I love anything associated with travel, so it’s not a surprise that a strong sense of place is important to me as a reader and writer.
My latest short story collection, “Drink Wine and Be Beautiful”, is largely set in Italy. I thought I would share some of the locations that play a role in these stories – and some excerpts from the story referring to the places.
In Rome, this Monti wine bar on Via Panisperna, features into my story “Amica del cuore”, when Jamie, a naive young American woman is summoned by the sophisticated Italian “Other Woman” about the man they’ve both been seeing.
“My resolve dissolved quickly. The Monti wine bar was filled with rows of bottles. The wooden tables were cozy, the clientele fashionable. I scanned the room. How would I ever find her?
My gaze fell on a stunning woman sitting alone. She sipped her water, her face slightly turned from me. I took advantage to observe her silky blouse, revealing just enough cleavage to be seductive, not desperate. Her tailored pants draped beautifully over long legs, falling to the perfect point on expensive shoes. I sighed as I looked down at my own haphazard wardrobe choices, ready to leave before she noticed me. Too late. She acknowledged me with a nod, waved me over.
I approached her, attempting to look more confident than I felt. My ears burned as she looked me up and down, Italian-style, dismissing the competition. She stood as I reached the table, showing her enviable figure off to perfection. I wasn’t the only one to notice.
“I see the eighties are alive and well in Pittsburgh. Nice to meet you, Jamie. I’m Giulia.”
We sat. The waiter sprinted over the moment Giulia acknowledged him. He appeared eager to serve her, as I imagined most men were. I may as well have been invisible.”
So begins an unusual meeting that has implications for the rest of both women’s lives.
These two photos of my collection are at the lovely Villa Celimontana, which plays an important role in my story “Heat Wave”. It is where Melanie, a newlywed and hesitant new mother, spends torrid days hiding in the shade with her baby during Rome’s epic heat wave in 2003.
“MELANIE’S ROMAN MORNINGS started early. She would join Graham for breakfast before he walked to the office, then she would nurse Helen, change her diaper, and pack the diaper bag, careful to include a blanket, book, sandwich, and plenty of water. Afterwards she headed off to the Celimontana Park to stake out a shady spot under one of the Mediterranean pines dotting its elegant lawn.
That day was no exception. Helen napped most of the morning and Melanie was free to read her book, lifting her eyes up occasionally to admire the Ancient Roman baths of Caracalla in the distance as she listened to the hum of the cicadas.
It was too hot to explore Rome that summer. When Melanie tried, she balked at the asphalt sticky under her sandals and worried that, despite her hat, Helen’s fair skin could burn. This fear caused Melanie to retreat as quickly as she had set out.
It was better to spend her days at Celimontana, as she saw a handful of other mothers doing. They sat together in clusters, laughing and chatting in Italian. Melanie glanced at them longingly from under her long eyelashes. One had even made the effort to come over to her blanket one day; Melanie apologized for not speaking Italian.
“Your baby, how is she called?” asked the woman in stilted English.
“Helen?” said the woman, wrinkling her brow. “Ah, certo—Elena!”
“Yes, Elena, in Italian.” Melanie smiled encouragingly.
There was a long silence before the woman smiled politely and indicated her friends. “I must to go. My amiche.”
“Yes, of course,” Melanie said, masking her disappointment as the pretty young woman stood up and pushed her stroller towards the animated group.
I must learn Italian, thought Melanie, or I risk being dependent on Graham.”
Celimontana is the site of a meeting that allows Melanie to gain a new perspective on life.
In my story “Morning Jogs”, Beatrice starts her mornings early going out for a run in Rome. There she reflects on her life as she passes familiar landmarks, including the flying buttresses of the San Giovanni and Paolo Basilica, that was so loved by Henry James.
“She cut through Celio’s streets, where the fruit and vegetable sellers had already set up their daily stands, awaiting the first early morning customers. She hit her stride as she passed the military hospital and crossed the eerily quiet Via Claudia, which, on her return, would already be clogged with early commuters. Passing under the Dolabella arch, she recalled how she and Claudio had always loved this little corner of Rome best.
She pounded down on the ancient cobblestones, making her way to the San Giovanni and Paolo Basilica, with its tiny square and picturesque medieval tower that would serve as a backdrop to Roman weddings later that day. Had served as a backdrop to her own wedding to Claudio almost two decades ago, back when they’d aspired to live in the neighborhood they now inhabited. Back then, they could only afford a tiny place in the outer reaches of Rome.
The flying buttresses of the church soared above her on her descent down the cobblestoned hill. She remembered reading Henry James’ account of this perfect medieval corner of Rome, back in college, when she was sure she would be teaching literature. Sometimes it hurt to compare her youthful, hopeful self with the present-day version. How much did you have to lose to gain what you wanted? Or thought you wanted …”
Beatrice’s reflections continue when she takes a business trip to Guayaquil, Ecuador and starts each morning with a jog – and makes a chance encounter that leads to an important life choice.
Another of my stories, “Abandoned Towers”, takes place in Abruzzo, so I posed my collection in the high plain I describe in my story.
In this tale, Serena is forced to return from America to Abruzzo, after having fled her small mountain town years ago. As she slowly drives back through the stunning landscape, she works through some of her inner turmoil.
“I COULD HAVE MADE GOOD TIME to Santo Stefano di Sessanio, but I dawdled, eschewing the highway for the meandering state road. It led me higher up, to the Altopiano delle Rocche, the high, fertile plains.
My weakness scared me; I hadn’t expected it to emerge so soon. I parked my car in Rocca di Mezzo and walked around town. I stopped at a restaurant, despite the knot in my stomach. The hearty mountain foods of my childhood held no joy for me now. I chewed mechanically, too agitated to enjoy the rich tastes forgotten from my past.”
Whether or not you read my stories, these are all worthy places to visit when you’re next passing through Italy!
Here’s to all travel – of the real and armchair variety…