It was on this day, August 15th, in 1971, that I first landed in Italy. It was a 20th birthday gift, with a little help from my friends. The plane flight from Los Angeles International airport to Aeroporto Internazionale di Roma–Fiumicino "Leonardo da Vinci" cost $900.00 (about $6,0000.00 today). No small sum for a college student then. But I wanted to visit the birthplace of my grandparents, and see the country where it all started for this young student, budding photographer and eventually, an Italian wine lover.
Once I landed, I decided to walk to Rome. Not thinking it that far away, and trying to conserve my money, in addition to the fact that I didn’t have many lire on me, I headed outside.
This is one of the great things about being young and
clueless. I had no idea the walk was 20 miles, and for a walker, almost
impossible to traverse. That, and it was the middle of August (and Ferragosto
at that!) and the temperature was hovering about 95°F. After I paid a visit to the
Leonardo Da Vinci statue at the airport, I turned around and caught a bus to
the Rome train station.
August 15, 1971 was also a Sunday. And a national
holiday. And back in the USA, then President Nixon had just devalued the
dollar. So, I was pretty much S.O.L. And I was jetlagged, having been so excited,
I didn’t bother to sleep much on the plane. So, I wandered out of the train
station with my backpack on and my trusty little Europe on $5 a Day and
my Michelin Guide to Italy, and sought out a room.
I walked around the neighborhood of the train station,
found a little pensione on the Via Palestro near the university and somehow
managed to talk the landlady into letting me have a room.
The kind landlady made me a plate of pasta and some
vegetables, and offered a glass of red wine. How wonderful it all tasted. Here
I was in a strange boarding house in a big city with people I didn’t know, who
were treating me like family. It was a moment that really made me see Italy and
Italians through a lens that I still sometimes use. We were only 25 years away
from the liberation of Italy during World War II; perhaps the landlady took
pity on the young American. It wasn’t that much money, I think with half
pension it was about 1,500 lire, or $2.50 a day. My room I would have to share
if someone else came in. But it never happened that anyone else came.
Walking around Rome during the day would be my
introduction to Italy. And I walked everywhere, with my cameras, photographing
everything in black and white, Tri-X film, with my Canon rangefinder cameras. I
was living the dream of a young man to be a street photographer, and Rome was my
From the Villa Borghese to the Fontana di Trevi, the
Sistine Chapel to the Baths of Caracalla, there was no backdrop that I wouldn’t
shoot in the blistering heat and humidity of Rome in August.
In that time the city was quiet, many people out of town
in cooler places. Just a few tourists and the workforce of Rome, who stayed
behind to keep the city running. Many shops were closed for the month, but
there was enough life in the Eternal City to get a feel for a place that humans
have inhabited for thousands and thousands of years.
But it was like the city was mine. It welcomed me into this marriage with Italy, which has lasted now for 50 years. It has been a constant in my life, always there, always greeting me with its warm caress and lovely people, food, and landscapes.
I must admit when I first landed in Italy one of my
initial thoughts was, “Gee, all the people in Italy are great. They all love
everybody. There are no criminals here. This place is perfect!” Yeah, I had one
of those moments. And for a 20-year-old who was naïve and idealistic, that
thought propelled me into many places in Italy that weren’t quite as I had
envisioned them. But I survived. They almost got the best of me once. But they didn’t.
And while I am 50 years older than that 20-year-old moonbeam chaser, that
person is also still here, watching over my shoulder as I write these words.
“Hey, I got you to this point,” he whispers in my ear.
“You didn’t do so badly. We met our family, we had great times, had a lot of
good things to eat. And those wines. And those pictures. Not too shabby, amico!”
That will do me for now. And later, when the sparkling wine is opened and we toast our Nozze d'Oro, I’ll probably start working on the next 10 or so years. 50 more years isn’t going to work for this Silverback.
But the past 50 have just been great, when it comes to
So, yes, onward, through the fog…