La Dolce Vita
There are moments in one’s life when you look around and marvel at how you got there; what odd circumstances coincided to put you in that one place at that moment and, whether for the good or the bad, those times are not easily forgotten. Since my retirement and subsequent part-time move to Italy, I have had more than my share of those moments, most of them for the good. I’ve found myself gazing up at rocky cliffs as I bobbed in the Ionian Sea, marveling at my good fortune. And I’ve found myself ready to slit my wrists in frustration as we try to deal with Italian bureaucracy, which is the most byzantine of wacky disorganization as you can imagine. And I’ve found myself thinking that this must be a movie set, because places so beautiful and unique really can’t exist. This week, it was the “movie set” moment, and all that was missing was Federico Fellini.
We were up in Formia, enjoying our annual visit with a life-long friend of my husband’s, his wife, and their best friends. It has become a tradition for us to go up there and enjoy a few days of good company, great food and wine, and lots of laughs. This year was no different. We had spent the day touring around the area, visiting a sanctuary and the towns of Campodimele and Lenola, both of which boast of having the longest-living population in Italy. We had a lovely stop off in Sperlonga, a beach town set on a cliff, overlooking the sea and a string of lidos miles long. Its whitewashed buildings and narrow alleyways provide lots of photo ops. All in all, it was a wonderful day.
That evening we went out for dinner at a small restaurant right on the water. The sound of the waves slapping against the sand was interrupted by a nice jazz trio, and the food was fresh from the sea. We didn’t think it could get any better. Then, we were told that we were going to another friend’s for gelato. Their friend Patty’s mother was born in Hartford, and she was anxious to meet the Americans from that town. The descriptions began: Patty is tall and statuesque. She was considered one of the most beautiful women in the area. Men came all the way from Rome to court her. Now in her 60’s, she was still a striking woman. She loved to entertain. Every night at her villa was a party. The stories went on.
And so, we left our restaurant and headed to Patty’s, anxious to be introduced to this fascinating woman. We drove through a narrow “cancello” (a wrought-iron gate) and into a curving driveway lined with palm trees that were over 100 feet tall. The villa came into view as we entered the parking area. It was classical in design, with detailed moldings both inside and out. It was in a sad state of repair, with the façade still pockmarked with bullet holes, scars of WWII fighting. The villa, only lived in for a few weeks each summer, was like a beautiful woman left untended for way too long. Its beauty shone through the ravages of time, but it would never again be what it once was.
As we got out of the cars we saw that the side yard was illuminated with dozens of lights strung from tree to tree. True to her reputation, Patty was hosting a party; about a dozen people were gathered around a big table, a grill was being manned by a young fellow and all sorts of meats were sizzling on the fire, wine was flowing like water and conversations were flying back and forth. It was well after 10 pm and they were just getting started on their evening meal.
Patty came flying over to the six of us, arms outstretched in warm welcome. She was dressed head to toe in white linen, and her long black hair curled around her shoulders. Her makeup was impeccable and her mani-pedi obviously recently done. We were brought into the fold and given seats, drinks, and snacks. The other guests were a hodge-podge of fascinating people; a renowned surgeon, an author, a couple of teachers, a salesman….each one offering a unique presence to the evening.
That is when I looked around for Fellini. Among the huge palm trees and the flowering oleander, as the meat grilled and the jokes were flying, as the cigarettes were smoked and the desserts brought out, I could only wonder at the odd circumstances that brought this descendant of Pilgrims and Puritans to this place and time. Each guest was a character, each palm tree a set prop, and each story a piece of dialogue that coalesced into entertaining scenarios.
I will never experience such an evening again. There will never be the same set of circumstances where this American, warmed by good friends, good wine and good food, would step into such a unique setting and be able to sit back and listen to the repartee and funny stories. If Fellini were still alive, he would have appreciated the setting and the scenario, and would have written it into a movie about La Dolce Vita that I am living.