Feeling at Home in San Marino

All these years I don’t know how I missed it.

Almost fifty years we’ve been coming together to this apartment in San Marino. Mornings I open a cupboard door, take down the stainless steel espresso pot, and make coffee. There are half a dozen cups from my mother-in-law’s China. Not the good stuff in the credenza in the little dining room. This is her every-day stuff. A cup holds half a pot of brewed espresso. Since she’s been gone, I’ve broken one or two of those cups. Dropped on the tile floor, they explode into pieces. 

On this trip, in the back of the cupboard I found a special cup, white, glazed on the side of it a leafy bunch of oranges, one cut in half, and a couple goofy improbable white flowers. 

Above the fruit, written in flowing cursive, Florida.  

It’s as good as the other cups, but somehow more perfect.  How did it get here? What would have possessed my mother-in-law to bring this cup, obviously a souvenir, back here from the States?

They brought stuff back. A lamp my wife and I agree is the ugliest lamp in all of Italy. Why bring a lamp, a very ugly lamp, at that, on a flight from the US to Italy? Because it would be wasteful to throw it away. And they knew they might need a lamp over here. A step ladder. Tizi and I were on that trip with her parents. It was June in the early 80’s, a charter flight full of Sammarinese, dual citizens all, coming back to vote in a San Marino election. My mother-in-law had wrapped tape around this white metal, two-step ladder to keep it from folding open. When we came through the airport in Forlí, she carried it at her side like a briefcase. A uniformed official looking at passports stopped her and said, “Signora, don’t you think we have ladders like that here in Italy?” She smiled and shrugged, and lugged it through customs.

They’ve been gone for years. Tizi’s dad, 1994.  Her mother, 2001. Still, when we walk around the apartment we feel their presence. The place is ensouled. 

Now this silly cup.

Her mother’s last visit here, in June 2001, she was sick.  On the morning we were to return home, when we locked the door, she placed her right hand on it, shook her head, and quietly said, Qui non vengo più. I’ll never come back here.  

A few months later, on September 10, we buried her next to Tizi’s dad back in Detroit.

The temperatures have been in the 40’s this week. When the sun is out, you loosen your jacket and collar, breathe in and breathe out, look up into the sun and give thanks. Aria buona. Good air, my mother-in-law would say. But in the shade, it’s cool. You’re grateful for that jacket. And that’s not all.

This day we are visiting the dead. To get to the cemetery here in Serravalle, we walk up the street behind our building and through a railway tunnel. It’s a one-lane street through it now. At the mouth of the tunnel, if the light is red, you wait in your car. When it’s green, you go. There are 17 tunnels in San Marino. The railway, from Rimini to San Marino Cittá, was inaugurated in 1932. The trains ran until 1944, when US bombing destroyed the system. Over 100,000 people took refuge in the tunnels during those bombing raids, including Tizi’s family here in Serravalle and her grandmother and aunt, on her mother’s side of the family, who came up from Pesaro, 30 miles down the coast. Around this time, her Zio Gino, down in Pesaro, had slipped off the back of a German truck transporting Italian soldiers to work camps in the imploding north. He would make his way, on foot, back to San Marino, neutral territory.

It’s a fifteen minute walk to the cemetery, dark and bone-chilling inside the tunnel. We’re going to visit her aunt and uncle’s graves and to see the rest of her family there. It takes five minutes to walk from one end of the tunnel to the other.  On the news I’ve seen photos of refugees in Ukraine, in tunnels like this one–wearing heavy coats and hats, carrying small children, holding bags containing what they could grab on the run to safety. Where is safety? What would you bring with you, knowing that your home and everything in it might be destroyed? That your life back there might be erased?


On his last trip here, Tizi’s dad said one day, “Come on, let’s go for a drive.” 

Those years, every time we came, we drove Zio Gino’s old Fiat 127. If the Fiat 500 was the cute baby in the family, the 127 was its gawky older sibling. The one with funny ears and a raspy voice. I drove. Tizi’s dad pointed and talked.

We had made a tour like this the first time I came, in 1978. We walked around Rimini one morning. He pointed out the cathedral. He pointed out Piazza Tre Martiri, where three partisans were hanged by the Nazis. One day when the bombs were falling, he said, he ran and took shelter in that building, pointing at what was now a coffee bar. And here was a corner, he said, where the buildings were completely destroyed by bombs.

That last trip, we drove around the countryside. Up the road from Serravalle was the road to Cailungo. Here, he said, telling me to stop, here was a podere, a family farm that looked out over the valley. We drove along Via Santa Cristina. Here, he said, showing me where to turn, this was a farm where he spent summers when he was a kid. Further along Santa Cristina, he pointed into the valley, now green and lush. When the front passed, he said, as the Americans pushed the Germans up the peninsula, just down the road from that farm, all across this valley were destroyed armored vehicles, dead horses and cows. He shook his head.

During the war, he had what he called a furgoncino, a three-wheeled pickup truck with a small bed on the back and handlebar steering in the front. He helped people move furniture. The bed on the back of the vehicle was sturdy enough to hold a coffin. He helped transport the dead.

On the drive that day, he relived memories. He was saying goodbye. He knew it. I knew it. I had the impression that, without saying so, he was also giving this to me. 


The day after we buried Tizi’s mother was 9/11. I was driving into work when the news on NPR was interrupted. And so, added to the emotional chaos of personal loss was this catastrophe of epic proportions. For so many years, my whole life, really, the devastation and wreckage of wars were far away, on other shores. This attack, this obliterating loss, was local, personal, transformative. As a country, we knew the peculiarly American carnage of gun violence, deranged “shooters.” Now we saw and knew and understood terror in a smoking pile of rubble, our rubble.

I have to think that with 9/11 in our memory, the images of Kyiv and Kharkiv come closer to home.


In the cemetery, on the gravestones, are names, dates, photographs. 

Stones are mute. Photographs speak. I was a professor. I was an athlete. I was a grandmother. I was just a baby. This is how I liked my hair done. Here I am, leaning on my favorite balcony, enjoying a cigarette. I put on a coat and tie and sat for this photograph. Wives next to husbands. Beneath their names, the names of their children. Whole families, generations, in crypts. 

These visits, our tour of the cemetery proceeds in the same order. First the old family crypt, bones mostly. Then, across the cemetery, to Tizi’s grandparents. Her dad, who like all immigrants had two homes, wanted to be in the Serravalle cemetery. Between the photo of his mother and father, his photo, in an oval frame, is attached to the stone. Then we go to her aunt and uncle, Zia Teresa, Zio Pino. He lived to be ninety-five, preceded her in death by five years. He anticipated his passing and chose his photograph. There he is, in black and white; in his thirties, quite dashing. Zia Teresa will be gone a year this month. In her photo, contemporaneous with this, she is beautiful. Tizi leans close, touches the stone, whispers, “You were supposed to wait for me, auntie.”


Some years back we moved from the guest room in the apartment, with its twin beds, into her parents’ room. Their bed, their furniture, their space, feels more and more like ours too these days. There is an armadio, a dresser, and a chest, each with a mirror showing its age. You see yourself, but dimly, in the smoky glass.

Lying in bed one night Tizi says, “We should wrap those rugs tomorrow and put them away.”

Throw rugs, six of them. They collect dust. We don’t use them. We’ve already been to Obi, Italy’s Home Depot, and bought plastic to wrap them in, tape to seal the wrapping. Three rolls of tape, enough to last two lifetimes. Because we had to, because that’s how they were packaged. We’ll use a tiny bit of just one roll.

“Did your mother bring those rugs from home?”

“I’m sure she did.”

Home to home. 

The next morning, after coffee, we wrap the rugs and tape the plastic. They’ll be secure, safe, free of dust. We have a spot for them, in the corner of the front room. They’ll keep.

On the inside of the roll of tape, on the cardboard center, I read “Nespoli,” the name of the manufacturer. I like the word. It’s a common family name. It’s also a kind of plum. It’s also a local producer of very good red wine.

Of course we can buy perfectly good tape back home, but I will probably bring a roll home with me.


  1. Sherrie English says:

    You have brought tears to my eyes with the history and memories in this beautiful story. How wonderful to have so much history, good and bad, we are such a young country it’s nice for those who have the history and traditions passed down to each generation. I love the Florida cup and how it traveled there.

    1. Rick Bailey says:


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