Have you ever heard someone’s life story and been so inspired that it made you reconsider everything that you thought was possible?
Well, I had such a moment recently.
Let me share the inspiring story of Erika Pauli Bizzarri, an American who came to Italy in the 1950s and never left…
Over drinks and antipasti the day I arrived in Orvieto (I was in Orvieto, Italy for 5 weeks last summer), our host shared stories about her mother-in-law (well, ex-mother-in-law).
I quickly found myself lost in the adventures of this fascinating woman, Erika Pauli Bizzarri, who at 93 continues to live her life fearlessly and with passion.
The story begins in the present, well actually in 2020, when she decided to start a blog, a place to share her musings, memories, poetry, and writing (and drawings). Her son, Claudio, an Etruscan archeologist like his father, speaks about Orvieto and the region with the same reverence and delight that his mother does in her writing.
Claudio Bizzarri is one of a handful of Etruscan specialists, and when he talks about Orvieto and Umbria, the people from the past easily come to life before my eyes as we walk amongst the centuries-old buildings that line the streets of Orvieto.
The influences of his parents’ passions, art history, and archeology come together as he laments the loss of Etruscan literature written on linen, an unforgiving material in the Umbrian climate. You get a sense of what drew his parents together–a love and appreciation for the art and culture of this ancient land that turned into a passionate love for each other.
While taking in the view of the duomo rising above the Orvieto rooftops set against the backdrop of the bucolic Umbrian countryside, I am mesmerized by the tale Claudio shares of the last remaining Etruscan “book” that was discovered when an Egyptian mummy that was sent to Turkey was unwrapped in 1869 (not the practice anymore). The linen wrapping was covered in Greek-looking letters, in fact, Etruscan writing detailing Etruscan rituals and ceremonial calendar.
We sigh, lowering our heads as we reflect on the knowledge lost. He discussed the troves of Etruscan writing lost to history, mostly from decay, and I the burning of the Mayan libraries because of the serpent glyphs that were sure signs of satanic themes to the Catholic priests who accompanied the Spanish conquistadores to Central America.
Claudio talks about the technological accomplishments of the Etruscans, for which the Romans took credit after conquering them. I note that the conquerors write history in their favor, and it is left to scholars like him to unearth the truth, trowel by trowel, piece by piece, removed from their earthy internment, ready to share their secrets.
But back to Erika Bizzarri, Claudio’s mother…
As Claudio and I continue our conversation on the top of the Torre del Moro (a tall medieval tower rising above the center of Orvieto), I discover more about Erika and her fascinating life.
Unfortunately for Erika, she would lose her love far too young (a sudden heart attack, if I remember correctly), left to the comfort of her two young sons and searching for how to make her way in her adopted home Orvieto.
But as I would discover from Claudio, Alba (her ex-daughter-in-law), and Luciano (a local who grew up in Orvieto and was a fireman and fire Chief for 40 years for his beloved home and now Orvietano historian), Erika would become a fixture of Orvieto, becoming more Orvietano than many whose families’ histories date back centuries. And she would become a beloved icon of Orvieto.
A simple walk with her dog to get some pastries that should take minutes can take an hour or more as all the people she knows stop her to chat.
So what about Erika makes her so inspiring?
She has lived her life with passion and a sense of fearlessness.
I struggle with using the word fearless. It implies that one is free from fear.
That is not true and really is never true of the people we call fearless. We all have fear but the fearless move forward despite the fear. Perhaps dauntless, incapable of being intimidated or subdued, is a better word. Or maybe, more simply put, brave.
It took bravery to set sail across the ocean in search of the art she studied in her art history classes at Columbia University.
In July of 1955, she boarded a steamer ship headed for Europe. Her journey began in London and would take her to Italy and her future home, Orvieto. Erika shares stories of this journey along with sketches she took during her long transatlantic crossing in her blog.
Seeing her sketches so familiar to me because they look so much like the ones I create while traveling and reading about her journey, I feel an affinity to this woman, a fellow art historian I have never met but now so desperately want to.
I think about how fearless/ brave she was back then, well and is even now, as she embarked on a cross-Atlantic journey, a woman alone with only a friend or two to meet her once she landed.
There was a certain alchemy to travel back then—a combination of serendipity, dauntlessness, and insatiable curiosity.
It is the traveling I know well as someone born just before the advent of pocket calculators and personal computers. I still try to channel this travel magic despite the siren song of my iPhone, which is constantly tracking my location on maps and recommending optimal routes.
It is hard to welcome serendipity and flânerie (the act of wandering, observing, following your curiosity without purpose or itinerary, embracing “happen chance” and serendipity) when Siri and Tia Google want to interject at every corner.
You had to be comfortable with the unknown as you traveled before the ubiquity of GPS, cell phones, or even inexpensive telephone calls. No Google searches pointing you in the direction of a hotel or recommending where to eat or stay.
A reference, a connection, a paper map, and a spirit of adventure led to life-changing encounters, as Erika shares so eloquently in her writing.
I reflect on that as I walk through Orvieto’s streets, exploring without a map, always on the hunt for an Erika sighting. Searching for the woman I have come to know so intimately from the writing, sketches, and photos in her blog has become an obsession.
Claudio talked about his mother’s dog, a shepherd mix that kept her company during the covid lockdown and whose daily walks became longer and more frequent so she could, like many other apartment-dwelling Italians, leave the confines of lockdown.
I was in Orvieto with a friend who was teaching Italian through the University of Arizona in Orvieto summer program May and June 2022. On our return from a weekend in Rome, we rounded the corner into the piazzale in front of our apartment, which three restaurants flank. I eagerly marched towards the entrance to our apartment building as Maria Rita lagged, muttering something about a dog. I am almost at the door when I finally hear what she is saying…
“Isn’t that Erika’s dog?
She is here!”
In our piazzale at L’Osteria delle Donne, I see only the top of the grey hair of the woman I have longed to meet. Unfortunately, I am flustered; Maria Rita, an introvert, has reached our door and said her role is spotting, not meeting. Sigh, the moment has passed. A chance encounter lost. I rationalize it would be too intrusive to trot back and interrupt her dinner.
There will be other chances, I muse and mutter to Maria Rita as we climb the steps to our apartment.
But I was wrong. That was my only chance. Just a couple of weeks later, still no further Erika sightings, I am forced to flee Orvieto and Italy quickly for Tucson and my doctors.
Maria Rite woke early on a Monday morning with a positive covid test. We had been sharing a king bed in a studio apartment (channeling the frugal travel adventures of my graduate school years). Everyone was convinced it would be inevitable that I would test positive. I was negative and knew that getting covid, especially abroad, could be potentially fatal for me despite 2 covid vaccinations and 3 booster shots. I have a rare heart-lung condition that makes me at high risk for an adverse outcome, even with the flu. So covid isn’t anything to mess with.
I may be brave like Erika, but I also believe in intelligent risk-taking. I look at all the information, try to mitigate risks, and make informed decisions about travel. Can I get medical care if I need it? What can I bring with me? Etc.
I quickly packed up, moved to a temporary rental, and spent the rest of the afternoon rebooking my travel. I got on a train for Rome that evening and caught a plane back to Tucson Tuesday morning. It took two days of travel to get myself safely back to the care of my doctors. I was still testing negative two days after my return (a Friday). Unfortunately, I tested positive on Sunday. My PCP was on it. I got antivirals the same day, and on Monday, she got me in to get monoclonal antibodies.
But I missed my chance to meet Erika, my Orvieto obsession. Maria Rita had a mild case of covid. She recovered and was soon out of quarantine.
She texted me this picture while I was recovering from covid. With the message, “Erika sighting!!”
While I may never meet her, Erika’s musings cross the Atlantic and land in my inbox with comforting regularity. I delight in reading her latest poem, musing, or reminiscing. They share a life well-lived.
She focuses on the small delights. We can easily let those moments pass us by as we stay focused on our phones instead of being present in the moment. She had her share of loss and pain, but her writing focuses elsewhere. Somewhere between delight and nostalgia.
I continue to be inspired by her. I hope to return to Orvieto soon and meet her in person.
I may email her. Reach out and share how much her blog has touched my soul and inspired me.
But for now, I share her with you. I encourage you to be dauntless and brave as you move through your days.
Be willing to put down your phone and be present in your day.
Start a journal. Capture your adventures big and small even if you never share your thoughts with others; you will have it as a record of the small magical moments that make up a life well-lived.
Go against the grain. Think for yourself. Travel somewhere you have always wanted to.
Be a flâneur. Wander without a destination with the goal of just exploring. You can start in your neighborhood. Take a different route. Explore a path not traveled. Find a new park. Look for public art. Find a Little Free Library in your town. Put a Little Free Library in front of your house and have fun connecting with the people who stop by to get a book.
Leave a comment and share how you want to embrace being dauntless and brave in your daily life. What would you most like to do?
In an effort to follow my own advice, I am exploring my new city, Denver, with the goal of letting my curiosity be my guide. I will share what I discover on Instagram.