It was coming home. The feeling leading up to the trip, the anticipation on the plane, the thrill of joy when we clamored out of the Fiat and soaked in the churchbells, the leaping of my heart when I caught sight of Paola waiting in the street outside Bar Bonci.
Within minutes, it felt like the last two years had been a dream. Which leads me to conclude that the brain is a rather stupid instrument—it can only process what is directly in front of it. When we arrived home from Italy, the whole year took on the hue of a fable. And the instant we returned, it was like all the things that happened in Virginia for the past two years were a collective hallucination.
That was from our perspective. As for Spellani, I noticed it took a beat for folks to recognize us. Even people who knew we were returning let their eyes slide past us a time or two before performing a comedic double take and moving towards us, arms outstretched. So many outstretched arms. Letizia came running down from her apartment when she heard we arrived in Bar Bonci, Giorgio looking as dapper as ever, Marcello with a special ruffle of the hair for Gabe, and even the alley ladies. One grabbed my hand as we walked through the alley, looked into my eyes searchingly and stuttered, “É lei? É lei?” (Is it her? Is it her?). I’ve realized that Italians have figured out the art of adoring people. And goodness, being in radiance of someone’s love—well, that is a thing apart.
And of course Angelo. On our first day walking up the hill, I spied him and practically collapsed into his arms. Later in the afternoon, I visited him with a gift I'd waited years to deliver. He sat me across from him at the desk where I stubbornly refused to learn about the posta and instead sidelined him with questions about tortellini. He beamed at me and nodded, and I placed my book into the hands of the man who taught more more than any school teacher. He held it for a moment, weighed it in his hands (yes! It’s long! But half the size it could have been!), and then settled it in front of him, to discuss each aspect of the book, pronouncing it un bel lavoro, a beautiful work.
That was the beginning of seeing Il Bel Centro all over town. This book has lived in my heart for years—an homage to this town and its people, a journey into my process of settling among them. To see it stacked in Paola’s shop, on the counter at Bar Bonci, on it’s own table at Vinosofia, never failed to make my breath catch.
I was invited to a meeting with Irene, the Head of Culture for Spello as well as Antonio, who was vice-mayor when we lived there. They told me that they wanted to throw a manefestazione, a party, for me and my book. I listened as they discussed Il Bel Centro. My comprehension kept up until my brain fogged from emotion. A glowing New York Times book review can’t ever compare with the ache of tenderness as I listened to Spellani discuss how best to celebrate Il Bel Centro.
The manefestazione was part of a month long event called Incontri per le Strade (Meeting in the Streets), where the arts of Spello are showcased. As such, I was encouraged to attend a press conference discussing the schedule of events. I did, and spent more time gaping at Constantine’s tablet granting Spello permission to hold gladiator fights than paying strict attention. I did stumble on the program for the month long celebration which is how I found out that the book party was supported by I Borghi Piu Belli d’Italia. Angelo took many copies of the program, and cut out the entry about the manefestazione, glued them in a grid on a piece of paper, drew a red border on each, then made what must’ve been a hundred copies. Then he cut out the slips of paper, and handed them out to everyone in the street. He and Keith had this running joke because Keith asked if the slips of paper were biglietti, tickets, to the event. Angelo would declare, “Biglietto si… IN. Biglietto no… OUT.” Finger waggling.
Knowing that I was expected to give a speech for the manefestazione, for ten minutes, in Italian, created not a little stress. But working on it with Paola became a collaboration, and I’d pop into the shop several times a day to discuss the translation, what I’d wear (this made me nervous, but I ended up being outfitted by Paola, hence my greater than average level of sartorial sophistication), which shops were contributing, and how to translate two of my entries into Italian. Paola felt it was important that the Spellani in attendance understand why my book was important for them as a community. She imposed on herself the task of translation, and I treasured not only our discussions in her shop about how impossible it was to translate “My heart is full” into Italian, but also the daily texts from her reading, “Shiver of anticipation—what means?”
When I woke up the day of the manefestazione, Keith sat down next to me and asked if I was ready for my big day. My stomach lurched. Remember, my daughter comes by it honest—being the center of attention twists my insides into uncomfortable shapes. I reminded him that this was the book’s big day. Not mine. He nodded with mock seriousness and then we left for our morning coffee.
It was our last day in Spello, and as a family we were struggling to keep our spirits up, so it was a boon to have the distraction of the afternoon event. At 5:00, we wandered down to the piazza. The manefestazione was held at the base of the palazzo communale. The area is open on two sides, and then closed against the wall of the palazzo on two sides, which makes it open, but shaded. Important for events in the heat-soaked Umbrian August.
As Paola was artfully setting my books around the area, Angelo zipped up in his yellow Fiat and ordered Gabe to come with him to the macelleria to pick up the butcher’s contribution to the event. A ride which, if Gabe’s wide-eyed glee when he returned was any indication, had all the speed and daring of a roller coaster. “Plus, Angelo didn’t make me wear a seat belt!”
People began drifting in. Tom appeared walking down the hill—seeing him and Colleen the week before had been a highlight of our trip, and we were saddened that a virus kept Colleen in Piegaro, but thrilled to have a representative from our children’s Umbrian grandparents in attendance. Sicilian Angelo drifted in, smiling at me, smiling at everyone, smiling to be smiling, as is his way. Giorgio and Marcello appeared, and Marcello looked at me searchingly to ask how I was doing. I said I was a little nervous. “Ma, perche?” I told him because it was scary to be speaking in front of so many people. He told me he also had some words to say. I figured I misunderstood him. An alleylady, elegantly attired and looking beautiful found a seat. Gabe’s first grade teacher (Alessia in the blog, but over gelato and prosecco in Assisi she asked to be referred to with her real name in future copies), Antonella hurried in to get a seat right in the front, next to Gabe. Brenda smiled and winked as she settled herself down. Our landlady, Patrizia, squeezed my arm reassuringly on her way to find an open chair. The owner of La Cantina asked me to sign his book, and I told him how much we’d enjoyed our last lunch at his restaurant just that day. Members of our Infiorata group, Pochi, Ma Buoni stood in the back and beamed. And then I spied Sante, Conci, Silvano, and Roberta. If you have yet to read the book, it will be hard to explain the tears that leapt unbidden into my eyes when I saw them. This family folded us into theirs with an ease that forever changed me. They taught me how to cook, how to eat, how to savor, and how to look across a language and culture divide with nothing but love and a willingness to embrace. I feel like I would need an entire post to dedicate to how moved I was to see them walk in, my book tucked tightly under Conci’s arm. They rushed to me and smiled with pride. I felt folded into their hearts, safe and adored.
It was a “who’s who” of people that were vital to our year in Italy, and central to my book.
And then it began.
I sat in the middle of five people—Irene and Antonio on my left, then Anya (there to translate) and Paola to my right. Irene spoke first, about the book and what the book can mean for Spello—including a suggestion that it can be an excellent way for young people to practice reading in English. Then Antonio spoke about how we met, and how much he enjoyed my writing, and even though there are aspects of the book that sound critical of Spello, he feels that this is an excellent opportunity for the town to look at itself honestly, as that is the way towards real growth. Which struck me as sort of metaphor for my book. Then it was my turn.
I had no microphone, and I had to battle with those beloved rattling apes, and yes my voice did shake at the start (and I blew some of the pronunciation that I’d worked so hard to master— soddisfacente is really hard to say), but I found my groove where I expected to find my groove, when I got to the part of the speech about what I learned during the course of the year.
Reading this love letter aloud to the town that has shaped my life and my journey, gave the words resonance. The moment was deep, and I plunged into those depths, blinking back tears at the end when I professed my thanks to the people of Spello. At my final words, the assembly erupted in cheers, which was really the final straw as far as those tears were concerned. And that was okay. More than okay. I breathed deeply to imprint on my heart the emotion and gratitude.
And then came Gabe. He stood up and gave a speech saying that he loved Spello because the cats are cute, the scenery is beautiful, and the people are kind. I’ll leave it to you to imagine the hooting and applause when he finished.
Paola then read her translation of two entries from my book. My words transformed into Italian rolled over me, but I was more aware of the laughter and appreciative sighing of the 75 or so people in front of me. That is, when I wasn’t distracted by shopkeepers gliding in to place food on the tables that were growing progressively mounded with offerings. Prosecco from La Cantina, Il Trombone, and Ristorante Drinking Wine. Boxes of biscotti from the forno, trays of melon from our negozio, La Tavola Dell' Umbro (along with a supportive patting of my shoulder), salumi from Teresa’s panini shop on the piazza, pastries from Bar Tullia, drinks from Bar Bonci (with a note of good luck), a cake from Maura, pizza from L'Orlando Furioso the new pizzeria in the centro, Jiulia Ristoro. Food is now mingled with the memories of my book’s celebration and that is intensely right.
After Paola sat down, Angelo walked to the front. He spoke about how I write with my heart, and therefore this book about Spello is more than just a book of the sights to be found in their community, but a book about the “anima della Spellanitá” I’m not even sure how to translate this, since I’m pretty sure Spellanitá is one of those made up Italian words. He went on to say that this is a book not for the regular tourist, but for the cultural tourist. For those people who want to know the true character of a village.
Then it turns out, Marcello did speak. He took Gabe by the hand and walked to the front and spoke about meeting our family, but really about how much Gabe has meant to him and the community—through his openness, his art, and his card playing. Seeing as several people have told me that Il Bel Centro can alternatively be titled, “The Book of Gabe,” this was a dear tribute, by a dear man.
After the applause died down, Keith rose and spoke about how much Thomas Jefferson (whose home, Monticello, is just a few miles from our house) was inspired by Italy. And how some of Jefferson’s most noted ideas come from his Italian friend Philip Mazzei. In recognition of the ties that connect our countries, and connect our family to Spello, he presented the town with an engraved silver cup from Monticello, known affectionately in Charlottesville as a Jefferson Cup . He spoke eloquently and with force in his voice, and I was so proud of him. His speech really brought home how this book, this experience, are vibrant threads in our family tapestry. Irene assured him that the cup would be placed on display in the town hall.
More applause, and then it was time to eat. Well, for everyone else. This was like my wedding, in that I got to see the pretty food, but eat very little. My time was spent meeting people that were so friendly and interesting it felt frankly wrong that we were leaving before I’d have the chance to sit down to share a meal with them. And there was book signing. And trying to connect with those friends I could before we left.
Finally the last of the food was divided up for others to take home and Paola and I looked at each other with tearful smiles. She had been such a rallying force, from her help in translating at the organizational meeting with Irene and Antonio, to her offering to keep the boxes of books in her shop to give to vendors, to sitting me down over coffee and telling me that this book should be a bestseller, but we simply must have it translated. Our hearts had been knit on this project and her happiness was a mirror of my own.
We agreed that we were too exhausted to eat a proper meal, so instead we dined on gelato and spritzes on Tullia’s patio. A fitting end to a celebration that was a fitting end to a memorable family vacation.