Thursday, January 30, 2014

There’s no place like home away from home

 No e-mail, no showers, no English. Oh my!

My visit to Mondaino, Italy was a whirlwind of family, food and fantastic personalities unlike anything I had ever experienced. Dorothy and Toto’s trip to Oz is tame by comparison.

To reach this tiny village in the hills along Italy’s east coast, I twisted and turned up and down one pale cobblestone road after another. The impossible inclines and precarious cliffside S-turns snaked through the hills in such a layered, convoluted pattern, that the green arrow on the GPS stopped progressing and simply spun in place like a weathervane caught in a wind storm. By the time the rental car finished the climb, my brain spun in place too.

Mondaino sits high atop the Rimini Province, surrounded by a handful of similar hamlets, all comprised of narrow streets, terracotta-topped homes and spectacular panoramic views. Each village revolves around a medieval church, each one more hauntingly beautiful than the next. Spires and bell towers rise above the rooftops and treetops, reaching like arms to God and signaling the separation of one village from another. It is a world to which Americans are wholly unaccustomed and one that harkens back to an older time. It is a fairytale in a foreign land; the kind of place they write storybooks about.

This visit to a non-touristy corner of Italy was anything but random. Mondaino is the hometown of my wife’s grandfather, who came to America almost 80 years ago. Numerous family members remain living there, making our visit a sort of homecoming, albeit to a home we had never known. 

To navigate being immersed into Italian culture, we needed a guide (and a place to stay). We found both in Anna.

A matriarch of sorts, Anna is my wife’s grandfather’s cousin and well known around Mondaino.

She moved slowly down from the front porch when we arrived at her gate, which gave me ample time to notice the Cheshire grin stretched across her wizened face. Anna spoke no English, although she humorously attempted a few words because it incited laughter out of her foreign guests. She knew we could barely understand her, but she spoke nonstop as she ushered us into her home and gave us the grand tour.

Our bags stowed, Anna bade us sit in the room central to every Italian household: the kitchen. She began pulling cheese, meat, cookies, crackers, wine – oh the wine – from every cupboard and shelf.

“Mangia,” she said. We knew that word. You don’t disobey an Italian grandmother when she tells you to eat. As we snacked, Anna stepped to the dining room table to put the finishing touches on her homemade pasta dough. She took a few breaks to come refill our wine glasses with hearty portions of a vintage made right there in town.

At the back of the kitchen a double door opened onto a balcony. From this vantage point, the Italian countryside sprawled out like a patchwork quilt over a lumpy bed. There were fig trees below and in the near distance the center of Mondaino was noticeable because of the church bell tower. 

After too many glasses of wine, Anna decided it was time to venture out. We were led through town, her cane clacking along each cobblestone. We stopped in at a bar, a pizza shop and the post office. There was an old man at a bar who began arguing with Anna, who took offense to his rude behavior in front of her guests. The young men working at the pizza joint knew Anna’s order before she even walked in.

Partway through, my wife realized we were being shown off. Anna was trotting us around to meet her friends and other family members, with that unmistakable look of pride on her face.

The town itself looked like we were walking through the pages of any Italy coffee table book. Anna took us to the church and the plaza at the end of town that acts as a scenic overlook out onto the countryside. We trekked to a neighborhood inside garrisoned walls, having had to drive through an ancient castle gate and stone ramp just to get up to the main square. We even stopped in at the cemetery to pay respect to the family members interred there.  

Our visit culminated with a home cooked meal, as every visit to Italy should. A dozen family members crowded into Anna’s kitchen to meet their American relative and her husband. None of the adults spoke English. My wife and I, though, persevered, pulling from the Rosetta Stone Italian classes we took in the months prior. It truly is wonderful how much people can communicate by interpreting words, facial expressions, hand gestures and context. The entire dinner conversation never lagged. We carried on full conversations about sports, politics, weather, travel, food, wine, more food and more wine.

One theme stuck out, however, both in the dinner conversation and throughout our two nights in Mondaino: family. We met relatives my wife never knew she had.

There were the only English-speaking members – Sara, Elizabeth and Giancarlo, all between 16 and 19 years old – who helped translate for us at some key junctures.  We met Anna’s cousin Pino, a small, jovial old man with a heart as big as his persona. He spoke loudly, hugged genuinely and helped Anna show us off to the rest of the town. We were introduced to Vittorio, an old business partner of my wife’s grandfather. His house sat high on the outskirts but his hospitality was as warm and unquestioning as the rest.

The night before we left, my wife and I sat Anna down and turned our video camera on her. We asked her to leave us a message we could take home to the rest of the family. She spoke for a few minutes and when she started to say goodbye, she cried.

We had never met Anna before this visit. My wife, growing up, had heard her on the telephone with her grandfather and exchanged holiday cards. She received gifts from her when her grandfather returned to America after his own trips back to the homeland.

But we were immediately and infinitely Anna’s family. Our wedding photo was on her mantle among the dozens of other family portraits. We were welcomed into her home without question and treated like royalty.

By the time the whirlwind blew us out of Mondaino, I had a new respect for the definition – and the scope – of family. My wife’s Italian relatives were warm, loyal, passionate and altruistic to the bone. They wore their traditions proudly and made inclusion a priority.

In short, they made us feel at home in a very foreign place. And there really is no place like home away from home.

 This article appeared in the Saugus Advertiser and MetroWest Daily News in January, 2014

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