A Month Of Italy...
What is travel if not a chance to change? What good are experiences if they don’t make us better? What good is solitude if we don’t use it to think and reflect? These and other realizations crept in unseen but still absorbed.
We grew to realize something about Italy as well. The rhythm of the place was entirely different from that to which we were accustomed. The allure of this place wasn’t only its landscape, history, beauty, food, and art, although there are enough of each of these to keep any traveler busy for a lifetime. What was so special was how different everything was at the core. It wasn't just a change of scenery featuring good museums and monuments, but a different way of life. People in Italy lived differently, and in many ways we came to believe that they lived better. I have traveled all over the world and had never been as struck by this as I was with the Italians. Their siestas, their harmless displays of anger at each other (usually ending in laughter and hugs), their relaxed schedules, the complete absence of hurry (except on curving mountain roads), their focus on togetherness, their patience with foreigners mumbling through an order at a restaurant or a purchase at a grocery store, their politeness, their slowness to embrace or idolize technology, their love of talk, their seeming abundance of time available for another person, and their utter habit of beautifying everything they touch, from a plate of food to a stone farmhouse, all began blending into a mosaic in our minds of their way of life. Looking back, I know now that this is what we were really there to discover. In my previous rushed trips through this land, perhaps I had sensed it. Maybe it was what had made me want to come back, and to do so at a deeper level. I was on a treasure hunt, grasping for some fuzzy image of value I knew was there beneath the surface, unreachable when following along behind a tour guide, sticking to highly traveled tourist paths, or by adhering to a rigid itinerary. I had left the well-worn path of shallow sightseeing and discovered the proper tools for digging – and I had struck gold.
Italy is known around the world for its design. This applies to cars, motorcycles, architecture, clothing, leather goods, what have you. There is a style to the things Italians make that is unique and appealing. In most cases, they just get it right. Not so, however, when it comes to beach chairs. Everywhere we went, from the hotel pool in Sorrento, to Villa Scarpariello, to this beach in Maiori, and later at our villa in Tuscany, we encountered these same awful chairs. They were everywhere. Pick up any brochure for a hotel and you’ll see them by the pool. Drive by any beach and it’s all they’ve got. Yet for us, the darn things were impossible. We couldn’t figure out how in the world anyone could get comfortable in them. Take the lounge, for instance; it was adjustable to two settings: 1) backache and 2) neck ache. Whoever had designed this highly popular chair had never taken a look at the human skeleton. In the lower position the lounge required one to bend at the shoulder blades. In the upright position one was expected to bend at the kidneys. More time had apparently been invested into the contraption that folds up over the head, ostensibly to shield out the sun. Instead, this device invariably ends up in one’s face or hair. Eventually I concluded this handy feature must be there to hide one’s grimacing face.
The upright chair was no better. Sitting in it was an experience reminiscent of those baby bounce seats one hangs in a doorway. The baby fits down into it, fully trapped, and bounces up and down. This is exactly how this chair felt, minus the bouncing part. That would have made it fun. Instead, as soon as you plop down into it you realize you’ll need help extracting yourself. This chair, too, has two helpful settings: 1) pinch fingers and 2) pop pelvis.
Terri and I took turns trading back and forth between these two delightful contraptions of our most recent real estate transaction as our children frolicked in the sand.
Most books about Italy carry the enormous risk of making you sick. One reason for this is that they are written in such flowery, dreamy prose one feels as if reading Dante describing Paradiso. “The elegant fauna shimmered in the bright sun as I wondered about the beauty that had descended on this place like a velvet blanket put down by the downy fingers of the angels themselves,” or “Italy arrests your senses in such a way as to transport you to another planet; one you have never seen nor visited but know immediately in an intimate way, as an old friend, fully authentic and entirely itself.”
Which leads to the other reason books about Italy have the ability to put one’s stomach in knots faster than the airplane food served on the flight over there: one can’t help thinking the whole time the author is rubbing it in the reader’s face. “Ha, ha, I’m the lucky one actually living over here, so allow me to tell you all about what I’m enjoying and you’re missing, and will never, ever, ever be able to do. Moo ha ha ha!”
Here’s the normal plot. Author finds self at a crossroads in life. Deep ponderings and meaning-of-life questions ensue. Suddenly, abroad and wandering, author realizes a little stone building perched on a hill is the exact sort of fixer-upper for which his inner soul has been longing. Little songbirds land on his shoulders and flower pedals float gingerly onto his path as he crafts his new home into something to make Martha Stewart envious. And of course, he lives happily ever after, sipping wine and gorging himself on pasta.
Let’s face it. This isn’t the real world for most of us mere mortals. We’re lucky if we get to see Italy in a hurried gaze from the deck of a cruise ship or more likely, painted on the wall of a greasy spoon downtown called Mario’s. Buying an Italian villa, learning the language, and settling down to a life of rural serenity is not going to appear on the menu of the average person any time soon. Most of us have pesky little things like jobs, kids, bills, goldfish, and in-laws, in no particular order of peskiness.
If there were anything I learned from a tourist’s standpoint on this trip, it was that the best touring is done in the spaces in between. Sure Florence and Rome had been great, but much more enjoyable to me were the deserted country roads, the old men playing cards under an umbrella in a little nameless town, the forgotten spaces between the bustle. It was a metaphor for life, I was realizing. We tend to focus on the main goals, the biggest objectives: the crowded spaces. But life is perhaps lived best in the spaces in between.