Debra and I arrived in Rome on our shared birthday today and drove to the pleasant mountain town of Sulmona in Abruzzo, where I had reserved a room at the Hotel Rojan for two nights, after which we planned to drive to Italy's boot heel to spend 10 days in Puglia.
As we were checking into the hotel around noon, the owner (Rosanna) introduced us to her sweet, vibrant mother, Angela, who had turned 99 on that day. When Rosanna saw our birth dates on our passports, she flung open some french doors that revealed a beautifully decorated room with a long, T-shaped table that was set up for what looked like an elaborate banquet. Speaking no English, she explained in slow, deliberate Italian that Nonna Angela's extended family was gathering at the hotel in about an hour for a raucous birthday celebratory luncheon - and that she would like us to join them.
Now, at one point in our lives, such an invitation would have been way outside of our comfort zones. We would, no doubt, have politely thanked her for the kind invitation and come up with some feeble excuse why we could not possibly inconvenience them by crashing such a personal family event. But channeling our French friend Frederic, who years ago chastised a group of us for the uniquely American habit of turning down genuine invitations with retorts like "we couldn't possibly..." or "how kind of you, but we just couldn't..." or "you don't have to...". Just skip all the stammering and say "YES", says Frederic. So that's what we did. I asked, "A che ora?"
After our overnight flight and 2-hour drive, we would have just enough time to throw on a clean change of clothes and be downstairs at 1:30PM sharp. Rosanna seated us at the end of the table with some of the younger members of the clan who spoke a little English. For four hours, course after course of regional dishes was passed around the table, accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of regional wines. The familiar 'red' lasagna was delicious, but the 'white' lasagna was the best I've ever eaten.
No on seemed to think that the presence of two American strangers at such a family gathering was at all unusual, and we were made to feel as though we belonged there. Conversation was lively, and because my Italian was only adequate for the simplest of situations, the English speakers helped us participate by assuming the role of interpreter.
Nonna Angela was a little curious about the two Americans, and I'm not sure that anyone explained to her that we shared her birthday - I tried, but I'm not sure that my Italian made much sense to her. At that point, Angela expressed some dismay that everyone in the world did not share a common language.
After the dessert, grappa and other digestivi were cleared from the table, Angela demonstrated the traditional technique that was passed down to her for creating elaborate lace - a technique that she apparently had mastered during her life. I wonder how many of the younger generation will continue with this tradition.
That evening, the family (still gathered at the hotel), released dozens of sky lanterns into the clear night sky of Sulmona as a final tribute to the birthday Queen.
We vowed that we would return in 2013 for Angela's 100th birthday celebration, but time ran out on her before that could happen. April 25, 2012, will probably endure as the most memorable birthday experience that we've had. This is why I travel. This is why I love Italy.