“You look at us with virgin eyes.”

I wasn’t sure I was translating the Italian correctly, so the gentleman at one of my readings in Florence continued in English.

“We Italians focus on our country’s problems, and we lose sight of the beauty that surrounds us, the music and art that Italians created, our great patrimony. You remind us of who we are and what we can be.”

Presenting La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World in the country that inspired it brought many such touching moments. In the hilltop town of Castiglion Fiorentino in Tuscany, middle school children read an Italian translation of my book’s account of the Friends of San Filippino’s  campaign to save an abandoned Baroque chapel.

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At IBS Books-Libraccio in Florence, I found a stack of copies of La Passione almost as tall as I am. At the Kent State University Florence Center in Palazzo Vettori, I spoke to several classes of study-abroad students who were just discovering la passione italiana. At the wonderful library of the British Institute of Florence, I met its genial librarian Mark Roberts and Italophiles of many nationalities who shared a common love of Italy.

In interviews, Italian journalists expressed both surprise and delight in my passion for their country. “Strano e difficile a crederci, ma è proprio così!” (Strange and hard to believe, but that’s right!) wrote journalist and blogger Veronica Triolo in a post on how her” pazzo e disordinato paese” (crazy and messy country) inspired La Passione. You can read an English translation here.

Meanwhile in other news on La Passione:

Fodors’ Book Club Selection: “For both Italophiles and people who have never visited, this book might just end up luring you into purchasing a plane ticket to Italy this summer to experience la dolce vita yourself.”

National Geographic “Books We Can’t Wait to Read”: “an enthusiastic tour through an Italophile’s Italy.”

Ambassador Magazine (official publication of the National Italian-American Foundation): “an abundant banquet of inspiration, connecting readers to Italy’s authentic heart and soul.”

*Italian American Heritage Foundation News: “a marvelously entertaining and enlightening read. The writing is infused with lively historical anecdotes, lots of humor and, of course, passion!”

My free time in Italy was spent reading other people’s books: the nominees for Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. The name Strega (witch in Italian) refers to the prize’s initial sponsor, producer of a famed liqueur of the same name. I was honored when Annamaria di Gregorio of the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco asked me to serve as a judge, but I also was intimidated by the challenge of reading twelve Italian books in a few weeks.

With a well-worn pocket Italian dictionary, I soon found myself transported into fascinating realms. Two of my favorites—Addio fantasmi (Goodbye Ghosts) by Nadia Terranova and La straniera (The Stranger) by Claudia Durastanti — made it into la cinquina (the final five). The winner, announced in a live televised ceremony, was M. Il figlio del secolo (M.: Son of the Century) by Antonio Scurati, based on Mussolini’s life and times.

The final touching moment of my trip occurred in the Rome airport as I rushed to catch my homeward flight. A woman beelined toward me, introduced herself as Teresa and asked, “Are you Dianne?”

“I read everything you write,” she said, quickly sharing the story of her Italian American family. As we both dashed off to our boarding gates, I heard her cry out: “Thank you!”

I extend my thanks to the many people—my hosts in Castiglion Fiorentino and Florence, the readers who came to my presentations, the students and instructors and travelers I met along the way—for an unforgettable journey.

Grazie di cuore!

P.S. If the heat gets you down this summer, a friend in New York City suggests pulling down the shades, sipping a cool drink and reading LA PASSIONE!

Dianne Hales is also the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian,the World’s Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. For more information,  visit diannehales.com.

Note to readers: I have discontinued my “Becoming Italian Word by Word” blog on typepad.com. You can find archives of all my past posts on my website.