On nostalgia, Italy, and the end of an idyll.

Fontana della Bollente, Acqui Terme, Alessandria.

Fontana della Bollente, Acqui Terme, Alessandria.

Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.

–Don Draper, “The Wheel,” Mad Men

It’s appropriate, I suppose, that I write this on the same day my madeleine mold tray arrived in the mail, if for the classic literature reference alone. But today isn’t one for cakes to be dipped into tea; no, it’s for listening to Nino Rota’s score for La Dolce Vita for the umpteenth time, and maybe drinking a nice glass of Barbera d’Asti with dinner. It’s about figuring out where in Stamford I can find the freshest eggs possible to make myself a plate of delicious carbornara and portioning out what is likely the last of the sage leaves from my balcony plant for some veal saltimbocca.

You see, our friend and innkeeper during our stay in Acqui Terme has formally announced that she and her husband are in the process of selling their B&B, and while I had a feeling that something like this was going to happen sooner rather than later, the finality of the news struck me with an overwhelming sadness that even threw me off-guard. We visited them just over five years ago on our honeymoon and spent an idyllic week there, walking around the northern Italian countryside, cooking little meals in their gorgeous kitchen, trespassing in their neighbors’ vineyards, and exploring the spa town that was a few kilometers down the hill from their property. I’ve written snippets about our trip over the years, but like most of our travels that have particularly resonated with me, I can never bring myself to write more than a few words at a time about how the trip affected me.

Forgotten Nebbiollo grapes.

Forgotten Nebbiollo grapes.

To be honest, I’ve struggled to understand this since-growing reticence of mine to write at length about these experiences, either here or even in my private journal; I mean, I’d assume I’d be just as quick to want to capture the words that described everything I’d seen and tasted and experienced in a place just as much as I whipped out my camera to photograph seemingly everything in sight while I was there. But I think there’s something to be said for not putting it to page, however private that page may be, because then perhaps once it’s released from the depths of both the heart and the mind, the urge, the yearning to revisit those feelings in person again could go away.

Or maybe I’m afraid of putting the experience into words lest they cause that experience to plummet from the profound into the trite. Isn’t that what can hurt about nostalgia the most—that our memories, no matter how fond we are of them, aren’t that special after all upon closer examination?

Farmlands right outside Acqui Terme.

Farmlands right outside Acqui Terme.

Certainly our trip was miles away from anything that could be remotely described as epic: once we drove from Malpensa airport to Acqui, we spent the majority of our time either relaxing at the B&B itself or wandering around the surrounding area. Yes, there was a lovely afternoon trip to Turin, but most of our time there was spent wandering Via Garibaldi and looking at things rather than climb the steps to the duomo to take a panoramic view. But what it lacked in grandiosity it more than made up for in serenity: it gave us both a way to do the things we love without the irritations and frustrations of everyday life. It was a weeklong respite from everything that was crappy at that time (namely my recent unemployment) and instead we could focus on the good things, like that we were married and our biggest concerns at any moment were figuring out the right way to ask for things in Italian as we practiced our phrases and vocabulary on our walks down the Regione Valloria and deciding which wine we wanted to enjoy first each evening.

In other words: our activities were blissfully quotidian, and it was precisely what we both needed. And thankfully, those memories do stand up to examination some five years later.

Sunset against the rail lines near Acqui Terme

Sunset against the rail lines near Acqui Terme

So I’d like to take this time to profusely thank Diana, Micha, and Max for their wonderful hospitality, and to wish them well as they move onward. And because I can’t begin a piece with an epigram from Mad Men without wanting to show the whole scene, here’s the whole, right-in-the-feels pitch from the first season finale of one of the best shows on television:

“It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again… to a place where we know we are loved.”

Welp.

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7 comments
  1. biz319 said:

    What a wonderfully written post! I do agree with you – some experiences are just supposed to be in your mind. My husband’s father is from Italy (Florence) and he spent summer there. I’ve been married to him for 13 years, and I still love him telling me the stories of his summers there growing up. And we have ONE single photograph to confirm he was actually there!

  2. shannon said:

    Oh Elizabeth, this made me very teary! What a beautifully written, heartfelt, emotional post; i’m an emotional person, but i don’t just tear up at any old paragraph most days. I remembered reading those pieces about your trip over the past few years and thinking how wonderful it must have been. I always wanted to go to Italy for our honeymoon, but we decided after all the chaos of wedding planning to do it at a different time (and opt for a getaway where i DIDN’T want to get up at 4 am and see every single thing i could). :)
    I don’t suppose i know why it’s difficult to write about wonderful experiences like this: it is so intensely personal, and i do imagine – at least for me – it’s what you said about how sometimes keeping it tucked away in memory rather than committing it to the page can keep those memories more sacred. I think i always feel too that my own relatively meager words would never be able to appropriately capture my feelings in those moments. Sometimes experiences like this require the writing skills of a Faulkner or a Hemmingway. It’s hard for normal people to achieve, so maybe we should just keep them in our hearts.
    I’m sad that you’re sad.

    • Shannon–thank you for your kind words! I think the saddest thing about this change is that we can’t revisit this place now the way it was, and I’m pretty sure in the guestbook we wrote that we wanted to come back so badly. (We wrote it at some ungodly hour of the morning, probably still drunk on the wine we drank the night before, but still.) We entertained notions of going back there when we were a little more established (at the time, I was newly-unemployed and Michael was a grad student) but in a way, this does free us to see other parts of Italy. And this place will always be so memorable because we had wonderful guides to tell us where to go and where to trespass. It is the best place to experience fall and you will feel so inspired when you leave, even if you can;t take truffles with you.

  3. This was an absolutely beautiful tribute to a wonderful time and place in your life — I feel like I really understand it and am mesmerized by the location and the deceptive simpleness of it, but yet it still feels as if you kept the best parts of it private just for yourself and your husband.

    I won’t pretend that a large part of my wasn’t wishing that the post ended with you stating that you had bought the B&B and were heading to Italy to set up shop, because now I desperately want to visit that place and find my own special piece of magic there.

    • Trust me PinotNinja–I wish I could have ended it that way too, because I would literally be inviting the world to join me there. But I highly recommend that entire region because it is so wonderfully beautiful. Turin is a great place to go: a nice bustling city but with lots of culture and charm, and the trains make it easy to go exploring in the towns outside of it.

  4. Kim said:

    Such a beautiful post, and brilliant tie into DD’s Kodak pitch. (Excellent clip there, too.)

    I recently learned that virgin experiences are such a unique and splendid thing, and like the passing clouds in the sky, it can never be repeated. Perhaps it’s better this way so your memories of that special time can never be trumped?

    To give you a bit “from the other side,” I am writing this message from a lodge in Utah. I’m back here again because I had such a mind-blowingly awesome time over the summer that I just had to get back. And you know what? This time, it’s just not the same experience. It’s still beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but I’m beginning to sense that the “first” time I’m anywhere is always going to be better than the time I go back. I dunno. Just trying to make you feel better about your once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    Like Shannon, I’m sad you’re sad. But I’m positive there are other Italian treasures out there that will make your heart sing just as loudly. You’ll see. :)

    [K]

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