Author of over thirty traditionally-published books for young readers, Margo Sorenson spent the first seven years of her life in Spain and Italy, devouring books and Italian food and still speaks (or tries!) her childhood languages. Her most recent Adult/YA novel, SECRETS IN TRANSLATION (Fitzroy Books, October 2018), (with research help from Gabriele) takes place in Positano, with many wonderful experiences shared together with Italians—as well as delicious meals. www.margosorenson.com
I was beyond thrilled to begin planning our first trip to Italy with our family. For me, it was a return trip, having spent my early childhood in Napoli and Bari, and I was nervous but excited. Would my Italian hold up? My parents had been right, as I discovered on an earlier trip to Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton, about my Southern Italian accent opening doors, but, this was going to be two entire weeks in Italy, and I was the only (hopeful) Italian speaker.
We’d gotten some wonderful recommendations from our Italian friends for places to stay and sights to see. All I had to do was go on the internet and book everything. Luckily, I could always find the “English/Italian” button on each website, just in case my Italian failed me—I had no illusions about my language competence.
I had told our family about the accent issue, so they could be prepared for whatever might happen—a flood of welcoming, rapid Italian, much of which would go right over my head until I spoke the magic words, “Mi dispiace—il mio italiano non é buono—parli lentamente, per piacere.” I’m sorry, my Italian isn’t good—please speak slowly.
Sure enough, right away, my Italian was put to the test, when we picked up our two rented vehicles at Fiumicino, the Rome airport. Luckily, I had my well-thumbed Italian-English dictionary with me. On our trip north to la Toscana, our daughters’ car had a flat tire, and our air conditioning didn’t work. This began the fabled “Mom-drop”—meaning, my family would find the place we could get help, or directions, and “drop me off” to ask my questions in Italian, and, if there was no parking, they would circle back to pick me up once I had the answers.
Our first stay, highly recommended by our American friend who’d lived in Italy for thirty years, was at Agriturismo Buondonno, a fabulous agriturismo in la Toscana, halfway between Siena and Firenze, with a drop-dead gorgeous view of the countryside, in Castellina in Chianti.
https://www.buondonno.com/agriturismo Our friend told us, “It’s not turistico at all—it’s the real Italia, and very comfortable.” She was so right. Because I didn’t trust my Italian for arranging tours and so on, I’d made sure that our host, the owner-winemaker Gabriele Buondonno, spoke excellent English, so my husband and family could communicate with him, as well. (We call that “sharing the burden.”) Naturally, when we checked in, Gabriele heard my accent when I said, “Buon giorno, signore,” and he raised his eyebrows and grinned. That was the end of my being able to speak English with him—he’d speak English willingly with our family, but with me, he said, grinning ear-to-ear, he would speak only Italian! He’d grown up in Napoli, as well, so it was very heartwarming.
This was the absolutely perfect place for our family to become acquainted with the Italy I’d grown up in and loved. Michaelangelo had once stayed there (yes, it is that old!), and, with multiple-foot-thick walls and vines growing on them, surrounded by vineyards and other farms and wineries, and a salumeria down the road, it was a welcoming venue. We had a separate house on the grounds, as well as an apartment, which was part of the main house, Casavecchia. Gabriele, our gracious host, being the wine-maker and vintner of choice for many of the restaurants in the surrounding countryside, offered to make dinner reservations for us, procured tickets for us to see David in Firenze, made sure we could find the Duomo in Siena, and generally made life easy and delightful.
One evening, we hired “lo chef” through him—a local, well-known cook, named Maria—to come in and cook the specialties of the region for us. She ran cooking classes in the Chianti region, and she was not only an incredible cook, (grew all her own herbs and greens and vegetables and made her own pasta) but she was also from Napoli and my age, exactly. While she was concocting our fabulous dinner, I asked her (in Italian, of course) if she knew a song whose chorus was “Lo sai che i papaveri son’alti, alti, alti,” and, oh, my goodness—you would have thought she’d won la lotteria! She beamed and began to continue singing the song, so we did a duet, much to the delight and amazement of my family. (What is Mom doing, for heaven’s sake, singing a kids’ song in Italian with our chef?) She was so delighted that she had to call some of her friends right on the spot! (“I’m singing ‘I papaveri’ with an American tourist!”) To be able to sing that song once again for the first time in decades was a precious moment I will always remember. Here is as much of her wonderful menu as I can remember (Gabriele and she worked out the pairings of the wine from his winery and her food, so we didn’t go thirsty, shall I say): antipasto: fresh greens, homemade Tuscan-style salame and prosciutto, crostini with chicken liver pate, crostini with marinated mushrooms and artichokes, bruschetta and roasted peppers, first course: pappardelle with wild boar sauce and rolled baked eggplant with fresh tomatoes, main course: herb-roasted pork shoulder baked in a cornmeal/rosemary crust and fresh vegetables; dessert: torta with tiny grapes and figs. Oh, my goodness what a feast! And she did the dishes, too, smiling and conversing with us about the countryside and Italy!
All in all, it was a beautiful beginning to our Italian visit—and the melodic Italian language opened doors and welcomed me home, once again!