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Italy's greatest gift to the world: the only way to paradise

By G.G. Vandagriff

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Feb. 11 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Shops peddling gold and jewelry line the Ponte Vecchio bridge, below.

David Vandagriff, David Vandagriff, David Vandagriff

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.'

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