a catalyst is an element whose presence assists and speeds up the natural occurrence of a chemical reaction. And it performs this service without changing itself. If that is correct, then Italy is like a catalyst for relationships. As we sat around our Umbrian dinner table last night, enjoying a procession of traditional dishes that emerged from Maria Pia’s kitchen, it seemed as if this group had known each other for years, as though they had gone to grade school together (oops!) and was re-establishing bonds of friendship that had been forged decades earlier. Here in Italy, those chemical bonds develop so rapidly, so quickly and so strongly that you don’t have time to find a reason to not become friends, you don’t allow your fears and insecurities to give you some excuse to isolate yourself. You become friends before you have a chance not to. Because there is something in Italy that is catalytic to relationships.
The corollary of this theory (perhaps a high school math term?) is that we naturally yearn to develop relationships, to connect with our fellow journeymen. But in our daily lives our fears or other wants “protect” us from getting to close. Like Icarus, if we get too close to others the consequences may be disastrous. But like Icarus, we still feel a need to test the forces that hold us in place and limit us. In that regard Italy is like that classic Hollywood catalyst Clint Eastwood, who as Dirty Harry, holds a gun to our heads and says “you’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?”
Well, apologies to all, if, as is obvious, my analogies are not quite working (“Ray Charles is Green!”). Because Italy is not holding a gun to our head musing about whether it has fired off five shots or six. And we are not punks, or so I’d like to think. You’ll just have to help me with this one, because I think I’m on to something here. Just not Dirty Harry.
The point is that Italy makes you feel lucky, that in the back of your mind you know Harry Callahan has fired off all six shots. That the danger of letting yourself go is theoretical but not real. And it does all that in the background without brining any attention to itself. Good little catalyst, Italy. Good little catalyst.
* * *
Our journey to Umbria from Rome began in front of the Hassler Hotel, at the top of the Spanish Steps. There we took delivery of our rental van, a shiny new Chrysler Town and Country, the envy of every suburban housewife and the bane of every suburban house husband who sees himself instead dashing about in a Triumph convertible or a Jaguar while dressed in black tie. With flawless logistics, not a particularly Italian trait, our friend Lorenzo from the Aesserent rental car agency handed over the keys as the hotel staff brought our bags from storage and Willia and John arrived by taxi from their hotel and Karen arrived at the top of the Spanish Steps from her nearby hotel. In a matter of moments our plans to meet up and drive from Rome to Umbria were underway. And so was the non-stop conversation that ensued over the next couple of hours.
Along the way we stopped in Orte, our exit on the A1 autostrada that takes us to Umbria, to visit the spectacular Lufra’ cheese shop, an anachronism of a Campania cheese shop at a truck stop in Umbria. There you can and must, and we did, buy the best mozzarella di buffala available in Umbria. The best, because it is trucked up from its native Campania daily.
We stopped, too, in Deruta, the historic birthplace of the ceramics industry in Italy and still today the most important ceramics center in this country. We spent a good couple of hours with our friend Gerardo Ribigini, owner of Geribi ceramics in his shop, bathing in and drinking in the colors and shapes and designs that wash over you, that calm you and lower your pulse. [To all the parents out their helping their junior high school aged children (oops!) design science fair experiments, I suggest you study the effect on the nervous system of being in proximity of Geribi ceramics. I am convinced they have a positive therapeutic effect on the body.]
And we stopped, too, in Bevagna, at our friend Simone’s restaurant, le Delizie del Borgo, for our traditional first meal in Umbria. The two hour “light” lunch, an unending procession of small plates, was our group’s first ever meal in Umbria. There is simply no better way to introduce Umbrian cuisine.
And after a two hour walking tour of Assisi, to us the heart and soul of the green heart of Italy we finally arrived at the villa, ready for our welcome dinner.
* * *
By the time that the last plate was cleared from the table and the last splash of Sagrantino had been slurped from the glass, Italy had worked its magic. How does this catalyst accelerate and strengthen the bonds of friendship? We’ll never know quite for sure. But as far as I can follow, its alchemy is a little Gerardo here, a little truffle there. Add two parts of mozzarella and one part of Simone, bake it under a clear blue sky with a gentle breeze, wait a few minutes and ecco qua, friendship.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go listen to a little Ray Charles.
Bill and Suzy