I did a lot of pointing and exclaiming on the bus ride from Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Look how old that stone wall is. And that bridge. Are those real vineyards over there? Olive orchards?
Nobody else on the bus spoke English, so the only one smirking at my stereotypical giddiness was my wife. She had seen all these classic Italian things before, many times, a very long time ago. She was born in Italy, to a family who had roots throughout the country, from Rome up to the north. And like so many Italians, she spent every summer in the same place, with kin from all over, for months on end. Their place was perched on a hill in a small city called Silvi, looking out over the Adriatic, the coast of Croatia just beyond the horizon.
My wife’s nuclear family relocated to San Francisco when she was 10, and she had never gone back to Silvi. She had almost no memories of Italy outside of those early summers—sweltering days lived slowly alongside many people who would soon become very elusive in her life. Whenever I’d asked about her childhood, Silvi was the only setting she could describe, the only thing that imprinted upon her, and she would grow frustrated at how hard it was to make me understand why this mattered.
There is a family villa in Silvi, bought the year she was born. It spends more and more summer weeks empty. Her grandfather who bought it is dead, her grandmother ill, her youngest cousins leaving for college out of the country. The type of summer that she always assumed would go on indefinitely without her will soon end. At dinner one night at our home in Rhode Island, she was speaking about the villa, and then she said out loud, as though just realizing it, that this could be the last summer when there was anything left to return to.
We came to Italy not to gawk at the ancient, but to reach out, one last time, to the recent past.
And so began our Italian holiday, one that would involve no Colosseum, no Vatican, no Pompeii. We came to Italy not to gawk at the ancient, but to reach out, one last time, to the recent past. My wife had reiterated this every time we told friends about our trip, a weird, apologetic explanation for what seemed to everyone like a bit of a waste. We were traveling a long way to see something ostensibly common. Silvi is in the Abruzzo region, and though Abruzzo is as fertile and naturally stunning a region as exists in Europe, it’s hard to find someone out of the country who can say much about it. It is not a destination that international travelers flock to; it is simply a place where people live and, come June, where masses of city-dwelling middle-class Italian families converge to start a very particular routine all over again. The family’s routine was nonnegotiable.
To start: beach in the morning only. One grandmother woke earlier than everyone else and took the public bus down to walk the sand before the sun got too hot. The rest of us arrived at 9:30, and by then she’d already be resting on a faded canvas chaise, mammoth rectangular sunglasses reflecting the ocean, 92 years old in a black bikini, bronzing without lotion and munching on a fig bought from one of the vendors who wheeled their carts down onto the sand. She was always on the same chaise, in the same spot. The family had rented the same set of umbrellas and chairs (first row, closest to the water—a fact emphasized to me on a number of occasions) for decades.
Continuity was so crucial to the beach experience that it was never spoken of, simply obeyed. The chairs were not just in the same spot on the beach; they were also the exact same chairs from every photograph and every memory. Every patch of beach in Silvi, and all the neighboring towns, is owned by someone who cultivates its particular aesthetic and personality. This person usually keeps a small café set back from the water, then rents spots out to the same patrons each year, each decade, each generation. Our patch of beach was called La Conchiglia (the Conch Shell) and was owned by Mario, a grinning, white-haired, barrel-chested man. His son, Carlo, used to be the hot young lifeguard (this was brought up quite often in conversation between my wife and sister-in-law) but eventually settled into a managerial role alongside his father. Carlo wore his hair in a ponytail, but beyond that, he and his father looked very similar as they sat next to one another at the top of the beach like cheerful gargoyles, greeting everyone anew each morning, shirtless and broad, tanned to the color of driftwood. Many other families in La Conchiglia were similarly entrenched, and it became hard to tell who was actually related to my wife and who had simply been absorbed, gaining kin-like status through some unexplained osmosis. Every morning, we went down a line of cheek kisses, and as more peripheral family members arrived, they padded through the sand to do the same. The family immediately next to ours was in a bitter quarrel over inheritance of their home just a kilometer or so away. The result was that one sister had moved a few umbrellas down the beach, buffered by mutual friends and moving in complicated rhythms to avoid eye contact with the offending parties. Another woman, Rosa, who sat off to my right, was very old and spent most of her days peering out at her family from a spot in the shade. But she made sure to go to the water once each morning. Someone would help her up and lead her by the elbow until she could feel the sea on her feet, and then she would sigh and smile as she looked out on the Adriatic before returning to her spot.
Continuity was so crucial to the beach experience that it was never spoken of, simply obeyed. The chairs were not just in the same spot on the beach; they were also the exact same chairs from every photograph and every memory.
Mostly, I spent my mornings watching my wife get welcomed back into this routine. She was a tall child with a little boy’s haircut the last time most of these people had seen her, and yet she was greeted at every station as though only months had passed, not a quarter of a life. Carlo and Mario embraced her without any need of reminder or reintroduction, and then turned their embraces to me as though they’d been waiting to finally lay eyes on the lucky guy who snagged her. A trio of women whose names all included Maria cupped her face and said that it was, ultimately, the same face it had always been, then gestured out to the sand and sea, asking if any of it had changed. My wife told them no, none of it, and they smiled.
It was beautiful at La Conchiglia, but in a way that’s hard to explain. It feels strange to say, but what I fell in love with most was the shabbiness of the Silvi beach. Even the water isn’t the striking, crystalline variety that usually calls out from travel brochures. To use the word azure would not only be bad writing, it would be dishonest. The sea along this section of coast is flat and murky. There is a sandbar that seems to extend for about 20 miles, from the seaside city of Pescara north through Montesilvano, then Silvi, then on to Pineto, Scerne, Roseto degli Abruzzi. This makes it the perfect place for masses of people to simply stand or float, and indeed, looking to the north or the south, it’s hard to notice anything about the water other than the sheer amount of humanity packed into it.
Low-rise apartment complexes were built along the beach in the ’60s and now remain, wedged between quaint, old stone houses, scattered on the hillside next to thousand-year-old churches. This makes for an amazingly incongruous visual landscape: the romantic decay of a millennium next to 50 years’ worth of rust and cracked concrete and the particular fade that happens to buildings originally painted in pastels. The idyllically ancient is still present, but real life has grown around it. There are trucker motels and seedy nightclubs and burger joints that have all adopted bizarre, slightly misappropriated English names, despite the fact that no native English speaker enters them: Motel Boston, On the Road Pub-Steakhouse, Camping Lake Placid, Caesar Discotheque, the Iguana Snack Shake. A formerly modern white hotel that looms directly above our section of the beach, my father-in-law told me, was once a famous luxury destination. Every morning at 10, Jazzercise classes began at the hotel pool and an unrelenting bass line wafted out tobthe sea.
We waded in, then floated on our backs facing the beach and the buildings, the mountainside rising above them. The blue and white umbrellas of La Conchiglia sat next to the red umbrellas of another section. Then white umbrellas. Then orange. The umbrellas didn’t end. Neither did the people. To the south we could see all the way to Pescara. To the north was an old castle hanging out over the water, a building whose history nobody in our group could explain, other than to say it’s beautiful and has always been there. Every day we took a walk through the masses along the beach to try to reach it, but it never seemed to get any closer.
The second portion of each day was lunch. You could stay at the beach until 12:30; later than that was pushing it, because you had to be at the table by 1:00. I don’t know what happened if you failed to make it, because I never saw anyone fail to make it, and from what I can glean, nobody ever saw such a thing because such a thing was inconceivable.
The blue and white umbrellas of La Conchiglia sat next to the red umbrellas of another section. Then white umbrellas. Then orange. The umbrellas didn’t end. Neither did the people.
Lunch was a collaborative effort between my wife’s maternal grandmother (she of the badass shades and bikini) and a local woman who had been employed by the family to make lunch since the time my wife was a child, though she looked far too young for that. This woman’s husband, I was told, refused to ever eat at a restaurant, offended at the notion of paying some stranger to attempt a mediocre approximation of what his wife had more than mastered on her own. I can say that, having tasted her food, I get it. Each day, we returned from the beach to the smell of her dough and simmering tomatoes. The wooden chairs in the kitchen were spaced out so that sheets of homemade pasta could be hung on them, the whole scene resembling a giant loom.
Lunch was exhausting—two hours, many courses, someone invariably staggering over to turn up the speed of the fan after each one. Fried squid fresh from the tiny fishing boats that rested on the sand near La Conchiglia, local tomatoes on slabs of buffalo mozzarella, pizza baked in the cavernous brick oven sitting next to the pool, homemade ravioli with pudgy individual fingerprints visible along the edges of the dough. The exact kind of comfort food that should be inappropriate on 100-degree summer days, but this was a different kind of comfort. For dessert, fresh cakes were set next to melons and figs that had been bought from the men wandering the beach in the morning, who picked them from the little postage-stamp farms on every hillside—the Edenic ideal of a continental breakfast buffet.
Each meal was celebrated uproariously. Everyone pointed out how much we’d all just eaten and would continue to eat, and maybe there was the occasional pause to feign regret, but mostly these observations were made gleefully. After tomatoes came the assertions that no place in the world had tomatoes like Abruzzo’s; after calamari, the assertions that no sea was as bountiful as the one we looked out upon; after pizza, a round of applause. And after the food was finished, we sprawled out onto the patio for espresso, then went down to the pool, where lemon and kumquat trees planted by a long-dead grandfather still bore fruit.
In the afternoons and evenings, usually post-nap, the schedule became less rigid and Abruzzo was available for controlled exploration. One of the amazing qualities of the region is the abundance of natural extremes. A quick drive away from the endless beach, suddenly the Apennine Mountains begin to rise. It is an entirely separate Italian vacation experience, that of winding through cutbacks in vertical forests, looking out over valleys of family farms and vineyards of pecorino grapes. Medieval villages cling to impossibly steep faces, and we drove past each with the same questions: Who decided to build there? And how did they manage it? One evening was a special occasion, my father-in-law reuniting with a bunch of old friends. As we drove up into the mountains, he made a point of gesturing out the window and apologizing for everything that may have been out of line with my aspirations for a picturesque Italian countryside. There have been, over the years, he told me, so many who don’t appreciate true beauty; who build monstrosities—and here he’d point to an airplane-hangerish suburban office complex—that dwarf the sepia details of farmhouses and old stone churches. But, of course, they weren’t made for my expectations. Nothing around us was.
Each meal was celebrated uproariously. After tomatoes came the assertions that no place in the world had tomatoes like Abruzzo’s ... after pizza, a round of applause.
We were going to Il Ritrovo d’Abruzzo, a restaurant that two brothers, one of whom happens to be an amazing chef, started out of their family home. We got lost trying to find it, which seems to be a common problem, since the route is marked only by small, unlit signs at switchbacks and traffic circles, the last one leading down a dirt road that, at first glance, appears to be a long driveway. The restaurant was once the downstairs of the home, but it has been luxuriously remodeled into a fine dining setting, albeit one with children’s toys strewn across the walkway to the entrance. As we entered, facing an imposing wall-to-wall wine rack, we could see kids in their pajamas staring down at us from the top of the stairs.
The food was undeniably refined, but also rich and heartfelt, in line with the local cuisine the brothers had grown up on: homemade gnocchi and risotto, thick cuts of meat and potatoes, an array of tiny tarts and cookies that came after the first dessert. The food was laid out delicately, proudly, with a mixture of ambition and humility. Complimenting the chef has never felt so warranted, or so appreciated. We asked the brothers if they had any trouble getting clientele, hidden in a house down a dirt road in a fairly nondescript rural section of Abruzzo. They answered yes, a little, but did so as though this potential problem had only just crossed their minds and didn’t worry them all that much. The chef brother shrugged and told us that this was where they lived and these were the people they wanted to cook for, as we looked out on the small vegetable garden they kept along their patch of hillside, watching the dirt kick up from a farm truck rumbling down the road in our direction.
There were other towns: Atri, a village to the north, is known for its licorice. We strolled every narrow stone street in a couple of hours. San Vito Chietino, to the south, is where part of my wife’s extended family has kept their summer compound. The beaches end in San Vito, so locals swim off of rock spits that jut out into the Adriatic. There, my wife and I slipped into the water and floated on our backs just before sunset. We were surrounded by a group of older men swimming in a pack, a routine so entrenched that it was done silently, their wives catching the day’s last sun on the rocks, watching them. As in Silvi, every bit of space on land and in the water was packed with bodies, each one seemingly with muscle memory of how to be in that particular place in the summertime, unhurried and unquestioning.
These trips around Abruzzo were brief and ended, of course, back at the family home in Silvi at the dinner table, at 8 p.m. sharp, another rule that has never been broken. On our last night, my wife took me around the house one last time. She pointed to every piece of furniture and every trinket that hadn’t been replaced since her last visit. The chairs and the sofas, the white ceramic espresso cups with blue flowers painted along the sides, the dinner trays, the wooden napkin rings with a family member’s name painted on each. At every meal, I was given Italo’s napkin ring, I sat at Italo’s old seat, and I never got a clear idea of who Italo had been, only that he was kin in some way and that I would have liked him.
That final night, the crowd was the largest—two grandmothers, my wife’s sister and brother-in-law and their toddler, three uncles, an aunt, a cousin, another uncle from the extended family, his daughter, their dog. The cousin away at college in Germany was Skyped in to participate in the conversation, though she spent much of her evening hiding her new boyfriend from view. The table, another never-replaced item, was extended out to its full length, covering the entire dining room, and bubbling conversation echoed off the tile floor as four generations began to dip stale bread into olive oil.
I was startled by how strongly and instantly it felt like we were in a space finally being used for its exact intended purpose. The doors to a small balcony were open, and the last bits of pink light were still reaching up over the mountainside. We ate homemade ravioli, my wife’s favorite from her childhood. We ate and talked for a very long time. When the eating was over, we went outside, on the side of the house overlooking the sea, now just barely visible. We drank our last espressos from the never-changed cups.
At every meal, I was given Italo’s napkin ring, I sat at Italo’s old seat, and I never got a clear idea of who Italo had been, only that he was kin in some way and that I would have liked him.
My wife and I will probably never return to the villa, and maybe never to Silvi. As a traditional Italian family modernizes, it spreads and fractures, and eventually the old model cannot hold. Couples divorce now, and ties begin to fade. A generation of teenagers and young adults faces a post-college life where chasing opportunities out of country is increasingly the best option. People are busy and hurried and spread thin. Lives diverge. Who will pay to keep up a house like this? Who will use it? Who will stay faithful to that level of care?
These are, of course, generational questions that exist everywhere, but I felt them acutely in a place built around the slow, satiating beauty of familial routine. The idea that there was no need to go anywhere else. I traveled to Abruzzo, yes, and I encourage any other traveler to do so—for the mountains and the sea and the endless beaches and the wine and the warbling church bells at the center of a hundred ancient towns carved impossibly into the steep landscape. But I also traveled, however briefly, to a part of my wife’s personality that had never been explained, a closeness and a care born from her yearly return to this unpretentious place that doesn’t change.
We stayed up late that last night, and then my wife walked me through the garden toward the front gate. We walked through the bocce court that has become overtaken with weeds, past palm trees and rose bushes. We looked out the gate across the street to an old church lit by one yellow bulb over its door. The church has been there since the town was founded, and every evening in the summers people gave ice cream bars out of an old cooler to any child who walked in. It’s a small detail, and a strange one, but it was vivid for her, and we had checked a few days earlier, and the old cooler was still in there.
“I wish you could have seen this place the way it was,” my wife said to me, as crickets buzzed invisibly around us.
I do, too, but of course that’s an impossible thing to wish for, anywhere in the world. Still, in Silvi more than any other place I’ve ever been, it felt as though I’d come close.
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