from Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center
by Michelle Damiani
25 July, 2012
I hand Keith a serving of casserole, smashed into a coffee mug; these days, he won’t eat unless his food has a handle. The trail of abandoned plates corresponds with his belt cinching tighter, so I’m determined that he eat. He takes the cup distractedly, too sidelined by the needs of our 100-year-old house to focus on the needs of his evaporating body. It was easy a few years ago to assume the house would be renovated in time for the arrival of our renters, even with Keith doing the lion’s share of the work himself. But as the calendar pages turned inexorably to the date stamped on our plane tickets, the amount of work seems to have hardly diminished. Keith, usually unflappable, looks downright panicked.
I get it. I do. All five of us are tense, coiled. Tomorrow, a scant few hours after the renters enter our ostensibly finished house, we leave for a year-long sojourn in Italy. And there appears to be three months’ worth of work left to complete. Friends who drop by—to lend a hand, or to collect our children—grow still when they see the paint cans scattered throughout the house and the piles of lists and tools heaped on the counters. I see the fear in their eyes, a reflection of my own. We’ll never be done.
Two days ago, when I walked into the kitchen and realized that Keith had once again worked through the night, I burst into tears. “You’re going to die!” I wailed. He patted my paint-spattered head against his sawdust-covered shirt and consoled me. Gracious, if you think about it, to comfort me when there were so many bare wires erupting from the walls of our house, and I had yet to find time to shower. I called my friends, “Keith’s going to die!” And they soothed me, telling me I could fatten him up when we reached Italy. Remember, they add, you are about to embark on your dream.
Empty words. Yes, in an academic way, I remember those nights Keith and I wove together a dream of moving abroad. I can vaguely recall the decision to make Umbria our home for a year, the scouting trip when we discovered Spello and began the process of enrolling our three English-speaking children into the public school. I have an image like a photograph of the moment we signed the lease on an apartment. But it all feels like somebody else’s memories. Some star-addled innocent who had no idea what picking up and moving half a world away would entail—the bureaucratic tangles made more complicated when our original visa was denied, the timeline looming with our house (and ourselves) ill prepared, the search for a family that would agree to rent our house at a price that would cover our mortgage and lease on an Italian apartment, the selling our car, the squabbling with the FDA that for some reason has jurisdiction over our cats’ travel, the horror at the grove of grey hairs that suddenly sprouted from my hairline. Maybe I am just too old to begin again. Too old, too perennially anxious, too settled into my roots laid into Virginia soil.
I have misplaced the dream, along with my children who are around somewhere, and my cats probably hiding under the bed. And yet tomorrow we leave. Italy is waiting. Hopefully Italy won’t mind that I still haven’t found a chance to shower.
I awake, gasping for air. My heart trips with a sudden surety that moving my family to another country cannot possibly end well. I try to remind myself that the worst must be behind us. The turbulent last two months of preparing the house is over, and our renters who arrived late last night from Israel didn’t flinch at the still unpainted doorways. Yet I can’t quite quell the rising certainty that moving to a foreign country is beyond stupid. I struggle to remember why I ever thought this was a good idea. What is adventure compared to this sense of impending doom? I order myself to just focus on the car ride to the airport. As Nicolas, Siena, and Gabe pile into the rented van, Keith adjusts the mirrors and announces, “Okay! This is going to be a long journey. Someone is going to throw up and someone is going to cry and someone is going to yell. Our job is to roll with it.” Everyone laughs, the first time we’ve all laughed together in weeks, and all of a sudden it feels, just our being gathered in one place, like a mini-vacation. My breathing slows, but I still flirt with the image of our plane drifting into the airless reaches of the galaxy.
Ten minutes north of Charlottesville, the cat vomits. That she beat Siena to it is a surprise. But not as surprising as our other cat’s gift—in her caterwauling hysteria, she expresses a foul musky liquid, which drips out of her carrier and nauseates us to the point of incoherence. Gabe waits until the cats are safely delivered onto the plane before he reports that he feels sick. His fever crests over the Atlantic, and I hold him while he shivers and mutters. I can’t sleep. Instead, my mind casts back to five years ago, when Keith and I decided to move abroad for a year. It was our anniversary, and in our reminiscing about our shared history, I remembered our old dream of living outside the States. We love traveling, the unknown inherent in every day, and wanted a long-term sense of discovery. I suppose the dream of having a family supplanted the dream of a grand adventure. As the cabin lights blink on and off, and Gabe finds a more comfortable position on my lap, I remember the moment when I asked Keith, “We couldn’t move abroad with kids, right?” And Keith swirled the wine in his glass and considered before replying, “Why not?”
Immediately the air between us became charged with possibility. How? When? Where? More quickly than I would have imagined, we sketched out a plan. In five years, we could complete the renovations and save enough money to take a year off. My flashback is broken by Gabe thrashing and throwing his arm over my shoulder, and Nicolas peering over the seat in front of us to make sure his brother is okay. This sickness feels inauspicious, though it makes me grateful that we chose to go to Europe, a known destination. Over that anniversary dinner, I had wondered if we should consider a year someplace completely novel to us like Malaysia, and Keith had laughed and said that living abroad would be enough of a challenge. He’d advocate for a country where the language and culture were not so dissimilar that we’d spend the entire year just trying to find our feet. I agreed, and so we settled on Europe. We toyed with Spain, France, or Italy. All three seemed magical and surreal. Gabe was just a baby; it was hard enough to envision him five years old, let alone five years old living in another country. I nuzzle Gabe and his eyes briefly flutter open before he falls into a more solid sleep.
We didn’t decide where we’d go in that conversation. In fact, we agreed that the “where” hardly mattered. The place we landed would be mere backdrop to the act of leaping. It occurred to me that diving into an entirely new life would likely force me to confront aspects of myself I’d never considered. I could, we all could, be utterly transformed. I was struck by a sudden thought, and impulsively confessed, “But what if the me I discover by doing this isn’t someone I even like?” Keith guffawed and took my hand. “You mean you’ll realize you hate cheese and love Civil War reenactments? Doubtful.”
“Okay,” I countered. “What if I become someone you don’t like?”
“Even more doubtful.”
I smile at the memory and look backward at Keith. Siena’s head is lolling on his shoulder, her mouth with its sweet little overbite slightly ajar, but Keith’s eyes are alert. He reaches to touch my disheveled hair. There are no words. Just this shared knowledge that the dream we spun over the last of a bottle of wine is now commencing.
Gabe’s fever breaks as we enter German airspace. He wakes up feeling so fantastic that he waxes lyrical about the celery that is curiously placed next to his morning danish. The dimple in his right cheek, identical to Nicolas’, flickers as he smiles and says that he loves having salty celery for breakfast. I hug him close.
As we fly past snow-covered peaks and glittering blue water, the man across the aisle asks how long we’ll be in Italy. His eyes widen when I answer, “A year.” Frankly, I don’t think he’s any more surprised than I am. It’s one thing to plan an adventure. It’s a thing apart to begin. He asks if work is bringing us to Europe, and I struggle to articulate that Keith and I yearned to break free from our assumptions about the constructs and colors of our lives. Not just for us, but for our children: Nicolas, who at 13 is beginning to cross the boundary between goofy boy and goofy man; Siena, ten, with a tendency toward quiet observation and gentle compassion; and Gabe, five, who could worry before he could talk.
Not knowing how to explain to the balding man from Detroit that we want to shake up our lives and see what hides in the corners, I offer, “We want a change.”
Sleep deprivation and speechless wonder twist into a jittery knot in my stomach as the cab driver steers us north from Rome’s airport, into Umbria, the green heart of Italy. The landscape resembles a shifting series of Renaissance paintings. Sunflower fields beckon. Cypress and umbrella pines march across sloping landscapes. Glowing villages crown hilltops with skirts of silvery olive orchards. And then we glimpse our new home—Spello, rosy in the early afternoon light.
The rubber tires speed incongruously up ancient streets, past arches constructed by men in togas, to park outside a small café. We step out of the van and turn slowly in circles, luggage and cats forgotten. Though Keith and I have been here before, we are as wide eyed as the children. I wordlessly point out the yellow-hued walls of the elementary school, and notice that the adjacent patio for the café, Bar Tullia, is filled with people casually living their Italian lives. Across the street from the school the buildings are all stone. A jackhammer sounds from within a church under reconstruction. Stretching down the hill is a line of serene shops, edged in hand painted signs and flower boxes. Our silence is broken by the sight of Patrizia, our landlady, appearing from under the arch just up the hill from the bar. She’s tiny, with short black hair swept across her right eyebrow, and fashionably dressed in an outfit that might fit my forearm. Her impossible freshness stands in startling contrast to our rumpled selves stained with travel and cat effluvia. She greets us is in a voice low-pitched and warm, and leans to kiss our cheeks. My eyes are too full and I botch the greeting. She laughs easily, and helps us drag our suitcases the 50 meters up the narrow street to our apartment.
My head swivels from side to side as we walk. I want to let my fingers graze the rough, oddly pink-tinged stone of the walls, but I’m weighed down by suitcases that seemed sensible back in Virginia, but now feel garishly colored and uncomfortably shiny. Patrizia chatters in mellifluous Italian but I can’t make out a word, despite the fact that my workbook progress suggests that I should be able to use the present and past tense of at least 20 verbs. The five of us gather behind Patrizia as she unlocks a heavily waxed wooden door. She pauses and points out our name, Damiani, under the doorbell to our apartment. My brain goes into overdrive and I suspect I’m on the verge of short-circuiting. None of this feels real.
We haul our bags up the polished steps that are the same rosy color as the outside walls and enter our apartment. The eat-in kitchen to our right is filled with light from the glass door that leads to a terrazza. Windows with deep ledges line the left side of the long room we stand in. A heavy dining room table fills the first part of the room, and black leather chairs and a loveseat surround a coffee table at the far side. Just beyond the living room area is another terrazza door. The children scatter, Nicolas into what he knows must be his bedroom to the right off of the living room, and the younger two up the glossy steps beyond the kitchen doorway. The staircase ends at a landing with their room, marked by a bunkbed, on the right, a bathroom straight ahead, and our large and lofty bedroom to the left. Our room is notably spectacular because of the steps leading up to the loggia, an arcaded gallery. The children race outside and lean over the wall to gaze over the roof tiles of Spello. Patrizia points out the armoires filled with sheets and towels, and then leads us back downstairs, to open the doors of the hutch filled with dishes and table linens. This apartment is outfitted with more precision than our house in Charlottesville.
As we release the cats, hoping Patrizia won’t notice the odor, I realize that our landlady is asking a question. We stand looking at her, puzzled. She uses her hands to aid her dramatically slowed speech. Keith and I turn to each other in unison and say, “She’s offering to take one of us grocery shopping.” My heart quickens as a blooper reel of outtakes plays suddenly across my mind. Before I can linger too long at a scene of tragic comedy that involves me holding a bag of figs, fichi, while shouting about vaginas, fiche, to incredulous stares, I volunteer. I am determined to get past the apprehension that restrains me. Besides, food is universal. I may not be able to use the imperfect tense, but I do know at least 15 words for pasta. I follow my Italian landlady out of my Italian apartment to go Italian grocery shopping.
On the way, I admire “il bel panorama”—the tiny streets framing views of intensely green countryside. Admiring in another language is easy, all lush sighs and pointing. At the bottom of the hill lies the modern part of Spello, called the borgo. I grow giddy as we pass a fresh pasta shop, and Patrizia smiles at my eagerness before pointing out the fish market. I ask if the fish market sells gambe. Her eyebrows shoot up and she darts a curious look at me. As we pull into the parking lot, I realize that I had asked if the fish store sold legs. I had meant gamberi, shrimp. Now my landlady thinks I’ll be storing body parts in her pristine fridge.
My well-rehearsed list of items evaporates into the chilled air of Superconti, and I’m left with a pervasive uncertainty of what to do with my hands. I force myself to start with the first step. Produce. I struggle to remember the Italian word for lettuce, and suggest lattuga. Patrizia takes a breath and tells me that we will not be getting vegetables. My cheeks flush. My mind spins. Have I offended her and asked for too much? Are we just getting staples? Should I apologize? Patrizia leans toward me and whispers that the Superconti is good for fruit, but not vegetables, we’ll go to her fruttivendolo later. I sigh. Yes, please, just fruit.
Fruit, and also the cookies that Patrizia thinks I’ll need for breakfast (do Italians feed their children cookies for breakfast? The picture on the back of the bag suggests that cookies and a box of juice are a wholesome start to the day), a selection of pasta, cat supplies, and coffee. Patrizia fills out an application for a frequent shopper card for me, while I stand at attention at the checkout. As I hand over the large bills, I’m lost in thought about how Italian checkers sit, rather than stand as they do in America, and which would be better for one’s back? I’m pulled into the present by the checker barking at me. Patrizia rushes over and gives the checker a few euro pennies so that my change is all in bills, rather than coins. I’m befuddled by what just happened, but nonetheless, I’m proud of the bags of groceries now lining the back of Patrizia’s car.
After a brief stop at her fruttivendolo to pick up vegetables, Patrizia drives me home. When I enter the house, Keith and the children greet me with excited descriptions of their trip to Bar Tullia for gelato. We quickly unpack the groceries, the children squealing at the apricot-flavored yogurt, and then head out to explore Spello together. My heart suddenly thuds in my chest. This is not the same as wandering towns we stay in when we travel—the people we pass will be our neighbors through fall and winter and spring and summer, what if we inadvertently do something wrong? The concern fades into excitement as we close the wooden door behind us, and stroll down the cobblestone street, past the elementary school and Bar Tullia, toward the piazza. Old men gathered on benches look at us curiously, but then return to their speeches punctuated by snappy hand gestures. Nicolas wanders to the left of the piazza to look at the middle school while his siblings follow the skinny cats that trot between the rose bushes encircling the fountain. I notice the negozio, a little grocery store, which will be handy for all the things I’m sure I forgot today. Keith just stands and beams.
The lanes branching off of the piazza invite us forward and we wander tiny alleys. The heaviness of the stone walls is lightened by the trilling grace of flowers, everywhere. The children race ahead, laughing at cats sleeping in the foliage, and Keith languidly follows behind, as if in a dream. I stop. There is my family, glowing with the setting sun reflecting off ancient walls. I can’t believe we’re here. I close my eyes and breathe in the scent of coffee. Above my head, I hear the clattering of dishes as someone prepares dinner. The resonant, warm air sinks into my skin. My nerve endings tingle, not in their well-carved anxious way, but in a novel way. Some sort of fog is lightening in my brain.
Keith turns to face me, still beaming. I move toward him and into his arms. The quiet embrace lasts just a few moments before Gabe realizes a hug is happening without him, and launches at our waists to wrap his skinny arms around us. We laugh and decide to walk to dinner. Patrizia recommended Il Trombone, and so we turn back up the hill. We duck into the restaurant and are shown to the outdoor patio, situated above pasture land hemmed by terraced olive orchards drifting into green hills. I realize that Spello lies along the crest of one of these hills. Our house is on one side of the hill, looking out toward Assisi and farmland scattered with industry. This side faces a diminutive valley, tucked away from main roads. Once we are seated I find that I have developed some sort of Spello-induced ADHD. My eyes bop between the swoop of fields into mountains, the menu, my children jiggling in their seat, a lanky cat climbing an olive tree beside us, and the waitress threading her way around the patio carrying plates heaped with heavenly smelling meats and pasta.
I order my brain to cooperate and decipher the menu for the children. The boys order tagliatelle with wild boar sauce, Keith and I order gnocchi with gorgonzola and radicchio, and Siena requests gnocchi with cheese and truffles. Keith’s posture assumes the relaxed ease he adopts in Italy as he orders a mezzolitro vino rosso, a half liter of house wine. The wine arrives with a basket of bread. The children excitedly reach for bread, and Keith and I laugh aloud as we watch their faces turn from thrilled expectation to confused revolt. We tell them that Umbrian bread isn’t salted, and they place their uneaten pieces on the edges of their plates. Keith is still laughing as he pours us both glasses of wine. At home we rarely drink wine, in deference to our tight budget, but here the wine is about as inexpensive as the bottled water, and I feel like a queen sipping the currant-red wine as I contemplate the distant hills.
Our dinner arrives to cheers, such is the excitement around our first meal in Spello. The gnocchi are a small variety I’ve never had, the sauce is creamy and unctuous, with a tang from the gorgonzola. For our secondi we share a platter of grilled meats, and I breathe in the peppery scent of olive oil drizzled over the caramelized chops and sausages. Keith cuts sausage for Gabe, and Siena and I surreptitiously gnaw on the bones, as I consider how few family meals we’ve shared lately. The realization makes me appreciate this sudden sense of completion. Before the leave-taking chaos, we ate around the dinner table almost every night. Weekdays that dinner was often easy quesadillas or something I threw in the crockpot—what was on the plate was less important than being together. Weekends were for more labor-intensive meals to linger over. Because of cost constraints, we almost never dined out as a family. So now—given how long it’s been since we’ve been able to enjoy any family meal with all of us eating off plates, and how satisfying the meal is, and how glittering the adventure before us lies—it’s no wonder we tune into every miraculous aspect of the restaurant, the meal, and the vista. We observe how the landscape shifts with the waning light, and how much cooler the breezes become as the darkness gathers. The children sigh that they already love the cats and alleys and flowers of Spello. We agree that our brains are continually grappling with the idea that this is our home.
We walk back to the apartment, and Keith and I tuck the children into their new beds. Keith brings a bottle of wine and two glasses to the loggia, and gestures for me to follow him. As he uncorks the wine he asks, “Happy?” I think about it. This feeling is something unknown. Happy approaches it, but it’s also like mild stage fright. What we planned on paper is now happening, and that just feels strange. I nod, and ask him if he’s happy, but I know the answer already. Keith’s happiness is unalloyed. I remember when we finally settled on Italy as a destination for our year abroad. It was partly because I realized that I felt more expansive in Italy than in any other country, and because the food, language, and history were compelling to both of us. But it was also because Keith just seems to unfold in Italy. Perhaps because it’s where his ancestors are from, though his living links to his Italian heritage have never actually set foot on Italian soil. Maybe it’s the effusiveness of the culture. Then again, Keith himself is not particularly effusive. His hand gestures are barely perceptible. But his heart is warm and though he characterizes himself as a misanthrope, he’s appreciative and generous with anyone he feels remotely attached to. So maybe he has that Italian sense of community that drew us here, though, as he’s worked on the house, he’s refused to ask for help, even from people who have offered. That fierce independence seems more American to me. He looks a little Italian, with his expressive brown eyes, but I can see more of the Northern European parts of him—he’s tall and his skin is more pink than olive. Plus, he’s balding and don’t Italians all have full heads of lustrous hair? He is effortlessly thin and loves coffee, but I don’t think that explains how he rounds and mellows when we are in Italy. So, no, I can’t place what it is, but I know that when we took a family vacation to Italy years ago, when flights were $250 round trip, I looked out at the Roman suburbs flashing as we drove from the airport and I was awash with this feeling of “I finally got Keith home.”
And he does seem at home now, already. Sipping his wine and smiling out over the Umbrian plain. It’s not the tight smile of “I’ll be okay” that I’ve grown used to over the last months, but rather the broad grin that makes his eyes crinkle in the corners. The grin I fell in love with. We speak of our relief to have made it, to be here. I inhale the fragrance of warm stones and wood smoke, and wonder aloud what the next few days will bring. The fact that we’ve arrived seems odd enough, the fact that there is a year’s worth of life to live here, that’s a twist I can’t get my brain to reach past. We sink into the darkness, mellowed by wine and the breeze that softens the edges of night. We’re quiet together and the last month of panic-drenched chaos feels like it happened to other people, far away.
I’ve been asleep for less than an hour before Gabe starts crying out in his sleep, “What did I do?” I snuggle his thin body against mine, his dark blond cowlick tickling my nose. I’m unable to fall asleep for hours as I worry over his labored breathing. Only the merry church bells announcing noon alert me to the fact that I’d finally fallen into a deep sleep. A sleep that unfortunately does nothing to ease Gabe’s breathing, and the catch of a wheeze sends me recklessly flinging clothes out of suitcases until I locate the inhaler I’d thankfully remembered to pack, despite the fact that he’d seemed to outgrow his babyhood habit of developing a wheeze when struggling with a virus. Gabe grows suddenly still. And then he vomits. Trying not to panic, I tell him this is probably just his strategy to be the first to use the shower. Third children have to pull out all the stops. The water perks him up, and he raves about his new shampoo’s advertised cotton-flower fragrance.
He shuffles downstairs damp and red-cheeked to greet our landlords as they arrive. Patrizia is more impossibly fresh and fashionable than the day before, and Loris stands easily beside her, gazing around at what was his home until he and Patrizia married. His handsomely coiffed head thrown back, he carries himself with such authority, it’s difficult to gauge his height. Loris instructs us on how to turn on the gas, operate the videophone doorbell, and open the bathroom skylights. He starts talking about hooking up a phone line, but it becomes clear that this conversation involves a level of nuance beyond our basic Italian. Wouldn’t he rather discuss pasta shapes? Keith begins to apologize for our lack of Italian, but they interject, “No, no!” and Loris assures us that we’ll be speaking perfect Italian in a month. It’s such a gracious lie, I want to weep. Gabe’s labored breathing makes the whole process ahead seem labored. How we’ll ever be able to form seamless sentences is beyond me.
Gabe’s breathing improves, however, releasing the tension in my shoulders. I spend the afternoon unpacking, while Gabe follows behind me chattering in the tender way he has when he’s recovering from being sick. I listen to Nicolas and Siena as they plan movies to make with Nicolas’ computer. Movies that will star the cats, Juno and Freja, who are cleaning themselves in advance of their Italian film debut. As I move from room to room, Gabe on my heels, I wonder about my two eldest. Born four years apart and separated by gender and personality, they have always shared a bond without being particularly close. Will the smaller house in a foreign country serve to divide them by forcing their edges to grate, or connect them via a need for companionship?
I look up from my musing at the sound of the doorbell. Keith buzzes in our landlords, who have returned to take Keith to Foligno, the nearest town of consequence, to get a mobile phone. Apparently, we’ve agreed to this. One must relinquish a significant amount of control when one has no idea what’s happening.
The kids draw pictures and watch the Olympics, while I peek into cupboards and investigate the sauté pans. Nicolas yells that judo is on, and I join them, curious. We watch together, confused at how to discern who is winning. As the gold-medal winning Korean rips off his top, Siena tucks a long strand of dark hair behind her ear and wishes aloud that the Italian silver medalist would rip off his top, too. Perhaps Italy will mature her in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I turn off the TV.
Keith returns home, brimming with stories of his trip to Foligno. While he describes the foam on his espresso, the doorbell sounds. I can’t seem to remember where the buzzer is, so I dart in the wrong direction, while Keith decides to walk downstairs to open the door. He finds a woman with Gabe. Gabe, who I was sure was drawing on the terrazza. My son tells us that his pencil had dropped from the ledge, so he’d walked outside to get it, but the door had closed behind him. He’d stood on the steps and pushed his pencil through the mail slot—here he throws out his chest at this piece of cleverness—but couldn’t fathom how to get past the door. A passing woman witnessed his quandary and rang the doorbell.
The incident would have been more alarming if the street were wider than an ox-cart, but it does prompt us to talk about house rules, until the tolling bell alerts us that the dinner hour is upon us. We walk down to the borgo for pizza at Il Vecchio Opificio, where we revel in the very Italian-ness of our surroundings: Gabe copying a gladiator from a brochure for an ancient Roman festival while Siena draws a bottle of wine, Nicolas ordering pizza with his broad smile, and the sounds of ancient Umbrian music from a nearby piazza. While we chase strings of cheese from our pizza, I notice that the family seated in front of us is becoming friends with a family at a nearby table. I watch the parents lean toward each other, their children holding hands. I try to imagine ever having this sort of instant camaraderie with a family here, and fail. I had reconciled myself to this being a lonely year, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it will be a year lacking in the easy banter of people just meeting. Without a shared language, a bubble separates our family from the rest of society. I suddenly not only feel self-conscious but also distanced. I admonish myself for getting too ahead of where I am, and instead take my children’s hands as we walk back up the hill in the moonlight.
Despite the late hour of our return, I am determined to do a load of laundry. Which is more complicated than I anticipated, as there are about 15 settings that vary in pre-wash, temperature, and amount of spinning. I select a program that promises to work on clothes that are molto sporchi (I defy anyone to come up with a better word for “dirty” than “sporco”). These clothes are definitely sporchi. I feel fairly confident that I figured it out. But still wonder if we’ll wake up to a sudsy kitchen floor. I fall asleep with the house quiet—no wheezing—just Umbrian music drifting up the hill from the piazza, echoing along the patient stones.
After a third gelato at Bar Tullia in as many days, I realize I’m going to need more drawstring pants. Unfortunately, it’s swimsuits, not drawstrings, that are the order of the day, as we’ve been invited to Loris and Patrizia’s pool. On a whim, I suggest we go through the tiny alley just a few meters down from our front door to see if it connects to the road to our landlord’s. Once we’re walking, none of us cares if it’s a shortcut or if we’ll have to double back. It feels like we’ve stepped back in time. The alley is narrow, with just enough room for us to walk single file and allow Gabe to zoom and twirl around us. Green chairs are settled against the stone walls that rise like cliff sides. Arches span the distance between the walls, some heavy and sturdy, some light and airy. A white-haired lady in a flowered apron steps out of a door and settles herself onto a chair with a bowl of greens to sort. Keith greets her, “Buonasera,” good afternoon, while I nod and smile as we continue walking. The cobblestones lead us past the high wall of a garden with tree foliage leaning out over the path. A black and white cat sits in a doorway and stares at us imperiously. The alley ends with steps down to the main road, and I’m thrilled to have discovered what feels like a secret passage. The children clap and point when they spot a tiny bakery at the junction of the alley and the road. They gather around the display window decorated with a scene of mushrooms and snails made from bread, while I peep past the strings of beads that mark the entrance to the bakery. The scent of almonds wafts out over the street. This little bakery with no sign, I wonder if it will be part of my life in the coming months? It’s odd to have no real idea about what my days will look like—what my go-to dinners will be, what I’ll wake up thinking about, who I’ll see enough to become familiar.
Turning left out the alley, we pass Il Trombone and notice that the restaurant is firing up its wood-burning oven. We continue walking past homes interspersed with art shops and alleys that open onto that view of the pastoral valley. At the top of the hill we arrive at our landlord’s house. Loris welcomes us heartily and leads us to the pool with a view of red tile rooftops, deeply green cypress trees, and golden hills. The children fling off their clothes, Nicolas carefully resting his glasses in arms reach of the edge of the pool. Siena is the first to jump in, and she immediately floats with her hair fanned around her, the inky fringe of her lashes grazing her pale cheekbones, as her belly, pale and still slightly baby rounded, greets the sun. Nicolas tucks his lanky body into a ball and hurls himself into the water, while I help Gabe wade in slowly. Soon they are splashing with an elation that comes from feeling the release from heat and stone. Suddenly though, Gabe winces and shouts that he has a splinter. I take him by the hand, lead him to Loris, and say, “Gabri ha una pezza di legna in la sua detto.” Turns out, many of those words don’t actually exist. But show and tell works in any language, and after investigating the proffered finger, Loris leaps up, chuckling under his breath. He returns, brandishing tweezers with a flourish and insists on removing the offending sliver of wood.
I thank our host, then return to the pool with the children, while Keith sits on the lounge chair beside Loris and makes conversation. I can’t tell what they are talking about, but it involves gestures and laughing. Not for the first time, I wish I had Keith’s comfort with speaking a foreign language. Our language progression has been fairly well matched—I pick up Italian more quickly than he because of my Spanish background, but Keith doesn’t second guess himself, which means he doesn’t stumble as much as I do. That difference is particularly evident now that we’ve landed. My accent may be closer to an Italian accent, but there is Keith, eager to try speaking, while I’m happy to be the one in the pool with the children.
I was hoping to see Patrizia, but she arrives just as we announce to Loris that it’s time for us to go. He looks surprised. Don’t we want to stay to eat and drink? Keith and I look at each other, unsure of how to move forward. Is Loris just being polite? Or is it rude to refuse a meal? In America, we’d protest in a vague way, our host would either accept the protest and we’d leave, or push past our protest and we’d stay. But we don’t know how to protest vaguely. Keith tells Loris that I’ve already made dinner. This, Loris can respect. I breathe a sigh of relief at Keith’s cleverness. This was a conversational impasse I couldn’t see my way through.
Keith was honest, I had prepared a tomato sauce during pausa, the afternoon rest time, while a storm blew past our open terrazza door. Once home from swimming, I set the sauce to simmer and pasta water to boil, while I place salami, mortadella, and fennel on a plate. Packaged pasta with a simple sauce is perfect for these early days when I’m trying to get the hang of the heat generated by the gas stove and the contents of my tiny refrigerator, but I look forward to long afternoons cooking as I’ve been wanting to cook. I select a marbled piece of salami to chew while I step into the living room and watch a bit of Olympic swimming. I tell Keith that I find swimming impressive because I can’t even swim in a straight line. He wraps his arm around my waist and pulls me close, laughing that maybe I’d be the first swimmer in history to get a yellow card for banging into a competitor. I smile and return to the kitchen, grateful that there are no yellow cards for bumbling a conversation so thoroughly that I smack and bruise those around me.
Sometimes I fixate on irrelevant details. This morning it is dishwashing detergent. I forgot to buy a box at the Superconti, and our dishes are only growing more fetid in the hot dishwasher. On an ordinary morning, in the States, I can count on my ability to saunter to the store and purchase a box of dishwashing detergent. With a sponge for good measure. Here, details paralyze me. So when I wake up, exhausted from a night of sleep continually interrupted by Siena, who is having bad dreams, and Gabe, who keeps falling out of bed, I have dishwashing detergent on my mind. I think about dishwashing detergent when Keith hands me the cup of coffee that barely brightens my thinking. I think about dishwashing detergent when Loris appears on our doorstep, handsome and vital and clearly not worrying about dishwashing detergent.
Instead, he’s arrived to accompany us to the comune, the civil office, to begin the work of acquiring the permesso that will allow us to stay in Italy. The visa authorizes our stay, but the permesso is the culmination of that process. It will prove to officials on the street, at the bank, and on the border, that we are here legally. But we are not exactly sure how one turns the visa into a permesso. We don’t even know what a permesso looks like—if it is affixed into our passport like the visa, or if it’s a piece of paper we carry. All we know is that process of acquiring the permesso must be started within ten days of arriving into Italy.
Loris believes we begin at the comune, and so we follow him like baby geese, past Bar Tullia, past the elementary school, past a café called Bar Bonci, through the doorway into the civil administration building. Within the yellow walls of the comune, confusion reigns. The front desk employee insists that we need a signed lease for each member of the family. Loris is incredulous, shouting and laughing that this is ridiculous. He asks, in Italian, “Even the children need a registered lease?” Even so, answers the man. We’re sent upstairs where everyone bustles, stamping papers and gesticulating wildly, oblivious of the frescos that have witnessed civil business for centuries. Here, the woman is emphatic. We need a registered lease to get the permesso. And also, we need the permesso to register the lease. Loris announces that he is taking Keith to the questura, police station, in Foligno, to resolve how to proceed. Then he storms out, five Americans in his wake.
Keith kisses me goodbye, then lopes off beside Loris, a goofy smile plastered on his face. What feels like a rat’s maze to me is part of the adventure for him. I watch the two of them turn the corner, and then, like any self-respecting Italian, I use the sudden opening in my day to go to the bar. Which, to American sensibilities, probably sounds more desperate than it is. In Italy, bars are family affairs—a spot to pick up a pastry or sandwich, a shot of caffeine, often gelato, as well as alcohol. I just need coffee. And space to breathe. I order a cappuccino and three assorted cornetti, Italian croissants. The barista cheerfully directs us to the garden where I watch the gleaming, chestnut-colored eyes of my children drink in the stunning prospect—farms burrowed into the valley’s curves and groves of olive trees stretching into the hills. The children carefully select a table with maximum shade and optimal view, and we dive into our treats. The cornetti filled with Nutella are especially praised. Revitalized, I gather my strength and my children, and walk to the negozio, the little supermarket on the piazza, to buy dishwashing detergent. It wasn’t actually all that complicated.
Keith returns soon after we do and tells me that the police officer at the questura was amused at the idea of our children needing registered leases. He directed Keith to go to a post office to complete and mail in our permesso application. The application will take three months to complete, but in the meantime the receipt and our visas are all we need to prove we’re here legally.
Bureaucracy done for the day, we head to the borgo to explore the playground. It stretches across a city block, and is separated into play spaces and resting spaces by flowers, cypress trees, and bay bushes filled with butterflies. Spying rosemary bushes, I wish aloud for a sprig. Obligingly, Nicolas breaks a twig and hands it to me saying, “It’s more forgivable for a child to pick the plants.” I nod gratefully and shove the fragrant sprig in my purse, already dreaming of olive oil and rosemary-cloaked potatoes. The children gravitate toward the play equipment created without concerns about American lawsuits, like the eight-foot plastic donut, tilted so that people standing on its higher edge rotate down, and children who gather on it can spin it fast enough to whirl at least one toddler entirely off and into the mulch. There aren’t many children here, though. I wonder if they are all on vacation.
Our outing continues as we walk in search of the macelleria Patrizia recommended in the borgo. It is here that I discover that Italian butcher shops are even more entertaining than Italian playgrounds. I summon my courage and order pork chops by offering the word maiale, pig, while miming slicing. The woman helpfully suggests, “Bistecca?” “Si, si! Bistecca!” She removes a ribcage from the case, and her husband rhythmically carves the chops with a satisfying thwack! It’s a music I bob to as I drift toward the case of salumi, cured meats. The butcher wraps our chops in paper, and asks if we’d like a taste of salami. We exclaim, “Si!” and he laughs, a merry bellow. Still smiling, he hands us thin slices of salami. Delicious. Then a larger one, with more fat. Even more delicious. Then two kinds of prosciutto. Silky and delicious. He asks how to say “salami” in English. We reply, “Salami!” and he and his wife look at each other and burst into fresh laughter. He wraps our purchases and I hand him €20 for five pork chops, a whole salami, mortadella, and acacia honey. It feels like I pulled a fast one on this nice man.
In the evening, I nibble our new salami while rubbing a fragrant clove of garlic over the thin pork chops and the creamy white ribbon of fat that I was advised to score to keep the chop from curling. I massage peppery local olive oil into the meat, and then sprinkle it liberally with salt and pepper. The chops and seasonings grow familiar while I roast the small, waxy potatoes with the illicit rosemary needles. When the potatoes are almost cooked through, I fire up a pan until a drop of water dances on the surface. I quickly sear the chops and let them rest on a platter with a zesty hit of lemon juice. I dress a salad simply with salt, a good quantity of olive oil, and a splash of balsamic. The crisp and slightly bitter leaves are a bright consort to the feathery potatoes and the juicy pork. Meat in the States can often taste like the absorbent pad it’s packaged on. This pork, packaged with conversation and laughter, is more tender and flavorful than any I have ever had.
Although we maneuver the shutters according to Patrizia’s directions—open at night, but closed first thing in the morning, the heat hangs heavy. We’re used to Virginia summers, notable for humidity that feels like a warm wash cloth pressed against one’s face. So we don’t find it terrible, as long as we stick to the shade. And yet we stubbornly perseverate in our quest to find children at the playground. It is empty. Again. Are there no children in Spello? Undeterred, our three chase each other in a zombie game that would likely repel other children had there been any, until they grow red and blotchy and more than a little moist. Just as I call them, Nicolas takes a spectacular dive across the concrete skinning his knee. The scrape is mild, but his face grows ashen. He moans that he might vomit, and I spare a moment to pray that this passes, and that it proves to be the worst medical drama we’ll encounter in a year without our doctor. I lead my stumbling boy to the cistern and wash his neck with water, clean and cool. His eyes close as the tension leaves him, and the planes of his face fall into the simple innocence I remember from his babyhood. After a few deep breaths, he announces he’s feeling better and ready to celebrate our successful crisis aversion with gelato. He runs his hands through his short brown hair, so much like Gabe’s only without the cowlick, and walks purposely toward the gelateria.
As we delight in the fruity, icy goodness, I can’t stop touching Nicolas’ face. By the time we walk to the macelleria, he’s swatting my hands away. He must be feeling better. As we enter the macelleria, the butcher greets us with a shout of “cheese!” He must remember that yesterday I had said I’d be back for formaggio. I wonder if he’s actually looked up the English word. I nod, laughing with him, and walk to the cheese counter to select a wedge of pecorino. Then I ask for a whole chicken. The woman cocks her head and furrows her brow. As she goes to the back room to get a chicken, my mind begins its now familiar spinning—is summer an idiotic season for roasting a chicken? I file this under: Things I don’t consider when in the land of endless cool convenience. I console myself with a packet of twirling pasta, umbricelli.
The hill seems steeper in the searing afternoon heat. Keith stops into the negozio, and when he joins us in the piazza, he holds up bottles of gin and tonic water. “Now we can pretend to be British expats!” Siena and Gabe start speaking in a British accent, and Nicolas mutters, “We can never take them to England.”
Back home, Keith mocks our tiny ice cube tray, which not only hampers the proper chilling of our current cocktails but will certainly put a damper on his martini habit. I sip a warm gin and tonic while cooking the chicken. I opt for cutting the chicken to pan fry, rather than heating the house by roasting it whole. I season the pieces with the porcini pepper I found in the cupboard, and then cook them in a very hot pan of olive oil, skin side down first. While it pops and sends out the scent of crackling fat, I boil the curly umbricelli, which I dot with butter and flourish with grated parmesan and cracked pepper. We settle around the dining room table to eat. Oh, that chicken must have had a happy life. She must have clucked with moxie and scratched with purpose and gazed out to the throbbing blue sky with joy. Grazie, sweet chicken.
While Keith is glaring at the chicken—as he does when he’s dumbfounded that something can be so tasty—his cell phone rings. We sit confused at the unfamiliar sound. Keith fumbles picking it up, and then fumbles trying to get a signal, until he realizes that the thick stone walls that keep the house cooler than one would expect also block a cell signal. He jogs out to the terrazza. I hear him laughing and talking in Italian, and I’m bewildered. I have a tendency to freeze when asked what I want at the negozio, the thought of communicating without pointing, grunting, and gestures leaves me weak. Keith, however, approaches the call like a game, a challenge. I can see this, and yet it doesn’t attenuate my own desire to speak only when I’m fairly certain I’ll make sense. Keith comes back to the table with a wide grin. We’re invited to go to Loris and Patrizia’s after dinner. Not after our dinner, which is just finishing, but after their dinner. At 9:30.
Long past our children’s bedtimes, we walk through the streets to our landlord’s house. Once there, we make small talk. Very small talk. They admire Gabe’s sketchbook, and laugh at his tendency to answer all questions with “grazie.” I’m glad they find it endearing, but I can’t help but think that soon he’ll be in school where grazie might not get him far. Gabe warms to Loris and Patrizia, and soon he’s chattering at them as if they’re only pretending not to understand.
Over ice cream bars and Chino, a soda that tastes like cola with bay leaves, we begin discussing the internet. Their son, Filippo, who rides up on his motorcycle and rushes to press his handsomely stubbled cheek against ours, facilitates this conversation with his excellent English. When I admire his fluency he laughs, saying he watches a lot of American TV. Though I have to speak deliberately, it’s a relief to smile and share pleasantries with relative ease. He assists Loris in explaining that there are three internet options. Each one must be emphatically discussed while I sit back and observe. The internet is a foreign language unto itself, all I can do is nod like I understand. Finally, it turns out everyone agreed all along.
Patrizia rises to get ice cream, to the wide eyes of our children. They are going to have TWO desserts? Gabe hurries back to his seat, and in his haste scoots the bowl off the table. It shatters in an explosion that leaves us all quiet. Gabe freezes, and then sags his head into his arms and begins wailing. Loris and Filippo rush to kiss his head while giggling into their hands. Gabe eventually sniffs and rallies, and dives into his new plastic bowl of gelato.
Filippo brings out watermelon, and the children gloat at their third dessert. We then announce our departure before our hosts can offer more dessert, drinks, or yet another household item that Patrizia is sure I can’t live without (I’m already walking home with kitchen towels, a board for making pasta and pastries, and several canisters). Gabe screams that he never wants to leave, and our hosts embrace him and laugh at his charm. I find it less than charming and wrangle him out, attempting some semblance of grace. Though something tells me that my grace is a delusion—as shattered as Gabe’s gelato bowl. All that’s left is the grace of others.
I love outdoor markets. I seek them out in every town I visit as a place to get cheap, local food. In fact, my travels are connected—like a string of beads—by memories of markets. From the line of stalls in Paris that filled the air with the smell of brown and juicy chickens turning on a rotisserie, to the Barcelona covered market that boasted crispy crusted rolls so excellent with local cheese, to the bridge in Prague filled with people selling from tablecloths spread over the ground. I love the chatter of customers and vendors, I love the groundedness of food recently tugged from the earth, I love the olives and berries and artichokes all spilling out of crates. The Spello market is not that market. Instead, it is mostly cheap clothes. Even while I’m chiding myself for acting spoiled, I worry the corner of my lip between my teeth in disappointment. I buy five peaches from the one produce truck while Keith stops into the Vodafone store to make copies of our permesso application in advance of our trip to the posta.
He returns a half hour later, chuckling. I’m barely able to concentrate on his narration of the odd workings of the Vodafone store because I’m trying to control the peach juice running down my arm. But I catch enough to tell him he should apply for a job. He answers, “That’d be great, and the first thing I’d do is teach them that when you print, you can select ‘three’ copies, rather than hitting print three times.”
After washing off at the cistern, we present ourselves to the post office. Our optimism fades in the face of a line that moves like aged balsamic in the Dolomiti. Finally, it is our turn and we step to the window, our smiles barely containing our nerves to begin the process that will make us residents. The worker scowls and berates us in what sounds like Klingon. A woman at the next window calls out in slow Italian that the post office will be closing in a half hour, and since the permesso process is lengthy, we’ll need to come back tomorrow.
We trudge, defeated, up the hill. As we reach the corner, a man hails us. His neatly trimmed mustache bristles against his tanned and aging face, and he wears his seersucker shirt casually untucked. He tells us, in Italian, that he is married to a French woman, and has smart children. I nod in admiration, and Keith reciprocates by telling him, “Viviamo a Spello.” We live in Spello. The man nods, unfazed, and answers with a smile, “Io lo so.” I know.
Another day at the posta, another endless line. Finally the woman who dismissed us yesterday beckons us to her window, but dismisses us once again because we haven’t noted the fee for the permesso on the application. Why it isn’t listed on the application, or at the posta where one completes the process, I have no idea. We use the piazza’s free wifi to find the fee for each of the 20 different kinds of permessi. Ours cost €80, plus a processing fee, a mailing fee, and a fee for the marca da bollo stamp, required on almost all official documentation. They get you coming and going.
We join the line. Finally, the Klingon man calls us to his window. He speaks slowly, and I’m relieved to recognize Italian. He begins methodically going through our paperwork, and then stops and hands us back our application. I’m certain we’re being rejected again, but he asks us to write the cost of the permesso in words, rather than numbers. Keith corrects the error, and I am flooded with satisfaction as the man bangs on our application with an ancient wooden stamp.
We celebrate that evening with a trip to Patrizia’s favorite pizzeria, L’Orlando Furioso. It’s a quiet celebration, as all of our energy is focused on our pizza—cracker crisp, with a bright tomato sauce and perfectly stretchy cheese. The pizzas are heavenly, the restaurant is bustling, and the price is incredible—about €5 per individually sized pizza. With a multi-page menu, we’d struggle to try a quarter of them in the course of our stay. Once sated, we stagger homeward, certain that this pizzeria will become a fixture of our year here.
Yawning, we approach the playground, but stop short when we hear an unfamiliar sound. People. It’s 10:00 and the park is full of families eating gelato, preteen boys showing off soccer tricks, and little children toddling around. Now I understand why the playground is always empty. Only crazy Americans would venture out of their stone houses during the heat of the day.
Keith and I settle onto one of the few empty benches, and watch our children join the throngs of youngsters racing around in the darkened cool. I tell him that I have noticed a rhythm to the day here that moves with the rising, then falling, temperature. Shops open early, and close around 12:30, when the heat is settling in. Everyone goes home to rest in the cool and then heads back out when the sun begins to sink and the breezes shift and gentle down the harsh glare of the day. I am used to a culture that adapts the existing structure to suit the convenience of people. This is a culture where people adjust to structure imposed by weather and history and architectural landmarks. Keith says that earlier Gabe asked him why Italian cars are so tiny. Keith pointed out the tight, medieval roads. Gabe counters that people should knock down the city to build wider roads. I can see, coming from a disposable culture, he would think that razing what is inconvenient would make sense. Mom-and-Pop stores cost more and don’t have everything you need? Bulldoze them in favor of a Walmart! With air conditioning!
As we watch Spellani children pedaling their bikes erratically in the dark, I think about how we’ll have to adapt to this new rhythm. Aspects of my life that I never think about, like my trust that I can put in a load of laundry and have it clean and dry in an hour, I’m going to have to reconsider. Keith, who has grown quiet, mulls, “It’s strange to not have things be easy and convenient, but also kind of satisfying.” I answer, “I know. We have to really focus on what we are doing.” It is a change, and I think a good one. At least until we are late to the post office without clean underwear, I suppose.
With excitement, we step onto the navetta, the free shuttle. But it’s really more like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We tear through the streets of Spello, inches from stone walls and tourist toes, barrel around hairpin turns, and kick up dust all over the Umbrian countryside. We stumble off at the Superconti, a bit green around the gills, though the children perk up when we enter the store. They love the novelty of using plastic gloves to select garlic, weigh it, print a sticker, and put the sticker on the bag. They’re floored at the entire Nutella section that includes Nutella that comes packaged with bread sticks and tea, called, fittingly, Nutella-and-GO! The biscotti aisle, the blood orange juice, the Haribo and other candies, the row of pasta four times as long as the cereal section, the carrot and celery packaged with a mini bottle of olive oil as “pinzimonio,” olive oil dipping sauce.
The navetta ride home is blessedly shorter, and leaves us in the piazza. Impulsively I decide to stop into the negozio, because I remember they have a bin of marinated eggplant I’ve been wanting to try. The thin, white-haired proprietor with the gaunt face and wide eyes is less flustered than usual. I order melanzane sott’olio. While he’s scooping the oil-soaked eggplant into a container, I see an intriguing container of marinated silvery fish. Though I’m embarrassed at my limited language skills, I’m emboldened because the store is empty, so I ask what kind of fish they are, “Che tipo di pesche sono?” The owner looks confused. “Qui?” He asks, pointing to the oil-cured tomatoes next to the fish. “No, le pesche. Qui.” I point. He hesitates and offers, “Alici,” which I know to be anchovies. Hooray! Successful transaction.
Maybe he looks alarmed because he can’t believe a tourist speaks so well. That’s probably it. I’m probably some sort of language prodigy with an effortless accent. And then, it dawns on me—pesche doesn’t mean fish. It means peaches. Pesce, no hard ‘c’ sound, is fish. To my embarrassment, I realized I had just pointed at fish and asked the poor man for peaches.