Sunday, May 23, 2021

Saying Goodbye to Italy

“You may have the universe, if I may have Italy.” – Giuseppe Verdi

Rome - 1971

This year will mark 50 years since I first visited Italy. That alone is cause for dismay. The good news? Life in the last 50 years has been so much better, thanks to Italy.

But eventually one must say goodbye.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not bidding adieu just yet. But the sun is getting lower on the horizon.

Italy has been my mentor, my guide, my friend, and sometimes, my foe. I’ve loved Italy with all my heart. And at times, I’ve wanted to walk away and never look back. Italy has tried to kill me, at least once. And it has cured me, also, at least once. And I cannot tell you how many times I’ve experienced a rebirth, all because of Italy.

That’s a pretty tall order, to lay all of this off onto a peninsula in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Family, friends, food, wine, culture, art, nature. Each word conjures up a myriad of impressions from the last 50 years. Better yet, I have thousands of photographs. I don’t need to rely on memory, whether it be vigorous or fading. I have the evidence, all of which was right there, right in front of me. With open eyes and heart, Italy will give you thousands of reasons for why life on earth is such a singular experience in the universe. Italy is a shining example of an experiment that has gone pretty well, for the most part.

Here are my markers:     

Sicily - 1971

– Staring with my first trip in 1971, I sought out family in Sicily. In 1977 I went to Calabria and found more relatives. The search has extended to Piedmont and Tuscany, where family also lives. I’ve seen resemblances, I’ve noted the differences. And It has been a tremendous joy to find family all over Italy. I have some fond memories of family, some now long gone. So glad I made the effort when they were alive. It deepened my understanding of the nature of family and love.

Friends – To have a friend in Italy is to have an extension of family. But friends you choose. Many of my friends are in the wine, food, photography, art and music worlds, with my interests, reflecting the choice of friends. We’ve eaten well, drank tremendous wines together, sung and dance and photographed and appreciated the culture around us. Italy is dripping rich with art and culture. But the food, the wine!  

Bucita - Calabria - 1977

– Italy has spoiled me, for the better. The pasta, the grilled meats, the seafood, the vegetables, the bread, the coffee, the desserts. Oy, I’m head over heels for food in Italy, and my belt is constantly reminding me to moderate, take it easy. I now realize that one can take things in smaller bites, and still have the same pleasure. It was a lesson that was a long time coming.

Wine – An ongoing odyssey, wine is. At one time I was pretty deep in the expertise side of wine when I was working full-time. Now, I am a bit more hedonistic about my interest in Italian wine. Oh, I can stay up with most enthusiasts, just as long as we’re not measuring our intromittent organs based on how many bottles of Sassicaia or Monfortino we’ve consumed or collected. I don’t crave the trophies anymore. I just want fruit, balance, relative dryness and pleasure. If that comes from a bottle of Masseto, so be it. But I’m not chasing those windmills. I’m over it. I just love to drink the stuff.

Rome - Sistine Chapel - 1971

– this is something that so many people flock to Italy to see but so few understand the nature of. Culture isn’t a room in the Vatican museum, although there are artifacts of culture there. Culture is an amorphous mantilla that signals something is notable, but not always that which is behind the veil. It isn’t always clearly visible, but it is seldom inappreciable. It’s usually staring right in front of you. People ask me, when they are planning a trip to Italy, what they should see, querying “Which cities should I go to?” I now tell them this: Go somewhere and stay there for a week or so. Go to a village, stay away from the urban areas. And when you step outside of your room every morning, onto the street, go left. Or go right. Or go straight ahead. And walk around the place. Walk into a cafĂ©’ and get a coffee. Go in the morning to a hardware store, or the pharmacy. Step into a boutique. Visit a local market. Buy some bread. Or some stamps. Talk a long walk down an alley. Say good morning to the people you come across. You will find the culture. Most likely it will find you.

Art – And if it is “Art” you are seeking, there are numerous buildings and parks where you can find “Art.” I remember people standing for hours in line to get a peek at Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s. When I first saw it, I could walk around it, touch it even. Now it is behind a cordon, separated from people who might do it harm. That’s no way to enjoy this art. I suggest going to the Piazza Pantheon. And facing the Pantheon, to the left is a little church. Go inside and see a sculpture that a mature Michelangelo (i.e., old) did. Walk around it. Breathe by it. Smell it. Art is meant to be experienced, not revered and separated from the people who love it. Italy is full of approachable, lovable art.  

Sicily - 2014

– This has been the great secret fount of restoration – Nature. Take a hike, swim in a lake or a creek or the sea. Walk in the mountains, walk on the beach. Get lost in a forest. Get cold. Peer into a mouth of a volcano. These are things that Italians have been able to do for thousands of years. You don’t need a cell phone. You don’t need a camera. You don’t need a guidebook. You don’t need anything. You just need to do it. Do you want to touch the timeless face of Italy? Unharness yourself from things and meet Nature on her terms. You can drink from that wellspring too, as it is endless and perpetual.


So why the goodbye in the title? Novelist Paul Coelho, hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “If you’re brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a new hello.”

I’m with Verdi and I’m eagerly anticipating the moment when I can again say hello to Italy in the flesh.

Positano - 1990

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


peter schaar said...

I appreciated your comments on art. I once spent 3 hours looking at a single painting in the Prado, Velasquez's Las Meninas. If you ever see it, you'll understand. Fondly, Peter Schaar

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks. I understand. I once flew to Dublin to look at a Caravaggio. So, yes, I get it. thank for commenting.

James Biddle said...

I just had (another) long conversation with a couple wanting suggestions for their "hello" trip to Italy. Of course they were talking about all the places they've seen on TV--I shock them by saying TV is better, so skip those places. Of course I suggest what you do--never spent less than a week in one spot, and that spot should be some (really any) small village accessible only by car. I tell them to have morning coffee in the same place; by day 2 they'll be friends and by day 3 they'll be family. And always try to eat at a place with no menus--or, at most, something on a chalk board. I end with a lament that I may have said "goodbye."


An excellent post from a friend filled with the type of riches that matter. I also hope you never say goodbye, and it is Italy herself that says goodbye to you many, many healthy years from now.


Peter, as a longtime art enthusiast, I often breakdown the difference between ‘ artist’ and ‘painters.’ Las Meninas is the work I often refer to when debating why I think Diego Velazquez may be the greatest ‘painter’ of all time.


Tom Maresca said...

Alfonso, you have clearly touched many a tender spot with this essay. In just a few days, still lacking the ability to get to Italy, I will be seeing a new print of Fellini's 8 1/2 at the Film Forum here in New York. This is a great, great quintessentially Italian film that chimes perfectly with many of the points you made. Every time I see it (and I've long lost track of how many that is), I feel reborn. So no final goodbyes for a while yet!

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, Tom.

Oh, to see that film in a theater, in the dark, now that is a special indulgence. Enjoy it for all of us who cannot be there.

Fred Plotkin said...

"Avrai tu l'universo; resti l'Italia a me!" sings Ezio the Roman general in Verdi's ATTILA. Those words may well wind up on my tombstone: You may have the Universe, but let Italy be mine!" Fred Plotkin

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