What Happened in Umbria

This story originally appeared on my travel blog at nocommonface.com.

Rosaria makes the best mushroom risotto in all of central Italy. In 1989, she married a man from Paris, and today, the two of them live in a house on a hill in San Venanzo, Italy, that overlooks their 2,000 olive trees. To the left of the olive trees is the agriturismo that they built 20 years ago, in part out of hope that it would help to the cover medical expenses for their cognitively disabled son. Rosaria also has two drawings hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Since business is good, drawing has become something that Rosaria does only in her spare time, which she has very little of. Years ago, a yoga organization offered Rosaria and her husband 8 million dollars for the agriturismo. They turned it down. “It’s my livelihood,” will be her life-long defense.

 Ethan is a 20-year-old culinary school dropout from Petoskey, Michigan who joined the hippie movement after losing his father to lung cancer and his brother to drugs in the same year. He makes the best French toast in America, and, in all likelihood, Central Italy, too. Ethan has come to Umbria on a six-week soul-searching excursion that will, regardless of the outcome, be remembered most as his first time traveling outside of his own country. He has the physical build of a high school quarterback and the face of a cherub. This combination has led to the appropriate nickname of “Bear”.

Sophia is a beautiful 19-year-old German girl who is on a gap year between high school and university. In her country, gap travel is a highly encouraged exploit in which most other German students her age will take part. Before coming to Italy to harvest olives, Sophia volunteered on a horse farm in Spain owned by ‘the world’s biggest asshole.’ Many of her friends returning home for the Christmas holiday will spend their gap years working as au pairs in Paris. Because she has a kind heart, Sophia will invite two American wanderers to her home for the holidays, where they will delight in the German Christmas tradition of a four-course-meal consisting solely of cooked geese and red wine. Subsequently, the three will remain friends for the rest of their lives.

Emmanuel, or ‘Mano’, as he is known, is Rosaria’s mentally retarded son. His remarkable artistic talent, which he inherited from his mother, is one of three ways in which he passes his time; the other two are tai chi and television. Mano has the biggest appetite in all of Central Italy, and, in all likelihood, the whole of Europe. Despite his intelligence and budding eagerness to lean the English language, he will spend much of his life convinced that he is not capable of holding a job or falling in love, because he has grown up in a part of the world that lacks the social and political advocacy mechanisms necessary to his understanding otherwise.

On the third in a series of consecutively cold and damp days in mid-December, these four people, and the creators of this blog are standing on a platform at the Marsciano train station a short distance from Rosaria’s home. Decades of neglect and disrepair have made this one of the least attractive places in Umbria. It is also one of the only places near San Venanzo where you can catch a train to Rome, where Sophia, Ethan, and the creators of this blog will spend the weekend in the company of three Australians, and two Romans. All of whom met while harvesting Rosaria’s 2,000 olive trees.  

Upholding its reputation as notoriously unreliable, the train is nowhere in sight. The group passes the time by taking photos and exchanging stories, and then Mano asks the two creators of this blog to tell the one about how they met.

Jason’s tells the better version:

“I first laid eyes on Meaghan at a Crate and Barrel on Michigan Avenue,” he says. “She was restocking kitchen gadgets, and when I saw her I thought: ‘I wonder what it would be like to date that girl.’”

“Stop,” says Mano. He looks at his mother. “Translate.”

Rosaria translates and Mano smiles. “Okay,” he says. “Continue.”

“So I go home that night and my roommate tells me that there is this girl she works with that I have to meet. She pulls up Meaghan’s picture on the Internet, and I say: ‘That’s her! That’s the girl I saw today!”

“Stop. Mama, translate. Okay, continue.”

“So I get invited to this party that Meaghan is going to be at, and I’m so excited that I wear my nicest shirt. Before I leave the house, I say to my Aunt: If you saw me in this shirt at a party, would you want to date me?’ And she said ‘absolutely.’

“Stop. Translate.”  

I get to the party and she is on a date with another guy. We barely shake hands and she walks away, and I go home so depressed. But luckily things don’t work out with the loser, and so I invite her over for dinner, make salmon, and we’ve been in love ever since!

“Stop.” Mano says, and then rests his chin between his thumb and index finger for several minutes. Using the same index finger, he points to Jason. “You, normal,” he says, and then he points to me. “You, not,” he says, referring to a slight but distinctive limp resulting from cerebral palsy (a fact of my existence that I have left out of my writing throughout my entire life.)

Mano again turns to his mother and says something in Italian. Rosaria translates:

“He wants to know how it is possible for a normal person to love somebody who isn’t normal, and if he, too, will be able to get married someday to somebody who loves him just the way he is.”

The moments that occupied this conversation will be remembered most for how vividly they stand out against the rest of a nine-month-long soul-searching excursion.  I remember the way everything looked, I remember what everyone was wearing, I remember how deeply in love each of us had fallen with one another over the course of the six weeks we spent harvesting Rosaria’s 2,000 olive trees, and I remember never having felt more grateful for having quit my job.

Travel is a gift in the sense that, if you are lucky, you are afforded a handful of glimpses into the world’s tremendous collection of beautiful and interesting things. It is meaningful, in the sense that, if you do it well, your life becomes enriched by the world’s limitless collection of beautiful and interesting people. All of whom are equally human, wanting and waiting to know love. And if you do it really well, you find yourself standing in the rain on a train platform, with a German beauty, an American hippie, two Italian artists, explaining to the most normal one of them all, that he will, in all likelihood, find it one day, too.