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When my former boss signed off on my attendance at Milan-Sanremo and a team training camp last March, I reached out to Valentina Scandolara to see if I might be able to head out to Italy a day or two early and spend some time with her family in Tregnago. My bucket list included “visiting riders on their home turf” and I considered this the perfect opportunity to tick the first box encompassed in that goal.
Valentina emailed me back within minutes:
I don’t live in a castle and my family is really simple, so don’t expect great things, but we always warmly welcome my friends who come to visit us and try to make them feel at home. My grandparents live on a farm nearby, and I’m there almost all the time. The best ever is when my grandfather tries to communicate in the Italian dialect with my Russian, Kiwi and Polish friends – even other Italians from other parts in Italy have trouble understanding him! My family loves to cook good food for my friends and do everything they can to make you have a good time. We have some nice mountains – although maybe not as nice as your Boulder ones – and we can get to Verona (20km away) by car or bus.
And with that, I was visiting Valentina. Despite her warning not to expect greatness, I knew I was in for a real treat.
“Did you tell them you’re a vegetarian,” Nettie Edmondson asks me. “You have to tell them you’re a vegetarian in advance,” she says.
“Why?” I ask her. “It’s a bit awkward to announce – as if I’m assuming they’re going to feed me.”
“They’re going to feed you,” she says emphatically. “Tell them.”
I message Valentina later that night. “Nettie suggested I might want to tell you I’m a vegetarian before I come out to visit,” I write. “I don’t eat meat or fish or eggs. I’m totally good about finding my own food to it, but I just wanted to let you know.”
She wants to know what I do eat. “Everything else,” apparently wasn’t a specific enough response. I put together a list of foods that I like to appease her.
A train strike delays my arrival. When I get off the bus in Verona, Valentina is waiting. We immediately drive to the city centre of Verona where she gives me a quick tour. Our walk ends at Osteria al Canton, a café in Piazza Erbe.
Food and drinks magically arrive at the table as Valentina explains that her aunt owns the establishment. She tells me stories about her family – the people I will soon meet – over drinks. Her aunt swings by the table to introduce herself and welcome me. Because I don’t speak Italian, Valentina serves as translator – and although I don’t understand Chiara’s words, I clearly understand her warmth and kindness.
We say good-bye and head back to the car, which Valentina drives up Torricelle. She stops at the summit and invites me out of the car to enjoy the view. It’s a clear March night. Stars and city lights sparkle in the inky sky. We can see all of Verona from our vantage point. Valentina’s mother calls, and my friend reassures her mother we will soon be home.
Valentina lives with her parents Silvio and Giovanna and her younger brother Alberto in the small Italian town of Tregnago. Her mother grew up here, and her grandparents maintain a large working farm less than five minutes away by car. In the coming days, I will sample the olive oil, jam and pasta sauce born from the farmland’s offering.
We’re late for dinner, but Valentina’s family has waited for us. Her mother’s arms are around me before I can set down my bags. She welcomes me with a hug and then a soft pinch of the cheeks. She speaks to me in Italian. I hear “bella” and “casa” mixed amongst the less familiar words. I smile. I nod. I sit at the table when her gestures suggest this would be the appropriate response.
There is a huge bowl of mushroom risotto on the table alongside bread and cheese. There is wine and water and soda. I’m soon served a plate piled high with what I assume is the main dish. I follow Valentina’s lead and add bread and cheese to my place.
The risotto tastes as delicious as it smells, and I’m several bites in before I notice Giovanna’s watchful eyes on me.
“Mangia!” she demands. “Mangia! Mangia! Mangia!”
“I am eating,” I respond – in English and in Valentina’s direction because I’ll need her to translate.
Valentina laughs at her mom’s response.
“What did she say?” I ask.
“She asked why you don’t like her food?” Valentina explains.
“What?” I exclaim, equally amused and dismayed. “I am eating!” I point to the dent in my mound of risotto as proof.
When I finish off my plate, I’m stuffed to the gills. Words are not required to convey my shock when Giovanna slaps another serving of risotto onto my plate. “Don’t you like my food?” she asks playfully. I gamely dig into my second serving.
I’m so full I may explode by the time I clean my plate for the second time. Valentina’s mother gets up from the table and walks into the kitchen adjacent to the dining room where we’re gathered for our meal. She returns with a huge salad and the main dish.
Dessert and fruit follow, and by the time the meal has concluded, I have eaten more in the span of two hours than I normally eat in a week. I thank Giovanna. I tell her how much I enjoy the food. She hugs me and kisses me and pinches my checks, and while I don’t understand a word she says to me, her message couldn’t be any more clear. She wants me to feel welcome and comfortable and loved (and full!) in her home.
Although Valentina had playfully poked fun at her mom the evening prior, laughing as Giovanna encouraged me to fill up on her home-cooked meal, it becomes evident in the morning that Valentina is an Italian mamma in training. I wake up to a huge breakfast spread laid out in the dining room.
When I tentatively mention that I’m not a big breakfast person but I’ll grab some fruit for the road, Valentina lectures me on the importance of the first meal of the day. She walks me through the various offerings on the table and brings me into the kitchen to show me all the other options if I’m not happy with what’s she selected. I have no choice but to cave.
I drink juice and tea. I eat hearty bread with jam from Valentina’s grandparent’s farm. Valentina proudly tells me she canned the jam herself. I spoon yogurt and honey over cut up fruit as Valentina nods her approval. When I’ve consumed enough to satisfy my host, I stand up to help clear the table. I’m immediately told to sit back down.
“Guests do not help clean,” she tells me. “Relax,” she commands.
We head to Valentina’s grandparents farm where I’m introduced to her grandfather and cousins and brothers and an aunt. – and last (but certainly not least) Valentina’s beloved dog Alvin. Alvin accompanies us on a quick tour outside before Valentina brings me into the farmhouse.
The first stop is, of course, the kitchen where I meet the Italian nonna. I’m offered juice and cookies. I’ve learned quickly, and although I’m still full from breakfast, I drink and eat up – and I’m immediately offered round two.
Valentina is looking for olive oil and jam, both of which she will send me home with upon my departure. As we make our way to the basement room, which houses the canned food from the farm, we pass repeated evidence of the pride Valentina’s family takes in her success. There are photos, newspaper clippings, jerseys, medals and trophies scattered throughout the house.
Alvin accompanies Valentina and I on a snowy hike in the Prealpi Venete. I’m at home in the mountains. I revel in the brisk pace of our walk following the feast the previous night. Valentina chatters away initially, telling me all about the options available to us the next few days we’ll spend together. Eventually we settle until a comfortable quiet. The sun shines and the snow crunches, and I am completely aware how undeniably lucky I am to have experiences like this one.
We return Alvin to the farm, and drive home to Valentina’s house. Valentina’s parents are at work, and when she heads out for an afternoon training session, I hang back to catch up on emails. I have the house to myself until Giovanni returns from work. Although she’s presumably had a long day at the office, she beelines for the kitchen.
Two hours later, we will enjoy overflowing plates of pasta with the best pasta sauce that has ever passed by my lips. I repeatedly praise the sauce and learn that Valentina has made it from farm-grown tomatoes. Two days later when I leave for Milan-Sanremo, my bag is five jars of pasta sauce heavier.
I eat enough to keep the “mangia’s” to a minimum and (amazingly) have room to enjoy dessert. Giovanni brings out a platter full of cookies. She calls them “sbrisolona” and laughs and pinches my checks at my failed attempt to mimic the word. The cookies are delicious and unlike any I’ve ever eaten before. I learn these are Mamma Scandolara’s special cookies that have been enjoyed by many of the guests that have graced their home.
The next afternoon we will make these cookies together. Giovanna will take me into her kitchen. She will pull out all of the ingredient and kitchen supplies and name them for me in Italian. Valentina will write the recipe on lined notebook paper and give it me.
My cheeks will be pinched and my hands will be greasy with butter and almond dust. I will nod and smile at the instructions that I barely understand. Valentina and I will take these cookies to team training camp. I will explain that we made them together – Valentina, Giovanna and I.
It’s one week post-visit, and Valentina’s family and neighbours turn out in full force for the only Italian World Cup on the schedule. They arrive bearing wine and fruit, bread and cookies and sandwiches. They beckon to us all, and the staff partake in their impromptu picnic in the parking lot adjacent to Lago Maggiore. Silvio hands me a gift bag. I look inside – three jars of pasta sauce.
The party in the parking lot continues as Valentina and her teammates systematically prepare for the race. They take time to pose for a group photo with their passionate cheering section before they head to the race start. I jump into a team car as Silvio tells me they will see me out on the road.
Valentina’s family is cheering like crazy as we roll by in the caravan. They raise their glasses, a toast in our general direction, as they smile and yell. It’s a gorgeous Italian day, and this Italian family’s roadside show of support only heightens my sense of gratitude.
Emma Johansson delivers a perfect ending to the day – taking out the small group sprint and winning the World Cup. I immediately spring into action, accompanying her first to the podium presentation and then to the press conference. When I’m sitting with Emma in doping control, I realize in the ensuing hours, I missed my chance to say good-bye to the Scandolaras.
By the time I return to the team camper, I have a message from Valentina
“You are welcome at our house anytime,” she writes. “My parents loved having you. Please come back again.”
Eleven months later and my supply of Scandolara pasta sauce is dwindling as Italian racing is again on the horizon. Naturally I’m already plotting my return.