Since no one has had a bigger impact on my relationship with Italy than my friend Lou, I thought I’d ring in the New Year by telling you about him. I’m sure his name will pop up in the future as an on-going character in my saga, so you really should have the proper introduction. Actually, you already met him briefly in my September Vendemmia piece, but I didn’t emphasize his importance at the time.
First of all, Lou and I have been friends since people washed their clothes by beating them on rocks. As for his Italian credentials, his first trip was in 1972, when his uncle Remo dragged him there because he (Remo, NOT Lou) wanted to find out a bit more about the family history. At that time, Lou knew zero Italian, and was so far removed from his ancestors that he had changed the spelling of his last name to make it easier for people to find him in the telephone book.
They started their trip in Rome, and Lou says that if they were more than two feet apart, he would panic; he just knew that if he lost sight of Remo, he’d be left there forever, unable to find food or shelter, never to see his family and home again. He ended up loving Italy even more than Remo did.
Since then, he has immersed himself in all things Italian, and his mastery of both the country and the language is exceptional. I’ve talked to Italians, and though he has a strong American accent that he’ll never be able to get rid of, they all agree that his vocabulary is extraordinary – sort of like Henry Kissinger.
Their family came from several different towns in central Italy, but the set of relatives that received them the most warmly was in Pitigliano, a very small town on the southern-most edge of Tuscany where it meets Umbria and Lazio.
After this love-at-first-sight visit with Remo, Lou vowed he would return the following summer with his wife and 3 children. During that year back in the US, he studied Italian with a fervor that is usually reserved for someone in the diplomatic corps. When he returned to Italy, he took tape recorders with him to distribute to various newfound friends so they could send recorded messages back to the US in order to improve his Italian between visits. While he was there, he would spend time every day sitting with Pitigliano’s elder statesmen who hung out near the town’s lone entrance, meaning he got to listen to all the gossip as they discussed the endless stream of people walking by. In 2012, he will celebrate the 40th anniversary since his first visit to Italy, and I believe in that time, he has only missed one year.
There are many words people use to describe Lou, but one of the more polite ones is “obsessive”. Even before his Italian obsession, he was obsessed with taking slides. His slides were the diary of his life. When he met people, he’d take their picture so he’d remember them. If he ate in a restaurant, he’d take a photo of his fellow diners under the restaurant sign so he’d remember both the place and who was there. I could be exaggerating — but not by much — when I say that he has approximately a gazillion slides stashed neatly in his house. And he would ALWAYS make sure EVERY person he had ever known would see ALL of those slides.
So when he started going to Italy, his 2 obsessions merged. Upon his return each year his friends could count on being subjected to hours and hours of picturesque Italian villages, and gorgeous countryside vistas, and groups of people with wine glasses raised, all smiling under a restaurant sign. I believe it’s called The Stockholm Syndrome when the kidnapped victim joins the kidnappers, and that’s what happened to me. I gave up, and gave in, and decided I should go see this damn place for myself.
In 1990, I took an organized bike trip in Italy with THE worst bike company. Fortunately, Lou decided to join the group, so it actually turned out to be a great trip, because he knew more Italian and more about the area than the guide. The result was that he ended up being The Leader — the role he prefers to play. In fact, it’s the role he feels he was born to play.
Here’s an example of his “value added”: Though this was my first trip to Italy, it was my 3rd bike trip and the first 2 had been beautifully organized. The guides made sure we knew of all the wonderful things along the route beforehand so we could decide which ones we wanted to stop and see versus which ones we could bypass. The guide on this trip just handed out the route instructions each morning and never mentioned anything about what we might find if we ventured a few feet off that route. But Lou knew. I was riding with him one day on a road that passed along the edge of a town. He insisted we stop and walk the 10 yards to the left to see what was behind the ancient wall. I resisted, saying that if it was worthwhile, surely our guide would have said so. Fortunately, he won AND he was right. This was my first, but certainly not my last, visit to what has become my favorite place to stay in the Chianti area — Radda-in-Chianti (don’t forget to pronounce the 2 “d’s”). It was one of those epiphany moments when I stopped seeing Italy as a bike route and instead, fell in love with it.
Fast forwarding to 2001 — a group of our friends decided to spend 2 weeks biking in Italy. Since I had the biking knowledge and Lou had the Italian knowledge, we went together in winter to do the scouting trip by car. We were to make sure the routes I had done on previous visits were still there, check on the hotels we had chosen, and find restaurants that could accommodate our small group. At least that’s what I thought we had jointly agreed to do.
Back in those days, I would usually write about my bike trips. The pieces would be less than 20 pages long and perhaps 12 people would read them. “The Lou Trip”, as it became known, was 54 pages. It took that length to vent all of my pent-up frustrations from having to spend days with him thwarting our itinerary because he had always wanted to see where this or that road would go. True….many of his “finds” were every bit as valuable as his Radda-in-Chianti find, but that did not make up for the fact that his constant meddling prevented us from doing at least half of the things we had set out to do.
His excellent language skills became my burden since he was incapable of walking 15 feet without stopping to ask for directions. The purpose wasn’t because we were lost; he just wanted to speak Italian. AND he never translated anything for me, so I was perpetually in the dark unless the kind Italian took pity and tried to communicate with me. Lou is the reason I believe so strongly in gun control laws; had I had a gun, he would have looked like a sieve by day 3. But he loved my “The Lou Trip” write-up and re-copied it to send to the same group of victims he had always subjected to his eternally-long slide shows.
When we got home, he was still trying to manipulate the group trip so we’d have more time in his Pitigliano and wipe out the time in my Orvieto. This sent me over the edge and I didn’t speak to him for 3 months. He was very calm and said he understood perfectly my screaming into the phone. He told me to give him a call when I got over having fire coming out of my ears every time I mentioned his name. As he knew, that day came, I called him, and we were back to making plans once more for the group in September….. although he didn’t bring up the no-Orvieto idea again. It was my only victory. Ever.
So that’s Lou. He still comes to Italy for 2 months a year, and we love to get together with him there. He’s introduced us to delightful people and wonderful places. I’m forever grateful to him for getting me to Italy, and then opening my eyes to all it has to offer. I never would have believed that those hours of slides would lead to being a part-time Italian. I consider him one of my best friends. Nevertheless….if it ever should be necessary for just the 2 of us to spend a couple of weeks in a car – please make sure I don’t have a heavy blunt instrument or anything with a point….or even a plastic bag or a rope. And definitely NO firearms!