On our first trip to Italy back in 1994 we were in Montecatini Terme. I was looking for a bike shop where I could purchase a local team uniform to bring home to the US. I found the address of a shop in the phone book and my very indulgent wife accompanied me on what turned out to be a long walk down a busy road with no sidewalks. As cars whizzed by, we noticed that the businesses were getting fewer and farther between. We were obviously leaving town. To make matters worse when I finally stepped into a sporting goods store to ask where the bike shop was the owner said it was on the other side of town, very far in the opposite direction. He then insisted on driving us! We were not customers and tried to argue, but no, he had to do it!
A few years later I was painting during the early part of the midday riposo in Fiuggi Alta, a little hill town in Lazio to the south of Rome. I was standing just to the side of a doorway to one of several attached houses fronting a compact neighborhood piazza when an older woman approached carrying groceries. I had long hair and a beard back in those days. I imagine that I might have looked more than a bit intimidating to some people. The woman took out her keys to open the door. In my rudimentary Italian I apologized and asked her if it was alright if I worked in front of her home. She did not mind at all; end of conversation. As my painting developed so did her afternoon meal. I worked to the beautiful aroma of garlic sautéing and sauce simmering. Suddenly the door opened. “Ha lei mangiato, signore?” – “Have you eaten sir?” Well I had, but I thanked her profusely for her kindness. “Si, ho mangiato signora, grazie mille; molto gentile.”
In Bressanone in the Sud Tyrol, far to the north in the Dolomites, I was at an informal art opening. There was a local artist in attendance that I had become acquainted with during our three week stay. I complimented Harold on the stylish Tyrolean sport jacket he was wearing. He said to me in Italian, “I have many of these I will give you one!” At least that is what I thought he said. His brother-in-law, Gianni, who spoke English well, laughed uproariously as he watched us arguing back and forth; my broken Italian protestations becoming even more poorly pronounced as I grew increasingly flustered. “No,” Gianni laughed, “You have to take it! He would not say this to you if he did not want you to have it. You must take it!” We were leaving very early the next morning for our return to the US, so we said our goodbyes and I returned to the hotel. Before dawn, as I quietly opened the door to exit our hotel room I found a shopping bag hanging from the door knob. I had forgotten about my conversation with Harold the night before. In the shopping bag was a loden green boiled wool overcoat with horn buttons; too late to argue and impossible for me to it give back. To this day it is one of my most prized possessions and I love wearing it. I relive the experience and remember Harold and Bressanone every time I put it on.
I could literally fill a book recounting the many acts of kindness shown to us by Italian strangers; some of whom became our friends, others who simply crossed our path once and blessed us with their generosity and good humor. The Italian people and their way may be what I love most about Italy.
Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.