CHIAVARI, Italy – In the years leading up to my move to Italy, I spent most of my spare time studying Italian or pouring over maps of the country. I knew I was going to move there, I just didn’t know when and I didn’t know where. What I was thinking about back then was what I liked, being by the sea for one, and what was important to me, being able to support myself, and how much those two elements would influence my choice of place.
I had done my fair share of traveling in Italy, both for business and pleasure. I knew it was full of beautiful places; there was no doubt of about that. I even lived in Rome for a while so I was not a stranger to the country, but traveling with a return ticket in your pocket is one thing, moving house and home across an ocean is another.
I generated endless lists. Pros and cons of living in . . . you name it, I thought about it. I also thought about something else. I thought about my grandmother and what she must have been thinking as she prepared to leave Italy forever back in 1915. It was a different world then and she never had the opportunity to travel and know her chosen destination as I did. But even though she had never been there, she was the one who initiated the move to America. My grandfather didn’t want to go. For him, moving from Farnese, where he was born, to my grandmother’s home town of Piansano, a distance of 11 miles/17 kilometers, was just about all the moving he had ever planned to do in his lifetime.
And yet he was the one who boarded that ship in Naples, he was the one who found a job, found the town they would live in, started a business and made a life for his family. Granted, my grandmother was a force to be reckoned with, much more ferocious than any problem he might face as a stranger in a strange land, but nonetheless it took a great deal of corraggio to do what he did. Did I have that courage? I wasn’t sure.
It was a side trip to Lerici, a small town on the Ligurian coast, that finally decided where I was going to live in Italy. There is really nothing special about Lerici, it’s like so many other pretty little towns in Liguria, the houses are painted in pastel colors, it has picturesque little streets, the sea is beautiful, the food is good. But something happened to me there that I can’t explain.
My compagno and I stayed in an old renovated villa/hotel near the sea, and one afternoon as we were looking around we found the ballroom and snuck in. It was a beautiful room with exquisite floors typical of Genovese villas, a ceiling decorated with putti and clouds and garlands of flowers, the colors a bit faded but it didn’t matter. It was magical. As we waltzed around the empty room to the music in our heads, the magic of the moment took us back to days long ago when the villa was a lively place filled with music and song.
Later that night we went to the movies, sitting outdoors on rickety fold-up chairs in a small piazza with the rest of the townsfolk. We sat holding hands as we watched the film, batting away mosquitoes the best we could. At that point the decision had been made. I knew where I wanted to live when I moved to Italy. Liguria.
I set my departure date: 12 May, 1990. I bought my ticket. I wasn’t going to Lerici, I was going to Genoa. It was the perfect choice, I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. It had everything I wanted, it was a fairly big city on the sea with a built-in international industry – shipping. I wasn’t going to let a small detail like never having been there hold me back. It hadn’t stopped my grandmother and grandfather; it wasn’t going to stop me either.
In my mind May was the perfect time to go. I was convinced I could pick up work teaching English over the summer which would give me enough time to find an apartment, study the situation, and see what I could do about earning a living. I decided that I wanted to live in the historic center of Genoa. I liked the idea that it is the largest historic center in Europe, a place Genovese have called home for over 2,000 years. At that point I had never seen an historic center in Italy that I didn’t like, and this one had the added fillip of Christopher Columbus having lived there too.
So I made a plan: after I was settled in my new apartment, I would concentrate on finding a job, maybe something in the shipping industry or maybe even start a small business. I had experience with start-ups, I had good marketing skills and I spoke Italian. It was all good.
I arrived in Milan the morning of the 13th of May, 1990. It was one of those perfect days in May the kind you wish you could bottle and take home with you. I had two options to get to Genoa. I could go into Milan and then take the train, or I could take the Genoa shuttle bus that was parked right outside the airport terminal door and the driver would drop me at my hotel.
I don’t remember much about the bus ride, I probably slept most of the way. I know when I arrived in Genoa it was close to mid-day. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to see my new ‘hometown’. In an article I wrote for The Washington Post a few years later, I explained it this way:
In "The Innocents Abroad," Mark Twain describes the narrow streets of Genoa as crooked as a corkscrew. "You go along these gloomy cracks and look up and behold the sky like a mere ribbon of light, far above your head." Twain may have been looking up, but the first time I set foot in Genoa's old city, my eyes were riveted on the North African drug dealers, the "we've seen it all, honey" prostitutes leaning against dirty walls, and the grimy steel gates that protect the closed shops during the midday break.
The streets were deserted. In the distance a church bell rang. It was 1 o'clock. The cramped alleys were shrouded in shadows, the midday sun blocked by the tall stone buildings. With their morning grocery shopping done, neighborhood housewives were already home preparing lunch for their families. Retail shops and offices were closed, local merchants and clerks off somewhere eating. The only people left on the streets were the drug dealers, the prostitutes and me. I remember thinking I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.