An adapted excerpt from Amare, A True Italian Love Story, 2009, by Sheila Wright
For my first Christmas in Italy, Gino suggests a trip to the mountains of Abruzzo, a definite change of scenery from our life on the Gulf of Naples. His family is full of sighs when we tell them the news. They are disappointed but not angry, assuming all Canadians must have an undeniable penchant for white Christmases.
We decide to take the train to Alfedena. Gino has heard of a mountain village called Villetta Barrea, not far from the station. He suggests we rent a chalet where we can cuddle up together in front of a blazing fire while snow falls silently outside. I agree. Abruzzo is famous for its salamis and wines, so we add these to our tableau. A quick call to the tourist office in Villetta Barrea reassures us that there will be no problem finding accommodations once we arrive. We are eager for an adventure.
The train station at Alfedena lies at the foot of the mountains, with Villetta Barrea nestled somewhere over the other side. Alfedena isn’t even a town, just a station in the middle of nowhere. Stranded as we are, I am relieved to find balmy weather and not a speck of snow in sight.
We will be blessed with angels on this trip and the first one shows up in the form of Signor Ponte. He acts as if there is nothing he would rather do than give us a lift over the mountains, he’s going that way anyway, nessun problema. On the way, Signor Ponte tells us about his life and we do the same. He drops us off at the tourist office in Villetta Barrea, gives us his business card and makes us promise to call if we are ever back in the area. We promise sincerely.
The tourist office directs us to our next angel, Signora Luca, who has a chalet-type apartment for rent, complete with view of the valley and wood-burning stove.
“My husband and I will be hiking into the mountains with some amici tomorrow morning. Our destination is a cave which hides a hidden spring. We make this pilgrimage every Christmas Eve. Would you like to join us?”
We don’t hesitate. “We’d love to!”
“Benissimo. Pack a lunch. It will take most of the day to get there and back.”
During the hike through misty air and golden chestnut leaves, we take deep breaths, fuelling our bodies with heady earth scents. Every once in a while we cross a burbling stream that must surely be the issue of our destination. The walk is long, but not strenuous. The last bit is a steep climb over rocky terrain, but then the mouth of the cave is above us, welcoming us. The headwaters bubble out of a fissure in the back wall, surging over the cave’s lip to cascade down the rocks.
We climb inside; there is plenty of space for the six of us. After we drink from the spring, Signor Luca pulls a bottle of champagne from his pack. We solemnly toast the true spirit of Christmas, of angels and blessings. The bubbles of the champagne become one with the gurgle of the spring and we are instantly giddy, anointing ourselves with this purest of waters. Infused with rapture, we emerge joyfully into the afternoon.
The spirit of the cave, the water, the chestnuts―this is my natural religion. I feel it quickening now within me. Gino feels it. The others feel it. It is the reason they make the pilgrimage every year to drink at this eternal fountain of nature.
The walk back is like floating on mist. Evening is setting in when we arrive effortlessly back in the village. Christmas lights welcome us to a scene from an Italiannativity scene. We bid buon natale to our companions and retire to our chalet. As night falls, so do large flakes of snow. They drift past the dark window, illuminated by our fire.
Snow at Christmas has always been magical, but this snow is special. It seems to be the risen spring water descending in another form to blanket the sacred earth. We watch, mesmerized by the constant whirl of flakes and the flickering warmth of the fire. Our eyes begin to droop; we make our way to the bedroom where we snuggle together and sleep the blissful slumber of the truly serene.
Christmas morning we step out into deep snow, something all too familiar to me. Something Gino has never done before. Peaked chalet roofs hang with snow icing. The lake below shimmers like crinkly foil, not ice but icy cold. I am struck by the diversity of Italy. This Alpine village is just as picturesque as the Amalfi coast or the Sorrentine peninsula, but entirely different. The snow begins to melt as the sun rises higher and we walk the lake trail without jackets. Thank you, Italy, for this taste of a gentler winter. One which bestows splendid shining moments, then melts away into jaunty rivulets.
It was summer when I fell in love with Iceland. From the moment I stepped off the plane into the midnight dusk, I was permanently and forever enchanted. Enchanted by the light over moss-covered lava fields, by the boiling geysers and rainbow-kissed waterfalls, the thermal mountain pools and the purest drinking water on the planet. Whale watching, horse riding, beach combing, glacier hiking. Summer in Iceland is perfect.
Two weeks in July were not enough. I had to have more, and I had to have it in winter, in order to satiate my appetite for the Northern Lights.
It was Boxing Day when I understood the DARKNESS that is Iceland in winter. Dark, with gale force Arctic storms that routinely toss cars and tour buses into the ditch. Iceland in winter is crawling inside an ice cave, inside a glacier, just to get warm.
But the enchantment continued. Sunsets so pink they broke my heart, world-famous fireworks on New Year's Eve, hot springs under snowfall, blue-glowing glaciers, and magical caves of ice inaccessible any other time of year. And yes, the eerie, crazy, unmatched splendour of the Aurora Borealis.
Icelandic nature brought me to my knees and changed me forever. Otherworldly, yes, but in Iceland I felt connected to my home planet like never before.
Iceland, you touched me to the core of my Earthly being.
I'm an annoying Italian man, please just ignore me," were the words I planned to teach my English language class made up solely of young men from the Naples area. Since the day I had arrived, I had seen such men in action. "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" "Do you need some company?" were the phrases they recited by heart as they followed foreign women through the streets.
In the classroom, they were attentive, polite students, eager to learn. "Why do you feel English is important?" I asked. Receiving a unanimous response involving the seduction of foreign women, I realized that English wasn't the only thing they needed to learn; they needed to be brought up to date on the workings of the female mind.
After four years of language study at university and two years of TESL training, I felt ready to do some serious teaching. At a small private school in Sorrento, forty kilometers south of Naples, I planned to put my expertise to the test. The key to successful language teaching is using topics of interest to your students. My students were only interested in chasing women. (Great. The possibilities for field trips are endless!)
Outside the classroom, I inquired informally about the hard sell pick-up method. I explained that, in North America, a woman who is followed relentlessly and badgered by incessant questions (grammatically correct or not) is unlikely to warm to the perpetrator. I was told that, although a southern Italian expects an initial negative response, he believes that persistence is the key. And the fact that he rarely gives up easily must be an indication of some rate of success.
In fact, there is an Italian comedy sketch where a man approaches a woman alone on a beach and asks if she would like some company. When she answers "yes," he doesn't know what to do. It's all a big game.
If you're a woman who wants to be alone on a beach in southern Italy, you can forget it. You may find a few initial moments of peace, but then you will sense a presence just behind you. It will move in to your left or right and sit down at a distance that says, "I'm in your space--you have to notice me." After a period of anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes, he will speak--whether eye contact has been made or not. I became adept at judging the situation and would either chat (if his language was good and I could learn some Italian), or move away and hope not to be followed.
The good news is, not all Italian men are annoying. I met my Neapolitan boyfriend at the beach, but it was only through mutual friends that we dared to speak to each other. He wouldn't have approached me, for fear that I would walk away, and my conservative North American background combined with a good dose of solo female traveller defensiveness would never have allowed me to approach him. (Don't cultural differences just make a relationship fascinating?)
Although I taught English in Sorrento for five months, it was I who really did the learning. The male-female relationship is only one of the many intriguing aspects of a cross-cultural experience. There's also the role of the family, the woman/mother, politics and economics, to name a few. But those are other stories...
This was Sheila's first published story, appearing in the hard copy edition of Journeywoman magazine in 1996.
The Neapolitan boyfriend she met on the beach is now her husband.
Este caballo es muy lindo, this horse is very beautiful, was one of the useless Spanish phrases I learned before flying to Uruguay, South America for a seven-day equestrian holiday.
Help! This horse is bucking like a bronco, would have been a much more appropriate phrase to learn. As it was, I had to make do with screaming my head off, the international language of terror. I am an experienced rider and can handle many equine vices. Bolting, spooking, rearing and spinning don’t worry me. Bucking is the only thing that sends me into paroxysms of fear. With each bronco leap I screamed louder and louder as the rest of the group completed a lovely calm canter up a hill.
Our guide, Leticia, trotted back to join me in my private rodeo hell. “Stop screaming,” she said. “You’re scaring the horse.” She also told me to drop the reins, which I did, against all instinct. Magically, the bucking stopped. By this time, the guide’s assistant, Gaucho Fernando, had come to see what all the ruckus was about. Leticia and Fernando conferred in Spanish for a moment. I could tell by their tone and the glances they threw my way that they were disapproving of my behaviour.
The horse and I were breathing in gasps as Leticia repeated, “You scared him with your screams.”
“He started it!” I said, feeling suddenly weak and childish. “I wouldn’t have been screaming if he hadn’t been trying to buck me off!” By this time the horse was standing quietly, head down and docile, as if nothing had happened. I was frightened and furious and about to dismount in a huff when Leticia explained that this horse was particularly sensitive in the mouth and that I should not pull on the reins, Ever.
“Sit back in the saddle, let the reins loose and trust your horse,” she said. “This is the Uruguayan way.”
No point explaining that I had simply picked up the reins, English fashion, in anticipation of the canter. I took a deep breath and did as she said. For the rest of the 48 km day, I never once picked up the reins. Instead, I copied the guide and gaucho in their loose, relaxed movements. It turned out to be one of the best rides of my life.
Rodeo episode aside, the Laguna Negra ride with Hidden Trails in Uruguay was tailor-made for someone like me. Beach gallops, remote ranches, friendly people, great food; it was a dream come true. Even herding cattle, something I had thought would not appeal to me, turned out to be a new passion. And riding South American style ― leaning way back in the sheepskin covered saddle ― was extremely comfortable.
Hidden Trails is a Canadian company, but there were ten people from all over the world on this trip. The one thing we all had in common was a love of real riding; this was no nose-to-tail trail ride. All the riders were able to handle challenges and fast paces. My companion and I chose the Laguna Negra trip because it met all of our criteria: warm climate, fast-paced ride, beaches galore. The rest, including a top-notch guide, ranch hosts, and gauchos who did everything for us from tacking up our horses to opening gates, was gravy. We changed mounts three times, and stayed at three ranches.
Uruguay is the second smallest country in South America, sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina. For someone from the northern hemisphere, it is a country full of wonders. There are fields of palms as far as the eye can see. The eucalyptus forests are populated by amazing creatures like rheas, capybaras and brilliant green parrots. We picked fresh dates from the palms, traversed rivers, valleys and lagoons, and wandered through groves of mysterious ombue trees with trunks like deformed elephant legs.
One day we rode to the remote ocean village of Cabo Polonio where the locals live without running water or electricity. There is no road; the only way to reach Cabo Polonio is by horseback or dune buggy. I immediately fell in love with this hippie/fisherman idyll surrounded by sand, rocky outcrops covered with sea lions, and all the seafood you can eat. Mussels grow in abundance on the rocks, but we ate shark and calamari at a beachside tavern while the horses lounged in a paddock nearby. After lunch we swam in the Atlantic Ocean, then remounted our horses to explore the beaches and dunes.
On cattle-herding day at Ranch El Charabon, we set out early to canter up hills and through valleys in search of stray cows. Fernando showed us how to circle round and chase the cows back to the herd. Most of us caught on quickly and were soon working on our own. Locate cow, circle, chase. Repeat. This is pleasure riding with a challenge and a purpose. We came out of it delighted with our accomplishments.
Ranches in Uruguay can be huge. El Charabon is one of the smaller ones, at 950 hectares. On a farm like this, herding cattle can take all day, but we were cowboys and cowgirls only for the morning. In the afternoon, we cantered through eucalyptus forests before returning to the ranch for a swim in the pool and a traditional Uruguayan asado, BBQ.
On the last canter of the last day, I saw Fernando watching me. He smiled and nodded, then turned to Leticia and said something in Spanish. The only word I understood was lindo, beautiful. After we stopped, Leticia came over to me. “Fernando is impressed with your beautiful Uruguayan riding style.” I smiled from ear to ear, feeling immensely pleased with myself and with the whole week.
The bucking incident was the only thing I didn’t love about Uruguay. I will be expanding my Spanish vocabulary for the next trip. Perhaps a phrase such as what should I know about this horse before I get on? would come in handy.
Hidden Trails offers equestrian vacations all over the world. Find them at www.hiddentrails.com
Sheila's love of travel is limitless, even if most days she really enjoys living the simple life in the small village of Warkworth, Ontario. She loves beaches, horses, pugs and sweaters. A published author, her book Amare recounts her adventures in Italy while teaching English in Sorrento. Amare is available online at Amazon in hard and soft cover as well as ebook. The book is also sold at Chapters, Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.