A guest post by Linda Dini Jenkins
My friend Mario Scalzi, owner of Parker Villas (a villa rental company just outside of Boston, Massachusetts), once told me that he believed that Americans like to travel to places they have read about. Hence, the popularity of Cortona, just after the publication of Under the Tuscan Sun, or the Cinque Terre, after Rick Steeves waxed poetic about it in his guidebooks and public television series. There’s the Rome of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, the Venice of Brideshead Revisited, the Florence of Room With A View and the Verona of Romeo and Juliet.
Does that mean we are not adventurous travelers? Perhaps. Admittedly, my first trip to Italy was to Tuscany, but not Cortona. We rented a villa northeast of Florence, in Vicchio, and I got hooked on the Italy beyond the big cities. Subsequent trips took me to Sorrento, Taormina, Pieve Liguri, Frascati, Sermide, Camoglie, Borghetto sul Mincio and Cannara. After all that, Mario decided that I was ready for Sulmona. “I don’t send everybody there,” he said. “But I think you’ll appreciate it. There’s something special about it, and the food is the best in Italy and the people are, well, . . . you’ll see.”
The first time I traveled to Sulmona, three years ago, with its 21 gothic arches and a piazza celebrating a fellow poet, I was captivated. The architecture, the mountains, the parks, the food . . . it all conspired to have me come back. And when I did come back last spring, along with some good friends who had traveled here with me the first time, we bought an apartment together. Our return trip in October was to close on the apartment and experience Sulmona as new “residents.”
My American friends ask me how all this happened. “How do you buy an apartment in Italy?” they want to know. “How brave,” they say. “How do we do it?” And truthfully, I have only one answer: family. Because that’s what we found in Sulmona. There is no way we could have done any of this without meeting the right people. People who stayed in touched with us from the very beginning. Who guided our decisions. Who showed us properties, introduced us to bankers and notaries, and marched us into the city tax office for our Codice Fiscale, which we didn’t even know existed. We were clueless.
I started to see what Mario meant about the people. When the journalist Primo Levi visited Abruzzo in the early part of the 20th century, he described it as “forte e gentile” (strong and gentle), and that also describes the people. Without our Sulmonese family, we would still be trying to figure out how to get into the bank (those button-operated doors are not so common in America) . . .
When we first arrived in Sulmona, my friend Vicky got out of the car near the Piazza Garibaldi, only to be approached by a woman who asked her where her people were from. With her stature and red hair and familiar features, Vicky was immediately recognized as Abruzzese, her father being from Pescara and her mother from Castel di Sangro. So here are the people: polite, but direct . . . curious, but confident . . . forte e gentile. And it has been ever thus. Our bonds to this area are strong, and our hearts are gentle, open to sharing our gifts and learning as much as we can about the history, culture, traditions, food, geography and language — and much that we don’t even know we need to know.
When I thought about writing this piece, I wondered what I could possibly say that hasn’t been said before. I could tell you how much I love turning the corner from the apartment and getting to walk through the Villa Comunale on the way into town. I could tell you how much I adore Ristorante Da Gino, and Il Vecchio Muro’s cacio e pepe. I could tell you that Franco at the Hotel Ovidius bar makes the best latte macchiato ever. I could tell you that the energy we found in every shop and caffe felt welcoming, even though parliamo italiano come bambini. I could tell you that being received by your Counselor, Roberta Salvati, was an unexpected honor and a delight. You are lucky to have her, and we sigh over our Sulmona flag here in our home in America every day, wishing we could spend more time there with you. I could tell you that you are also lucky to live in such a beautiful city and still be in such close proximity to parks, beaches, ski areas and incredible, preserved ancient villages. I could tell you that you are lucky to be Sulmonese or, like me, honorary Sulmonese. But I hope you know all that.
For me, it comes down to the people. The people who are from Sulmona and who have never left; the people who left and came back; the people who spend time here from other countries and who, like me, almost don’t want to spread the word too much, lest the character of the place change. So what I really want to say is thank you to my famiglia italiana, whether you’re Italian or not. Novelia and Peppe, Carlo and Vittoria, Andrea, Annalisa, David and Sharyn, Yunus, Rocco, Franco, Roberta, Marco, Anna, Katy, Susanna . . . thank you for making this transition so smooth. Thank you for showing us your special part of the world. And thank you for inviting us to be part of your remarkable community.
Linda Dini Jenkins is a freelance writer who brings small groups of Americans to Italy every year. (Guess where her next tour will be?) She is an Italian-American whose grandfather came from Acquapendente, near Viterbo and whose grandmother came from Montano Antilia, near Salerno. She blogs about travel and writing at www.travelthewriteway.com