Prologue. Ever since we left our house on the East End of Long Island for a condo in Connecticut, my life has spiraled out of control, threaded with grief. In four years, I lost the landscape I loved, the flat loamy potato fields by the Atlantic. I watched my gentle talented brother and dearest friend, Bill, die slowly of throat cancer. My beloved Paul was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and now, he has intermittent progressive and disturbing dementia. His fractured hip kept us north all winter and now a vicious Pandemic, brutal, and complex, is circling the globe and on my street where a neighbor is gasping for air as she recovers from Covid19. It has been a cold wet nasty Connecticut spring and I am struggling through a charcoal grey cloud of depression. I know these events would have occurred no matter where I live, but it helps to blame something, or does it? Now I need to write about happier times.
We were visiting our friend, Nicoletta, who we had spent many light-hearted summers with on Shelter Island in the 1980s. She had returned to live in her native Milan and invited us to visit her rustic family home in the Italian Alps near the French border. Although it was June, it was muddy and damp in Prali, a rugged hamlet with the sound of tinkling cowbells, a remote place that time had barely touched. I have never loved mountains finding them dark and gloomy, but the sun finally came out and Nico took us to a meadow where I joyfully gathered huge bouquets of wild flowers. I had never seen such abundance.
We joined Nico’s brother, Piero and a few other friends for long lunches in the cool mountain air. Piero’s wife sat sunbathing in a revealing black lace bra. My husband was riveted. Only an Italian could pull this off with such nonchalance, I thought, with some envy. We had a wonderful stay laughing at Nico’s sharp wit, and savoring her home –cooking, but I was eager for sunshine and the sea.
One of the things I love about Europe, and Italy in particular, is that you can drive from the mountains to the sea in just a few hours. Nico had told us about a small fishing village on the Ligurian coast nestled between Genoa and the Cinque Terra called Camogli.
It has since been discovered, but then it was a quiet summer spot for families from Turin and Milan. I remember our first holiday there with such clarity. We sped through tunnel after tunnel, dark then flashing bright as we wound our way south exclaiming at the vertical vistas below of the Golfo Paridiso.
We splurged on an elegant hotel, the Cenobia dei Doge, a converted villa that was built in 1565 on a rocky promontory over the sea. Our room was lovely, understated, in soft hues of cream and white, with domed ceilings, a small balcony with a sea view. The hotel ambiance was formal and not quite our style; it was the jumbled village below that intrigued us. Camogli is known as the city of steps with narrow terraced streets called caruggi that lead down to the sea and a small-black pebbled beach, a melding of picturesque and grit that seems uniquely Italian. The tall houses stacked together facing the sea are painted in colors of mustard, pink, and terracotta, most with tall dark green shutters. Many of the shuttered windows are false, trompe l’oeil, designed perhaps, to confuse invaders. The origin of the name Camogli (pronounced Cah Mo Yee) from casa dei mogli (house of wives) the women who remained in the village when the fishermen were out to sea
We went to the same outdoor cafe every morning for our espresso watching old men playing cards, and little boys chasing soccer balls. Nico, of course had given us strict instructions on what and where to eat. We found the bakery she described and asked for a local bread called “ focaccia”. The baker said it was not ready so we waited outside. Their focaccia was light and airy, warm, out of the oven, with just a whiff of rosemary.
The Ligurian coast is also famous for pesto. I had tasted pesto before but the Genovese basil was bright and fresh, a dollop of slippery bright green sauce over hand -made lasagna noodles. I could not get enough of it. Our days were simple. Long late lunches and dinners at small trattorias dining on fresh fish and pasta, wandering through the streets to peek in the windows of little shops where we bought a square hand -painted tile in shades of yellow and blue that we later converted into a small table which still osits n our patio, so many years later. We lingered by the chilly unheated pool reading and dozing.( Italians believe that cold water tightens your skin.) Paul’s knee was sore from up- hill walking and I found a porter to ask for ice.
“Bisogno gelato per il gamba di mio marito.”
He looked startled and said, “Cosa?”
I repeated my request louder, as one does, and pointed to my knee.
I had asked for gelato (ice cream) not ghiaccio (ice)! My fractured Italian amused Paul and I called him “Guido” for no reason other that he looked sexy in his dark sunglasses and white linen shirt.
One night it rained so hard it was impossible to walk down to the village so we sat side by side at a cozy bar chatting with the amiable bartender. Relishing his role as our host, he brought us small plates of antipasti; salty olives, delicious salami from, where else, nearby Genoa, slices of aged Parmigiana. He told Paul that I had eyes like Ava Gardner. Hah! What is the Italian for “blarney?” But, he pulled it off, gently flirting, enjoying women, as they do.
We took the ferry down the coast to Porto Fino, a glamorous resort town that was everything Camogli was not. Here the designer shops were filled with fine linens, hand- made sandals, coral jewelry. Super yachts filled the harbor where we had a leisurely lunch ogling the chic luxury around us, disparaging it, but loving it too.
Nicoletta called to see how we were faring, and said that she, her brother, Piero and her friend, Arnaldo, (who we had met in Prali) wanted to drive down to Camogli to meet us for dinner. They arrived very late and after debating where to dine, we drove up in the dark hills behind Camogli to a tiny restaurant in Rocco with about six tables. They ordered course after course after lively discussions with the owner and the wine flowed all evening with Piero topping off our glasses and we toasted in Italian, English, Greek and French. They were all well educated and well traveled, fluent in English and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Paul and Arnaldo had developed a wonderful chemistry in Prali and the revelry continued into the night. When they dropped us at our hotel, Nico suggested we all have a nightcap of “American Margaritas”. We fell into bed, but the three Italians drove all the way back to Milano, 160 kilometers.
Una serata favolosa! Ma Pazzo!
Postscript. My friend, Nicoletta, has been in lockdown in Milan since February. She was a prominent book editor, now retired, savvy, well traveled and well read, vivacious and witty. She lives alone and has lost much of her retirement income. Nicoletta is deeply concerned how her proud and magnificent country, so reliant on tourism, will rebound and rebuild.