“I Can’t Believe We Live Here!”

The view from Zeneba & Matt's balcony in Soriano nel Cimino, Italy
The view from Zeneba & Matt’s balcony in Soriano nel Cimino, Italy

Two Classical Musicians Decide to Uproot it All and Move to Tuscany: “I Can’t Believe We Live Here!”

In 2019, American classical musicians Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker bought a 50 mq (500 sq ft) apartment for €26,000 in the town of Soriano nel Cimino, an hour north of Rome. This would become their new (and only) home six months later, when they quit their 20-year symphony jobs, obtained work visas, sold their house in Nashville TN, and moved to Italy (with four cats!) to live and work here as musicians – just three months before the pandemic lockdowns. 

ir?t=gc0a7 20&language=en US&l=li2&o=1&a=1088021255I Can't Believe We Live Here by Matt Walker and Zeneba BowersWhile in lockdown, with public events prohibited, they performed concerts from their little terrazza every evening for 62 nights in a row – first just for their neighbors, and then into the PA in the town’s piazza, and then broadcast live on Facebook.

This “Buonasera Soriano” concert series was featured on CBS Sunday Morning in May 2020, in a story about people playing from their balconies in Italy in the lockdown period.

They wrote about the whole crazy experience in a recently published memoir: I Can’t Believe We Live Here: The Wild But True Story of How We Dropped Everything in the States and Moved to Italy, Right Before the End of the World.

Our First Christmas in Italy

In this excerpt, Matt and Zeneba join a local family for Christmas dinner before going to perform a holiday concert at a local retirement home – just a month after moving from the US with their four cats, and just a few days after losing and burying their oldest and most beloved one.

Around noon on Christmas Day, I packed up my guitar and we walked down the street, where Floriana picked us up to take us across town to the home of her parents, Maria and Giovanni. (It wasn’t far, but we didn’t yet know that neighborhood very well.) It felt strange, after a week of being alone with our sorrow, to hop into a minivan with Floriana and her partner and two desperately excited kids.

Matt performing in the Narnia Festival- Narni, Italy
Matt performing in the Narnia Festival, Narnia, Italy

Maria and Giovanni’s little apartment was packed — Floriana’s parents, her partner and two kids, and her brother and his wife and their two children. Except for Floriana, no one spoke more than a couple of words of English, so we did our best with our Italian.

It was chaos, but the most wonderful kind — the house was filled with excitement, joy, the energy of youth at the holidays. Delicious food, new presents, probably too much Fanta. Even in our still-raw grief, it was impossible not to be cheered in this environment.

Matt performs on his balcony in Soriano nel Cimino, Italy
Matt performs on his balcony in Soriano nel Cimino, Italy

When they asked me to get my guitar out, I obliged; but in the moment, I couldn’t think of a single song to sing. No holiday carols, no funny ditties, not even a blues tune. My mind felt like an empty bucket.

After sort of aimlessly picking for a few minutes, I put it away, and the moment was forgotten in the surrounding family hubbub. Zen eyed me worriedly. She could see I was struggling.

We had a lovely lunch — far too much food of course, but it was invigorating. We were abstaining (well, mostly) from drinking wine, as we had to perform later that evening, but at the end of the meal, Maria broke out a bottle of bright orange liquid.

“Mandarino,” she said proudly, “fatto da noi.” This was their own homemade liquore, from mandarin oranges grown in Maria’s family home far to the south in Calabria. It was a common local product down there. Up here, it was liquid gold, tasting like summer in a glass.
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As the afternoon turned toward evening, I saw Maria come over to Zen. We knew that Floriana had told her about our cat. She put a matronly hand on Zen’s shoulder. “Come va, Zeneba, come stai?”

Zen was ready for such a question: Siamo triste a causa di nostro gatto,” Zen explained, “e anche ci manca nostra famiglia.” We were sad about our cat, and we miss our family on a holiday like this.

Maria pulled Zen over and hugged her. “Oggi, io posso essere tua mama italiana.” I can be your Italian mom. Zen collapsed into Maria’s hug and cried a little. (I might have cried a little too.)

Soon thereafter, we said our Arrivederci and our Grazie mille — we had to get going to prepare for the concert. As we headed out their door, Maria gave us a little bottle of mandarino to take home with us.

Now that we knew the way, we walked through town back to our house. It was getting dark when we got home. We grabbed our instruments (me switching my guitar for my cello) and a couple of music stands, and huffed and puffed as we hiked up the hill to the Residenza San Giorgio. It was a very steep walk, and bitterly cold. We were regretting turning down Floriana’s earlier offer to drive us there.

The Residenza beckoned us from the top of the hill, with its cheery yellow lights and smoking chimneys. Formerly a fancy old hotel, now a retirement home, it was vividly dressed up for the holidays. The staff ushered us in and helped us set up to play in a big lounge room, where a log fire was burning in the hearth. Many of the residents were already gathered, and more showed up, curious, as we unpacked and tuned our instruments.

Matt Walker and Zemba Bowers
Matt Walker and Zeneba Bowers

Over the years, the two of us had played countless duo concerts in any number of circumstances, sometimes under immense pressure. But neither of us could remember ever being this nervous.

We had no idea, as we introduced ourselves in our best (but still a bit primitive) Italian, how these folks would respond to our music or to ourselves. At one point, in the midst of a really fun but difficult Baroque sonata, a woman’s phone rang, and she answered it — loudly.

“Pronto?!? Non posso parlare, c’è un concerto!!!” I can’t talk now, I’m in a concert. That was considerate of her, I thought. I smiled and looked over at Zen as we played. To my surprise, she was laughing! I had missed that smile.

A few minutes later, as I was introducing the next piece, another woman turned to the guy next to her and said (again, loudly), “Non capisco niente lui diceva!” I don’t understand a thing he said! Zen and I both outright giggled at that. I guess my American accent was too strong.

These moments really broke through our dark moods. It was nice to just smile and laugh at life after our past week. Notwithstanding the occasional interjections (there were only a couple of other phone calls), everyone generally seemed to appreciate the music, and their applause seemed genuine. And most of them appeared to understand our Italian, more or less.

Toward the end of our presentation, as we switched to a few familiar traditional Christmas tunes, we noticed that Floriana and her family had come to the concert — they were in the back of the room, smiling and singing along with the carols. Seeing them was another balm to our souls — reminiscent of our own family sometimes coming to our concerts in the States. And just like Maria had said to Zen, it felt like we sort of had our own family here in Italy.

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