I have just returned from a two-week vacation in Italy. Using my Sherlockian powers, I was quickly able to see that the Italians have stolen a huge amount of their culture from California. They have sunny weather, palm trees, villas with red tile roofs and stucco walls, terraced gardens, great wine, people with last names like Giannini and Alioto, and place names like Lodi and Asti. It was obvious to me that a bunch of Italians came to California in a submarine around a hundred years ago and cleverly robbed from us whatever they needed to give themselves an impressive country.
I spent the vacation with my wife, Cleo, and two old friends, Bill and Katherine, in a large apartment in northern Italy overlooking Lake Como, by means of a home exchange they negotiated. Bill and Katherine live in Newport Beach, where Bill is a banker and his wife Katherine (Kitsi) is a community volunteer and former teacher. They went to Como while the Italian couple, also coincidentally in banking, lived in their house.
Lake Como is a finger lake running north to south in the lower areas of the Italian Alps, with some of the look and feel of Tahoe. It is stunningly beautiful, surrounded by carefully preserved pine trees, rocky shores, old fishing villages that are now full of tourist hotels, and villas from earlier centuries that remind one of the copies they inspired at places like Beverly Hills and Pebble Beach. Pleasure boats glide across the smooth surface of the lake, often providing the easiest means of getting from one part of the shore to another, because driving along the narrow, winding, precipitous roads is a challenge to all but the experienced.
Lake Como does not escape the international reach of Hollywood. The most famous villa along the shoreline belongs to George Clooney. The Italian police do what they can to keep tourists and paparazzi away, but on any given day you can still find gossipy stories about him on the front pages of the tabloid newspapers sold wherever you stop for gelato or cappuccino. Cleo and Kitsi both have master’s degrees but still metamorphosed into fanatics as they tried for sightings of George. Bill and I retaliated by threatening to go on a long search for the Sophia Loren Museum, a mythical creation of my crazed imagination.
As our days at Lake Como succeeded one another, many of our discussions turned to the subject of changes in places. We could see that the Lake Como region, while still very beautiful, is coping with the pressures of ever more residents and visitors. That led us into conversations about the way that California always seems to be becoming something other than what it used to be.
Kitsi and I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. Much of the landscape there remains the same, but the region is a lot more crowded than when we were young and is increasingly an incarnation of high tech. Cleo’s Greek relatives aren’t in San Francisco any longer. The big Victorian house in San Francisco where Kitsi was raised is no longer the family seat. Many of the Navy bases that formed the world of my boyhood are closed. Near where the old Oakland Oaks minor league baseball team played, Pixar now has its headquarters. And in southern California, change feels even more dramatic. Newport Beach, where Bill grew up and had his paper route and learned to surf, is no longer a small, almost Midwestern town. Orange County continues to lose its orange groves. And Bill finds that many of the young people who now attend his old high school do not respect hard work and pursuit of goals but simply assume they will walk into influential positions and be guaranteed material comfort because they have wealthy parents.
We were surprised to find our thoughts turning to these things while visiting one of the most beautiful regions of the world and remembering another.