Things are changing here in Italy.
Or at least it sure seems that way. Who knew that just a week away in America would bring me back to an Italy that had changed so much, or at least that the changes it had been making over the last few months would be so evident, setting foot down again at the airport in Ancona, wheeling my bags out the door. Just a few days later, I’d be back at work again, I’d come face to face with the new Green Pass requirements at school (during the time I was away, teachers were required to bring the new Green Pass with them that verifies you’ve been vaccinated, or else to have a CoVid test once every 48 hours) and with the roads full of traffic on my morning commute, this was proof of more differences: the start of the school year and students heading back to school full time — crowding the crosswalks, backpacks firmly on their shoulders — for the first time in ages. What once was normal for all of us, before any of this started, is now an adjustment. Now we’re getting back to a normal that just isn’t anymore.
And then there’s the fall. I’d forgotten about fall. The sun that gets in your eyes as you’re driving up the hills. The daylight that fades so quickly into night. Autumn is a quieter affair in Italy than it is stateside. Oh how I miss the fall folliage, the leaves piled up in the middle of October lawns, ready to be jumped in. Instead here it’s what’s known as a half season — mezza stagione — this handful of days sandwiched in between summer and winter. Just a cooling down of things, really: shorter days, the chill in the air, the golden morning light, the fog that stretches out for miles over the vineyards and then tucks itself quietly into the folds of the hills. It’s not so cold yet, but there are no longer those hot sweltering days of August. October is here, in full swing.
Or maybe it is just me. After all, I always have a hard time coming back to Italy after spending time in the states. Every single time it happens, like clockwork — this slow change for me, homesickness mixed with jet lag mixed with a dreamy kind of waking up confused, finding myself back in my own bed after miles and miles of travel. I thought that this time would be easier (it was only nine days away) but it isn’t. Everything reminds me of home, in some strange way. I dream about it at night: dinners with friends or sitting cross legged on the porch swing, watching an Indiana summer come to an end. My American colleague Ruth is in the states now, sending us photos of the fall — pumpkin patches and Halloween — and it makes me homesick all over again. Before she left, she asked me to watch her rabbit for her two weeks away. It’s been an adventure. Cardamom sneaks up on the little guy (who is just minding his own business in his cage, his nose twitching endlessly) and hisses at him, flicking her tail in dramatic fashion, her eyes wide, and the house is like it has never been before. Once, there were no animals at all, and now we’re overflowing with them — a rabbit in one cage, a fish on the shelf, and this firecracker of a kitten pouncing and hopping and growling, and then curling up and sleeping soundly on the empty luggage that’s still on the floor in the living room — some sort of sign to leave it right there, to not put it away just yet.
Perhaps the best way to get back into the swing of things is to spend a Sunday wandering aimlessly through a small medieval town. We did just that last weekend (I grumbled about wanting to visit Tuscany instead, but we were having some car problems and it was too far away). We took the 20 minute drive out to the town of San Severino. As we got closer, we drove by churches in the countryside, over hills and into the fall colored landscape of early October. We passed buildings that had just been repaired after the earthquake damage 4 years ago, and familiar places looked new again. I sighed and leaned in, looking hopefully out the window. I think more than anything, I was searching for a reminder of why I was here.
We parked just outside of the city walls of San Severino. It is a lovely town, soft with its honey colored bricks and amber roofs, a main square that opens up cheerfully in the lowest part of town before the roads begin to lead up into the hills around. There are sturdy brick bridges and streams that meander through the center and out toward the countryside around. We walked through the outskirts and then through the city itself. Through the squares and up the cobbled staircases and toward the art museum. It was quiet in town, even for a Sunday. We were the only ones walking through a museum filled with the artists of San Severino, and studded with some of the artists we’d studied together with my dad. Crivelli. Pinturicchio. An altarpiece by Paolo Veneziano with each saint holding just the right symbol — Paul with his keys, Peter with his sword, Catherine with her hand pressed onto a wooden wheel — so you could name them straight away, each and every one.
On the drive home later, we pulled over at a small church right outside of San Severino that we’d seen on the road before. Antonello parked the car, and we got out, stretched our legs like we’d had the longest journey, and walked right up to the quiet country church. The church was all boarded up, beams holding up one side from earthquake damage. It was a small church, and when we walked to the other side of it, we were delighted to see brick arches and decorations and tall windows so you could peek inside. I looked around. From here you could walk over to the remains of the old Roman town of Septempeda, its stones and ancient walls nestled in the fields around, hardly visible unless you took the time to seek them out. Here the sun formed slivers of light on the red brick, and little lizards were sunning themselves, stubborn in their belief that this was indeed still summer.
Perhaps in all of this transformation, it was I who had changed — going back to America and then coming straight back here had muddled everything up. It had made home feel so real for nine full days, and then, as soon as my bags hit the luggage belt in Italy, like it had all been a dream for every day that followed. But here I was, weeks later, eyes open. From here, you could see the sun beginning to set, the city of San Severino in the distance, past fields and countryside and silvery olive groves and the perfect notes of autumn. The towers and churches of San Severino rose up from the top of the hill, and the clouds looked as soft as mist, like fog out there, as delicate and bright as some sort of fairytale. My feet were planted on this very ground. Firmly in Italy now. Yes, my heart was still over there, stuck in limbo and not ready to leave. But somehow, in the middle of Italian art and medieval churches and Antonello holding my hand: in this pocket of the early evening, my heart was finally here as well.
Today I’m listening to: Thank You by Led Zeppelin.