Run Away to Italy? Why Not?

In 1992, a few years after undergrad, I decided to move to Italy. I was barely scraping by in NYC, working as an artist-as-guard at the Soho Guggenheim (which opened in 1992 and closed in 2001). I had gotten into NYU's grad program in arts administration, and was waiting to find out if I'd gotten financial aid. It was my first time dealing with the bureaucratic maze that is financial aid, and I kept calling the school to get updates. This was years before you could track your acceptance online. I never received my packet and just assumed I didn't get it; and without financial aid, I couldn't afford NYU (I later found out that they had sent it to my old address in DC.) So I thought, if I'm not going to school here, and I can't afford to carry on as is, I've got to come up with a plan B.

That's how I decided to move to Italy. I had Florence in mind, since that's where I had spent a summer abroad during my last year in undergrad, was familiar with it, and it was a city I loved. The boy (and I use the term "boy" intentionally) I was seeing at the time lived in DC, and he decided that he could go too and finish his undergrad studies at the American University of Rome. Thus started his campaign to convince me to move to Rome with him, that I'd have an easier time finding a job than in Florence, etc. This is not the last time that I'd listen to a guy, when moving a great distance, who had his own priorities in mind. He argued that he had friends in Rome, and could help me find a place to live, a job, etc. (his housing would be taken care of by the University).

Long story short, we flew to Rome, and got him settled at school. He hooked me up with some very generous friends that let me crash with them in their tiny studio near the American Embassy. I spent about a month looking for a job in museums and galleries. I had worked at The Phillips Collection in DC, and as I mentioned, the Guggenheim in NYC, so I naively thought it would be easy for me land a gig in at least a small gallery in Rome. Money was getting tight, and I was overstaying my welcome in the tiny studio, so I signed up with an au pair agency and shortly thereafter was placed with a wealthy single mom, Sra. Pisa, and her two kids, an 8-yr-old (Manlio) and an almost 1-yr-old (I can't remember his name, isn't that awful?). They lived in a nice apartment off Via Nomentana, an ancient road that heads from Rome out to the suburbs. Sra. Pisa owned her own chain of boutiques, and Manlio was in school most of each day. So my constant companion was the baby, who was absolutely beguiling. They also had a live-in maid, an immigrant Filipina, whose English was on-level with my Italian.

It was a good gig, providing me housing, a little income, and an opportunity to improve my very broken Italian. I must have been there for 3 months, long enough to celebrate the baby's first birthday, and study the social dynamics of being a minority female working as a domestic in Italy (more on that later). I was essentially a glorified babysitter, but I wanted more out of my experience living abroad. So I left, moved into a group house with some of my boyfriend classmates, and started calling around to galleries again.

There was an expat yellow pages of sorts that listed all the artists in Rome. I called every single one of them and offered up my services as a studio assistant. One couple, sculptors and medallion artists David and Elisabetta Renka, invited me to their upcoming exhibition opening. At the opening, I learned that David was originally from Georgia, but had lived in Italy for a couple decades. He and Elisabetta were so kind to me, and that night changed the trajectory of my Italian experience. They weren't in need of an assistant, but did need life-drawing models for their studio. Having attended art school myself, I was quite familiar with drawing from nudes, but had never been on the other side of the easel. I felt comfortable enough in my own skin, so I decided, "why not?". It just occurred to me that it is entirely possible that they just took pity on me, and conjured up something for me to do that they could pay me for.

I posed for David and his wife about once a week, and my gigs just snowballed from there. David told me about drawing and painting classes at the Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO), the Italian version of The World Bank. Expats and their significant others attended these classes, and they were in need of models. So I posed for them once a week as well. One of the FAO students, a British gentleman named Chris, also needed a model for his studio, and that became another once-a-week appointment. Each session lasted an hour or two, and this routine kept me going for about 6 months.

As it turns out, Chris had a small house and studio in the Umbrian countryside, which he'd escape to on the weekends. During the week, he had a live-in couple from San Francisco looking after it, tending the grounds, and essentially making sure any ne'er-do-wells knew it was occupied. Well, the couple were returning to the US so Chris asked me if I'd like to become the new caretaker, and pose in the studio on the weekends. I knew that the countryside could be remote, so I told him that I'd have to visit it before I could commit. Of course, once I saw the hills, rustic abodes, wine and olive vineyards, I said yes; with the caveat that I couldn't be out there completely alone. The house was half-way up a hill; a half hour walk to the town at the bottom of the hill, and likewise to the town at the top. I wouldn't have a car out there, so I didn't think it was smart to be up there by myself all week.

Chris was amenable to me calling a couple friends back in the States to see if anyone was interested. I called my friends Michael, and Lisa; hoping that one of them would want an indefinite stay at a rustic farmhouse in Umbria. It turned out that both of them really wanted to come, so I had to sell the idea to Chris. I told him that Michael could do all the manly things, like mow the grass, linseed the fence, take out the compost, etc. And Lisa, being a really good cook, could prepare meals for him on the weekends. Fortunately, he agreed to both of them coming.

So 9 months after arriving in Rome, I moved out of the group house of American University students, and out to the Umbrian countryside, between the towns of Fratta Todina and Monte Castello. I believe Lisa & Michael timed their arrivals for soon after. What commenced was 3 months of glorious, Italian countryside, dreamscape. Have you seen the movie, "Stealing Beauty"? It looked like that. Chris's house was actually a small compound, with his house, and a separate little dwelling for us, which had 2 bedrooms; there was a pool and outdoor kitchen with a large pizza oven. Chris basically gave us the run of the place during the week, and he'd see us on the weekends. The only thing he asked was that we not bring the locals into the compound. You know how this plays out.

Lisa & Michael shortly after arriving at Chris' compound.

Lisa & Michael shortly after arriving at Chris' compound.

Day 1: After getting settled, we walked 30 minutes down the unpaved hill to Fratta Todina, an adorable, tiny, ancient town (pop. 1,500). At that time, there weren't many businesses: 1 grocery store, 1 gelateria, and not much else. We sampled the gelato, and walked back up the hill. Mind you, this was May or June, so the weather was just lovely. We were in heaven. We meet 2 local gentleman who are eager to practice their english with us.

Day 2: Back in Fratta, we meet Annarita Piscini, a local young woman who becomes a dear friend. She tells us that one of the men we met the day before was the town drug dealer. Duly noted; we kept out distance from him after that. After resting back at the compound, we walked 30 minutes up the bumpy hill to Monte Castello Vibio (pop. 1,500), famous for its olive oil, its pre-Roman castle, and for having the smallest theater in the world, Teatro della Concordia. We soon figure out that we won't be coming up to Monte Castello very often.

Annarita, Michael and Lisa. 

Annarita, Michael and Lisa. 

Day 3: Again, in Fratta (because there is NOTHING else to do) we meet two local boys Serio (serious) & Furio (furious), and Annarita's parents, her brother, and her uncle Wilson who are all full of welcoming warmth, and marvel at the fact that we are there without a car, phone or television. Her parents own a a nearby vineyard. I mention to her uncle that I love arugula.

Michael & Uncle Wilson

Michael & Uncle Wilson

Day 4: Annarita's uncle shows up at our house with an old, but working, bicycle. And a little black & white TV. And enough arugula to last me for weeks. My memory is shot, so this could have also happened over a period of days. Now, one of us can bike to town in good time to pick up groceries, with the bags on the handlebars. Or bike & drink wine, like Michael below.

michael drinking wine on bike.jpg

Day 5: We invite Serio & Furio to come up to the house. They are harmless, and fun, and love practicing their english. We see them often in town, and we are happy to have local people we can call friends.

Day 6: Chris and his Brazilian girlfriend, Graziela, arrive at the house for the weekend.

Day 7: We are all awaked by the honking of a car horn, and Furio yelling "Anna, sono Furio (it's Furio)!" Lisa & I are sharing a room, and are pretending to be asleep, knowing full well that Chris and Graziela can also hear this. But we are paralyzed not knowing what to do, because if we acknowledge that we are friends with one of the local boys, Chris will know that we've invited them up to the house. I can't remember how it all played out, but do remember Graziela yelling out the window to Furio to go away.

Day 8-90: The rest of the summer is an arugula-filled blur of bumpy bike rides, long walks to town, hosting parties for Annarita and her family by the pool, baking pizzas, eating scamorza cheese, Michael drinking all of Chris' wine in the cellar, laughing until I had to pee, awakening to scorpions in our bedroom, and did Michael get arrested? There was one night that Michael and Lisa wanted to go out to Perugia, but I'd had my fill of partying. They didn't make it home that night, and I when they did come home the next day, they weren't speaking to each other. I loved Michael; he was so much fun (he's long since passed), but every time you went out with him, you knew that it would end in trouble.

Michael & Lisa clowning around by the pool (pizza oven and kitchen to the left).

Michael & Lisa clowning around by the pool (pizza oven and kitchen to the left).

Oh, one more story, I can't believe I almost forgot to tell. Ok, so because we're American, and it was summertime, all 3 of us showered every day. The first month. Then the water tank ran out of water. And we had to walk down to town (because there was no phone in the house) and call Chris to ask him what was going on, because: Americans. He told us that there was a limited amount of water, and we couldn't all shower every day. We had to pay for a lorry, or water wagon, to come deliver more water; and from then on, only 1 of us could shower  a day. Suffice it to say, it was quite the adjustment for all of us. But obviously, it was the last thing I remembered, so it didn't change the experience one bit.

One of many magical Umbrian evenings.

One of many magical Umbrian evenings.

I ended up flying home to DC at the end of the summer. I'd been away for an entire year, and was ready to get serious about adulthood. Michael and Lisa stayed behind, possibly a couple more months. I've lost touch with Chris, but I really should try to find him on FB. I occasionally hear from David, and will be forever grateful to him and Elizabetta for the generosity and kindness they showed me while I lived in Rome. That seems to be the theme in all these travel-as-transformative experience posts: the kindness & generosity of the people you meet while traveling.

I'm going to end this long blog here, because I've shared basically everything I can remember. I'm going to leave it to Lisa to post in the comments anything she wants to add. Ci vediamo!

Annarita seeing me off at the Fratta Todina train station, where I'd train to Rome, and fly back to DC.

Annarita seeing me off at the Fratta Todina train station, where I'd train to Rome, and fly back to DC.