Late one night at my New Jersey beach house rental last summer I was enjoying the quiet, flipping through statuses on Facebook when one gave me a start. It was written in Italian, which I don’t speak, yet I sensed its gravity and hit the ‘translate’ button. A young acquaintance in her 20s, Esmeralda, was reporting that her mother had died.
The tears began rolling down my cheeks.
This reaction for a woman named Irene who I knew for one week.
Somehow I, a pure-bred Italian-American, had made it to my late 40s without visiting Italy. And then, one day in 2009, after seeing a one-man play called “My Italy Story” in my town of Hoboken, N.J., I came home to a Facebook message from a young college student named Esmeralda. She lived in Tuscany – Pistoia, to be exact — and she was wondering if I knew anyone in the New York City area who would be interested in switching homes for a few weeks.
Um, yes. Me.
I had met Esmeralda and her boyfriend, Andrea, at a local function when they visited the United States the year before and that’s how we had connected on Facebook. She was fluent in English, but most of her posts were in Italian. It was hard for me to keep up. Regardless, here I was in an Italy state of mind from my theater outing with an opportunity that had my budget-challenged inner traveler twitching.
Emails were exchanged and before I knew it I was agreeing to spend roughly a week with Andrea’s parents in a suburb outside of Milan and a week with Esmeralda’s mother in Pistoia while they stayed in my place in Hoboken (just a 10-minute train ride into Manhattan). Train routes from each locale in Italy would allow me to explore Lake Como, Florence, Pisa and Lucca. I would spend a final weekend in Rome before flying home.
Starved for my first visit to Italy, I was overjoyed.
The decision was so quick I had no time to learn Italian, so I was going to be a tourist relying on my little dictionary. That’s OK, I thought, the art and the food are going to transcend language. I had my senses and they were primed.
After spending a week in Northern Italy with Andrea’s warm and inviting parents, his equally gracious grandparents put me on a train that would take me to Pistoia and an awaiting Irene (pronounced in Italian, it’s a lolling three syllables). I knew her immediately, felt her radiance as she smiled and approached me on the train platform. A gorgeous, lit spirit.
By the time we were in her car and driving to her home we realized the language barrier was going to be tricky. My Italian was practically non-existent and her English was iffy. I’m not even sure how, but we realized at one point on that winding drive that French was middle ground. While I am far from fluent, I can form sentences in French – in present tense – and I know a fair amount of words. On the flip side, I can pick up an awful lot when someone is speaking it. Thus was born a special Irene-Nancy lingo, a melding of three languages and much, much laughter.
My expectations of my hostess were low heading into this trip. Truly I assumed she would help me with any questions I had about places I was going and drive me to the train station each morning on her way to work (she was a psychologist) so that I could venture to Florence, Pisa, Lucca and wherever else suited my fancy.
Yet that first day, that first hour, as she helped me bring my suitcase into her spacious, beautiful home situated on a hill, she looked me in the eye and said something to the effect of this, “If you’d prefer to visit these towns on your own, I understand. But I would be happy to drive to Lucca this afternoon with you if you’d like.”
What a no-brainer. I nodded vigorously. Once the luggage was in my room and I got a tour of the house, we set off in the car for the town that is Puccini’s birthplace, the one specially known for its olive oil. It was a lush drive through Tuscany en route to this walled town. We ate gelato, of course. It is a fact that I ate gelato every day I was in Italy and was five pounds lighter when I returned.
While far from an opera aficionado, I was in the company of one and the idea of buying my first Puccini CD there felt perfect. Irene helped me pick out a good one. We strolled and strolled. Before heading home she wanted to pick up something for our dinner. Her mother and brother would be joining us. We entered the smallest shop I’ve ever seen and it was filled with the aroma of cheese. The expression of delight on my face must have been a sight because Irene laughed as she watched me go into a little trance. I was learning a lot about what smiles and spirit can communicate when language is limited.
On the drive back I suggested breaking open the CD and Irene brightened at the idea. We drove with the windows down, the sounds of Puccini filling the car, the volume getting louder and louder, Irene joyfully singing along. She was euphoric. I felt so completely blessed to be getting an experience that far exceeded a tourist one. So blessed.
I don’t recall which delicious meal we had that night, but I remember with the utmost clarity the experience of the mozzarella we had just purchased in Lucca. It was buttery and pure and like nothing I’ve ever tasted. That’s saying a lot, as I live in a town known for its extraordinary mozzarella. Again I could see how thrilled Irene was to see my reaction to an experience. And I had only been there for half a day.
She brought out lemon and coconut gelato for dessert – made by her neighbor – and, well, where do I go with that? A few nights later, when it was just the two of us, she got the inspired idea to serve it with Limoncello on top. Are you kidding me? Really? Are you?
My American self needed this lesson in indulgence. I was feeling that to my core.
The next day, my second there, Irene dropped me off at the train station on her way to work. It was about a 30-minute ride to Florence and I took myself through its streets and gaped. The Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, the Fountain of Neptune, the Ponte Vecchio, Michelangelo’s David, the shops, and the apricot-filled bomboloni I discovered. How perfect to wander solo for the day and then head back to Pistoia for another meal with this welcoming family.
Another day Irene and I drove to Pisa and while it was a treat, what I most remember is her astonishment that I hadn’t yet had tiramisu while in Italy and that it was her brother’s specialty. She called him on the spot and had him get the groceries necessary so we’d have it for dessert that night. It more than lived up to its reputation.
It was so comfortable being with Italians in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. It helped me understand why I feel so deeply, why my senses seem heightened to life’s experiences sometimes. Yes, the food was a big part of it, but the dramatic art, the passion-filled music, Irene’s enormous pride in her home, all of it enveloped me so lovingly. Even being awakened by roosters outside my window.
How else could I feel when, after telling this woman one morning that it was a challenge to get protein for breakfast in Italy, she disappeared for a few minutes and returned with two freshly laid eggs from the neighbor? Goodness, to be so cared for.
When I went into Florence another day, Irene offered to come meet me, spend some time there to show me some sights, and drive me back. She was a pleasure. When we got back to her house, I looked through her coffee table books filled with art and readied for my departure the next day.
The morning I left for Rome, I knew I would miss this woman. When I returned to the States, I found a thank you gift that seemed so perfect for her. She loved the color green – she named her daughter Esmeralda, after all – and I saw a small box made of green-tinted glass. I shipped it off to Pistoia and the meaning was not lost on her.
About a year later, August of 2010, I found out through Esmeralda’s Facebook posts that Irene was ill. I wanted to send her a card, so I asked a friend to translate my note into Italian. The front of the card was a photograph by Ruth Orkin, not the famous one called “American Girl in Italy” but another black and white shot called “Jinx in Beads” where a woman is peeking through beads hanging in a doorway. Irene appreciated it so.
When I went to my first opera at the Met in New York in 2011 – Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” — I thought of her and wrote a blog post about it. I so hoped her health was rallying. On my next trip to Italy I was imagining meeting up and taking another long drive accompanied by blaring opera or, as she suggested might be a good idea, we’d go to Venice or the beach.
It was not to be.
The cover photo on my Facebook timeline shows me smiling with all of Florence behind me. Irene took that picture.
What a beautiful soul.