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santo stefano di sessiano

Prose for the mayor of Santo Stefano di Sessiano

Prose for the mayor of Santo Stefano di Sessiano

He asked me, in perfect Italian, to write a poem about his beloved village. I replied, in broken English and with wine on my lips, that I would. What lies beneath is the patchwork of words I started over a year and a half ago and finished tonight. I'll never be satisfied with it and I can only hope for an Italian translator to make the poem more romantic than I ever could.

Ancient Bella,

Your cracks reveal stories, not age

Seducing the stranger, demanding his fidelity

Though your bones ache from the weight of mortals past

Mother-duty shoulders in silence

Shrugging off shifting earth, the span of time

The mountains raise in buttress support

as salute to your beauty

The burghers hold your secrets,

and the watchtower waits

Curious passerby riveted by your idyllic mystery

journey through medieval maze,

morphing as they pass

Glances backward, scenes of shattered glass

Santo Stefano,

holy ground for the wandering heart, 

you remain an aching memory.

A letter from Santo Stefano di Sessiano

Our reasons for arriving were as varied as our departure cities. Each plane ticket printed with its own set of hopes and expectations. Each journal empty, but ready and waiting for our conceding wills.

I gave myself one week to indulge in the thing that brings me the most joy in life―the simple act of putting one word after the other to string along coherent and creative thought. One week to learn to be better at it, to go deeper, to stir myself out of tepidity. One week to figure out where I fit in as a writer in the creative non-fiction genre. And if I'm really being honest, I made the quest to see if what I sporadically do on the side is even worth it.

No one knows self-doubt like writers do. We wallow in it, wrestle with it, and sometimes, if we're lucky, we triumph over it in a published piece that is usually met with only mild applause. But we write to breathe, to know we're alive, and to matter to the world we write for, and so we trudge onward. Our individual steps making medieval time-travel in stand-still Santo Stefano.

The first shared dinner of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Writing Pants was something spiritual. Curiously described by one of the lapsed Catholics as, “The Last Supper,” our conversations flowed as easy as the local wine splashed into our glasses, surprising ourselves with the hasty candour and camaraderie amongst strangers.

I watched for three hours as one of the dozens of hanging candles dangerously dripped over our instructor's head throughout the evening, but I hesitated to say anything. Doing so would break the magic spell. I loved that waxy timepiece keeping record of our languorous meal.

With each course of food, came another revelation that we were brought here for a greater purpose. Serendipity had whispered to each of us, 'follow me.' We smacked our lips at the authentic cuisine and conversation and I revelled in my cherry wine and the joy of being surrounded by such strong and strange women. For the first time in a long time, and in this ghost of a town, I finally felt not alone.

In an instant, these women left an impression on me that will be forever marked in the “Dear diary” of my soul.

Dayle, unforgettable, Dayle and her camouflage-carrying Tabasco sauce ways. Her zest for basking in her very own Sunshine has left evidence in the smiles lines that edge her countenance. A road map that bears the untidy trail marks of a real and deep love―and a dare―to trek further into my own misadventures in marriage.

Kathleen will always be remembered as the woman who turned my water into wine. Less of a miracle and more of an accident in her attempt at vino generosity. She, with her beautiful shock of white hair and ever-familiar face. In one smile and wave, I knew I wasn't alone in Rome. I wonder if she has the same affect for others back home. I have a feeling she just might.

Monique, the L.A. Girl making it happen in Holland. A polished ebony stone that is not so opaque, but open and revealing. Beautiful and ageless, courageous and courteous, it's no wonder she's adapted so well to the Dutch. I only hope I can carry the same longevity she has in my own foreign Dutch land. 

As both the hero and the heroine in her own living memoir, Gina has inadvertently become the leading protagonist in mine. Although she has not yet learned to strike that delicate balance in love and life, she has mastered the art of abandoning herself dutifully into one thing―writing. I cannot imagine a better lover than the constant surety of story. Complex and quiet, I long to see the world through her Prada lenses.

Liz. The mystic Aussie, who I think, doesn't know how to complain. Though her body is temporarily broken, her spirit remains tightly in tact―reaching summits before most have even stepped foot at the base. She laughs curiously, silently, unexpectedly. She is a rugged sprite that is comfortable living in the mystery.

There isn't a person Tracy hasn't met. And there isn't a person who could forget her either. Blue eyes that dance and cry easily. This is isn't a vice, but a strength. And an invitation to others that says you can trust me with your story. If only, she will let their stories out, not as a betrayal to their hearts, but rather as a gift to the rest of the world that says, “it's not always about you.” Sometimes, it's about the woman in the refugee camp on the other side of your world. 

Laura, who hasn't met a country and a man she doesn't like. She is probably one of the sexiest sexagenarians I have ever met. With her slow and deliberate ways, she coaxes you, and most Italian men for that matter, into her. With each traveler's tale she spins, a wondrous web evolves wrapping you in it. And the funny thing is, you don't seem to mind. 

Helen seems as Free as her surname and her hair. She is both untamed and polite. A helpless romantic that doesn't believe in soul mates. I get her and I want to make her my Aunt. The only regret I have from meeting her is that I didn't make more time to indulge in the “decades” of her story. Layered, languishing and lovely, she holds a treasure―and sometimes, words have something to do with it.

Queen Kathryn. The Seer of the Story. It seems she always has a secret and a smile hiding behind her eyes. Eyes that don't miss a thing and bedevil. Outwardly distracted, inwardly focused. She sends you reeling with her humour that both catches you off guard and puts you at ease. She is a beautiful riddle. Delightfully unsolvable. Although I can out-run her, I will never quite catch up. 

We are the women who did battle with the cobble-stone streets of Santo Stefano. Whose lungs duelled with the inclines and elevation. Whose bellies ached from the over-indulgence of food and laughter. Whose hearts struggled to reveal themselves, and whose minds warred with the fiercest enemy of all―ourselves.

We arrived, some of us, in trepidation, but we'll all leave in triumphant descent from this wild and rustic place having conquered pieces of our crumbling castles, where our hearts hide in towers that loosen with each life-rumbling quake.

We'll descend back into our own burghs, full of their own shadows and secrets. Back to old familiarity that is sometimes comforting and sometimes not. Back to the places where expectation often clashes angrily with reality.

But at least we'll have our memories―and our words―and our pens―and the patient pages that await this new overflow in our hearts.


Rikki, who lives to write and writes to live, and who also writes to support her shoe addiction.

Scenes from Santo Stefano

Scenes from Santo Stefano

The town hoot, Maria Antoinetta. Between my little to no Italian and mediocre French, I learned she was originally from France and moved here as a young girl. I gathered she is somewhere in her 80's. She has a contagious grin and just when you think she's got you wrapped around her wrinkly little fingers, she makes the "F-you" motion in Italiano, slapping her hand against her forearm. But she does it with a smile and you can't help but laugh. She'll be staying with her daughter in France for the summer and made me promise to send a postcard to her address. I look forward to her sweet, but curse-filled reply.

Remains from Rocca Calascio

Reaching the summit of a girlhood dream--being a princess in my very own castle

Italy, Day 1 &2: A bit of Roma and Santo Stefano

I arrived mid-afternoon with just enough time to catch a local pasta dish and a bit of walking around the neighborhood where my B&B was located. I was literally just a few walking minutes away from the Roman Colosseum.
Not your average street backdrop, The Colosseum

With just a half-day in Rome, there wasn't enough time for a formal guided tour. I will try to do that next week when I return from Santa Stefano. The owner of the B&B I stayed in offered a scooter ride around the city by night, and I accepted. When in Rome...
Post-scooter, I am now of the firm opinion that Rome is more lovely by night than by day.

A dream come true

Sleepy Santo Stefano di Sessiano

Santo Stefano has about 70 full-time residents

My heart is already too full for words and I am only Day 2 in Italy. Giovanni, a Santo Stefano local and manager of the "hotel," described Santo Stefano as "not a place where you begin, but a place where you arrive." He believes the beauty and mystery of the medieval fortess village cannot be fully appreciated unless you arrive from the outside, in. He says it is only then you can see the mirror of its beauty. Otherwise, you grow up believing life here is simply normal when it most certainly is not.

Italy, in other words

Santo Stefano di Sessiano

I am days away from experiencing life in the least inhabited region of Italy and I find it utterly surreal. Who is this woman saying "time-out" to life as I know it? I almost don't recognize her.

As I move to tie up loose ends at work and worry what to cram in the suitcase, I do wonder how I'll adjust to such a quiet zone. I mean, I did ask for this. One week to indulge myself in the thing that brings me the most joy in life--the simple act of putting one letter in front of the other to string along coherent and creative thought. One week to learn to be better at it, to go deeper, to stir myself out of tepidity. One week to figure out where the heck I fit in as a writer in the creative non-fiction genre. And if I'm really being honest with myself, I'm on a quest to see if what I sporadically do on this blog is even worth it.

No one knows self-doubt like writers do. We wallow in it, wrestle with it, and sometimes, if we're lucky, we triumph over it in a published piece that is usually met with only mild applause. You couldn't even begin to imagine what a few Facebook thumbs-up, a couple of comments, and a spike in blog traffic will do to our fragile egos. We write to breathe, to know we're alive, and to matter to the world we write for.

As the red flashing LED light on my beloved Crackberry goes dark for 10 days, I hope it does something good to me. Eliminating some of the technical clutter from my mind should free up some creative memory space, displaying a crisper panoramic view of this gorgeous world around me.

What started as the whimsy of a foolish girl has become a reality. That's the funny thing about creative non-fiction. It's not the stuff of imagination with conjured up characters and storybook scenes. It's real life, with real people, offering up a curious reflection that is often more interesting than we like to give ourselves credit for. While dreams carry us sometimes from the drudgery of our physical existence, they don't sustain the soul. They're lovely, but they're calorie-light, staving off the hunger only temporarily.

As my steps take me to the uneven cobblestone streets of old Europe, I will flourish. And when expectation meets the painful reality of blisters from the travel, I will smile, because that's where the growth happens. That's where the true story is made. Stranger than fiction, better than you could believe.

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again -- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.
~Pico Iyer