Browsing category: Crafts in Umbria, Italy Blogging Roundtable, Rebecca's Ruminations

Italy Roundtable: Crafts in Umbria

This is the eighth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some charcuterie, and join in on the conversation.


There is an invasion afoot in Umbria, there’s no denying it. And it ain’t a stealth invasion, either. It’s a full-on, in-your-face, landscape-be-damned advance of the Big Box Stores.

I wish I could say that I have taken on a nom de guerre, gone underground, and organized a grassroots uprising against this disheartening trend which has turned much of the vista along Umbria’s main artery highway 75 into something akin to the blight in the far western suburbs of Chicago, but the fact of the matter is that I have found myself a customer more often than I would like to admit. Call it the convenience, the selection, the heavy weight of this current economic insecurity, but sometimes it’s hard to ignore the siren song of the one-stop-discount-shop, even though you know in your heart of hearts that you are just hammering one more nail in the coffin of a local economy which has survived for centuries—if not millenia—on the small and medium-sized family business.

I was pleased that the Roundtable topic chosen for this month was “crafts”, so I could talk up some of the amazing artisan wares—none of which are to be found in sprawling, low-overhead superstores–which come out of this region and bring my moral credit bottom line back into the black.


If you can only stuff one thing in your suitcase to bring back from a trip to Umbria, it’s gotta be something to eat. Unfortunately, given the array of things that—tragically–can’t be taken overseas (I have managed to smuggle a salame or two over the border, but that was in the heady pre-9/11 days), you will have to strike the amazing local charcuterie, cheese, and produce from your list. There does remain, however, the incredible olive oil (Umbria produces some of the highest quality and most sought after oils on the market) and wine, truffles, honey, and heirloom legumes. Nothing brings back fond memories of your trip months later than being able to recreate some of the same dishes that were such an epiphany when you first ate them here.

Budget buy: Pick up some Perugina Baci chocolates at a local grocery store. A fun, easy gift for folks back home.


Ceramics are everywhere in Umbria, but the vast majority of them all come from the same town: Deruta. The name has become synonymous with high-quality hand-painted majolica over the past roughly seven centuries of artisan production, and if you’re looking for cheap factory-spat tchotchkes you will be sorely disappointed. The heartfelt ceramic tradition is still very much alive in the dozens of workshops large and small that line the highway and the winding roads up to the top of the hilltown itself and you can find anything from majolica tops for table seating twelve or contemporary ceramic sculpture running in the thousands of euros, to tiny painted beads made into unique earrings or pendants. Gubbio has its own unique history of ceramic production, the apex of which was the famed lusterware of Mastro Giorgio in the 1500s, and you can still find a flourishing tradition of majolica workshops in the center of town.

Tight fit: If you need to pick up something for your neighbor who has been watering your plants while you’re away, but are down to your last ounce of baggage weight, slip in a painted ceramic wine cork (or two). The fit perfectly in the toes of packed shoes.


I have waxed poetic about Umbria’s traditional damask and jacquard hand-loomed at the Brozzetti workshop in Perugia repeatedly, so I won’t bore you with it again. Or, on second thought…hands down one of my favorite places to visit in Umbria, both for the dramatic workshop (housed in a 13th century church in the center of Perugia) and for the breathtaking cloth Marta and her assistants are still weaving by hand today. Ok, I’m done. If you can’t make it to Brozzetti, excellent quality cloth is also to be had in specialty boutiques across Umbria, principally in Montefalco and Spello.

In a strange historic quirk, a bit of Ireland lives on Isola Maggiore (the largest of Lake Trasimeno’s islands) in Pizzo di Irlanda—Irish lace. At the beginning of the 1900s a local noblewoman asked a few Irish maids in her service to teach their lace-making craft to local women, and generations later you can still find these delicate crocheted pieces in shops on the island and in towns around the lake shore. One of the towns near the Lake, Panicale, has its own rich tradition of embroidered tulle –known as Ars Panicalensis—which has been producing intricate flower, medallion, bird of paradise, and baroque scroll patterns for convents and bridal veils for over a century.

Punto Francescano
I love to walk the backstreets in Assisi, where sooner or later you inevitably come across a Signora sitting in the afternoon shade busy stitching a motif of griffins, birds, or stylized flora on a piece of rough, unbleached linen in bright blue, brick red, or soft brown silk. Ubiquitous in the souvenir shops around town, this traditional embroidery—a mix of cross and Holbein stitches—was first produced from around the 1200s through the 1500s, when it seems to have become a lost art. Revived again by local women artisans in the 1800s, there is nary a home in the entire greater Assisi area which does not boast at least one hand-embroidered runner. I have two.

Hard core: If you are passionate about textile history, there are a number of small but excellent museums in Umbria, including Tela Umbra in Città di Castello, the Museo del Tulle in Panicale, and the textile collection in Palazzo Sorbello in Perugia.


If you think that only Venice does glass—well, you may be right. That said, in the late 13th century glass artisans migrated from the famed Venetian glass-making island of Murano to Piegaro in Umbria and continued making exquisite pieces in their new outpost. Piegaro is now home to one of Europe’s largest industrial glass factories, but more compellingly a glass museum located in the restored historic glass factory. For a look into a glass museum that continues to actively produce, stop in the fabulous Studio Moretti Caselli, a family atelier which has been producing hand-painted stained glass windows for cathedrals and monuments world-wide since its founding in 1860.  Now in the fifth generation, the studio is still an active workshop and offers guided visits and a small gift-shop (just in case you don’t have room in your luggage for an entire window).

Really cool: Ok, if you want to know how to be the absolutely positively hippest cat in town, get yourself a pair of bespoke eyeglass frames from Ozona in Perugia. It doesn’t get any craftier than this.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


Italy Roundtable: The Blogging Gift

This is the seventh installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) This month we shook things up a bit by adding a bunch of chairs to the table and inviting bloggers to join in on the conversation. Please have some Christmas cookies and join in!


I’m a pretty pragmatic person (with, apparently, a knack for alliteration). For years people—friends with whom I corresponded, initially, and then folks I got to know over at Slow Travel where I first began publishing pieces online—would say, “You’re such an entertaining storyteller. You really should try your hand at writing.” And I would pooh-pooh them, because I had a business to run and sons to raise and the whole creative writing thing seemed frivolous and slightly self-indulgent.

Then, almost two years ago now, my webmaster super-hero guy Marcel (who, as a side note, is the husband of fellow Roundtable blogger Gloria…Italy is a small country) said, “Listen, you should really put a blog on your website. It will help traffic.” Oh. Well, then. I mean, if it’s for business….

Thus began an adventure which has, in many respects, changed my life. Aside from the wholly frivolous and self-indulgent pleasure in putting words down on paper, especially words that make me cackle to myself in front of my computer, blogging has been a conduit to forming an amazing array of new friendships, professional contacts, and kindred spirits here in Italy and beyond. When I think of how much my personal and professional lives have expanded past the borders of this tiny region of Umbria to encompass Italophiles from across the Bel Paese–and the world over–I must acknowledge that this crazy new-fangled blogging thang has been, oddly, one of the biggest gifts I have ever received.

Case in point: the amazing posts submitted over the past few weeks as part of this month’s open call to bloggers who were willing to jot down their thoughts on December’s theme of “gifts” with an Italy angle. I spent a fabulous evening reading through them all and was at turns amused and moved. It was almost impossible to whittle it down to my five favorites (This is why I could never judge X Factor. Just in case I’ve been short-listed by their casting department.), but whittle I did and here are my five favorites (in, by the way, no particular order):

Once More, With Feeling

Valerie from 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree traces the path of integration into her village’s life and soul by way of gifts given and received. It’s a common theme among expat bloggers in Italy (touched on by Sicily SceneBellavventura, and An Italophile this month, as well), but Valerie’s take went right to my heart and reminded me again what a gift friendship and acceptance can be when you are a stranger in a strange land.

Taking the Words Out of My Mouth

Huh. Just when you think you know–at least by name–all the bloggers in Italy, here comes out of left field an excellent blog written by a Swiss woman now living in Tuscany. (Oh. Maybe that’s why I’ve never run across her before. I don’t do Tuscany.) Barbs aside, her post about the light and dark sides of living here absolutely spoke to me (I had to laugh about her experience of sudden popularity once she was living in Italy and had an available guest room. Yep. Been there.), as did her discovery of how sometimes it takes a move abroad for us to appreciate our homeland. For a wonderful flip-side to that story, take a look at Alessandra’s charming story of her mad escape from Umbria, which led to her ultimate love affair with it.

What’s Really Important

In 1997, Umbria was struck by a traumatic earthquake. I didn’t lose anything, but many, many people saw their lives literally reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds. That has been a lesson for me many times in the years since, and Kate’s tear-jerker of a post at Little Paradiso underlined once again of how fleeting life can be, and how easy it is to forget what is really important. I dare you to read her post without getting misty-eyed. Go ahead, try. And then bust out your credit card and send a couple of bucks to those folks down there during this holiday season.

Wait, what?

I love crazy-ass shit like No Onions Extra Pickles’ What to Get the Italian Futuris Who Has Everything.  I mean, it’s pure, unadulterated, highbrow silliness. And that’s just fine with me. This blogger is whip-smart, sarcastic as the dickens, and apparently knows her way around Italy. Possibly my favorite submission. In fact, I think I’m going to go read it once more, just for the fun of it.

One Word.

Cookies. Enough said.

There were a couple of posts that deserve a quick mention, as well. I loved the Puglia gift basket, and the great shot of heirloom produce from Le Marche. Supporting local artisans is one of my things, so I was thrilled to read about some wonderful workshops in Florence from Cross Pollinate. Oh, and of course Life…Italian Style. Because she tweeted it at 11:59. And that’s the kind of pluck I admire.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.




An Invite to Bloggers: A “Gift” from the Italy Blogging Roundtable

Many of you know that, since May of 2011, five of us have been writing a monthly post on a given topic and we call it the Italy Blogging Roundtable. Each month we decide the topic in advance and the only rule is that it has to be connected to Italy; the posts are posted on the same day and cross-linked so that readers can enjoy our diverse experiences. You can see posts by participating writers here:  Alexandra from Arttrav, Gloria from At Home in Italy, Jessica from WhyGo Italy, Melanie from Italofile, and me.

Normally we don’t tell anyone the topic in advance, but our post for December 14th is an exception. Why? Because we want you to participate. The topic is “gifts” (or “presents”). It’s inspired by the holiday season, but does not have to be limited to “Christmas gifts”. For this month, we’re inviting bloggers to expand upon the topic of “gifts”–somehow connected to Italy–on their blogs.

Here is how to participate:

  • From December 1st to the 13th, post on your blog about “gifts” (and Italy).
  • Include in your post a reference to the fact that this is part of the Italy Blogging Roundtable’s invitation to post on this topic.
  • Include, at the end of your post, links to the Roundtable blogs: Arttrav, At Home in Tuscany, WhyGo Italy, Italofile, and Brigolante.
  • Let us know by tweeting it with the hashtag #Italyroundtable. If by chance you don’t use Twitter, email it to one of us (my email is We’ll read them all, and retweet some, too!
  • On December 14, 2011 we’ll post on the same topic and include links to our favorite posts by the larger community. We’re aiming to link to five posts submitted by others, but that depends on how many people participate!


Italy Roundtable: Eating in the Comfort Zone

This is the sixth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some rice pudding, and join in on the conversation.

Comfort Food

If you’re very lucky, at least once during your years here on this earth, your life will fall apart.

If you are truly fortunate, you will wake up one day and find you no longer recognize yourself. And in that instant of existential prosopagnosia, everything around you will shift—infinitesimally, yet just enough to somehow strain the molecular structure of your universe until it disintegrates into a shower of glittering, lethal shards. Your universe will land in a million fragments at your feet and the more you panic and struggle to gather them up and fit them back together into the shape of the universe you once thought was eternal, the more you are left cut and bleeding until you finally realize that the only way to save yourself is to walk away forever.

And this moment–the moment that you walk away, that you close your eyes and jump, that you let go of one trapeze, trusting that you will manage to grasp the next–is both the most terrifying and the most empowering moment you will ever live. If you’re very lucky.

I am living this moment. In my inconsequential reality, my universe has shattered. I have taken a giant step off the path, and this shift in my perspective has obscured the landmarks I once used to as guides and brought into view a completely different set of reference points. It has been a period of one of the steepest learning curves of my life, of reflection and revolution, of destruction and creation, of waging battle and making peace. The dust is settling. I am doing a bit of emotional triage. I am evening out my shifted ballast. I am becoming the person I want to be.

I am eating a lot of mashed potatoes.

Yes, because there have been many lessons learned during this time of excruciating, exhilarating change. I’ve learned that if someone falls into your lap for no apparent reason, go with it. Because, more often than not, there’s a reason. I’ve learned that though you’ve pooh-poohed the notion of finding wisdom from virtual strangers online, sometimes that’s exactly where you will find the wisdom you need. I’ve learned that sometimes the hard part is making a decision, and everything else falls into place once you have. I’ve learned that there is no shame in looking someone in the eye and admitting that you are having a hard time and need help. I’ve learned that we are generally more powerful, more courageous, and more creative than we think we are. And I’ve learned that when you are going through a total life overhaul, a system reboot, a closet clean, a throwing out of baby with bathwater, a part of you still needs to be soothed by the familiar.

In my case, this craving for some tiny part of my life to remain within the safe confines of the known manifested itself in two ways. First, I actually exhumed some cassette tapes of music from my college days. Cassette tapes, people. Suddenly, my house was full of the sounds of Jonie Mitchell and early REM. I found long-forgotten Radiohead albums and mix tapes with Indigo Girls, Smokey Robinson, and Blues Traveller (I have eclectic taste). I had some scratchy Aretha and quirky Lyle and angry Alice in Chains. And, oddly, mixed in with these I had some of my favorite Francesco de Gregori, Vinicio Capossela, Fabrizio de André, and, of course, my beloved Bandabardò.

Second, I started dreaming of—and preparing—dishes I hadn’t even thought about in years. Creamy soups, scalloped potatoes, pot pies, and banana bread galore. I pushed aside my new millenium low fat ethnic whole vegetarian locavore cookbooks and fell in love with the Rombauers and their schoolmarmish, slightly scolding elderly Aunt Irma and Marion tone all over again. Our dinner table starting looking like the set of Leave it to Beaver, as I put meatloaf and tuna casserole and baked beans and pudding on the table. And, oddly, mixed in with these I found myself putting down penne in bianco, minestrina, pappa al pomodoro, and pasta e fagioli like there was no tomorrow.

It was a bit of an epiphany for me to discover what should have been self-evident: after spending almost half my life in Italy, my comfort zone has expanded to include elements of this country, as well. I had somehow presumed that when I fell down and scraped my knee, I would head to the mother who would make me chicken-noodle soup and sing me “Hush, Little Baby” but I found that more often I would head to the mother who would make me pane e olio and sing me “Ninna-nanna”. And that, in itself is comforting. Because perhaps I’ll get lucky again at some point in my life, and find myself starting from tabula rasa…and for a little TLC I won’t have to go far. I’ll have my music, I’ll have my food. I’ll have myself.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


Italy Roundtable: The Fall Museum Crawl

This is the fifth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some fruit rollups, and join in on the conversation.

My favorite season has always been autumn, because I am a nerd. And the favorite season of nerds the world over is fall, because it marks the end of the nerd’s least favorite season:  summer.

Summer is the season of endless, aimless frolicking, frolicking usually involving sports and bikinis, (or–most often–sports in bikinis). Summer is the season of the beach read, the blockbuster movie, the pop anthem. It is the season made for drinking the hottest drink and driving the hottest car and hanging with the hottest crowd. It is, in short, the season which celebrates everything the nerd is not very good at.

Fall—fall, my friends—is the season when order and routine return. It is the season when schools (or–for the older nerd–night courses) begin, the season of baggy sweaters and long walks in the arboretum (nerds like their nature tagged in Latin). Fall is the season of the Nobel prize for literature, the art-house film festival, the symphonic season opener. It is a season made for quiet, contemplative, indoor pursuits during which one is fully clothed and speaking in complete, grammatically correct sentences. It is, in short, the season during which the nerd positively shines.


And one of the nerd’s favorite activities during those rainy, Sunday afternoons in late fall is visiting museums. I love museums. Love them. I grew up in Chicago, which is a city saturated with sprawling, monumental museums. I cut my teeth at the Museum of Science and Industry, with its coal mine and walk-through heart and giant model train, and the Field Museum, with its towering dinosaur skeletons filling the main hall and life-size dusty paleolithic dioramas. (I love the Field Museum so much I actually toyed with the idea of holding my wedding reception there. Alas, nerds are poor. Geeks are the rich ones. They understand computer programming.)

Umbria, of course, can’t hold a candle to Chicago’s museums size-wise; the average Windy City museum covers more square acres than most Umbrian towns. That said, a number of bite-sized local museums have popped up in this region over the past few years that are excellently curated, accessible to English speakers, and well worth the hour or so it will take to visit their singular collections…even for you cool summer people out there.


Casa Museo di Palazzo Sorbello (Perugia)

Palazzo Sorbello

There is something about human nature that draws us to the past. We trawl antique stores, hike the Mayan ruins, pore over archives searching out familiar surnames. We are constantly peering through windows into history, hoping to find some connection between our brief years on earth and the millenia that have come before.

This is especially true about the home-cum-museum. Who doesn’t love to wander through these domestic archaeological sites and learn about the quotidian routines of their occupants, so similar—or, at times, so incredibly removed—from our own?

When I visited the recently opened (and winningly named) Palazzo Sorbello “House Museum” in Perugia, I was fully expecting to be charmed. I envisioned richly furnished rooms (it is a noble family’s Palazzo, after all) arranged in artful domestic tableaux, mannequins posed in period garb, dark corners, a slight musty odor, and lots of dust. I envisioned, in short, the typical small, private, off-the-beaten-track museum.

I was not expecting to be wowed. But I was, and completely enthralled during my two hour tour (the standard visit lasts about half an hour, but I got to talking with their marketing director, Enrico Speranza, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the Sorbello family and their Palazzo and before we knew it….). If a visit to the Palazzo Sorbello is a window into the past, the view from here is one of a family with a long history–uniquely interwoven with that of Italy from the Middle Ages to the 20th century–and with an enduring passion for art and culture.

We began in the extensive library, includes a rare original Encyclopedie Française from the mid-1700s.  From there we spent the better part of the morning viewing their carefully curated selection of landscape paintings and portraits, breathtaking European and Chinese porcelain, a priceless handblown Murano chandelier, and various objects d’epoque.

Perhaps most fascinating was the collection of intricate embroidery produced at the beginning of the 20th century by the Embroidery School founded by the American wife of one of the noble family’s descendants. This enterprising Dame, Romeyne Robert, left her mark on the local economy by enrolling rural Umbrian women in the school, teaching them this disappearing craft, and giving them their first taste of economic independence.

More than a simple time-capsule, Palazzo Sorbello is a living lesson in Italy’s social and economic history and one of the most fascinating museums in Umbria.


Museo della Memoria (Assisi)

Palazzo Vallemani
Via San Francesco, 12
Phone: 075 8197021
Hours: Nov-Feb: 10:30–1:00/2:00–5:00 March, April, May/Sept, Oct: 10:00–1:00/2:30–6:00; June-Aug 10:00–1:00/1:30–7:00

Museo della Memoria

It’s easy to forget, in this religiously homogeneous land where politics, education, holidays, foods, given names, and kitschy tchotkes all seem to revolve around the Catholic church (the fact that I can use a yiddish phrase to describe things like holy water key chains and friar salt and pepper shakers gives me no end of etymological joy), that there are, indeed, other religious communities in Italy.

Jews in Italy have have had a tough time of it for the past two millenia, and the tiny remaining community of 45,000 which still live in the Bel Paese would have been even smaller had it not been for the work of a network of citizens—lay and ordained, private and official—who secretly collaborated under the direction of Catholic Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini and priests Father Rufino Niccacci and Don Aldo Brunacci to harbor and ultimately save more than 300 Jews (most from northern Italy) and other war refugees in the early 1940s.

I, like most local residents, had heard bits and pieces of this story through word of mouth and buzz created with the publication of The Assisi Underground, a 1978 novel built around the true story of this clandestine network. That said, for years the only remaining tangible evidence was the vintage printing press, still bolted to the floor of the typographer workshop-turned-souvenir shop in Piazza Santa Chiara, which had been used by the Brizi family to secretly print false identity cards and other documents, making it possible for Jews both in Assisi and across Italy avoid deportation and imprisonment.

When the building was sold in 2009, the new owners asked the press be removed, which spurred a grassroots movement by locals to create some sort of official display rather than let the last vestige of the Underground be packed away in storage. After a few calls to action in the local paper, I hadn’t heard much else, so figured the momentum had died away and the living memory along with it.

Luckily, I was wrong. Through private and public donations, the Museo della Memoria (Memory Museum) opened in the spring of 2011, and it is startlingly excellent. The four halls are packed with excellently displayed (and translated) letters, documents, photographs, and historical artifacts (many of which revolve around the Brizi’s typography workshop), an in-depth biography of the main characters in the story (including the German Colonel Valentin Müller, Commandant of the city and Catholic, who showed humanity in an inhumane situation), and a video loop of interviews with some of the surviving activists and refugees.

Moving, compelling, and perfectly curated, this jewel of a museum merits a visit. A final note: No Assisan betrayed the Underground and no refugee passing through was captured during its activity. So, the Jews have a debt to the city. And yet…and yet. It was the letter forged by the hand of one of these refugees, fluent in German,  purportedly from Kesselring declaring Assisi an open city, which began the evacuation of German troops under Colonel Müller and quite probably saved Assisi from destruction.

So, who owes whom, really, in the end?


Museo della Canapa (Sant’Anatolia di Narco)

Phone: 0743. 613149 (if you arrive and no one is there, call this number or ask around…the office is down the street)
Hours: Mon closed, Tues-Fri: 9:00-1:00, Tues/Thurs: 3:00-6:00, Sat: 2:30-6:00, Sun: must reserve.

Museo della Canapa

If you think that just one person can’t make much of a difference in this crazy world, listen to the story of a five foot tall, red haired, tinkly-bracelet-and-flowered-poncho-clad dynamo named Glenda Giampaoli. Yep, just like that bad ass of a Good Witch Glenda, who might disarm you with her ready smile and sweet voice but don’t get between her wand and whatever she’s aiming it at.

A textile archaeologist with a soft spot for her home region, Glenda had a dream: to bring to light the rich history of hemp farming and textile production in the Valnerina. And before you start pigeonholing her in with Woody Harrelson and patchouli-scented aging hippies in Berkeley, let me just tell you that hemp was once mainstream in Italy. Extremely mainstream. So mainstream, in fact, that Italy was the second largest industrial hemp producer in the world at the beginning of the 20th century. The staid women’s fashion magazine, Grazia, put out an entire issue in 1940 entitled “The Triumph of Hemp” dedicated to the latest in hemp fabrics and styles. (The lead story begins thus: “Hemp, like a woman, must be treated roughly to render it soft and pliable.” Ahem. Yes, well. We’ve come a long way, baby.)

Then, as Glenda so succinctly puts it, Italy lost the war. History is written by the victors, who also determine the course of the future. As the Allies had huge economic stakes in the success of nylon and other synthetic fibers developed during World War II, hemp was demonized. Polyester was in, hemp was out…and with it a micro-culture and economy dependent upon its production. With an admirable amount of patience and tenacity, Glenda has been working for the past few years to re-introduce hemp farming in the Valnerina and other areas of Umbria (recent EU legislation has begun legalizing the crop) and sensitize the population to the benefits of bringing back this lost product.

Part of her campaign—the most important part, perhaps —has been the establishment of the nano-sized Hemp Museum in the fetching village of Sant’Anatolia di Narco. With a bit of negotiation, flavored with diplomacy, grovelling, determination, and (one can only imagine, in this country where just renewing your driver’s license can seem more complicated than an establishing an international commission on CO2 emissions) quite a bit of luck and goodwill, Glenda was able to retrofit a section of the village’s former city hall to hold an eclectic collection of antique textile and weaving tools and looms and examples of hemp cloth donated by local families and dating from the 1800s.

The museum’s information panels are all excellently translated, but if you’re lucky you may get a tour by Glenda herself, who flavours the visit with local lore and cultural nuance (hemp weaving, for example, was key to the economic independence of women—particularly widows and single women—at the turn of the century, as it was one of the few occupations available which could be pursued without leaving the home). The pride she has in her tiny yet huge triumph of a museum is palpable…and contagious. As I watched her punctuate her impassioned explanations with grand gesticulations while she insisted on showing us “just one more thing…this is really special!” I realized that only a tiny yet huge personality like Glenda could have waved her wand at the disheartening Italian bureaucracy and conjured up this most special museum.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


Back to School: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

This is the fourth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Little Debbie pecan pies, and join in on the conversation.

Back to School

Draw near, draw near, stranger, as I spin you an epic yarn. A timeless story of love and betrayal, of struggle and suspense, of triumph and failure. There are heroes, young friend, and villains galore. I will tell of innocents and schemers, of noble causes and fiendish designs, of the loftiest and the basest of human desires. Draw near, wanderer, and listen to my tale of fate, destiny, and—ultimately—a moral to it all.

Hear me as I sing the tragedy of How My Children Transferred Elementary Schools.

No, wait. Don’t get up. It’s a great story, I swear. It really does have all that stuff in it. Listen, your beer’s on me if you’ll just sit here for ten minutes and hear me out. Ten minutes. Seven. Seven minutes. Ok? Ok.

The school year began here in Umbria this week, and as I lightheartedly dropped my sons off to their second and fifth grade classrooms, I couldn’t help remembering this same time last year. My older son was beginning the fourth grade, and we were both anxious. He had had a particularly tough third year; his favorite teacher had retired after the second grade and he and the new teacher had locked horns for the subsequent nine straight months. I had gone back and forth about simply switching him to the other local elementary school (in Italy you get the same teacher for all five grades of primary school, so if you don’t see eye to eye you are kind of stuck), but had decided to continue where we were (and enroll my younger son in first grade there, as well).

It quickly became clear that something had to give. My nine year old was desperately unhappy, thus we were all unhappy. He started asking me if he could change schools, which gave me pause, as his best friends were all classmates. He was obviously at the end of his rope. So, come January, I took both my sons (the first grader wanted to be with his brother) out of their elementary school and enrolled them in the other public school about half a kilometer away. Thus began a golden period in their lives, and a private hell in mine.

Fine, private hell might be overkill (though I did promise you drama), but let’s just say I was completely blindsided by the social ripples caused by what was, in my mind, a relatively innocuous (and, I may add, completely none-of-anyone’s-business-personal) decision. You see, it slips my mind sometimes that I live in a small town. It’s easy to forget, because Assisi gives the impression—what with the crush of millions of visitors a year—of being a teeming metropolis. But the fact is that only around 1,000 people actually live in the historic center and–of those–999 are all up in your business.

I also tend to underestimate the dark underbelly of small town dynamics because I went to hands down the most awesome, lefty, fun, accepting, smart high school in North America. I realize the correlation may be fuzzy, but from what I understand from friends (and bootleg copies of Glee), the average American high school educates you not only in algebra and creative writing, but also in how to navigate cliques, handle gossip, recognize the mean girls, and generally hone those delicate antennae indipensible in managing the subtleties of social interaction. Because–despite all the romanticizing and idealizing–life in a small town is pretty akin to life in high school, except the median age is higher and the chaos which can be wrought more damaging.

The weeks following the school switch (I should probably add that I had been my sons’ PTA president for six years, so admittedly we weren’t the most low-profile family in the school)–during which a whisper campaign was initiated, teachers I had known for years publicly denounced my decision, families with whom we had travelled and socialized since our children were three years old stopped speaking to me, friends quickly separated themselves into wheat and chaff categories, and acquaintances whom I hardly knew by sight stopped me on the street to chat conspiratorially in the hopes I might let something slip unpolitic enough to stoke the flames of debate at the local cafè—were perhaps the steepest learning curve of my adult life. My kids went back to school, and, in a way, so did I. However, while they stopped shedding tears over their lessons, I began shedding them over mine.

It’s the Economy, Stupid.

Nothing gets people’s dander up like the specter of job loss, an aspect I had naively underestimated when making my decision. Assisi has two elementary schools in the historic center, which is simply mathematically untenable given the size (and age) of the population. This is a known but unspoken truth; every spring when enrollment begins the two schools fight tooth and nail for students, because if they don’t reach a minimum class size teachers are transferred or let go. It’s that simple. So, when students leave—especially students of somewhat outspoken, public, influential families—the school (and their teachers) immediately circle the wagons, and their first priority becomes damage control, spin, and desperate number crunching. Perhaps not the noblest of instincts, but human, nonetheless.

No One is Disinterested.

If there’s one thing you learn very quickly when you move to a small town, it’s that you can’t pick your nose in the car. Because everyone knows you. Even people you don’t know know you. They know you, they know your significant other, they know your boss, they know your cleaning lady, they know your postman. Not only do they know them, they are probably related to them. They may not like them, they may barely speak to them, but if the universal currency of information is on the block, you can be sure that there will be some exchange…and often the heftiest price paid is by you. And in a social crucible where knowledge is power, where gossips wield stunning power, and where—to be honest—very little goes down of particular interest on any given day, even the most banal of events (who had coffee with whom, whose car was seen parked where, whose kids were taken out of one school and enrolled in its rival) acquire the whiff of scandal.

Change is a Big Effing Deal.

The City is all about change. About progress. About evolution. About new horizons and frontiers. The Province is all about tradition. About history. About roots. About stability and comfort-zones. And I like that about the Province; after a life of constant movement and adaptation, I like the sense of past and belonging to a larger social tapestry. I especially like that for my children. That said, just as the dynamism of cosmopolitan life can veer into superficial self-absorption, so can the solidity of country life veer into stodgy mistrust and fear of change. Career transitions are whispered about as if they were some sign of failure, rather than simply that of a wish to try something new. Separations are akin to a death in the family, rather than an opportunity for a new beginning. New hairstyles and hobbies are viewed with raised eyebrows and pursed lips. And a change in schools—even to one that is just a few blocks away, even when the classmates are all friends from preschool, and even when the teachers are familiar faces from around town–is viewed as a traumatic, life-altering folly. (Just for the record, my sons are thrilled with their new school and have been from day one. I should have trusted my intuition and transferred them earlier. Another lesson learned.)

I’ve Been Damned Lucky.

The most positive lesson taken from all of this has also been the hardest to internalize:  gratitude. I have learned to be grateful that I can both enjoy the advantages of living in a small community, yet see beyond it to a bigger picture. I can get past defensiveness and finger-pointing when I feel censured, and take a hard look at myself and the mistakes I’ve made. I have a life that is so stimulating and joyful that I don’t need to pay much attention to the minutiae of my neighbors’ days to fill my own. The deep roots I’ve put down have favored, not stunted, my growth and I see the challenge in change, not just the apprehension. Though I smile and wave and chit-chat and trip my social butterfly way across the piazza, I know who my true friends really are…in Tucson, Bali, Piemonte, California, Castiglione del Lago, Chicago, and—a precious few—here in Assisi,  I have the extraordinary fortune to have a crowd watching my back, supporting without second guessing, and caring without judging.

And I suppose that if there is a moral to this story, it lies here. You can’t appreciate the light until you see the darkness, the loyalty until you feel abandoned, the serenity until you get lost in the chaos. The microcosm of small town society puts this into sharper relief, perhaps, but these lessons are all around us regardless of where we are. Life is full of teachable moments, but we have to show up to class with our minds open, pencils sharp, and pride tucked away in our lockers. Because life is also a tenacious bitch of a professor, and each time you flunk her class you can be sure that you’ll keep finding that same topic covered on the next final exam until you finally—finally—get the answer right.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


Italy Roundtable: Sliding Doors, What-ifs, and the Cross of San Damiano

This is the third installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Cracker Jacks, and join in on the conversation.

My Favorite Work of Art in Italy

If I were to name my favorite work of art in Umbria purely on merit of aesthetic beauty, technical skill, or creative mastery, I would be hard-pressed. From Etruscan stonework dating two hundred years before Christ to the twentieth century avant-garde artist Alberto Burri—this region has been producing breathtaking art for millenia.

Now, if I were to name my favorite piece of art in Umbria purely in its ability to inspire my imagination, give flight to my fancy, move and amuse me, and make me want to sit my butt down in front of the computer on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in July when everyone else is out swimming in the creek to share it with you, there is one piece of artwork that immediately comes to mind.

Surprise! Betcha didn't see this coming.

I like to imagine that there are tens, hundreds, thousands of parallel universes out there, populated with the anti-versions of myself. Every time I find myself at a crossroads in life where I have had to make a choice about which path to take, I like to think that a separate reality splinters off and continues on a different trajectory, spinning out a version of what my life would have been like had I taken that other, rejected road. Each time I’ve been courageous or cowardly, kind or cruel, thoughtful or hasty, a new world has spun away, carrying on it a slightly altered cast of characters and plot line. I step off the walkway, tread on a butterfly, and set off unpredictable chain reactions.

These alternate realities present a fun-house mirror of my world and myself, just distorted enough to be new but just similar enough to be recognizable. And when I’m in line at the post office, or in the dentist’s waiting room, or up in the wee hours of the morning wandering the dark rooms of my house, I like to wonder about these anti-Rebeccas in these parallel universes, and conjecture about their lives there.

In the beginning of the 13th century, young Francesco Bernardone–son of a wealthy merchant in Assisi—decided to abandon his life of luxury and war-mongering for spiritual pursuits. He took to praying in the semi-abandoned country churches around his hometown, and in 1206 knelt before an unremarkeable Romanesque rood cross in the small, humble chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi’s city walls. This icon crucifix, with its 12th century cartoonish Byzantine-style decoration based on the Gospel of Saint John (probably painted by an anonymous Syrian monk), would surely have faded into obscurity had not an extraordinary event taken place. Or, I should say, two extraordinary events:

  1. The cross spoke to Francis.
  2. Francis listened.

A copy now hangs in the church of San Damiano; the original is in the Basilica of Saint Claire

Tradition holds that Francis heard the cross say to him, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin,” three times. Francis did just that…first interpreting the message as a call to restore the neglected San Damiano and Porziuncola chapels and later taking it to mean a tweaking of the Roman Catholic Church itself. In this vein, he founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of Saint Claire and—many hold—became one of the most influential figures in religious history, pioneering virtues of poverty, brotherhood, respect for animals and the environment. He is the patron saint of Italy and his hometown of Assisi is one of the most visited in the country, primarily because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Basilica di San Francesco.

But it could have gone differently.

Francis could have never heard the voice, or never listened. He could have heeded the message, but become demoralized and given up.  He could have stuck to restoring churches (perhaps becoming the patron saint of general contractors) and never founded an Order. He could have continued ministering to the poor and sick and died in obscurity, as so many devout did over the centuries, or simply joined one of the many rich and corrupt orders already thriving in medieval Italy. Catholicism would be fundamentally different (as would many other religions, as Francis–with his spirit of humility and fraternity–is a figure almost universally admired), Italy would be fundamentally different, Assisi would be fundamentally different, and my life (and most likely yours, my friend) would probably be fundamentally different. All this the legacy of one young man and the choices made in one moment of his life.

This is why I—a proud Secular Humanist and largely Non-Lover of Byzantine Art—have always been drawn to San Damiano’s cross which, were it to have a less compelling backstory, wouldn’t draw a second glance. Because when I look at it (it now hangs in the the Cappella del Crocifisso in the Basilica di Santa Chiara here in Assisi), more than making me pause to reflect on beauty, or skill, or genius, I find myself pausing to reflect on choices and consequences, on caution and risk, on sliding doors and what-ifs.

And when I do, I say a little secular prayer to Il Poverello:

Francis, may I have the courage to listen to voices speaking, to walk through doors opening, to take paths beckoning. May I have the wisdom to choose the right voices, the right doors, and the right paths. May I have the serenity to one day stand on this spinning Earth, look at all those countless other planets hurtling past with all those countless anti-Rebeccas standing on them and know that of them all, I would choose to be on this crazy planet living the life of this–at times, crazy–Rebecca.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


Italy Roundtable: Driving in Italy

This is the second installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the first, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Rice Crispy Treats, and join in on the conversation.

Driving in Italy

When “Driving in Italy” was selected as this month’s theme, I have to admit I was a bit nonplussed. Not because I don’t think it’s an interesting topic—indeed, rivers of ink have been spilt discussing the ins and outs of navigating the Bel Paese’s much less Bel Traffico—but because I simply couldn’t think of anything new or compelling to add.

My history of driving here has more or less followed the typical expat trajectory: driving with my American license for the one year legal grace period after relocating, letting those first twelve months pass without getting around to applying for my Italian license, driving for an—ahem—undisclosed period practically illegally, finding religion (in my case, through the nascient sense of responsibility that comes with pregnancy), finally sitting down to study the daunting Italian Driving School Manual (roughly the size of the Manhattan White Pages) and taking the written exam, passing that and taking the practical exam (my oven was full of bun thus that I had to slide the seat back so far I was working the brake pedal with my tippy-toes), passing that and officially becoming a smug licensed driver to all the newly-minted expats who were still back at stage one.

My feeling about driving here is that Italian drivers display roughly the same measure of aggressiveness, attitude, and skill as the Chicago drivers with whom I came of age behind the wheel, the only difference being that they are unlikely to resolve traffic altercations with automatic weapons.

And then I had an inspiration. A creative epiphany. A comic stroke of genius. I would write a haiku about driving in Italy! It would be hilarious. In an ironic hipster sort of way.

Coleridge’s knock at the door arrived in the form of the realization that I’m not smart enough to write a haiku about driving in Italy, ironic or not. (I was so enamored with the idea that I was momentarily tempted to have someone else write the haiku for me. However, after a quick reality check, I decided that though I haven’t signed any sort of contract with my fellow Roundtable bloggers, my gut feeling is that farming out the second post in the series to a ghost writer is smack in the middle of the ethical grey area and would probably speed my inevitable ousting.) So, no haiku.

Serendipity being what it is, however, the same afternoon in which I discovered I am a literary dunderhead I ran into an old friend who told me he’d been spending his evenings in the garage restoring his father’s vintage Vespa. I realized that despite having lived Italy for almost 20 years, I had never driven this icon of Italian culture and history. And, boom, there it was. I was going to drive a Vespa.

I challenge you to look upon this and not smile. It's like a smile machine on two wheels.

I may lack the basics for composing poetry, but I do have access to the basics for driving a Vespa: my friend, Claudia, who rents out bright yellow scooters from her “Vespa Oasis” on the shores of Lake Trasimeno. When I called her up, she said, “Sure! Stop by anytime and I’ll loan you one for the day. You know how to drive a Vespa, right?”


Well, a writer can only have so many knocks interrupting the creative flow before she starts to take extreme measures, so I did what was only necessary. I lied.

“Sure! I mean, a long time ago. Long. Probably rusty, but it’s just like riding a bike, right? It’ll come right back to me. A snap. I’ll be fine. No worries. Be there on Monday at nine. Kaythanksbye!”

(Sorry, Claudia. I know you’re only finding out about this now.)

Huh. How hard could it be?

Huh. How hard could it be?


It turns out that Claudia is right about checking first with drivers about their experience, because though the average Italian manages to navigate a scooter through Roman traffic whilst smoking, talking on a cell phone, and balancing his entire nuclear family and their weekly grocery purchases on the back with effortless finesse, apparently it is a talent included in the Italian genetic package that the rest of humanity—or, at least, me–lacks. To wit, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Further complicating the matter, when you hop on and buzz out of the Vespa Oasis toward Castiglione del Lago (Luckily I faked it enough to convince Claudia that I was good to go. Sorry, Claudia. I owe you a drink.) you undergo an immediate baptism by fire: the ring road around Lake Trasimeno, which has a heavy, steady traffic flow. After about ten minutes of erratic weaving, sounding the horn instead of the turn signal, braking instead of accelerating, and taking bugs in the teeth (I had forgotten to lower the visor on my helmet and was too terrified to let go with one hand to do it while driving), I turned off at a scenic overpass and realized I had my shoulders up around my ears, my elbows out like chicken wings, and my chin resting on my sternum. This was no fun.

The scenic overlook where I stopped to take stock and rethink my plan of attack.

Luckily, Claudia is not only cautious but also well organized and supplies maps and itineraries. I had envisioned toodling around the perimeter of the lake (the most popular itinerary), but upon further thought realized a) I didn’t really care that much about going around the lake since I’ve already done that drive and b) I was very close to the turn off for Panicale and Paciano, two hilltowns I had never visited and that were along a much quieter country road.

With newly gathered courage, I jauntily flipped down my visor, sounded my horn-uh-put on my turn signal, had a near miss with a Peroni truck (Sorry, Claudia. I’ll make it up to you.), and was off.

It became immediately and dramatically clear that I had chosen the right road. The gently climbing country highway winding its way to Panicale was deserted, so it took me just a few minutes to feel comfortable with my new ride and relax enough to enjoy the lovely countryside and views of the lake below. In fact, I was almost disappointed when I arrived at the city gate leading to Panicale’s pretty piazza less than 15 minutes later. I did need to fill up the old cappuccino tank, however, so I pulled in for a break. And quickly learned two things:

  1. If you are one of those people who frets about blending in, roaring into a quiet, provincial piazza on a shiny Vespa the color of egg yolk with little duckie stickers decorating it and proceding to make it very clear to one and all that you have no effing idea how to put the kickstand up may not be for you.
  2. Old geezers love Vespas. Love them. Crowd around you and regale you with stories of their first Vespas, which leads into stories of their first love, which leads into stories of their subsequent marriage, which leads into stories of their grandchildren, which leads into snapshots being busted out and compared. Which leads to a much longer cappuccino stop than intended.

The short drive between Panicale and Paciano was one of the prettiest, and I was finally relaxed enough to enjoy it.

I finally did break away and continued the short drive along the tree-lined lane to the tiny medieval walled village of Paciano. Map consulting–aided by a quick gelato–ensued, and I decided to dive into the uncharted (for me) territory to the north, trying to make Castiglione del Lago by lunchtime. It was perfect…the hills were just hilly enough and the curves just curvy enough to really start having fun on my trusty Vespa and I began to understand why the scooter has had such staying power over time. The softly undulating countryside (Tuscany is just a few kilometers from here, and the landscape reflects that) is a patchwork of tilled fields, vineyards, and woods and there was almost no traffic as I buzzed through tiny hamlets like Villastrada and Vaiano, Gioiella and Pozzuolo.

Choices, choices. Ah, what the hell...left.

The thrill of the open road.

My frequent stops to snap pictures (and dig the insects out of my cleavage…next time no V-neck t-shirts) meant that I barely made it to Castiglione before it was too late to grab a plate of pasta. I chose an outside table where I could enjoy my lunch while keeping my cheery Vespa in view, and gazed upon it with newfound affection.

“Damn,” I thought. “It sure is lucky that I can’t write a haiku.”


Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


Italy Roundtable: Why I Write About Italy

This is the first installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. I am very much enjoying my time here while I can, because in just a few short months my fellow participants will realize that I am the millstone standing between them and fame, at which point I will quietly fade into obscurity and remain the subject of myth and conjecture for generations, much like the fifth Beatle.

Our topic this month is “Why I Write About Italy”. So pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Chex Mix, and join in on the conversation.

Why I Write About Italy

“Write what you know,” they say.

They also say, “Use correct spelling and punctuation”. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in almost two decades of living in this benign anarchy known as Italy, it’s that there are certain rules which absolutely must be observed in any circumstance lest you unwittingly release the winds of hell, destruction, or—god forbid—brutta figura (i.e.: when shaking hands in a crowd, never reach across another person’s outstretched arm, which brings on the evil eye and/or plagues of grasshoppers) and there are certain rules which are discretionary (i.e.: Red means stop. Green means go.).

To say I write about Italy because I know Italy would be folly, of course. Italy—much like Italian, theoretical mathematics, and parenting—is a field in which the only thing you every truly know is this: The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know jack. Knowing this captivating country is as daunting—and, ultimately, impossible—as trying to frame a river. Italy rushes past, churning up sand and bubbling over boulders, changing its path according to history, trend, and whim, alternatively drying up and flooding the plain, and confounding anyone who tries to navigate its changeable waters.

I don’t know Italy, and never will. But I do know some things about my corner of Italy—Umbria–and my experience living here as an American expat, married to an Italian, raising two sons, and running a business. And that’s what I write.

Umbria is Changing

The world is changing, and Umbria along with it. But the changes this rural region has gone through over a single generation took most of the western world a plodding two hundred years. My husband has gone from having no electricity, indoor plumbing, or telephone in the late 1960s to having wifi and solar energy in 2011. He remembers harvesting grain with a thresher powered by a hand-cranked motor, piling haystacks two stories high, and walking to a schoolhouse with all five elementary grades in a single room.

Clearly, modernization is positive, but has also brought with it a certain loss of traditions and unraveling of social fabric. The countryside has emptied out, as have many historic centers, and soulless apartment blocks have replaced courtyards and piazze. Outdoor markets and tiny specialized shops have succumbed to shopping centers and box stores. Backyard wood-burning ovens and cold January days of curing prosciutto and salame can’t compete with the convenience of industrial bakeries and butchers.

And so I grasp on to these disappearing vestiges of the slower, richer (though, certainly, smellier and grimier) Umbria…I try to hold on to these wisps of memory like a child grasping to catch fog in his hand. I try to stop time for just a minute, just 500 words, just enough to remember the torta, the Cantamaggio, the hog butchering, the artisans, the people and their lives before there’s no one left who can.

Italy is Demanding

Diego to my Frida, Ted to my Sylvia: Italy exalts and rarifies me, stripping me to my creative and artistic core, teaching me the worth of beauty, time, and love. The next day–hour, moment?—Italy exhausts and defeats me, exasperating me with demands and accusations, making me long for escape. Italy is a demanding lover and I am hopelessly in its thrall.

But instead of a legacy of jarringly intimate paintings or confessional poems, I find relief in leaving a breadcrumb trail of reminders. I write about what I love about Umbria, about Italy, about my life here because I know there are times–many times–when I need to page through these mental photographs like an unhappy wife who studies her wedding album trying to recapture what it was that made her fall in love in the first place.

And so I visit the villages, study the art, hike the mountains, discover the workshops, dance at the festivals, learn the recipes, drink the wine, banter with the people. I jealously hoard these stories –snapshots of a courtship—until I find I need to take them out of their dusty shoebox, spread them out on the kitchen table, and say, “See? Look how happy we are here. This was when we first met. We should really go back there and visit again.”

I am Dying

Pipe down, we’re all dying. Sooner or later we’ll be gone, and our children and grandchildren will be left with very little information that goes deeper than what is recorded in the municipal archives. Our inner lives, our impressions, our decision-making processes, our visceral hate of cilantro…anything that fills in the sketchy outlines of our life will be precious to them.

How I would love to know what my great-grandmother was thinking all those weeks on the ship from Greece, what she made of her first hot dog, how long it took her to wrap her head around English, what she missed the most from Mykonos, what she loved most about America, why—oddly–her favorite snack was Dutch windmill cookies. But I will never know those things, because Yia Yia didn’t write them down.

And so I write. I write for Umbria, past and future. I write for myself, head over heels. I write for my children, who will wonder.

This is why I write about Italy; this is what I know.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.