Feels like the first time: heading back to Italy after more than a year and a half.

Breakfast with the family this morning brought on an emotion not felt in more than 30 years: this erstwhile Medieval poetry and now wine scribbler is heading back to their spiritual homeland since being away for more than 18 months.

And it feels like the first time.

As the girls were getting ready for summer camp, an old and addled box of photographs found its way to my desk.

That’s a photo of me, above, in Ostia (the Roman coastal city) in 1987 during my first academic year in Italy on the University of California Education Abroad Program, the only curriculum at the time that allowed students to study side-by-side with Italians — with instruction in Italian.

That experience forever shaped my professional and personal life.

By year’s end, my first piano bar gig came along.

That’s me, above, playing my very first show at the Bar Margherita on Piazza della Frutta in Padua.

The person in the lower right-hand corner is Ruggero Robin, one of Italy’s top jazz guitarists. He would become my first friend in Italy and we would play countless gigs together when music was the income that kept me afloat during my studies.

This guitar player was way out of their league when they they played with Ruggero but the money was always decent and we would always have a blast together. (If you’ve ever been to VinNatur, you might have heard Ruggero play. He’s super tight with the Maule family.)

In normal years, this Italy-bound traveler would go to their spiritual homeland six times a year, between teaching, researching and tasting, trade fairs, and client visits. There was one year when I made nine (!!!) trips to Italy in less than 12 months.

But after being separated so long from my signora, this one feels different. It feels big like that first time, that first contact, that first kiss with the country that would become my lifeblood in so many ways. It even made for the connection between me and my life partner, Tracie, mother to our children.

On Sunday, I leave for three weeks of teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont. There will be some good eating and drinking, too. And maybe even some music.

Sister Italy, my alma mater, where would I be today without you???!!!

I can’t wait to leap into your arms and feel your embrace!

Wish me luck and wish me speed. See you on the other side…

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