My Delightful Experiences In Italy

By Ronald L. Trowbridge

Ronald L. TrowbridgeAppointed by President Ronald Reagan, Ronald L. Trowbridge was director of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the United States Information Agency, directing the Fulbright Program. His position required U. S. Senate confirmation. Later he became chief of staff for U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, publishing a book on the Chief Justice. He holds a Ph. D. in English from the University of Michigan, where he taught for several years. He became a tenured full professor at Eastern Michigan University and later a Vice President and editor of Imprimis for 14 years at Hillsdale College. He was editor of the Michigan Academician, the journal of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters. He founded the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which among other pursuits focused on higher education. From 2006-12, he was an adjunct professor of English at Lone Star College. From May 2013 to December 2018, he served on the Board of Trustees at the Lone Star College System. He is presently Senior Research Scholar at the Nexus Research and Policy Center. He is a member of the Mont Pelerin Society. He has published in the past six years some 75 articles.

In my long life time I’ve visited some 35 countries, especially when I ran for the U.S. government the international Fulbright Scholars’ Program.  Whenever I was asked, “What’s your favorite country?” I responded faster than immediately: “Italy”! No other country was in close second place — and I don’t say this just because I’m writing this piece for an Italian website.

Why is Italy my first choice? Because no other country satisfies the five senses as Italy does. The food — my god; the art history; the beautiful countryside; the fun-loving, happy Italians; Verdi, Pavarotti. Some bloke once said to me that he preferred Placido Domingo to Pavarotti. No way — Pavarotti was smoother, more fluid, with no operatic grunting.

I took my first trip to Italy in l964 with my wife. We experienced all of the epicurean delights. But we were very young and inexperienced with the ways of the world — and a couple of Italians took advantage of that. One hotel proprietor charged us a rental service fee in advance, then tried to charge it again when we were checking out of his hotel. I caught it — and realizing he was caught became very friendly to us, smiling, offering us a glass of wine and a cigarette. He was a delightful person we couldn’t help but like.

Our second experience owing to our innocence happened when a railroad agent slipped us a counterfeit coin. I knew exactly the agent who slipped us the coin; he spoke in fluent English. But when I returned the coin, he responded, “No speak English.”  When he earlier spoke with me, he sounded like an English professor. But no big deal: it wasn’t much money. Too much was happy about that visit in Italy.

Then there was this episode: at our hotel in Venice, a man approached us, wanting to take us to a glass factory. It sounded fun, so we accepted, and bought some glass (which I still have). But on the return to the hotel, another fellow was waiting for our guide.  He literally yelled, “You have a negotiated a glass factory visit in my territory. This is my area for visitors at this hotel.” Then he began yelling louder and our guide returned the yells.  Then, bang — the guy whose territory it was hauled off and smashed the intruder right in the face. A crowd gathered, and the police soon arrived. My wife and I were taken to the police station to narrate what happened. We then left, having no idea how the feud was resolved.

In 1981, I returned to Italy as the director of the Fulbright Program. I went to the American Embassy in Rome to negotiate the two-way exchanges with Italian and American scholars. Of course, all of my five senses were again satisfied to the extent of pure joy. I stayed with the American Embassy’s cultural attaché. He told me that he went from the Embassy to his apartment every night at a different time and by a different route. He never repeated the same time or route because, he told me, he feared the Red Brigade. At the time they were killing a lot of people — Italians, too.

Speaking of Pavarotti, my Fulbright directorship also took me to Berlin, where one night I attended a performance of Verdi’s “Aida.” Pavarotti was the lead tenor. Two real elephants were brought on stage. Near the end of the opera, Pavarotti sang an aria, then died. Dying opera singers can always live long enough to finish an aria. But Pavarotti died standing up. His body was so large and heavy that he dare not fall down dead: how would they get him up? So he died leaning against huge bails of hay put on stage for the elephants. But I was willing to accept that he was dead, given to what a literary critic called “a willing suspension of disbelief.” I didn’t care how he died, just so long as he sang for a long time before.

In 2000, my wife and I returned to Italy, this time for a walking tour of Tuscany. My lord, is that landscaping beyond beauty. Looking at the landscape through a window was like looking at a framed Renaissance painting. And the food, and the historic villages!

I didn’t return to Italy because my wife died a few years after the 2000 trip. We had retired early from our professions to travel, because you never know about your health. Ironically, my young wife got cancer and died a few short years later. Carpe diem.

A few years ago, I told my daughter that I wanted to go back to Italy, this time renting a small villa. I told her I’d paid her airfare, for all her food and wine, and her portion of the rental fee. But to afford a small villa, I asked if she could find another couple to go with us so as to defray part of the villa costs. We knew a woman who is 200 percent Italian, but she had neither the money nor the time to join us. I was disappointed that my dream couldn’t become true.

I think I am beginning to write for Italics Magazine because it enables me vicariously still to enjoy Italy — at least in my mind. I’m now getting too long in the tooth to fly for hours and hours from California to Italy — but at least I can continue to experience Italy with Walter Mitty imaginations.

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