Paula slid into the sole empty chair at the table. Six of us were already sucking in the ambiance provided by this outside venue located on the piazza of the small town. It served as home to two of the areas of the NATO base for which we all worked. The flight-line, from which the Air Force's fighter jets regularly screamed into the typically clear skies of northern Italy, was located perhaps two miles away in an area that was both flat and wide open. This small town, on the other hand, abutted what might be considered foothills to those rocky sculptures known as the Dolomite Mountains. For some of us in this group, this was one of our favorite locales. But then, we were avid skiers. And fortunately, you could find glaciers to ski in this mountain range even during the middle of August.
We were all middle-aged civilians working in an environment filled primarily with men and women in their twenties. Perhaps that's why we'd bonded together and come not only to travel together frequently, but in weather such as this where we could sit outside comfortably, we'd meet weekly for usually Prosecco or gelato--or sometimes both. This day, we had not yet made up our minds as to what we all wanted when Paula waved over the waitress and asked her to bring three bottles of Prosecco and wine glasses for everyone.
The waitress gave a nod, and then she quickly turned on her heels and began to walk away. Paula immediately explained, "We all need to drink to Lidia.”
“Lidia?” a woman named Marge replied.
Another woman named Carol answered, “Lidia Bastianich. She's considered the First Lady of Italian cooking in the United States. Perhaps you've heard of the PBS television show, Lidia’s Italian Table?”
The woman indicated that she hadn't, and then Paula started in, “That's true, and my future son-in-law, John, adores this woman and her cooking show. So, i could hardly wait to tell all of you what happened this weekend when my daughter, Heather, and I were taking in some of the more local sites. After all, as I think I told you all before she arrived last Thursday night, because she's seen so many of the usual tourist attractions on her others visits, we'd decided that this time, we'd explore what was here in this part of the country instead."
“I can hardly wait,"” a woman named Ann replied.
As the waitress placed a wine glass in front of me, Paula started in, “John was just convinced that at some point during her visit here, Heather was going to see Lidia because it seems the family has vineyards not that far from here, and she comes to visit them fairly frequently."
“Perhaps to pick out the best wines for her show,” Ann said with a chuckle.
Carol interjected, “She supposedly lived in the area where the vineyards were as a child—after her family escaped Tito’s Yugoslavia.”
Paula waited while the waitress set a glass in front of her. And then she said, “Heather was convinced that this was not going to happen. But John wasn't quite ready to give up. So anyway, he finally told her to take a picture of any woman she might see who even looked like Lidia.”
“Well, did she find such a woman?” Ann asked.
Paula shrugged her shoulders and smiled before she began, “I’d decided to show Heather that place between here and Trieste where there’s the Gothic Church with the fabulous mosaics and the Roman ruins across the street." Paula stretched forward in her chair and went on, “Anyway, that day people in religious grad were drifting about the Gothic church, so Heather and I decided to visit the ruins first. We only saw one person there—someone sitting on a bench at the opposite end of the site from where we decided to enter.”
The waitress arrived and set one opened bottled of Prosecco on the table. She began to fill our glasses with another.
Paula continued on with her story. “Anyway, as we grew nearer to this other person, Heather both let out a screech and grabbed my arm. ‘Mom, that woman looks like Lidia,’ she shouted.” Paula stopped at that point and looked up at the waitress who was filling her glass. She thanked the woman and then continued, “Heather couldn't decided if she should try to honor John's request or not. She couldn't very well take a picture with the woman not noticing, and she didn't figure she'd understand why she wanted to take the picture, either."
“So, what happened?” Ann said.
"We talked about it and decided Heather should at least try and ask the woman if she could take her picture. Since I didn't go with her, but lagged behind, I don't know everything that happened. But Heather told me later that she was expecting to find it a challenge to make her request known, but it became apparent immediately the woman spoke good English."
"Can we assume Heather went ahead and posed her question? " Carol said. "And did the woman look at Heather as if she was crazy, or did she tell your daughter that she's always being stopped because people think she's the Italian lady on American television?"
“Actually, Heather explained why she wanted the picture, and the woman immediately replied, ‘Then, you’ll be happy to know that I’m indeed Lidia.’ ”
I think we all shouted out simultaneously in disbelief. And then I said, “Perhaps we should drink to both John and Lidia. Perhaps he's the one who had the faith that made this happen."
“Not quite yet,” Paula answered with a grin. “See, after Heather called me over to meet Lidia, Lidia posed questions about my job at the base. Then, once she realized I managed large events such as the USO tours and other celebrity visits, she told me she wanted to do something for the military members and their families. In fact, she proposed doing a cooking show the next time she visited Italy.”
Shortly thereafter, we raised our glasses to Lidia. However, we raised them to her again—on March 28, 2004, to be exact. After all, on that morning, after enduring an eight-hour flight from New York to Venice, as well as an hour’s drive north to the air base—a trip that always left me jet-lagged and wondering if I could avoid crawling into bed before nightfall—Lidia was flitting about showing men and women in their early twenties, as well as some of us older civilians and officers and their spouses, how to make risotto, gnocchi, and polenta as it was served in the Friuli region where we lived. She didn’t seem to care that her clothes were wrinkled from travel, or her face was essentially devoid of make-up. And for that matter, neither did her audience. They were enthralled by her warm and engaging personality instead.
We may not agree whether it was pure coincidence or divine intervention that caused Paula and Heather to meet Lidia that day in the midst of the Roman ruins. But as I work in my kitchen today and see her smiling face on a cookbook she happily signed in Aviano, Italy despite her likely fatigue at the time, I realize there are many people who feel blessed this event occurred.