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WM Voices: A Love Affair

It was love at first sight. The affair was totally unexpected. I had gone to Europe on a lark. But, on my first trip to Europe, I fell in love—with Italy.

I had just graduated from Wabash and entered the work world in the midst of a deep U.S. recession. Jobs were scarce but I managed to find two temporary jobs that lasted about a year. Then, I found myself unemployed again.

At that point, a couple of Wabash fraternity brothers came to my rescue with an idea.

The Roman theater in Bubbio, built in 20 B.C.They said, “After we finish our Glee Club tour, why don’t you come meet us in Germany. We can travel around Europe for a couple weeks. We’ll stay in cheap places, mostly with friends and relatives. Then you can come back home for some serious job hunting.”

My budget was as bare-bones as you can get—rock-bottom air fares, a cheap backpack, worn-out sneakers, some run-down youth hostels, and basic meals.

But I was intrigued about taking this trip, due in great part, Professor John Fischer who served as the faculty advisor to my fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha. He often spoke to me about the Greeks, Romans, and all kinds of things when we met weekly when I was an officer in the fraternity.

In a roundabout way John planted a curiosity in me for Europe, in general, and Italy, in particular, even though I never actually took a class with him.

This impromptu trip became an epic life-changing experience. I never intended to fall in love with Italy, nor did I think I would ever live there someday.

On that first trip, my fraternity brothers and I traveled together as planned, then went our separate ways. My friends lingered in Spain and I had enough money left over to go on my own to Italy for a few days.

I arrived in Rome on a rainy, humid, languid summer evening, found an inexpensive hotel near the train station, and checked in.

It was quite late and the hotel clerk took pity on me, shepherding me next door to see if the small family-owned restaurant was still open. Fortunately, it was.

For my first Italian meal, the proprietor recommended some pasta that was out of this world. It was served in a simple sauce of garlic and tomatoes that was fabulous. I self-consciously exclaimed in English to the waiter it was the best pasta I had ever eaten. He clearly understood my excitement and shortly returned with a second serving of pasta and an extra glass of a sublime white wine at no extra charge.

This was my first introduction to Italian kindness and generosity. I know now that Italians routinely treat their customers as if they are friends and family.

I spent a few glorious days eating Italian food, exploring museums, churches, and ruins from Roman times. The stunning centuries-old architecture overwhelmed my sensibilities. The hustle and bustle of Rome, along with the pervasive rat-tat-tat sound of two-cycle engine motor scooters, was thrilling.

John Fischer and Mike Laudick '82 in Sicily.

Ambling along the alleys was like surfing from one great wave of aroma to another. I was constantly 

hungry because of smells of meals being prepared wafting through windows which are often kept wide open due to the lack of air conditioning.

Gelaterias offered dozens of flavors of homemade gelato prepared in a wild array of colors that rivaled the stunning sunsets of pink, orange and red.

I felt comfortable there—miles, ages, and worlds away from the midwestern U.S. town where I grew up. Italy was just as welcoming to a naive young man from mid-America as Professor Fischer told me it would be.

I returned home, built a good career, and co-founded a successful philanthropic consulting business that served hundreds of libraries, youth organizations, museums, colleges and universities, social service organizations, arts groups, and others in 28 states across the country.

I spent my spare time revisiting Italy and learning as much as I could about the country and its people. I realized that the comfort I felt in Italy was not just a passing infatuation. On each return trip to Italy, the country became more alluring, more wonderous, and inescapably captivating. I was fortunate to travel elsewhere, but was always drawn back to Italy and especially Central Italy.

At home, I studied Italian at our local university. I bought cookbooks so I could learn Italian cooking. I devoured books about history, geography, architecture, wine, art, and artists. I delved into the lives of Romans and Etruscans. I became fascinated by the histories of Roman and medieval hill towns.

My 35-year career gave me a gratifying sense of fulfillment but I decided it was time to make a permanent change. Thanks to John Fischer, who instilled in me an interest in things far beyond my Wabash degree, I retired early to pursue my dream of living in Italy.

After living here full-time for a number of years, I have found Central Italy to be exceptionally accessible and welcoming. It is far less touristed than many other regions.

The Infiorata festival held in the summer in Spello.

My experience has been that Italians in Central Italy are down-to-earth, generous, kind, open-minded, and refreshingly authentic. With my long-held interest in food and wine, Umbria became my dream place. It is known for having some of the best food in all of Italy.

Now I am working on an “encore career.” It is completely different from my previous career and enables me to put my Wabash liberal arts degree to good use.

I am a representative for the U.S. tour company called Italy!Adventures. At Italy!Adventures, I have an opportunity to introduce guests to my favorite towns and places. They get a chance to enjoy some scrumptious food at family-owned restaurants while sampling many unknown but remarkable wines, including wine from a grape that is found only in this area of the world.

My biggest delight is helping guests to explore at their own pace, just like I did on that very first trip. They get to explore up close a number of mind-boggling hill towns that are loaded with incredible art and architecture.

On a tour, I know I have succeeded when guests thank me for an unforgettable trip, for enabling them to see and to experience some things they would never be able to in the U.S., and for teaching them how to slow down and smell the pasta!