In the capital, Cagliari, the bridal couple picks my husband and I up at the airport and drives us along the Via Roma. In the median are prickly pear cactus, and pink and white oleander. Out my window the aqua Mediterranean hosts cruise ships and tankers. We turn left up a wide boulevard lined with Jacarandas, fantasy trees, blooming in violet lace. At the end is a piazza full of citizens enjoying an aperitivo under the palms. We turn left down Victorio Emmanuel, a street named for a Sardinian king, and down a hill to our B&B.
Once checked in, our future son-in-law leads us past tabacchi shops, dress shops, shoe stores and café after café until he finds one where no one is smoking. My first lesson in Italian is that antipasti literally means before the meal, the first in a seven course Italian meal. He treats us to his favorite traditional foods. We start with prosciutto and pecorino cheese, grilled mushrooms, eggplant and peppers. The pasta is linguine sprinkled with a delicacy known as bottarga, dried mullet roe, with the salty scent of the sea. The fish course features mussels and squid. The Carne is a mixed grill of meats and sausages. The insalata, vine ripe tomatoes, arugula, radicchio, cucumbers and the sweetest carrots I’ve ever tasted. Formaggio and fruta follow. We skip desert or dolci, in favor of a walk back to the piazza for gelato. This is the first in a string of extravagant meals to welcome home the son who left his island for America and honor his bride-to-be and her parents.
We are six hours ahead in Sardinia, and morning comes early. Our adventure for the day is a winding uphill walk to the citadel where caper vines and bougainvillea climb the castle wall. We enter a cathedral at the top, and an old woman at the door hands my daughter, in shorts and a tank top, a red shawl and a beige wrap around skirt for modesty. The entry twinkles with wrought iron trees of votive candles. The towering arches are laminated in gold leaf. A podium rises above the pews like a baroque island above the waves. This is the first of many churches on our journey.
In the afternoon we are invited to the mid-day meal with the fiancé’s family including his beloved Nonna. My daughter coaches me beforehand on how to hug and air kiss on both cheeks, but her dainty future mother-in-law gives me a bear hug and pets my hair. I’ve learned to communicate by cheating with words I know in Spanish, easily recognized by speakers of Italian. We make small talk over spaghetti and clams, and whole sea bass that my son-in-law carefully bones. We finish with cherries, Nonna’s favorite, and sweet tiramisu made by his dad.
We end the afternoon strolling in the park under rustling olives where my son-in-law played as a child, past peacocks fanning their turquoise and lapis tales, past ducks swimming in pairs, past turtles sunning on logs. We pause on a shady bench and watch children romp as birds chirp in the eucalyptus.
Our third day we head towards a village farther north for another meal with his mother’s sister, her husband, and a cousin. Their home is a modest cement building with a partially covered patio filled with potted geraniums and a grape arbor. The uncle and fiancé haul the kitchen table outside. The aunt, about four foot six, spreads a sparkling white, cut-lace tablecloth she made herself. She is a serving dervish from pearl onions to a whole a suckling pig. No hospitality is spared. We lounge over the last course, delicious Italian custard, and my husband snaps a photo of the miniature woman standing in front of a queen size crocheted bedspread, millions of perfect loops in an ancestral pattern.
For the next few days my daughter and her fiancé act as tour guides, taking us to the resort town of Alghero. We enjoy calm, shallow beaches, and like children, play pitch and catch with patate di mare, matted balls of seaweed shaped like hairy potatoes. We take a break from the usual seven courses, and relax with thin crusted pizza of pomodoro and pecorino as the sun sets over lapping waters. The night air is warm, and we wander the cobblestones sampling more flavors of gelato: limone, melone, ananas (pineapple), and fruitti di bosco (raspberry/blackberry). I order what I think is lime, but it turns out to be oregano. Even oregano gelato is delicious. We pass jewelry shops laden with crimson coral and Sardinian filigree, postcard kiosks, and carts selling torrone, made of spun honey speckled with almonds and hazelnuts. We round a corner drawn by piano music from a civic theater performance and peer into an adjacent cathedral awed by its lectern of red marble, surrounded by sparkling candles.
Returning to Cagliari, we get down to business – the wedding dress. We join the fiancé’s mother and sister at an atelier. Every dress looks gorgeous on my beautiful daughter, but when she steps out of the dressing room, onto the dais, in the one, we all know it! It comes with a matching veil and the fiancé’s mom asks who lifts the veil. In my week-old Italian/Spanish/pantomime, I explain that after all the promises, after the ring’s symbol of eternal devotion, the groom, her son, will lift the veil and be invited to kiss my daughter, his beloved bride. With my spiel hopefully understood, I turn. Tears stream down the dusky cheeks of my daughter’s future mother-in-law, and I know she already loves my little girl.
There is one more meal to meet the father’s side of the family. We travel to a farm on the outskirts of a village where the hosting uncle is a baker. He welcomes us with dolci made from almonds, formaggio and orange zest, thin bars rich with dates, and espresso served in demitasse with teeny tiny spoons. We meet and greet with the few polite phrases we’ve learned until the kitchen table is carried outside and set up on the shady side of a shed where the cheerful uncle says he plays Jimi Hendrix on his guitar with friends.
I lift my eyebrows. “È vero?” I think I’m saying really in Italian.
Behind us is the aunt’s herb garden fragrant with lavender, rosemary, sage, and lemon verbena. Uncle tours us through the other outbuildings: a bathroom, a workshop, a barn, and a room with a brick oven with a spit long enough to pierce both a lamb and two roosters still crowing at dawn.
The three hour meal is our new routine: olives, onions, sardines, malloreddus, still another kind of pasta, roast lamb, chicken, bread to soak up all the juices, stalks of celery and plum tomatoes, more cherries, dolci and espresso.
The women clean up the dishes, and the men wander the orchard of apples, apricots, lemons, and figs. Nonna and her sister doze in the sun. As a guest, I am left at the table with the young adults eager to practice English: a half sister, a recent au pair in London, a cousin, hoping to pass the entrance exam to a high school specializing in languages and literature, and another cousin, about to graduate the same high school, having majored in ancient Greek and Latin. I tell him my pastor often shares the meaning of words in ancient Greek when explaining Scripture. He leans in and tells me one of his professors gave him a New Testament in both Greek and Latin to study.
I tell him I used to be a teacher, but now I write. He shows me his high school’s first prize for his novel. We high five as fellow authors. He asks what I write. I tell him about my memoir of teaching in a poverty school, and about my blog about coming to know Jesus. The au pair oohs and aahs at the word blog.
The younger cousin lights up at the name of Jesus, saying he is Christiano. In halting, labored English he explains that Christianity is presumed in Italy because of the Catholic Church. He tells me his friend’s mothers make them go to mass.
“But this is not it.” He pins me with clear gray eyes, and in his beautiful accent says, “I am not ashamed to follow Gesù even if my friends don’t understand because—it is a beautiful life—full of joy!”
We high five, as the men come around the corner excited. The fiancé translates, “We tried to take a walk down the road, but there were carabinieri, the national police, outside the farm gate. They said a leopard escaped from a private zoo less than a thousand feet away, and we should go back inside.”
The chickens riot. The aunt’s lap dog yaps. It’s time to say arrivederci and head to Rome.
We have a few days before our flight home—just my husband and I. The first day we take shelter in the Colosseum during a thunderstorm. The dark sky rumbles as rain pours into the lower levels of the arena where lions, gladiators and Christianos went to their deaths.
The next day we tour The Forum and take shelter from the Roman sun under an arch honoring Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem including Solomon’s temple. We bustle through Roman crowds on streets barely wide enough for a Smart Car. Scooters zip past women with fine leather handbags, clip clopping over cobblestones in stiletto heels. Men hurry in short, double-vented jackets over narrow pants in every shade from navy to burnt sienna.
We happen upon the Pantheon at high noon. Its portico is littered with tired college students with back packs and stooped old women begging for a few euros. The famous oculus in the ceiling, floods the former temple of the gods with light as a priest reads a Catholic mass.
Down the narrowest of lanes a man dressed as a splendid Centurion grabs me around the waist, “Bella, bella. Picture, picture.”
I wiggle free. “No, Grazie.”
Still he offers directions to the Trevi fountain. When we find it, it’s under restoration and bone dry.
The guide book lists churches with urns containing wood from Jesus’ manger, or the phalanges of a saint, but our last day we only have time for the Vatican. We hop on the metro to St. Peter’s Square. In the morning crush, we’re pick pocketed, losing the price of the Vatican museum. With our credit cards spared, we’re still able to view gallery upon gallery of perfect marble men with broken arms and penises. We endure the sweaty herd of global tourists, all eager, like us, to get to the Sistine Chapel, and see with our own eyes, the center ceiling where Adam is brought to life by the finger of God.
Finally, flying home in my cramped seat, my mind soars over the wonders I have witnessed in my weeks away: purple trees made of lace, potatoes grown in the azure sea, the smallest woman with the largest bedspread, Jimi Hendrix in Italian, a leopard prowling the neighborhood looking for someone to devour, my daughter all grown up in her wedding dress. I pause at the image of her veil, waiting to be lifted by her handsome bridegroom, and wonder if his cousin has read the ancient Greek where Paul explains to Corinthian believers that when anyone trusts in Gesù, the veil between God and man is taken away. Unbelief is all that separates us from receiving the kiss of a God who loves us, a God who pledges a beautiful life—full of joy. How grandiose yet impotent seem the marvels of Rome, even the most magnificent church on earth, compared to meeting a young Sardinian cousin whose finger has surely touched the living God. How happy I am to have dined with my daughter’s new family! I’ve tasted and seen the Lord is good.