It's a kick to meet expats and hear about their towns and experiences. I'd found Mark, a transplant from Seattle only two years ago, in one of the three online expat groups I occasionally visit. (Another group devoted to renovating in Abruzzo just launched. l figure I’ll be mining that one soon.) We marveled a little to discover that Mark at one point had lived in NYC a matter of two or three blocks from my current apartment. And now here we were.
Mark and I met up in Ascoli Piceno, a beautiful spot in the Le Marche region about halfway between our two towns. The place was bittersweet for me. I remembered it having one of the prettiest town squares I’d seen in Italy, which is saying something. But I also remembered it as the scene of one of my first and most striking realizations of my parents’ growing frailty. Mom and Dad had once tripped the light fantastic in Italy. (At one night club in Rome back in the '70s, the band would start playing New York, New York when they saw my glamorous parents walk in.) Moreover, Dad had spent many of his salad days in this country when he worked in Hamburg during the Korean War. He loved to linger at a piazza in the evening, to have a drink and talk and watch Italy live its life. It was heart-wrenching one evening about 10 years ago to watch my aged father escort my fragile mother away from the convivial square and back to their hotel long before he'd ever been ready to call it a night.
But back to the present…I found Mark already seated at an outdoor cafe, sat down, and ordered a cedrata. Nothing like a refreshing cedrata in summer. Or so I thought. The Italian vintage soft drink originally was somewhat wholesome, filled with nutrients derived from the citrus fruit cedro. Now, apparently, it’s all a chemical facsimile cheaper to produce and loaded with so much sugar you should show proof of age to drink it. Big biz strikes again. I have to admit it still hit the spot, though.
The compelling particulars of how Mark and his wife Sunny had come to live in the small town of Santa Vittoria in Matenano in the Le Marche region are theirs to tell, which they’ll do in a book they’re co-writing. Suffice it to say it seems they were fated to wind up there. The circumstances that conspired to bring that about included a nearby earthquake that spooked other buyers; an idiosyncratic home seller whose deceased mother had forbidden him to sell to any local families due to her myriad feuds and vendettas; and, finally, an epiphany at a nearby archaeological dig that sealed the deal.
While they were in Le Marche a few years ago looking for a home, Mark and Sunny had been invited to visit the ruins of Urb Salvia, a 2,000-year-old pagan city dedicated to Salus, the goddess of health. The city had been buried by the Catholic Church and only uncovered in recent years. The invitation came from someone with connections to a dig "insider," and they gladly accepted, particularly since Sunny already identified as a healer herself.
Sunny underwent a mystical experience in the ruins, and now considers herself a priestess of Salus.
They bought the house.
Mark told me that his and Sunny’s neighbors, like John’s and Jilly’s in Guardiagrele, welcomed them with open arms once they realized they weren’t going to be "pendole” — the term, apparently, for people from other countries who buy homes in little Italian towns to and from which they come and go. Hmmm. The remark gave me my own minor epiphany. I wonder if I’m known in my town as "the pendulum." It would be accurate enough and explain why my neighbors might be chary of investing too much time or confidence in me.
Acolytes of the goddess Salus wore white robes, as did the goddess herself. (In fact, she is portrayed so in a statue in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.) Mark’s wife now does the same and is known locally as “la donna in bianca.” You'd think old-school Catholics might take a dim view of an American woman's priestess title and garb. On the contrary, they're much more tolerant and open to other spiritual systems than you might expect. (Maybe those with a Marian bent, of which there are many in Italy, are only too happy to see another woman in robes.) Sunny consults with locals about their well-being in virtually all aspects and has developed a good reputation in town for the efficacy of her various tinctures. How's that for fitting in without exactly fitting in?
Sunny isn't the only extraordinary personality in that little hill hamlet. There’s one neighbor who walks the town continuously from dawn to dusk. Mark said you look out the window at any given moment, and there he is. It’s not that the man is homeless; it’s just that he likes to keep moving and this is his habitat. The people of the town call him, not without affection, The Shark (Lo Squallo).
Italians are pretty funny when they’re not yelling at you.
I do hope to visit Sunny and Mark in their home town and feast my eyes on the local color this fall.
Meanwhile, a few more shots of Ascoli Piceno.
Two more perspectives on the exquisite piazza. The color of the sky and the background clouds make you half-expect to see Bart Simpson skateboard into the frame.
Fried olives apparently are a local specialty.
Stained glass in the Tempio di San Francesco includes modern themes.
In the glass at left, I think that might be Pope Paul VI addressing the UN with Khrushchev in the background, but I can’t find any info to confirm that. At right, a scene of a Nazi concentration camp.