It was September, 1999, when I met Franco Lombardi. My sister, Dede, and I were in Tuscany on a buying trip for her wine shop in Des Moines, Iowa. We had an appointment to meet him at his Chianti olive farm, "Podere Pornanino", which sits out in the middle of all the photos you've ever seen of the Tuscan countryside. Our Italian friends had told us he made very good oil and that's just what we wanted for the wine shop.
I was impressed with Franco as soon as we met. He was the epitome of the Italian man.... he swaggered... he was egotistic, witty, and charming. He was 60 years old, a retired civil engineer who had lived in other countries during his career and, when he retired, he purchased a place in Chianti that just happened to have a few thousand olive trees.
And he was absolutely passionate about making olive oil. His efforts began as a quest to make a good oil for family and friends. That effort has morphed into world wide notoriety. He used the old world method of picking the olives by hand and continues to do so to this day.
That beautiful afternoon, as we sat outside, drank wine, and ate olives, the more I learned about his passion and his goal towards excellence.
That meeting was the start of a beautiful friendship, which led to the start of my tour business. At some point, Franco said, "You enjoy Tuscany so much and seem to know quite a lot about it. Why do you not bring others with you?"
At the time, I was a Director of Nursing, and contrary to previous DON positions, I was actually enjoying this job. However, fate intervened in May of 2001, after receiving a glowing evaluation 3 weeks earlier (a little back-patting here.... I instigated a "customer satisfaction" program that raised all hospital department scores within a 3-month period), I was told my job "was being eliminated". This was not true since a hospital cannot function without a DON. The truth was that the CEO, who I helped hire and who needed dental work, did not want to pay my salary any longer and I, not the job, was being eliminated. In his squinty little eyes, I cost too much.
Regardless of the fact that I was instrumental in saving this hospital from financial ruin and closure. Regardless of the fact that I was the only DON who (there had been 4 in the two years preceding me) could manage a nursing staff made up of a majority of people who had never worked anywhere except in this small rural hospital and who were dead set against any change. The dental-challenged CEO got his comeuppance, however. Eight months after the CEO hired the nurse who I had hired to be my clinical manager.... she left. I don't know if she was fired or just gave up, but she couldn't handle the job. Upon hearing this news, did I feel a bit of smug self satisfaction? You bet, but I digress....
After the shock and anger related to my sudden departure from the hospital wore off - it took about a week - I not only redecorated my kitchen in a Tuscan look (see the article about it in "WomenInc" magazine ("Turning a Wallpapered Kitchen into a Little Bit of Italy", 2007 March Homes Edition, www.womeninc.com - BTW, I am a contributing writer), but the idea of taking fellow travelers to Tuscany became more and more enticing.
I contacted about 20 friends and asked if they would be open to the role of guinea pig for my maiden tour. Several responded with a "SI!", and I took the first five. I had planned on keeping the groups small to preserve the sense of intimacy and fun that I had always enjoyed while dashing about Italy with my sister and others. Small numbers meant that we could do lots of things the big tours could not. To this day, I shutter when I see those huge tour buses or the massive groups of headphone-wearing people waddling through somewhere, following a microphoned guide who is holding a stick up high with a fluffy duck impaled at the top. I knew from the beginning of my venture that there had to be a better way.
I took my lead from Franco Lombardi. I knew from his experience and wisdom that sometimes smaller was better. As long as the product is excellent. The passion came naturally.
Of course, the tours include some "must-do, must-see" touristy things. One cannot, or should not, go to Tuscany without seeing Florence, Siena, San Gimignano.... but there is a way to see these tourist-saturated spots without feeling overwhelmed. It starts with knowing the right people (oohhh, I have a deal you can't refuse.....) and utilizing the expert advise and knowledge they impart regarding what to see, where to go, and what time to do these things.
Guess what? I know the people who not only make the olive oil, but the wine, the leather, the cashmere, the cheese, the food, etc etc etc.... and sometimes I can help get that deal you can't refuse!
Allora... (that means sort of "but, anyway...") I have Franco Lombardi to thank for my tour business. Oh, and I suppose I could thank the mini-toothed CEO, but I won't. Because I know I would have started Enchanted Tuscany Tours at some point in my life anyway. www.enchantedtuscanytours.com
I am defining a life experience by living it. This is one of those dream/success stories that I used to read about. You know that old saying, "find something to do that you just love and get someone to pay you for doing it". Granted, I loved nursing, but sharing Tuscany with others is beyond just having a job. For all people who believe in destiny, I am fairly positive that I lived during the Renaissance. And that I was a Medici. Basically, a Princess. I know this because when I get to Italy, I always know that I'm home.