The Path to Something Greater / Il Percorso a Qualcosa di Più Grande

As the layers of my experience transition from a solitary exploration of Civita to an impromptu partnership with Helen –and a heartfelt reunion with mie care amiche Kirstin and Sue– I am yet again preparing to hit a different stride on Monday.

First, we closed certain loops with today’s visit to Orvieto for Helen’s departure, gazing with awe at frescoes from the 1400s in the city’s duomo. Only during my viewing of the Sistine Chapel in 2004 have I seen such depictions of judgement, resurrection, and demons raining red blows from fiery swords. Naturally, the scale of Orvieto’s chapel is significantly smaller, but the detail is what struck me; at first, when my eyes saw such brutal swaths of thin red paint spread atop otherwise unadulterated forms, I wondered if the frescoes had been vandalized. The very violence of the color and the clean but thin strokes was startling enough convey a sense of pure evil and torment.

Helen and I discussed for several minutes the stark accuracy of Jesus’ gray skin tone in another scene, as his mother takes his wrecked body down from the cross, sharing a moment of our own private losses and spontaneously embracing each other in the center of the chapel. The whole day had a bit of that somber feeling; we were delighted to be in Orvieto and certainly to be with each other, but her imminent departure was ultimately what called us there.

On our way to a brief lunch, she and I fulfilled a common goal: purchasing strainers called passatutto, which will allow us to make Tony’s tomato sauce after we return to Seattle. (We have vowed to christen them together.) True to form, when we entered Trattoria dell’Orso for our meal, we were greeted by Gabriele and Ciro, who spoke of Tony (“magnifico, molto gentile“) and Astra (“genius!”) with such affection that I was reminded of their profound influence on not only Civita, but cities across Europe and people all over the world. Of course, these people who greeted us were not designers, but food artisans; yet, it was Astra and Tony’s sense of design –as well as their generous spirits– that Gabriele and Ciro praised.

Helen and I walked arm-in-arm on our way out of Orvieto, and cheek-kissed goodbye like Europeans at the train station [before I dove into the passenger seat when the bus behind us honked at me for holding up traffic.] On the drive back to Civita, I reflected on the coincidence that brought the two of us here, and what we’ve vowed to accomplish together at home and abroad.

At the root of it all, not so strangely, is food. Both students and fellows will say that one of the most powerful ways he or she learned about design, the world, and themselves was by cooking with Astra and Tony. Not only by reading, sketching or studying architecture, planning, and art — they learned about composition, design, and humanity by preparing, cooking, and sharing food and wine.

In my proposal for this fellowship, food was a central focus, in addition to considering themes, such as the layering of form, function, design, people, language, history, weather and time. I came with ideas and goals, but ultimately, I was open to letting things play out in terms of topic material or opportunities for learning and connection.

With much thanks to Tony for sharing his intelligence, his kitchen, and his relationships along the way, I realized that –must like Astra and Tony’s students before me have realized– without food, my experience of Civita would be pale. Food and wine are not mere incidental pleasures here; they are a way and a means –in some cases, the only means– of getting to know every square inch of this place, including the people who live and work here. (And who will only show you their homes if they know you…which they can only do over a meal.)

Without sharing food and wine, I would never have bonded with Gaia and Bernardo. Without them, there would have been no tour of Luca’s garden. Without sharing food, I would not have become a part of the circle dance in the piazza with Maria and Marcella, nor would I have been able to invite Nilde to our table for a drink last night. Without food, I would never have been able to kiss and hug Manuela after lunch with Kirstin and Sue, during which she doted on us like family. Without sharing food and wine at Antonio’s bruschetteria, I would not have been invited to witness his grandchild’s baptism tomorrow — a rare moment to welcome the newest descendant of the Civitonici.

And, of course, one of the most profound experiences of Helen’s journey (and my own) in Civita was cooking with each other — a sharing of food and wine that will undoubtedly lead us to future adventures. In somma, food and wine has helped to connect us with people — who are ultimately the history, meaning, and future of Civita. The stones may withstand time, but the people are what truly hold the greater meaning of the architecture and urban design within which they live.

As I consider how deeply that the simple concept of a meal has taken me into structures such as restaurants, homes, churches, cellars, tunnels, gardens, piazzas, and people’s lives, my belief in the power of food as an educational tool and catalyst for change continues to strengthen.

On Monday afternoon, I’ll be on my own again, though I’m eagerly anticipating those last 10 days alone in Civita. Perhaps it’s because I won’t be really alone: I will continue my discovery of alleys and icons as I wish the ladies, “Buona sera” in passing; I will cook meals with Tony as we listen to Italian opera; I will stop for a campari soda with Massimo to discuss life in Bagnoregio after I shop at the Mancini sisters’ alimentary — and I’ll perch on my balcony so that I can hear impressions about Civita from the influx of American tourists below, who all assume that I’m Italian.

In writing this book, my goal was to take readers alongside with me to Civita –to hear, smell, see, taste, touch and feel everything special about this place– so that they could visit it with intelligence some day.

One might say that there’s quite a bit of food and wine with each lesson, but I’ve come to see that a meal –large or small– is not only a necessary component to Italian stories, but always leads to something greater…though it may not be obvious at first.

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