What is the force that drives a person to give up a life and a culture of sixty five years, pack it all in, and move to another country? In my case, I can sum it up in three words: passion, hunger and curiosity. Over the span of twenty five years, after nearly twenty trips to learn and research its food and culture, I developed a very deep seated passion for Italy. The hunger I refer to is not for food, but for a more meaningful, profound social and cultural experience, something I’d felt was missing in my life for many decades in the USA. I needed something richer, something imbued with more tradition, more connections to family and friends. And for me, that hunger was sated in Italy.
The majority of my time in Italy, until more recently, had been in northern Italy: Rome, Firenze, Siena, Montalcino, Bologna. But the strong, indelible memories I made over the span of twenty five years deepened my connection, and strengthened the pull of that ancient country on my heart and soul:
- My first trip to Florence in 1992, and the power of that city’s art, architecture and food—how I wished I could have shown that city to my mother.
- The discovery of each new restaurant and each new dish, regardless of city…each a thrill and a treasure.
- Standing in ancient ruins, breathing the same air as ancient Romans, or the powerful Medici, or occupying Greeks in Puglia in 600BC.
- Observing the morning ritual of old timers, often topped with a coppola, or flat cap, drinking espresso and reading the newspaper in bars from Alba to Lecce, especially in Lecce, in my favorite bar, the Syrbar.
I’ve been affected deeply by these and countless other impressions and recollections that I’ve absorbed walking the centuries-old streets, as I sat, observing people in countless restaurants and bars, or riding on trains, and coursing through miles and miles of museums. I am certainly lucky to have amassed these treasures; yes, more fortunate than most.
Tug. Tug. Tug. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pop. Pop. Pop.
My personal turning point came after a two month visit to Italy in March and April of 2016—a trip which included my first visit to il Sud of Italy, particularly to Lecce, in far southern Puglia, a journey originally inspired by my CURIOSITY about the music.
Finishing that journey in Napoli, I returned to my then home in Memphis, Tennessee, jet lagged—a normal sensation. But when what I first diagnosed as jet lag dragged on and on for weeks, I realized, in fact, I was suffering from a severe bout of depression. It was a chasm so deep that I remained in bed until late afternoon every day, meaning, my morning shower and my first morning coffee each occurred no earlier than 4 p.m. for two or three weeks. Before long, I discovered the root of my extreme lows: I missed Italy. I missed Italy profoundly. Specifically, I missed Lecce, a town I barely knew, but a place I was already beginning to feel was destined to be my new home.I had been to Italy and returned more times than I can remember, I even attempted, in 1996, to buy a restaurant in the small Tuscan town of Montalcino in order to justify moving there, another town that seemed like home to me. But I had never experienced the kind of deep yearning, the kind of “jesus I need to be back there” depression I experienced in May of 2016. It was truly debilitating, and seemingly without cure.
Then one afternoon, I stood in front of my ridiculously expensive Italian espresso machine making my “morning” cappuccino, yeah, morning, meaning already well past three in the afternoon. While pulling my shot of espresso, and steaming my milk, I had a vision, and it was a very clear vision: I experienced the palpably real sensation of being in my favorite coffee bar in Lecce, yes, Syrbar ordering a cappuccino, envisioning myself as one of those old dudes in the back of the cafe, my balding head topped with a dark gray coppola, and reading the morning paper. I might have also been the one old letch paying undue attention to the young female college students who frequent the bar, maybe, but I was there for sure, one of the the Syrbar regulars, armed with my newspaper and traditional coffee.
In some inexplicable manner, after only a few short days in Lecce, something about the Syrbar—the employees, the physical layout, the relaxed atmosphere, its location directly across from the ancient duomo, the cathedral of Lecce—all these things combined to create my own personal womb in a town that was almost totally unknown to me up to that point.
And that was it. In a literal FLASH!, I knew the solution, the cure, for my deepening mental illness was to escape the tedious, vapid life in the United States, and envelope myself in a culture I found far more intriguing, healthy, and uplifting. To survive, I had to relocate to Lecce, a town that, almost instantly—in that bright vision and flash—I had immediately realized was to be my rightful place, my home.
So, as outlined in a previous post, I began the process of selling nearly all my worldly possessions in order to facilitate such a monumental relocation—two or three sets of drums, gone; four thousand CDs, gone (but ripped to a hard drive first!); more than half my LP collection, more than two thousand LPs, gone; all my Heywood-Wakefield furniture, gone, kitchen stuff, gone; original artwork, gone; and so on and so forth, until toward the end of September 2017, I crated up what was left and sent it on its merry way, by ship, to Lecce, via the port of Naples. Scary as hell, but the die was cast. I had to find my sweet spot, my mental health depended on it.
On September 29, I arrived in Lecce, and began my new life in earnest. Needless to say, one of my first destinations was to Syrbar for my first cappuccino in my new home. I ordered and sat at a table which was to become MY spot, as I would soon become a regular, one of those old dudes in the back! My dream was unfolding and I was immediately finding my comfort zone. As the days went by, other regular “old dudes” came and went, scarfing up the communal local papers with sometimes intense earnestness. Even I began routinely perusing these papers, trying to glean clues to the workings of my new city, and maybe a tip about a bit of local music coming up in a local bar or theater.
I watched groups of tourists dash into the bar to use the restroom, to grab a quick coffee or tea, but I was eventually able to identify the bar’s regular customers and their routines. I developed an instant crush on a woman of about fifty or so who came in every morning at about 9:50 to have her ritual espresso. I soon learned she owns a little shop around the corner selling local handicrafts. One day, maybe sooner than later, I will work up the courage to enter her quaint store, determined to strike up a conversation. Maybe she’ll agree to have lunch with the old americano in the gray coppola. Maybe not. She does’t wear a wedding ring, there’s at least that, a bit of hope!
One day, as I was checking my email, or reading the paper, or staring at tourists, from my spot in the bar, an older gentleman said something to me, I think in English, and I seem to remember he wanted to know if I wanted to look at one of his newspapers. In just a few minutes, we established that I could speak enough Italian for a conversation, and that he could speak enough English for a conversation, so we launched into the first of what would become dozens of regular bi-lingual visits in the back of Syrbar. I was becoming a regular, conversing with a regular, regularly! He gave me some background: he was a retired chemical engineer who had relocated to Lecce from Milan, choosing Lecce because he had family roots there.
He used English often in his old job, working, as he did, in an international pharmaceutical firm with offices and labs around the world. English is the lingua franca, you know, of science and industry, and he was as interested in practicing English as I was my Italian. Over the course of a few weeks, Vittorio and I became acquaintances, and then friends—he began introducing me to others in the bar, and eventually to his friends we encountered on our occasional walks through the town. He introduced me as his friend, his American friend, and I was honored, and impressed because it seemed that Vittorio knew everyone in Lecce!
As Thanksgiving approached, I decided to have a little celebratory dinner of my own, but with a distinctly Italian twist—my menu combined American and Italian traditions into something clearly Italian, but still recognizable, in a way, as an American Thanksgiving meal: a stuffed bird, a pumpkin dish (ravioli!), and a pecan pie, but made with walnuts since pecans are more valuable than gold in Italy! To help me consume this feast I decided to invite Vittorio and his lovely wife Giuliana, as well as his niece Elena who had by then become my Facebook friend! (It turns out that Vittorio is neighbors with two other people I had met in Lecce, by coincidence, but those are other stories. Like I said, Vittorio knows most of Lecce!)
Over time, as I told more people of my vision I had standing in front of my espresso machine in Memphis, the one in which I saw myself at the Syrbar as a regular, remember that vision? Well, as I told, and retold this story, it suddenly became clear to me: the old guy I saw in that vision had to be Vittorio! Way back in May of 2016! There is now no question in my mind that, during that instant, life-changing flash which revealed the Syrbar clearly in my mind, the rear of the cafè was occupied by none other than Vittorio! No question about it! So, is this essay about fated-friendships, coincidences or??? I don’t know, really, I don’t know.
As I write this, Vittorio has no idea the role he unwittingly played in helping me make my decision to move, but I can assure him today, NOW, that he indeed did, that somehow, 19 months before meeting, his presence in that bar guided me, in a very certain manner, to change my life, my home, forever.
And now it’s done. Vittorio—and you folks at Syrbar—I thank you from the bottom of my heart. My life is better, Lecce is home, and I have you, in at least some small (or large?) way to thank! Grazie, mille, amico mio! I am proud to have you as my friend!