“There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met yet” – W.B. Yeats
Everyone needs an Italian Mama and five years ago I met mine.
My very first Italian holiday was in the summer of 2011. Months leading up to my departure, I began to study all things Italian, learning a few sentences here and there and how to properly greet someone. “Salve, piacere” meaning “hello, nice to meet you” was one of my first lunch time lessons from Professor Claudio. I couldn’t believe I was finally planning this trip and would be spending it with two of my best friends since my dear Julie would be accompanying me.
Claudio had already returned for his summer in Italy in May, so I had roughly two and a half months to daydream and plan. One afternoon during a lengthy Skype call I was introduced to his mother, Cira. This sweet, smiling face looked through the camera at me and said, “Non vedo l’ora” which means, “I can’t wait”. I was just dying inside! “This is so…real” I thought to myself, as cheesy as that may sound.
When July finally came and I was landing in Rome with Julie next to me, I could hardly sit still. Once we made it through customs and were at last reunited with Claudio, we headed for Civitavecchia, a small port town north of Rome where we would be staying on this holiday, in the home of Claudio’s family.
When we got to the house, our heads were turned upward looking at every building, every second floor window, and every balcony as Claudio guided us through the gate and up the stairs to the front door. It swung open and there was Cira smiling with her arms open and inviting, waiting to embrace these girls. As she hugged me tightly she said, “finalmente, finalmente” and when we released the embrace to look at one another, her bright eyes were watery as she gazed at Julie and me, “Io sono felice”, meaning “I am happy” she said. We all stood there in a bit of disbelief at the beautiful moment which had just occurred.
My first trip to Italy was about the sense of family. We spent a lot of time with Claudio’s parents, getting to know them and allowing ourselves to be a bit spoiled with copious amounts of home cooked meals, plenty of wine, and several treats. And this was exactly what we wanted; to experience the country in a non-tourist sense, with family. One of my favorite memories of that trip is the day we toured Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel. Of course seeing these places felt magical, but what was unforgettable was after those tours when we stopped at the Bocca della Verita, the Mouth of Truth. The legend goes, those who stick their hand inside the mouth will learn if they are a liar or a person of honesty, determined by whether or not the mouth closes onto your hand. Claudio had dropped us off so that we could get in line and he would park. Julie, Cira and I waited in the long line, inching up slowly until we reached the entry gate just as it was slammed shut in our faces. Cira quickly started in, “aspetta, aseptta” she called out to the guard, who couldn’t be bothered with us. “Mi dispiace. Siamo chiusi” (I’m sorry, we’re closed) he said. “Mama mia! SERIOUSLY? Cira began to shout at the man as Claudio approached and immediately joined in; hands and words flying at an alarming speed. We could make out a bit of what they were saying, “they are here on holiday…these American girls…you’re an asshole”. Julie and I never made it inside the gate, but we stood there giggling in delight at this very genuine moment, watching Cira and Claudio arguing with the guard in attempt to persuade this man to allow us in to see this ancient feature.
Five years later and with several trips back. going to see Mama Cira is an essential part of my yearly visits because she’s part of my Italian experience, and part of my family. Even though we don’t speak the same language, her sense of humor is easily translated through hand gestures and facial expressions. Italians are very expressive, in case you were unaware. Each time I visit, one of the very first calls we make while leaving the airport is to Mama Cira to confirm that Carrie has arrived safe and smiling. This isn’t just a courteous call to her, it is a requirement from her, and I just love it! She’s always wants me to enjoy my holidays in her country and makes sure to suggest places and sites to visit.
On our last few days in Italy on this particular trip, we ventured down to the Amalfi Coast, of course, to a town called Vietri, a place known for hand painted ceramics. I shopped around until I found the perfect espresso service. It was a beautiful painted tray with a sugar dish and two espresso mugs. I was so excited to have this for those times when I knew I’d be back in Tulsa missing my amazing holiday. That night, after a long drive back to Civitavecchia, we stumbled up to the house with the last bit of energy we could harness. Before making it to the bed, I tripped and as if in slow motion, watched my box containing my newly purchased treasure fly out of my hands. onto the floor, and hearing the tell tale sound of breaking. “Oh no!!: I peeled back the packing paper and saw my beautiful tray in pieces; a graveyard of blue and green ceramic in the bottom of the box. The rest of the pieces were salvaged, however. At breakfast the next morning we told Cira about the unfortunate event. She responded like I did, “Oh no!!!! Aspetta…aspetta” and then went to the cupboard and pulled out her own ceramic serving tray, and handed it to me. “Here, have mine. It’s a present”, she said, in Italian of course. I just about died. In an instance this tray became my most precious piece form that trip, from that summer. And when I returned to the states and unpacked, I found all of my pieces fully in tact and quickly set them out and looked at them closely. While the tray doesn’t match the other pieces, it fits perfectly and is a reminder of how wonderfully beautiful my life is because of these amazing people I have been gifted to meet.
When I visited this past July, Cira was standing inside the doorway waiting just like the first time I met her. It felt cozy, like coming home. Spending time with her has caused me to understand the disposition of her son and my dear friend more. She’s loving and nurturing and those qualities were passed along to Claudio. I’ve told her many times that he is reflection of her, and I mean that with all my heart. They are very special people to me. When I last sat at the dinner with this family, I could hardly believe that they so fully accept me as one of their own despite distance and barriers; this feeling is priceless. When we were leaving that night to take a train back to Rome, Cira stood from the balcony and waved. “Ciao, Carrie. Ci vediamo presto”.
Claudio and I have wondered if one day our families will meet and what that could possibly be like. I’m sure it will happen eventually, and someone please bring the tissues. Between My own Mamala and Mama Cira, there is bound to be a river of happy tears
And again I sit here smiling and say to you, “I am a lucky girl”. I have a whole life in Italy, complete with a Mama Cira.