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 US, got another job, and spent my vacation time in Italy — until I had the great fortune to get an email from Rick's office 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 often base their decisions about the university they attend or the job they'll take based on whether it'll allow them to be 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 sunset.
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, or 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 tour?
My favorite day is driving down from Alpe di Siusi, where most 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 most 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.
In 2011 you spent time volunteering with the flood-relief effort in Vernazza. What was that like?
The first day I went, a couple of weeks after the disaster in October, 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, by the second week in December, they were — 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 had been removed from the lower part of the town…and then the real work began. Gas, electric, sewer, and water lines needed to be reconnected, and people worked hard to put their grocery stores, restaurants, and shops back in order.
How was everyone's morale?
There is a lot of esprit de corps in Vernazza. People from all walks of life pitched in to help — whether volunteering to serve food in the temporary tent cafeteria on the main piazza, or distributing gloves, brooms, shovels, and paper towels to people via the emergency supply store they set up in the church, or shoveling out their friend's store — everyone in town pitched in to help in some way. And they had a lot of outside volunteers from around Italy who came in to help. Everyone I met was incredibly positive and well aware of the fact that it could have been a lot worse. Many more lives could have been lost.