This all came about so quickly.
Earlier this year, my wife floated the idea of spending a month in Europe; she was only half-joking. It was during a conversation sometime in the early autumn, when she was still pregnant with our second daughter and we were both feeling the stress of having just moved from the city to the suburbs, selling a fantastic 100+ year old loft in order to rent a place outside of the city, and dealing with all the usual stresses of preparing for a soon-to-arrive child.
Sure, I said. Why not?
And then it happened. After arriving back home from a trip to the Languedoc in Southern France, her scheme suddenly seemed like just the thing we’d need. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyplace within our budget: With a second child on the way, we were in cash-hoarding mode, and laying out thousands of dollars for a villa on the Mediterranean wasn’t exactly the most appealing idea in the world.
But then in October, colleagues (and friends) of mine from Rome hired me to host a wine lunch in Washington, DC, at the National Italian American Foundation gala weekend, and after the meal we got to talking about when I’d be in Italy next.
I’m not sure, I said. We’re thinking of going to France this summer if we can find a place.
My friend looked incredulous. Why not Italy? he asked.
Because I don’t know anyone in Italy with a house to rent, I answered.
He raised his eyebrows and a smile crept up his face. My family has a house in Puglia, he said. You could stay there.
That was October. Now, eight months later, I’m writing this from his house’s second-floor porch, staring out over the Ionian Sea directly in front of me, not a pitching-wedge away, the waves counting their metronome beats over the rocks and providing the white noise of my days and nights here, the supremely calming background against which I hear the patter of my older daughter’s feet inside, and the giggling of my younger one, and the padding around of my wife, more relaxed now than she’s been in a longer time than I can remember. We both are.
Torre Colimena is a quiet seaside town of stucco and stone houses, sienna-colored tile roofs, and friendly neighbors. I hear them in the morning gearing up for the day, and in the afternoon gathering outside their houses to catch up on the day’s gossip, and at night having dinner in their various outdoor spaces. The weekends are more bustling than the weekdays, but the electricity in the place is palpable.
The Italian in this part of the country, toward the bottom of the heel of Italy’s famous boot, is spoken quickly and with a bit of a murmur, but most of the people in Torre Colimena are from elsewhere around the country: Puglia, for all its recent press, remains relatively off the well-trammeled Rome-Florence-Venice tourist path. As such, my family and I started off as a bit of a curiosity: What, our impression was, were four Americans doing here, in a quiet town that’s not all that easy to get to? But we’ve been embraced, and now we’re greeted in the town square by the waiters and restaurant owners and barristas with a sprightly Ciao! and a friendly wave of the hand.
We have been spending most of our days exploring the neighboring cities and towns, destinations with names as mellifluous as any on the map: Lecce and Brindisi and Gallipoli, Nardo’ and Ostuni and Taranto and more. I’ve tucked into grilled horse sausage at the festival in honor of Sant’Antonio di Padova, in neighboring Avetrana; sipped more rosato of Negroamaro than I ever have; slicked my bread with copious amounts of the legendary local olive oil; washed it down with enough fruity, spicy Primitivo to drown a small army; fallen in shameless love with the astounding local orechiette and bread…my god, the bread; purchased peaches and olives and tomatoes and bursting-fresh cherries from roadside stands; watched my oldest daughter gain the confidence necessary to begin greeting people here with a hearty buongiorno and to thank them with a heartfelt grazie…especially after being offered yet another cup of the miraculous gelato; and witnessed my youngest daughter teach herself to sit up using nothing to steady her but her own inherent strength and moxie.
My mother joined us for the first week, which was, in every sense of the word, spectacular. When you have a family of your own, it’s easy to occasionally get bogged down in the sort of quotidian frustrations that we all muddle through. Spending a week with her here, wandering streets and seasides, exploring towns we’d never been to, and watching her with her granddaughters, was one of the great highlights of my adult life, one I’ll be forever grateful for.
So while the decision to come here may have happened quickly—a friend’s off-the-cuff suggestion was all the catalyst we needed—it has proven to be among the best ones we’ve ever made.
Sometimes, if you’re truly lucky, a spouse’s half-baked idea can grow into something epic. In this case, it has resulted in a month that I have no doubt we’ll be talking about for years to come.
And we’ve already begun discussing how we can make this happen again in another couple of years. Because with a little bit of planning and luck, enough frequent-flier miles to wing the whole clan over the ocean, and a willingness to ignore the people who question the sanity of doing something like this with young kids in tow—note: those people were wrong; Sophie and Olivia are loving it—the rewards are tremendous. Far greater, in fact, than anything you could imagine, as expansive and dramatic as the Ionian Sea, stretching on to an unseeable horizon, all those miles past this perfect porch perched above it all.