Dispatch from Abroad: online supplement
We shared a glimpse of the Shields family’s six weeks in Italy in the October/November 2022 print issue of the Decatur Magazine. If you’re looking for the rest of the story, you’ve come to the right place.
Dispatch From Abroad — “La Vita è Bella”
Words by Zach Shields, Photos courtesy of the Centro Studi Italiani
Maybe you’re going about this the wrong way.
Last dispatch: Northern Scotland in March (Average temperature: 42 degrees, rain, sleet)
Current dispatch: Eastern Italy in July (Average temperature: 96 degrees, unrelenting sun)
Verifying this assertion is Magnus, a Danish customs officer reviewing the family passports in Copenhagen. It’s June 25 and you are making your way southward.
“The WHOLE family?” Magnus clarifies, eyebrows fully arching. “To Italy? For six weeks?”
“Yes. Does that sound like a good idea?” you want to know.
“That sounds like you will be hot,” he says. He shakes his head. He stamps six passports.
But hey. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.
You land in Bologna. There is indeed heat, immediate and insistent, even in early morning. As you emerge from the airport it melts over your head like honey.
You promptly discover a few other things. For instance, there are two kinds of Italian cab driver:
1) The Best
2) The Worst
Occasional tweeners drive politely and pass a few pleasantries. But it’s typically a binary proposition. Either they huff about your luggage then drive on in stony silence. (Who could have predicted six travelers would have six suitcases when they get off a plane? Though to be fair, son Hadrian also packed his guitar. But still.) Or they are cheerful and accommodating and attempt, in some gradation of English, to share about their birthplace and their grandmother and why their hometown is superior to anywhere else in Italy. They also share — especially — the best places in the city to eat.
Your first, Bartolo, is among The Best. He is a Bologna native and, oddly, a fan of the Boston Red Sox. Your second is The Worst, is terribly put out by the suitcases, and shall not be named.
Your third driver is the BEST of The Best. Armando meets you at the Pesaro train station and transports you to Urbania, your home base for the summer. He communicates as best he can. He narrates regarding the landscape, capably navigates twisting roads, and is impeccably polite. Steep slopes rise and fall and give way gradually to low, rolling fields of wheat, gold against the green of the tree line.
Your four semesters of collegiate Italian were painfully long ago, leaving your lexicon inadequate to follow in full. But Armando is so earnest and so diligent and so kind that you feel compelled to try and keep up. Your family, as a group, grimaces at your attempts.
But soon enough you reach Urbania, inland off the Adriatic Sea. Over the next month, this town of 7,000 will come to feel like home.
Your first impression is of all the cobblestones. Cobbles everywhere. How many hands and how many years did it take to lay these ubiquitous cobbles?
Same with the bricks, which is kind of a given, per the “Rome wasn’t built in a day” aphorism. (And though this isn’t Rome, there is still a heck of a lot of brick.)
But the cobbles are what get you. You’re trained to look up to see the sights. The patterned stones demand that you look down. They’re smooth and rounded, polished to a gloss by centuries of foot traffic. And they see a lot of foot traffic. Everybody walks everywhere. Cars —mostly the size of golf carts — sit parked in groups, but citizens who aren’t afoot mostly pedal bikes instead.
Even your thoroughly American family will adjust, quickly, to a half-mile trek down from your hilltop house, then the corresponding half-mile back up.
“I was so scared when we came up the road,” Caius admits upon arrival. “I was sure that shack with the ladders in the yard was ours. I’m thinking, ‘What has Mom gotten us into?’”
Instead, your place is postcard-perfect, a nineteenth-century stone farmhouse complete with cobbled courtyard. It’s a step back in time, set on a gravel road above a little valley. Below the house a mare and her foal and its sire sun themselves. Indoors, an exhibit of ancient iron implements hangs on first-floor entry walls.
“Why are you surprised by this?” asks his twin, Hadrian. “You knew she would pull it off.”
Their mother, Julienne, is notorious for biting off enormous chunks of life. Then she manages —miraculously — to season those servings for consumption. In the past three months she’s made separate international expeditions to the Saudi Arabian Royal Grounds, Sweden, Finland, Iceland. Now her whole family is in tow to the Mediterranean.
Queried for her thoughts on the accommodations, Josie, a natural pragmatist, shrugs.
“This is great,” she answers. “Also, I made myself set low expectations.”
Josie, a teacher-in-training, will tutor 9-year-old Noah for the summer. He has Down syndrome, along with a heaping dose of the attendant willfulness. His current favorite pastime is placing people under arrest. Their offenses are identifiable only by him.
“Oh! Look behind you!” he calls, pointing. An iron rail on a landing is just perfect for a prison. Josie redirects him, for the moment, to a game of hide-and-seek.
Mario and Anna are the septuagenarian couple who lease you the house. He smiles affably but speaks zero English as he putters around, tinkering with the power box and moving chairs on the patio. She communicates with a blend of gentle nods and gestures. Anna indicates that the family has owned this villa for “cent’anni” — a hundred years. She chuckles as Noah’s toys emerge from his suitcase. She rolls indulgent eyes when these promptly scatter across the tiles. They have, she communicates, many grandchildren. She’s accustomed to domestic clutter.
Things You Can Do Without
It’s startling to discover what you don’t need.
You don’t need a car when everything is walkable. You don’t need a television when there are countless card games to be played. You don’t need a giant fridge when the market’s a daily routine. You don’t need a dishwasher when the family is all at home to lend a hand.
You learn the ins and outs of life without air conditioning. In the morning you swing shut the wooden shutters to stave off the heat. At sundown you open them to admit a cool evening breeze. You do have a washer, but you hang your laundry on the line.
Curiously, there is no couch. You could do with a couch. But you make do with reading or naps in your bedroom. Caius is creative about his lounging arrangements. Three wooden chairs in a row permit him to stretch out, mostly fully, for a change of pace with napping arrangements.
Another thing you don’t need: COVID-19.
Julienne draws the short straw within the first four days of arrival. “Non è buono,” as our new friends put it. (Though it could be worse; the rest of the family tests clear.) Isolation is not an ideal way to kick off the stay. But Julienne adopts a stoic mindset, deciding that if you’re stuck in a house, you might as well be stuck in a house with a view like this.
Plus, when you’re on an excursion all summer, it’s less demoralizing to lose a handful of days. Julie has been to Urbania multiple times before. She insists a long-term stay is the only way to learn about a place. So in that sense, there’s room for optimism.
Some things you learn quickly, such as becoming reacquainted with sweat. When you’re out and about there’s no way to avoid it. The U.S. conditions you to temperature-controlled cars, then 10 seconds on the sidewalk to reach an air-conditioned office. As you become accustomed to it here, you recall that perspiration is how the body moderates its operations.
Consequently, life here is arranged to beat the heat. Citizens emerge early in the day. Some sit on benches in the well-groomed central park. Others push “bambini” in strollers past the marble fountain.
Strong, dark coffee is a staple of the morning. The Bar Centrale and Caffe’ Del Teatro Pasticceria occupy opposite sides of the main piazza. These serve as the two gathering spots for people easing into the day. The former draws a young set and plays continuous Italian pop music. A particular song tops the summer charts, playing every hour or so. The latter bistro caters to an older, more traditional crowd. They relax beneath umbrellas at small aluminum tables, sipping espresso and poking at pastries. Above them, the Teatro Bramante opera house offers its shade. It’s an imposing structure that sits just as idly in the morning sun, watching as the world wakes. In a month, a touring troupe will stage “The Marriage of Figaro” here.
People drift off to their jobs as other shops begin to open. They will work until midday, then find lunch or head home for it. Every business closes its doors around 1 p.m. Nothing will re-open until 4:30 p.m.
This is a surprise to most American visitors. Of the 21 small cafes in town, a few remain open to prepare for the evening rush, but these too sit mostly empty. Staff at spots like Caffè del Corso are affable about accommodating those who linger with laptops; but they generally expect you’ll sit quietly as you access the internet. Some serve small plates of antipasti with drinks throughout the afternoon, but restaurants don’t seat for full menus until 7:30 p.m. or later. All through the week, families eat out past 10 p.m.
For most people the interim accommodates a traditional “riposino” — an afternoon nap adopted to escape the day’s most intense sun. These quiet hours rejuvenate the population to reemerge in the cooler hours to finish business and prepare for a late meal.
It feels like a pattern ingrained over centuries. Some of Urbania’s structures predate Columbus. The town has had time to find its own internal rhythm, and soon you fall into the tempo of life in a place that moves at its own idyllic pace. Take family dinners. At home in the U.S., with comings and goings and school and work, family dinners have gotten rarer and rarer as the boys get set for college. Here, the cooking process returns to ritual. Every other night you eat in, then on the alternate you eat out. But either way you all eat together. You recall how much you miss it.
A prime virtue of existing as “citizens” rather than “tourists” is that everyone quickly comes to know you. Your family of six is easy to spot. The twins are taller than nearly anyone in town. Josie’s deeply red hair gets a lot of looks, unusual as it is here. This makes Noah inordinately happy. He likes to show her off.
Noah also garners a lot of independent attention. Max, an older Italian youth with Down syndrome, makes daily rounds on his bike all over town. He’s a community fixture, and every door is open to him. Businessmen stop what they’re doing to speak with him. He throws an arm over their shoulders to confer. Every café has a Coke or lemonade ready for him.
So people nod appreciatively when they see a smaller version offer the same smile. Noah knows no strangers. Louis, an amateur boxer, is an ever-present face behind the counter at Bar Centrale. He quickly names his new friend “little buddy” and pinches Noah’s nose or ruffles his hair on arrival. Selecting a gelato flavor marks a serious moment in Noah’s daily routine. Louis treats it with the proper gravity, solemnly accepting the euros offered in exchange.
Once Julie emerges from isolation, she becomes a familiar figure beneath the umbrellas at the local cafés. Hammering away at her laptop or talking on the phone, she blends into town as though born here. For your part, you promptly become an eccentric. You habitually hide from the sun beneath a Scottish fishing cap. Soon your nickname is “L’uomo Con il Capello” — The Man with the Hat. (Though you do once hear someone whisper “Indiana Jones.”)
However you are perceived by the natives, the thing that binds people most closely is the ritual of food. Urbania’s numerous restaurants offer fare from traditional Italian to sushi. Pizza is a staple, with an unobtrusive crust serving as delivery method for myriad variations. It’s more like ordering complicated pie than pizza in the American sense. You consume it using knife and fork.
Early in your stay an elderly man on a blue bike recruits you to try Underground Pizza. You follow him — with some trepidation — to a steep stairwell leading down beneath an alley.
“This is either going to be great, or we’re never getting out of here alive,” Hadrian observes.
It turns out to be the first one. You, along with Hadrian and Josie, are the only ones in the place. The owners are absolutely bent on providing you with an experience that makes you feel like family. They also offer karaoke. You keep threatening to sing karaoke. They keep promising to hook it up. You do not sing karaoke. Your excuse is that they have YouTube karaoke rather than an “authentic” karaoke program. You feel you occupy the moral high ground here.
Weeks later, with the full family now present, you attempt to lure the visiting opera troupe into the fray. Unfortunately, they are “saving their voices.” You are beyond disappointed. But not enough to step on stage.
Your fifth night you discover what becomes your favorite establishment. Ristorante Pizzeria La Loggia has a long, low overhang extending out over a deck with tables along the wall. (Loggia is “covered porch.”) It sits parallel to a narrow street only passable by pedestrians. Your sliced steak with rosemary is a magnificent revelation after the strain of travel and settling in. It is possible your sigh of appreciation draws curious looks from neighboring tables. (Caius says the sigh 100 percent draws looks from neighboring tables.)
You’re attended by the world’s kindest waitress, Elisa. She works alongside the world’s second-kindest waitress — also an Elisa. Later in the night you and the twins and Josie encounter them at the wine bar, alongside Michael, the head La Loggia chef and proprietor. His English is understandable. What begins as a thank-you-for-an-excellent-dinner drink ends several hours and many laughs and much good conversation later. You are fast friends and will eat there each week for the next six. On your last night, they will embrace you and Noah in front of the whole restaurant. Michael will come out from the kitchen to express dismay that the time has passed so quickly. They want to know when you’ll return.
“This is how it is here,” says Martial, a giant bear of a man who runs the boxing club. He was born a Basque (in Spain) but has owned restaurants in Switzerland and lived 10 years in Florida. “You do not find this in France,” he says. “Or in Switzerland. But here they are very welcoming. Here, you become friends very quickly. Even the Spanish are not so open.”
He and his wife, Robi, returned here to her birthplace because they appreciate the pace. She owns a tattoo shop and exudes a quiet charm. Her soft-spoken manner is an absolute counter to his exuberance. She has no tattoos. He has dozens and wears an Urbania Fight Club T-shirt with flip-flops. You feel you know him five minutes into conversation. He becomes your unofficial advisor on All Things Italian.
When you and Julienne and Josie visit Robi’s shop a few days later, it seems less like a tattoo parlor than an art gallery or spa. Everything is tidy and inviting. Above the couch is a painting with a blindfolded woman, beneath her the words “Blind Faith.” This feels perfect for customers, as well as people willing to wander a foreign country for an entire summer.
Robi says Italy is the most tattooed nation on the planet, so this was a good place to open her business. Hearing this, you begin to notice that most of the populace under 60 shows off some ink.
Martial’s assertion about the friendliness of the locals also proves uniformly true. Luna (“the Moon”) is in her 50s and operates the rustic wine bar. After your first visit she embraces you warmly each occasion thereafter. She comes around the counter and kisses both cheeks and ushers you to wicker seating on the patio. Boards of antipasti appear in an instant. It seems that on each of the bills she charges a little less than the real amount.
It’s possible this open welcome is because there are so few tourists. Urbania is somewhat remote and isn’t connected by rail. Without a car the only way in or out is by bus, 20 minutes distant to the much larger town of Urbino, which attracts visitors to the Renaissance Ducal Palace. Peglio sits on high hills above Urbania, a smaller village that feels forgotten by time. The best way to it is on foot.
Situated as it is, your adopted city feels safely removed from the more commercial parts of a country elsewhere inundated with sightseers.
All of This Said …
… there are other visitors from abroad. Most of them, however, aren’t American. A majority are hosted by Centro Studi Italiani, a culture and language immersion school operated by the Pasotto family.
Giovanni Pasotto is an Italian-born Millikin University alum who oversees Centro activities alongside his mother and father. His sister Francesca manages the business office, which goes out of its way to ensure that visitors connect to authentic Italian experiences.
Josie and the twins take language classes in the mornings and in the evening engage in other options, such as a ceramics workshop. Centro manages housing and curates cooking classes, wine and truffle tastings, and art sessions presented by local talents. A regular excursion schedule provides visiting students the opportunity to travel to other cities throughout the region.
Entering the third week, Julienne has colleagues from the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship in for a 10-day stay exploring agriculture ventures. Centro Studi Italiani designs a four-day tour of the Food Valley — a section of Emilia-Romagna revered for its balsamic vinegar, parmesan, prosciutto and wine production.
Centro’s working relationships provide access to sites that devote remarkable artistry to their products. Modena’s balsamic producers walk guests through each step of the decades-long, centuries-old process. Salumi Leonardi offers a look at the salting and aging process for all manner of pork. Parmigiano Reggiano made at 4 Madonne Caselficio dell’Emilia is among the most valued in the world, with single wheels aged 80 months priced at $600 apiece and up. The Agriturismo Podere Diamante and Corte d’Albo vineyards provide vistas and meals every bit as appealing as the Lambrusco vintages for which they are famous. These family operations represent generational small businesses that maintain traditional practices yet manage to compete capably with larger commercial producers.
At the close of the Food Valley tour, you detour to Venice and Padua, the northernmost leg of your trip. Returning from the foray, you realize that Urbania really has come to feel like home.
All of THAT Said…
Urbania is situated in Le Marche region, between the Apennine Mountains and Adriatic Sea. Everything on this side of the country is near enough that you can visit other spots and return the same day. To the east, Pesaro and Cattolica boast beaches. Most offer umbrellas and shower stations for a fee. (And every city or town, no matter the size, offers ample options for Captain Gelato.)
Umbria is mountainous and lies westward. The air is 10 degrees cooler. This course leads down into Tuscany on the opposite coast, where the younger family members visit Florence.
Passing from place to place, the most important thing to recall is that Italy has historically been comprised of city-states. They were not unified until 1861 — and even today they maintain this sense of independence, with culture and manners and even dialects differing widely from place to place.
On July 2, you and Hadrian venture to Siena to witness the Palio, an 800-year-old horse race run in the city’s central piazza. It’s a violent affair, with a crowd boisterous enough to remind you of Pamplona. Formerly, the race’s outcome determined which contrada (neighborhood) exerted political control for the year. The 17 modern contrade still take fierce pride in the tradition. Ten are drawn by lot to compete in each of two runnings, one in July and another in August.
Though it’s not the running of the bulls, before the race commences a jockey is carried past you on a stretcher. There are four or five false starts. The race goes off an hour and a half late. Because Hadrian has the dumbest good luck in the world, you are standing with the “contrada Drago” (“the Dragon”), which wins this running. The neighborhood explodes. You are carried along with the tide as lights go on and drums pound through the night. The other neighborhoods go dark and silent.
You carry the echo of Siena’s drums through sleepy villages, back to Urbania, and later on to Rome as you prepare to depart at the end of summer. In the back of your head, this seems like an apt representation of your stay: within one city, itself unique within a diverse set of cities, exist these separate neighborhoods with their own churches and traditions and superstitions.
This thought remains with you as you bid goodbye to the Pasottos and the haunts you have come to know and the faces that have become familiar. Armando takes you to the train station and buys you coffee and then he too is gone.
You feel the difference most acutely when you reach Rome. It’s a city of the world. To you, it does not even feel Italian. You walk in the ruins and it seems they are their own separate universe.
Caius is named for Gaius Julius Caesar, Hadrian for Emperor Hadrian. (Their mother studied the classics.) In Vatican City there is a marble bust strongly resembling Caius. It turns out to be his namesake. Hadrian’s Tomb is gated, but our Hadrian finds it suitably impressive. The Pantheon and Forum and Palatine Hill leave you pondering the roots of Western society. The Colosseum feels a little less colossal than you pictured, but still makes you shiver. They shush you in the Sistine Chapel. You are awed by St. Peter’s Basilica. A little way downhill you stop to eat. For the first time in Italy, your waiter strongly implies that you provide a tip, which is not customary. You realize how much Rome caters to Americans.
Side note: The boys encounter NBA player Cole Anthony while waiting in line for the Vatican museums. They take selfies. This is probably not the absolute highlight of the trip for them. But it’s right up there.
These observations aside, you spend an enjoyable four days in an Airbnb that feels like the lap of luxury. On the last morning, you take a train, all six of you, to Anzio Beach. Nero kept a summer home here, now eroded into ruins. Your grandfather landed here in World War II. His division hid in caves for weeks, pinned down by German snipers. Eventually they made their way up through the trap to Rome and into Switzerland and Germany. When you walk into Anzio you meet a Ukrainian woman whose brother died in this year’s fighting.
Back at the beach, you swim out past the buoys and the headlands to some rocks rising well out from shore. You turn to look and examine the imposing cliffs. You think about what it would have been like to be 21 years old and spill from a landing craft and swim for shore, trying to keep your rifle dry.
You cut yourself on the rocks but don’t notice until you reach the shallows and Hadrian points it out. Josie magically produces antiseptic gel. Julie magically produces a beer. Under nearby umbrellas, a German couple puzzles out how to adjust the oddly designed beach chairs. Your family assists, interacting amiably. It becomes, suddenly, the best day of your summer.
It occurs to you that life is awful and good and strange and simple all at once. And this is why it’s important for human beings to travel. In the end, it’s beautiful. “La Vita è Bella.”
Back in Rome you have a marvelous last family meal. On impulse you purchase roses for Julie and Josie. Noah persuades Mom to hit three more gelaterias.
And then, in the morning, after you’ve had your lovely epiphany about international travel, you are up early and at the airport checking your bags hours ahead of your flight and thinking about home. You’re thankful to escape Rome’s oppressive heat. Then the lady asks what you are doing.
“We’re checking our bags for the 1:00,” Julie explains. This draws a funny look.
“Your plane has boarded,” the lady says. “It’s taking off now.”
Per the booking agent, this is untrue. Per reality, it’s true. It’s just nobody informed you of the change. And nobody wants to give you your money back.
The ensuing 45 minutes are pure panic. There are no flights from Rome to anywhere remotely near the Midwest for a week. In eight days, there is a plane that accommodates six for the low, low price of $23,000. The family holds its collective breath.
The journey from disbelief to shock to anger to acceptance to action takes, to the family’s collective credit, under an hour. There are somewhat reasonable flights to London. To Paris. To Frankfurt. None of them have decent options for flights back to Chicago any time in the next two weeks.
All you know is you are not walking back out of those doors to find another Roman cab driver.
Then you perk up. Amsterdam. The flight for six is relatively manageable. In four days’ time there is a route back through Zurich that won’t require a second mortgage. Julie locates an appealing hotel option two minutes from the Amsterdam rail station. Ten seconds later you click to book the online tickets. You’ve never heard of the airline but are willing to roll the dice.
And so, just that suddenly, you have a new a new assignment.
Next dispatch from abroad: Detour to the Netherlands