Lucia Mauro's
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Four years ago, when our flight was canceled from Palermo to Milan’s Malpensa Airport, we had to rely on friends of our resourceful Sicilian host Mario Renna to "rescue" us from an alternate flight arrangement that dropped us inconveniently in Milan’s far-flung Linate Airport. My husband Joe and I had never met Piero and Aldina Romano, yet the gentle couple drove at least an hour away from their home in Parabiago – a suburb on the outskirts of Milan – to pick us up. They then coordinated lodging and treated us to a lavish meal with their extended family.

All of us instantly bonded. At the time that included introspective artist and pavement-mosaic designer Piero; his refined, spunky wife Aldina; and their studious, soft-spoken teenage son Andrea -- together with Piero’s rugged stone-mason brother Marcello; his fun-loving Canadian wife Michele; and their burly infant son Matteo. Joe and I decided to frame our last trip around the Romano family – a plan that took us through an enriching spiral of lost and found in the real and metaphoric senses.

We arrived earlier than scheduled in Milan (Malpensa Airport this time) on a crisp and sunny November morning. Piero and Aldina would be meeting us. Everything seemed to being going along smoothly – until we headed over to baggage claim. The trolley for our luggage had been lost, and we had to bolt across Malpensa’s new serpentine terminals to file a frustratingly labored report. Meanwhile, our friends had arrived and were no doubt baffled over our delay. Luckily, our international cell phone came in handy. We coordinated meeting points when, after close to 45 minutes, our trolley was inexplicably retrieved. A guy in a mechanic’s outfit just walked up to us and handed us the portable contraption.

Upon seeing the warmly smiling Romano’s, our tension evaporated. The couple even looked younger and hipper. Aldina grew her hair and dyed it red; Piero, who resembles actor Giancarlo Giannini, sported a Van Dyke and sleek leather jacket. After renting our car, Joe and I – with Aldina accompanying us – followed Piero to their elegantly appointed apartment, where we would be staying for three days. Graciously sweeping her wavy hair behind her ear, Aldina called their son from her neon-yellow plastic cell phone. Andrea was now a senior in high school, where he was concentrating on languages and business studies. He would be joining us for lunch.

It took us only 20 minutes to arrive at the Romano’s modern, Teutonic-looking town of Parabiago – known for its shoe manufacturing. Yet the Old World always has a way of seeping into one’s bones in Italy. Upon entering their angular apartment complex, a musty smell of marble and terra cotta engulfed me – an odor that conjured images of ancient Roman aqueducts and catacombs. We walked up one flight of steps to their humble abode -- the personification of gracious spatial harmony.

Piero, an accomplished landscape and still-life painter, has left his bold yet unobtrusive artistic imprint throughout their apartment. In the living room – which opened out onto a lace-covered glass-door terrace – hung his pastel and gesso paintings of vineyards and the sea in sumptuous, marbleized wood frames. We barely set down our bags when Piero, a normally mild-mannered person, announced in a wildly animated tone that he had a surprise for us. We had to close our eyes as he scurried around moving furniture and opening drapes. When he gave us the okay, we gazed out at a large gesso rendering of a secluded Venetian canal and gondola surrounded by a lilac-colored burst of foliage and faded bronze buildings.

"Do you like it?" Piero asked us, his piercing blue eyes welling up with tears.
The humble and vibrant artistry had taken our breath away. We were too stunned to speak.

Piero continued, "I made it especially for you. I worked on it non-stop for two weeks. I call it ‘Venezia Nascosta’ (‘Hidden Venice’)."

Joe and I finally blurted out how honored and elated we were to receive such an extraordinary gift. Then we all burst into tears and hugged each other for what seemed like an eternity. Piero said he would wrap it and hold onto it until we returned to Milan one month later from our high-powered car trek down Italy’s Adriatic Coast.

Aldina, who urged us all to wash our hands and sit down at the dining room table set with her finest china and linens, softly disappeared into the kitchen and returned in about five minutes carrying bowls of steaming spaghetti in a tomato-meat sauce. Piero brought in little glass bowls filled with fresh capers and black olives soaked in salt water. Andrea, a model of politeness, joined us and told us about his upcoming exams and the latest programs he planned to install in his new computer. We sipped Vin Santo after lunch and snacked on chocolate-truffle candy while Joe and Piero paged through Ducati and Moto Guzzi catalogs.

Even Aldina’s petite, radiant mother came downstairs from her apartment to join us for espresso. Dressed in a fancy skirt and blouse offset by fluffy slippers, she held my hand and smiled as she wished us a safe and fulfilling trip. It was nearing mid-afternoon, and our jetlag started to kick in. Sensitive to our fatigue, the Romano’s escorted us to our bedroom – yet another beautifully appointed room with no detail overlooked. The linen sheets and embroidered pillow cases were neatly starched on our bed across from yet another one of Piero’s luminous paintings of lemon-yellow flowers in an aqua-blue vase set in a thick, two-tone marbleized wooden frame.

After a few hours, Aldina tapped on our door and sweetly asked us if we wouldn’t mind coming into the living room for a "special ceremony." Joe and I trudged sleepy-eyed into the next room to find a Catholic priest in flowing robes, accompanied by a bored-looking altar boy in gym shoes, anointing the apartment with water. Piero whispered that "il prete" was blessing the house to inaugurate the Advent season. Then he slipped the prelate an envelope with money. The priest was gone in a flash. For a moment, I thought I must have been dreaming.

Then Piero had another surprise up his sleeve. The last time we were in Italy, Joe searched in vain for black dress boots. Unfortunately, we stayed in Parabiago only one night and didn’t have time to look at shoes in the "scarpe" capital of the world. But Piero never forgot and made arrangements with a shoe designer friend to open his custom store for us later that evening. So we headed a few blocks into town and squeezed through a narrow door into an intimate footwear atelier. Intoxicated by the smell of fresh-cut leather, Joe and I nearly stumbled over a rack of cherry-red handbags and spiked hot-pink boots trimmed in fuchsia fur.

Piero introduced us to the robust shoe craftsman while Aldina perused the snakeskin wallets. As Joe tried on a pair of black high-top slip-on shoes with a fashionable rounded toe design, the shoemaker’s gravely-voiced wife nonchalantly admired the fit as she chewed on a cigarette. She sported spiky blonde hair and wore shiny silver gym shoes with a high square heel. "Proprio bello!" she purred in a mannish voice. Joe decided within a few seconds to buy them.

These were custom-designed, genuine leather shoes that would easily retail for US$400 or US$600. We paid US$150 and, after some clandestine bargaining with Piero, the owners gave us an additional 15 percent discount. Joe and Piero beamed all the way to our next stop – the Bar Cavaliere for a "non-alcoholic" Campari-colored aperitivo in a salt-rimmed glass.

Once back at the apartment, Aldina invited Andrea and me into the kitchen to help prepare risotto con funghi porcini, while Joe and Piero discussed the latest BMW R1100GS series. Aldina stirred the risotto; Andrea grated the parmigiano; and I sliced the mushrooms – all the while talking about our favorite authors, actors and pop-music artists. Joe and Piero were now on the topic of cylinder heads and gear ratios, and didn’t miss a beat as they unfurled a fresh linen tablecloth and set the table. Meanwhile, Aldina shared a cooking secret. She let the rice on the bottom of the pan get very brown, almost burnt. Then she scraped up the crunchy browned bits and mixed them in with the creamy golden rice for a robust flavor.

Over dinner, which also included grilled bistecca and arugula salad, we conversed about art, music and the increasing Americanization of Italy. At one point, the conversation turned to unusual foods we’ve eaten. Joe shared a story about his brother’s brilliant recreation of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s "tur-duck-en" recipe for Thanksgiving. It consists of three types of de-boned foul: a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey. But Joe’s rather loose translation was interpreted as "a chicken stuffed into a turkey stuffed into ‘Donald Duck.’" We all nearly choked on our secondo piatto.

Then we shared more laughs when Andrea flicked on the TV and a satirical show called "Striscia" came on. Two older announcers jabbered comically (kind of like an Italian version of "Mystery Science Theater 3000") about news footage of local politicians at various functions. One political figure, with a large mole on his cheek, was stuffing his face at a fundraiser. The announcer quipped, "Keep eating so that your mole gets bigger." Then a parade of ample-breasted women in bikini tops shook their chests for the camera as a cartoon aardvark bobbed across the bottom of the screen. I almost spit out my Vin Santo-soaked biscotto.

Even Cica, the Romano’s normally anti-social cat, joined the fun and jumped half-way across the room from her basket into Joe’s lap – where she remained for the rest of this feverishly absurd evening of Italian TV.

Between the laughter and jetlag, we overslept the next morning. Piero took the day off from his stone masonry job across the Swiss border, but Aldina had already left for her part-time job as a secretary at a nearby grammar school. Piero helped prepare us a breakfast of toasted biscotti and a marmalade-filled brioche. He set out a tablecloth half way across the table of their long, narrow kitchen. Throughout Italy, the smallest of snacks and the most elaborate of meals requires a tablecloth. Piero’s eyes glistened as he showed us photos of himself as a young boy riding his vintage Lambretta scooter in his native Palermo.

The temperatures were chilly and the skies overcast today. But the three of us took a brisk walk through the neat suburban enclave of Parabiago to a cyber café called La Tortuga. We wanted to check our e-mail, but the young woman with carrot-red hair styled like Jennifer Aniston behind the counter said their server was down. So we ordered cappuccino and scoped out this hip bar with its beer garden and fireplace-lined lounge against the ubiquitous pulsating beat of "Mambo 5000." Aldina, wearing a chic purple crushed-velvet swing coat, soon joined us and ordered a large, sticky cornetto – taking substantial bites while asking us what we would like to eat for lunch.

We then hopped in their car and headed for the historic town of Legnano – only 10 minutes away. We zoomed past Parabiago’s Luna Park, its entrance bordered by spider web-shaped lights whose multi-colored rays bounced off an enormous Ferris wheel. We parked our car near a strange but intriguing statue, or rather the back-less bust of a bespectacled man. It was as though his sculpted "skin" was flapping in the wind. The monument was set against a razor-angled glass building called La Pretura, which appears to have sliced guillotine-like the back of the statue’s head. Aldina explained that the bronze sculpture was built in honor of famed Legnanese author Felice Musazzi, who wrote in the Legnanese dialect.

We quickly proceeded back in time under a stone arcade to the main piazza anchored by the 15th century Basilica di San Magno. Aldina told us that one of their neighbors, Cristianna, was an art restoration specialist here. We entered the dark, majestic church whose massive cupola opened into a small sun-filled circular chamber surrounded by wrought-iron latticed windows that seemed to stretch into another ecclesiastical stratosphere.

Aldina tugged on the scaffolding and whispered Cristianna’s name. A young girl -- with a black bob hairdo, powder blue-winged eyewear and surgical attire -- parted the curtain to reveal faded pastel-colored frescoes of saints. She told us that it could take years before she and her colleagues completed the restoration caused by centuries of erosion and neglect. I estimated it might take at least another century. Every wall, pillar and holy water font was covered in painstakingly detailed frescoes—now disintegrating. At the center of the altar, illuminated by a single ray of celestial light, hung a touching oil painting of the Blessed Virgin greeting her cousin Elizabeth.

Back outside, we continued on past fountains and the smaller Baroque church of Sant’Ambrogio and gift shops selling swirled blown-glass vases. One store sold model kits for ships in bottles, airplanes and the camel-shaped robot from "Star Wars." While encountering pastry shops and appliance centers near Legnano’s looming chimney attached to a major textile factory, we practically collided with a peevish blonde woman in her 70s decked out in a short leopard jacket, black leather pants and spiked heels. She was walking her Bishon Frisee.

The street scene quickly shifted to a corporate center with a concrete Socialist-inspired sculpture of two block-headed proletariats – oddly juxtaposed against Legnano’s signature "Guerriero" or warrior statue of a chainmail-draped knight wielding a dangerously pointy spear and diamond-shaped shield.

It was nearing lunch time, and our friends were anxious to take us to their favorite trattoria, called "Jolly," in Parabiago. It’s a popular local haunt brimming with families and business people. Jolly remains one of our favorite restaurants in all of Italy. Who would ever believe that we ate the freshest and tastiest spaghetti con vongole in a suburb of Milan? Also tops on the menu were grilled swordfish, spaghetti con funghi porcini e gamberi in a light cream sauce, and grilled calamari. We capped our meal with more Vin Santo and chocolate profiteroles.

By now the sun had poked through the clouds, and we all took a relaxing stroll around Parabiago’s main square, where the 15th century Chiesa di SS. Gervasio e Protesia stands. Piero was particularly excited about showing us the church’s unique glistening stone-and-wood mosaics – another one of his artistic skills. Whenever we stepped on carelessly made pavement, Piero would grow incensed and shout, "Che scifo!" He got visibly agitated by bad design. Then we came upon one of his delicate floral pavement designs and understood perfectly how a man of such profound, exacting talent and passion would get upset by poor workmanship.

Piero and Aldina unexpectedly suggested a different kind of spiritual excursion. They wanted to drive us to Parabiago’s Bonsai Gardens and Museum. It turned out to be almost a reclamation of the soul for us. We pulled into a lot just off a busy highway and were drawn into the Bonsai sanctuary by the sound of trickling water, chirping birds and New Age music. An outdoor garden featured tranquil rows of painstakingly cultivated plants – some bearing fruit; others that looked like crocodiles and extraterrestrials.

Our stress melted away as we glided along a winding path inside the temperature-controlled museum, which released an air of energized harmony – even as cars zoomed across the adjacent autostrada. We posed for pictures in front of a gigantic white-barked Bonsai, whose thick branches were entangled in snake-like coils. We felt the pull of its wizened energy and discovered it was more than 2,000 years old. Guarding it were two Japanese lion statues and a suit of Samurai armor behind glass.

We seemed to float back to the apartment. It was late afternoon. While Piero and Aldina ran errands, Joe napped and I surveyed their equally soul-enriching living quarters. In the living room, I peeked at the porcelain figurines in a cherry-wood china cabinet with bottle-green glass. Small mahogany chairs, upholstered in a coral-mauve fabric, nestled next to an antique green credenza hand-painted with miniature baskets bursting with yellow and red flowers while birds hovered against a burnt-Siena backdrop. A radiator with an onyx covering was adorned with photos in tiny silver frames, near the main couch sporting big watermelon candy-colored flowers.

A delicate aqua blue and bubble-gum pink chandelier from Murano hung above the dining room table. Earlier, to prove how fragile it was, Piero showed us some of the broken pieces in a ceramic bowl – its own little kaleidoscope of art. A separate curio – resting on a Persian rug -- housed crystal vases, sea shells, miniature ceramic masks, Harlequin and Moor dolls, and silver serving bowls.

The Romano’s modest narrow kitchen, with beige-and-orange tiles, contained splashes of primary colors – especially the hand-painted ceramic salt and sugar containers by Nino Parrucca. Jars of spices were aligned in perfect formation on two wooden shelves. Next door, the bathroom followed the same long, rectangular pattern as the kitchen, with pretty fruit-scented toiletries artfully arranged.

Our bedroom was an example of spectacular minimalism. A thin crystal vase with two fresh pink roses rested on a dresser decorated with yellowing family photos and dainty lace doilies. A porcelain chandelier hung above the four-poster bed. The small lamps on the night stands were topped with fringed shades. A tall armoire with a full-length mirror was attached to a blue-and-white series of French cabinets right out of "Les Liaisons Dangereuse." I couldn’t seem to get enough of this understated and inspiring domestic museum.

Everyone was up and about by early evening – bustling around before we drove to Marcello and Michele’s apartment in the nearby town of Castellanza for dinner. Aldina had a habit of popping a piece of hard candy in her mouth from a pretty crystal candle dish in the foyer every time she left the apartment. As we drove past Luna Park’s arachnid-inspired lights, Piero – in his quietly awestruck way --continued to talk to Joe about motorcycles.

On the way, we picked up Piero’s mother, Rosalia – a short, stout, tough-edged woman who insists on living alone in a cramped apartment on a remote side street under a crumbling arch. Joe and I ran down the street to a Sicilian-owned pasticerria to buy marzipan tarts and cannoli for dessert. As we were leaving with our treats wrapped in shiny gold paper, a little boy pointed to the sweets under glass and told his father, "I want that one and that one and that one…" I sat in the back seat between Rosalia – who was wearing a mini-skirt and holding a freshly prepared dish of roasted eggplant in her lap – and the ever-pleasant Aldina, who offered me a piece of anise-flavored candy. Then she delicately picked up her yellow cell phone and called Andrea at the library where he was studying for his exams.

Once in Castellanza, we were greeted – and terrorized -- by a rambunctious Matteo, who recently turned three. He was attempting to wrestle with his 9-month-old brother Giovanni. Michele, who decorated their apartment with headdresses and trapper memorabilia from her hometown of Vancouver, juggled babies and dishes as Marcello took our coats. Their poodle mix, Tina, yelped and danced amid the congenial mayhem. Aldina picked up Giovanni and found his favorite "Furby" toy. We all joined in a spirited evening of more jovial conversation among people who felt like family to us.

We got back to Piero and Aldina’s apartment quite late, but Aldina asked if I would like to pay a visit to her mother Rosetta upstairs. Wide awake at midnight, the minuscule Rosetta opened the door and smiled broadly. She was wearing fluffy, over-sized slippers that reminded me of Minnie Mouse. Rosetta proudly gave me a tour of her tastefully decorated apartment – similar to Aldina’s design style – and made some espresso and uncovered a homemade apple torte. At the time, she appeared so lively and healthy. We were shocked to hear of her death from cancer only five months later.

The next morning, a spirited Michele escorted us to the main highway toward Asolo in lashing rain – a weather trend that would follow us throughout our travels. Joe and I would see the Romano’s again at the end of our trip when we flew from Palermo to Milan and stayed at Michele and Marcello’s apartment for one night before departing for Chicago early the next morning.

We were once again met at Malpensa by Piero and Aldina. And, once again, we were delayed due to lost luggage! They couldn’t seem to locate our big green duffel bag. But our trolley managed to roll off the conveyor belt in one piece. We got on our cell phones again with our disbelieving but understanding friends in the midst of describing our luggage to an overworked agent. After about an hour, the agent reported that our bag was left on the tarmac – in the rain. Piero and Aldina waited patiently, then launched about the mass confusion at Malpensa’s allegedly new and expanded airport.

Michele had ordered everyone individual pizzas. We all enjoyed spending such a casual last night in Italy. Before Piero left, he presented us with his wrapped and bound masterpiece of "Venezia Nascosta."

Once at Malpensa, I feared they might make us check the painting. They attempted to, but I insisted that it was fragile and I had to carry it. Another world-weary agent agreed only after making sure the flight was not full. Then we had some trouble fitting the painting on the X-ray machine. A guard disappeared with it, and I anxiously followed him. He put it through a larger scanner and graciously returned it to me. Joe and I would not let that painting out of our sight, considering our bad karma with luggage and Malpensa.

"Venezia Nascosta" now hangs in our living room above our fireplace -- a daily reminder of our quiet friendship with a gentle family in a small Lombardian town across an ocean of fortifying memories.

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