Our first night away from Rionero was in Monte Sant Angelo, high on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic. I’d chosen the location because it wasn’t far from where we were picking up our rental car, and there was an inexpensive hotel with onsite parking right off the main road. When we checked into the hotel, I saw the main hall was decorated for Valentine’s Day. I wouldn’t have even remembered it was Valentine’s Day except that the barista at the train station in Rionero had given me a small chocolate with my macchiato before wishing me Buon San Valentino. It didn’t seem like anyone was staying at the hotel other than us, and I couldn’t imagine there was going to be any sort of celebration. More importantly, I didn’t care.

Valentine’s Day to me had always seemed like a gimmick. The store shelves bulging with overpriced cards that generally contained sappy sentiments seemed like a waste of money. Restaurants guilted couples into feeling there was something wrong with their relationship if they didn’t want to spend a quiet, candlelit, romantic—and usually overpriced—dinner alone together. David and I had spent every waking—and sleeping—moment together for the past two weeks, so that last thing we needed was a quiet dinner alone together. The last thing I was feeling was romantic—I was actually a little annoyed after the drive to reach Monte Sant Angelo.

I was going to be driving our little Fiat 500 rental car for the next several weeks while we traveled around Italy, but I hadn’t driven a manual transmission since our harrowing drive over a mountain pass in Albania the summer before—in fact, I hadn’t driven a car at all for over two weeks. The first two hours of the drive were easy, along regional highways and smaller roads leading through the towns on the coast, but when the map directed us to turn left, and drive up the mountain, I grew concerned.

I glanced at the Google map on David’s phone to see what was ahead, my eyes wide when I saw the long blue line that zigzagged sharply about fifty times before reaching the top. With a big gulp, I downshifted and started the climb. Every turn was a hairpin, there were no guardrails, and the lanes were narrow and steep. The Italians who lived here must be used to this harrowing drive, because they continually wanted to pass me. When I wasn’t teetering near a cliff, I pulled to the right part of my lane to let them by, as I’d seen many Italian drivers do. I was sweating profusely, trying to keep my eyes on the road, when David said, “Wow, look at that view!”

“How can I look at the view? I can barely navigate the road!” I yelled. Instead of admiring the scenery, I was trying hard to ignore it, my heart racing and my stomach turning, thanks to a fear of heights that had developed while hiking a difficult mountain in Colorado the summer before.

The Google map took us around the center of the town to the very top, and the road dead ended at a power plant perched precariously near the edge of the mountain. I very slowly and carefully turned the car around, while trying to ignore David telling me how to do it. We ended up driving back and forth for ten minutes, arguing about whether we were in the right place or not, when we finally saw the sign for the hotel. We hadn’t noticed it because there wasn’t a single car in the parking lot and the place looked deserted. I parked the car and turned off the engine as fast as I could. All I wanted was a drink.

Even though we were only in town for the night, Monte Sant Angelo was listed as one of I Borghi più Belli d’Italia, and I wanted to visit as many of these picturesque small towns as our time in Italy would allow. We wandered around the centro to see the UNESCO site, and although the historic center of the town was as gorgeous as advertised, it was lifeless, and we couldn’t find a single place where we might sit and have a drink.

The winds were whipping through the hilltop town making it unbearable to be outside, so we gave up and returned to our hotel where we ordered a drink from the front desk (that also served as the bar in this small hotel). We sat at a back table in the deserted room with our drinks, wondering if we’d even be able to find somewhere open for dinner. We weren’t looking for a special Valentine’s Day menu. We just needed food before getting some sleep to continue our drive to Gubbio the next day.

As I sipped my Aperol Spritz, I watched the young woman who had checked us in and served our drinks move around the front room setting tables. “Do you think those are for dinner?” I asked David. We hadn’t seen another person at the small hotel—or anywhere else in town for that matter—so I couldn’t imagine who would be eating here.

“No way, I’m sure that’s just to make the room look nice,” David said.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said, sounding more critical than I intended. “Look nice for whom? There isn’t a soul here but us.”

The woman stopped by our table to ask if we needed anything else. “Are you serving dinner tonight?” I asked. “If so, can we make a reservation?”

“Yes, but the table you are sitting at now is the only one available,” she said.

“What about all of those?” I asked, gesturing to the twenty tables she had set in the front room of the hotel.

“Mi dispiace, sono pieni,” she said, then began setting our table for us.

I couldn’t believe all the tables in the front room were fully booked and had no idea where these diners would be coming from, but figured we better go shower and dress for dinner so we’d be prepared for whatever might be happening.

We came into the dining room about 7:30, which is early for Italians, and there were only a couple other people seated. But over the coming hour, the tables filled entirely. The staff even set up a couple of makeshift tables in the back for two young couples who came in without reservations.
Suddenly, the room was abuzz.

This Valentine’s Day experience wasn’t a quiet, candlelit celebration between lovers, but rather a family affair as is so often the case in Italy. There were elderly couples with friends and families with three generations sitting at large tables, and a few couples like us. When the music began, the pitch in the room went up noticeably. People were talking and laughing while they sang along to classic Italian love songs. It was so lively that I couldn’t help comparing it to the last time I had been out for a Valentine’s Day dinner in Denver—probably twenty years ago—where the restaurant had been filled with only couples dining very quietly at tables set for two. I was certain it never would have occurred to people in the US to bring their young children or aging parents along for a Valentine’s Day dinner out. In the US, Valentine’s Day celebrations were only about the couple, not the family, and the contrast to what was happening here was astonishing.

There was a young boy about three years old at the table next to us who kept turning to look at me. I was missing my grandchildren back home by this point in our journey, so I kept smiling and waving to him. At one point he turned to me, stuck his thumbs in his ears, wiggled his fingers, stuck out his tongue, and glared at me. I laughed out loud, and just as I went to return the silly face, his mother turned around and caught me in the act. He started it, I wanted to say, but instead just smiled. David laughed out loud and reached for my hand. We were both loving this experience and seeing the families celebrating together had entirely wiped away my frustration from the drive into town.

Eventually the parents let the young boy down from the table and he ran around chasing balloons near our table for an hour with his cousins, two girls a few years older who I could tell had been tasked with keeping him entertained. The parents and grandparents were deep in conversation while enjoying their dinner, and nobody even looked up to check on the boy—they knew he was in good hands.

At a break in the music, we peaked around to the front room to see the singer, a classic lounge performer, more than a little past his prime, with an average voice, who simply loved to entertain. The hotel must have told him they had guests staying from America—clearly, we were the only non-locals in the room—because he came to our table to chat on his break. When David explained that he was from LA, but we were now living in Denver, the singer became very excited.

“You’re from California? I’ll play Bruce Springsteen for you!” he said to David, clearly confusing Bruce’s New Jersey home with California. “I translated all of his songs to Italian!” And off he went to the stage area where he began singing “Thunder Road” in Italian. At the end of the song he gave a shout out to the Americans in the room, and the dining room erupted in applause for us. Several of the older men in the room approached us, explaining that he was playing this set of Springsteen covers just for us. We were completely thrown off guard and more than a little embarrassed, but we nodded and smiled to everyone around us as they smiled back and continued to clap for us.

By 11:30, we were ready for bed, but the party didn’t seem to be ending any time soon. The singer was still belting out Italian classics interspersed with Bruce Springsteen covers, the little kids were still tossing balloons around, and none of the tables had even begun to empty. We were exhausted from a long day of travel to get here, and knew we needed to get an early start in the morning. As hard as it was to leave this magical celebration, we needed sleep. But how could we politely escape this room where everyone seemed to be staring at us?

We agreed on a classic ghosting strategy. I’d pretend that I was using the restroom in our room while David chatted with the singer. Then he’d tell him he needed to see if I was okay and sneak out. It worked and we didn’t feel like we had insulted any of our new friends in Monte Sant Angelo.

Our room was right above the dining room, and we got ready for bed listening to the music and the sounds of families partying until well past midnight. This was supposed to be a simple pitstop on our way, but the evening had given us so much more. I’d always called Valentine’s Day a holiday for amateurs, but now I thought I finally understood. This party had shown me that to celebrate the love between two people without celebrating the love of their other friends and family was incomplete.

David and I both felt that celebrating together like this, with all these Italian families, had been a richer experience than just staring at each other over a candlelit dinner, and we agreed we’d give Valentine’s Day another shot once we were home—only this time we’d invite the whole family for a blow-out party.