Saturday, March 31st is our last day in Vietri sul Mare. And the last day we can really consider ourselves "living in Italy." On Saturday morning we will board a train in Salerno and spend a few days as tourists in Rome. We want to visit some of our favorite places and maybe find some new favorites. Who knows when we will return again.
This is another turning point for us. Another chapter ends and a fresh new one is about to start. For the past two years we have lived simply and cheaply in Italy and had the time of our lives. It has been full and rewarding. There have been challenges and problems along the way but mostly it has been filled with wonderful experiences and incredible people who helped us through many of the rough spots and are responsible for many of the highlights. To each of them we will be forever grateful. I know that a lot of people will ask us "What was your favorite place, your favorite area?" "What was the best?" This is a very difficult question to answer, as each place was special and favorite for different reasons.
Perugia, Umbria 1 April to 30 November 2005
In Perugia, it was all shiny and new to us. Everything we experienced was a first and we were thrilled just to have accomplished the feat of simply getting here, of making it happen. We loved living in that medieval city and walking its ancient streets. Sitting in the piazzas and listening to free music concerts; the language lessons and all the people we met in that month of study at the Università degli Stranieri; walking out to Il Tempio di Michele Arcangelo, our favorite little round church and stopping to talk with Claudia and Remigio at their shop nearby; our visits to the Internet Point and conversations with Giovanna who helped us navigate many, many issues we had early on, always with a smile (or a chuckle, as we are certain we made her laugh at our silliness!) Massimo the Magnificent who fixed our computer after Bob got caught in the rain with it.
Meeting Rita and Sergio, our landlords who also gave us so much help and support we could never thank them enough and Marco and Annalisa, native Napolitani who offered good advice about living in the south and enjoyed hearing our tales over good food and wine; all the neighbors we had the good fortune to meet there, Catherine, who gave us lots of helpful advice, Susan and John who, unfortunately came towards the end when we were so busy with visitors and leaving that we didn't have the time to really get to know each other but enjoyed what little time we had; Giuseppe, the Italian Top Gun who raced us back to our apartment one late night to make his curfew for driving in centro and who invited us to a restaurant where there was belly dancing; Jonathan Haar, the author of "A Civil Action" and "The Lost Painting," who stayed mostly to himself but was very interesting and kind; and especially Doug and Esther, our August neighbors, those talented young sculptors. We will always remember the times we spent in the garden, drinking wine and discussing art and life with them late into the night with the stars overhead. And Esther's beautiful mortar and pestle, custom made just for us.
We will always remember meeting Art and Barbara (of Art and Barb Live in Italy) whose blog inspired us when we still lived in Phoenix and whose lives continue to set a standard for how to treat people and extend kindness and help in a most unassuming, yet extremely available way. All the expats like Cristina in Siena, Larry & Shelley in Massa Martana and Janet & Stephen in San Feliciano, whose enthusiasm was contagious and who continue to realize their dreams of living in Italy.
We owe a debt of thanks to our Phoenix friends Shawn and Stephen who generously offered us a week at the end of July in Paris and we had the most amazing 10 days in that gorgeous city. Easy to do with one of the little low-cost airlines that Europeans use to jet around the continent.
Perugia meant seeing Umbria in all its seasons, arriving just before spring and staying for eight months, with snow on the rooftops before we departed in December. What a joy to see those red tile roofs covered in white! We loved the way the fog would roll around that hilltop city when the weather was wet and rainy, we felt that we lived among the clouds. We loved all the festivals and especially Calendimaggio in Assisi, the festival of the Ceri in Gubbio and the Inferiorate in Spello, arriving with our toothbrushes and finding what we believe was the last available room in the town! All the pizza, all the cappuccinos, all the gelatos, all the walks uphill to our apartment in the highest possible spot in that highest of cities.
We must admit we got tired of the student neighbors and how some of them tromped around in high heels in the apartment above us, and of the people who passed on the street near our apartment talking at the tops of their voices at all hours of the night when we were trying to sleep. The apartment tended to be cold at night and the cost of electricity was high. We hated the dog poop and the graffiti in that city (and in Italy in general) and the way the students would trash the beautiful piazza into the wee hours of the morning (but were delighted that it was all cleaned every morning as if nothing had happened.)
And of course, no reminiscence about Perugia would be complete without talking about our beautiful garden there. It filled us with such joy. You can't imagine our delight upon arriving to realize that not only was the view I had on my computer, as wallpaper, NEAR where we lived it WAS where we lived. Everyday we had the absolute joy of going out into that garden and looking out over the rooftops of Perugia. I guess the way we feel about Perugia is the way you would feel about your firstborn. You don't love the other kids any less, but there is something special about being the first. And of course the visits from our children, Chris and Jessica and our Phoenix friends Art and Chris. It was a delight to be able to show them all our favorite places. I'm only sorry we hadn't figured out how to make the photos larger on the blog from this time because they don't do it justice.
Marina di Ragusa, Sicily 1 December 2005 to 31 May 2006
Sicily was a total surprise. We had never been there before and only seen photos in the guidebooks, which absolutely did not prepare us for the beauty of the Ragusa area, which only seems to get a mention but deserves much more. My grandparents were born in Sicily, near Palermo so I already felt a connection to it but the stories I heard growing up were of a harsh place, a difficult place to live, no work, many struggles and my ancestors left to make a better life for themselves and their children. We expected more desolate places and were not prepared fully for the lush interior we found. I worried that we wouldn't be able to communicate with the Sicilians since everyone said they speak so much dialect. They do speak dialect with each other, but so do people in every region of Italy but they also speak standard Italian, like every other region and we had no trouble understanding or being understood. In fact it seemed easer for us there and perhaps it was because there were less English speakers and we had to push ourselves to improve our Italian and we did.
Everyone we spoke to in Perugia, in Umbria, when we said we were going to live in Sicily, got a far-away, dreamy look in their eyes and said "Ahhh bella Sicilia!" It lived up to it. But the best part was the friendship we formed with Elio and Giovanna, our landlords. We cannot say enough about the way these two people welcomed us into their lives and treated us as if we were old and dear friends. They helped us through every crisis we had, with Giovanna holding my hand as my elbow was stitched up following a careless fall and Elio showing up immediately when Bob's car was hit by a "flying avvocato" (a speeding lawyer) and we called him in a panic. He not only helped us find a place to get it repaired, but helped arrange for a loaner car and found us an advocate who made certain we received full payment for getting the car fixed, by proving it was completely 100% her fault and not Bob's. They introduced us to hot ricotta and Buonaiuto's cannoli. They suggested places to visit and festivals to attend that we never would have found on our own and often invited us to tag along with them and their friends on various outings. We had a blast and felt so well cared for always. When my journals were stolen and there really was nothing he could do, Elio showed up and took us out for a gelato in Donnalucata and a walk on the beach to cheer us up.
They helped us renew our permessi di soggiorno and introduced us to the Nokia phone that we were able to use as a modem with our laptop for Internet access and later as a GPS navigation system for our car that saved our marriage! They insisted we join them for Christmas dinner and made us feel so welcome always among their family and friends. The "hunt for the wild asparagus" was a day we won't forget as we trudged around the countryside searching for the elusive plant with Elio, his brother and a friend, both called Pippo (Giuseppe). We treasure our friendship with these lovely, lovely people. We will see each other again! We must. They are too important to us.
Our days in Marina di Ragusa are among our favorites. We loved being able to walk down the stairs and across the street to the golden sandy beach every single day (except during the rainy times!) and put our feet in the Mediterranean Sea; to stop and chat with Angelo and Giovanni and the other "old guys" in the piazza; to stop and have a cappuccino with Salvatore before heading out on a day's journey; to gaze out our window in all weather and see the changing colors of the sea. These are things we will always hold in our hearts. Bob said at the time that he was happier there than anywhere else he has ever lived in his life and I believe that may still hold true for him.
We adored Siracusa and Ortigia and will never forget spending my birthday in the audience of the spellbinding "Trojan Women" in the ancient Greek theatre; standing in the piazza in Catania as fireworks exploded overhead, choreographed to music on the feast of St. Agatha; viewing Caltagirone for the first time as we explored this city in search of ceramics and Presepe at Christmas time. We never got tired of walking through Ragusa Ibla and Modica and gazing at the view of both of those cities' incredible panoramas. We'll always remember the sunsets at Punta Secca and the birds in flight over Siracusa; Scicli and its cave homes that are still occupied made a lasting impression on me and I sat for hours sketching the way these crumbly houses stack one on top of the other, tumbling up and down the hills. We drove from Ragusa to Catania to reach Palermo through some of the most gorgeous scenery in the world, that the guidebooks described as "inhospitable" a term we took huge exception to. So lush and green and expansive, you can forget you are actually on an island, it seems to go on forever. Palermo's chaotic and crumbling beauty, like Napoli a study in extremes of colors, textures and patterns. Our great trip with Jessica to the west with stops in Marsala, Trapani, Erice, that little icy jewel of a town above it, all the Greek temples: Agrigento, Segesta and Selinunte, (where we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Nutella with a bottle of red wine as we watched the sunset from our little terrace and its view of the temples). Lovely Taormina and Cefalu, and the elusive volcano, Mt. Etna that would often disappear among the clouds and reappear like a vision.
We had a great visit with the Bivettos, my brother and cousins and their wives when they visited in April, in spite of our car accident happening on the day of their arrival and in spite of all my worries about how they would react to the place we found for them. They seemed to really enjoy being in Sicily and were as blown away as we were by its beauty and took pride in our family connection to it.
We found complaint with the trash on the beach and I took to going down often with a couple of empty trash bags and picking up the litter hoping the locals might pitch in too but they never did. Surprisingly there often seemed to be piles of trash just around the corner or next to a heartbreakingly beautiful place and we just couldn't understand how this could happen. The traffic could be crazy in the small towns and the habit the Sicilians have of pulling into a parking space, leaving their rear ends sticking out in the road, regardless of how narrow, was always a point of frustration for Bob, the driver. In spite of all this, we adored Sicily and hope to return some day when the weather is warm and we can swim every day in the beautiful blue sea.
Borgo Roma, Verona, Veneto 1 June to 31 October 2006
Verona was fabulous because the cities of the north are fabulous! We admit we didn't enjoy the pollution up there and it was not good for Bob's asthma. But Verona itself was a joy and we loved the city. The River Adige that winds through it, the Renaissance and medieval architecture, the church towers and the beautiful windows and doors, the bridges and the castle; in fact there are so many castles in this area we could not visit them all; all of it was a delight to us. Being able to return again and again to Venice, to Lake Garda, to visit the lovely cities of Padua and Mantua, Brescia, Bolzano and Trento, the living chess tournament in Marostica; driving through the Veneto, Alto Adige, Trentino and other regions of the north that seem so close to each other because of the excellent autostrada system up there; seeing the Dolomites for the first time!
It was amazing too to be able to drive to Germany with our daughter Jessica and her husband Nick, for our friends' Andrea and Vincent's wedding, ending with a visit to Regensburg to see our old friends Helmut and Ingrid and to Switzerland to see Helena and meet her family with a lovely detour into the south of France to stay at the farm of Vincent's family there. It was fun also to drive down to Cortona to meet Shawn and Stephen, who invited us to hang out with them in the Villa they had rented there with some friends and we jumped at the chance to spend time with them again. We really enjoyed showing them around Perugia and all of our favorite little spots that most tourists wouldn't know about or be able to find on their own. It was a very hectic summer and we were constantly on the go.
With its modern shopping malls, autostradas and giant grocery stores, life in the north of Italy was the closest thing to living in the suburbs of America and there were McDonalds in many places and even a Burger King or two. Fortunately no Pizza Hut or Starbucks yet! The people in the north were more reserved than we had experienced in Sicily and that was a bit of a disappointment. As we lived in a "real neighborhood" we expected to be able to meet local people but it really never happened. Few seemed interested and many would go in and out of our apartment building with barely a nod. Thank goodness for Giorgio and Laura, our landlords, who more than made up for it with their warmth, love and attention.
In Verona we lived just 5 minutes drive outside centro in a lovely apartment, with a really well equipped kitchen (we even had a diswasher!) and while I admit I would have preferred to have been right IN the old city, the best part of living in Verona was meeting Laura and Giorgio, our landlords who also became our treasured friends. Giorgio did everything he could to make our stay memorable and we had many outings with him and Laura and their families that made our experience so much richer. We will forever be grateful to them both and we'll never forget their kindness. Several times Giorgio called us to ask if we were at home and what we were doing and offered to pick us up and take us to meet this friend or that, who were always involved in some interesting endeavor, like Flavio who creates exact reproductions of medieval, antique weapons and also native American Indian tools and weaponry and even presented us with one of the knives he made entirely by hand. We loved every minute of it, and him for taking such good care of us. I'll always treasure the evening Laura and I spent at the Roman Anfiteatro at a thrilling performance of Madama Butterfly while Bob and Giorgio shared a beer and a pizza in town. Even Giorgio's sister Mirella invited us to collect chestnuts in the countryside, showing us a whole other side of Verona we would not have seen on our own. The day's outing on the Po Delta with all of them is among our fondest memories. Driving away from Verona Bob and I were both crying in the car, listening to the beautiful tape Laura gave us of her singing that completely blew us away, so talented is she. We will see each other again! We have to.
Vietri sul Mare, Amalfi Coast, Campania 1 November to 31 March 2007
Living on the Amalfi Coast has been really amazing. I am sorry to say that the most negative interactions have been in this last place but it doesn't change our feelings about having lived in this gorgeous region of Italy. For years I have wanted to visit Naples. When we passed through this area on our "Grand Tour" of Italy several years ago we did not make it to Naples and we both wanted to explore this old city with such a reputation for extremes and to eat a pizza in its birthplace and walk its streets, to see the laundry hanging across the streets and feel its energy. My great-grandfather on my mother's side came from this area, in the mountains near Benevento and as with Sicily, I have always felt a connection to it. We love the old Napolitano songs and food, and the people are among the warmest and friendliest we have ever met. Lord knows Naples is a city of contrasts and the warnings we got from everyone made us bit wary of going, but I found it fabulous and interesting and in places absolutely gorgeous - like the walk along the seaside, its lovely castles and parks, the views out onto the harbor from Vomero hill and the incredible diversity that exists there.
The garbage was an issue in Napoli as the garbage companies go on strike from time to time and we aren't sure why, except we heard that there is not enough room in the garbage dumps and they just stop collecting it. We think there must be some organized crime power game going on but it does take ones breath away (and not in a good way) to see half a block filled with bags of trash, piled in heaps. Not a pretty sight. Shameful in fact and one we hope they can get a grip on and do something about. There were some stories on TV about shootings in the city and the Camorra seems more active at this time than the Mafia in Sicily. But we personally never witnessed even any petty crimes when we were there and never felt in danger. We think a lot of the warnings are overstated but the fact remains that in any big city you must be careful and not flaunt your things and hold onto your wallets and purses. I had my bag stolen in Paris while sitting at an outdoor café and you will all remember how my backpack was taken out of our locked car at a nature reserve in Sicily. We were a lot more cautious after that, but sort of like shutting the barn door after the cows get out (or something like that I guess!)
Traffic, and I hate to say it but it's true, especially in the south, was horrendous! And, I believe in this area, it was worst of all. We call it "Traffic Anarchy." There was hardly ever any police presence at the craziest intersections and no one obeys any of the traffic signals anyway. It is very much a "you go, I go" mentality, except that you and I are going literally in every direction with him and her and everyone else wanting to go first! I have huge admiration for my husband who navigated his way through it but I know he is ready to get home and looks forward to people driving in one lane, not straddling two to keep their options open, using turn signals and not coming at him from the opposite direction, in his lane. Passing is done on blind curves, tailgating is common on the twistiest roads and the look of utter amazement on the faces of the other drivers as he passes them and gives them his best "what the hell are you doing" expression (using the fingers touching thumb symbol emphatically) is nothing short of hilarious, but that's just to me. Bob might disagree with that assessment.
In spite of the crazy drivers however, we loved the views along the Amalfi Coast and stopping for a caffe in Cetara and spending time in Ravello, our two absolute favorite cities here. The cliffs and towers, the colors of the sea, the orange and lemon trees in their terrace gardens, the flowers and plants and yes, even the sight of laundry hanging everywhere, delighted us to no end. And, in this last place, here in Vietri sul Mare, we really felt as if we lived here. The neighbors welcomed us from the first and it has been so much fun to share "buon giorno" with them from out on our terrace (often with me still in my pajamas) and have mundane discussions about the weather or our families and children, as my mother and her neighbors did when I was growing up in Brooklyn. Rosaria next door has been our weather barometer: if she puts out laundry we figure we are safe. She always seems to know when or for how long it is going to rain and we trust her more than the weather channel. We've been invited to family dinners including Christmas in Cetara with Nunzia and Antonio's family and December 8, the "Immacolata" all fresh fish (caught by Piero himself) dinner upstairs with Martine and Piero's lovely family that grew by one since we arrived, with the birth of little Danielle in December. We asked advice and were helped through the sale of our car, finding a hairdresser, a place for car service and where the best pizza is, and even felt brave enough to make my baked ziti for the family upstairs and my chicken parmegiano for Nunzia and Antonio and both were well received (or they were just being kind!) just to name a few instances of the friendships we've experienced. Meeting Emma has proved to be a wonderful experience as well. Her advice and good common sense about so many things was quite refreshing and most appreciated.
Being able to take our time and visit all the archeological sights in this area has been incredible and seeing Mt Vesuvius in all its different colors, from a distance, on the road and up close, looking into its mouth. Just amazing. I felt ready enough to do my watercolor journaling again and have filled a few of those "Moleskin" journals with lots of quick sketches and washes done on the run, sometimes in the car, sometimes walking through a city. It was a hoot to share all of what we had found with Jessica who came to visit again and took advantage of the opportunity. She loves "touching old stuff" as she once said and we loved her excitement over everything she saw. We were just sorry Chris was not able to come again also, but being a daddy has had to take precedence over traveling and I'm sure he wouldn't trade this time with his little Kyla for anything outside of their own world right now. We can't wait to get home and see them both and become more active grandparents.
Vietri with its many ceramica shops is like a big candy box, its colors and patterns literally jumping out at you as you pass. At first we thought we might tire of seeing all these ceramics but I never did. I had a difficult time deciding what to bring home, there were just too many choices for me! Finally we decided on a set of dishes with the typical Vietri pattern and a dessert set, with coffee cups and saucers that is based on an antique pattern. We spent too much but it was the biggest splurge of our "live cheap" lifestyle and, we hope will be heirlooms for our children. It was difficult because I loved almost everything I saw. Vietri turned out to be a great location for touring both the very winding Amalfi Coast and other parts of the area. It is the first city on the Amalfi Coast so it was easy for us to head towards Amalfi and Positano, (both gorgeous viewed also at night with all the lights twinkling!) and easier from here than the other Amalfi Coast towns, to take the autostrada north towards Naples, Pompei and the volcano, south and east to Salerno and the Cilento Coast or inland towards Benevento and even further east into Basilicata and beyond. We did it all. Our trip to Puglia to see the Trulli was amazing and fulfilled yet another dream of ours, to tour this unique region. We barely scratched the surface though and would love to return.
Our landlords here have not made much of an effort to make friends and in fact, we had to do some searching to even found out who they were, and we've had some less than favorable experiences with the British agent we used, based in Salerno and the Amalfi Coast (according to his website he is the only English speaking agent working in this area) who says he is going to give us back our deposit but so far has not and we don't have high hopes of this happening. The landlords say it's not their problem and we considered reporting the lot of them to the Guardia Finanza, the “tax police.” It was difficult to find an apartment here over the Internet as we had done in each of the other areas and working with an agent seemed a way to accomplish it. We made a bad decision in choosing this particular agent in the first place but that must just be chalked up to being part of the experience and hindsight is always 20/20.
But it's been so much fun living here, to run upstairs to borrow an egg or ask advice of Martine or Nunzia or Carmela. We love to go up and play with little Manuel, now about 18 months old. Cute! To stop and chat with Antonio in the feramenta, with Ferdinando at the Locanda Restaurant and Emma at Apicella's ceramics shop where we bought our dishes. I gave Martine's young granddaughter some of my watercolor paints and paper and she just beamed with delight. By now our language skills have improved enough that we can hold our own and we don't get quite as tongue tied as in the beginning. This week I even gave Nunzia a lesson in making my chocolate cake (transferring it to her metric measurements as we worked) and showed her how we color Easter eggs! In return, she has given me an Italian cookbook and countless family recipes that I can't wait to try. We've learned so much, both of the language and the culture of Italy and its food and history that I don't believe we will even realize until later, when we get home and have a little distance from it all. We loved our ceramics lessons with Andrea and Lucia and hope we can figure out how to come back again in the future and study further with them. We loved looking out at the beautiful Bay of Salerno every day and watching the big ferries coming and going guided by tiny pilot boats and the sea dotted with small craft of the local fishermen.
Bob will be bringing home thousands of photos and I've done a good bit of painting. We know we will spend a lot time when we return organizing and sorting and figuring out what to do with all of this stuff we have accumulated and hope that some of it is worth something to someone! It will take time to digest it all. We only know it's been amazing and we are fortunate to have been able to experience this dream of ours and to carry it through to its completion. After two years in Italy we have to admit that we are kind of tired now and ready to go home. Not that we are really ready to leave Italy! We hope to continue studying the language and return to visit many of our friends and favorite places here. We'll just see how it goes. It's a big world and life is short. There are more adventures ahead. We hope our friends will come to the states to see us too.
We've spent the last few days packing in earnest and had to go and buy another suitcase, in addition to sending home quite a few boxes that will arrive after we do. We're practically on a first name basis with the woman at the Post Office who I'm sure must think we are insane with all the boxes we've sent home! It will be like Christmas, getting back and looking at what we have collected in these two years and going through the things that have been in storage all this time, seeing what we kept and probably wondering why and looking for things we did not! It should be very interesting indeed and keep us busy for a while sorting it all out!
In the beginning, and for the longest time, we were concerned that not too many people were reading our blog since we didn't receive many comments. Finally, in August 2006 we put a counter on the page and at this writing there have been well over 5,000 hits. That is really rewarding and the fun thing is that the readers come from literally all over the world. Imagine someone in Seoul, Korea and Lisbon, Portugal, Montenegro, Paris, Beijing, or New South Wales, Australia for example, caring about and reading what we have to say and to show. Amazing! And we thank all of you for coming along and following this great adventure of ours. We hope you have enjoyed what we have put out there and that perhaps it will encourage you to live out your dreams. I can't say it was easy. It wasn't just dumb luck. We worked really hard to get here. There were many challenges. But it was absolutely worth it. We started this adventure saying to ourselves "Now is the time. Life is short. You never know what tomorrow will bring." So now we'd like to say, if you have a dream, go for it. It's doable. Put one foot in front of the other and before you know it, your dream becomes a reality. We are living proof!
Bob and Rosemary