She was calling my name when I got off the train in Umbria. A well-dressed woman in her seventies, a little hunched over, with celeste-colored eye shadow and a bright green handbag, emerged from the crowd on the platform. “Jordan! Jordan!” she continued at the air.
She was visibly fatigued from her efforts to identify me. She hadn’t remembered me when I called and didn’t recognize me either. After reminding her who I was on the phone, she had invited me to visit her country home in Città della Pieve.
“This is my student,” Carla announced dramatically to the trattoria where she took me for lunch. “She is a famous writer in Rome.” A collection of friends from town looked at me in awe.
The first statement was true. Carla had hosted me in her home 10 years before during my study-abroad semester in Florence. Never had I eaten so well nor passed my days so enjoyably, studying Renaissance art and strolling the streets with fellow American students. To top it off, each night I returned home to a Tuscan meal prepared by Carla. I fell completely for the bella vita, partially thanks to her.
She was the first contact I had with the language, the food and many of the delights and peculiarities of the culture. She was exuberant in her speech, waving her hands in indecipherable gestures as she talked, looking upwards at the ceiling. She prepared foods so rich that the smells wafted out into the street when I would open the door to her ground floor Florentine apartment. Passionate in both her love and disapproval, she was often torn as to whether or not she should kiss or kick her yappy Jack Russell Terrier, Napoleone.
The second part of her speech at lunch was less true. I had returned to Italy to live as an adult, fueled with energy and inspiration from those four months. Far from fame, the two years of grown-up life I’d lived in Rome had been a different reality. My efforts to establish myself legally, economically and socially had zapped my enthusiasm for creative pursuits. I found myself frequently doubting my choice to move altogether. But every time someone would ask me why I had decided to live in Italy, Carla would come to mind. This pushed me to finally get back in touch.
“She doesn’t host anymore,” the email from the alumni office of Syracuse University said. “But as far as we know, everything is fine with her.” At the bottom of the email was a landline number, which she had answered.
After lunch, she probed about my love life. I talked about the frustrations of cross-cultural dating and how, so far, Italian men had failed to live up to their romantic reputations.
The next day we went on a short trip to Montepulciano. I feared for my life as we took windy shortcuts through gravel roads along vineyards. She gripped the wheel tightly and held her face close to the dashboard.
“I’ll just have a little wine at lunch,” she said. “That way, I can still drive back.” I nodded, slightly nervous but also amused by her desire to have a little fun.
Like the old days, we had an explosive-size lunch of everything carb-filled and delicious. We ate so much that the two of us had difficulty walking up the narrow hilly roads of the town.
Back in Città della Pieve, Carla insisted on sharing some poetry she’d written, knowing that I was a writer. Out of a kitchen drawer she presented a collection of poems, ‘Pensieri di una Casalinga’. With vigor, she read aloud poems about the life of a stay-at-home Italian mother and wife. She talked about the grief of young widowhood and the sorrow of her son’s impending divorce. Some were simply about what she could see out of her kitchen window. At that moment, I realized that what had inspired me about Carla, more than her cooking or any of her eccentricities, was her realness. Just the day before, walking through Montepulciano, she talked of how much she missed her husband Giuseppe, but how loving him had been so worth it.
I was beginning to understand that the dreamy illusions I’d gathered about life in Italy were of my own making, that here right in front of me was a very human Italian reality. It seemed I was destined to be reminded during this trip back in time that life contained within a particular culture does not protect it from pain, loss or great disappointment. As Carla demonstrated, life is beautiful not just because we are in Italy but because it has a way of always giving us something to write about.