by Bill Menard
My wife, Suzy, and I have lived in D.C. for nearly three decades. In 1985 we met each other working on the presidential campaign of a candidate who shall remain nameless (hint, he carried only one state and the District). Since that time, we got married here, celebrated the birth of our four children (all at George Washington hospital), raised them in Adams Morgan, AU Park and Forest Hills, coached Northwest Washington Little League teams, patronized countless DC restaurants and generally stopped being a Floridian and an Iowan. After nearly thirty years, our roots in DC are deep and firmly established.But for the past decade or so we’ve adopted, culturally, at least, dual citizenship: DC and Italy. In the early 2000s we started a business importing quintessentially Italian items to the area – starting first with gourmet foods but expanding into hand-painted ceramics and then to linens, glassware, jewelry and other artistic, handmade items that don’t just say “Made in Italy” but rather “Made of Italy.” Our initial experiment, an online store, soon morphed into a real brick-and-mortar business which we call Bella Italia. And Bella Italia, located just across DC’s northern frontier in Bethesda, has been a magnet for Italophiles in the area since we aperto our porte in 2003. But it was the purchase of an 18th century farmhouse in the quiet hamlet of Cannara, a stone’s throw from the mystical mecca of Assisi in the central Italian region of Umbria, and the establishment of a rental and hospitality business – Experience Umbria – that marked our transformation from americani to italiani.
How to describe a life that includes nearly equal parts Washington, DC/Italy? A Capital City and the Eternal City? Or how about “Taxation Without Representation” and “Taxation Without Paying Taxes”? No, perhaps the phrase to best describe our dual life can be summed up in a single phrase, one associated more with Italy than Washington, DC: La dolce vita.
La dolce vita. The sweet life or the good life. No matter how you translate it, we have found it here in D.C. and there, in Italy. In fact, you might say that we have found it here in D.C. because we have experienced it in Italy. Our Italian life has taught us how (and why) to slow down and to smell the fiori (or the caffe). It was there that we began to connect with the ground (literally), planting an amazing vegetable garden just outside our villa’s kitchen, enjoying the bounty of fresh tomatoes exploding with color and flavor (not to mention fragrance), frying up zucchini flowers in local olive oil and infusing fresh pork with bundles of whatever herbs happen to catch our fancy as we stroll through our orto and its fertile soil cakes to our shoes. And the memories of this journey of discovery are indelibly etched in our minds as us city folk learn the basics of country living, one baby step at a time. Memories such as sending our friend Frances to the garden to pick a fresh cabbage for lunch, only to find her outside staring at her prey, puzzled at how to get it from the ground to the table, trying to tug it out by the roots and ending up in a heap on the ground.
It has been in Umbria and in our little village of Cannara that learned to appreciate the bonds of friendship that grow as easily in this corner of the world as does our garden. Friendships that develop quickly and take deep root, where it is not only okay to ask for help, but where it is expected, because one is a member of the community. And those friendships, the relationships and mutual respect that people have for one another in that tiny distant corner of the world can mean a great deal. Such as when our guests Drew and Linda returned to the villa from a day trip late at night and having no food in the refrigerator called upon our manager for a recommendation of where to get a bite to eat. And Wendy calling upon our friend Ernesto, the owner of our village’s excellent Slow Food restaurant and Ernesto agreeing to stay open and greeting them upon their arrival with a hot dinner (and a couple glasses of the delicious Montefalco wine). Or when Wendy (see a pattern emerging?) arranged for the local gas station to open up after hours to change a guest’s tire so they could make the early morning drive to Rome for their flight back home.
And those friendships, developed with people who live a world away, who speak another language, eat different food and celebrate different holidays manifested their true colors recently, upon the death of my father. For among the dozens of emails, notes and phone calls of condolence that I received from friends, a large number – a touchingly large number – included the phrase “condoglianze a te ed alla tua famiglia.” Condolences to you and your family,” the words not as important or comforting as the language in which they were written.
It has been those experiences in Italy – the culture, the food, the friendships, to name a few – that have not only enriched our lives in Italy, but which have shifted our perspective just enough to enable us to more fully appreciate and enjoy our experiences back home in D.C. And it is those experiences, and our ability to appreciate la dolce vita in our adopted Italy and our native D.C. that we have dedicated ourselves to sharing with friends and customers. Whether it is by telling the stories of the family who produces one of the dozens of olive oils we feature at Bella Italia, tracing the history of a ceramic design back to its renaissance origins, or by encouraging others to share their opinions and experiences at our monthly book club in Bethesda. Whether it is by helping families plan their visit to Umbria or by leading a small tour group on our annual Umbrian Food and Wine tours. Whether it is by chronicling and preserving those experiences in our blog, Bill and Suzy’s Excellent Adventures.
For the past decade we have been following our calling as dual citizens, not as Italian-Americans but as American-Italians. If that sounds interesting to you, come see us in Bethesda, follow our blog or join us in Italy.