From the alpine villages of the north to the villages in southern Sicily, Italy is a treasure trove of art, architecture, history and cuisine; held within wide and varied landscapes.
Sites like the Coliseum in Rome, Michelangelo's David in Florence and The Leaning Tower of Pisa are nothing less than awe-inspiring. But so is the quiet of a piazza away from the tourists, the food at the restaurant with no English menu, and watching the early morning frenzy as vendors set-up their goods at the market. The Italy that is the day-to-day life for Italians. That is the Italy I love.
On a recent trip to Milan, I had the incredible fortune of visiting a family-owned business where umbrellas (ombrelli) have been made by hand since 1854. My friend read about these ombrelli in a men's fashion magazine and since we were near-by, we called to see if we could visit. Their response was "Absolutely, we're waiting for you!"
This is truly a family owned business. We were given a tour by young Francesco VI, while his uncle Francesco V joked around with us. The young Francesco showed us each step how the ombrelli are made. We picked out the fabric while he explained that not only is the entire ombrello made right here in the "factory", each component of the ombrello is also made in Italy. The fabric, the "spider," the little metal part on the end, everything.
As we went through the process, I started asking the employees how long they had worked there. "32 years," the man told me who assembled the spider to the main rod. "Since I was 18," a woman my age told me as she steamed out the wrinkles of a finished ombrello in about 20 seconds. Watching these people work was like watching a performance art piece that I actually understood!
At the end of the tour, young Francesco went in the back room and brought out a well-worn, huge leather-bound book. As he opened it, I realized what he was showing me. The documented history of his family's business. I was speechless. Inside was the original first invoice. There also was a photo of the factory after it was bombed in WWII, the spiders strewn in tangled chaos. Francesco told me that after this happened, his family moved the operation, including the employees, to a family home near Lake Como in the north. Here, the business resumed.
As we left the ombrelli factory, I was still reeling over what just happened. How we were welcomed like family, how young Francesco told us with pride about his family's business and how the people who worked there were not just employees, but part of a family.
This is what I love about Italy.