Destination Italy is the true story about how my Christian husband and I–atheist at the time–came to live in Umbria, Italy. It portrays my bumpy journey in search of God, interwoven with excerpts from our life in Italy.
Having explored many roads on my quest for happiness, I still sensed that something essential was missing. Was it the child I so desperately desired, or something as basic as an “overall purpose”?
Struggling with emotional wounds and intellectual pride, I set out for a spiritual journey. Along the way, circumstances and people I met made me ponder the possibility of a higher power. Eventually, I recognized how a living God had pursued me all my life. When I surrendered and accepted his guidance, my life took a whole new direction.
It is not always easy to discern God’s purposes in day-to-day events and experiences. I pray that my story will incite you to reflect and recognize God’s guidance in your own life, so that you too may discover the path towards your divine destination.
Chapter One. The Call
France, March 2004
The sky was grey. Trees and bushes were still bare after another long winter, and a hard wind tugged at the branches. The old farmhouse was chilly. I pulled my cardigan closer around my body as I went outside to get some more wood. When I came back in the kitchen with a basket full of logs, the telephone rang. I put the basket on the floor, checkered with black and white tiles, and picked up the phone from the heavy wooden table.
“Domaine du Vieux Chêne, bonjour!”
“Hey, it’s me! I am just calling to let you know I’m headed in the right direction!” I heard Jan say, almost shouting with joy. “I spotted flowers along the road! Spring has already begun here!”
His words warmed me at least as much as the stove did. We were ready to live in a milder climate after having lived more than five years in the Haut-Languedoc at an altitude of around 3000 feet and enduring long, cold winters. Jan was on his way to Italy to prepare for a new start to our life. Yet again.
The first time had been in December 1998, when we moved from the Netherlands to France to live out the dream of many Dutch people–running a campsite in the South of France. Jan was forty-seven years and I thirty-seven. We had given up our business careers, bought an old farmhouse with some land around it, built the campsite, and made it a success. That is the story in a tiny nutshell.
During the first years, I had panicked every time Jan talked about the possibility of moving on, changing life one more time and leaving our domaine, which was set on a hillside amidst woods and within close proximity to a beautiful lake. Each time we had waved goodbye to the guests who, after their holiday, went back home, I had felt relieved; I didn’t have to go away. I didn’t want to leave that gorgeous spot, not for all the gold in the world, in spite of the long winters which, of course, we hadn’t foreseen when we actually moved there. In fact, one week after our arrival, we found ourselves caught in a blizzard on the parking lot of a supermarket, trying to get the groceries into the back of our Land Rover. The next day we woke up in a white world, with snow at least 1.5 feet deep! However, Jan had always known that France was a temporary station for us. He just felt it, and while his faith and his relationship with God deepened in the isolation of the French countryside, he grew more certain about it. I had arrived in France without any faith, any god.
I was born into a non-believing family. Officially, my mother was Protestant and my father Catholic. They were both baptized as babies, but neither of them believed. My father was very explicit about this matter. As a boy growing up in Amsterdam, he had lived through the atrocities of the Second World War. He saw how Jewish people were rounded up, how innocent people were shot to death, how his own father died of starvation and his body decomposed because no one took care of it. In fact, he had hardly survived himself during that last war winter before the allies set the country free. Immediately after the liberation, just twelve years old, he was placed in a Christian farming family in the countryside to regain his strength, but there he received only the leftovers from their well-stocked table, and little warmth to nourish his soul. Later, while studying at a Roman Catholic school, he witnessed how the Catholic Brothers who taught at the school were unable to keep their hands to themselves. As an adult, he also experienced much disillusionment. He had to work with lying and stealing people, including many so-called Christians, while he always followed his feelings of what was right and fair.
In our family, we believed that God didn’t exist, couldn’t exist. First, because we couldn’t imagine that he would allow so much injustice in the world. In addition, if Christianity was what the many professed believers were practicing, it was worth nothing. Finally, because it simply wasn’t intelligent to believe in something that you could not see. Plainly said, we thought that Christians were no-brain hypocrites.
From the time he was in his forties, Dad was severely stressed and never worked again. He was a disappointed man, a psychologically broken man. However, although he had little formal education, he was also a very smart man–one of the most broadly developed people I have ever met in my life. To him, intelligence was the highest good. He encouraged my brother, sister, and me to study and to get important jobs and, thereby, to earn other people’s respect. It would also help us to remain in command over our own lives, so that we would never become victims of injustice ourselves, or so he thought. He wanted us to be tough, to put ourselves first, and to speak up, because “modest people turn out shitty.” He wanted nothing but good for us, to prevent us from having to go through the same heartbreak that he had experienced.
At the end, my father was ill, very ill. In addition to the damage caused by several heart attacks, a cruel disease had gradually diminished his lung capacity. The lack of oxygen ruined his organs, and he was in constant pain. Nurses who visited my parents’ house several times a day to help care for my father said that they had never seen a person so ill. He was afraid to die and held on to life as long as possible on pure will power.
Then one day, when he was extremely short of breath and suffered tremendously, the family doctor suggested morphine. Not for the first time, but until that moment Dad had refused the drug, because he didn’t want to lose control. This time he agreed. The medicine removed not only his pain, but also his consciousness and, finally, his volition to keep breathing. He died at the age of sixty-nine, within half an hour after the first drips seeped into his devastated body. He didn’t outlive my mother, who was ten years older.
I was not there. Oh, I had been in the Netherlands, but work had called me back to France. It was May, and we had to finish building the last cottage and prepare the campsite for the arrival of the first guests by the end of that month. Moreover, I had assured myself that I would come back to see Dad on his birthday, just one week later. I had even asked the doctor if there was any risk of my father dying during my absence; he had answered that he didn’t see any medical reason for it. Therefore, I left, and Dad died, two days before his seventieth birthday, while I was working nine hundred miles away. My brother and sister told me that his last words were, “I hope Milly won’t be angry with me.” He had known that the morphine would do more than relieve the tightness in his chest.
Losing my father was extremely painful, and the fact that I hadn’t been there when he died made the loss even more difficult. It was as if someone had closed the book of his life before I could read the last chapter. I needed time to mourn, but when we came back from the Netherlands after the cremation, I just didn’t have the time. Tourist season had begun. Anyone who has ever run a campsite, a hotel, or any other tourist accommodation knows that, during the season, you live for your guests. There is no time for you. Although we had always loved meeting new people and contributing to their holidays, that summer I found it difficult to find pleasure in their company or the work. In addition, it turned out to be a particularly hot summer. Sometimes the temperature in the kitchen was over 100 degrees as I cooked yet another evening meal for thirty people. My heart was heavy, and my body was tired. Every now and then, I managed to cry in the car on my way to the supermarket, but that wasn’t enough to lift the burden of sadness.
In September, after we had waved goodbye to the last guests, I collapsed. Always before, after summer, we had simply stayed at home to recover, enjoying the silence and the wonder of nature in the short, golden autumn before winter would arrive again. That year, however, we felt the need to go on a real holiday, even if it would be only one week, and we opted for Italy. I had visited Umbria almost ten years before with a dear friend from work, just two days, and cherished sweet memories of the green heart of Italy: rolling hills, vast woods, and cities covered with history’s fingerprints. I wanted to go back there. Jan had always had a tender spot for Italy, so he willingly agreed.
As I browsed the Internet for possible destinations, I discovered several websites of real estate agencies that offered not only accommodation for rent but also for sale. Jan caught me one afternoon while I was dreaming away with pictures of farms on hills and olive groves under the Umbrian sun, and I said to him, half-joking, “What about selling the campsite, buying a farm in Umbria and growing olives?”
He took his gaze off the computer screen, locked his eyes with mine, and answered, wholly serious, “Yes, that’s it! Let’s do it.”