I stride into the kitchen, a bushel of freshly cut lettuces under my arm: Flashy Trout’s Back, frilly loose leaf, sturdy romaine, chartreuse Bibb butterhead. I wash dirt from the leaves with cool water. Ten years ago, I hadn’t grown or harvested anything.
Ten years ago, I flew to Italy for a two-month residency to write a book of essays about Civita di Bagnoregio, an ancient Etruscan hill town. I had just turned thirty-six and it was my first time traveling alone to a foreign country. My first time living in a small town where English wasn’t spoken. My first time walking a mile to buy groceries and hoofing them uphill in a sack on my back. I also hadn’t written a book before, so it would be my first time doing that, too.
Astra Zarina, a Latvian architect who founded the residency program, was survived by her husband, Tony, an American architect in his seventies, who lived on-site. He was gray-haired and gruff, hale and stoic. He had played football in college and bore a latent strength across his shoulders. When I arrived in Civita in 2010, Tony had resided longer in Italy than the United States. He thought and dreamed in Italian.
Tony and I dined together most nights, which I later learned wasn’t the standard residency experience. “I don’t like leftovers,” he told me. Since I was the only fellow in residence that summer, it made sense that I join him for dinner, if I wanted, to help him polish off the other half of his meals.
Each afternoon around six, I crossed the alley between our stone houses. Tony wasn’t effusive with praise, but I understood he enjoyed my company. There was always a carafe of wine and a glass awaiting my arrival. If I was a few minutes late, he’d greet me with, “Where have you been?” meaning that I wasn’t merely invited but expected.
While he cooked, we spoke about Civita’s history and how Astra’s vision sparked the restoration of the crumbled ruin of a town. Our conversations helped to ground my essays in context. He introduced me to long-time residents of Civita who toured me through their homes, a rare opportunity for an outsider in a small, private community that, bit by bit, I became part of.
That summer, Tony took me on as his apprentice. He taught me the proper way to prepare ingredients for our rustic dinners, comprised of five or fewer elements that tasted more flavorful than food at home. Golden calamari risotto. Tender orecchiette with pomodoro. Crisp slices of melanzane fritte sizzling with local olive oil. After we cleared the dishes, we sipped digestivi and listened to symphonies on RAI, the national Italian radio station, while the sun sank behind the tawny calanchi hills.
The first time Tony sent me into his garden to pick lettuce for salad, I gazed at him dumbly. “You know what lettuce looks like, don’t you?” he chuckled.
“Yes,” I said, my cheeks reddening. “But, how—”
“You pick it if it looks ready.”
“What if I…hurt it?”
He shook his head and pushed me out the door with a bowl.
“You can’t hurt it. Just tear the leaves and bring them back. Pull a few tomatoes and some basil, too.”
I stepped tentatively through the neat rows of vegetables striping the loam of his cliffside garden, fearful of killing Tony’s plants. His tomato vines exuded a prickly alkaloid aroma that took me back to childhood—the smell of my mother’s tomatoes in humid Michigan summers. My great-grandparents had grown gardens outside of Turin and Milan before settling in Detroit in the early 1910s. My grandmother learned to garden from her mother and my mother learned from Grandma Rose, but no one taught me. My mother died when I was sixteen and her parents passed a decade before that, the transmission of my Italian heritage interrupted. In the small act of harvesting vegetables in Italy, I reconnected with traditions I hadn’t realized were missing in my life.
A fear of mistakes has always been my central roadblock. I’ve taken to placing myself in uncertain circumstances—like living in a country where I barely grasped the language—to try things I know I’m not immediately good at. What I learned from living in Civita ten years ago continues to unfold in my kitchen, my garden and my heart today. I grow zucchinis mostly for their flowers, fiori di zucca, which I fry the way Tony showed me. Tending to the food of my ancestors has reconnected me with my mother and the culture our family relinquished upon immigrating to the United States in the hopes of becoming “American”.
My garden south of Seattle has seen its struggles in 2020. Slugs ravaged my cucumbers, my carrots grew runty, and only one pea plant sprouted, however the lettuces flourished. It was my first time growing from seed. With stores closed due to quarantine, it was impossible to buy starts at a nursery this spring, so a friend mailed me an envelope of lettuce seeds. There was nothing to lose, no mistakes to fear, only the possible upside of fresh greens at a time I feared food shortages. With bare fingers, I pressed three trenches into the black soil of my raised garden bed, covering the tiny seeds with earth and hope. I pictured Tony in his garden in Civita and wondered if he was doing the same.
Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her essays and short fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Normal School, South 85 Journal, Lunch Ticket and The Rumpus. Her work is supported by grants, fellowships and residencies from Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, 4Culture, Jack Straw and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com
Gabriela wants you to learn more about The Civita Institute, an organization that inspires creative excellence through education, cultural exchange, and exploration of the unique qualities of Italian hill towns. Visit www.civitainstitute.org.