It’s not that we travel internationally all that often. This summer, the furthest I journeyed was a weekend in Sedona, Arizona, just one state over, to catch up with good friends and show our kids the Grand Canyon. Fantastic and fun, yes, but no passport required.
But having passports at the ready gives me a sense of excitement and possibility. I love knowing that, if ever the chance to travel abroad came up suddenly, we could whisk off quickly, kids and valid passports in tow.
Or, if perhaps, by some strange lining up of the stars, one of the pretend trips to Italy that I plan every now and then (let’s call it daydreaming on paper) were to morph into a real trip, I would be ready to fare le mie valige – pack my bags – and jump on the next flight to Europe.
Which is, unbelievably, exactly what happened to me recently. One of my hypothetical trips to Italy turned into a real trip. With the encouragement of my carpe diem husband and excited support of my kids, I ran away to Florence earlier this month, 6,000 miles from home and very far away from the people whom I love most in the world, and worry about every single day.
“That’s very unlike you, Stace,” said one dear friend to me, just days before my departure. “I’m so proud of you.”
BookLove and the Back Story
So there’s an author whom I have adored since 2010 when I discovered her bestselling book, La Bella Lingua, at an open-air bookshop in Florence. Subtitled “My Love Affair with Italian, The World’s Most Enchanting Language,” La Bella Lingua (LBL) is Dianne Hales’ story of her decades-long journey of learning Italian and loving all things Italy. I think of it as the bible for people like me who have been bitten by the “I love learning Italian” bug. It’s also a fantastic read for anyone who has a soft spot in their heart for Italy. Because learning Italian holds a particular significance to me (read more here), discovering La Bella Lingua, rich with Italian words and phrases, cultural tidbits and historical insights, along with Dianne’s own details about her language journey, was like finding a treasure chest.
Four years have passed, and in that time I have read LBL three times, finding more bits of wisdom or parts which make me laugh out loud with each new read. I joined Facebook after returning from Italy in 2010, for the sole purpose of staying connected to the Italian family I met on that trip. I became more savvy in its ways. Along with nearly 2,700 others, I joined the LBL group, and delighted in the fact that Dianne herself was managing the group and actively responding to comments. I followed her award-winning blog, Becoming Italian Word by Word , and anxiously awaited her next book, Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, which released this past August. I guess it’s safe to say that I became a tifosa — the Italian word for Italy’s soccer-crazed fans.
I devoured the Mona Lisa book in three days. It’s another treasure of a book, which reads like historical fiction, but uses fact to take us through the life of the woman believed to be the model behind the world’s most famous painting, Lisa Gherardini. Through her painstaking research and seamless writing, Hales takes us through a magic portal and plants readers into Florence in the 1400s, allowing us to see life from Gherardini’s eyes. I came to understand Mona Lisa as not just the woman behind the most famous smile in the world, but as a wife and a mother — una donna vera, a real woman — to use Hales’ term.
With the launch of Mona Lisa, Dianne embarked on a book tour, with many presentations planned in cities just an hour’s plane ride away. How wonderful to attend one of the talks, I thought, and maybe even meet Dianne and tell her how much her work means to me. Soon, a post appeared on Facebook. One of Dianne’s stops would be Florence, where she would not only be presenting her book, but also hosting walking tours and workshops with the goal of sharing Florence from Mona Lisa’s perspective. “If you’re planning a trip to Italy (October 1-9), I hope that you will join us and discover Florence as you’ve never seen it before: through the Mona Lisa’s eyes,” her post read.
With three kids in school, I did not have plans to be in Italy during the first week in October, purtroppo (unfortunately). Although I had been hoping to get to Italy this year, it just never came together.
But when, some days later, the walking tour post popped up again, I didn’t dismiss it right away. Just for fun, I checked my calendar to see what was going on in my world that week. Nothing out of the ordinary. (Well, there were the Paul McCartney tickets, but turns out, the teenagers were happy to take those off our hands.) I started daydreaming: what if I could spend the week in Florence? What if that book presentation I wanted to attend just happened to be in the city which inspired the book in the first place? What if I could walk Mona Lisa’s Florence, perhaps with Dianne herself?
I presented the pretend trip to Husband (he is used to this). He encouraged me to make the necessary inquiries for more details. (Ok, there was a bottle of wine involved during this discussion). The next day, I composed an email with my questions about the walking tour and book presentation. I hit send, truthfully thinking I would receive a response that the tours were full, but thank you for your interest nonetheless.
Instead, just a few hours later, an enthusiastic response came from Dianne herself! She was touched to hear from me! Yes there was room on the tour! Yes there was room in the book presentation! And even another amazing and special event in Florence in which I was most graciously included!
I was shocked and overjoyed. Husband thought I should not miss this opportunity, so just 48 hours later, I had plane tickets with my name on them. Within a few weeks, I packed my bags and my cherished books, walked through the international terminal at LAX, and flew off to the adventure of a lifetime.
Was, in short, perfection. I loved every single second, from the moment I spotted the Duomo from the plane to the time I said my final arrivederci and prayer at Brunelleschi’s dome. When Husband dropped me off at the airport in the states, his parting words were, “suck the marrow out of Florence!” Which I definitely did. From unintentionally climbing the Dome on my first morning in the city, to walking Mona Lisa’s Florence, to meeting adored author Dianne Hales in the very city which I first discovered her work, and checking off as many of the sites to which my Firenze Card allowed entrance, the week was an unbelievable gift. There were even the added bonuses of finding a new, lovely friend in Florence and spending a day with my family in Bari before returning home.
Living Carpe Diem
There are two morals to this story. The first from Dianne, who graciously welcomed an enthusiastic stranger to join her in Florence, and then shared herself and her time so willingly. What an act of kindness and generosity on her part, and what an honor for me. I will forever cherish the memories. ❤
The second comes from Husband, who lives his life carpe diem and inspires our family to do the same. Everything about this trip was impractical, inconvenient, (and daresay, irresponsible?) on my part. What kind of mother and wife abandons her responsibilities to skip around Florence for a week (10 miles a day, according to my pedometer), without a care in the world? I suppose the kind who is married to a husband who has had some close calls in life; the wife of a man who knows that when a door opens with an opportunity to do something phenomenal, it’s best to step through. Chissa` – who knows – what next week, next month, or even tomorrow will bring? So if you can, as often as you can, seize the day.
And even though my family does not necessarily share my level of enthusiasm for Italy and all things Italian, I feel so grateful that they encourage and support this passion of mine. I am deeply thankful to them, and to the friends who helped out with rides and child care, for allowing me this unforgettable experience. Grazie a tutti! Grazie di cuore! Thank you everyone, a heartfelt thank you!
I’m looking forward to sharing more posts on Florence in the coming weeks. But for now, devo scappare — I must dash. The kids’ passports expire in a few weeks and that’s a chance I just don’t want to take.
This post first appeared on Prayers and Piazzas.