Early in 2001, we were both accepted as participants in July’s Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Russell for workshops on memoir, me for the novel. We were honored to be invited to march in Amelia’s August Corteo, feeling we were now really Amerini. September brought 9/11; October, a Zack attack; November, the challenges of olive harvest after a debilitating fall; and December, our annual pre-Christmas trip, this time closer to home. Here are edited excerpts from letters to family. 

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


Back home from the Iowa Summer Writing Festival with lots to people standing in front of university signcontemplate. The University of Iowa’s degree programs for writers are world-renowned. The summer program is for people like us, who can’t commit to a degree program but who want to improve our writing skills. I signed up for two workshops, the second one more useful. It focused on plot, and the facilitator, author Susan Taylor Check, read us one of her stories, analyzed how it was put together, then tore it apart to demonstrate the consequences of telling it in several other ways, the events all the same, but the order of presentation making a very real difference. She asked us to bring 4-5 pages from our own manuscripts and read them in class, followed by feedback from fellow participants and herself. In between, she gave us concrete tips on different aspects of plotting fiction. By the end of the two days, I felt like I’d learned more than I had from the previous five.

Now we’re thinking through how we’re going to revise our books. For myself, I want to take some time to read carefully all the feedback I’ve received, cogitate on it, read some books on the craft of writing, cogitate on those thoughts, and decide exactly how I’m going to revise my mystery. I have some ideas about major changes, but I need to think it all through. I’m planning to spend most of August reading and cogitating, then get back to writing toward the end of the month. Russell’s doing much the same with his memoir.


For the first time, we marched in the Corteo, the medieval procession that commemorates a historical event several hundred years ago. Russell was costumed as a judge, and I was a noble family’s  nursemaid, marching with two children more splendiferously dressed than I. You might wonder how we came to wear what we did. That’s easy — because we’re taller than most Amerini, we ended up wearing the only costumes long enough!

man in a robeWhen we were fitted for our costumes, I was secretly glad that I was depicting one of the lesser folk. That meant my costume wouldn’t be so heavy, a good thing in the usually high heat of August. HOWEVER, I got my comeuppance. It was particularly cool and windy that night, so that I wished for Russell’s long wool robe and cape. I did get to share them part of the time. After the procession, the costumed marchers proceeded to an arena, where we sat in special stands to observe the jousting. Once we sat down, Russell very kindly draped half his mantle over me so I’d stop shivering.

The best part of the evening for me was the actual procession. Once we were dressed, we lined up outside the palazzo where “our” neighborhood had its headquarters, high on the hill near the cathedral. After a while, we could hear a solemn drum-beat, and we knew that the Corteo had started with the flag, drummers and officials representing the city of Amelia. Two other contrade (con-trah-day; neighborhoods) preceded us, and we could hear their distinctive drumbeats as they joined the procession. Finally, it was our turn, and as our drummers began our contrada‘s beat, a frisson went through me, and off we started, winding our way down through narrow medieval streets at a measured pace. I have always been moved to observe the procession, but it is much more moving to march in it. I don’t care about the weather, I thought, hot or cold, I want to do this every year, as long as I am able.


Two questions begin and end my first stage of adulthood: “Where were you when John Kennedy was shot?” and “Where were you when the terrorists attacked on 9/11?”

The answer to the first question is that I was with Harriet Shetler in the YWCA office at WVU. We’d been having a meeting, and the phone rang. Hattie (or “Mrs. S” as I called her in those days) took the call, blanched and turned to tell us that the President had been shot. I remember stumbling through traffic across University Boulevard. Stunned. Unable to believe such a thing could happen in America.

The answer to the second question also involves a phone call, this time from our friend Umbro, telephoning from Oslo to tell us that America was under attack. “The two towers,” he kept saying, “the two towers.” We turned on CNN in time to see the plane fly into the second tower, to hear that a third had flown into the Pentagon and a fourth had crashed in rural Pennsylvania. I sat on the couch beside Russell, hand covering mouth, wondering if Chicago would be next, and LA and San Francisco. I felt just as I had all those years ago. Stunned. Unable to believe that such a thing could happen in America.

But of course it can. Presidents can be killed. Terrorists can murder thousands of innocent civilians. Biological and chemical warfare is a real possibility. As are the changes that we all must now face, whether we live in the States or elsewhere around the globe. The world has changed, and we can only dimly perceive what that will mean. Heightened security, let us hope so. Curtailed freedoms, perhaps, but let’s hope not, at least not in the sense guaranteed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

God willing, we’ll have the wisdom, the information and the fortitude to do what is right — not to go off half-cocked and kill a bunch of women and children ourselves, thus falling right into what would benefit the terrorists. We must seek not revenge, which is very easy, but justice, which is much more difficult.

“God willing” — Muslims say that too: “Inshallah.” How terrible that a religion which follows in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity should be so perverted by a few hate-filled people. Muslim friends wrote almost immediately to offer comfort and a sense of community.

I cannot find anything to associate something like this with the Islam I, and many family and friends, believe in…. the Mufti of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in his January 1, 2000 address equated so-called Islamic fundamentalism to acid rain — Rain water gives sustenance to life, but if the rain water is poisoned (through pollution) and becomes acid rain, it harms life…. These fanatics have polluted Islam, and now it is up to good Muslims to fight back and cleanse these pollutants from their religion…. And because of that, the best allies against this kind of terror are indeed good Muslims everywhere.

– from an email of condolence sent by my Somali brother,
  Mohamed Abdi Waare [See Posts 9, 10 and 12)

We had many expressions of concern from around the world. It was more comforting and heartening than I can convey to know that we were not alone, that not only world leaders were expressing solidarity, but just folks we had known wherever we had lived and worked. Here’s one of several from Central Asia:

Russell and Nancy, accept our condolences concerning tragical events occurred in your country. We have apprehended all this as a nightmare, which never could take place in life. Only cruel people could make this. We with you by all heart also are ready to render any help, if in it there is a necessity.

– Valodya, Ludmilla and Katya Federov, 
  Russian-Kazakhstani friends writing from Almaty

The Thursday night after 9/11 was tough for me. I had been reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and the scenes of war from that book were too real. I found it hard to sleep, worried about the possibility of world war, a global recession or even a depression, more lives to be stunted or lost. My mind keep bouncing back and forth between problems at the macro- and micro-levels. What will happen to the world? What will happen to America? What will happen to us? But when I awoke in the morning, after a few hours of fitful sleep, I found myself at peace.

As I begin my second stage of adulthood, I’m trying to live by a new guideline: Let us live joyfully and hopefully. To do otherwise is to let the terrorists win.


We spent our anniversary at Talamone (tah-la-mow-nay) on the Tuscan coast. A day trip to a charming town, and we sent postcards to prove it. We returned rather late in the evening, so we decided to go for a pizza and not cook. As we studied the menu, our attention was caught by the TV over in a corner. The Italian newscaster was announcing that the attack on Afghanistan had begun. So bizarre to have returned from peaceful Talamone, eating pizza in a small Italian town and watching the beginning of a war in a beloved country where terrorists are flourishing.

Since then, I’ve often asked myself when, exactly, was the beginning of this war. Was it when the Soviets toppled the Shah of Afghanistan and put their own puppet in charge, thus creating decades of chaos? Was it when the Soviet Union collapsed, and we decided we didn’t need to provide millions of dollars of support to Afghanistan and Pakistan any more, leaving them to a deteriorating quality of life and thereby a fertile ground for fanaticism? Was it when Ariel Sharon went up on the Temple Mount last year and exponentially upped the tension in the Middle East? When the news reported that Sharon had used Israeli troops so he could exert his right to walk on this sacred Muslim site, I said to myself, “Is this the beginning of World War III?” For years, political analysts have been saying that the Middle East is the tinder box which could ignite another world war. Let’s pray it won’t come true.

So many expressions of solidarity here. Even strangers in the checkout line, when they hear we’re Americans, always say a few words to show empathy. This month, we received a mailed proclamation from local governments, (translated):

On the 28th of September, the Council of the Mountain Communities, representing eight municipalities, wished to record and to render homage to the victims of the vile terrorist attach of 11 September 2001.

We are so astounded by the brutality of all that has happened that we feel still more obligated toward the people and the government of the United States of America.

We cannot and we must not forget that America liberated us from Nazi Fascism, and with the Marshall Plan, fed us after the war.

We feel we must express our solidarity with the American people and in an official form, hoping this gesture is welcome.

Distinguished Salutations,
The President
Carlo Ababiti

Last Sunday, I was carrying harvested lavender to the house, both hands burdened with containers of flower heads, when Baby Cat ran out the front door between my feet and walked off like she was going for her regular afternoon stroll. But she’s never outside. Both cats stay indoors because of previous confrontations with Zack, all of which ended happily after a good scare. Had Baby Cat forgotten the scares? Zack wasn’t three yards away, and he immediately pounced. Russell and I ran to help, but Zack got there first and tossed her into the air like a rag doll. Russell managed to chain Zack while I calmed down a cat caught in the ivy of an oak tree and freed her. She clung to me in such a pitiful way, her claws digging into my shirt, her head tucked into my neck.

cat with stitchesOnce inside, she was still too agitated for an examination, but when she finally was serene enough, we found a tiny puncture wound. Next morning at the vet’s, the news wasn’t good. Zack’s fang had entered and acted like a scythe inside. They operated that afternoon, two vets working together to reattach the muscles into proper alignment. Fortunately, no organs were affected. She’s home now, a long set of sutures down her side. Sadder but wiser? We hope so.


“I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled…” and have accidents. Two in one day. First, I twisted my ankle in town on some uneven pavement. Not really serious, but painful enough. I came home and fell backwards down the stairs because the ankle wouldn’t hold. I didn’t fall far, but I did manage to hit my back against the wall’s protruding corner. I just sat on the floor, legs straight out, saying, “Oh, Russell, I hurt, I hurt.” After a while, I stopped hurting so much and got up with R’s help. Later, I was sore enough to go early to bed with a hot water bottle, thankful to be lying down. I’m OK now, but I feel my mortality sneaking up on me.

After a great deal of soul-searching, we decided not to harvest olives this year, even though there’s a bumper crop, and the oil is supposed to be especially good. Several factors went into the decision. We’d hoped to find someone to help, but no luck. Our neighbors, who need the oil for income, report similar problems. Every year, there are fewer and fewer people who are available to pick olives. Secondly, although there are lots of olives, they’re small this year because of the hot, dry weather. This means good oil but a lower yield (like grapes — good wine this year, but not much of it). That means a lot of work for little return. We still have almost a milk-can of oil from last year, so we don’t need any. Furthermore, the sale price is low, so lots of work for little income, if we wanted to sell the excess. When I fell and hurt my back, that was the final decision-maker. I really couldn’t do it, and it didn’t make sense for Russell to try it alone. So no olive harvest this year.

9/11 is affecting our pre-Christmas trip plans. Americans have been advised to keep a low profile in Europe, so we’ve decided to stay closer to home and visit Milan. Lots to see and do there, which I’ll report after we return in December.

I realized this morning that we used to live in America and read about terrorism “over there”; now we live over there and watch terrorism in America. We also see troubling reports about the potential to decrease the freedoms that so many Americans have fought and died for. We appreciate that these are difficult times demanding difficult decisions, but we hope America will learn from Germany in the Thirties and not go too far down the wrong path because she feels threatened.


Early in the month, we invited friend Graziano and his wife to join us for dinner at an old inn on the road to Spoleto. He asked about the olive harvest. We replied we’d decided not to do it for all the reasons I mentioned in my last letter. He said he and his brother had had a very good harvest, and they would come pick our olives for free. That didn’t seem fair, and after much discussion, we agreed that they’d come pick the olives and keep all the oil except for 10 liters, which would be ours. So while we were in Milan, they harvested, getting double our last yield and selling all the rest of the oil. A win-win all around. They got some ready cash, and we got a year’s supply of what’s supposed to be the best oil in years.

We had a wonderful time in Milan, an unfairly maligned city. There’s more than enough to keep a tourist busy for five days, and we even left without doing everything on our list. We had a perfect accommodation — small hotel, wonderful location, each room decorated differently — all at a reasonable price.

We went up on the train, arriving late because we had to change departure times thanks to a nationwide strike. Italian strikes aren’t like American strikes. They don’t go out to fight until the bitter end. Instead, they stage a half-day or full-day strike to show the authorities how much they could hurt everyone if they wanted to. Rather civilized and usually effective.

Our first morning, we had reservations to see da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” recently re-opened to the public after 15 years of restoration. Da Vinci had used a new fresco technique, and the painting started to deteriorate within the first decade. The figures were previously almost indecipherable, thanks to 400 years of grease because the fresco was above the door to the kitchen, plus Napoleon using the room as a stable, and the monastery being almost destroyed by Allied bombing except for the two end walls, one of which held “The Last Supper.” I didn’t find the restoration as dramatic as that of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, but it was remarkable, nevertheless.

Milan Cathedral

By Jiuguang Wang – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11566236

On to the Duomo, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and what a difference from the simple monastery of The Last Supper. Construction of the Duomo began in 1386, and it was consecrated in 1411 but not finished until the 19th century. Napoleon was crowned King of Italy here and ordered the facade finished for his coronation. Perhaps the most fanciful church in Christendom — 3500 exterior statues, hundreds of spires big and small, stained glass windows everywhere. The flying buttresses were cleverly hidden by all this wedding-cake decoration and by having them terminate in the wall of the two outside naves (five in all). Perhaps most remarkable is the statue of St. Bartholomew near the high altar, his skin draped over his shoulder. He was flayed alive, and all the muscles, sinews, etc. of his body and face are perfectly rendered. The flaccid skin of his hands and feet are particularly moving.

We were unable to secure tickets to La Scala, but we did tour its museum, a fascinating collection of costumes, stage designs, ballerina slippers, musical instruments, photos and paintings. We stood in one of the boxes and surveyed the theater, so enormous the eye almost can’t take it in. The theater seats over 2000, and the stage is over 13,000 square feet. Yet it’s in the traditional horseshoe shape of our own little theater in Amelia, the prototype for all the rest.

Milan is famous for shopping, and although that wasn’t the primary goal for our visit, we did manage to do a little. We walked through the famous Galleria with its glass roof, housing old coffee-bars and the latest designers, as well as bookstores and music shops. We visited the weekly open-air market just for fun and ended up with a beautiful Valentino sweater for Russell’s Xmas gift. I poured over every glass dish in the housewares section of a famous department store until I found just the thing for serving my holiday fig dessert.

We visited other churches — the 4th century Basilica of Sant’ Ambroglio, the 4th century Basilica of San Lorenzo (one of the oldest round churches in the world, perhaps the ancient imperial chapel, now much modified and gussied up) and Sant’ Eustorgio with its relics of the Three Magi. The early churches most appeal to me. I hate it when some later generations came along and “baroqued-up” something simple and fine.

Lots of other sights and sites — Castello Sforzesco (if you can say it, you get a lollypop), now a series of museums housing art from the classical Greek and Roman periods through the Renaissance, ancient Egyptian artifacts, medieval armor, period furniture, costumes, tapestries, musical instruments, fans, glass, ceramics, ivory, gold jewelry and much, much more. Also Museo Bugatti Valsecchi, a faithfully preserved house built by two lawyer-brothers in the 19th century to recapture the Renaissance (although with all mod cons of the period). Fascinating to see how items were used in daily life rather than viewing them in a museum’s glass cases. For example, the wash basin in the bathroom was a 15th century affair of iron and copper on a tripod base with a dragon-spout pouring water at the touch of a finger. I kept wondering if we could get one for our house….

Bottom line: Milan is a great place for a winter holiday, and we’re glad we went. Returning to Amelia, we had the usual rounds of entertaining and being entertained, the Christmas Eve Concert in the cathedral, plus a spur-of-the-moment trek to Rome to see “Ocean’s Eleven” in English.

A final note: like all of Europe, we’re about to switch over to a new currency. Italy has elected to have a two-month transition when either the lira or the euro will be legal tender. The Germans are going cold-turkey on January 2nd. Stay tuned for a report on which system worked better.


#49: Italy, January – December 2002

Snow, Scirocco and Sri Lanka


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