Friday, July 4, 2008

Day 1 - Arrival

It has been a whole two months since we’ve been in Italy we think to ourselves as we disembark from our airplane at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport, a little draggy from a day of travel that has begun nearly a full day before in the mountains of western North Carolina. The summer sun, searing through the morning haze, cooks the air conditioned jetway as we step off the plane. Like the summer heat we have left behind, you can tell that it is going to be a scorcher.

Two months. Not surprisingly, little seems to have changed. The people here still seem to speak in that sing-songy language, conducting every staccato phrase with a wave of the hands. They all seem to still have that improbable and unteachable sense of style, where everyday clothing and accessories look anything but everyday. And they still seem to have not mastered or even tried to learn the art of queueing up. Despite all of our similarities, we Americans and the Italians are just plain different from one another. It is these differences that have drawn us back here for the fifth time this year.

Well, not exactly. Our first three visits this year had a little something to do with the great big farmhouse that we are now speeding toward along the Italian autostrada. Well not exactly speeding toward at first, more like inching toward. As quickly as we exit the airport in our too big rental car, watching the needle edge past 140 on its way to 160, our minds dusting off the miles per hour to kilometers per hour conversion algorithm we are cursing and waving our hands like natives, nearly rear ending the pile of traffic that has ground to nearly a complete halt on the two lane spur that leads to the G.R.A., the grand ring road that is anything but grand but does ring the Italian capital. We spy an exit for a new road that was under construction in April, an express lane that leads directly to the G.R.A. only to make the same ludicrous mistake that we did back then, driving parallel to the airport road for a few miles before being diverted right back where we started from. Only this time the express lane is crawling even more slowly than the main road.

After this inauspicious start, we finally pass the bottleneck that has caused all of this commotion, a few cars with rumpled fenders on the shoulder. Not surprisingly all of the passengers are facing off with one another on the side of the road, arms waving and tempers flaring. This is the Italy we know and love!

As traffic returns to its normal supersonic velocity our too big rental car starts to drive itself to Cannara, our destination in central Italy’s Umbria region, about a two hour drive from Fiumicino airport. We have driven this route so many times in the past year that it is as though the car can drive there by itself, which in the past as we arrived groggy and jetlagged, was not a bad thing. Today, however, with the searing sun beating down on us, it is providing us a boost of energy that we have not experienced in our non-summer arrivals.

Indeed, it is a little strange to be arriving here in July. Summer tourism is doubtless one of Italy’s major economic activities and Americans taking a couple weeks in the Italian countryside or visiting Rome-Florence-Venice plays an important role in this. But it has been nearly two decades since we have been here in the summer, with its blazing sun, long days and hordes of tourists. It was during those summer visits, studying in Florence, traveling with my parents and our infant children, that we fell in love with this country. We have returned so many times since then, but always deliberately off peak, during the lovely springs, the relaxing autumns and the less hospitable winters. It will be an interesting homecoming and one we are anxiously looking forward to.

* * *

Ah, the tomato. Il pomodoro. We have avoided them for the past several weeks at home, no one quite sure why or if they are responsible for the salmonella outbreaks across the country. So it is with relish, well actually with an enormous ball of buffalo mozzarella, that we tuck into them our first days here. At our first lunch, at a small bar and restaurant in Bevagna which we stop at on our way to Cannara, our menu options are rather limited. Upon arrival in town we are surprised that all of our usual favorites are closed for lunch this day. Italian restaurants generally have a specific day of the week on which they are closed and it seems that many of the Bevagna eateries have chosen to close on the same day – Wednesday. Today is Wednesday.

So we are surprisingly happy to find available a small table pushed up against the wall of a local bar/restaurant that is more akin to snack bar, the kind of place that we normally wouldn’t give a second look. Its little chalkboard menu lists a few humble lunch items and on this day, happy just to be here in the shade, on a historic piazza, watching a group of laborers no doubt distantly related to the Keystone Cops operate lifting equipment and heavy trucks to dismantle stages and sets that have been set up for the town’s medieval festival that has just ended over the weekend. We happily settle on an Italian version of tuna salad and a sliced meat appetizer. The salad is everything that is good about Italian food. A few leaves of fresh lettuces, each leaf a little different from the next, with a simple but distinctive flavor, this one nutty, that one a little peppery, the next one crunchy. On top of that are chunks of tuna that clearly come from a fish, not a can. Lightly coating the lettuce and the tuna is fruity olive oil that was made from olives that were raised and gave up their lives so that we could eat well, on trees within sight of this little restaurant. And here and there little slivers of bright red tomato bring color and depth to this simple creation. Welcome home, they seem to be saying.

A short while later, as we turn off the Strada Cannara-Bevangna onto the tree lined dirt road that leads to la Fattoria del Gelso, those trees and the giant mulberry tree (gelso) just inside the villa gates also welcome us home. It is blazing hot at midday, and the air is still. But as we unlock the heavy wooden and metal doors to the main ground floor entrance and as we swing open the upstairs doorway to the main sleeping area, the cool air inside beckons us inside, welcomes us back. The word casa in Italian means house, and goosebumps erupt on our arms and legs as we re-enter our house, our villa in Umbria. But casa also means home. And although we have been away for just two months, it is a magical feeling to tornare a casa.

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