I’m waiting in a long, serpentine line, hundreds of feet and people long. The going is slow, but steady. Finally, after almost an hour, I arrive at front of the line, and walk up to an immigration officer, sitting distractedly behind his desk.
During the wait, a few idle worries raced through my mind—will he ask for the address of my hotel? Will he look through my passport, and ask about the past countries I’ve visited? Or, my most relevant concern, will he ask if I have a flight out of the country (which I have not yet booked)? Often, countries will not let foreigners enter unless they have a plan of departure. More than once I’ve had to book a flight at the in-airport travel center, or directly on my phone while sitting in the check-in area.
I sheepishly push my passport across the counter with a weak smile. The officer, a tanned 30-something year-old man with fashionable hair, Armani glasses, and a stylish police shirt, complete with popped collar, takes my passport.
Instead of asking questions, looking through my passport, or even putting it through the electric scanner, he simply opens it to the middle of two blank pages, takes his stamp, and slams it down smack in the middle of an entire page.
“Benvenuto!” he exclaims, tossing the passport back across the counter.
Welcome back to Italy.
After six wonderful, but trying months in Asia, I’m back in familiar territory.
While Italy is still a hop skip and a jump from America, I can’t help at feel at home here.
Looking back in time, Italy was one of my first foreign experiences at an age old enough to comprehend and appreciate such things. At fourteen years I visited Italy with my family for the first time, and the smells, tastes, landscapes and wisps of foreign language never left me.
At nineteen I returned, staying for an entire year to study abroad, bright-eyed and eager to learn a new language and culture.
Now, at 28, during my year of globetrotting, I’m back to visit family, friends, and slip, for a time, back into the Italian lifestyle.
The first part of my Italian visit is to the south.
My arrival to Rome brings back a wave of nostalgia. I’ve been here before, many times. The noises, the smells, the architecture, the cobblestones all make me smile. I can feel the city through the soles of my feet, and in my bones.
Over the years I’ve made various visits to Rome, some lasting weeks, some lasting hours. As the ancient and modern center of Italy, Rome is often the most convenient and economic transportation hub.
This time, I’m only passing through, but due to awkward flight scheduling I find myself with an entire day to explore the city. I catch one of the last trains from Roma Fiumicino Airport to Roma Termini train station, and navigate the nighttime streets to my hotel.
The split-second moments of early morning alarm find me disoriented. But, the confusion immediately morphs to giddy glee as I remember where I am. Banished is the wish to snooze, to idle, to sleep in. Up and at-em, time to hit the Roman cobblestones!
I order my first Italian caffè macchiato in years from the bar across the street, complete with a cornetto and a cup of acqua frizzante. The creamy espresso, with a dash of steamed milk, tastes like golden life.
Invigorated, I navigate the streets of Rome, neglecting any maps, and find my way through the winding alleyways to many of the famous sights. I chuckle and help a family take pictures in front of the Colosseum, I eavesdrop on a segway tour guide explaining the history of Piazza Navona, I buy granita di caffè at a favorite spot near the Pantheon, I stop at the Trevi fountain only long enough to lob a coin over a few ranks of jostling tourists, and I drink from marble fountain at the base of the Spanish steps.
I buy my favorite gelato gusti–lemon and raspberry–at GROM, one of my favorite gelaterias, and I order a wood-fired pizza and Moretti beer at a familiar restaurant nearby the Vatican.
Ambling slowly through St. Peter’s square, I touch the worn marble surfaces of the fountain, and drink deeply from the pure, cold water that flows through ancient aqueducts to all Roman public squares. I sit on the warm cobblestones and watch the ridiculously long line of tourists waiting to enter the Vatican museum bake in the sun.
I don’t know why, but I feel oddly comfortable, at ease, happy in Rome. The history, the architecture, the weight of the years all jive together, and somehow it all feels familiar. I swear I’ve been here before.
After my one-day layover in Rome, I head back to Fiumicino, and catch another plane. This time I’m headed south.
My sister is married to Antonio, an Italian gent originally from the Salento peninsula region of Puglia (If you imagine Italy as a boot, the Salento makes up the heel of the boot).
Although my sister, brother-in-law, nephew and niece have lived in California for ten years, they return to Italy every summer during to visit grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins, family and friends.
My big sister is waiting for me at the airport when I arrive, and within a few hours I am fattened up with a delicious lunch, treated to caffè, moved into my own room, and sitting on a beautiful beach next to my nephew and niece in the charming little Pugliese town.
The following days, and weeks, pass calmly and slowly. Paused are my foreign excursions, explorations of new and exotic places far away. The primary discourses of the day revolve around either food–what’s for lunch? What’s for dinner? Anyone want un caffè? Or the direction of the wind, which largely dictates the weather.
Interacting constantly with the children brings a nostalgic aspect to daily life. The fabric of childhood emotions is punctuated much more frequently as up and down go the moods of the kiddos. Now laughing and squealing and running around at maximum volume, now sullen and forlorn and tearful at the loss of a toy, or a friend, or the allotted time for playing a video game. Life seems more simple.
One day, Antonio’s brother invites me to go on an outing to a nearby ancient city called Matera.
In Italy, small towns or villages often have long histories, records and ruins that predate the birth of Christ.
This particular city’s history is especially robust. In fact, apart from Jerusalem and Damascus, it is said to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
Originally settled in the Paleolithic era, the peculiarity of Matera comes from the construction of its houses. The over the millennia, the inhabitants carved into the mountainside, creating unique structures, called Sassi, that are are part-cave and part-house. Since the stones used to build the houses comes from either the materials excavated, or nearby quarries, the entire city resembles that of the natural stone around it.
As we walk around the city, I get the feeling that the houses are old, and the structures are almost carved from bone instead of rock. There’s a sense of overwhelming age. Antiquity doesn’t quite describe it–when I think of antiquity I think of grand Greek statues or opulent Roman frescos.
The Sassi aren’t opulent, or flashy, or luxurious. Instead they seem to me humble, natural, almost as much a part of the landscape as the rock hillside underneath them.
After dinner at 2 AM we amble back to our car, and I look over the same panorama of Sassi, now glowing softly and resting calmly in the late-night air.
Sometimes modern cities, with their hodgepodge of skyscrapers and brick and wood and stone buildings seem confused, unsure, and out of place. Looking over the ancient civilization of Matera I get the feeling that the houses, though humble, are confident.
The Sassi are all different, many constructed hodge-podge. But they all work together, and feel like they should be there. They’ve been there for thousands of years, and to be honest they are probably the most likely to be there for thousands more.
As the vacation days move closer and closer to an end, I notice a restlessness in my nephew and niece that wasn’t there in the beginning. The are more tired, they fuss more easily, and seem the slightest bit downcast.
One day, my niece’s best friend from the beach leaves, and tears come down her cheeks. They won’t see each other until next year’s vacation.
My heart goes out to her. It is sad to lose a friend, even for a time.
The only consolation I can think to give is that she should dwell instead on her happiness in having such a good friend. The sadness she is feeling reinforces the goodness of her relationship with her friend.
Whatever, Uncle Nick.
During the last few days I see that the children’s fuss comes from realizing that the vacation is almost at an end. With a jolt I realize that I, too, am sad that our time together is almost finished.
Partings, whether they happen when we are old or young, are always tough. Being around the kiddos made me realize that the emotions are still there, but the older we get, the better we get at hiding them.
There will always be a time to say goodbye. That is the pain and the beauty of life.
In the meantime, the best we can do is to appreciate the time we are given.