Back in the mid-’90s, I took my mom on a trip to celebrate her 60th birthday. I wanted to go to the one place in the world she would most want to be: Gela, Sicily, where some of her cousins still live in the very apartment in which her dad, my Grandpa Emmanuel, was born. I researched the trip for months. We set a budget of $40 a day, took Italian lessons, then landed in Rome.
There’s a mood to Italy, and whatever your heritage, everyone becomes at least a little bit Italian by being there. Every day we were in Rome, we got lost on purpose. Mom and I would take a bus to a neighborhood on one of the city’s seven hills, then we’d use our maps to try to make the long walk back to our hotel.
Getting lost on purpose was one of the reasons I called us the Lost Girls. The other reason is that we tried to drive. We tried to drive in Italy.
Mom’s a great driver—in a way. Over the years, she did have some issues, like an occasional temporary loss of her license for speeding. But isn’t that a subjective thing: speed limits? Some people are excellent drivers and can drive faster safely, right? Mom got us around just fine and very fast, although following directions, maps, and signs was not exactly her strength. Unfortunately, it wasn’t mine, either.
What a team! What a scene! Me barking orders off a map and Mom ignoring them, zipping in and out between Cinquecentos and Vespas as we circled the train station twice before working our way into the outer lane of the traffic circle and then finally onto the A1. The next exit we needed was under construction, but it took three loops of the highways surrounding Rome for us to realize it. So, yep, that added a few hours.
The adventure really got interesting when we got out of the city and headed south. We renamed the road along the Amalfi Coast “Oh My God Way.” Each time we went around a death-wish hairpin turn—negotiating the oncoming traffic solely with dental tool–like mirrors protruding from cliffs with no shoulders—we screamed, “Oh my God!” We’d catch our breath, try to get our heart rates back to normal, and then a hundred bikers would come at us. “Oh my God!” Over and over again…
As the Lost Girls drove (precariously) on, we fell in love with the Italian coast, especially Positano, a storybook town carved into the jagged cliffs. We also fell in love with lemon everything and mostly drank our day’s $40 in limoncello.
Then on to Sicily. If you’re a fan of Dr. Seuss, then you might be able to picture our ferry. The contraption we had to drive onto looked too sketchy to hold a donkey, much less a car. Once we were on the boat, it was just a seven-minute ride—not exactly an odyssey at sea.
The Lost Girls didn’t waste a minute of the ride through the rugged green Sicilian landscapes. We spoke about the generations of men and women who carried the soil up and up and up toward the sky, saturating the land and bedding the rocks to grow their gardens. Mom smelled the burning branches and vines and saw the smoke rising from them. Once the smell of the fires hit her nose, she began dictating all the memories of her childhood. I filled more than a hundred pages of my journal with notes, and now those memories saturate my life.
Finally, the day had come to meet our family in Gela, which sits on the south end of Sicily. Once again, the Lost Girls hit the road and the roundabouts. This time it was even worse, because fewer people spoke English, and my basic Italian was frustrating to both me and anyone I tried to speak to when we stopped for gas or advice. We were trying to get to our hotel to drop our luggage, meet our relatives, and follow them to the family apartment for dinner. When we pulled into the long driveway three hours after nightfall, we found them waiting and worried. Once we explained the situation, they all started laughing and talking too fast in Italian. Eventually we got it: Our Italian cousins have a terrible sense of direction and get lost all the time too. It’s a family trait.
Adapted from Rachael Ray 50, a collection of 125 recipes and 25 essays, due out October 15 from Ballantine Books.