Italy and Nostos

Opening Image

It is Friday, May 24th at 3 a.m.

The big dog has been panting, though the bedroom is by no means warm. It’s not just the noise. His heavy breathing rocks the bed. I let him out into the black night. He doesn’t run away anymore. I switched on the porchlight as a beacon. If he’s going to be like this when it actually gets warm… well, it’s not sustainable.

Where did the week go?!

I know.

Books and gardening and yard work. 

I was so far behind when I returned from Italy last Sunday.

Well, I’m always behind on the work of life. Now I’m just more behind. 



Though I’ve been there four times since 2019 (Rome, southern Italy, Sicily and this tour), I don’t think I really “got it” til this trip.

Maybe the people are different in the north?

Maybe it was the Italian guide, Giuseppe.

He was wonderful. Always a warm smile. Always anxious to please. Always full of information. Always full of joie de vivre… umm, gioia di vivere…

A slight man. He said he’s been giving tours since… was it the 80s? Certainly the 90s. That would make him… 60?

He told us often of Italians’ “holy moment.” (It usually involves espresso.) It is that little bitty time of reflection and internal solitude you have, even when surrounded by other people. 

For Italians, Giuseppe told us, an espresso is something you drink in a minute or so—you sip your holy moment. Then you… go.

They even sell it in a “to go” box.

Holy moment

The foil-topped plastic box has a shot of coffee in it. There’s a tiny plastic straw you push through the foil to sip your on-the-go holy moment of espresso. 

Espresso is everywhere. You can also get caffe Americano, which is sometimes called “dirty coffee.” It is simply espresso diluted with hot water. In nice restaurants, they will even bring you an espresso in a large cup with a small carafe of hot water. Perhaps they prefer you dirtying your own coffee.

Joy of life.

Holy moments.

Walks in the sun.


Laughing. Hugging.

Food all the time, everywhere. 



Pride of place.

Pride of product—whether it was in a restaurant or hotel or museum—the people seemed to really care about the “work” and not the “sale.”

Where did I leave off last week? 

The train station in Monterosso in Cinque Terre. 

The next stop was Genoa. 

We were in the “region” (state) of Liguria, which is a narrow strip along the northwest coast of the Mediterranean. It is very mountainous (maritime Alps and the Apennines). The train trip went through tunnel after tunnel. We’d burst out into the light and get a glimpse of the rocky seaside and then be thrust back into the dark. Light, dark, light, dark… very chiaroscuro. 

Giuseppe put us into cabs that took us to the hotel. (The bus was getting its windshield replaced in Switzerland). I laughed when we were dropped off. The waterside hotel had a pirate ship docked next to it. 

Pirate ship

It is a tourist attraction—a movie prop from Roman Polanski’s movie “Pirates.”

The weather had gone from hot and sunny to cold and grey. I was glad I’d brought my Half Moon Bay (California) hoodie.

Genoa is a very medieval city. The narrow, irregular streets are a UNESCO World Heritage site. The local guide took us into the cathedral, which houses relics of John the Baptist. There’s a shrine to an unexploded English bomb that fell in the church. If it had detonated, the place would have been destroyed. It was seen as a miracle.

Columbus’s purported birthplace was up a narrow cobbled street just beyond a remaining medieval city gate.

We were taken to a cafe where we were given a pesto-making demonstration. The chef used a marble mortar and pestle to grind the basil leaves and other ingredients. We all got bruschetta-like samples and prosecco. 


After that we were on our own. 

I went museum hunting.

I’d seen posters for an exhibition: Libri nell’Arte—in the Grimaldi Meridian Palace. It was advertised as “an exhibition dedicated to the transformation of the image of books through the arts in Italy to celebrate Genoa as the Italian Book Capital… ” It was a little difficult to find, and I was the only one in the galleries. There were early sculptures of saints holding books. There were early rare books. But mostly it was canvases that depicted people reading or paintings of books themselves. This primitive early 19th century “Portrait of the bookseller Antoine Beuf” was not the best piece, but it was likely the most apropo for me.


From there, I toured the White Palace. Then the Red Palace (which had a couple Durer oils). Then the National Gallery of Liguria in yet another family palace. 

There was an exhibition in the White Palace on Paganini, including his “cannone” (cannon)—his favorite violin.

It was more acres of canvas and Renaissance color, sculpture and architecture. I was awash in the stuff, and it was a wondrous immersion. 

During the walking tour that morning, I’d noticed there was an exhibition titled “Nostalgia” in the Doge’s apartment galleries in the Ducale Palace.

Of course I was all over that. And my legs were holding up. (All the palace museums involve a LOT of stairs, as the royals lived on the upper floors—the piano nobile.) There were plenty of steps in between the museums, too—mostly via narrow cobbled alleys. 

There was a large tented book fair in the square outside the palace.

The premise behind the “Nostalgia” exhibition was based on a book.

Nostalgia book

It is a 1688 publication—a thesis—on a “hitherto ignored illness for which [was] coined a new definition: Nostalgia… sadness generated by ardent longing…”

The exhibition opens with a painting of Homer.


Ulysses’s longing for Ithaca is, of course, the paradigm for the longing to return home. His quest—the nostos—is an epic journey. (Aeneas’ epic journey to found Rome was just the opposite. He had to flee his home, Troy, and it was impossible to return—but he certainly still yearned for it.)

The exhibition was wonderful fodder for my sensitive nature. I passed by one heart-rending canvas after another. 

Do I miss you…

Outside the exhibition was an installation of gender-altered book cover reproductions. 

Some really cracked me up.

From there I tired-legged my way back to the hotel. The bar had seating outside on the quay. I had a martini and enjoyed a view of the pirate ship along with dozens of modern yachts with evocative names on their sterns.

We were on our own for dinner, and I latched onto an Ohio family. Husband, wife, wife’s mother, college-age daughter. They were a lot of fun throughout the trip. We went to a nearby pizza place. The four or five pizzas we shared redefined “pizza” to my palate.

I need to wrap this up. It is 6 a.m. and I’d like to send this off and nap a bit. 

I’ll include Turin and the return to Milan in next week’s story.

It has been a long, hard week. 

The trip to northern Italy was wonderful. One of the best. But by the end, I was longing to get home. 

That quest was not so pleasant.

My flight from Milan wasn’t until 2:00 p.m. I decided to get to the airport early. The cab was only 30 euros. I was leaving via the smaller, “domestic” airport, Linate. I stood in line. Told check-in where I was going. Handed over my passport. Got ticketed. My big bag got tagged and placed on the conveyor. 


“We can’t take your bag until two hours before your flight,” I was told. 

My ticket was torn up and the tag ripped off my bag.

So I had to kill another two hours in limbo land downstairs before going through security and up to my gate.


You’d think they’d want to process people as soon as they can to get them out of the way.

So very far from home. But the journey back begins here.

I am in the British Air lounge where everything is free.


I have discovered nothing in life is free.

If something appears so, it is because it is “included” in the cost—whether you pay in money, time or consideration.

If something is not “included” it is “extra.”

A life lesson long in the learning.

But I can relax here without the bustle of people rushing to and fro before me.

It is noon and I am still on vacation, so I took a beer and a little pyramid bottle of Campari soda. The beer is Peroni. Crisp with a bit of bite. Unlike the Peroni in the States, which is just a beer. 


“Nastro Azzurro”—Blue Ribbon.

The Campari—when I can find it—is a memory etched forever in my mind. 

A long ago family vacation to Switzerland. Maybe the most iconic one. I drove and drove. I had a Fodor’s guide, I assume. That led us around the country. We crossed into Germany—the Black Forest. We went into Alsace and tasted wines. The children were little but very cooperative. My older son, maybe 13 years old at the time, needed new shoes, and I bought him a pair in Liechtenstein. 

One literary stop was a visit to Reichenbach Falls, where Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes in order to free the author for other literary endeavors. Holmes’ popularity was “possessing” the writer.

We stayed in an antique chalet hotel—Rossli, I think. 

The hike up to the falls was so wonderful. 

A world and a lifetime ago.

The little alpine train to the top of the Jungfrau Alpine mountain was not too far away. 

Yet again, the memories are deeply etched into my mind, some as clearly as if they were in a photograph album.

The train ascends through a tunnel in the Eiger mountain, and eventually you get to the train station at the top of the Jungfrau. Over 13,600 feet high. The area is always snow-covered. Safe areas are marked with ropes between small poles. 

The views were lovely, and they will stay with me forever. They have ice caves and ice sculptures as a side show. We went in and walked through them, and when we stepped out, a storm had blown in. Zero visibility and horizontal blizzard snow. We were driven back inside. When we eventually went back out, it was calm again. There was an outdoor bar with bistro tables. I got the family Cokes, and I chanced something new. Campari soda. (I’d seen Campari umbrellas on patios in high-end Italian restaurants in old movies). 

Now Campari takes me back to the top of the Jungfrau—every time.

Airborne over Europe. 

Cloud cover so I can’t tell where we are. It will be a relatively short flight to London.

Half of me would like to stay there. The other half wants to go home.

I bet I couldn’t stay if I wanted to. I’m guessing the UK doesn’t have me on their list to enter, and I would be… turned away? Taken in? 

The trip was delightful. So much was packed into each day. I believe a lot of experiences will stay with me.

Each of the cities I never visited before—Milan, Parma, Lucca, Genoa and Turin—had a lot to offer; each was quite different. 

The foods were fascinating. Most were familiar but enhanced by the sense of place and by superior products, skills and traditions.

The pastas, ravioli and risottos were nothing like even the best I’ve had in the States.

In many ways, the trip became a culinary tour—in addition to sightseeing.

Where next? 

After some nights in my own bed, I will run away again. This time to Paris. That will be a solo trip. I will walk. And walk. And walk.

In between and always is the work:

The books.

The plants and rocks and woodcutting on the mountain. 

And some time with friends—many of whom seem to have come out of Covid hibernation. I’ve been almost too busy with “people evenings” in the last couple months. 


A marathon journey made worse by discomfort and delays. 

A dreadful end to a wonderful trip. 

I got out of Dulles about 10 p.m. Sunday. 

Back to Frederick about 11 p.m.

Got the two Jack Russells, who had been dropped off at the warehouse.

In bed with three dogs around midnight.

Morning is a green cathedral everywhere outside my window.

The acres of fern brakes are now soft green forest carpets.



Right back into the saddle. There’s a big backlog of carts with my name on them. I also have a pile of mail and paperwork to go through—DREARY.

One the first books that I lifted off a random cart makes me think again that sometimes my hand is guided—my strings are being pulled.

Arabic 2

Doesn’t look like anything, does it?

Arabac 1

I don’t know much about Arabic manuscripts. A little out of my bailiwick. I presume it is a Koran. It is so beautiful inside, despite its ugly exterior.

Ernest is driving us down to Gaithersburg. We need to cull something for Books by the Foot. I also feel I should check in—just because I “should.”

It is good to be back and have my hands on books again.

It was good to see the familiar faces here, as well. They seemed glad to see me. 

When I got to my car at the airport last night—after 10 p.m.—the dashboard warned me a tire was low. It said 18 PSI. I stopped at the airport service station and paid $2.50 for air. It didn’t work. I just chanced the trip home—at least as far as the warehouse. I had to pick up Merry and Pip. I didn’t want to risk a flat with them on the mountain—so we went the rest of the way in a Wonder Book van. (It turned out I’d picked up a nail somewhere.)

The Gaithersburg store…

What a mess. 

There’s construction going on above us that I thought had been finished. 


There’s a roaring everywhere from floor sanders above.

Ceiling tiles and light fixtures are bent and battered. Dust from their plumbing work on the top edges of thousands of books. 

I had no idea.

No one complained.

Some more unexpected and unnecessary work.

We got lights installed in the glass cases, though. 

Gaithersburg cases

Before, you could barely see inside.

But the store itself was beautiful—as always.

It is Thursday already. The week has been a blur. If anything, I am further behind.

I’ve been doing work at home in the mornings before I leave and when I get back in the evening.

There are so many gardens now. I have only myself to blame. Most take care of themselves pretty well. Others need touch-ups and transplants…

Yesterday I was STILL emptying the manure from the pickup. A lot of old beds will be refreshed by it. It just seems to be endless.

When I was wrapping up and going inside to get ready for work Wednesday morning, I heard the screeching, squawking call of a Pileated woodpecker fly by me. There’s been a pair up here since I first came 15 years ago. This one attached itself to a tree about 40 yards above the driveway on the mountain. It gave a few cursory taps to the tree trunk. It must have liked what it heard, because it then began banging its stunning red, black and white head into the wood. Even that far away, I could see wood chips flying. Pileated woodpeckers are very big—as big as crows. They have a prehistoric look about them but are decidedly beautiful.

They are also shy. They tend to move around to the far side of the tree if they see you. Or fly off. I have some of my own photos somewhere on my phone.

Oh! Here’s one. 


Not very good, I’m afraid.

Like I said, they are shy, and I really don’t go looking for bird shots.

They can beat the hell out of any tree they are interested in. The tree is likely doomed anyway with an infestation of carpenter ants or other insects. They have a trademark way of getting inside trees. They bash a 4- to 5-inch tall by 2- to 3-inch wide “rectangle” into the trunk. They go inside the bark a couple inches. I’ve come across trees with dozens of these rectangles on them.

More bird news… 

I was trying to arrange the potted plants I’d carried outside after the last freeze. That also involved all the wooden wine crates that I use as plant stands. I’ll store most of those in the barn til I bring the plants back next autumn. I stacked a bunch in the garden cart and rolled the stack to the barn. When I went back to get the last of them, I noticed a pile of leaves in one. A wren’s nest.

Well, I can’t put those away until birds fledge.

It has been a brutal week. 

So many carts of books. So many wonderful books.

Mornings working out in the gardens and forest. 

Days seated before a constant flow of four-wheeled book carts.

Evenings working outside even more.

It has been a pretty cool, wet spring. The gardens are so lush.

Laurels 2

The laurels are in bloom. The mountain is blessed with hundreds of them. They grow to about 15 feet tall.

Laurels 1

So, so much to do.

So much longing to do more.

2 Comments on Article

  1. Gary Fowler commented on

    Tops as always. Thanks Chuck. Stay healthy!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks for writing Gary!

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