After my Dad’s passing during the 1998 holiday season, I stayed in the States longer than I’d anticipated due to unforeseen events. When I returned to Italy in 1999, the first half of the year was filled with the joys of homecoming plus more unexpected challenges. Here are excerpts from family letters.

[As always, you can click on photos to enlarge them.]

February 6
Mi sento a casa.” I feel myself at home. That’s what I’ve been telling friends and acquaintances here in Amelia, and it’s true. It’s nice to be home after four months away, four months full of challenge and heartbreak and the experience of many kindnesses along the way. It really did feel house on a hilllike coming home, from the arrival in the Rome airport, through the drive up to Umbria and down the track to our house. We’re truly meant to be here, after all the years of wandering.

We went to town the day after my arrival, and people were so kind and welcoming. Gianni gave us free cappuccinos and pastries at the coffee bar, and all the guys at the hardware store dropped what they were doing to kiss me on both cheeks. At the furniture store, Giuseppina had a bouquet of roses waiting for me, “because we couldn’t send flowers to your father’s funeral” — some tears shed there, I can tell you. The ladies at the greengrocer/deli had big smiles and bigger “Bentornata” (“Well returned” in literal translation) and “We know how you feel. It’s good that he no longer suffers, but it’s sad for you to lose him.” The lady at the newspaper kiosk had the same message. In fact, everyone we know felt the same. All that made it feel like a true homecoming. Folks here bring real meaning to the word, “sympathy.”

Looking back to when I was still in the South Carolina after Dad’s passing: I took on the roles of executrix, beneficiary and trustee. In the midst of all the necessary paperwork and liquidation of assets, I traveled to Florida and spent a couple days with Dad’s brother and his wife who were too elderly to come to his funeral. There I got the news that the husband of my best friend (and maid of honor) had suddenly died of a heart attack. I rushed back to South Carolina and took the next flight to Los Angeles, spending a week with my friend, helping her through the memorial service, the first meeting with the lawyers and the myriad details of daily life when a spouse passes away without warning. Then it was back to Dad’s apartment to finish all the things left undone, delaying my return to Italy until early February.

We picked up our new Renault mini-van. Buying a new car in Italy is far more complicated than doing the same thing in the States. For example, you have to tell the insurance company exactly when you will exchange the old car for the new one, so they’ll cancel the old policy at that exact hour and activate the new one. You have to have more documents than Carter has little liver pills — permisso di sojourno (kind of like a green card), certificato di residensia (proves you live in the town you say you do), international driver’s license and lots more. If any of these lack the proper stamps, misspell your name (even if it was the fault of the bureaucrat who typed it), you can’t go forward until all is in order.

Our only regret is that Dad can’t see it and take a ride. He was keenly interested in the progress of our car plans, so I’d like to think he’s up there looking down and smiling.

March 6
I met with the mason, electrician and plumber to discuss renovations to the downstairs powder room and next-door cantina (farmhouse storeroom — quite big, previously used to store the family’s yearly supply of olive oil and wine). The washing machine will be moved out of the powder room and into the cantina, which will be converted to a utility room with cupboards and a couple armoires (armadio in Italian). Converting the cantina means we’ll have to add a wall to one of the three-sided rooms in the outbuilding, so we can put a lot of the stuff that’s now in the cantina into this newly created storeroom. That will have double doors with a ramp, so we can get the wheel barrow, lawn mower, etc. up and down with ease. They’ll start work March 15.

In the meantime, we’ve found the perfect lights for kitchen, living room wall sconces and powder room, all at 20% off. At a store halfway to Viterbo, we discovered lots of “colonial” furniture. That appellation doesn’t mean “before the revolution” here, but rather items from former European colonies in Africa and Asia. We ended up with an armadio for the cantina, rattan furniture and an expandable wood-and-iron table for the north terrace plus an old teak bench for viewing the sunsets from the south patio. They threw in, for free, a wonderful old metal birdcage that Russell had admired.

Another day, we drove 3+ hours to our nearest Ikea in Bologna, buying sheets for European-proportioned beds, reading lamps for the TV area, rugs for both upstairs bathrooms, some bookshelves and a small table for R’s office. Nice to have a Swedish lunch of meatballs, lingonberry preserves and potatoes followed by an afternoon snack of almond-flavored pastries before we headed home.

Early March featured a happy visit from a Sacramento friend and her sister. Yesterday, I drove them and Russell to the Rome airport for flights to the States. He’ll be co-conducting a seminar at Harvard for Nepalese lawyers to help them explore the feasibility of turning their country into the Switzerland of Asia in terms of banking services.

April 4
Russell back from Harvard, we had a lovely Easter. Our Italian friends were reassured to learn that, like them, Americans eat lamb, because “Gesu è l’Agnello di Dio” (Jesus is the Lamb of God). Having Easter eggs turned out to be a challenge. Italians don’t color eggs for Easter, so we had to find those little dye tablets at a Roman shop which caters to foreigners. Italians also don’t eat white eggs, so we ended up with light brown ones which made for interesting colors — terra cotta instead of red, turquoise instead of blue…

Somebody called the carabinieri (elite national police) and said the public water supply of this region had been contaminated by sabotage. No mention of whether the pollutant was chemical or biological. So the authorities told everyone not to drink, brush teeth, wash or cook with water for three days while they tested. Here in the rural area around the village of Montecampano, we all get our water from a well, so our system was not affected. But our Amerini friends had to go to one of the town squares and fill jerry cans from giant water-tank trucks brought in by the Army until tests revealed that the warning was a cruel hoax.

Our renovations have been postponed because the mason ran into unexpected problems at his current job and so delayed coming here. This sort of thing is fairly normal in Italy. Craftsmen are working with old houses — lots of surprises when they get into walls 50/100/200 years or more old.

We’ve been devoting two hours a day to pruning olives. Very satisfying work, but it takes a long time to prune 100 trees, even if some of ’em are still babies. Olives tend to alternate high- and low-yield years, and this is supposed to be a good one. However, we’ve had to do so much pruning that we may lose some of the expected harvest. We can live with that — the trees were neglected for so long that it will take several years of pruning to get them back in shape.

We’ve returned to our plan of visiting a nearby spot one day a week. Recently, we visited Deruta, a ceramic center for centuries. The shops have everything from traditional designs (medieval, renaissance, rustic, etc.) to the more modern, offering dishes, vases, lamps and all manner of things which can be made from fired clay. We ended up with a terrific spaghetti bowl, a wonderful small vase with a sunflower motif and a ceramic lamp. Turns out you can order whatever you want. I saw a motif I liked on a big lamp and special-ordered a small one for the guest room.

Outbuilding under construction

Out building completed


April 30
The conversion of the outbuilding is finished. Inside is a large storeroom for equipment, potting soil, fertilizer, a cupboard for hand tools, etc. BUT we don’t have any of the work done inside the house! The bathroom tile didn’t arrive in time, so the workmen went off to other jobs, preferring to do the whole project at once. Now we’ve got the tile, but no workmen. We’re due to leave for Venice next week. When will it all happen? When it all happens. Stay tuned.

My hairdresser and some colleagues are going to England for a course this fall and asked me to tutor them in English. Having fun with “This shampoo is good for oily hair. This conditioner is best for dry hair.”

We noticed Zack was listless, off his food and having trouble moving his bowels. The vet said to keep him under observation for a couple days and bring him in if there was no improvement. He got steadily worse, so we took him to the vet asap. Zack was mildly sedated and rolled around for x-rays and a sonogram. His upper GI tract was full of gas, a sign there was blockage requiring fast action to save his life. He went into surgery the next morning. When the vet made the incision, Zack began to hemorrhage. His intestines were wrapped around the spleen, with both strangulated and swollen. Thankfully, the operation was a success, and Zack recuperated in the vet’s clinic for three days.

Meanwhile R and I both came down with respiratory illnesses, his more prolonged and diverse, mine more acute, including chills and high fever. We got it under control with ibuprofen, and I felt much better 24 hours later. Whatever got us, got us good.

Zack returned home late Tuesday afternoon, sleeping away most of the next 15 hours. His special diet: minestrone, pasta, baby-food meat, oil and parmesan. Very Italian. He gets fed four times a day, in small quantities, a practice we’ll continue for the rest of his life. By Wednesday afternoon, he’d licked himself raw, so I took him back to the vet’s, where a younger colleague said to put Zack in an “Elizabethan collar” to keep him from worrying the incision. At the local pet store, I bought this big, plastic thing that hooks onto a dog collar and sets up around his head so that, in theory, Zack can’t get at the rest of his body with his mouth. I thought it seemed rather short, but the proprietor assured me it was for a German shepherd.

By Thursday morning, Zack had ripped open his incision in two place, and his guts were literally hanging out. We rushed him to emergency vet surgery, and now he’s home sporting a muzzle. Because he contaminated his abdominal cavity, he’s on heavy doses of antibiotics, one of which I inject every morning. Throughout all this, Zack is amazingly patient and trusting. We’ve got him inside, at the foot of the stairs, with the cats locked in upstairs. We take turns sitting with him and taking him for short walks to do his business.

Despite having non-refundable train tickets and hotel reservations, we’ve twice considered canceling our planned trip to Venice next week — once for each of Zacks’ surgeries. However the vet says that provided Zack continues to improve, there’s no reason we can’t leave as planned, with Zack staying at Enrico’s kennel again. E says that’s no problem as far as he’s concerned; Zack can be isolated and fed his special diet. The vet can check in as needed. We’re still not comfortable with this and are waiting to see how Zack is doing on Monday.

May 30
Our trip to Venice seems so long ago. Last year, one of our American visitors remarked, “One day is enough to see Venice.” I feel like a lifetime wouldn’t be sufficient. Of course it depends on what you mean by “see.” If you mean visiting the main landmarks, yes, you probably could do that in one day. But if you really want to know this city of many islands in a lagoon, to understand her history of more than 1500 years, to appreciate the uniqueness of living there, then you need much more time. For us, a week was a taste, but not a banquet, of Venice.

Our first day, we wandered through narrow streets and piazzas, going nowhere, visiting everywhere. We wanted to get a feel for the city beyond the tourist sites we’d previously visited. On other days, we had specific destinations in mind — a visit to the Academia to see its art collection; a walking tour of the Dorsoduro neighborhood; a boat trip to Burano, where the famous Venetian lace has been made for centuries; another boat trip to Torcello, the site of the first permanent settlement in the lagoon (c. 5th century, A.D.), now in ruins except for a wonderful 7th century cathedral. We also visited other galleries, took the “Secret Tour” of the prisons of the Doge’s palace (including Casanova’s cell and escape route), and lit a candle for Dad in St. Mark’s, that wonderful Byzantine cathedral which so enthralled him when we visited Venice together two years ago.

The train trip to and from was just perfect, a nice way to settle down to a vacation, not rushing to make a plane and then cramped into seats designed for sardines, but sitting beside a big window with a snack before us, looking at the beauties of the countryside.

We returned to Umbria in early afternoon, picked up the car from long-term parking and went to collect Zack. No Zack. He had literally been “med-evacked” while we were away. Kennel-master Enrico had called our hotel and left two messages, but we never got them. He’d entered one morning to find Zack lying in a pool of blood, his intestines and other organs beside him. Zack had ripped out his stitches again! We rushed back to Amelia to find Zack, much emaciated but still full of heart, at the vet’s. He’d had two operations, one to clean him up and re-stitch the incision, the other to re-open his abdomen and drain infection from peritonitis. The vet said Zack would pull through, but it was a near thing. Zack had to stay under intensive care for five more days until he could come home.

We felt so terrible. We’d been greatly reluctant to go to Venice under the circumstances, but the vet had said it was okay, and we had pre-paid, nonrefundable train and hotel reservations. If we hadn’t gone, Zack might not have ripped out his stitches. If he had ripped out his stitches, we might have discovered it early on, perhaps ameliorating the trauma of two operations and intensive care. If the hotel had given us the messages, we could have come immediately and been with him. It felt really awful.

We had to pull up our socks and see to the rest of life. Belgian friends were due the next day for a long weekend visit. So we cleaned up the house, got a good night’s sleep and met them at the train station. We had a special time together, talking about everything under the sun, visiting some nearby sites and stopping to see Zack at the clinic everyday. The husband in particular was very fond of Zack and took his turn beside the cage’s open door, talking to Zack and petting him gently.

Zack came home the evening they departed. For five nights, I made a bed from Central Asian saddle bags on the kitchen floor, sleeping near him. When he started to worry his stitches, I heard it and stopped him. He had to wear a muzzle constantly, and of course he didn’t like it, acting like his life was just one long misery, which it surely had been for a month.

That same day, the workmen showed up two months after the planned start-date to renovate the powder room and cantina. Everything finally looks great. The powder room used to be covered in large, white shiny tile on floor and walls up to two meters, just like a public toilet (or a butcher shop, depending on your point of view). The cantina was a sea of stacked and jumbled boxes, bric-a-brac, mops, brooms and whatever else we couldn’t find a place for. Now there’s a place for everything. The tiny washing machine wedged into the powder room has been swapped for a big washer and drier in the cantina.

In midweek, Elisabetta, Umbro’s wife and sunswing friend in her own right, had a baby boy named Lorenzo (“Il Magnifico” for you students of Italian history). The next day, Russell left for Tashkent on a European Union project to reform its foreign investment policy.

The day after that, I took Zack to have his stitches removed by the vet. Such a normal event felt like a marvel. After all his suffering, after all those efforts to save his life, we’d made it through to the right end. Zack sat up on the table like a brave boy as the vet removed stitch after stitch. He only flinched and whimpered once, where skin had grown around the last stitch. He had a bit of a hole around that stitch, because when he lay down, his rib cage had put pressure on that area, but the vet promised that a week of treating it twice daily with Betadine would do the trick. And it has.

More good news: My computer got hacked, but my techies in Viterbo searched-and-destroyed the virus, managing to save all my files in the process. I don’t think I could have faced starting the book over. The olive trees are loaded with blossoms, promising a bumper crop, unless the weather fails to cooperate between now and December. Russell’s back. And all’s finally right with the world.


Italy: July – December, 1999

More, More, More

More travel, more renovations, more guests but with new traditions in a sea of sunflowers.


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