My office at home overlooks the street below bordering the front yard. From my desk, I can see people driving, walking, and biking as the day moves forward. Between grading, writing, and lesson planning, I steal glances every now and then to see people stop and pause to look and point at what is happening on our little patch of land.
Over the years, it has looked like everything from a dead wheat field to a small cemetery to a tired vegetable garden that just wouldn’t grow anything. Finally after almost four years, I figured out and designed a space that looks like grown-ups live here. But not just any grown-ups.
The yard is full of native, drought-tolerant plants: Monkey flowers, lavender, kangaroo paws, tall grasses, and succulents. Sprinkled around are perennial vegetables such as asparagus, herbs, rhubarb, and two four-foot artichoke plants. People slow down, they look, some comment – the only house on the block without grass has come a long way. We may be growing-up, but we’re sure not normal.
Then we went to Italy. It has been deemed our “life-is-going-to-change” trip; our no holds barred adventure. With a Ph.D. program and possibilities of having kids in the future, vacations like this will be non-existent. Holidays will still be had, but they will change; they have to for our sanity. So we took our time; we slept in; we drank vino with every meal-o, and we put Os on the end of every word hoping to sound Italian.
We discovered that Italy is a grown-up county. Sure their politics are just as dysfunctional as ours and their education system is in dire need of help. But for better or worse, they know who they are. They have been at it longer, and this nation taught me a few lessons I will never forget.
The first lesson was passion. At the Siena soccer game we attended, I’m fairly certain the worked up man in front of us purchased four seats just so he could pace furiously while yelling and throwing his hat on the ground in complete frustration. There are no fair-weather fans in these towns. You’re born into a village, a team, a church. You do things because that is the way they are done, believed in, cheered for, whether it is tomato sauce, the catholic church, homemade wine or oil or supporting the local boys.
In the south this might be slightly true of matters like college football and BBQ sauce, but something changes when your own roots cultivate the life you live; the life your ancestors lived.
In trains and cars or on a walk, I became the gawker – staring in disbelief at every other home growing at least ten artichokes, a few fruit trees (mostly olive), and vines, even if it was one. If there was land, there was food growing on it. Lettuces were coming in, small gardening centers were a buzz, tomatoes were just being planted – signs of life, passion and work everywhere we went.
This was fully realized at our first stop. A doctor turned Italian homesteader who helps support her endeavors by renting out an apartment on her property. A chunk of land that holds a full plum tree orchard, an olive grove, and vineyard. And we thought we had a lot going on! She gave up her medical practice for a different kind of medicine – one where her hands were toiling away making her own jam, wine, and oil – all of which were divine. She said she wanted a more natural, slower life.
We made friends with our tour guide, Anna, where I learned more lessons. She took us through the Chianti region while I peppered her with all of my burning questions:
- Do you really eat four courses at every dinner?
- I only see grandparents with kids; is it normal for Italian women to work and have kids?
- Does everyone have a garden?
We compared notes like these on culture and family. The short version is no, yes, yes. But it’s me, so I’ll indulge a bit more. She explained that if there is even a tiny yard, one plants their own tomatoes and maybe a vine. Women have to work because of needing the income and most families choose to have only one child. “We’re not replacing our grandparents,” she said soberly. “We are a fading culture.” But then she told us how in the last five years more young people are moving back to the countryside to start farms.
“Same is true in the U.S.,” I replied. “More people are starting to garden and think about food in a more intentional way.” We chatted further about the Slow Food Movement, a grassroots organization that started in Italy with a belief that a cultivated life is worth fighting for, educating about, and savoring, let alone preserving.
I stole glances at Nate in the back seat with looks of, “See? We’re not weird here!” And his eyes showed his agreement as well.
It wasn’t a trip where our minds were blown. It wasn’t a trip where we were overwhelmed with sites, wonders and information.
It was an adventure that seeped in slowly – like a risotto where the broth is stirred in one cup at a time until the rice soaks up all of the flavor – we soaked and we savored. Especially my favorite meal: White truffle risotto with Tuscan beef stew and polenta along with sautéed spinach on the side. We ate it in the alley next the restaurant with their house wine.
The trip told, not one story, but rather a narrative, as we tasted what this country offered.
We needed a getaway. Our home is a place of production and labor. Our first weekend home was just that: weeding, switching over from tired plants to new seedlings I started in March. In all, we planted 18 tomatoes (toward my goal of two dozen) and eight basil plants. More is planned for this week.
Two weeks really is a beneficial time to retreat away into vacation. Enough time to settle in, explore, meet new people and suddenly the last two days I started drawing plans for a green house.
That’s when we know it is time to come home. Potential awakens once again after rest and space.
Italy knows what home is about. They understand the value of trades like carpentry, cooking and butchery. They may not be “efficient” in the American sense (when in Rome!), but their grown-up lenses, ancient soil, and old pasta recipes, have earned them the right to linger – to taste what is happening – to be part of something that has been there for generations.
We ended our journey in Lake Como and no, not to visit George, but we can certainly see why he has a home there. Lake Como is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. The mountains seem to jut straight out of the lake, like domed cakes sprinkled with powdered sugar sitting in a pool of glacial water.
One traverses to each village on quaint boats, getting off at one small port for cappuccinos and another for a lunch of fresh fish. It is a place that still holds its natural beauty, not yet succumbed to all the wiles of tourism.
Our hosts had purchased an old hollowed stone structure on the side of a hill high above the lake. They fixed it up by hand, making the tables, beds and floors all from reclaimed wood. The were in the middle of three churches each about a half mile to mile away, each dating back to medieval times. We told them with smirks we too had fixed up our home. That it was built in 1916, making it historical in California; we all laughed.
Our house isn’t grown-up yet. So as we ate Giulio’s homemade lasagna and marinated baby onions along with his divine tiramisu, we took in the breathtaking view and realized while we loved our time in Italy, we love our life more.
The vacation was a dream, but it was a lovely and refreshing realization to leave the life we lead and have it occur to us that we just needed a break, not an escape hatch. We love the life we’ve created. Italy reminded us of that – to keep fighting for our passions, to keep talking to our neighbors when they stop by, to grow-up with our house.
This mentality of being grown-up could mean that we become cantankerous and sheltered, but what we witnessed was never being too old to stop playing in the dirt, to drink to a contented place, to appreciate what is happening around us instead of wishing it were different. If that is what growing-up means – count me all in. Thank you Italy. Grazie and arrivederci!