A Passage to Italy – Part One: Just Don’t Look Down

[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC)
[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
It had been raining for several weeks in Rome – a lingering and inconvenient wet cotton hangover of a hard winter.  As our plane touched the tarmac, the valley of the Tiber shimmered under its first sustained spring sun.  The fields were filled with blood red poppies and yellow mustard.  The April air was honey scented citrus, hyacinth and jasmine. Spring had arrived on a smile from Jupiter and an entire nation now rushed outside like children escaping school at the final bell.

Our trip had become a pilgrimage of sorts – my chance to prolong the adolescence of one of my children by escaping to Europe for one week.  In a time of tangled earphones, bent heads glued to smart phones and castrated dinner conversation; I was gambling that these trips might yield some precious memories and a chance to sew a few seeds of wonder.  The children had almost forgotten what it was like to be lashed to the same mast – an ancient mariner and his apprentice sailing together across a deep strait of water far from the distractions and conveniences of home.

Italy is a brilliant orchestra with no conductor.  It is the perfect place to reconnect with those things that may be missing or not visible in life.  The heart is always dreaming of the beyond and we often neglect our imaginations and our capacity to fill our days with childlike fascination.  Any pilgrimage is about the journey and those you meet along the way.  It is a chronology of life moments in which one travels, clearing the mind of the temporal and seeking the deeper insights only found in other people and in places where our significance is subordinated to a greater purpose that pulses around us.

For a nation whose debt makes the USA’s fiscal cliff appear more like a children’s slide, the Italians seem to shrug off the mounting complexities of their excesses and roll their eyes at the austerity measures that must now reshape public and social policy if Italy wants to remain a part of the euro and the European Union. For many, taxes and debt are a way of life and with a government that has the life expectancy of a housefly, it seems useless to spend a sunny day worrying about the horizon line clouds. In a nation where history and tradition are knotted together like tangled kite string, complications are a fact of life.   In the last few months God’s emissary on earth, a standing Pope, has resigned for the first time in the history of the church. He is now creating complications, as the government has never had to allocate pension payments to a Pope.

To make matters worse, there is no government because the Italian Parliament cannot agree on a coalition that would be legitimate enough to preside over anything other than a food fight. Gas is $11.00 a gallon but the biggest complaint is over the use of a new Autostrada digital camera system designed to photograph and fine the nation’s notorious speeders. This is a huge problem for a country built on its genteel infidelities.  Divorce courts are filling with wives who now have proof that their husbands are cheating on them.  Imagine a wife’s surprise as she opens the mail to spy a ticket and photograph of her husband and an unknown younger woman near Sorrento when he was supposed to be north in Bologna on business.  Mama mia!

Lazio and AC Roma are wallowing in the middle of the pack of the Italian champions league while hated Juventus has moved into first place.  This is of much greater concern than national debt, mounting taxes or the possibility that Silvio Berlusconi who makes Caligula look like a Trappist monk, is still trying to worm his way back as prime minister.

In Rome, we visited new appointed Pope Francis at the Vatican, enduring throngs of genuflecting pilgrims.  Like attending a Notre Dame football game, it just all makes you want to become Catholic.  It’s like being part of a huge dysfunctional royal family with secrets and power. To be a Catholic is dwell at the feet of Popes, Saints, Templars and martyrs.  Rome is a pantheon to rich historical paradoxes – incredible charity and hidden vice, personal sacrifice and hypocritical indulgence, generosity and profligacy. The new pontiff has promised more open leadership. Most like me, are just hoping he might share the remaining secret of Fatima, which might provide a hint as to whether the Jets might make it back to the Super Bowl, or the GOP will take back the White House.

My youngest son and I spend much of our time with my close friend Vincenzo, a Roman native who has been a friend for over fifteen years.  He loves his city and speaks in emphatic broken English as he regales us with legends, embellished facts and scrupulous details of battles from his beloved Punic Wars with Hannibal.  We walk slowly devouring monuments to pagan Gods, organized religion, imperial empires and theocratic republics. Enzo hesitates after regaling us with stories of the great Roman commander Scipio and his Carthaginian nemesis, the genius Hannibal.  He shakes his head and waves a dismissive hand as if to indict the present as a time of profound decline – the nomadic and cynical offspring of a once great civilization.  “Incredible.” He blurts out to no one in particular.  “Our country is like a beautiful woman with dirty feet. If you want to stay married, you just must learn not to look down.”

Enzo concludes this evening’s dinner with a story that relates to his country’s debt crisis. “There was a man who was plagued by his debts to his neighbor and he could not sleep. Every night, tossing and turning.  His wife, annoyed up with her husband’s walking of the floor asks him what is the problem. He looks at her and brings his hands to his face.  ‘I have such a big problem. I owe our neighbor so much money and I cannot repay him.’ The wife listens and calmly walks across the room and opens up the window facing their neighbor’s house.

“Signor. Wake up. My husband can not pay you back your money!”

She turns to her husband and smiles. ‘Go to sleep.  It is no longer your problem.  It is  now his problem.’”

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

 

It had been a rough first six months since our move to England. Each child was showing the strain of change and unfamiliar circumstances.  I arrived home one evening from a business trip to find my wife striking the washing machine in complete frustration. 

“This stupid thing is so small I can only wash one sheet at a time.”  It seemed as though it would never stop raining. The fickle sun would appear at odd and inconvenient times like an unreliable friend.  While intellectually invigorated by our European move, we underestimated the emotional trauma of being cast adrift from friends, family and the familiar rhythm of our Northern California lifestyle.

 

My parents had joined us in London for the children’s October break and like most Brits, we immediately fled the damp emerald isle for the warmer embrace of Southern Italy.   We landed in Rome and were immediately serenaded by the whimsical strings of a city wired on life and caffeine.  Rome was a marching band with no conductor.  Every Italian seemed to move without regard for traffic lanes, lights or legal parking.  The classically laissez faire Italian police were more intent on staking out single women than suspicious characters. Vespas buzzed like mosquitoes while autumn starlings banked and rose in an aerial ballet. With each hour, we regained our warm weather equilibrium and sense of adventure.  After three days of fountains, forums and fusilli, we escaped north to explore Florence and the surrounding ancient hill towns of Tuscany resting like unsteady siena crowns on the crests of hills forested with beech, oak and chestnut trees. 

 

We arrived at our hotel, Villa La Massa, on October 31st. The chrome morning mist rose slowly, taking its time to shake off low gray clouds.  A wet chill loitered in the ravines and hollows and in between the villa’s main house and the guesthouses that peered over the southern banks above the Arno. There were no black cats, pumpkins or dark effigies of witches and goblins.  The long, pebbled driveway guarded by columned cypress trees and an ancient wrought iron gate, showed no signs of imminent pagan celebrations.  Our children, ages 7, 4 and 2, were only mildly interested that it was All Hallows Eve.  Back in America, giggling adrenaline-fueled goblins would be racing in and out of the shadows and light cast by houses a thousand grinning jack-o-lanterns.  It would be a night of sugar, ghouls and mayhem.  I sighed.  At our old home, we would be wandering our neighborhood – – faceless flashlights inching along dark streets and cul de sacs greeting the silhouettes and voices of our friends. Halloween was America and an essential milestone in the life of a young family and we were missing it.   

 

On this warm, windy day, I volunteered to take the children to the Etruscan hill town of Fiesole while my parents and wife wandered the back alleys of Florence. We spent a glorious morning chasing and playing among the ancient amphitheatres, roman baths and ruins.  A local restaurant owner adopted us, treating us to lunch at his local café where we were overwhelmed with freshly baked foccacia, homemade pastas and pizza. As the sun’s arc dropped toward the West, we descended into the valley of the Arno, navigating a patchwork quilt of vineyards and farms.  As we followed the narrow road back to our hotel, I could see the Duomo and the medieval skyline of the city that was once the cradle of the Italian city-states.  For all the enthusiasm I felt for being in this special place, I was suffering from a parochial melancholy wondering whether my decision to work overseas had been a mistake.  Was I denying my children a quintessentially American childhood?  Would they one day ask me, “Dad, what’s Halloween?”

 

European interest in the celebration of Halloween was mixed.  Given the more reverent traditions surrounding festivals like The Day of The Dead, Italians resisted the secular commercialism of monsters and Milky Ways.  Yet, there were signs of Catholic unrest.  In Milan, Halloween festivities were held by American schools and often spilled over into local communities.  In Bologna, the Miss Strega” (Miss Witch) beauty contest was held to identify the most enchanting sorceress.  A few Roman novelty shops had displayed masks, monster memorabilia and treats.  Yet, the Villa La Massa showed no signs of western infestation. It was just another sleepy Tuesday.

 

Unbeknownst to me, my clever spouse had packed a Donald Duck mask, a spider man outfit and all the accessories that a Hawaiian dancer would ever require.  Prior to departing that day for Florence, she had approached the charming concierge, Sylvia, explaining that the children were far from home and missing an important holiday; would she allow them to come down to the foyer that evening to trick or treat – knocking on the office and storage room doors of the sparsely occupied hotel where we might give them candy?  She left uncertain if our polished patron understood her request.

 

Once home, my wife whipped the kids into a happy lather explaining the significance of Halloween, their apparel and trick or treating.  Dusk brought frenetic preparation and squealing enthusiasm as the children donned their costumes.  I walked down the narrow hallway where a sinister suit of armor looked disapprovingly on my waddling two year old Donald Duck who would not stop making sounds like a dying Merganser.  A serious super hero and a seven-year-old hula girl bolted past the wobbly toddler.   We fell down the elegant staircase like a spilled bucket of tennis balls, crashing across the cobblestone breezeway toward the main house.  There were signs of movement inside the lobby as shadows darted across the row of equal-sized, closely placed windows. Soft light spilled out into the courtyard from the prominent portico.

 

Sylvia gasped with sheer delight as my youngest child quacked, announcing his arrival.  To my surprise, the entire hotel staff lined the foyer like an honor guard.  Each employee – waiters, maids, porters, groundskeepers and drivers – was holding a basket filled with homemade Italian treats.  Throughout the day, the Italians had baked and wrapped homemade cookies and chocolates.  The children were instructed to close their eyes as their hosts darted off to the first floor rooms. As each child approached a guest room door, it would swing open with an Italian feigning surprise and raising their hands in disbelief.  Sylvia suddenly had an idea and motioned us to follow her toward the restaurant kitchen.  She was explaining in broken English that she wanted to have the children trick or treat the head chef.  This spontaneous suggestion elicited disapproving looks from several of her male colleagues.  As a gourmet hotel, the chef was the mercurial lord of the manor.  Yet, Sylvia seemed determined to enter Hell’s kitchen.  My older children sensed the reticence of the staff and held back while our youngest recklessly burst through the cucina’s swinging doors clucking like a hen heavy with eggs.  There was silence, followed by a sudden burst of baritone laughter. The doorway suddenly filled with a large, handle bar mustached Italian chef holding my son and pinching his cheeks. The staff applauded.  Sylvia leaned in victorious and whispered, “they are terrified of him.  They have never seen him smile.”  We lingered in the hotel for some time forging a primitive bridge out of ragged Italian and English words as the children unwrapped candies and explored the living room.

 

We later walked slowly across the empty grounds and into the guesthouse, climbing past a not so malevolent suit of armor to our rooms. My anxiety had melted away.  It was clear that I had been wrong.  We were not missing anything back in America.  Our best Halloween will forever be remembered as a magical blend of cypress trees, ancient ruins, laughing chefs and doting Italians.

 

Meraviglioso!