For a girl from Long Island (that’s how I still see myself, but I have to face that I’m a grown up woman now) who’s been living in Italy for about 30 years, the question when meeting someone new is always the same: “How did you end up living in Italy?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question and one I would probably ask if roles were switched.
The story has lots of interesting twists and exciting turns; I’ve had to come up with a condensed version for parties and casual get togethers. Most want to know the rest of it, but time hasn’t permitted, so here I am to share the full tale with you.
It’s been a long and enriching road from my days as the first American student in L’Aquila (a small city about 1 and 1/2 hours from Rome) to the owner and managing partner of a destination management company (DMC). I now have the privilege of organizing incentives, meetings and special events (MICE, in the industry lingo) throughout all of Italy. I get to experience the best the country has to offer and find those hidden places that aren’t available to everybody.
It all started at the University of Miami in 1987, my freshman year. Several credits in a foreign language were required. I already spoke Spanish (that is a whole other story) and so I decided on Italian – no specific reason, like most of my life decisions at that time.
In the second year of Italian class, the professor comes in one day and makes an announcement: “We will be starting an exchange program between our university and the Universita’ di L’Aquila set up by a Miami professor from that town. Would anybody be interested in participating?” Without any thought, without even knowing where L’Aquila was, without any idea of what the exchange would entail, I raise my hand. I figure, why not – sounds pretty cool.
So, for the fall semester of 1988, seven brave UM students will be heading off to L’Aquila – each of us totally ignorant of what awaits us. After all these years, I can’t remember why I traveled to Italy about a week before my fellow students, but it made for a very interesting first day!
Now let me just back up and give you some background from the Italians’ side. This exchange program was a HUGE deal for them. While an esteemed university in Italy, it certainly isn’t famous with foreigners and we would be the first Americans to attend the school. They had set up a Centro Linguistico (linguistic center) just for our little group. We had an important professor in charge of the program, teachers who we would be working with day-to-day, and even a secretary. A little excessive, but that’s Italy as I would come to learn.
OK, back to my trip.
I fly into Rome where I’m picked up by this important professor who speaks surprisingly little English, and his driver (yes, you read correctly). During the hour and 1/2 ride I start to realize that my few classes in Italian back in Miami didn’t prepare me for real life conversations or even basic communication in Italy. The driver drops me off at the “Casa dello Studente” – the dorms -, gives me the key to my room, and leaves.
I will be having dinner together with a group of about 10 people later that evening; it seems I am already somewhat of a celebrity in a town that sees very few foreign tourists. L’Aquila is the capitol of the Italian Abruzzo region, which for me is the most beautiful in Italy, but it is definitely off the beaten path (which also means that NOBODY speaks English).
It’s a Sunday and the Italian tradition (at least back then) is that Sunday is for rest. Stores are all closed, streets are empty – the quiet is almost deafening – the only noise is the church bells ringing. But I’m extremely hungry after my long trip and I absolutely must find something to eat. After walking around for an hour or so I finally come to the one café that is open. I’m able to point to a ham and cheese sandwich that they heat up for me and it’s delicious. That café became my favorite and I would often go for that same sandwich over the coming months.
Another side note: by law, at least one café in a certain range of distance must stay open on Sundays and the town makes a schedule for the various cafés to take turns.
I’ll skip over the details of my walking around the town the whole afternoon and go straight to the dinner. Suffice it to say, my mouth was wide open the whole time. I was awestruck at the beauty surrounding me.
So, I’m at this dinner to celebrate my arrival in L’Aquila and the start of this cultural exchange. Again, none of the Italian I learned in my classes in Miami is of any help and I find myself at a table full of people that I can barely communicate with. Adding to this frustration is that fact that many restaurants don’t give you menus; the owner or chef will tell you what they have prepared that day.
I understand nothing! I don’t know what anyone else ordered. I’m worried about letting the owner just choose (I was such a picky eater back then), so I decide to go with a safe Italian dish. I ask for Fettuccine Alfredo. What I get in return is a very confused look from the owner and a sentence I’m able to understand: “Ma il nostro chef si chiama Carlo.”
I have no idea why he is telling me the name of the chef and again ask for my Alfredo sauce. And again, I am told that the chef is named Carlo. After some explanation in broken English from my dinner companions, I learn the pasta Alfredo is not a typical Italian dish – they didn’t even know what is was!
(Fast forward – Fettuccine Alfredo is a dish served in only 2 restaurants in Rome named for Alfredo and with a very interesting history that I might get to later. You cannot find it anywhere else).
To be on the safe side I just have pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese – when I think back on that I know I missed an opportunity to eat something delicious. But, that night, little do I know that I have 30 years to have innumerable excellent meals and experiences!
I will leave you now with this cliffhanger until next time and I promise I won’t be going through 30 years day by day. But a first day of a new and exciting experience is always memorable and it remains in my mind and heart as if it were yesterday. My first day In L’Aquila – the city I would come to love and consider home – and the city that I still go to as often as possible, my comfortable place.