Remembering Harriet Gussoni, Tuscany Untour Leader

Andrea SzyperSubmitted by
Harriet, late head of the Tuscany Untour

Our dear friend and colleague Harriet Gussoni passed away this year, on July 22. Harriet ran our Tuscany Untour on the ground in Italy since its beginning, in the early 90s until her recent retirement from her Untours work in fall of 2017.

Harriet was born in the US and her studies of Renaissance art took her to Florence, where she met Aldo, the man who would become her husband. They raised their family in the area just outside Florence, Italy, but Harriet often returned to Florence, Alabama to visit family.

Over Harriet’s many years with Untours, she helped us develop and grow our Untour there, adding apartments, working through logistics, adding programming, and constantly improving our Tuscany Untour. Guests and colleagues alike were impressed with her friendliness and efficiency both.

Tuscany was our first of many Italian Untours, and she was instrumental in hiring, training, and mentoring staff as we grew in Italy. She set a high standard for excellence among our European staff and helped train staffers from as far away as Scotland and Greece.

Harriet charmed her Untours guests with a winning combination of grace, warmth, and practicality. Guests routinely called her a gem on the their post-trip questionnaires. A fair number of us can say Harriet helped shape our love and appreciation of Italy.

Here are some remembrances of Harriet shared by people in the Untours community. Please share yours in the comments section.

Harriet, late head of the Tuscany Untour

We have taken eight Untours to Tuscany under the direction of Harriet, and over that time we feel that we became very good friends. Harriet always did her job with a bright smile and made us all feel so welcome and that we belonged there. She went above and beyond her job so many times that we feel that we really owe her a great debt of gratitude. When we asked her to help, she set up a great cooking class for us several times and then went on to be our interpreter, which is not part of her job, but only her desire to help us all enjoy our stay. I am sure if we lived closer, Harriet would have been one of our best friends.
 — Duane and Sue Wright, Tuscany Untourists

We started our adventure almost together. Harriet showed me the ropes and from then onwards we spent time together whenever possible. We shared recipes, funny stories and exchanged news about our families. Aldo was always spoken about but never seen, so I used to tease her, asking her if Aldo really existed. I like to think of her laughing and smiling. Harriet left sweet memories.
 — Denny Jennings, Venice Untours staff

I met Harriet in 2005 during a trip to Tuscany with my husband and another couple in what became a fun trip we still talk and laugh about. From the moment I met Harriet she exuded an air of calm and sophistication. I came to feel that if any staff person could handle stress and problems it would be Harriet, and she did it with a smile.

From time to time Harriet would stop by the Untours office in Media, and it was always great to catch up with her. Her life ended too soon, and her loss is deeply felt in the Untours community. Her memory lives on though. Countless Untourists will never forget Harriet, and neither will I. May she rest in peace.
 — Cathrin Baumbach, Untours staff, US office

Harriet was so keen and serious about her job that whenever I needed help she did all she could to help. She was a real problem solver. At the same time, she always had a smile for you. I don’t remember ever seeing Harriet stressed out. A great loss for all of us.
 — Caterina DeFelice, Umbria Untours staff

Harriet, late head of the Tuscany Untour

I had the pleasure of knowing and working with Harriet for 22 years. This regal lady with her soft Alabama accent was our first representative in Italy. Little did we know at the time we began with Harriet that she would help us grow the Tuscany Untour while training new staff in other Italian regions and cities. Her work extended beyond Italy. In 2016, Harriet trained our newest staff member, Val from Scotland.

Even after her retirement in 2017, Harriet stayed involved, mentoring her replacement in Tuscany while staying in touch with her former colleagues. In March of this year, Harriet organized a lunch for the past and current staff in Florence and Tuscany. I had the privilege of joining them. It was a festive occasion with the usual delicious Tuscan food and wine. She was in high spirits, enjoying the company of new and old friends and sharing stories from her decades with Untours.

It was only a week or two later when we heard of Harriet’s sudden illness. Over her career, Harriet touched the lives of thousands of Untourists, introducing them to Tuscany and showing them how to live in and appreciate a different culture. All of us miss her deeply. Addio, Harriet!
 — Brian Taussig-Lux, Untours president

We first heard of Harriet from friends who had visited Tuscany and, among other good reports, said how helpful the local Untours representative had been. Then, on our first of 12 Tuscan Untours, we were greeted by her warm, welcoming smile, an airport trolley loaded with water bottles, and an expertly prepared set of instructions for us to study as she shepherded us onto a little bus for the trip from the Florence Airport to AVIS Siena to pick up our cars.

After a few years we didn’t need to sit in on all of her very helpful orientation sessions in order to learn the traffic rules and solve the puzzle of parking in Siena, but she took extra time to find us new places to go and things to see, fill us in on the history of the region, bring us up to date on changes to the local scene, and let us know what was happening with mutual Italian friends, some of whom we met through her.

We can’t compare Harriet to other reps, because we got hooked on Tuscany and never went anywhere else. The job was, for her, obviously infused with love, and we can’t imagine anyone being a better representative of Untours’ unique travel concept. We don’t know how long she served – she was at it long before we arrived – but Harriet certainly set a high bar for her successors, and in doing so earned our gratitude and became a cherished friend.
 — Jean and Tom Evans, Tuscany Untourists

Harriet, late head of the Tuscany Untour

I only knew Harriet for a very short period of time. We met in the October in Nannini coffee bar in Siena. I immediately took to her warm and friendly personality. We then met quite regularly from the following January, and we would go for lunch together in Buonconvento. She loved risotto with shrimp and zucchini and a glass of prosecco. She was always super organized and super efficient, but she had a wicked sense of humor, and how we would laugh at those lunches, especially after the limoncello!

I wish we could have worked together and known each other for a little longer, we may have even become great friends. Thank you Harriet for your support and opening the Untours door for me. You’re a hard act to follow and are truly missed.
 — Tracy Louise Hyde, current Tuscany Untour staff

I only met Harriet once when we had our group brainstorming session in Florence, but I knew her more via email (how modern and trendy is that). Whenever I had an Untours or personal question, she was on it, always helpful. Have one big regret that during my one day personal visit to Montalcino early this year I was not able to meet her for the lunch we had talked about. We have all been touched by the Untours magic thanks to Harriet, who has been a true Untours pioneer and has left her mark on all.
 — Mary Handley, Rome Untour staff

My husband Randy and I hold thoughts of Harriet alongside beautiful memories of Tuscany and our fun times together. I always think of Harriet at Easter, remembering the huge Kinder egg she gave Randy. He was a little boy at heart long before he was the father of a little boy and able to hand down the toy that came inside.

I think she saw the mischief in him. She presented the egg to him over dinner at Banfi in Montalcino on a Good Friday when my good Catholic husband ate a very meaty dinner. We still laugh when we remember it all, sharing Brunello and good conversation. Harriet was a serious worker and smart colleague, but she had such a lovely fun side.
 — Andrea Szyper, Untours staff, US office

Remembering Harriet
Harriet with Mary Jane Poole and Andi (Cancelliere) Sheehan, sharing a meal in Florence

Coming back to Florence this fall and knowing Harriet would not be right around the corner was harder even than I had anticipated. Because that was where she had been for me for the previous 10 years – nearby.

Whenever I needed her help or whenever she and I would make a “play date” in Florence, which we did as often as possible, sometimes a museum – the Ferragamo or Gucci brought out the most giggles. And lunch… we always loved to “do lunch” especially at Il Santo Bevitore, at that little table in the back with a window onto the street, providing us with extra entertainment.

What began as a working relationship with Untours, with her caring mentorship all along the way, turned into a very fond friendship. We were the same age; we both grew up in the American South and liked and disliked mostly the same things from that experience; we both knew the Italy of the 1960s. We even had as a touchstone a childhood friend whom I know in Maine.

All this together gave us a solid base for a friendship that just grew. I think, however, that even if none of these similarities were in place, we would have still taken to each other.

As we all know, it was a natural thing to like Harriet. She was reliable, warm, cheerful, self-effacing, and just plain fun. She was a true lady, with clients and family alike. I think of her so often as I go through Florence and realize that like so many blessings in life, we do not fully appreciate them until they are there no longer, but I hope I will always be able to conjure up a vision of her twinkly eyes and her life-affirming laugh.
 — Mary Jane Poole, former on-site staff person for the Florence Untour

Harriet has been the most helpful to my husband and me for the last 18 years as we have returned to southern Tuscany many times. She has taught us to look both ways and engage the oncoming drivers’ eyes before crossing the street, which helped us survive to return so often. Her orientation advice for where to go and what to see has been of immeasurable assistance.

Because of her suggestions we have seen wonderful places in Tuscany that we originally didn’t know existed. We felt special closeness to her when her daughter lived for awhile in Pittsburgh as that is our hometown and we could return the favor by telling her about what a nice city Pittsburgh is. We will regret not seeing her again. Thank you, Harriet, for always being there when we needed you.
 — Bob and Metha Hillard, Tuscany Untourists

Remembering Harriet
Harriet with Sue Baker (left), Denny Jennings (to her right) and other Italian staff at a meeting in Umbria

I first met Harriet and her husband Aldo during their vacation to Atrani. I was deeply impressed! She was – I still have problems using the past tense – one of the kindest and loveliest human beings I ever met in my life! Her personality so warm, joyful, and outgoing! Full of grace! It was wonderful and great fun to spend time with her on that occasion. She was a joy to be with!

Then we spoke on the phone and emailed many times. She was extremely diligent, professional, reliable, and knowledgeable in her job. I was very happy to meet her at our meeting in Florence. Her contribution was priceless. And she surprised all of us with a beautiful personal gift!

Last time I met her it was in December 2017 in Florence. I was there for work and I met for lunch with her and Mary Jane. As usual we had a great time. I still cannot believe she isn’t with us anymore! My heart is aching. I miss her so much!
 — Rosa Pauli Luypen, Amalfi Coast Untour staff

I have so many fond memories of time spent with Harriet. I loved watching her with Untours clients, good naturedly solving problems or making personal connections. And I learned so much about Italian culture from her. Here are just a few of the foodie highlights.

  • Regarding the precious balsamic vinegar, use a light touch. You shouldn’t see any wasted vinegar on the bottom of your salad bowl when you are finished.
  • Regarding artichokes, if you buy the tiny ones at the spring markets, you can cut them raw into fourths and dip them in olive oil, one of Aldo’s favorite ways of eating them!
  • Bruschetta lardo, basically paper thin lard slivers on bread, not something I would normally order, but Harriet insisted it was delicious and, of course, it was.

 — Sue Baker, former Italian Untours staff, US office

To me Harriet IS Untours and all the wonderful things associated with that wonderful company.
She was the first Untours person I met and I spent all day everyday with her for a week when she trained me to set up the Umbrian Untour. She was above all gracious in all circumstances, with all people, and at all times. That’s not an easy thing to be when dealing with guests’ demands, irritable landlords, and stupid newbies like myself. And so I drank in that atmosphere from the very beginning, “the Untours air” as I like to call it: gracious, caring, responsible, uncommon, that is, not found everywhere. But those characteristics are almost “catching” and I strove to emulate her and create the same in Umbria.

Later I got to know everyone else and discovered Untours was a collection of like-minded people! And fun. Harriet was a witty woman, and a joy to be with.
 — Jo-Anne Rowe, former Umbria Untours staff

John and I first met Harriet 5 years ago on our first Untours adventure to Tuscany. She welcomed us with open arms and made us feel so comfortable. Harriet was gracious, kind, and extremely accommodating.

We appreciated how she gently corrected our “limited” Italian! During our orientation, Harriet explained how she wanted us to enjoy the local traditions of the communities we visited. Without Harriet’s presence and translation skills we would not have been able to enjoy our cooking classes with the lovely family at La Canonica.

We attributed Harriet’s knowledge of Italy’s culture to our return trips to Tuscany. We are forever grateful for her gentle care and kindness extended to us, and we send prayers to both her family, as well as her Untours family.
 — Joanne & John Choyka, Tuscany Untourists

Remembering Harriet
Andi (Cancelliere) Sheehan and Andrea Szyper with Harriet on her last visit to Media, PA in January 2016

I remember meeting Harriet like it happened yesterday. I started at Untours in May of 1997 and had planned my first overseas work assignment for August of that year. We had spoken on the phone, emailed, and faxed prior to my arrival, to set everything up so that I could get to learn about the “Italian” Untour. It was our only one at the time.

I flew into Milan and took the train to Florence. When I finally arrived at the station, I remember seeing Harriet from a distance as I walked down the platform. All I kept thinking to myself was, wow, she is so tall!

From that moment, Harriet was not only my coworker, but my friend. I saw Harriet every year over the last 21 years. And, we spoke either by phone, email, or text just about every day, sometimes on the weekend. And not always about work.

Harriet was bright, energetic, dedicated, kind, well mannered to a fault, I’m talking monogrammed thank you notes for even the smallest gesture you may have made. She was also funny, witty and had a little bit of a naughty sense of humor when in the right company.

On my numerous trips to Tuscany, and even when we met up in Umbria, or Philadelphia, traveling with Harriet was always an adventure. From the time she spent trying to teach me to drive a manual shift car in Umbria, to taking unknown, unmarked gravel country roads in Tuscany to find a new farmhouse, to her riding with me in my car in Media and her exclaiming, “Andi, you drive like an Italian!” all while a police officer was waving at me to slow down.

Some of the best times and meals I’ve had in Tuscany were with Harriet. I can remember that first one back in August of 1997, coniglio in Brunello at Taverna Grappolo Blu, and our last meal together at Iron Hill Brewery in Media in January of 2016. That was the last time I saw Harriet in person. The last time I embraced her. I told her then that my husband and I were trying to have a baby, and a few months later I was happy to give her the news that we were expecting.

James was born in January of 2017. I had so hoped that he would get to meet his zia Harriet. The zia Harriet who had put off her retirement by a year, without telling anyone, so that I could have a nice pregnancy and first months and wouldn’t have to worry about hiring a replacement for her.

The zia Harriet who sent lovely little presents to him and his older sister, my stepdaughter. The same zia Harriet who watched my wedding video and wept.

Now, I weep as I write about her. A life ended too soon and too suddenly. A life that has impacted hundreds of other lives. Someone who gave of herself from beginning to end. Her legacy will live on through her children and grandchildren, and those of us lucky enough to have known her.

Dear Harriet, you are so missed, but I know you’re in a better place and are watching over us all, smiling and with a twinkle in those lovely blue eyes. Arrivederci, cara. Un bacione, ed un abbraccio, forte, forte.
 — Andi (Cancelliere) Sheehan, Italian Untours Director

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *