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First Impressions

WE ARRIVE IN ROME. NO taxi is available, so we walk to the bus stop and soon discover that cobblestone is no longer charming when one has to wheel enormous heavy suitcases over it. We miss our bus to Abruzzo and must wait three hours for the next one.

Regardless, we put on our new Italian personalities. We will relax, soak in the warm Roman atmosphere, and watch the world go by.

Determined to get us on the next bus, David perches directly in front of the store that sells bus tickets. I doubt that he could have found a less appealing spot to sit in all of Rome. Sweat drips down his face, and his eyes shift to and fro, as he suspiciously watches everyone who approaches to ensure that our luggage will be safe.Three long hours pass, and we climb onto the bus. People sit wherever they want, yet one man is determined to sit in his assigned seat. Soon the entire bus is in an uproar, and I see mob mentality at work. The bus driver tries to calm everyone down and to seat the man elsewhere. Finally, the man sits down one row ahead of his assigned seat, loudly grumbling as the other passengers complain about him.

Our bus driver is on a mission, but I’m so tired, I don’t care if he goes off a cliff. The lady beside me evidently still cherishes life, though. Her husband consoles her for the entire two and a half hours, as the bus driver speeds through curvy mountain roads. On occasion, the husband gets a break at the few red lights where the driver deigns to stop.

We eventually arrive at our destination, and the driver even brings the bus to a full stop. Earlier, he merely slowed down long enough for people to jump out. Yet he is still trying to keep up his momentum and chucks out our luggage with brute force.

David’s father, Giorgio, and his uncle (Zio in Italian) pick us up. Zio Luigi affectionately greets me and sheds tears while hugging and kissing David. I immediately like David’s uncle. He has kind eyes that exude warmth and happiness, though I can sense some regret behind them.

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I repeat my name to Zio Luigi several times, but he gives up and finally refers to me as moglie di David (“David’s wife”). I suspect he will do so for our entire stay.

David and moglie di David will go in the car with Giorgio, and Zio Luigi will take our luggage in his ancient little Panda.

Giorgio has assimilated well into the Italian lifestyle and is driving a Fiat Uno. The engine is equivalent to a motorcycle’s—1,000 cc’s. Regardless, it immediately becomes evident from whom my husband has inherited his driving skills. To add to my woes, Giorgio is similar to most Italians, who always like to look someone in the eye when conversing. David hasn’t seen his father for months, and they have plenty to discuss. At least, I don’t take my eyes off the twisty mountain road the entire trip home.

We arrive at my in-laws’ house with its elaborate front gate, built slightly lower than prison walls. The setting is ideal. The ochre-colored house sits on a hill, looking out over valleys and mountains, olive groves, and vineyards. Patchwork pieces of cultivated land blend harmoniously together: the silver green of olive groves next to sandy brown soil, waiting to come to life again in the spring.

“The air is good up here. One should never be down in the valley.” My father-in-law shakes his head in pity for the homes below.

David’s mom, Maria, runs out and ecstatically greets us.

The men unload the suitcases, while I peek at the grounds. Naturally, there is a large vegetable garden, with teepee structures holding the tomatoes in place. Plastic covers them, lengthening the growing season. A wide balcony has an unobstructed view of the vegetable garden.

This garden has been designed according to a precise plan. Elsewhere, though, massive rocks are randomly strewn across the grass, seemingly too big and too heavy to move after mischievous aliens threw them down. The mismatch of small trees and shrubs also looks arranged by Mother Nature’s furor, coupled with her sense of humor.

Maria points to where the cypress trees used to be but were painstakingly removed, to ensure enough light for the vegetable garden and an unobstructed view of the neighbor’s ramshackle sheds.

There is a church up the hill and a cemetery nearby, so we will still enjoy some of that famous Tuscan view.

Maria rushes us inside to eat, where a meal awaits that is worthy of the prodigal son’s return. We start with prosciutto, accompanied by juicy red tomatoes from the garden and buffalo mozzarella. Then handmade gnocchi in homemade tomato sauce. Zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and fried in a parmesan batter. Roasted sheep, a specialty of the region, is next.

Red and white wines accompany this feast. We finish off the meal with thick slivers of Parmigiano reggiano. Afterward, we have espresso corretto, espresso “corrected” with a splash of grappa or sambuca, that is.

During the meal, Maria watches us eat, her face beaming. She doesn’t miss an opportunity to reload our plates, despite our protests. Radiant with Italian pride, Giorgio gives us a play-by-play account of each food item. The prosciutto is from Parma, the only good kind. The parmigiano is also from Parma and must be aged a minimum of twenty-four months. The sheep was locally raised by Zio Luigi. . .

Then Giorgio takes us on the grand tour, complete with architectural floor plans and a comprehensive explanation. A mini thesis follows on the topic of cement and its virtues.

Next is a professorial lecture on paint. “We are choking in Canada! Our walls do not breathe.” I discover that it really is possible to deliver an entire one-hour sermon on breathing walls.

The tour continues, accompanied by Giorgio’s pontificating on building materials.

This home is my in-laws’ true love, as evidenced by the exclusive Murano glass chandelier with lights that are not energy efficient. Back in Canada, David’s parents have several costly crystal chandeliers—each one, however, uses curly, energy-efficient bulbs.

Two massive brick arches lead to the kitchen. It is conveniently located next to the stairway going downstairs, which facilitates easy access for running up and down when one is cooking in the second kitchen and serving guests upstairs.

We soon realize there is no place comfortable to sit down: three large tables; a kitchen, a dining room, and a balcony on the main floor; and in the basement two more tables, with another one outside. Six tables, and not a couch in sight.

Outside, a staircase rises to an unfinished second-floor apartment, in case any grown children have a sudden need or desire to move in.

The cantina is stocked with at least a year’s worth of food and wine, ready for any impending natural disaster, a world war, or a few typical Italian family dinners.

The grand tour finally complete, Giorgio sits down on a small stool in the living room and pulls out a fancy accordion. I have always found it to be a quaint instrument, reminiscent of old Italian movies. My love of the accordion quickly wanes, although Giorgio certainly has mastered that one beloved piece he plays over and over again.

We begin counting the days.

Life in Italy, amongst her husband's family, inspired Ivanka to write A Zany Slice of Italy which became an Amazon bestseller. Available at Amazon.com

Ivanka and David continue to make Tuscany their home. Family, along with quirky situations in everyday life, continue to provide ample inspiration to write.

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