This morning I was going through pictures to use for marketing of my upcoming book, Beautiful Secret. Parts of the story are set in Revin, France, which lies in the Meuse River Valley in the Ardennes, just west of the Belgian border. Quaint Revin is nestled between slate gray mountains and blanketed by thick forest, which gives it a storybook feel. My uncle and aunt – Zia and Zio, as I refer to them, built their home and family there. This month marks twenty-two years since the first time I visited my family in Revin and went on to Italy with them. It seems like an eternity ago. It seems like yesterday.
It was the summer before my senior year of college. Boarding the plane at Pittsburgh International Airport, I felt a sense of dread at leaving my then-boyfriend and college life to go away for three weeks with my parents. My mind was full of all the things I’d miss. I had no idea. No. Idea.
My first few hours in France were a blur of exhaustion. I was so jet-lagged, I slept the morning away along the scenic riverboat cruise of the Seine.
I slept past Notre Dame, for goodness sake!
When I think back to those first moments, I’m not surprised, actually. Although I adore Paris, sight-seeing was never my thing. I didn’t fall for Europe until its people claimed my heart and shocked it to life. My cousin, Nicole, who still teases me about how Paris put me to sleep, was the first person who captured me. Her laughter is like bubbles of champagne, which she refers to as French Coca Cola. She has a breezy way about her that all at once makes you feel confused but totally relaxed about it. She picked up my parents and me in Paris and drove us the three hours to the family home in Revin, all the way preparing us for the people we would meet and the places we would see.
I had five years of French under my belt, so I was confident I would be able to chat up the locals. That was until they started actually conversing. The French speak quickly, and, at first I had a hard time following. My cousins were patient with me, though, and they were happy that I spoke some French, even if I wasn’t as fluent as I thought I was. Nicole, spoke good English, so she helped. My Zia and Zio and all of my cousins spoke Italian, so my father could understand and speak pretty well. He was raised by his broken-English speaking mom and a father who never totally assimilated to American life. Even though he was rusty, he caught most of the Italian.
Eventually, my Zia’s basement kitchen – where we shared every amazing meal - was flooded with smoke from the ever-lit cigarettes and brick oven and also with shouting and laughter in all three languages. We ate, we drank, and we did whatever we needed to do to understand each other. The funny thing was, that before I even understood the words that they were speaking, I had already fallen in love with my family. There was something deeply instinctual about this love, totally unprompted and unexpected. These were my people. Their blood was my blood. Their history – all of the joys and sorrows that had graced their fates - was part of me. It was like I could feel all of it the first time my Zio slid his sneaky grin my way.
My memories of my first time in Revin are touchy and feely and totally vivid. Winding streets, lined with sturdy stone homes. Flowers everywhere. Cracked sidewalks and crooked storefront signs. The streets smell of baking bread and river moss, with the occasional waft of strong perfume from an impeccably dressed woman – complete with fashionable scarf at the neck (no matter what the temperature is outside.) Every morning, I would wake up and go for a run through the town.
Sometimes, I would cross the old stone bridge that straddles the Meuse river. Other mornings I would traipse deep into the neighborhoods where flower baskets greeted me from shuttered windows and old men in fedoras tended their gardens and took little notice of the crazy American runner. No one else in the town seemed to be concerned about the amount of bread they were eating. Maybe I was the only one who seemed to down an entire baguette with every meal.
The bread was crazy good.
And, speaking of gardens, I was completely taken with my Zio’s backyard garden. The door from the basement kitchen led outside and into Eden, as far as I was concerned. My Zio didn’t hide the pride he felt about his work. This little man, with his wrinkled bronze face, his up-to-something smile, and tiny sandaled feet, spent hours outside with his plants. Flowers, yes, but vegetables and fruit too. The pungent bite of almost-ripe tomatoes, lettuces, fava beans, hot peppers, cassis berries. The garden was its own little microcosm, complete with chicken-house, a.k.a. grappa factory, where Zio prepared his famous liquor.
After one week in Revin, our French family accompanied us on my first trip to Italy, to the town where my father was born. The voyage was life-changing, because of the people who shared it with me. Yes, it was amazing to walk through my grandmother’s memories and to see my ancestors’ homes. Yes, France and Italy were unlike any place I’d ever been, both in their lush natural beauty and in their rawness. But, without a doubt, the trip was special because of the people.
If it weren’t for my sweet Zia and her amazing gift of gab, I would never know the stories she shared with me over hours of espresso and talk at her basement kitchen table – stories about my grandmother as a young woman and mother. My cousins, Benoit and Nino, became like brothers to me on this trip, one at each side at every church, beach, or family dinner. They took great joy in playing tricks on me – scaring the heck out of me by driving like maniacs on curving mountain roads that can’t possibly be meant for even one car to drive upon, let alone two. They gave me my first shot of grappa and laughed their heads off when I shot it as if it were a vodka lemon-drop, rather than sipping it slowly as I was supposed to. My throat was on fire for hours after that. They held me when I cried after the first time I met my cherished late Nana’s brother, whose sea-blue eyes were unmistakably hers.
It was impossible to say goodbye.
I didn’t sleep a wink on the plane ride home. I cried the entire eight hours from Rome to Pittsburgh and then slept for days afterwards. I was afraid I would never see my family again. Little did I realize - love like that is undeterred by distance. The following summer, my two soul brothers came to Pittsburgh, where my American family introduced them to burgers, supersize, and, I’m embarrassed to admit, Hooters. We continue to visit back and forth, and now, with Facebook, it is so easy to stay in touch. It’s important to me to keep these family bonds alive, to pass this virtue on to my children so that they instill it into their own children someday. Beautiful Secret is fiction, but many of Tate’s stories are my stories. Some people scrapbook to remember. I write novels.
That fall, after my first life-altering trip to Europe, I returned to Kent State University with a bottle of my cousin Nicole’s crème de cassis. She and my uncle had made it from their very own berries and had wrapped it carefully so that it wouldn’t break inside my luggage. The syrupy wine was sweet and tart with just the slightest bite of alcohol. At night, in the heartland of Ohio, I’d sip it and remember my walks through the garden with Zio in Revin. Even now, twenty years later, I can smell the peppery sweet berries that would burst into the air with a snap every time I opened the bottle.