Few things are as strange as leaving for mass on a peaceful Sunday morning to find a throng of paparazzi at the base of the stairs snapping photographs. Now well into my Civita experience, I knew to have my sunglasses in place upon opening my door so as to make the proper entrance onto the red carpet.

Despite the tourist spotlight, I’m continually surprised at how much pleasure I receive from my Sunday rituals, which have little to do with religion. I enjoy waiting in the shade on the step just inside Tony’s gate, and our piano-piano pace as we step to church, often joined by Josè, who takes my arm. I delight in meeting the ladies and walking inside together to hear Father Marco’s soft timbre as he sings during mass. I especially enjoy gathering afterward for aperitivi alla piazza to hear and practice Italian.

Father Marco honored Astra during today’s service, as this is the second anniversary of her death, noting her accomplishments in the restoration and study of Civita, as well as her contribution to the cultural and social community. Afterwards, a large crowd gathered to toast her spirit with a round of aperitivi: Tony, Gaia and Bernardo, Ilauria, Josè, Marcella, Maria, Laura and her husband, Marco and his wife, and Peppi, who arrived all in black, for which someone teased him that he was, perhaps, Padre Peppi.

With a round-robin of chin-chins and salutes, some of us quaffed prosecco while others took their bitters with soda water and ice. Discussion turned quickly to local politics, as some Civitonici are embroiled in a debate with local officials about vehicle transport for older residents who are physically incapable of making the trip up and down without assistance.

Considering how much time I’ve spent at the top of the hill like a guru in seclusion due to the heat, I agree that access –even for we, the able-bodied– is a major impasse. Trekking from here to Bagnoregio and back carrying 25 pounds of groceries in 93 degree heat without Tony’s car is prohibitive. This challenge plays into the very sustainability of living in Civita; yet, if it were more accessible, would it still be Civita? I wondered how it would play into my life if I chose to live here for a significant amount of time.

As debate continued, I beat Josè to the punch by paying for everyone’s drinks — how else to say thank you for all of the kindnesses that these people have shown to me? She was so overcome that she insisted on taking me to lunch, saying that I should save my money for Venice. That’s how I found myself pranzando al fresco on the shaded patio of Osteria d’Agnese with Josè, Maria, and Marcella, who finally said the phrase that I’ve been dying to hear since I arrived: “Dammi del tu!

A key turning point in a relationship, this phrase demonstrates a person’s level of comfort and affection, meaning that they prefer for you to address them informally as, “tu” rather than using the formal, “Lei.” In fact, it is customary to continue using the formal address –no matter how many times you have interacted with someone– until he or she explicitly commands you to, “Give me the ‘tu!‘”

Upon hearing Marcella’s words, and feeling Maria gently caress my cheek, I decided that there is no more fitting way to leave Civita for a few days. Reflecting on the past three weeks, I’ve felt this place –and the Civitonici– guide me to a more introspective sense of being, which I consider to be “Part One” of this journey. I may have set the table for this adventure, but they have made this primo course both flavorful and nourishing to the body, heart, mind, and spirit.

As I wrote notes for today’s essay, I decided to leave my front door open, music playing in the background, and sit in plain view on my stoop. It was a different interaction from writing behind Tony’s gate or in the cool darkness of my kitchen. I considered it an invitation to both the tourists and myself; an explicit declaration: “I live in this house and I am a part of this community.”

While I’m in Venice attending the Biennale, I will be thinking about what I want the second course to be. My instinct says that Part Two will be even more interactive, now that I’ve moved through the initial cultural boundaries and –finally– made a true mental separation from life as it was before Civita.

Who’s to say what I’ll discover upon my return — what questions I’ll ask, what characteristics about Civita will reveal themselves, how I’ll continue to change with the experience, or what surprises await.

Perhaps the only thing that’s sure is that the second course will be even more delicious than the first.