My Umbrian Journal
by Concetta Nicolosi
participated in CCRI’s Summer Travel/Study Program in summers 2004 and "05 She
would like to share with
you one of her emails sent to family and friends.
I’m writing from Orvieto, a small hilltop town rich in Etruscan history about 90 miles north of Rome. It is in Umbria, a region dating back to 700 BC known as the “Green Heart of Italy” as it is the only Italian region that is totally landlocked. Whatever the color, it is truly the heart of Italy with its warm, beautiful people, its history, traditions, art and, of course, its food and wine. Here, the sky is bluer, the sun is brighter, and sunrise and sunset are grander. The best of Italy is here to savor.
On the go since the moment I arrived, I’m really, REALLY, REALLY living like a true Italian diva, speaking Italian about 70% of the time . . . this, along with gaining WEIGHT while losing money shopping. My friends here, Patrizia Ubaldi and Maria Tilli, welcomed me so warmly I feel like family. I’ve been to their homes for one-of-a-kind dinners, met their families, shared their joys, their pain . . . a privilege for any traveler. I’ve learned where to shop; go to the town market on Thursdays and Saturdays; stroll the streets saying “buon giorno,” and “buona sera” to the townsfolk . . . and “buona domenica” after mass on Sunday mornings. I’ve learned to take afternoon sonnellini (naps) like the natives; to have dinner at 9:00 p.m., and go for a passeggiata (evening walk) with my friends. Each night, with gelato in hand, we go to the Piazza del Duomo (the town square with a towering 13th century cathedral that lords over the town). We sit on the steps of the Duomo and gossip, while a musician plays sweet Italian folk music and the children play soccer in the square. This “passeggiata” lasts until midnight. Then I go back to the hotel, take a Zantac and Mylanta to digest my late-night dinner and try to get to sleep before 2:00 a.m., before starting all over again the next day. It is like bulimia in reverse . . . but in Heaven!
The incredible, passionate, dedicated founder of our CCRI Summer Travel Study Program, Professor Maria C. Mansella, brings the Italian history, culture and language to life. With prof. Mansella, language is not just in books. We’re tasting, touching, and feeling la vita bella (the beautiful life). Her daughter, Christina, (working now as an English teacher for the children of the Visconti family in Milan), and Stefano Asperti, a professor from Bergamo, have also joined the group.
I use this whacky Italian keyboard (tastiera) to send e-mails: the characters are located all over the board and the instructions are in Italian. I’m not sure why the keyboard is different here . . . last time I checked all humans throughout the world had the same fingers on the same hands!
My friend, Maria Tilli, honored me with an invitation to a military ceremony of Orvieto’s “Guardia di Finanza”—full of hot young, Italian men that made me yearn for my youth of thirty years ago. The “bersaglieri”, all saluting in full-dress uniform with big guns, feathered hats, banners, music . . . more food and wine. She also took me to a massive communist festival “la festa dell’agricoltura” with more food, wine, music, and politicians. The communists, however, are a harmless, light version of the traditional left wing. They only exist to represent the interests of the agricultural industry and maintain a voice of balance in a screwy version of what is called government by the Italians. Very unlike what we know as classic communists, their raffle prize was a high-end model of an Alfa Romeo sporting Dolce & Gabbana leather interior, which probably had Lenin spinning in his grave.
We met the mayor of Orvieto soon after arriving. We take two day trips a week, and saints are everywhere. Every town has at least one miracle attributable to at least one patron saint and as many as five—along with relics, tombs, Etruscan ruins, caves, Roman walls . . . and, of course, churches, churches, and more churches . . . Romanesque, Medieval, Gothic. There are so many churches, that when the bells chime, they start five minutes before the hour and finish five minutes after hour, as each church takes its turn ringing their bells. Here, nothing much is precisely on time . . . and it doesn’t matter as no one cares . . . and neither do I.
Let’s see: so far, we’ve gone to Bagnoregio and Civita, “la città che muore” (the city that’s dying) because it is built on a mountain top made of centuries-old tufo, a soft, decaying volcanic rock. An oxygen tank would have been a welcomed relief as we arrived at the town center—the climb up to Civita makes Everest look like an anthill. Only eighteen brave souls live in Civita during winter, with maybe sixty in the summer. There are no shops, no cars, only homes and scooters to minimize vibrations. They get their supplies from a paid shopper who goes up and down the hill on a golf cart.
We visited Lago di Bolsena, a perfectly round lake in the mouth of an extinct volcano surrounded by thousands of hydrangeas. Nearby Assisi (the city of St. Francis, the patron saint of Italy and all of Europe, and of pink and white buildings) was our next day trip, and then Spello, the city of flowers. Here during religious holidays they award prizes to the best floral mosaics, done on the pavements of the town squares. We also visited Florence, Todi, Spoleto, Arezzo, Rome, and Perugia.
The “Sagra delle gnocche” in Sugano was a town festival in honor of gnocchi (Italian pasta shaped like dumplings). Here, the women elders of Sugano—always in black ready for a funeral with stockings rolled down just below their dumpling-like knees, a rosary in hand and carrying the corporal evidence of years of gnocchi consumption—all make a five-course meal for about 500 paying guests. The meal consists of antipasto, gnocchi, sausage, other meats, salads, vegetables, sweets and WINE! The Italians use any excuse for having a sagra (festival): there is a Sagra dell’oca (geese), Sagra del cocomero (watermelon), Sagra dell’umbriachelle (a specialty pasta made only in Umbria), Sagra del bignè (a type of cookie). There is music and dancing with about five different versions of our “Electric Slide” and, of course, the classic Italian mazurka—just like the one I danced with my grandmother. That night when we returned to Orvieto, there was a concert in the town square with aspiring musicians from all over Europe, kind of like Rhode Island’s Newport summer concerts.
Of course, along the pastoral roads to everywhere are fields and fields of girasoli (sunflowers). Their name means turning around the sun—gira (turn around), sole (sun). These are the floral hallmark of Umbria and Tuscany. On a cloudy day their heads droop down toward the earth as if they’re crying. On sunny days, they perk up reaching for their brilliant yellow namesake in the bluest of skies having a party as they dance and sway to the music of the venticello (breezes). Of course, the best olive oil and wines come from the vineyards and olive groves nestled in the Umbrian and Tuscan hills. We see these as we travel to our destinations, along with monasteries and palatial villas (gotta have one!). Even the dogs here are adorable, calm and well-tempered. They’re so smart: they understand Italian!
OK for now . . . the weather is fine (about 85 and dry with cool evenings); I can’t think of any place I’d rather be other than in Rhode Island and with you, and life is just grand. I must end here as the others are waiting for me on the terrace for lunch—with the prosciutto, cheese, olives, bread, tomatoes, fruit, wine and biscotti that we bought this morning at the mercato all’aperto in Piazza del Popolo. To my business associates: hope you still need me when I get back . . . I AM coming back! To my family: wish you were here . . . and ditto to my friends. Love you all, miss you all . . . with bittersweet feelings, however, as the wonderful time I’m having compensates for your absence! Baci e abbraccioni (big hugs and kisses). Go Yankees.
A group photo in Cortona, Italy, of the CCRI program participants—July 2005