For those of you who weren't there, a few observations:
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi is a small, artsy town on the Gulf Coast -- or it was until Hurricane Katrina. The town suffered significant damage, and the scars were visible as we drove about today: dead trees, shady lots with crumbled homes, empty foundations waiting for a new home to be built, and swimming pools sprouting weeds and debris. The Hancock County Library hosted a section of books specifically about Katrina, and there was a section of official-looking government forms waiting to be picked up. The library was crowded, and most of its patrons were using the computers or taking advantage of the free internet connections.
But the people who came (40-some in all) were so lovely and charming. Most had been to Italy at some point in their lives, and many were artists and art lovers. We had a lovely time! One woman told me that she'd lost everything in the hurricane. Just before Easter that next year, she emptied her bank account and went to Italy for eight days of relaxation -- eight days without having to face the hurricane damage. Another woman thanked me for an hour free of hurricane talk. I was truly happy to oblige. People offered to show me around town (sadly, we had limited time), and I heard great stories from a few of the town's artists about their time spent in Italy. What a joy to be amongst people who love Italy as much as I do!
I have a good friend who grew up in Bay St. Louis. He lived through several big hurricane before leaving the Gulf Coast, and his family home has been refuge for much of the town because it is on high ground. He loves his hometown, and I had the pleasure of meeting several of his relatives today who all gave me a very warm welcome (as well as some truly delicious home cooking at Neil's Restaurant).
Thank you again to my new friends in Bay St. Louis. I am blessed to have met you all, and I hope to see you again someday soon!