“Morning, Nonna,” I called as I wandered down the stairs. It was early by my usual standards, but there were no blackout curtains here—only white ones that were sheer and gauzy and screamed look how whimsical I am.
“Buongiorno, piccola,” Nonna said as I entered the kitchen. She pulled out a sheet of what looked like nasty pastries. Internally I began to panic, wondering how I could get out of eating the weird brown clumps, but I knew that I’d have to try them. Nonna was sharing her home and hospitality without question. I’d eat the whole tray if it made her happy.
“So, what have you...er...made?” I asked as the cookies were plated.
“Butti ma buoni,” she said as she held out the plate for me to try one. I made a face but reached for the smallest one to be kind. “Ugly but good.”
“I mean, they don’t look that bad.”
“That’s what the name means, piccola. Now, come sit with me outside while the morning is young.”
I looked over the cookie again, trying to figure out why it looked like crunchy poop. “It’s a traditional Toscana cookie. Lots of flavor.”
She pushed a mug of coffee toward me as I bit off a small section of the cookie, hesitantly letting the flavors hit my tongue. To my surprise, it was quite good, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. It was nutty and rich, but had the slightest hint of citrus, which threw off my already limited palate.
“Those were your favorites as a child. I’d bake a tray every morning, and they would all be missing before noon,” Nonna said as she took one for herself.
“Why is it I don’t remember much of being here?” I asked as I finished my cookie and took a long sip of the coffee. The contrast of flavors melted in my mouth, and I couldn’t help the slight moan that left my lips. My new goal in life was to become a fat, happy Italian woman. They knew how to live.
“You were quite young, piccola. Your mother was in a fight with Herald and came here to see me. We all thought she was going to leave him for good that time. It was wonderful having everyone home, but then she left, taking you with her. I offered for you to fly over every summer since, sending what little I could to offset the cost, but she didn’t allow it. I never thought I’d see you again. It was a hole in my heart that would never fill, but she always wrote that you were happy.”
“Oh, Nonna,” I said as I reached for her hand. “I had no idea. I thought I’d be a burden to you here, and after Nonno’s passing, Mom didn’t think we were welcome anymore. She said you were in a bad place.”
“It was that Herald, I tell you. Always filling her mind with lies. He never wanted her to visit. Never. He thought she wouldn’t return.”
“I can’t blame him for thinking that,” I said as I leaned back in my chair. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a more beautiful place, and to think, I’ve been missing out on this for years.”
“Toscana is lovely, is it not? I have no desire to leave as many of the young ones do. It’s where your nonno and I built a life together. Leaving Siena would be like pretending that I didn’t miss him every single day.”
“I don’t remember him,” I admitted as I tried to recall his face. “I don’t know why, but every time I try to think of him, I can’t form a picture or hear his voice.”
“He was always off working, hand pruning the vines and running the vineyard. Sun up, he’d be out there, filling his hours and providing for his children. Back then, we could only afford a few hands to help, but now, it’s run by Giana and your Uncle Matteo.”
“He’s my uncle? I had no idea.”
“He’s my second son,” she said with a smile.
I knew there were two girls and three boys, but honestly, Mom was never one to talk about her family. She said that moving to America was a choice she made. One her family never respected.
“Oh, I had no idea.” I took another cookie, watching as the colors of the sunrise began to melt into a normal, cerulean hue.
“So you’ll be going to the winery, yes? I don’t have a car, but there is a bicycle.” I thought it over for a moment, trying to recall the last time I rode a bike. Maybe 11th grade, and even then, that was a stretch. “One of Giana’s little ones left it a few weeks ago and never came back for it.”
We sat outside for a while, enjoying the morning and our coffee before I headed upstairs to get ready. I pulled out a flowy, floral tank top, some cream-colored shorts, and a pair of sneakers, knowing full well that bike riding plus a cute summer dress would only end in disaster.
I piled my hair into a messy ponytail before giving myself a few seconds to enjoy the moment. This was my first official day as an Italian. Life couldn’t be more amazing right now.
“Ok, Nonna,” I called as I jogged down the stairs. “I’m leaving.”
She was back in the kitchen, making what looked to be more cookies.
“The bicycle is just outside, piccola,” she called before whisking something in the bowl tucked in her arm. “Be sure to give Lucca my best.”
“Ciao!” I called, enjoying how not snobbish it sounded when one was actually in Italy.
The warm air felt fantastic as I stepped outside, not even worrying that I needed to lock it. It wasn’t a problem here.
An old cruiser waited for me like a gleaming white chariot, and I mentally walked through the basics of bike riding before even attempting to get on it. After throwing my leg over the side, I placed my cross-body bag into the wicker basket and held the handles to steady myself. My butt hit the worn leather seat automatically as I pushed off, trying to keep calm as my feet met the petals and slowly moved through the motion of pushing them forward.
After a while, the bumpy, jostling motion became easier to handle, and soon I was flying down the road toward the winery. It wasn’t close by any standards, but the ride wasn’t long enough to make me consider that it would have been easier by car. Honestly, it was nice being able to go at my own pace and appreciate the surrounding beauty as I rode along the path. A few cars passed me, but I took it easy, not trying to rush through my morning.
The red walls of the winery were like a shining beacon in the distance as I pedaled toward my destination, trying to compose myself in the final leg of my journey so that I didn’t look like some crazy smiling tourist fresh off the plane. Even if I was.
“Buongiorno, Sophia,” a voice called the second I rolled up, catching me off guard. My cousin walked over to help steady the bike as I tried to gracefully climb off before he parked it against the side of the winery and handed me my purse. He didn’t seem to think it was in danger of being stolen, so I followed him as he led me toward the main doors.
Lucca was a few inches taller than me with dark brown hair and olive skin. I could definitely see the family resemblance. He had the Martinelli dimples.
“If you’ll give me a few minutes to make a call, we can go see the wine-making process before lunch,” he said with a smile. For a moment, his mousy brown hair flopped over his eyes, making him look boyish, but I knew he was one of my older cousins. From my guess, he was at least 25, but then again, I was never good at this game and I knew appallingly little about my mother’s side of the family.
“Is there a computer I could use while I wait? I want to let everyone know I made it safe,” I said, not sure if I should sit or wait outside. Lucca nodded quickly before digging into his briefcase and pulling out a sleek silver computer.
“I shouldn’t be more than ten minutes, tops,” he said before dialing a number on his phone as I walked outside and found a place to sit.
I logged into my email quickly, not wanting to waste time. I pulled up my inbox, using the search bar on the left to locate Katie’s email address specifically.
Katie.Blane@tmail.com- Re: COME BACK I NEED YOU
Monday, July 20 – 9:05 am
Ok, so I know you’re still flying or maybe you aren’t. You know how bad I am with the whole time change thing. Anyway, I miss you. Josh won’t shut up about us playing house, and I might kill him. Burn this after reading or else it’s premeditated.
ANYWHO, Prince Charming texted Josh yesterday asking about you, but Josh said his lips are sealed. I may have hinted at a severe and completely cruel punishment if he even so much as mentioned your whereabouts. I like to think of it as mutual-benefit bribery.
Well, I hope you’re alive. I mean I’ll be tracking your flights like a stalker as soon as the partners stop checking over my shoulder. Right now it looks like I’m actually answering their emails, so yeah. I don’t expect to get Intern of the Year this time around, but whatever. They aren’t around half the time anyway.
OK, sorry, I’m rambling. I just miss you.
I quickly clicked the “Reply” button.
Sophia.Penn@tmail.com- Re: Ciao from Italy
Tuesday July 20 – 11:00 am.
Ok, sorry. I just can’t get over how fun it is to say ciao without being one of those girls. And I know you know the ones I’m talking about. ;)
Anyway, I made it safe to Nonna’s. She doesn’t have WiFi (I know, right), but I’m at our family winery, and my cousin is letting me borrow his laptop. Just saying, it’s pretty awesome here. I think I’ve eaten a week’s worth of calories already, but Siena is pretty much the most amazing place in the world. Nonna had a welcome party for me yesterday, and everyone spoke English so I felt included. It’s just different here, you know? Being happy comes first.
Well, I have to go. Good work with that mutual-benefit bribery thing you have going on. I’ll write as soon as I can.
I clicked the send button, making sure the message went through before looking toward the office. Lucca was still immersed in his conversation, so I checked through my emails, trying to remove of as much spam as possible.
“Sorry about that,” Lucca said, finally emerging from his work. I logged out of my email before closing the laptop carefully and handing it back. “One of our buyers wants his shipment early and these things take time. Good wine is never rushed.”
“So what first?” I asked as we walked out the front doors and around toward the back. It was getting warmer out, but Lucca didn’t seem to notice. He’d left his suit jacket in the office and had his shirtsleeves rolled, but that was all. I probably looked like a hot, sweaty mess compared to him, but he didn’t appear to care. Maybe he did.
“Here at Vino della Sole, we try to keep the process to its purest form. We still use many of the same traditional practices our nonno used when he was in charge.”
“So you don’t use any machines?” I asked as we walked through by some of the grape vines. These weren’t ready to be harvested, but I could see the small buds of fruit coming through on the vines.
“We still use some in the de-stemming and fermentation process, but that’s so we can keep with the high demand,” Lucca said before leading me toward the back end of the winery. Groups of men and women hovered over crates of grapes, sorting out the quality fruit from the unusable ones as a conveyor belt pulled the good fruit toward the de-stemmer.
“So how long does this whole process take?” as I looked over the huge vats of collected red grapes that were about to make be made into wine.
“It depends on the type and the age we’re looking for. I can tell you more about it later, but I want you to try something.” Lucca revealed a mischievous smile as I followed him toward a giant pool filled with red grapes. A few women were standing on wooden planks around the sides, their feet bare as they pushed around the grapes with long forks.
“Are we going to get to grape smash with our feet?” I asked completely excited that this was actually a thing. Lucca just smiled and nodded toward a sanitation area in which we could wash off.
“Mama thought you would enjoy it,” he said, excusing himself for a moment to get changed.
I looked over at the women who were diligently crushing the grapes before Lucca returned, all smiles.
“So there are a few ways we can do this: stirring or stomping.”
“Uh, stomping! I still can’t believe I get to try this,” I said as I climbed the ladder toward the rectangular shaped pool.
“Now in keeping with nonno’s tradition, we only fill it with a half meter of grapes at a time, so you’ll be perfectly safe.” He said something to the women in Italian, causing them to laugh before they moved to one side so that we could work with the unbroken grapes.
“So we’re really going to do this?” I asked as I looked over at the red bubbles of fruit.
“When in Rome, yes?”
“I think we’re a little of that saying, but definitely yes.”
Lucca held my hand as I stepped down, feeling the raw squishiness of the grapes as a few burst beneath my feet. It was surprisingly cold and a bit weird knowing that my bare feet were touching something people wanted to drink, but I was having a blast as Lucca and I had grape squishing contests until the grapes were properly mushed into juice.
“Lucca Martinelli, come va?” a woman called over to us, laughing as she walked. She was a striking brunette with short curly hair and walked over to us with flair before stopping just a few feet away so as not to soil her adorable white sundress. Man, the women here sure knew how to dress.
“Elisabetta, this is my cousin Sophia,” he said before leaning over the edge of the pool and giving her a chaste kiss. She smiled over at me and gave a little wave before looking over his rolled pants and t-shirt combo. “She’s from L.A..”
“And the first thing he does is put you to work? Shame, Lucca. Come, it’s time for lunch,” she said as she watched us wade through the grape waters and out of the pool.
We toweled off, revealing clean, white legs and not the purple stained ones I had imagined. Lucca caught my look of confusion and explained that the juice inside the grapes is actually clear and that the red of the wine comes in later when in consistent contact with the grape skins. I was just thankful that I wasn’t going to have Violet Beauregarde ankles for the next week.
“So what brings you to Italy?” Elisabetta asked as we walked up the stairs and onto the terrace overlooking the vineyard. A small picnic was set up with what Lucca described as his mother’s layered torta filled with ham, provolone, and a few secret ingredients I wasn’t allowed to know. He also had a bottle of white wine from the vineyard and some meats, an herb spread, and homemade crackers for us to snack on. It was then I realized I might need to walk home if I kept eating like this.
“I wasn’t happy,” I said as Lucca cut the torta into slices. “My internship was over, and I wasn’t sure what my next step were, so I figured if I wanted to visit Nonna, it was now or never.”
Elisabetta smiled as Lucca filled her plate with food as we talked, already knowing exactly how she liked everything. It was actually quite sweet, but it wasn’t what I was looking for in a relationship. I wanted some control over my life.
“And did you go to university in Los Angeles?” she asked before pouring herself a glass of white wine.
“Berkeley, actually,” I said as I nodded when she motioned to fill mine as well. “I double majored in marketing and public relations.”
This seemed to catch Lucca’s attention, but when Elisabetta squeezed his hand, his eyes were drawn back to her instantly.
“We met at university right before Lucca decided he was going to take on the family business. His parents have given us free reign with it now, and we’ve seen a steady increase in production.” Elisabetta nodded to Lucca, who was busy making a plate for himself. “He’s been itching to tell everyone, so can you keep a secret?”
I nodded profusely before snagging another cracker.
“We’re going to be expanding the winery over the next year. We’ve had numerous orders for Vino della Sole, and it’s going to be a lot of work what with the wedding so soon, but we’re very excited.”
Lucca just shook his head, smiling as his fiancé spoiled what looked to be a big secret between them
“So you’re getting married?” I asked as I looked toward her left hand. Sure enough, there was a beautiful one-carat ring nestled in between her pinky and middle finger. “Oh, congratulations. That’s fantastic.”
“It’s just going to be a small family ceremony at my father’s home in Firenze. Nothing as grand as what you’re probably used to in L.A..”
I shrugged and took a bite of my torta, not wanting to say otherwise. If we were being honest, small weddings were the best weddings.
“That is if you consider a wedding of over 100 to be a small affair,” he said with a laugh before reaching for her hand. “The word family is applied to everyone here.”
“So I see,” I said as the two looked over at each other lovingly. “It’s something I’ve never experienced before. I mean, I’ve been here for a day and already I’ve met people who treat me like I’ve been here forever.”
“That’s Italia, Sophia.”
They both picked up their glasses in what looked like preparation for a toast, so I did the same.
“To new adventures and bigger families,” Lucca said as we all touched glasses.
“Cin cin,” Elisabetta said before we all sipped the glorious Italian sun wine and enjoyed the splendor of the day.