Throughout the long month of January, an almost audible stirring begins in the hearts of all held captive by winter’s icy grip. By February, the hours of daylight are becoming noticeably longer. But still, cold winds persist, and I bundle up like an Eskimo for my early morning walks. To feed my spirit, I begin dreaming in Italian.
I tell myself that if I keep trekking this path for the next two months, spring will find me arriving at a medieval Italian villa on the Mediterranean filled with sunshine and wisteria. Back in my studio where a potted olive tree bathes in the light of a south-facing window, I spend quiet hours reading travel journals that I’ve penned during my travels in Italy over the past three decades.
The first begins, “Looking out at early morning light from the window of a Pan Am Clipper, I see the first signs of Europe and the snowy Alps below.” Then the hilly contours of the island of Corsica, small and rural in nature, come into dramatic view. I recall that Napoleon spent his childhood there as an Italian-speaking Corsican, no doubt sensing the stirrings of revolution in neighboring France—the 18th century power that ruled Corsica then. In his wildest flight of imagination, I wonder, did Napoleon the boy ever dream that he would lead France by 1799 and rule as her emperor by 1804?
When the blue waters of the Mediterranean finally washed against Italy’s western coastline on our approach to Fiumiciano Airport outside of Rome, I see a green and brown patchwork of farms, olive orchards, and gently rolling hills dotted with the red adobe tile roofs of farm buildings.
Looking up from my journal, I feel a kinship with the English artists, writers and lovers of gardens who were keen to escape London in the dreary grey months of winter from the 18th century on. I too am eager to be warmed by Italy’s magical, southern light. And reader, I’m not alone.
For February, my book club is reading Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel, The Enchanted April, and plans to watch the equally enchanting film made from her book. The story begins after WWI when two English women each read the same advertisement in a London newspaper. “Rent Italian villa overlooking the Mediterranean for the month of April with gardens, wisteria and sunshine.” Driven to action by the dreariness of their lives and bleak winter weather in London, the two not-yet-quite-friends are soon joined by two other women—all hoping to find renewal by renting a medieval Italian castle for a month.
In April, Mrs. Lottie Wilkins and Mrs. Rose Arbuthnot arrive in darkness at the train depot near the villa and they are left with their luggage in pouring rain. Rose asks, “How is this different?” Lottie explains. “It’s Italian rain.” Soon, a driver arrives in a horse-drawn buggy, and they race off to San Salvatore, not quite knowing what they’ve gotten themselves into.
Opening their shuttered bedroom windows the following morning, they look out at “a profusion of wisteria, scarlet geraniums, nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed burning, and the ground covered with these flaming things dropping away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig trees, peach trees, and cherry trees.”
Von Arnim describes perfectly Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot’s first morning walk through the villa’s riotous, tumble of April flowers.
“They stood looking at this crowd of loveliness, this happy jumble, in silence….
You mustn’t sigh in heaven, said Mrs. Wilkins. One doesn’t.
They left off talking. They ceased to mention heaven. They were just cups of acceptance.”
Like the quartet of English women in “The Enchanted April,” I find myself dreaming in Italian these wintry February days. A century after the book was published, I too imagine waking up in an Italian villa on the Mediterranean and sharing wisteria and sunshine. That is the enchanting and enduring magic of Italy in April—real or imagined.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.