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Hi and welcome to the Passion for Italy Podcast. This is Lindsay, from the Tampa, Florida office.
Over the past few weeks, you have heard stories from our suppliers about their lives during COVID, how they’ve gotten by and made the most of a difficult time. You have also heard from Gemma and Allison about their love stories with Italy.
Today, I’m sharing mine. This is a personal story, but I hope it inspires you to make the most of the time you have with the people you love, to live every moment, and to get out and see this beautiful world together.
Many of my clients ask me about bringing their teenagers, how to make the trip interesting for them so they won’t get bored. It is one of my favorite questions. And the short answer is, “Bring them with you, and watch what happens.”
Italy changes people. Italy creates.
You may have seen or at least heard of the Netflix series, The Medici. It is an art history lover’s delight, set in Renaissance Florence. The second season ends with artist Sandro Botticelli painting his famous “Venus and Mars”, using as his models the memories of Giuliano de’ Medici and Simonetta Vespucci. In the story, both have recently died, and the original painting has been destroyed, so he is repainting it from memory.
Lorenzo the magnificent enters and looks at him curiously. The artist says passionately, “Perche dopo la morte, torna la vita. Si rinasce!” “Because after death, life returns. One is reborn!”
My husband and I watched the season in Italian first. After this scene, I sat with tears streaming down my cheeks. Si rinasce.
Rinascimento is the Italian word for Renaissance, rebirth. We almost always think of it in relation to art, and Italy as its home.
There is, however, another type of rebirth that occurs for many of us when we visit Italy for the first time, and every time. Another still, that brings back the memories of loved ones no longer with us, and keeps them alive in our hearts.
My mom was a high school English teacher. When I was four years old she began taking student trips to England, to visit the homes of Shakespeare, Keats, and Wordsworth. As years went by, we would sign up for different itineraries mixing in other countries in Europe. Her heart was in the Lake District of England. My dad fell hard for Paris. I had yet to find my place.
The summer of 2001, I was 15 years old. Mom was teaching Dante that year, and decided it was finally time to go to Italy.
Honestly, I was indifferent. Happy it would be warmer than England, but otherwise untouched by the idea.
Then, the Sunday morning before we left, I was getting ready for church when a feeling overwhelmed me. Something was changing. Something was different. It was the moment I prayed one day would come, when I knew it was the time for me to be baptized.
Without knowing it, that re-birth in baptism was the start of a passion that would change my life completely. It was as if God knew this was the moment to breathe new life into me and wanted to make sure I had no doubt it was His plan.
At 15, I was shy, bullied, made fun of for everything from that shyness to the shape of my body and bad skin. I was deeply unhappy. Today we would call it depression.
To my surprise and life-long gratitude, Italy was about to change all of that.
Over the snow-covered alps, the flight attendants began announcing arrival information in Italian and English.
Still on the plane, it was language hit me first, as much for its intonation as its beauty. There is a joy inside the Italian language I’ve never heard or felt in any other. It sounded to me as if everyone were singing. I wanted nothing more than to understand.
The bus picked us up in Milan and we stopped for lunch at an Autogrille on the way to Venice. Now, an Autogrille from the outside looks like a big truck stop. I expected some kind of Italian equivalent of a gas station hot dog!” This is when Italy began its surprises.
Turns out Autogrilles are nothing like our truck stops. The smell of espresso wafts out before the door ever opens. Inside is an espresso bar and a separate cafeteria serving all kinds of pastas, vegetables, hot and cold dishes and panini that are nothing like what we’re used to here. At this first taste of pasta al pomodoro, I was shocked that simple pasta could taste this good… in a gas station!
Our hotel was on the Lido, an island of Venice with a sandy beach. Neither Mom nor I would ever let an opportunity pass to sink our feet into the sand and sea, so we went to walk on the beach first thing.
Walking along, I suddenly fell in a hole some teenage boys had dug in the sand, covered with a towel, and then more sand. Welcome to Italy! To my shock, those boys actually made sure I was ok, and I heard my first, “bella!”.
It was the first time in my life I had been called beautiful by a stranger. I laughed a genuine laugh for the first time in a long time, and my soul began to heal.
That evening, we sat in Piazza San Marco all together listening to the orchestras at the cafes. I’ll never forget hearing, “Libiamo I lieti Calici” for the first time, everyone in the piazza clapping along with the playful orchestra at Gran Caffe Quadri. The coldest heart would melt at the joy in the air, and mine was set on fire.
As they played on, everything from Opera arias to O Sole Mio, couples danced in the square. Friends clinked glasses and laughed. Light bounced from the moon and stars off the piazza and danced on the sparkling basilica tiles. I sat there in ecstasy.
In a few days we were off to Florence. Our guide pointed out the heart shapes carved into David’s eyes that give his famous piercing gaze. To me, even more incredible than David were the unfinished statues and the story that Michelangelo could look at a block of marble and see the figure trapped inside. He had simply to set it free. I felt like one of these, struggling, pushing, lifting, fighting, to break the shell that confined me. To be set free. Still, they are some of my favorite works of art.
I met my soulmate of a city when our bus pulled into Rome. Piazza Navona, above the ruins of Domitian’s Stadium enchanted me instantly with its splashing fountains, street musicians, artists, and cafes along the oblong piazza. The whole scene shot an arrow straight through my heart.
In Sorrento, our next stop, we sat down to one of the dreaded dinner shows I hated since I was four years old. They never fail to pick out the shyest person of the pack to humiliate. As a four year old, I actually crawled under the table when the man with bagpipes selected me to be the first to try the haggis. Ask me why I’m a vegetarian!
So, I carefully selected my seat in the middle of a long table against the wall. “Ha! They won’t get me this time!” Oh, but they did. I lost myself enjoying the music of the show. Funiculi funicula was the most fun song I’d ever heard! Then, the dreaded moment. One of the dancers in the show reached across our big, long table and grabbed my hand. Before I could escape or even crawl under the table, he was swinging me around the stage. I still smile remembering it.
We were in Italy I think for about 10 days that first trip, and over the course of those days, every sense inside me came to life as if for the first time. The scent of jasmine. The taste of pesto. The music in St. Mark’s Square. The beauty of the piazzas under twinkling starlight. The feel of the cold stone in the prison walls where apostles Peter and Paul were said to be held.
For the first time, I felt a sense of belonging. I left that trip a new person, reborn, with passion and purpose.
In 2005, Mom had just finished chemo for the cancer she would fight for the rest of her life. She had signed up for a trip to Italy and always said the desire for that trip kept her spirits up.
In Capri, one of her favorite places, as she leaned back in the little dinghy to squeeze into the stunning blue grotto, her wig fell off. She was mortified, but cool for the first time in months. Her “kids” as she called them all told her to ditch it, how great she looked, and that was the last time she ever put it on her head.
Years and a few trips later, it was 2008. I sat on the bus with Mom and two of her students who became two of my best friends after our time in Italy together.
Our tour manager had put together a cd of her favorite Italian songs. As our bus weaved along the Amalfi Coast, Andrea Bocelli sang, “Con Te Partiro`”. It was the first time I’d ever heard the song.
I turned to those 2 friends and told them, “I will walk down the aisle to this song.”
At the time I was a few years into an Italian major at the University of Tennessee. I knew everyone in the program, so I thought. The first day of my senior year, I sat down with some friends in our class on Petrarch and Boccaccio. The guy in front on me was someone I’d never seen before. He knew Italian better than I did.
We studied together that year and quickly became good friends. Bonding over his photos of Italian beaches and stories of how we each loved Italy so much, eventually we realized we loved each other too. On one of our first dates he played a song for me, “Con Te Partiro`” and June 11, 2011 I did indeed walk down the aisle to that song, and to him.
Matt and I have continued our love of each other, of Italy and the Italian language for 9 years now.
Just a few months after we got back from our first trip together, Mom’s illness took a drastic turn. I went home for the last week of her life. The last thing she asked me for was to bring some joy to her last days. Those two students of hers, now dear friends of mine, came over every day that week to watch Under the Tuscan Sun, dye her hair, and paint her nails. We were talking about our times together in Italy when she drew her last breath.
As the news broke, so many students and past chaperones who had travelled with us reached out to our family to say what a difference she had made in their lives because she opened their eyes to a love of travel. A love of culture. A love of history, art, and language.
In Italy or by the ocean, I see my mom during the happiest moments of our lives, and I feel her spirit. I can go back to those moments in my mind, and it keeps her alive in my memory. Si rinasce. One is reborn.
This is the gift of travel. It is partially about the things you see, but so much more, it is the experiences with people who bring them to life for you, and the people you travel with. It’s getting lost. It’s laughing, crying, tasting something new. It’s developing a passion for a subject you once thought boring, because it now tells a story. It’s making memories. It’s discovering a new and wonderful part of your soul. It’s being reborn.
I hope this story encourages you to create your own. Over the years, clients have come home telling me incredible things they experienced together, and most of all, how much they enjoyed discovering together. Parents who haven’t had alone time in years, families celebrating the end of a mother’s cancer treatment, couples getting engaged. Sometimes the stories are funny, someone got lost and the locals helped them. But always, people return with memories they will cherish forever.
While we in the US still have to wait a bit longer to be able to go to Italy, as long as we keep those dreams and desires alive, it will be even more special when we are able to go.
Stay strong, stay safe, and keep dreaming of Italy!