What is it about travel that keeps us in anticipation for the day we can just “be there” only to leave us with a dull ache as soon as we’re heading home?
I have asked myself this question every time I plan for a trip and in the moments after it’s all over. The times it feels like it all went by too fast. The Pecorino Romano does not taste as delicious bought from the deli down the street as it does at an al fresco wine tasting surrounded by endless rows of grapes destined to become wine…
There is a book that sits on my nightstand by Diane Ackerman. It is full of short, beautifully written excerpts covering all of the five senses and a more profound look at each. It is the type of book you never really want to be over, which is why it has been with me on every trip in the last year and one I am in no hurry to finish. It is the kind of book you savor.
Learning more about the history of each of the senses and a deep dive into the author’s findings has been a captivating way of learning about something those of us with all of them intact often take for granted. The book has given me a new appreciation for each of the senses and almost always leaves me thinking of one of my favorite places. I would argue it is nearly impossible to bring up a vision of Italy that does not trigger thoughts of at least two senses simultaneously.
Taste seems the most obvious, as I am certain most of us consider Italy synonymous with good food and wine enjoyed around a full table. I can count on two hands some of my favorite meals of all time, and more than half of them include Italy. They all also include the sounds of glasses clinking, empty bottles of inexpensive but delicious wine at the end of the meal, or the sweet but strong bite of limoncello. The food could be as simple as tomatoes in local olive oil served atop crisp bread and a sprinkle of salt, or maybe it consists of a more elaborate meal prepared with care and attention to detail with all of the tastes of the region.
Smell and taste do go hand in hand here in Italy. For reasons I will need Ackerman’s help with, the smell of a twisted leaf of basil can transport me right to Tuscany no matter where in the world I am. The truffles’ earthy scent instantly reminds me of the meal prepared with them after a hunt, freshly pulled from the rain-soaked ground. The musky, cool aroma from the underground tunnels or a strong espresso can take me right to Orvieto on market day.
Touch is a bit sneakier in its hold. The air hugs your body a bit differently in those tunnels; the feeling of being underground and the difference in temperature feels somewhere otherworldly. The pressure needed to roll out a delicious batch of al-dente pasta takes practice and careful attention to get just right. And cold tile floors on my bare feet almost take me back to the patio overlooking miles of vineyards if I close my eyes just right.
Sight is one that may take you by surprise. All of those postcards and images you’ve seen will never do justice to being there in person. Photos of a place like Italy serve best as a reminder of time spent there or a catalyst to visit, vs. accepting them as enough. On my very first trip to Rome, it poured rain. A group of us took shelter in the Pantheon and realized we’d discovered something truly magical. Watching a city thousands of years old hustle and bustle with life is something I cannot accurately convey. It often requires a double-take—the Colosseum still standing in all its beauty and complicated history seen from a plane flying overhead. The hands of an artisan in Sovana working a loom. And doesn’t your mouth water a bit at the sight of a perfectly ripe tomato?
And my favorite: sound. My heart does a dip in my chest at the thought of ringing bells every hour. The sound of wine glasses clinking brings tears to my eyes, the belly laughing and crying kind. Giggles after dinner are a given. The sounds of broken Italian and hand signaling to communicate with new friends who just appreciate that you are trying, make me smile. Rain through the oculus makes the most beautiful sounds in the puddles it creates on the marble floor.
Italy requires all of our senses—all of our being, which may be why I am permanently called there. It asks of us complete presence and paying attention to all of the senses, sometimes all at once. And you cannot help but submit.
Each trip to this place has been special in its own way, but this one felt like a full-circle moment in which I still struggle to find perfect words. It is pretty remarkable that a handful of places in a country, not your own, can mean such different things in different phases of life. Watching in awe as you see a place for the first time can mean something entirely different seen through the eyes of your toddler, kicking a ball in a piazza. While my true calling lies behind a camera lens, I hope these photos will transport you to a place somewhere right in the heart of Italy until we can all be there again.
Written for B.E Publishing – B.E AWAY inaugural issue