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Just What the Doctor Ordered

Valerie Schneider

When I was a child I hated going to the doctor. It wasn't that he was harsh or uncaring; he was actually a pretty nice guy. He was very tall, or at least seemed that way to me in my smallness, but he would sit down on a low stool to put himself at face level with me. His secretary was the mother of a classmate and she always chirped cheerfully about school or who had been in because of a black eye on the playground.

The overall experience really wasn't so bad, considering the fact that I was generally in a doctor's office in the first place because of not feeling well. But I dreaded getting shots, and for some reason most of whatever my now-forgotten ailments were seem to have required treatment at needle-point.

It didn't matter that there would be a lollipop waiting for me afterwards. I would sit in the waiting room with tension and terror building until my stomach churned. By the time they led me back into the exam room, I had myself worked into a good lather and would burst into tears, crying, "I don’t want a shot! Please don't prick me!" And so focused on the dread and crying that I didn't even notice he had given me the shot during my hysterical outburst.

That's pretty much how it felt leading up to our departure from Italy.

Our Farewell Tour wound down with two weeks spent in the Motherland, where we holed up in a small apartment at a wonderful agriturismo and wandered to all the sights around Basilicata we had not yet had the opportunity to see.

We visited Aliano, made famous by Carlo Levi's year of house arrest. We stomped among the ancient ruins of Grumentum, the only visitors that day except for a local shepherd and his flock. We seized the opportunity to view a little-known, recently-discovered portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, which was found in the tiny but charming hamlet of Acerenza. We walked country roads breathing the mountain air and marveling at the breathtaking views, and lost our hearts all over again.

Carlo Levi statue, Aliano

Carlo Levi statue, Aliano

Our love for the landscape and people increased along with our melancholy at leaving.

Our final stop was a week back home in Ascoli Piceno. Our former landlord, apparently feeling bad at how things had transpired, generously offered us a furnished studio apartment for our stay.

It felt strange to be visitors in our adopted hometown. We had our calendar chalked up with appointments to meet friends, have rounds of dinners and drinks and coffees. We rambled around and marveled yet again at the wonderfulness of this place we have called home, wondering why it is still so undiscovered, yet a little glad it is still all "ours."

We took photos of people and places that somehow, in nearly three years, we managed to not capture on film (or digital, as the case may be).

The place was the same, yet it had changed. Sadly, we noticed that several shops had closed in just the few months we had been away, and we were told that several factories and small business operators had shuttered as well. Some of our friends reported difficulties with their own businesses. La crisi economica was on everyone's lips and worried minds.

And yet the spirit remained the same. The passeggiata was still paraded, the piazza was still packed every evening, and the caffés had their usual flow and rhythm. The girl who hits up everyone for cigarettes was still on the prowl; Rita still circled the town on her bicycle yelling who-knows-what at the passersby; the Don King look-alike still hung around. All the personaggi (town characters) were in their predictable places, as much a part of the landscape as ever. And so were we. We were back in our usual haunts, feeling right back at home.

Which may not have been such a good idea.

It made it harder to leave, not knowing exactly when we will return. Everyone asked us for a date, a time frame they could count on when they would see us again, and we were unable to say for certain. We could only state definitively that we will return to Italia.

I tried hard to keep it together, a task rendered useless in the face of our friends. Some of those who cried at our departure completely took me by surprise. I expected it from Roberta, but when I saw mist in Gianluca's eyes, I commenced unbridled bawling. Two other male friends openly shed tears, one an elderly gentleman named Ezio, whose emotional display blind-sided me. Since no one ever cries alone in my presence, I spent several days red-nosed and puffy-eyed.

By the time we arrived in Rome I was exhausted and taut from emotion and from hefting heavy boxes and bags. We took over Giorgio and Francesca's taverna, which we divided into sections of "to take" and "to store." We mounded up clothes, started stuffing them into duffel bags, then retreated for a little perspective before returning to the piles and yanking out other non-necessity items so as to lighten our very heavy cargo.

I hate packing for even a two-week trip; this was a miseria. The uncertainty of our immediate future made it difficult, but we also knew that we would need certain items when did return. As we packed our hearts grew as heavy as our overstuffed bags.

We took a sanity day in the centro. We love our friends but they live so far from the centro that I wouldn't call that area Rome. In fact, their house is just a smidgen from the GRA, the ring road that encircles the city. We spent the day wandering the Eternal City, viewing churches and galleries we had not yet seen, and capped it off with aperitivi on a tranquil, panoramic roof-top terrace before finishing up at the Fontana di Trevi, where we plunked in our coins for good luck and a speedy return.

Bryan & Valerie at the Trevi Fountain

Exchanging coins for luck at the Trevi

With such a heartrending couple of weeks, I dreaded the departure. But, oddly, when we boarded the plane that would transport us away from Italy, we sat down tired but wired and feeling a little … well, giddy, which was not the emotion we had expected to be experiencing at all.

This unanticipated buoyancy was partly owing to an encounter with the Airport Angel. Like all good angels, he appeared as if from nowhere and performed an amazing deed of kindness. Like all good friendships in Italy, we formed a bond over food - in this case, mozzarella di bufala. We met Angelo by chance at a caseificio and talked several times after that. We learned that he worked at Fiumicino airport.

When he called on Easter to extend his auguri we told him our departure date. He asked us to contact him when we were en route to the airport and he would meet us for a caffé. We arrived to find him waiting on the curb outside the international terminal in uniform. Turns out, our friend is on the security detail. He had prearranged with the folks at our airline for a streamlined check-in so that we would not have the headache (or backache!) of juggling our seven (count 'em!) large luggage pieces (plus carry on bags) through the snaking line. Afterwards, he wanted to buy us coffee; after much insistence we got him to relent and allow *us* to buy *him* a caffé. He also gave us a piccolo pensiero (little gift) in the form of chocolate. Oh these Italiani! Their amazing hospitality and thoughtfulness are what have made these past three years so incredible for us.

There was another reason for our sudden lightheartedness. While we were in Rome we purchased a few little souvenirs, along with a larger keepsake. We bought a house!

Okay, actually it is a very small apartment in a tiny village, but it is a habitable piece of property nonetheless. We looked at it during our sojourn in Basilicata and debated over it for a few weeks. We made the decision to buy just 16 hours before we left the country. It may seem crazy to you, but it made perfect sense to us, and it definitely made it easier to board that plane, let me tell you.

And, since we were being impulsive we figured we'd really do it, we made the purchase agreement over the phone. We didn’t really have any other choice, given the eleventh-hour decision. We had already met with the owner, who resides in Rome, and she took a liking to us. We stayed and chatted with her for a few hours, talking about all manner of things, and by the time we departed she had invited us to her vacation home in northern Le Marche and offered us some furnishings if we decided to buy.

For some reason - now we are not sure why - we debated over it for another solid week (after meeting the owner) while we packed and stored our stuff. Finally, the day before we were due to leave we looked at each other and said, "Good grief, what is there to debate about? It's inexpensive, it's actually habitable, and it is in a location we love." And so that decided it.

That, along with the fantastic view from the windows.

View from the piccola casa

View from the piccola casa

When I tugged open the squeaky French doors in the living room, jagged mountain peaks, emerald pastures, and an enormous turquoise sky greeted me. The key selling point for Bryan: it comes with two cantine, hewn right into the rock hillside, where generations upon generations have stored their vino and prosciutto and other goods. It is also in easy reach of my ancestral villages.

We are waiting on the paperwork, but we will soon have our own small place in Italy and we couldn't be happier about it. While our lives are currently in flux and we have no fixed home in the US, the one place on Earth we know we will return to for the rest of our lives is Basilicata, the Motherland.

After we buckled our seatbelts, I clasped Bryan's hand tightly and squealed, "Oh my gosh … we just bought a house in Italy!"

Like my childhood doctor visits, all my anxiety and dread turned out to be fairly innocuous. We will give the savings account a shot in the arm and it will be healthy again soon. Waiting for us back in Basilicata is a small 400-year old place to truly call home, and that is just what the doctor ordered.

Additional Resources

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in the United States and conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2009

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