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'A Footpath in Umbria: Learning, Loving and Laughing in Italy'

Richard and Nancy Solak in the backyard of the farmhouse they rented in Italy for nearly a year. Nancy Solak will discuss their stay during a library program July 12. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
July 06, 2011 - Brandon Twp.- By her own admission, Nancy Solak is an uptight, nervous person.

On a trip to Europe with her husband Richard for their 25th wedding anniversary, Solak was on a train in Italy when she had a moment of clarity.

"It was loud, dirty, the windows were open and people were loud," she recalls of the ride 14 years ago. "They didn't talk in whispers, the Italians were outgoing and friendly and it was such a contrast to all the clean, efficient trains in England, Switzerland and Germany. I thought, 'This is a country that could help me with my uptightness.'"

A few years later, around 2003, Solak, a librarian and self-described "reluctant traveler," said to her husband, "Maybe we should live in Italy for a year."

Richard, whom Nancy says is "real even keel" and loves to travel, readily agreed. They spent 2004 learning Italian and planning and in 2005, moved to Italy for a year.

Nancy Solak chronicles that year in her book, "A Footpath in Umbria: Learning, Loving and Laughing in Italy," and will give a free presentation at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 12, at the library, 304 South St.

"In other books about Italy, they make it sound like you just take off and live in a villa and know the language, but that's not reality," said Solak. "I decided we could use another book about Italy showing that it's not always sunny and the sunflowers aren't out every month."

It wasn't easy to just pick up and go, and Solak emphasized the need for that year of planning prior to their departure. The Solaks had a home in Grosse Pointe, as well as two cats that needed to be cared for. They have two adult children, both of whom live out of state. Their son planned to live in his parents' house while they were in Italy, but his Chinese wife's visa was late in arriving, so a petsitter came instead and they got someone to mow the lawn.

Through their research, the Solaks chose to live in Umbria, a region in central Italy, after they contacted 100 Rotary Clubs in Italy by e-mail. Their requirements were basic— they needed a place with two bedrooms because they knew they would have guests; it needed to be near a town, because they wouldn't have a vehicle; and it had to be in their price range. They received an e-mail from a man who had an apartment available to rent for the months of January and February in 2005 that met their needs.

The apartment was in Citta Di Castello and was their home for two months, after which they rented a farmhouse about three miles outside the historic city that is surrounded by ancient Roman walls.

"We did it low cost, which made it more fun and challenging," said Solak. "Really, it was a great experience. I learned a lot about myself and loosened up a little bit. The most important thing to Italians are the three F's— food, friendship, and family. Money doesn't even come in there, it's not important to them... It makes you slow down and it's really a good thing. I don't know if it was a spiritual thing, but I was very bold when I was there. I decided to jump in and just start speaking (Italian) and making mistakes. Who cares? They are such a forgiving people, it didn't matter."

The language was difficult to grasp. It was made more difficult, said Solak, 63, because she and Richard are "older." After a year there, she said she still doesn't know the language well.

Solak lost a lot of weight in Italy in spite of all the food she ate. Richard is a gourmet cook and their refrigerator was tiny, so they often went to town to visit "the cheese lady, the vegetable lady, the meat store."

One of the hardest things to get used to, she said, was that everything in Italy closes between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

"It's siesta time!" she laughed. "They go home and have a big meal with the family and take a nap, then the stores reopen and people go back to work until 8 p.m. or so and then go for a light supper. We kept forgetting that things weren't open all the time."

Solak got the name for her book from a long footpath next to the Tiber River. She loved walking the path and thought a lot about her life and marriage while strolling along it, with mountains in view and farmland.

"It was a good soul-searching place to be," Solak said. "Italy changed me in many ways. I had time to think, time to be in a relationship where we had to work out things, and time to see a culture that was much kinder and gentler than any I had seen before... Now home is whereever I am, which is kind of freeing."

For more information on the program "A Footpath in Umbria," call the library at 248-627-1460.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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