The next morning, Mena took me to Sermoneta, an exquisite jewel of a walled, hilltop town. I was snapping pictures constantly, there was so much charm around every corner. We took a tour of the Castello Caetani, a massive castle built by the Caetani family, very well preserved, with wonderful views of the valley below. After our morning of exploring, Mena drove us to have lunch with her other Nonna and Nonno, her mother’s parents.
When we arrived at the freshly painted old house, near the end of a road halfway up a hill, her Nonno, Alfredo, was sitting in the doorway of his workshop garage and came out to greet us. He was about 5’4”, with an ageless, welcoming face and sparse, short white hair that stuck nearly straight up all over his head. Her Nonna, Nicoletta, came down the stone steps from the terrace to greet us. She was Mena’s height, somewhere shy of five feet, equally warm and welcoming, with dark, short reddish hair. We all went back up the stairs, to a shaded terrace closely surrounded by a small, crowded garden, birdcages filled with chattering birds, old tools, baskets and implements hanging from the ceiling, vines crawling up every available post and twining among the rafters. The entire terrace was only 15x15, but every nook and cranny was filled with delight.
We went into the tiny kitchen where Nonna was preparing our lunch. The house was large, but Nonna and Nonno lived in the downstairs apartment, which consisted of the small kitchen, beyond that, one larger room which served as living and dining room, then a small bedroom. The bathroom was off the kitchen. Years ago they moved out of the larger upstairs apartment, renting the space, feeling it was much too large for just the two of them. I let Mena chat with her grandmother while I went out to look at the terrace again and talk to the birds, Nonno's pets which he had captured himself.
Today it was too chilly to eat at the picnic table outside, but I had the feeling that weather permitting, most meals would be served outdoors. Mena translated while we ate a delicious lunch of pasta al pomodoro, home grown vegetables, roasted chicken, and bread. Her grandparents proudly told me that every single thing we ate and drank was grown and prepared by them, including the chicken, bread, wine and the delicious Limoncello Alfredo insisted I try after the meal. Throughout lunch, he kept refilling my wine glass, which I didn’t have a problem with since I wasn’t driving, and was delighted with me every time I emptied it. He tried to do the same with the Limoncello, which was superb, and went well with the dessert of apple crostata, but I stopped myself at two small glasses.
“I like this girl,” he told Mena in Italian, “she appreciates good food and wine.”
It was such a wonderful meal, and I felt like part of the family, another granddaughter coming to visit. After lunch, Mena, Nicoletta and I went to visit the nearby town of Bassiano, where Nicoletta had grown up. She kept a small apartment there as her getaway when she wanted to go to town for a day or two, the town consisting of about 1200 people. We left Alfredo behind, working on a new leather strap for Mena’s purse, a Christmas gift from him, an old messenger bag that he had used when he was young, and it meant a lot to her. The strap had dry rotted and he was charged with the repair.
On the way to Bassiano, we stopped at Nicoletta’s brother’s apartment for a quick visit and an egg delivery. The brother’s wife cooks for the restaurant owned by their son in Bassiano and orders her eggs from Mena's grandparents. This is very common, many Italian restaurants, particularly in the smaller towns, are family owned and run, and the Nonna’s cook the traditional dishes. It’s somewhat of a dying way of life, as the younger generation of women are not as interested in cooking the old, traditional dishes in the traditional ways, nor are families as interested in running restaurants. I watched Nicoletta’s brother as he wove branches into a complicated Palm Sunday type of wreath. He must have spent hours picking out then cutting the branches into different sizes, then the additional time spent doing the actual weaving. I don’t think he sold these, he just made them for friends and family. This must have been another tradition that would die with him, I couldn’t see anyone in a younger generation putting this kind of time and effort into something so fleeting.
We continued on into the tiny hill town, and left Nonna at her 12x12 studio apartment up a steep alleyway, while Mena took me to all the Bassiano hotspots. We visited the main church, walked the walls and watchtowers which defined the edge of the town, visited the Aldo Manuzio Museum of Writing. He was born here, the inventor of italics. But most importantly, I had my first gelato in Bassiano, the beginning of my gelato addiction. Thank goodness I hadn’t tried it earlier in my time in Italy, I would weigh 10,000 pounds by the time I got home. I don’t even like ice cream, it’s too cold, but I just loved this stuff.
We collected Nonna and returned her back home, where Nonno was waiting in the garage, the purse sporting a brand new strap, one of his old leather belts that matched perfectly. I asked him to show me around his garage, I knew he collected motorcycles and I wanted to see them. He had eight total I think, and he uncovered every one of them for me. They were beautiful, some were more like scooters, some regular motorcycles, all in pretty good condition, the two near the front were the ones he and Nonna used. I had a hard time picturing Nonna on a motorcycle. His garage reminded me of Dad’s basement workshop on steroids. On the wall behind the long, wide wooden worktable, he had a place for every tool, with larger tools and a cacophony of things hanging from the ceiling and the other walls, the motorcycles under tarps throughout the space. Through the door on the far side of the garage was a small orchard. I never saw the garden area, or where they kept the chickens but they had to be close by.
I was sad to say goodbye when we left, but so glad Mena brought me to see them, not just because they were lovely people, but because I felt I’d been shown a way of life unique to Italy. We went back home, where Alessandro barraged us with questions about where we’d gone and what we’d seen. I loved the way the family doted on him, like the crown Prince, but somehow he remained an unspoiled bundle of child-like love. Mena told me that he was the baby of all of them, and they all showered every bit of love on him they could. It was hard not to.
In the mornings when we left on our adventures, Mena’s first brother could be seen working in the fields around the house, a quiet but thoughtful young man. In the afternoons, her father was out there as well, picking strawberries or asparagus. He was around my age and had the ageless, weathered look of a farmer, very quiet and peaceful, but the love he felt for his family shone from him like a beacon whenever he was with them. Mena’s Mom would be ironing when we left, or working in the kitchen. She had taken three days off of work just to make sure I would be taken care of, cook meals and keep the house running properly. She would have Mena and I sit at the table when we got home, drink tea and get the scoop on what we had done that day, Alessandro always nearby, often in her lap or Mena’s. She was the typical warm-hearted, lovely Italian Mama, and she scooped me into the family like I was a little baby bird that needed her care.
The following day Mena drove me to Terracina to meet a friend and hike through the ancient Roman ruins high on the cliffs above town. Mena’s driving was thoroughly Italian, and just as terrifying from this perspective as it was when driving my own car. She careened down the tiny roads, making a passing lane where there was none, taking the turns at hair-raising speeds, but always getting us everywhere safely. I learned trust long ago; I figure when it’s my time to go, I won’t have much say in the matter.
We picked up Salvo, a fellow University student studying nursing, and the three of us headed into the hills. He was obviously nuts about Mena but was willing to settle for friendship status in order to spend time with her. We wandered all over the ruins, climbing rocky paths, taking in the expansive view of the town and coast below us.
Salvo spoke very little English but Mena translated for us and we talked about his studies and what he wanted out of his future. He was thinking of working in South America or Rome, he hadn’t decided yet. As we were walking by a large boulder, he asked me, in English, out of the blue, “What does “We will rock you” mean?” as he looked at the boulder then looked at me.
“It means the Rock and Roll kind of rock. Did you think it meant this kind of rock?” as I patted the boulder.
“Si, si,” he said as his face lit up. “Rock and roll, that makes sense,” and we both laughed.
I wondered how many other song lyrics might need to be interpreted, pondering this for a long time, as they chatted in Italian and we continued to explore.
We spent some time walking around the town, which had lovely churches and narrow cobbled streets, plus a wonderful gelatterie. We said goodbye to Salvo and headed home for the day.
My last day with Mena, she took me to Anzio at my request, I wanted to see the WWII Museum and the landing area. She had a friend there as well, Marco, a soldier stationed at the Italian Army base. He became our guide for the morning, taking us to the Museum, then the American Military Cemetery, which was immaculately kept and manicured. He and Mena both remarked that an Italian cemetery would have graffiti everywhere, very little in the way of upkeep and care. I think they were both impressed with the impeccability of the American standard of honor for our war heroes. I know I have been. Afterwards, we went to lunch by the harbor, a small trattoria he recommended, the owners greeting him like a long lost son. He only stayed for a cup of coffee, then he had to get back to work, but Mena and I ordered seafood pasta, one of the best meals I’d had in Italy so far.
After we got home, it was time for my drive to Rome. I was spending the night in a hotel near the airport so I could pick up my two girlfriends flying in from the States to visit me for ten days. It was hard to say goodbye to Mena and her wonderful family. They had taken me in wholeheartedly, and beautiful Mena, already a powerhouse at such a young age, became another dear friend to add to my treasure chest. I quietly cried as I drove away.