Monday, June 7, 2010

I have been a lucky little sucker in my life, and that's not just window dressing. Consider: I'm a hick from the swamps of West Tennessee who happened to have a little talent and a passion for ancient cultures and the dogged persistence to follow that passion. There have been some disappointments along the way, but still, I've had the opportunity to live in a foreign country not once but twice in my lifetime. I don't mean visit, you understand, I mean live, albeit briefly, and there is a quantum difference in those two experiences. This trip has brought up wonderful memories of the first excursion to Italy back in '95. Here I was, a college instructor at UNCG with a fancy-shmancy degree from a fancy-shmancy university, and I'd never been to the classical world. Heck, I'd never been out of the country! So I proposed to my beloved that we spend a summer in Italy. I swear I think that incredible woman would follow her crazy husband to the gates of Hell, probably complaining all the time that I should have taken another route. We blew Amy's college fund (Hey, she's done well at Beulah's School of Cosmetology!) and spent a chunk of the summer in Tuscany. We were lucky that we stumbled across a travel agent (look it up online, young people) who was a retired shoe wholesaler. Now, for the benefit of any male readers (women just know these things), northern Italy is the shoe Mecca of the world, so this guy had traveled all over Italy from the Alps down to Rome. We explained our crazy ambition and our excruciatingly limited budget, and Bob took it as a challenge and went to work. First he found us a place to stay, an eighteenth-century villa that had been subdivided into condos for tourists. It's what the Italians call an agriturismo and it's the government's way to help Italian farmers stay on their land and maintain a semblance of a traditional way of life. There are generous tax advantages, the main qualification for which is that the facility has to be on a working farm. Our agriturismo was the Villa Saulina. It's still around and I highly recommend it, if you're interested. They are some wonderful people. So, this was way back before renting such places was a trendy thing to do in the US, and the price was dirt cheap, I'm telling you. My recollection is $600 per week. You can't rent a condo at Myrtle Beach for that, and you have to put up with drunk teenagers and rednecks there!

Our little apartment was actually in one of the old agricultural buildings, but don't think barn. This was an old three-story masonry building, with walls three feet thick, which had been lovingly decorated in the stylish way only the Italians can do with such panache. Beautiful living area with open beams, a tile floor, a sofa which pulled out to make a bed for five-year-old Amy, a truly functional kitchen, God as my witness, in an armoire, and a dining area with a window that looked out above the terrazza and pool over the Tuscan hills to a fifteenth-century church and, on a good day, to the barely perceptible dome of the Duomo of Florence on the distant horizon. The bedroom was small but equally stylish and had the same priceless view. And all this plunk in the middle of a working vineyard, some 13 miles west of of the city. Heaven.

As to airfares, the cheapest commercial airfare we could find was $1150, and that in 1995 dollars, mind you, so that was impossible. But Bob found us a charter fare (that's another adventure, but maybe later) for $550 per person, and the trip was a go.

That trip was memorable for so many reasons, but I suppose most importantly because we were able to share it with daughter Amy, and, unfortunately, she has to stay stateside and work this time around while her prodigal parents run off to cavort. Mind you, I'm not entirely sure how much Amy derived from the experience. Back home and after the dust settled a bit, her teacher parents were eager to learn what their little prodigy had enjoyed most about the trip: the incredible architecture, the fabulous art, the food, the thrill of a new culture. Amy furrowed her brow in concentration and then announced confidently, "Pijjins!" Oh, great, all she'll remember twenty years from now is chasing the @#$#% pigeons across half the piazze in Italy! OK, ok, she's only five, let's try again: "So what did you like second best?" More serious concentration, and then the oracular response: "Horthiz!" She had a lisp at the time that her father thought was adorable...up to that very moment. Oy! So much for culture. But I know that somewhere in that little subconscious my daughter was learning to embrace things new and different and to look upon the world, not as foreign, but as another wonderful neighborhood to explore.

So this trip is a bit of a sentimental journey. And yet it is perhaps more precious still. First, if we were people of great means, we'd easily be able to make the trip, but would we ever be able to appreciate what an incredible opportunity it is if it weren't so far beyond our limited means but for the grace of a wonderful friend? No doubt Donald Trump travels to places I'll never see, but does he really enjoy any of them as much as we will this trip, knowing what the odds against our making it are? The other factor which points up the preciousness, if you will, of the trip is our age. There is a very good chance that Sandy and I will not have another such opportunity again, though I am hopeful we will. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not being morbid. Sandy and I have enjoyed robust health for the last ten years, almost disgustingly so. I'm a youthful 60 and she a youthful, uh, thirty-nine....ish. Still, we have enough close friends who are dealing with various health issues to know that it truly is luck, and maybe some good genes. We both abused our bodies pretty badly in our wild and reckless youths. If that weren't enough, when we were in Italy last summer my brother-in-law died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 58. My poor, sweet, sensitive niece had to come into her parents' bedroom to confirm that her father was dead...on Father's Day. Then when we returned, we went to visit my best friend of forty-odd years and learned when we arrived in Nashville that he had terminal cancer. We had a wonderful time in spite of the pall--just being in the presence of those precious people is food for the soul--and Steve and I had a chance to say openly things which guys are so often reluctant to say, even when they know they should. On the way home we stopped by Kingsport to visit Sandy's family and pick up some furniture for Amy and headed home three days later. I was driving the rental truck and Sandy leading in the car; we had made it all the way to Winston when Sandy called sobbing into the cell and told me to pull over: despite being told that he had several months to say his goodbyes, Steve was dead of a brain hemorrhage three days after I last saw him. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think of that sweet soul without a smile and a tear.

So, Fates, please don't willfully misunderstand me; I'm not bragging on my health, I know perfectly well that every day after 55 has been a gift. If I had any doubts, studying a classical culture where, we think, the average life expectancy was something less than thirty years has cured that. On the other hand, if it's all the same to you, dear Fates, I wouldn't mind a few more years, so, Ladies, keep right on weaving that tattered old tapestry if you please, and Atropos, I know how busy you are with those shears ("Snip, snip snip, all I ever do is snip, snip, snip!") so feel free just to pass me over as long as you like. In the meantime, I promise I will not take a single minute for granted, and I will raise a toast every day in Italy to those who would and/or should be there with me but are not. And that includes you, gentle reader.


  1. Oh Dave, what a sweet remembrance of Steve. I'm so happy we got to visit with you guys that last week. You are so right about each day being a blessing to cherish--enjoy each one of them and think of Steve's favorite toast when you have that glass (or bottle!)of Italian wine in that beautiful countryside. I love you both!

  2. Thanks, Carol, I will and another for you! And don't forget to reserve a slot for next summer!