How did you first get hooked on Italy?
Years ago, I became a real Italophile during a two-month trip through Italy on my own. I was offered the opportunity to take a couple of months off one summer, and before I left my boss's office, "ITALY" popped into my head! I've always been interested in classical art, architecture, literature and mythology — and had spent about a week in Italy once before — but now I had the time to go and really explore. I met so many wonderful people, attended big events like the Palio in Siena, settled into Vernazza for three weeks, and had a week in Venice to just wander. After that trip, I was hooked. I went back to my university job, but I couldn't get Italy out of my mind.
Then what happened?
Before long, I packed my bags and moved to Italy for a year. Once the money ran out, I moved back to the United States, got another job and spent my vacation time in Italy — until I had the great fortune to get an email from Europe Through the Back Door offering me a chance to be a guide. I jumped at the chance.
What kept pulling you back to Italy?
To me, Italy has everything in one country. There is so much diversity! Italy has mountains, skiing, beautiful beaches, vine covered hills, fast-paced cosmopolitan cities, and small towns where life doesn't seem to have changed much over the centuries. Then there's the food, wine, fashion, coffee, and of course — the gelato!
Do you live in Italy full-time now?
Except for the off-season, when I live in Hawaii.
Wow. How does that work for you?
It's ideal for me. Italy and Hawaii are my two favorite places on the planet and I'm very fortunate to be able to spend a considerable amount of time in both. While the geography and history of the two places are pretty different, culturally there are a lot of similarities. For example, in Hawaii, spending time with friends and family is a priority, and many people who are from the islands can't imagine living anywhere else — it's the same with Italians. People in Italy will often base their decisions about the university they attend or the job they'll take on being close to family and home rather than on career advancement. I find the same to be true with Hawaiians. Italians also LOVE outdoor spaces — whether in a café or at the beach in the summer. This has a lot in common with the very outdoor type of culture you'd imagine in Hawaii — people are always having beach side picnics, taking hikes, and watching the sun set.
Is there a downside to living in two paradises?
The most difficult part is, without doubt, the jet lag associated with the 12 hour time difference. And you don't hear a lot of Italian spoken in Hawaii!
You've led a variety of different Rick Steves tour itineraries in Italy. Is there one of these tours that stirs your soul more than another?
Of course, I like them all — but the one I like best is the Best of Italy tour. This tour packs so much diversity into 17 days. Many people have never heard of places like Varenna and the Alpe di Siusi in the Dolomites. But I find at the end of our tour — after seeing Venice, Florence, and Rome — tour members often find the small places to be highlights.
Do you have a favorite day on the Best of Italy?
My favorite day is driving down from Alpe di Siusi, where people speak German as their first language. After an amazing breakfast of Tyrolean meats, cheeses and breads, we drive to Bolzano to see the "Ice man." Later that same day we hop on a vaporetto for a trip down a canal to our hotel in Venice, where many people speak a Venetian dialect that even Italians can't understand. What an incredible difference from morning to afternoon! For a woman from Kansas, so much geographic, architectural, cultural, and culinary change in a day's drive is hard for me to get my head around — even today. That's why I like Italy so much — all the diversity you find in just a few hours' drive or train ride.
You've recently spent time volunteering with the relief effort in Vernazza. What has that been like?
I've been to Vernazza three times since October 25th. The change has been dramatic. The first day I went, a couple of weeks after the disaster, there were mountains of mud everywhere — in the harbor, on the main street, in the shops and houses. The place looked so stark — like a war zone. Everywhere you looked, you saw heavy machinery and men and women in bright orange emergency services jumpsuits. But, as of the second week in December, they are — piano-piano (slowly-slowly, as the Italians like to say) — literally digging themselves out. I could actually see the paving stones again in the main part of the piazza. Most of the mud has been removed from the lower part of the town, and now the real work begins. There will be a lot of infrastructure work to do in the coming months. Gas, electric, sewer and water lines need to be connected, and people will be working hard to put their grocery stores, restaurants, and shops back in order.
How is everyone's morale?
There is a lot of esprit de corps in Vernazza. People from all walks of life are pitching in to help — whether volunteering to serve food in the temporary tent cafeteria on the main piazza, or distributing gloves, brooms, shovels, or paper towels to people via the emergency supply store they have set up in the church, or shoveling out their friend's store — everyone in town is pitching in to help in some way. And they've had a lot of outside volunteers from around Italy who've come in to help. Everyone I've met has been incredibly positive and well aware of the fact that it could have been a lot worse. Many more lives could have been lost.
You were on the move a lot in 2011. What was that like?
My husband took a sabbatical year from the University of Hawaii where he is an astronomer. He was able to come to Europe to spend time collaborating with colleagues in Paris, Helsinki, Belfast, Nice and Pisa. So, I was able to consider each of these my "temporary" home base between tours. This was a great experience for us because we stayed, for the most part, in apartments, shopping and living like locals everywhere we were. We had enough time in each of these places to really settle in and see the big sights but also to spend time relaxing and enjoying the smaller pleasures — like lawn bowling in Belfast or having a picnic with friends on an island in Helsinki. Packing everything we'd need for living and working from May to December in Europe in three suitcases provided a bit of a challenge, but I only had to fight the jet lag of a 12 hour time difference once!