It was 2001. We celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary in May with two and a half glorious weeks in Italy: a week in a delightful villa outside Radda in Chianti, a week in an apartment in a restored 15th century convent in Chiusi, on the Tuscany/Umbria border and three days in Bellagio, on Lake Como. After the nigh perfect trip that we spent in Italy for our tenth anniversary, it would have been easy to be a bit disappointed. Far from it- if anything the second trip surpassed the first and before the trip drew to an end, we were head over heels in love with the place.
I couldn’t believe it, in the fall of that year, when an Italian business associate of Jay’s invited us to spend New Year’s with him in his castle between Florence and Sienna – two trips to Italy in a single year, and the second in a castle! I felt as though my own private pumpkin coach had arrived and that I was truly living a fairy tale. We gleefully accepted.
As the days passed, I realized, through my excitement, that I had agreed to spend three days as a guest in the home of strangers. I’m an introvert and strangers scare me. One of the things that I value the most about my family is that we come from strong but humble roots. My grandfather grew up in a house with dirt floors -not dirt ON the floors, but literally, no slab, and certainly no indoor plumbing. So on top of my general fear of strangers, I was scared to death that despite all my education and world exposure, that I just wouldn’t measure up with the “castle set”. I was afraid, in that secret place within my soul, that I wouldn’t be accepted and that I would feel ashamed and inadequate.
Worry or not, the departure date arrived and my love of travel helped ease my fears. I love to travel and often wonder if my truest calling isn’t, simply, gypsy. I’ve never once been ready to come home. While I’ve visited all 7 continents and 47 countries, Italy is my favorite. I love the rhythm of the place and its zealous embrace of life. Jay and I can both be passionate and intense and we’ve found ourselves fed there in a way we have yet to duplicate. It’s as if, when we’re there, we resonate in perfect harmony. It nurtures our souls.
We had three blissful days in Florence, strolling along the holiday light trimmed medieval streets; gazing into shop windows, filled with wares of vibrant hue; pondering the passion and thirst for expression that fueled men like Michelangelo and Titian to create works of such intense beauty; immersing ourselves in the language, history and culture of a fabulous city. We reveled in food paired perfectly with the experience of almost melting into someone new, someone almost Italian: enjoying linguine with truffle sauce while watching the lights reflect off the Arno, sipping morning cappuccino in tiny sidewalk cafes; munching cones of gelato as the lights dimmed and the city prepared itself to rest until dawn and sharing the yearnings of our hearts over a glass or two of Chianti with almost every meal. How can you help not falling in love all over again, each and every day? Romance leaks from every pore and every breath of its perfume is simply intoxicating.
We awoke late the morning of the fourth day, as is our habit with jet-lag and after a leisurely late Florentine lunch, we packed our bags and began our drive south for the New Year’s party at the Castello. It was winter and the days were short and the roads icy. As anyone that has driven rural Tuscany knows, the roads are unlit and full of hairpin turns. We arrived later than we had anticipated and being late set my already sensitive nerves on edge.
Tommaso and Eliane’s home is impressive. It rules from atop the highest point between Siena and Florence with a quiet and stately grace. We entered the gate of the estate and began our ascent along the forested drive. Just before we reached the castle, we passed a beautiful 11th century chapel, which spoke to me in comforting tones. Cars lined the exterior of an ancient stone and stucco towered fortress. This really was a castle! My only disappointment was there were no turrets.
Tommasso and Eliane greeted us together, and from that first moment, welcomed us into their lives, which were casual, welcoming and warm. From the start, Tommaso inspired me with his level of energy and his zeal for life. He struggled, laughing, as he heaved my heavy bag from the trunk. Mortified, lest this gentleman in his 60’s develop a hernia carrying my vast assortment of nightgowns, I took the bag from him and he embraced me in a mighty hug as we shared the first of many merry laughs together.
Eliane, on the other hand, seemed to radiate gentleness and grace. Though she greeted us in sweats, she possessed a quiet beauty which extended beyond her graying hair and softly lined face. Somehow, it seemed to be, as strange as this sounds, the beauty of a life well lived and strength of character. She welcomed us warmly and showed us to our rooms – a two bedroom suite with a bath. We were asked to make ourselves at home – we were welcome anywhere in the castle and the party would begin at 9:00.
Tommaso had indicated to Jay that the attire for the evening was dressy, but not formal. I had struggled with this, worrying that Houston ideas of dressy and formal might be different from what those terms might mean in a castle in Europe. I ultimately decided to play it safe, and to build a safety zone on both sides with a “perfect” LBD (little black dress) and great pair of shoes. The evening wasn’t at all what I expected. The castle was filled with 25-30 very close friends and family, and it felt much the same way that holiday festivities feel when my own family gathers together. The surroundings were ancient and elegant, but the focus was on the joy of togetherness: the chance to cherish those who were loved and make a new friend or two. We enjoyed a delicious but simply served meal. No wine bottles here! They simply took pottery jugs to the cellar and filled them with estate grown wine, straight from the barrel. I think that may have been the single element of castle life that seemed, to me, the most romantic.
Tommaso and Eliane were so gracious. Jay and I were the only guests who spoke English as a first language. Yet, they had gone to the trouble, well before-hand, to gather a group of eight that could converse in English to join us at the hosts’ table. The entire meal, English was the only language spoken at our table, even though it was a bit of a struggle for some. Elaine’s mother, in particular, spoke only French, and was excluded from the entire conversation, but smiled broadly at us throughout. I can’t recall another time in my life when anyone has extended that much effort to make me feel welcome. I began to feel a touch ashamed that I had doubted my comfort with my new friends and ashamed that I allowed my own insecurities to stain my heart.
At 11:45, the meal reached its conclusion and we adjourned to another room the watch the Italian equivalent of the ball drop on television. Champagne was passed around and in true Italian tradition, everybody had to kiss, and kiss again, everybody else. It was a magic moment. I feel so grateful to have been given the opportunity to glimpse, just for a moment, the manner in which people who are a part of a culture, a little different from my own, privately celebrate the passage of time and the gift of another year.
The part of the celebration that I found the most intriguing, however, was the way that the different generations interacted. About half of those present were young adults, in their twenties or early thirties. Not long after the kissing ended, the rock-n-roll began. I was so surprised when the lights dimmed, the music began and everyone, including the little French grandma, started line dancing! It was fun, even if it caused my feet in those 5” stiletto heels to ache. The revelry continued, the music got louder, and one by one, us “old folks” gradually drifted to chairs at the room’s periphery, watching, toes a tappin’, the fun of the dance to those who remained. At 2:00, jet-lag got us and Jay and I politely excused ourselves, the party still raging, the younger generation still dancing, the music still blaring. It had been an absolutely wonderful evening.
The thing that seemed so remarkable to me about the latter part of the evening was that I couldn’t imagine it happening, at the time, at either my mother’s house or my own. This party was truly multi-generational. I wasn’t surprised by that. Italians have a reputation for tight extended family. The part I found surprising was how much they all enjoyed being together, and the very fact that “young” music was not only tolerated, but welcomed. It occurred to me, as I reflected back about the evening, that perhaps the reason that Italians families remain so connected is that generations each make more effort to bridge the gaps that separate them, embracing things that change, remaining willing to live and fully participate, at least for a while, in one another’s world.
It was a lesson learned, one that I hope has helped me to both parent better and to entertain more graciously. And what an amazing way to gain meaningful insights into my own life.