omeone recently asked me why I live in Italy. It’s not an easy question. I hemmed and hawed and tried to find a way to summarize a confluence of factors. Eventually, I settled on the simple way out: “Life is good here.”
But it gave me pause. I could be in New York City, Paris or Vermont. The question isn’t just why do I live here but how did I get here.
The story begins with my dear friend, Lydia Campatelli, a friendship that in family terms goes back several generations. My grandmother and Lydia’s mother were friends in 1930s Prague. My grandmother was unhappy seeing her friend repeatedly put Europe-wide socializing ahead of her daughter so she took an interest in the child. Perhaps in gratitude to woman she called “Mrs. Alice,” Lydia decided to look out for me.
I first met her in my grandmother’s home in New Jersey when I was a child. Many years later, at 18, I made a winter trip to Florence, where she’d settled. Erudite and opinionated — she looked a little like Indira Gandhi — Lydia had never married. She taught me about espresso, Vin Santo, Majani chocolates and ravioli gnudi. She spoke English very loudly, with a heavy Italian accent. She had man-sized feet, elegant legs and hands, bemoaned Tuscany’s bone-chilling cold (so had numerous furs), and kept a small budgie. We discussed poetry and art, played cards, and bickered. From that visit on, we were friends for life.
One night during my first stay — my bed was in the remote, upstairs attic of the gorgeous Ammannati palazzo — just as I was about to turn out the light, I felt a sudden gust of fresh night air. But the windows were closed. It was as if some benevolent, maternal presence smoothed down the sheets, tucked me in, brushed my hair off my forehead. It wasn’t frightening; it made me feel like I was in the right place.
Life went on, I returned to college in California. Two years later, after studying Italian at Middlebury and at Berkeley, I was back in Florence, this time to attend classes at its university. I’d go to Lydia’s once a week for lunch. She corrected my manners and my Italian. She also became my confidante about matters of the heart. Actually, I didn’t have to tell her much. She could see it in my eyes. When I decided to stay in Italy permanently, she supported me. Knowing she was on my side made the choice easier.
Now, thinking back to all we enjoyed together, I realize it was Lydia’s introduction that made me fall in love with Italy and its people. It was a privileged introduction. In addition to Florence, I saw her in San Gimignano, where her family had long owned one of the towers. Beauty after beauty: a chapel, dreamy frescoes, unexplored attic, and huge fireplaces. I watched her with her friends: they went on journeys, played bridge, or gossiped over tea. Here was an intelligent woman who lived well on her own. She was like a favorite aunt, and I the favorite niece. As the years passed, she got to know my children. She sometimes stayed with us in New York. We regularly exchanged phone calls. Her generosity of spirit and intellect, as well as her idiosyncratic and not always easy manner, made her endearing.
Lydia had already died when I decided to move back to Italy in 2009 after 15 years in New York City. Though Tuscany is a colder place without her, I’m constantly aware of her spirit. I see it from my desk in the variegated colors of autumn: orangey vines, yellow walnut trees, dark green cypress and silver olives. I recall how she would sit by the fire in her tall armchair, her cardigan tied around her mid-section, doing crossword puzzles. The early sunsets of late fall take me back to her delicious dinners, which coincided with the RAI evening news. I recall her laughter and her fondness for “Ispettore Derrick” and “La Signora in Giallo,” the dubbed versions of German and American mystery shows. I hear her booming voice and Florentine accent. Buy your coffee here. See that painting there. “Gli italiani sono o pazzi o geni!”
Deciding to live in this Janus-faced bel paese and cope with the everyday struggles — the endless bureaucracy, the injustices, the stupidity and scandals — I cling to a gift I didn’t recognize I’d received. Lydia lent me roots onto which I grafted. And 29 years later, the plant is thriving.