He sat down at our table with an affable smile and a warm welcome that didn't require a single word of English. We stammered through broken greetings and soon learned he was the owner of the ristorante. Leio was his name, and he inquired about who we were, where we were staying, and how long we were in Italy.
"Il Trebbio," we said, pointing in the general direction of our villa, and mentioning also the name of the owner, "Maria Grazie," which always seems to bring acknowledgment and recognition. Leio smiled, nodded, and said, "Io nato il Trebbio!" meaning, "I was born at il Trebbio!" Astounded, we dug in further, straining our thin Italian to its maximum limits, but nonetheless determining that our new friend Leio, owner of the Bastian Contrario ristorante (which I mentioned briefly in my upcoming book, A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation), was indeed born in the main house of the villa complex we are currently renting. Actually, we are in a farmhouse building thought to have been built in 1627, restored in 1839, and again in 1999. We are not in the main house, but a farmhouse out behind a more recently built palace of some sorts, that was probably constructed in the early eighteenth century. Leio, it seems, was born to some caretakers or workers who were living on the property of this marvelous, multi-generational (it is still in the same family as the original builders, themselves descended from land grants to French nobles by Charlemagne) estate. Next, Leio brought his own blend of "dolci vino" (sweet wine) to the table for us to try, and it was delectable, and probably not even alcoholic (but the best grape juice you ever did taste)! Then he brought out photograph after photograph of the marriage celebration of either his son or grandson (we can never be sure with this language barrier we are so desperately trying to work through) in Miami, Florida. We saw photos of Leio with Shamu at Sea World, Leio wearing funny glasses at a party, and Leio with a happy wedding couple who were also sporting crazy eye-wear. We parted fast friends with Leio, but not before discovering that the nice people with two kids at the adjacent table just happened to be the couple who had just taken up residence on our same property at the "cottage" next to our villa. More introductions and discussions followed as we learned that they were from Toronto, Ontario. Again, with promises to get our kids together the next day at the pool, we had made more friends in a foreign land.
In A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation, I wrote about how we seemed to meet and become friends with people at every turn, finding interesting folks from around the world we felt we'd known forever. Just what is this phenomenon of meeting people from different cultures, lands, and backgrounds and striking out for common ground? Why is international travel so fraught with serendipitous relationships that occur so easily one barely has to make an effort?
Just this morning, Terri and I rode the motorcycle up the steep hills into the medieval city of Cortona, parking conveniently just outside the city walls and walking to a cafe in the Piazza Signorelli. Immediately, Terri spotted Alessandra, the cooking class instructor she so enjoyed the year before (and who makes an extremely favorable appearance in the A Month of Italy book), and upon approaching her to reacquaint ourselves and say a quick "hello," we were immediately invited to have a seat and join her and her new cooking class clientele about to embark upon an adventurous day of culinary delights. We chatted amicably, Alessandra spouting off many of her classic witticisms (such as, "The mother of the idiot is always pregnant") and promising to email Terri some new recipes. She absolutely refused to allow me to pay for the coffees and danishes, shouting to the owner of the cafe across the tables and umbrellas of the piazza. By the time I reached him with money in hand, he folded his arms, shook his head, and said, "It is impossible. Alessandra wants to pay," in broken English.
Maria Grazie and husband Massimo, owners of Il Trebbio and some of the most gracious hosts imaginable, invited us to dinner last Saturday night in the garden courtyard behind the main home on the estate. Then, plans changed as their younger son announced his intentions to arrive that evening from Florence with his three small children, wife, and mother-in-law. Maria Grazie and Massimo insisted we still come to dinner, and the party of expanded size gathered in the three-hundred year-old courtyard for wonderful Italian cuisine and even more wonderful fellowship. Laughter, scampering children, and conversation flowed as if we'd all been best friends recently reunited. Finer evenings have rarely been seen.
I could give more examples of these types of nearly spontaneous, serendipitous moments of quality time with interesting, warm-hearted people that seem to happen to us once we are loose and abroad in a different culture. Is it just that we are normally too busy with our daily lives to allow room for this type of unplanned, unexpected bonding when we are at home? Is it that we must first break out of our normal routines in order to experience new relationships that are anything but routine?
I chalk all this up to the wonder of travel, the art of vacation, and the endless possibilities for meaningful connection with other human beings once we're removed from self-importance and mundane responsibilities. I sincerely hope that I can inspire many more fortunate pilgrims to wander abroad, shake a foreign hand, and embrace those of other lands, generations, and cultures. Indeed, it is the richest reward of travel.