When I began writing my 12th book, I didn't know if it would be literary fiction or chick lit. I knew only it would be about four troubled women on a healing journey to Florence, Italy.
My husband accompanied me on two research trips, and I enjoyed visiting a cooking school and a spa — all the places my crazy ladies would go.
These first two trips gave me plenty of atmosphere, but I was completely blinded by the art and countryside. I failed to see Italy's true treasure.
Then, in the middle of the winter, I had a strong desire to go back to Florence, this time on my own, and for three weeks. The first week, I raced around in a frenzy, exhausting myself and not really learning anything new. Finally, I stopped and made plans.
Extraordinary things began to happen. This is how I described the first episode in my blog:
"Scarcely was I out the door this morning than I tripped and fell FLAT on my face. I sustained a real whack to my right hand, shoulder and knee. The wind was knocked out of me, and despite the wonderful Florentines who instantly surrounded me with solicitude, I couldn't get up right away, though I kept reassuring them that I was fine.
"A young man stayed by me, gathered my scattered belongings and coaxed me off the sidewalk a little at a time, finally hoisting me all the way. Then, he put my hand through his arm and insisted on getting me to the corner cafe where I could sit down. Overcome by his kindness, I was further amazed when he asked me what I would like to drink. I asked for a Coke, for which he insisted on paying. For himself, he bought espresso. Realizing I was still shaking, he sat down to chat.
"We were soon talking about the genius of Brunelleschi (who invented the first dome, seemingly brick by brick) and how it gives him such joy every time he passes the Duomo. He expounded on all the different views of it, drawing me a map to help find them. We talked for about 45 minutes. Then, he went to pay the bill. To my surprise, he returned with a ticket for four bus rides. I thanked him over and over in English and Italian. The thing that is beautiful about this encounter is that he is not alone. The Italians are just like that. I realize that this kind of selfless love will heal my characters in the book I came here to write. This young man reminded me why I had to come to Italy to write it."
Vague remembrances of my Western Civilizations class stirred, and I recalled Plato's word for this amazing kind of caring: agape. I looked it up online and found many definitions, which boiled down to "selfless love." I had to fall on my face before I understood the theme of my book — agape, or charity, is the ultimate healer.
There were too many instances of agape to count. Perhaps the most amazing experience with these Italian angels came the night I thought I was going to the opera. Again, here is an excerpt from my blog:
"This blog has been full of posts about the kindness of strangers that I have met with in Florence, but I think that last night must take the cake.
"It started with the opera that didn't happen. I was feeling unwell, and when the program still hadn't begun by 9:30, I went out to the lobby to ask for someone to call a taxi. You never saw such a furor. Italians: 'Why do you want to leave the opera?' Me: 'I'm not feeling well.' Italians: 'Ah! You need a doctor! We will call a doctor.' Me: 'No, no, please no. I just need to sleep.' Reluctant promise to call a taxi. A few moments later, beaming Italian approaches me. 'You go outside to wait! I get for you Milano 25!' 'Milano 25?' I repeat. 'Si Si! Go. Go.'
Milano 25 is apparently the most famous taxi in the world. My latest Florentine angel, Caterina, bowled me over with her enormous pink hat with flowers that looked like something from 'Alice in Wonderland' when combined with her purple cape and gracious bow. I really thought I'd gone through the looking glass when I entered her cab: plush pink upholstery, video screens on the seat backs showing Bugs Bunny cartoons in Italian, an overpowering smell of roses and at least a dozen foot-long pink rubber pigs. Caterina spoke to me in soothing, if sparse English. 'We will get you to your home. You will lie down on your bed. In the morning, you will feel all better.' The fare was half what my government-controlled taxi fare had been on the way."
I told my Italian "son," Cosimo, about the experience.
"Oh, you have been very lucky," he said. "Caterina is on TV, on the Internet, they even made a movie about her. She got the taxi from her fiancé when he died of the cancer. She uses it all the time, every day to help people, children who are sick with cancer and must go to the hospital for treatment. Anyone with a problem, Caterina makes them feel better."
I went to bed with my mind in a whirl. The theme of my book slapped me upside the head: Agape is the balm that would be applied to the weary souls of my crazy ladies. Slowly, they would transform while embracing this virtue. It would bind them together and put them on the road to recovery.
That night, I decided on a title: "The Only Way to Paradise."
There is only one way there, and that is love. I found love in Italy.
G.G. Vandagriff is the author of 12 books. Her website is www.ggvandagriff.com.