My Thoughts are in Italy

A love of Italy (and some genetic roots) have kept my thoughts close to those affected by the earthquake this week. I’ve followed it on the radio and hadn’t seen images until I searched online; if you’re not saturated, here’s a poignant slideshow.

The nearest I’ve been to L’Aquila was a prosciutto pilgrimage to Norcia, an hour or two north through the rugged mountains. That 2001 three-week visit took us from Umbria through Emilia Romagna, and cemented my undying love and appreciation for the country, its people, and all things Italian.

It’s such a cliché. News flash! Middle-aged woman loves Italy. Whoa! No freaking way!

The transcendent, deceptively simple, micro-regional food. The rainbow of ochres embedded in weathered textures of tile and rock. The man-made treasures, by turns soaring and quietly pious, from the polished perfection of Ravenna’s mosaics to a seemingly endless treasure trove of worn frescoes. Gardens etched out of tiny plots of land, brimming with lemons and towering artichokes, temples of a different sort, and perhaps a more direct means of worship.

Italy: the home of my favorite meal, favorite church, favorite picnic, favorite ‘drinking beers standing on the sidewalk’ afternoon. Home to the waiter who changed into work-clothes between courses to serve us lunch…when the restaurant didn’t actually open til dinner. It all boils down to the warmth and generosity of the people—people who will communicate through any means necessary, and who, if I may make a sweeping generalization, seem to understand grace at a cellular level.

Compared to the tsunami or Katrina this earthquake is small potatoes. But this week, memories of just-caught cozze, frizzante mornings and spontaneous home-made lemoncello and grappa tastings are mingling with recollections of walking home to the Haight after the ’89 SF quake. Wading through a Union Square drenched in shattered glass, joining clusters around car radios, moving with the crowd of silent walkers spilling west, north and south from downtown, gathering breath before hustling under an overpass, cresting Buena Vista to see the smoke and fires pouring up from the Marina… But all I faced was an entry system that relied on electricity, a collapsed chimney across the street resting heavily on someone else’s car, a broken vase with rancid water. We spent our evening drinking on a friend’s stoop (vodka tonics, if I recall), shaken, freaked out by the pitch dark and thumping helicopters overhead, and sick for those in the Marina and under the collapsed concrete of the east bay. But we still had a place to sleep, to work, to live. Our shallow roots were undamaged.

Hearing today that a friend’s family is actually from L’Aquila cements my sorrow at what they must be suffering. Her relatives have been accounted for, so they’re “lucky”. But their homes are destroyed, their 4hproscuittobusinesses gone, their town extinct…in 30 seconds…and this in a land where roots run generations deep.

I keep thinking that the act of caring enough can psychically absorb a piece of their shock and trauma. Stupid, really. But until something more useful comes to mind, I’ll pay homage thinking of unprepossessing Norcia with its squat, cement buildings, graceful and functional fountains, women in silk stockings taking their passeggiata with suited beaux of 40 years. Truffles and cured meats aside, this isn’t a spot on a tourist map, just a town where people work, eat, sleep, laugh, live and die. Perhaps a bit like L’Aquila.

by Billy Collins

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes of famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon’s
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.

How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyes camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?

Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.

And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car
as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.

*I found this forgotten Billy Collins poem in my Italy notes as I was looking for a photo to include. It’s like Collins was on my trip, and in my head for weeks after our return.


  1. Cyn Said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    Thanks for the memories and the tears.

  2. admin Said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    Cyn, can you believe the last stanza of that poem? It’s like he was on OUR trip! (Remember your haiku “Frizzante Morning”? I’ve got it in the food journal if you want a copy……)

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