...Lemony Yellow "My Toast to Italy"
It was November 1996. I was twenty years old and studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. With classes considerately on Thanksgiving hiatus for us American students, I jetted on over to Italy with a friend – for a little “Turkey Italian Style” (a la “Marriage Italian Style,” just like Sophia Loren in her blockbuster 1964 movie). Hee hee.
We landed in Rome – an ancient city bathed in ruins, delicious pasta, techno music, fashionable clothes, and mopeds. Vroom. Exciting stuff. Never had I been in a city that so well mixed ancient with modern, classical with cutting-edge. It was a feast for the eyes. Turn one corner – a cozy outdoor café with lemon soda, red wine, and cigarettes. Turn another – the Colosseum and all its mammoth oldie splendor. How old is the Colosseum, by the way? Two thousand years old!!! There’s a photo of me standing in front of it – I look like a speck. The Colosseum DWARFED me. My friend and I also took a photo of a sweet calico cat sunning herself on the steps of some crumbling ancient columns (a la a Siamese cat loungin’ out by the Egyptian pyramids). Another hee hee.
I was amazed. Rome was nothing short of breathtaking – and complicated. With its "heady" balancing act of old vs. new, it carried a lot of responsibility on its shoulders. Rome was the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and more. My friend and I also mozied on over to the Vatican – did a little “college girl” confessing there, and truth be told, breathed a sigh of relief. Ah, a safe place. Nothin’ like the holy seat of the ancient Catholic church. The Vatican was impressive – the architecture, the frescos (indoor mural paintings). Then throw in the smell of quiet candle blessings (ssshhh), and the sound of the occasional calming bell. The Vatican was true “food for the soul.”
We then trained it up to Florence one morning. The Apennine Mountains were our cozy mist-filled A.M. backdrop, filled with green trees and strong rocky outcrops. Our train whizzed due north away from the warmer, busier capital city of Rome, and I remember feeling gratitude washing over me – thankfulness for the sheer ability to experience this beautiful country. Nothing on my college class agenda – just a mission to relax and breathe. I’ll always remember that train ride.
And as for Florence? Like Rome, it, too, was classical and dusty – filled with gorgeous chapels, and one legendary Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (aka the Duomo). The Duomo boasts the largest brick dome anywhere in the world – I for one can attest to its gargantuan size. Like the Colosseum in Rome, I felt so teeny-tiny when looking up at it. How to fit THAT into a selfie??? Tricky business.
Florence was also famous Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture – the human form in all its strong marble sixteenth-century glory. I also bought a sleek black biker jacket in Florence – I still wear it today, and it’s still in excellent condition. God bless the Italian fashion industry.
Italy is notable in my memory for many reasons. Outside of all of the above, I remember it for a slew of fun, little reasons. For starters, it’s the only place where I braved staying in a hostel – my friend and I patroned a sweet little place called “Fawlty Towers” (whose slogan she and I invented to be “No, it’s really quite safe”). Also, to this day, Italy is the furthest east I’ve traveled in Europe – I have yet to travel east of Germany or Italy. Like those ancient mapmakers, I’ve fountain-penned the end of my earth to be Italy. I also had trouble flushing a toilet in Italy. Really??? Yup. One night at a fancy restaurant. And I actually don’t recall how I solved this problem. Maybe I asked the hostess? Ah, the joys of international travel.
As I saw Italy being struck down by the coronavirus pandemic this year, I was unsurprisingly brought back to my own fond memories of this country. I’m sad for Italy’s COVID experience – it was so difficult to watch the cafés and cathedrals closing, the bustling moped-filled streets suddenly quiet as a ghost town. To then hear a comparison of today’s COVID to Italy’s bout with the Black Death many centuries ago, I was again reminded of just how rich and sumptuously old Roman/Italian civilization is. Italy was becoming an unwitting cautionary tale for the rest of our 2020 world – as we were glued to our TVs in shock at their plight. And would their horror soon be on its way here? Unfortunately, yes.
But I’m so happy that Italy has largely recovered. The world may still have far to go in curing COVID, but Italy has weathered its storm – and God willing with no future outbreaks. I hope that this Mediterranean gem can get back to being the fantastically complicated, breezy, bustling, dusty (and fashionable!) land that it’s always been.
So I raise a glass to Italia. Salute. And I fill it with a summery, lemony sparkling San Pellegrino. May it be nostalgic music to your ears (or magic to your taste buds). I know it is for me. Thank you, Italy, for all those great memories.