Chapter One:  Morning in Santa Lucia

It was the light that visitors to Santa Lucia first noticed. Honeyed and golden in the morning when it pooled in corners and created a glow that seemed to emanate from the alabaster stones quarried thousands of years ago from the heart of the Apennine mountains. That light swelled and turned throughout the day, until it was oddly blue in the late afternoon. Not the expectable pastel blue, but almost navy. As if the ink of night were dipped onto a paintbrush and then touched to the watery air of Santa Lucia, spreading a sheen of luminescent cobalt throughout the town.

Of course, there really weren’t all that many visitors to Santa Lucia, and the ancestors of the townspeople had stopped remarking on the oddly swirling light generations ago. Nowadays, their voices matched the cadence of that light without their noticing the intertwining of their days with the swelling and swooping of the glimmering and gloaming. In the morning, as they passed each other on their way to their jobs as town gardener, teacher, baker, and shopkeeper their voices rose, hail and hearty. “Buongiorno!” The lilt on that second o. They stopped and knotted together in the street, gesturing at the billboard in the town comune announcing another possible strike, before separating with a staccato, “Ciao! Ciao! Cia-o!” That sounded for all the world like a clutch of chickens clucking with cheer at the approach of a food pail. 

Most often those street greetings happened in front of Bar Birbo. A moment of passing that propelled the townspeople to angle into the Bar, into the orbit of Chiara, who added her glowing welcome to the burbling morning energy. As the painter and the butcher drifted into the Bar to continue their conversation about the weather for the upcoming hunt of cinghiale, wild boar, they’d be greeted by Chiara, who had already moved to prepare their coffee. These newcomers used their hips to create space at the bar between the chattering patrons, and they’d continue their conversation while shaking their sugar packets in anticipation of the espresso Chiara would hand them with a smile and an “eccola,” here it is. They’d acknowledge the arrival of the dark and nutty coffee in the thick white cups with a nod before resuming their conversation. In mere moments, they moved from new arrival to scenery, as the next pair or trio of townspeople met in the street and nodded into Bar Birbo.

It was like this every morning. Every morning save Mondays, when the bar was closed. The bar had been closed on Mondays since Chiara’s great-grandfather, under pressure to turn the economic tide that was threatening to sink his family into ruin, converted the downstairs of their ancient palazzo into a bar. The first bar in Santa Lucia, the first bar in the region, the townspeople often crowed. And yet, even though the bar’s closed day hadn’t changed in over 70 years, the people of Santa Lucia would still stop and gape, confused, as they propelled a friend by the arm towards the waxed wooden front of Bar Birbo, only to find the door shut tight. Their eyes would drift upward to the open window of the residence above the bar, where Chiara would undoubtedly be making her famous ricotta cake for herself and whatever niece or nephew had come for a visit. Grumbling, the disappointed espresso-seeker shuffled to the tabaccheria. Where the coffee lacked the sweet roundness of Bar Birbo’s, and the owner, Cesare scowled at the once-weekly swelling in his coffee clientele. Mondays lacked a certain wholeness for the citizens of Santa Lucia, but one could pick up a giornale, newspaper, and the marca da bollo stamp for whatever piece of bureaucracy the patron had been putting off.

And so every day but one, townspeople strolled out of Bar Birbo with their minds sharpened by Chiara’s coffee, and their souls knit with their neighbors’. They often paused on the low step leading from Bar Birbo to the cobblestone street—taking in as if with fresh eyes the way the sunset-hued stucco buildings added a murmur of color to the predominately stone walls, the way the red gerarium-filled flowerpots added splashes of lucidity, the way the their noses twitched and raised of their own accord at the over-arching scent of almonds floating from the bakery, and the way the children with backpacks as unweldly as turtle shells raced to school, their laughter weaving through the sound of the churchbells.

Such were mornings in Santa Lucia. Just as they had been for generations.


Il Bel Centro: The Book

Leaping into an unknown is never easy, but it's made all the more extraordinary when that leaping involves three children, two cats, a lack of ability to communicate, and a town unchanged by time.

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About Michelle

More than you ever wanted to know about any writer, ever.

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Il Bel Centro: The Blog

Selected Posts from the Blog, primarily for readers who turned the last page of Il Bel Centro and wondered, "What happened when you got home? Did the cats make it okay? Were you happy to be home? Did you have any reverse culture shock?"

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