When Constance Grayson and her husband purchased a house in Italy in 2001, they were insistent that they would embrace the culture and “live like the Italians live” when they were there. A dozen years and 55 trips later, the rural village in Umbria has embraced them as family and is waving tearful goodbyes as the Graysons try to sell the house.
Constance — a Jessamine County native now back in Nicholasville practicing law — and her husband, Bert, were pondering the future as they sipped an Italian sparkling wine on New Year’s Eve in 2000. Their children were grown up and moved out, and they were ready to do something “totally extravagant.”
“I wanted a Porsche Boxster, and we talked about buying expensive cars and then a boat, and then finally, we said a second home,” Constance said. “I didn’t want Florida; he didn’t want Montana.”
The couple had visited Italy earlier in the year, and Bert’s mother’s family was Italian, so they turned their attention to the boot-shaped peninsula, Googling “houses for sale Italy” the next day. The few parameters they had set — either the region of Tuscany or Umbria; a completely renovated house; and a minimal budget “as those things go” — led them to a few options, and they were in Italy the second week of February 2011 to go house-hunting.
“We said, ‘We’re going to make one trip to house-hunt. If we fall in love, we’ll buy; if not, we’ll have had the fun of house-hunting in Italy, and we’ll come home and that will give us something to talk about at cocktail parties,’” Constance said.
The Graysons “fell in love” with the last house they looked at — a 200-year-old stone home named Caifiordi built on three stories with a terra-cotta tile roof and big brown shutters.
“I hadn’t walked through the front door before I knew that was the house; it was just exactly what I envisioned it should be,” Constance said.
Four months later, they were back in Italy to furnish their new residence. Constance said the lifestyle of her second home was simpler and not as glamorous as some might have thought.
“When people learn we have a house in Italy, they’re thinking some villa on the Adriatic with a yacht bobbing,” she said. “No — it’s 1,600 square feet; the kitchen is two-thirds the size of my office; it’s small. I have to think about everything I take in it because there’s not much space, so everything that’s there is something that I really love that’s important to me in a way. It’s a real lesson in how you can live with less stuff.”
There was a definite language barrier; Bert heard some Italian in his family growing up but wasn’t encouraged to speak it, and Constance’s knowledge was largely culinary.
“I’m from Nicholasville, Kentucky; you don’t hear a lot of Italian here beyond pizza and lasagna,” she said. “I have had to study the language, and that’s not something that comes to me really easily, because I don’t have a good ear for it.”
The Graysons made it their mission to immerse themselves in authentic Italian culture, though they certainly had the opportunity to stay in their comfort zone even in the rural Umbrian countryside.
“Within a 30-minute radius of our house, there are probably 50 or 100 Brits or Scots or Americans who we could have become friends with — and we’ve met a lot of them through the years — but that was not our purpose,” Constance said. “Our purpose was to live like the Italians and to get to know our Italian neighbors, which has led to some fun and interesting experiences, especially since neither one of us spoke any real Italian when we bought the house.”
One of their first adventures was with an Italian farming couple who met them in the market and invited them to Sunday lunch — the most important meal of the week and also one usually reserved for family and close friends. After turning down the invitation twice because of the language barrier, Constance accepted it the third time but was baffled when the couple said they would see her at Caifiordi on Friday.
Having just enough at her house to throw together a dinner Friday, Constance was relieved when the couple arrived with no appetite but just questions about the upcoming Sunday lunch — if she and her husband preferred red or white wine, what meat she would like and if anyone else would be coming with the Graysons. Constance said she was impressed with the care the Italians took in catering to their guests.
“I have been invited to many people’s homes for dinner in the U.S., and I have had no one ever be that solicitous about inquiring about that,” she said.
With a mission of living like the Italians, the Graysons ironically developed a very American tradition at Caifiordi — welcoming the community to the house on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July for a party with music, dancing and a lot of food.
The annual gatherings have typically attracted 50 or 60 people, with one Italian woman embracing the American theme by each year bringing a tray of star-spangled beignets decorated red, white and blue. Constance has to begin frying chicken on her one large oven burner at 4 a.m. the day of the party. The festivities start around lunchtime and often go into the evening.
“We may be still dancing at five or six o’clock, and then we pass the food back around again, and people may or may not eat again, and then they go home, and I’m exhausted,” she said. “But it’s a fun time.”
Constance said she had no good explanation for how she had assimilated so cleanly into a culture that accepted her as she embraced it, but she said journalist and friend Anna Maria Polidori had put it best.