Last week my husband and I celebrated 20 years of marriage with a visit to the Italian village of Ravello, perched on the mountains above the Amalfi Coast with tiny streets, ravishingly beautiful villas with spectacular gardens and magnificent views. I can’t think of any place more romantic than Ravello.
We had booked ourselves at the Villa Cimbrone, an impressive villa built by an Englishman, Lord Beckett Grimthorpe. According to the Villa’s brochure, Grimthorpe discovered the place while on a “grand tour” trying to recover from a depression following the death of his dearly beloved wife. “The intense happiness which this magical place caused him lead him to buy the estate.” He proceeded to transform it, turning the gardens into an extravagant combination of English and Italian traditions adding temples, pavilions, statues and exotic plants.
On the wall near the entrance to the villa is a plaque saying: “Here, in the spring of 1938, the divine Greta Garbo, removing herself from the glamour of Hollywood, enjoyed with Leopold Stokowsky hours of secret happiness.”
Hmmm, I thought hopefully, as I looked off at the view and at the gorgeous windows of the villa surrounded with flowers and cactuses, “Here, in the fall of 2013, the stressed-out Mamma Trisha Thomas, removing herself from the chaos of Rome, enjoyed with Gustavo Piga (once he managed to get off his cell phone), hours of secret happiness.”
For those who are wondering, a quick google search helped me figure out who she was with. Leopold Stokowsky was a famous British conductor who worked with all the top American Symphonies. He had his fair share of romance– in addition to his moments at Villa Cimbrone with Greta Garbo he had several marriages and high-profile love affairs. His third and last wife was heiress/designer Gloria Vanderbilt.
In addition to romantic interludes, the Villa was also a meeting place for the Bloomsbury group, a group of British intellectuals –writers, philosophers and artists–who met to discuss art and literature among them Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and (my economist husband’s favourite) John Maynard Keynes.
As I served myself some coffee from a silver coffee set into elegant bone china in the Villa Cimbrone breakfast room the next day, I gave up on trying to be glamorous Greta Garbo, and tried to imagine myself as Virginia Woolf preparing for a meeting with the Bloomsbury set. I think my husband was secretly imagining himself as John Maynard Keynes as he read his newspaper and ate his scrambled eggs.
There is something about Ravello that lends itself to romance. Walking from the Villa Cimbrone down a narrow stone pathway to the Villa Rufolo, I saw another plaque on the wall noting that D.H. Lawrence stayed in Ravello from 1926 and 1927 while working on “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.
Jackie Kennedy spent three months with Caroline and John John in Ravello in August of 1962. There are rumours that during that time she had a love affair with handsome Italian businessman/Lawyer Gianni Agnelli, head of the Fiat company. (see blog post: Italian Men: Master of Seduction)
But enough of all this romance stuff. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what 20 years of marriage is all about. I will tell you my opinion. It is hard work. If any woman tells me her marriage is perfect it reminds me of mothers who tell me her children are never jealous of each other. I find it very hard to believe and it gets on my nerves.
I happen to have one of the most tempestuous, difficult marriages ever. This is partly because we are two opinionated individuals coming from two very different family backgrounds and cultural upbringing. The funny thing is that on the really big stuff we agree (education is important for children, they should read books not play on electronic devices – Duh!), but it is the little stuff that has thrown us onto the marital rocks, nearly smashing our ship.
Now let me give you an important example. How do you lace shoes? Italians have an absurd way of lacing shoes that looks very “bella figura” and elegant but it is nearly impossible to do (for a non-Italian adult, never mind a child). Americans have a much simpler way of lacing shoes.
Note below my husband’s shoes today:
Note below a photo of an Italian Gucci baby shoes:
So we had this terrible lacing difficulty in the early years of our marriage and only thanks to the introduction of Velcro into children’s footwear were we able to avoid divorce.
Note below my teenage daughters’ messy sneaker pile today, apparently I won that battle. Now don’t any of you blog readers say that I made a mistake, I should have made my daughters learn elegant Italian lacing techniques. I don’t want to hear it.
We survived the lacing wars, but the window wars still rage. My husband needs to sleep in a room with no air. He does not want any windows open. If I don’t have a window open, I wake up in the night with my throat so dry that my tongue feels as though it is stuck to the roof of my mouth. This has led to some serious marital crises with both of us tip-toeing around in the dark of night to either open or close a window. On top of that my husband hates air conditioners and fans (he has that famous Italian fear of the formidable “Colpa D’Aria” (translated: wind blow) that Italians believe can do them in). Try spending a summer in Rome without an air conditioner or a fan. I believe I deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for not starting a war over that question.
By the way, the Roman solution for dealing with the heat without fans and air-conditioners is to pull down all the “serande” (rolling shutters), and leave all the windows closed tight shut all day. It is true that a Roman apartment will remain cooler that way, but I feel like I am suffocating in an airless cave.
Then there is the whole “pantofole” issue. That would be slippers. I have written about this before (see blog post: Italian Mini Divas), basically my husband thinks children must wear slippers at all times in the house, bare feet are forbidden. I disagree.
We’ve also had a few go-rounds on the hands-in-your-lap versus hand-on-table question. My husband, always a stickler for manners, requires — as does Italian etiquette– that during a meal all hands are kept on the table, where they must remain, wrists gently resting on the edge of the table (no elbows) when not eating. I was raised with an American etiquette that allows hands to be kept on one’s lap when one is not eating and I have wondered if this rigid Italian rule might not have to do with suspicious activities of Italians if their hands are allowed to wander out of sight below deck.
So, there you have it, just a hint of the many traumas and tragedies faced in this twenty year marriage. But we made it and had a fantastic, romantic time in Ravello.
(Oh, and we slept with the window closed in our room at the Villa Cimbrone…. but I opened the bathroom window during the night. Shhhh, don’t tell Gustavo)
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.