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Stranded by the volcano, a traveler learns to go with the flow

By Jason Wilson
Sunday, April 25, 2010; F01

"You can't drive nature," said the Amarone producer. "Nature drives you."

She was talking about the wine, the way her family is able to release vintages from certain of their northern Italian vineyards only in certain years. "We never know what nature gives us."

I've heard, of course, some version of that idea every time I've ever visited a winery, no matter where it is. But on that day, the notion that nature drives the world took on special meaning.

That's because, at that point, I'd been stranded in Italy for three days. As you might have heard, a volcano in Iceland with the unwieldy name of Eyjafjallajokull has been spewing a little ash, causing havoc with air travel. My trip was supposed to be a brief four-day jaunt to visit wineries in the Veneto region. The plan: Jet in; hit a dozen wineries in four days; jet out; return home; write article. Like millions of others, I hadn't factored a volcano into my plans. Then the airline canceled my flight from Venice last Sunday morning, with the earliest possibility of return on Thursday.

Hahaha.

That's your comment on my plight, right? Stuck for five extra days in Italy!

As you can imagine, very little sympathy was forthcoming from my family, friends and co-workers when I texted them the news. "Awwww," my wife texted back. "It must be SUCH a struggle to be stranded in that boutique hotel featured in Architectural Digest!"

"You can always get a boat home," texted my friend Pete, an Italian American pastamaker. "That's how my family got over to the States."

Another friend simply texted, "You suck."

Indeed, folks, life can be full of struggles. But perhaps this was not one of them. On the first day of my exile, I accompanied a young winemaker to lunch at the restaurant his family had just opened on an island off Venice. It was a warm, sunny day. There were delicious soft-shell crabs you can eat only in Venice. And lots of prosecco.

"Everything ok?" texted my mother.

"Yes," I wrote, "all is fine. I'm just boarding the vaporetto back from lunch, and Matteo is going to give me a tour of Venice's wine bars."

No further reply or concern from Mom.

At a certain point, I began to feel like the overprivileged son of a deposed dictator, one who lives in the lap of luxury and will never go back to his homeland. The night before my flight was canceled, I'd had dinner in the beautiful hill town of Asolo. A famous exile, Caterina Cornaro, the queen of Cyprus from 1474 to 1489, was sent to Asolo after losing her throne. During Cornaro's exile, the Italian verb "asolare," meaning to pass time in a delightful but meaningless way, came into usage. Perhaps that's how I can sum up my brief stranding in Italy. I visited some more wineries. Made some more friends. Ho asolato.

I'd love to tell you of a single hardship. That I paid $1,000 for a taxi to take me to an airport, where I had to sleep on a cot. That my boss got really upset with me. That my children forgot who I was. But no. Basically, I just spent four more days drinking wine and eating in Italy.

After visiting the Amarone producer, I had another sunny lunch at a restaurant facing Lago di Garda. This is the same region D.H. Lawrence wrote about in his classic 1916 travel book, "Twilight in Italy." Lawrence uses the slow peasant existence around Lago di Garda as a metaphor for all that is good and pure in the world, setting it against what he calls the "purpose stinking in it all, the mechanising, the perfect mechanising of human life."

"Yet what should become of the world?" he writes. "The industrial countries spreading like a blackness over all the world, horrible, in the end destructive. And the Garda was so lovely under the sky of sunshine, it was intolerable."

I was actually reading that book during my trip. And nearly a hundred years later, I have to say to Mr. Lawrence: Relax, dude. You're in Italy. Try not to think too much.

Wilson is the spirits columnist for The Post's Food section.

Read another story on a U.S. traveler stranded overseas by volcanic ash.

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