Rosemary Connelly and her late husband Bob had been kicking around the idea of an extended escape to Italy for quite some time. A series of unexpected deaths in their friends and family added fresh urgency to the dream, and one spring day they began plotting their Italian odyssey.
Together they hatched a freewheeling plan: Two years in il bel paese, renting furnished apartments in four different regions, pursuing their respective artistic passions (Rosemary painting, Bob photography) and documenting their travels in a blog.
“We wanted to live in a foreign country and view the world from another perspective,” she said. “We dreamed of a simpler life, not filled with stuff, but full of experiences.” For Connelly, whose maiden name is Bivetto, part of the quest was to explore the roots of her grandparents, who emigrated from Sicily and the Naples area at the turn of the 20th century.
“I longed to search out those roots, walk where they walked, feel connected to my ancestry in a very real way.”
Connelly has documented their adventure in a new book, “Two Years in Italy,” drawn largely from their blog and generously illustrated with their watercolors and photo-graphs. Rosemary is a noted Kent County artist whose work has appeared in galleries throughout the state. Her husband Bob was a photographer and educator (and professional firefighter) who passed away in 2015.
The couple arrived in Rome at 8 a.m. April 3, 2005, then boarded a train for Perugia, finally arriving at their rented apartment on a quiet street uphill from the main square, where they slept until noon the next day.
Eight days later they found themselves at a memorial Mass for Pope John Paul II. Millions of mourners had poured into Rome, many being turned away, but Rosemary and Bob joined the faithful at Perugia’s Cathedral of San Lorenzo on the dark and stormy night of April 11.
“The sensation is of pure serenity,” she wrote. “The church was filled to capacity with standing room only, and it was moving to be there among the Perugini, intermingled with stranieri (foreigners) like us.”
The ensuing weeks found them exploring Perugia, replacing their useless cell phone, learning how to ask for fruit at the market and finding their footing in a slowed-down, almost pastoral routine. She describes watching sunrise from their terrace:
“A sprinkling of stars and sliver of crescent moon hung in the still-dark sky. A few trucks were on the road below, and cleaning crews were making their way around. A pink tint was starting to form just above the horizon, and a haze lay over the valley below, the mountains and hills still shadows in the darkness. It was cool and a breeze was blowing. The scent of lavender was strong as I brushed past it at the furthest tip of the garden by the grape arbor.”
The idyll continues through the spring of 2007 as they bought a car, relocated to an apartment in Ragusa province in Sicily, then on to Veneto and Campania. Along the way they encountered gladness and heartache and everything in between.
The 350-page volume is brimming with memories that will strike a nerve with lovers of Italy, but Connelly selected just a few highlights for this write-up: Their arrival in Perugia and “living in the middle of a medieval city;” their arrival in Sicily “in the land of my ancestors;” and combing through large ledger books to trace the lives of earlier generations of her family.
“If I could have a fourth [favorite memory], it would be learning the language and being able to have rudimentary conversations in Italian,” she said. “We were never fluent but what we did know helped us to make friends and talk to locals. Speaking Italian was one of the great memories for me – speaking the language of my ancestors!”
“Two Years in Italy” by Rosemary Connelly is available at www.amazon.com, and from her studio at www.livecheapmakeart.com
FIVE THINGS TO REMEMBER IF YOU’RE RUNNING AWAY TO ITALY
• Set a deadline for yourself – a goal of exactly when you want to go. Be realistic. It took us a year to pull all the paperwork together, all the while making plans to sell our house, deciding where we wanted to live in Italy, finding a place to live, etc., moving things forward. Make lists!
• Do your homework. Find out what is required to live in Italy – visa requirements, etc. Reach out to ex-patriots online, who are a wealth of information and happy to answer your questions. It can be daunting, there is a lot of paperwork to be gathered. • Learn the language! I can’t stress this enough. Even though many people speak English, your experience will be so much richer – and more fun – if you can converse with Italians in their own language. I took classes at the community college prior to leaving, then together we studied in Perugia for a month of intensive language lessons. Before going to Sicily we hired a private tutor who came to our house once a week.
• Say yes! One of the things we did that I am proudest of is that we said yes to opportunities – even though sometimes we weren’t completely sure of what our Italian friends were proposing, or what the poster was advertising!
• Rent from locals. We had the best experiences when the places we rented were privately owned. We developed friendships with our landlords and they showed us places we never would have found on our own. Plus we felt like there was someone who cared about us and that we could call if we needed help. And we did. Several times. We were invited on outings with friends and family and they really took us under their wings. I am still in contact with them.
– By Rosemary (Bivetto) Connelly