In February of 2004 I visited southern Italy for the first time, promptly taking the wrong train on the Circumvesuviana line from Garibaldi station in Naples. We intended to follow the coastline past Pompeii to Sorrento. Instead, my husband Vern and I listened to the incomprehensible dialect of a thickset and mustachioed fellow traveler urging us to… what was it? From his gestures and expressions (because we could not understand a word he said) we realized he was directing us to get off the train, go back and take a different train. By the time we figured that out, we had chugged halfway around the backside of Mount Vesuvius. At last another man took pity on us and explained our error, using slow, careful Italian. He offered to help us transfer at the end of the line, facilitating our tour around the mountain, the sentinel of the Bay of Naples.
In Sorrento, we studied Italian for two weeks at SorrentoLingue, a language school where I shared an “advanced beginners” class with a young Japanese woman who spoke no English. We were forced to communicate in Italian, our only common language, and despite limited vocabulary, we described to one another our hometown festivals, favorite foods, and experiences with romance.
History sits right on the surface in Italy. Baroque churches, medieval palaces, the remains of Roman villas, and Greek temple ruins surrounded us. It’s easy to imagine digging up ancient urns in your flower garden, or finding a Roman theatre in your basement, as one Napolitano man did. That theatre is now one stop on a fascinating “underground Naples” tour.
We enjoyed three months in Italy in 2004, combining language study, research, and some personal travel. We visited the Calabrian village where my great-grandmother, a shoemaker’s daughter, an old maid at twenty-one, married a lace-maker nearly thirty years her senior, who had come back after twenty years in America to find an Italian wife. The people of Scigliano displayed wonderful hospitality to my mother, sister, husband, and I during a four day visit, and we met distant cousins with whom smiles and clasped hands took over when our languages failed us.
I continue to read about the Italian south, to research and write another novel set there. I also dream of returning, tackling more Italian language, and eating more of the incomparable food. And did I mention the wine? Vern and I set a challenge for ourselves: How low did the price have to go to find a bad bottle of wine? We could not do it. Even spending just two or three dollars on unlabeled bottles in dusty village shops, the wine was always acceptable, and often very good. The Italians, we concluded, simply wouldn’t put up with bad wine.
The Italian south still draws me in through books, food, other blogs, and history. I hope you’ll join me here for a taste of it.