Updated: Aug 17, 2021
December 26th, 2019 . We arrived in the small Abruzzo town of Penne in the early evening. We were exhausted and travel-marinated following a three hour drive from Rome and a two-stage flight from D.C., including a dead-sprint and near-miss through the massive Munich airport. Weary, hungry, stinky, but mostly - happy to have finally arrived. The main street leading into town was decked out with festive lights for the holiday season. The central piazza is where we would find our B&B hosts; a friendly, attractive, well-dressed couple in their mid-50s.
We communicated greetings as best as we could (Paul speaking some Italian, me - very little) as they walked us up to their B&B overlooking the central square. We asked where in town we could find dinner after a much-needed shower, and after some more attempts at communication with varying degrees of success and one shout of “PIAZZA!” (from me) they ushered us back downstairs and had us hop into their car. They scooted us around town to check on which restaurants were open and who would be opening soon for late dinner. It was an unexpected yet welcome kindness. The hospitality was endearing, the dinner we eventually made it to - a warm welcome in a foreign place. It would set the tone for the following day, when we would meet with our Italian realtor and see what was to become our new (old) home abroad.
Rewind. Three months prior in early September, we flew to Rome and drove east to visit the region of Abruzzo for the first time. Paul’s family roots go back there to a small town called Campli, not far from the Adriatic coast. We’d both studied abroad in Rome, separately, during our college years and I’d been back a couple of times after that, perhaps hoping to relive the mystique of those days; sketching churches by day, wine-soaked and gathered around pushed-together tables in a cramped kitchen with my classmates by night. While I didn’t relive (because let's face it - there is no going back), I did see something new; a different side of Rome, a different feel of Italy. In Campli, we found his family name on a WWI monument, a little breadcrumb to follow.
Abruzzo is a largely green, pastoral region east of Rome, tucked between the Apennine Mountains (hosting one regional and three national parks) and the Adriatic Coast. It’s a unique region, where one could explore mountain trails in the morning and sandy beaches of the cobalt sea in the afternoon. With that in mind, we decided to stay one night in the mountains and one night on the coast. In order to determine where to stay, we took the super-scientific approach of pointing on a map and saying, “How about here?” As it turns out, we could have stayed in a number of great spots by throwing a dart at the map, but Santo Stefano di Sessanio - a fortified medieval village, and Roseto degli Abruzzi - a coastal town and beach resort catering mostly to local tourism, were wonderful picks. We had one of the most memorable dinners of our lives in a restaurant in Santo Stefano, called Locanda Sotto gli Archi.
While planning for that September trip, a friend suggested we look at property in Abruzzo, knowing that we hold dear our ancestral roots. “Also, It’s pretty cheap!”, she said. We met our Italian realtor, Daniela, for the first time during this trip. We wanted to make a positive impression, so naturally we presented her with a small, humble gift from our home, a Maryland staple; Old Bay. That's right. She immediately opened it and tasted it and either liked it or was gracious enough to hide her distaste. Off to a great start.
From the city center of Teramo, we followed her in our rental car over country roads until we arrived at a house we had identified as potentially the one for us. It was in a hamlet with about ten other homes. The owner and her daughter greeted us and showed us around. The detached house and property - while roomy, old, beautiful, and ideal in many ways - was not walkable to anywhere except other neighbors’ homes. We entertained the thought of becoming hermits in a new land, but quickly recognized that while we are seeking a more peaceful pace of life, we still want the ability to walk a short distance to a cafe, restaurant, grocery store...perhaps a few shops. Maybe complete exile wasn’t in the cards yet. That sent us back to the drawing board, and subsequently back to Italy in December to look at two new options.
We had spent the morning and early evening with family in West Virginia, it being Christmas day and all, before jumping up from our seats at 5:30 sharp, saying our goodbyes, and dashing off to the airport for part II of “Who Do We Think We Are?" This question we kept asking ourselves.
We now come back to the beginning of the story, to the discovery of this place, this region so new to us yet so old and rich with history to discover, ripe with the promise of a thousand moments to fall in love. And that we did, almost immediately and without caution.
After arriving in Penne, meeting our gracious hosts, and scarfing down arrosticini and cold, local beer, we finally settled into bed and fell asleep to the sounds of life on the piazza outside. I woke up at 3 or 4 am and went to the window to look down over the now still, empty square. I took it in; the near-complete silence and wintry peace of a small-town piazza, still lit with string lights and looking like a dream I’d like to have again.
We woke the following day and met up with Daniela, sans Old Bay, to look at two attached houses in more urban settings. We first visited Casa Arabella in Penne. It was my favorite from afar, and that status did not change after seeing it in person. In fact, the location so far exceeded our hopes that I think we both secretly chose it before even seeing the second option in the neighboring town.
Casa Arabella is a small home, but the walls are easily two feet thick, with a terracotta tiled roof and an old brick, stone, and plaster wood stove used to heat the entire place - all 650 square feet of it. It's old, very old; our home inspector said at least a couple centuries. We'll see if town hall records can narrow that down a bit. The floors look to be terrazzo with very large aggregate, suggesting we would find it to be a thick, heavy flooring material if we ever decided to pull it up (NEVER). The house came furnished, which is just fine with us for these early days. But I can't wait to shop for tiny furniture and put our personal touches on it. Did I mention the nearby coastal city (and regional capitol) Pescara? With its pedestrian shopping district, miles of beachfront, and a regional airport? (A quick google search revealed a few antique stores there as well, and the thought of discovering a version of Italian jadeite - or whatever their local ‘good find’ is - well, it’s right up my alley). I digress. It sure is challenging to write about a journey that has included so many twisty-turny side adventures without launching headlong down those paths, since those paths have in led us to a most fortuitous, incredible now.
We are newcomers to a very old place. So far, this has worked out for us. Despite having to scratch our April plans to fly back and sign the closing documents (due to the pandemic), we were able to close on the house virtually and meet the former owner on the video call. She was back lit by the window behind her; a tiny silhouette with a halo of hair is all we could see, but she was very kind and asked that we send photos of us at the house when we make it back. I think she wants to be assured that her home has been left in good hands. We will do our best to honor the opportunity we’ve been given with care, reverence, patience.
This whole thing has been guided in equal parts by naivete and longing, but aren’t all adventures? I’m done asking permission, and am ready for the road ahead. What a journey it has been, and it is just the beginning. By the end of that trip we had changed the question we'd kept asking ourselves from “Who Do We Think We Are?” to “Why Not Us?”