For the last five years, whenever in Italy, it’s been a lot of work. Personal work, caring for my mother and her health, and business, family business that requires focused attention and dedicated, intense work. Add to that the normal “wear and tear” associated with family of origin interaction – even in the best of circumstances – and the result is a level of stress that immediately reflects in my blood glucose levels (I have T1 diabetes), which start to swing up and down like I’m riding a wild, inner roller coaster. And I don’t like roller coasters.
So, to preemptively charge the inner batteries, the first week of our Italian trip is spent sailing to Venice. My wife, Annie, Lucy (the dog) and I arrive in Bologna, drive to Rimini with my uncle and aunt, Giorgio and Giovanna. We prepare the boat and set sail to Venice.
Sailing into Venice is huge for me. We motor through the canals to the marina Vento di Venezia, on the island of Certosa. (We end up docking near successful entrepreneur Mark Levinson – Kim Cattrall’s ex-husband – who gives us a warm welcome.) We go to the Venice Film Festival, where we meet up with friends, end up in the VIP section at the Excelsior Hotel, preparing for James Franco interviews and pre-party.
We meet people, say hi to friends and have aperitif by the pool. La Biennale (the major biannual international art exhibition that includes the Venice Film Festival) is in full bloom and Venice is canvassed with art installations larger than life.
We go to the world-renowned island of Murano, where precious glass artifacts have been made for over 700 years. We watch the historical Venice Annual Regatta, from a friend’s boat on the Canal Grande.
The sun and winds are generous with us as we leave Venezia toward Rimini, under spinnaker surfing on the waves.
I had heavy emotional memories connected to my father and Venice. Many of his troubles began in the water city where he spent years developing and launching the Tronchetto Island for what it is today, drifting farther and farther from us, himself and, eventually, life. Now, with this new experience of Venezia and with new eyes, the emotional load is washed away. The last time I sailed to and from Rimini was a life-time ago. Only the inner child that became the man I am now is the same. A different city, a different harbor, a different me.
We have to go back to Bologna and pick up a car rental at the airport – part of the logistics of the trip – and Annie, Lucy and I drive back to Rimini, where we will stay for the next three weeks. As soon as we arrive (back) in Rimini, before even going to our friend’s horse ranch – our Italy home away from home – we stop at Puro&Bio-Gelato Frutta (pure & organic-ice cream fruit. Vegan dark chocolate “veleno” is phenomenal) for our favorite gelato (in Via Valturio 39). (What?! But… What about diabetes?)
It’s a vegan, organic, ice cream (made from rice), fructose sweetened, that tastes like heaven and has the same carbs as fruit. Easy to compensate for (with insulin) and not obnoxious for the waist line. Healthy and sumptuous, we make it our “daily break.”
The horse ranch is a green island in the countryside immediately outside the now busy city of Rimini, just a few minutes from the downtown main square. At “il villaggio” (The Village), as we call it, live three generations of the same family, plus the ranch hands and fifty horses, give or take a few. The main couple, the grandparents and creators of everything here, are, Franco and Maria Paola. Franco was my father’s best friend and my father introduced Maria Paola to Franco when they were in their twenties. On September 15th we wish them happy 51st anniversary. It feels like a beautiful gift that my wife and I can enjoy the friendship and warmth of this family and The Village. (Thank you, dad. Always.)
For one reason or another, this year I don’t have time or space of mind to write anything with a beginning, middle and end. It feels like the faucet of oxygen to my creative soul has been shut and I find myself gasping for air. I am in a constant flow of things and people. We see old and new friends, and luckily Annie and I are very good at carving out time and space for ourselves.
We have our anniversary dinner in a gorgeous restaurant in La Vallugola, steps from the sea. Above us, a star-studded sky and in front of us, special feature, lightning storms on the water in the distance, which brighten up the horizon and take our breath away. We slowly dance before dinner is served, to our inner music, on the beach. It feels wonderful to feel home wherever we are.
We have the GPS voice set to talk to us in the Rimini dialect enriched with idioms and insults, which makes it hysterical, especially when Annie mimics it. We’re driving in the heart of Rome, one block away from the Trevi fountain. I’m not sure traffic’s allowed, but it’s Italy, and I assume that that’s got to make it okay, somehow. Our car keeps parting rivers of people and avoiding flocks of scooters and pedestrians. The GPS keeps calling me “Pataca!” (stupid) at every turn. Annie, I and Lucy are glued to everything happening in front and around us, some of us entertained, some worried about where we’re going and where we’ll end up (especially Lucy).
I love any chance I have to talk about my work, share the story and its experience, and connect to people through it. The interview is set at the bistro of the Teatro Quirino. We can feel the artistic pulse of the place. My soul relaxes and breathes during the interview, as I talk about this story that I love, hoping it reaches people everywhere, one person at a time.
As soon as the interview is over we leave Rome and after having driven 500 miles in the same day, we arrive in gorgeous Staffolo, in the Marche region. Another gift of my father’s (for which we are very grateful). A dear friend of his, Giancarlo, and his wife, Adriana, have a bed & breakfast, La Ciminiera country house. It’s become our favorite spot to chill and relax when in Italy.
It now has a man-made eco-lake (or bio-lago, made by Giancarlo’s creativity and ingenuity) where we spend hours swimming in the fresh water, laying in the sun, recharging our batteries.
Back in Rimini, as the daily ice creams follow one another, meetings with banks, accountants, lawyers, notary public, family members chase each other incessantly. But the prize goes to the meeting with a nun. The subject matter isn’t the soul, but the wallet.
Previously on “Nun in My Business”: the nun’s association owes my mother over six months of unpaid rental income and was supposed to have vacated the space nine months ago, thanks to Italian’s laws that make it super easy for a lessee to be (comfortably) delinquent. The company connected to the nun’s association is an empty shell and the only people in the by-laws are unreachable or are a resident in far away islands. Hollywood style, I call, email and try to meet with anyone who could unlock this situation, until finally I get a call. It’s the nun, and she wants to meet me. I’m happy to hear from her, but I don’t feel it’s God calling. Rather, I feel I have to lawyer up, which I do. As in the best dysfunctional relationships, where the emotionally unstable-energy draining-money wasting partner keeps demanding more arguing “poor me, poor me”, we are immediately presented with a barrage of requests “because the nun’s association has to feed the poor” (I’m not making this up). I laugh, inside, make a mental note to use it as material, and charmingly smile as I calmly say, “I’m very glad we’re meeting, Sister, and I appreciate your continued interest in the space. But just as you’re here to care for the poor, I’m here to care for my mother. Back home, in the USA, in a similar situation, it’d be a no brainer. I’d sue you for unpaid rent and lost business for half a million dollars, and quickly settle for something less.” The nun slips dark shades on her face and turns away. I continue, “But with the Italian legal system we’d be seeing each other in court for the next ten years, which isn’t in anyone’s interest. I’m happy to forgo the past and you vacate the place within the next 15 days. What do you say?” The nun’s head pivots to face me. Even though I can’t see her eyes I can sense the ‘forgo‘ part of my offer hooked her. One hour and twenty minutes later we shake on it, closing the meeting with a Hail Mary (I swear to God), along with my Jewish wife who proofs how great an improvisational actress she is. (It’s worth saying that at the time of my writing, they have yet to comply and continue looping on preposterous requests. I’m glad I lawyered up. I’m very sorry for Jesus and Mary, they deserve much better PR.)
The journalist is good, the editor in chief an old friend. The interview is fun and I’m happy it focuses on Annie and I, as a creative couple.
Then it’s Pantelleria time. Pantelleria is a small volcanic Italian island, some 62 miles southwest of Sicily and 37 miles west of Tunisia. Annie, Lucy, my uncle, aunt – who joins us a few days later – and I go for the first time to the island to view the dammuso (or damuso). Dammusos are the architectural symbol of Pantelleria. They were created in the 10th century A.D., evolved and developed up until the 17th century. A dammuso is made with dry volcanic stone walls. The walls are exceptionally wide to support the domes and vaulted ceilings, for the collection and canalization of rain water. The island is gorgeous, its energy is “sweet”, the colors and nature are magnificent.
Giorgio Armani has a big chunk of land here, near to where we stay, and artists like Madonna and Sting make it their frequent vacation destination. The volcanic vapors that come out from under the earth’s crust warm both the sea around the island and a spectacular lake, The Mirror of Venus (Lo Specchio di Venere).
We go and bathe as often as we can. We feel our bodies and skin nourished and enriched by the fresh water of the lake and its mud, or the warm sea water, that mix with vapors coming from the center of the earth.
My mother bought this dammuso in 1991, loved it, fixed and developed it. She, my sister and her family enjoyed it every year, until they stopped, eight years ago.
Imagine what we walk into when we open the door. Like in a horror movie, life had stopped exactly as the last person who visited left it. Clothes hanging – and rotting – outdoors furniture inside, curtains of spider webs in selected spots, geckos, and cockroaches so healthy and strong they seem on their way back from the gym and you feel badly you’re disturbing them. Most of all, the smell. It smells like abandonment.
My uncle’s eyes bug out, “Okay. We saw it. Let’s go.” Annie is carefully controlling her gut to avoid retching, inadvertently. Lucy sniffs around for a moment, then Annie sweeps her up to protect her from the unknown.
I walk around, slowly breathing in the remnant of a life once lived by a portion of my family of origin and their friends. Every room is so full of stuff I can’t get a sense of the size of the dammuso. Everything feels suffocating. Things are broken. I am flooded with sadness.
But as I keep opening doors and windows, a feeling of “possibility” flies inside my spirit, like an evening breeze after a muggy day. There is a specific smell coming from the thick stone walls that is, I don’t know how, reassuring. After all, the last eight years are like a grain of sand on the beach of time that these walls endured, and I can sense their reassuring strength. It’s very strange, but like a silent voice, I keep getting encouraging waves of energy from these walls and the arched ceilings.
When I step on the porch and look outside, I feel something I never felt before. A sense of pride, connected to the land. It’s a good stretch, over 21,500 square feet, with a beautiful westerly view of the Mediterranean sea wrapping around the island. Everything is overgrown and messy, but it doesn’t matter. The land is there and it’s beautiful. There are pear trees, apple trees, mandarin and orange trees, olive trees, and big prickly pear trees. And this feeling grows when I step into the giardino pantesco, a garden, typical of dammusos to protect the plants from the winds, that can be accessed from the living room or the porch, surrounded by lava stone walls with no ceiling. It’s big, it has two lemon trees, one fig tree and one medlar tree. I stand still and I can see the life that happened here and can happen here, once the roaches have been relocated.
I pick a lemon. It’s delicious.
My uncle says, “Let’s go back.” I’m not a real estate developer, a contractor or a builder, but I have one week and I want to get things done. “Let’s find who can do the work,” I say. Continuously showing up, taking the next action and following the synchronicity of the results, by the end of the first day we interviewed and got estimates from three gardeners/landscapers and two contractors. We pick the most reliable ones and the ones that quoted the best prices (budget is minimal).
The lead worker we hired is Bollo, the owner of the dammuso where we’re staying with Giorgio and Giovanna. He’s a builder by vocation. With a glimmer of pride in his eyes, he tells me the Pantelleria airport runway was hand-built and he was one of the men who laid and leveled the asphalt, when he was in his twenties. I immediately know he’s the right man for the job.
By day two we have excavators on the land, workers on the roof and gloves on our hands to clean out everything that needs to be let go. It feels very good to let go. Every morning Annie and I get up at 6 and by sunrise we are riding a scooter around the island to the dammuso. The early morning colors of the rocks, the island, the sea and the sky are absolutely magnificent and fill our spirits with powerful natural beauty.
Half way through the week I am exhausted and overwhelmed. The stress level is somewhat compensated by the heavy physical work, which helps keep diabetes is balance. Whenever possible, Annie and I jump in the pool, or cover ourselves with the magical muds of the Mirror of Venus, or relax in the warm volcanic waters in the sea, as the clock keeps ticking.
Four days (ten hours a day) and three truck loads of stuff-thrown-away later, and the dammuso breathes a new life, the life I felt at the very beginning. The space is clean, full of light, and feels really good. My uncle is shocked and impressed by the turnaround. I can hear the walls smiling.
Digging the land we find an antique clothes stone wash basin, maybe one hundred years old. In the giardino pantesco we find a rusty collection of ancient tools scattered around, and a WWII helmet. Annie and I sit in the clean garden in silence, feeling the space, looking around. We let the energy of the dammuso and its island flow through us as the sun prepares to set right on our porch. It feels beautiful.
When we leave the work that has been accomplished is quite exceptional. The dammuso is in very good shape and has enormous potential.
We had fun times, were filled by stunning natural beauty and met good people. One above all, Maria Teresa, or Cicci, the owner of the little cafe/bar/restaurant Cicci’s Bar, a place to visit if you’re in the town of Pantelleria.
Something accompanied us during our stay on the island, seemingly unrelated to anything else, the America’s Cup. It’s the oldest international sporting trophy, the most prestigious sailing competition for the last 160 years. A multimillion dollar event that saw the defenders of the cup, Oracle Team USA, competing against the challengers, Emirates Team New Zealand, in the San Francisco Bay. The boats, ultra-light 70 foot catamarans, foiling on the water at speeds in excess of 50 miles/hr, unprecedented in sailing history. The regatta has TV coverage so good it should be nominated for an Emmy. The USA found itself down 8 races to 1, to the best of 17. Every night we tune in on our iPads and iPhones, cheering for a highly improbable comeback (since New Zealand only needs to win one race to take the cup).
One race at a time, Oracle Team USA pulls off the impossible. We are so hooked, we make our restaurant decisions based on where we find free WiFi to watch the regatta. The day of the last, winner takes all race, we drive up to La Favarotta (go there if you’re in Pantelleria), on the top of a hill reachable through a very improbable road, especially at night.
Everything stops when Oracle Team USA sails through the finish line of the last race and wins the America’s Cup. The comeback has no precedent in recorded sport history. It make me feel that, showing up with a clear goal in mind has tremendous power.
Back in Rimini for the last week we get our daily gelato, but we come back to a sudden winter, as if autumn happened the week we were in Pantelleria and now it’s a cold, humid and rainy winter.
The last days find me tired and looking forward to going back home. We have done a lot of work, been interviewed, sailed, celebrated, had wonderful times, shared great times with friends and family, ate awesome vegan gelato and visited beautiful places.
Now it’s time to go home and tell some stories.