My husband and I spent the last couple of weeks traveling in the Tuscan region of Italy. We started our trip with a few days in Rome, taking in the archaeology, art and history, and then moved on to a walking tour of small towns in the Maremma (the more southern, wilder part of Tuscany). There we not only took beautiful hikes, but also saw the remains of Etruscan civilizations, including "sacred" walkways, necropolises, and temples. We visited plenty of chapels that had been built in the middles ages, and then renovated and restored in the Renaissance, sitting and meditating and lighting candles for lost loved ones. We ended our sojourn with a day at Ostia Antica, ogling this particularly prolific archaeological site that includes incredible standing ruins from both the Republican and Imperial periods of Roman history. We loved the challenging walking, the gorgeous countryside, the mystery of the history we encountered, the language we heard, and the food and customs we sampled.
As we always do when we travel, we tried our best to use the language for functioning (pathetic as our attempts were) and to adapt to local cuisines and traditions. My husband's most memorable phrase: "I've locked myself out of my room." I liked ordering coffees at the bar, drinking them standing up, right there, so as to get the cheaper price that Italians pay. I love my espresso with one packet of sugar and a small glass of water "frizzante" (with gas). We learned that melon and ham really do marry together well, and that the Italians never have dinner before 8:00 pm (which is when restaurants open). We were surprised to see young children arriving with their families for dinner on Saturday night at 9:30--my daughter has always insisted she be home by then to bathe, read and go to bed and she will not bend on this! Also, nearly ALL European women wear a bikini, regardless of age or body shape. I felt like a real granny in my black "one-piece" and immediately purchased a two-piece online upon return. We'll see how that turns out. We loved the lighter pizzas--no "meat lovers'" or "stuffed crust" here, and the wild boar sauce on pasta. I cannot imagine anything that would quite capture that taste in North America.
Travel also involves a lot of challenges. Besides the language, our bodies hate air travel (especially a really long, uncomfortable flight where someone early in the going left their underwear on the floor in the bathroom--not kidding). New foods, different meal times, various sleeping environments--all can throw us out of sync. Sights you want to see are often mobbed with tourists, or not open when you need them to be. In other words, the mind-expanding experiences and memories don't come for free or easily. However, despite the difficulties, it occurs to me that there are two advantages to travel:
One--learning and borrowing the best of a culture
Two--coming home to new appreciation for your own place and space
So, with these ideas in mind, here are a few thoughts--
The things we want to take away from Italian culture:
- An appreciation for pleasure and relaxation (one of the best days we spent was at a thermal spring spa doing nothing but soaking in the warm sulphur water, lounging and enjoying the view over olive groves).
- An appreciation for quality over quantity with coffee. I'm going to try to perfect my espresso/cappuccino making with an old-fashioned Bialetti pot and a battery-operated milk frother from IKEA. Get away from the "mega-mugs" of joe that leave me running to the bathroom six times before noon!
- We are going to invest in a hand-crank pasta maker and try our hand at making fresh pastas and raviolis. Why not--it's the adult version of Play-doh.
- We will continue to enjoy dining "al fresco" this summer and fall, weather permitting.
- I've gained a new taste for the refreshment of sparkling mineral water. Since I don't drink alcohol, this is a truly elegant, healthy alternative. I will say, European bottlers don't add as much carbonation and I think the lighter bubbles are preferable. My local grocery stores own label brand seems to replicate this better than the internationally-known brands sold here.
The things we have a renewed appreciation for at home:
- The prettiness and cleanliness of our town. Rome is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world in terms of the unbeatable historical resources, centuries of architecture and art. However, the graffiti and garbage that have been allowed to proliferate are a national disgrace. Romans need to get outraged about this and demand better service from their government. I came home appreciating the neatness of my town and pride in its surroundings.
- The availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. It is tough to get fresh produce when you travel and for all their emphasis on food, Italians don't place too much importance on vegetables and salads which seem to be more of an afterthought. I'm happy to be eating lighter and fresher again with access to my local market.
- My local flora and fauna. When I left, many of my plants were fledgling. I was pondering what I would replace the 20-year old grapevine on my arbor with--but voila, I came back to a lush green jungle. Additionally, the birds, squirrels, chipmunks and bunnies are happy to have us home again filling up the birdbath and feeders and have rewarded us with a lively show. Our favorite episode--a cardinal couple feeding their adolescent child seed.
- Fourth of July Celebrations--fireworks never cease to thrill no matter my age.
I'll leave you with Mary Oliver's poem which captures the attachment to home and the spark of recognition we feel as we return to place.
by Mary Oliver
When we are driving in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown,
when we are weary,
when the buildings and the scrub pines lose their familiar look,
I imagine us rising from the speeding car.
I imagine us seeing everything from another place--
the top of one of the pale dunes, or the deep and nameless
fields of the sea.
And what we see is a world that cannot cherish us,
but which we cherish.
And what we see is our life moving like that
along the dark edges of everything,
headlights sweeping the blackness,
believing in a thousand fragile and unprovable things.
Looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns
right down to the thumping barriers to the sea,
the swirling waves,
the narrow streets, the houses,
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me. *
Happy to be home, and artfully yours-- Lisabeth (a little piece of my garden below)