Once upon a time, a young woman named Gabriela asked advice from her wise friend, Bonnie. It came at the end of a long work day in the summer of 2009 on Pier 56 on the Seattle waterfront. The heavy sun blazed over the water even at 7 pm.
As they packed up their belongings, Gabriela lamented that, in spite of her efforts to write a novel, she could never find her way through it. She had tried and failed countless times since she was ten. Yet, down deep, she knew she was a writer.
Though they were both spent, Bonnie perked up. She encouraged Gabriela to investigate NIAUSI, an organization focused on the study of a hill town in Italy. “Your mother was Italian, right?” Bonnie asked.
“Right,” she agreed.
“So this is a means of tapping into your cultural heritage. And you’re a writer, aren’t you?”
“Well, I want to be.”
“Then propose to write a book for them.” In Bonnie’s eyes, the path forward was clear.
That night, Gabriela researched the organization and returned the next day to protest Bonnie’s advice. “This program is meant for architects and urban designers. Not for writers. Besides, I don’t have any experience.”
“Oh, p’shaw,” scoffed Bonnie. Gabriela smiled a little. No one but her mother had ever said, P’shaw. “You’ll bring an insight they need and this will give you something you can write about. Now, go to it. Believe in yourself. Applications come out in the fall.”
Gabriela read more about the fellowship and Astra, the woman who started NIAUSI. Her eyes rimmed with kohl, Astra cut a glamorous form (la bella figura, the Italians called it) in photographs. Though she never had children, Astra had friends around the world who were like family. She had been an architect and a professor with the University of Washington. Her work made a difference in the world and she wasn’t alone, even in her final years.
The next evening, Gabriela stopped at the Pink Door for cocktails with a friend, an acolyte of Astra’s, who told stories of studying with her in Civita, an almost unfathomable microcosm of stone houses, vegetable gardens and a cast of local characters. If his stories were true, everyone who went to Civita underwent a magical transformation.
On her walk home to Belltown, the warm kiss of the humid breeze on her cheek, Gabriela wondered what it might be like follow Bonnie’s advice and Astra’s footsteps all the way to the top of that hill. Maybe if she worked very hard on her proposal she would have the chance to find out some day.
Once upon a time during the dark, rainy months of November and December 2009, a young woman named Gabriela downloaded instructions for a fellowship proposal. She had been checking the NIAUSI website daily since summer, waiting for the call to be released. Upon reading it, she devised a plot: she would turn her application into a book.
She spent every spare moment in the evenings and on weekends writing and designing her proposal. She convened a council of advisors and worked tirelessly to create samples of the kinds of things she might write if selected for the fellowship.
Two months of work and five months of determined dreaming were channeled into the saddle-stitched chapbooks. Just after the holidays, Gabriela delivered them to a man named Steve on a bitter winter day. Walking back to a job she disliked in the blowing rain, Italy couldn’t seem further away. Still, the rigor of her effort felt rewarding; no matter the result, she had given it her best attempt.
Once upon a time in the spring of 2010, Gabriela’s green flip phone began to vibrate on her desk, displaying an unknown number. “Hello?” she answered breathlessly, attempting to be casual. The voice on the other end identified himself as Herschel; he was calling about the fellowship.
Co-workers within a twenty-foot radius were startled at the sight of Gabriela hopping up and down madly, her jaws agape and the phone pressed to her ear as Herschel notified her of her selection.
“Two months!!” she hooted after they hung up. Then, she paused: had they really picked her proposal? What if she couldn’t deliver what she said she could? What would happen at work when she told them she was taking two months off? Who would water her only surviving plant at home?
She spent the next five months studying Italian and preparing her affairs for an extended leave. Tom offered to look after her home, the houseplant and the mail; Angela and Ellen would pick up the case load at work. That summer, a group of seventeen gathered at Steve and Nancy’s home for a friends and fellows dinner al fresco before Gabriela left for Civita. As the sun fell and candles glittered, each person spoke about how travel had changed their lives.
Hers was about to shift significantly, too. If nothing else, Gabriela would come home the author of a book. The seesaw of failure and success dipped back and forth before her. Without saying as much, she treated her departure like a death. In fact, it was true: the Gabriela who departed Seattle in August was never seen nor heard from again.
Once upon a time in August 2010, a young writer named Gabriela composed a spirited blog post about the previous day’s travel from Seattle, Washington, to the Italian hill town of Civita di Bagnoregio.
She wrote from her experience with little enhancement, since the tale itself was so eventful: drunken men on the flight to Amsterdam, navigating Roma Termini, nearly missing the train to Orvieto, meeting Tony, Astra’s husband, for the first time at the train platform, and following an intern named Jonathan to her new bower at the top two floors of an old stone house. That night they ate dinner under a grape vine arbor and listened to live jazz cascade from Piazza Donato into their small courtyard under the stars.
Upon re-reading it, she realized she hadn’t written a blog post but the first chapter of her book.
That day, Gabriela drafted a list. A page in her notebook bore fifty-odd topics; no plot, no outline, but somehow she managed to write about them all when they were meant to be written about during her two-month stay. She ventured out at night and the early mornings, practiced Italian on everyone she met, traveled to Venice to meet her friend, Iole, and helped Tony cook –and eat– a new dish each night. Every day’s adventure led to an essay. At the end of her stay, she left with a draft manuscript.
As she walked across the bridge from Civita for the last time, Gabriela finally knew what it was like to make something. Like all creations, it came not only with joy but a bittersweet sense of loss; her first book was no longer inside her waiting to be born as it had been for twenty-five years.
And so, just as the crisp October air became tinged with the smoke of wood fires, Gabriela left Civita feeling relieved and proud, if not a little sparse inside. Years later, she realized that the expanse that widened within her wasn’t a sign of emptiness but an indication of room for what was to come next.
Civita, Three Years Later
For the rest of my life, I will always think of Civita when August 10 arrives. The experience was so impactful, so big, that I have trouble fully understanding or believing it even today. How I was able to take life so slow, bit by bit, patiently, is a miracle.
As a writer, it’s hard enough to get a story right, balancing pacing, diction, dialogue, characters, setting, plot. To bring an architectural understanding of narrative into play takes a kind of stoicism that I find paralyzing at times, especially going slow enough in the details to properly reveal them. To work through this in fiction stymies me, but the mileposts of non-fiction –real life events– help me sort through it.
For one thing, life is so weird, I just couldn’t make up better shit if I tried. Even if I did try, I couldn’t spin enough fictional yarn to make a baby sock. For me, the joy of writing resides in interpreting experience. There’s enough philosophy, humor, danger, sadness, romance and adventure wrapped up in it to keep me fascinated for the rest of my days. The fact that life is doled out in handy minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months only helps with my temporal frustration.
The magic of Italy helped me understand how to do this. Civita is where I learned to bend time and language and myself. It took the whole two months to know that I could make it on my own, not just as an American in a different country, but as a writer. In the end, the shades of doubt and twists of victory fed each other.
It happened in moments large and small, from navigating the daily shopping sequence –the panificio for bread and sweets, fruits and vegetables with Maria Grazia, the Mancini sisters alimentari for everything else– to observing life in the piazza, going to mass or a baptism and attempting to express myself sentence by sentence to people as if I was a child. Breaking down sentences word by word helped me to reconstruct my experiences the same way: slowly.
No surprise, it was in communicating where I was the most frustrated and found the greatest growth. A recent NYT Op-Ed by Costica Bradatan captures this transformation of writers who leave their mother tongue to create works in another language.
“…to abandon your native tongue and to adopt another is to dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then to put yourself together again, in a different form.”
Though my use of Italian in CivitaVeritas is restrained, it was all around me, everywhere. It infused my thoughts, the silent acknowledgements I made (how many times did I whisper, la finestra, when I looked at windows?), the food I ate, and even my anger. Upon discovering an intruder in my home, I barreled over to Tony’s house one afternoon, exclaiming, “Tony! C’è un problema – un grosso problema!” without thinking of saying it in English.
I was far from fluent, but the mental conversion from English to Italian for two months rewired parts of my brain that I had not been able to access previously. I still feel a connection to the Gabriela who existed before Civita –her hesitations and the things that once mattered to her– but it’s like watching a home movie of myself. She and I share a hazy past that is not so much a memory but a story told over and over until it becomes one.
The following August I returned to Civita, amazed at how much my perception had shifted along with daily life in a place that I had assumed would stand still, like my memory of it. We were reintroduced in the courtyard beneath Il Nuovo, my stone house: the old me, the current me, the old Civita, the current Civita, like third cousins at a picnic wondering how we were related.
That said, some things will always remain the same. On the fifteenth of August, I’ll think, Today is Ferragosto. At the end of the month, I’ll picture Tony putting flowers on Astra’s grave. In September, I’ll remember the Venice Film Festival and the Biennale, determining if the theme is art or architecture by counting back from my last year of attendance (this year is art.) I’ll summon the taste of sgroppino at Gelateria Paolin in Campo Santo Stefano where Iole and I met Denis and Klevis. In October (which I still think of as Ottobre) I’ll remember the warm golden sunlight hitting the tufa rocks first thing in the morning and the tug of sadness that grew in me each day that home loomed closer.
Civita is evergreen yet imperfect in my memory–a fairy tale and a morality tale. It is Never Never Land and the Island of Lost Toys. It is a bustling hamlet and a contemplative retreat, a holy pilgrimage and an urbane stage for a city of strangers and a city of friends to play out their dramas. It is for me what Venice is to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which is to say both indescribable and an ever-flowing source of detail.
“Before I began this journey, I did not realize how challenging it is to tell ‘the truth,’” my book begins. Or, in other words, Once upon a time…