It starts at the border outside Chamonix, France, where you catch a ride with an Italian man in his 60s who is on his way to Aosta Valley, the left foot of the Alps. He speaks Italian to you, you speak Spanish back, and you understand each other throughout the hour-long drive. He points out places along the road where his memories are kept: the river where he broke his arm kayaking, the mountain where he broke his leg hiking, the valley where he lives with his wife and flies a private plane for recreation.
Everywhere you go in Italy, you understand enough of the language to feel comfortable but never enough to get bored. Emphatic gestures help at times, but despite the stereotypes, most don’t speak that way — at least no more than anyone does when talking to someone in a language they don’t understand. At times in Italy you forget to even try to understand, getting too caught up in the melody of the language to bother considering the meaning behind its individual notes.
You use the slowest trains available as you travel through the country, taking in its varied identities with a speed fitting of its unifying culture: from the modernity of Milan to the antique magnificence of Florence, to the trash-heaped disarray of Naples. The wrongly idealized Venice to the truly idyllic Cinque Terra and Sermoneta. The pizza with sauteed mushrooms and eggplant; the pizza with fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and basil; the pizza with thin crisp slices of potato. The pizza that doesn’t melt in your mouth, but commands your mouth to melt around it. The pizza that seduces you in the darkness, a hot stone of emptiness that settles on your abdomen and quakes there until you get out of bed to fill it.
The laughter over traditional spritz in carless Venice, and awful Tuscan wine on the steps of domed churches in Florence. Sweet homemade lemoncello from an old woman and her eight-person family in the town of Latina, made with lemons from their backyard trees and given as thanks for a dining-room ukulele serenade. The tour of Rome through a local’s wide eyes and softly singing mouth. The student protest march there, Italian style: a moving dance party with smiles all around as police flex riot-geared muscles and circle a helicopter above. The fossilized sites of Pompeii and Norba, cities as solidly preserved as your memories of this, your favorite country so far.