The last half of 2002 took us on lots of trips — to the States for medical checkups at Johns Hopkins and visiting family and friends, Russell back and forth to Sri Lanka, we two celebrating our 30th anniversary at Lake Como. Then we learned that Russell was going to be in Sri Lanka for two years, managing the U.N. Development Program’s Invest in Peace Project. That meant keeping the home fires burning, so I became “la patrona” of our little farm, managing house, olives, animals and land while Russell was far away. Here are edited excerpts from monthly letters to family.

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


Russell returned from his short-term assignment in Sri Lanka on the morning of the 7th and went promptly to bed at the Rome Airport Hilton. I joined him later that evening. We had a nice dinner, then settled down for a short sleep before we had to leave the next morning. The flight to the States was gloriously uneventful — not even one chop of turbulence to shake us up.

fat cat[Three weeks later, we returned home] to discover: 1) The electricity had been off for some time, so everything in the fridge was moldy-green; 2) Our neighbors’ son hadn’t watered the plants for some days, and one of the wisterias was dying; 3) Baby Cat was missing. We searched high and low for her, inside and out. The neighbors son came over to explain why he hadn’t watered (we never did really understand) and that he hadn’t seen Baby Cat for the entire time we’d been gone and he’d been feeding them. “Both cat food dishes were clean everyday,” he kept repeating. Needless to say, Mama Cat was extraordinarily FAT.

We cleaned out the fridge. We watered the plants. We decided that if Baby Cat didn’t show by the end of the weekend, we’d have to accept the fact that she’d got out somehow and wouldn’t return. But Russell found her the next day, hiding out on the garage roof, much the worse for wear and awfully glad to see us.

[Before Russell left his short-term assignment in Sri Lanka, he was recruited to return for two years to manage the project he’d designed to help strengthen the cease-fire suspending the civil war. Called “Invest in Peace,” this project aimed to mobilize the foreign and national business communities to actively participate in peace-building. He’s written extensively about these efforts in his memoir, Far and Away. The idea was that Russell would work there on a full-time basis with quarterly breaks at home. That schedule prompted us to think it made sense, at least in the short run, for me to remain in Italy, managing the home front, while he helped manage the Sri Lankan peace process.]


Zack tied, sniffing and nervous. Cats crouched. Shepherd’s dogs spread in a semicircle, tails stiff, heads toward the copse. Birds starting up, bunched, flying low. Pheasants’ voices stilled. One day down and five months to go — the start of hunting season. 

Speaking of seasons, it was a most unseasonable August, cool and rainy. Usually it doesn’t rain at all. The grass turns golden, and everyone endures the heat; animals and people hunker down and wait for it to be over. Only the grapes rejoice, because long, hot days mean good wine. But this August, we had the most rain in recorded history. The grass stayed green, the pond began to fill, and I started transplanting two months earlier than normal. Last Tuesday, I returned from Florence through a terrific storm — an hour to make the normally 20-minute drive from the train station — creeping in second gear through 3-8 inches of water on the highway, windshield drowned by passing trucks, to find the living room flooded. The living room cleaned up fine, but the grapes are ruined, and so are the family-farmers who depend on wine for their autumn livelihood. Now they must scrimp and save, waiting for the winter olive harvest and hoping at least that crop will prosper in the rain.

Before we left for the States, I sent the current draft of my book to selected readers for feedback. Now I’m receiving their comments, indicating it needs only tweaking, not rewriting. I’ll start polishing tomorrow and hope to have it ready to submit to agents and/or publishers by fall.  


The other night, as Zack and I were taking our nightly bedtime walk out to the gate, he took off like a shot uphill, inside the fence. Then I saw a small animal silhouetted against the artificial light, running across the driveway, Zack in hot pursuit. I ran as fast as I could, calling, “Zack, no! Zack, no!” But, as the Italians would say, he was “full of heat” and wouldn’t respond. I could hear two animals thrashing in the high grass five meters below the driveway, just far enough I couldn’t see. Wading into tall grass in the dark to try and catch Zack seemed like a recipe for getting bitten by both animals. So I ran back to the outbuilding, got a thick rope and ran back just in time to hear a sickening crunch. Zack was tossing something into the air. When it landed, I managed to lasso Zack, and he immediately became very calm and followed me back to the house. It was too dark to investigate, but when I went out the next morning, there was a beautiful red fox lying on its side, its entrails strewn among the deep green of flattened grass. This is normal, I tried to console myself. Foxes dig under fences, and dogs kill them. But I still felt saddened all that day and the next that such a beautiful animal should die in Zack’s mouth.

A few days later, I came downstairs to find our living room was flooded again — remember the first flood when Dad came to visit some years ago? And then others down through the seasons? I called Graziano, and he did what none of the experts have been able to do — solving the riddle of why this kept happening and doing the hard work of preventing more underwater adventures. First, he opened the below-ground cement box that houses the connection between the external telephone lines and the house. It was full of dirt — moles had got inside, because it was the wrong kind of box. Then we learned that whoever installed the box had put the hole with the conduit that leads to the house and the hole with the conduit that carries away water on the same level. G dug around in the garden until he found the far end of the water conduit. It was underground, full of dirt and nowhere for the water to go except into the house. He cleaned out box and conduit, and the two of us went to town in our muddy boots and clothes to buy an “elbow” and more conduit piping. We attached the new stuff to the old installation, so it would empty above ground, away from the garden. Then G put a cement floor in the box. End of flooding!

On 9/11, I went to Chiesa San Francesco to light a candle for all who were lost and their loved ones. As I entered, I saw Sharif, an elderly Egyptian painter who has lived in Amelia for years. He was going from altar to altar, lighting a candle on each. This seemed a bit strange, because Sharif, as you might imagine from his name, is Muslim. I went on about my own business, lit a candle and prepared to kneel in meditation. Just then, Sharif came slightly forward, looked at me very deliberately and bowed with great dignity. I responded by placing my hand over my heart to let him know I received his greeting with respect. Why must it be tragedies that bring people of goodwill together?

I’ve been feeding and pruning and caring for the old pear tree we inherited, and now it’s rewarded me with scores of pears. I made two batches of pear chutney, two of pear butter, and one of stewed pears. That tree is going to feed us all winter.

RBS came home, as planned, on the 22nd with an 8 a.m. arrival at Rome Airport. I got up at 5:30, took care of the animals and was on the road by 6:30, driving through a storm and wondering how bad the flight would be. Answer: rough descent and a delay of 30 minutes, but safe and sound. We stopped at an airport bar for coffee and a roll, then hit the road back home, weather clearing as we drove along. 

Two life-transition events with Italian friends — a child’s birthday party and our first wedding in Amelia. The groom had on a suit, the bride wore white, the parents were all dressed up, and the priest did just what you would expect. But lots of things were different. Both bride and groom were applauded when they entered, and there were no bridesmaids, despite the bride having an abundance of female friends and relatives. It people at dinnerall seemed rather haphazard and informal, despite there being a mass and everyone really gussied up. Afterwards, we were invited to hang out at the bride’s house eating pastries until everyone was ready to attend the four-hour, sit-down dinner for 200 at a local restaurant. We finally left at midnight, so full of food and fatigue, we were barely able to stumble out the door.


We celebrated our 30th anniversary at Lake Como. Driving north, we could easily see how Italy’s tectonic plate smashed into Europe, causing the Dolomite Mountains to jut upward. One moment, we were driving across flat land as far as the eye could see; the next, we were plunged into a long tunnel under a granite mountain, coming out the other side with a spectacular view of the lake.

Lake ComoEven though it’s a bit overdeveloped for my taste after millennia of being a tourist spot (starting at least with the ancient Romans, if not before), Lake Como is still beautiful in its setting and itself. High mountains rear up all around, so that the shoreside towns rise in terraces above the water. Varenna, where our hotel was situated, was particularly beautiful —  a small medieval village still mostly unspoiled. The large, private terrace outside our room was lapped by the lake two stories below. But most of the time, the lake was obscured by fog! All very nineteenth-century romantic.

When we returned home, we had only a few days before Russell had to leave again for Colombo, but he took off on time and arrived okay. I then started dealing with various household problems, both heating and telecoms. All ended well, but it took some days to resolve the issues.

While all this was going on, both Zack and I got mysterious ailments. I had seven insect bites with huge allergic reactions and went to the pharmacy to get a soothing cream. The pharmacist took one look and said, “You’ve got to see a doctor.” A couple prescriptions, and I was soon functioning again. But I still have the remnants of bumps, and if they’re irritated, they still itch! Zack came down with a mystery cough, and we went to the vet when it didn’t clear up on its own. Good thing, because the poor dog had inflammation of both trachea and bronchial tubes, probably brought on by our unusual weather, blowing dust and pollen. Meds have helped him, too, so now we’re both in the final stages of recuperation.

In the midst of all this hullabaloo, everyone around here decided it was time to harvest olives, even if it was six weeks earlier than normal. The unusual weather — very hot in June, rain in July and August, had confused the trees, and the olives were turning a ripe black before our eyes. I called Graziano to alert him that we’d flies on teh windowsstart harvesting the following week. He arrived literally at the crack of dawn, and we hauled nets and big plastic boxes down to the grove and started picking. Just like all our neighbors, we discovered  that the weather had also caused another unusual phenomenon. The plague of flies that had gathered on every surface had also laid their eggs on every olive, so they’d been attacked by larvae. In a way this isn’t too harmful, because when the olives are processed, the oil rises to the top of the water, and the larva fall to the bottom. But it does cut down on the quantity and quality of the oil.

G&I stopped at 1:30 for a quick lunch and a strategy session. We were getting little potential oil from a great deal of work. I still have six liters of oil from last year, when G and his brother harvested for us, because I was incapacitated and R was working on professional stuff. And we also had a “milk can” nearly full of oil from three years ago, about 30 liters. We took a look at the oldest oil and found that, because it had been kept sealed inside the outbuilding in a cool, dark place, it was literally good as new. I decided on the spot to stop harvesting and to give all the olives to Graziano, if he wanted them.  He refused at first. I explained he’d be doing me a favor, because our local mill had closed, and I had no idea where to take them. He agreed to the new plan if I’d pay him half of what he’d earned that day. So a bargain was struck with G getting all the income from our harvest. 

Happily, the consensus is that everyone will have a terrific oil harvest next year. Sadly, all our farming neighbors, who lost their grape harvest, now have a poor olive harvest. It’s going to be a tough year until they can recover, we hope, in 2003.

clown with a boyWith Russell gone, I was determined to have a grand effort for Halloween. So I made a clown outfit from orange fabric with two-inch turquoise polka dots. Russell had brought wonderful cloth masks from Sri Lanka with appliqués creating animal and bird faces. I went trick-or-treating to all our Italian friends who have small children, wore the masks and then gave one to each child when the clowning was over. A Major Hit. And I pulled in lots of treats — Baci chocolates (my favorite), little cakes, the traditional cookies for this time of year and at the last house, pizza and beer. I can hardly wait for next year.


My biggest personal news this month is that I’ve finished the book and started marketing. The main push will be after the holidays, but I wanted to get the manucript in the hands of two women who volunteered to help. One is an award-winning author and my teacher at Iowa University a couple summers ago, and the other is a sorority sister who’s in the publishing business. I’ve sent each one a copy and will await their suggestions, hopefully arriving in early January. Meanwhile, I’m researching about submissions to both agents and publishers. What a depressing exercise (e.g., “most of our new authors come from recommendations…”), but I’m determined to persevere. If I can learn to write a novel in my fifties, I can surely learn to market it too.

In between authoring efforts, I designed the much-awaited changes for the guest bath. We knew when we moved in that we were going to have to do this, but other renovations took precedence. Now the small crack in the bathroom floor has widened to the point that we need to fix it, and if we’re going to tear up the floor, we might as well tear up the rest and do the whole thing. I’ve finished the design and run it by Russell for his input, ordered tiles and fixtures and cabinets and lights. My favorite mason isn’t free until mid-February, but it’s worth the delay, because he’s first-rate, and we’re used to working together.

Graziano and I have been doing a lot of cold-weather prep — new fruit trees and a red raspberry planted, pergola covered so the lemon tree and other delicate plants can be sheltered, bulbs scattered here and there underground, flower gardens weeded and cut back, etc. etc. Come spring, we ought to be looking pretty good.

R&I have decided that I should come out to Sri Lanka for a couple of weeks before he returns here for his Christmas break. I’ll leave on December 7th (a “day that will live in infamy”), and the two of us will return together on the 22nd. In between, lots to see and do, which I’ll relate in the next letter.


#51: Sri Lanka, December 2002
Site-seeing and Sight-seeing



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