Tales of a wandering lesbian

Power

Today, after a week of running up and down the coast, the Ant and I decided to head inland to the city of Potenza.  Potenza isn’t in our guidebook, and we didn’t find a ton of information on it, other than it’s the highest regional capitol in the country, and that it has a lot of historic churches.  Oh, and its name means, “Power.”

We spent yesterday afternoon examining bus and train schedules, and planning our trip.  It seemed best for us to catch the 9:35 high-speed train from Salerno.  Because the station is an hour and a half walk, we hopped a bus to downtown.  After a week, we’ve got the busses pretty well figured out (knock on wood), so we ended up at the station with tickets in hand about an hour before the train left.  We congratulated ourselves and decided a cappuccino was in order.

It took about a week for us to have a favorite cappu place.  It’s our favorite gelato place, too.  Just up from the train station, on a corner by the sea, it’s also our favorite bathroom stop.  They’ve started recognizing us.  This morning after ordering in Italian, I heard the girl who has helped us 3 or 4 times tell one of the other baristas something that sounded a lot like “these don’t understand anything.”  Funny how I understood that.  It wasn’t said with malice, just an acknowledgment that we reach for our money to pay too early, or that we struggle a little with the size of the coins, pulling a 50 cent piece out instead of a 20.  But we made it through today, and our girl said, “thank you” when we paid.

Even after our cappunation, there was still about half an hour before our train left, so we went to the tabacchi to buy stamps.  Another successful exchange.  I think.  Not sure if we put too much on the postcards, but we got them posted and the right slot on the big-red box.  We were feeling pretty confident.

Back in the train station, we located the right platform, and after letting several other trains come and go, we boarded the right train, and even found our seats, where we informed a gentleman that he was sitting in themSuccess.

The ride out of the city and to the interior of the country was magnificent.  As the train rumbled along, I got an intense, soul-filling feeling.  I realized I’m more of a hill town girl, than a costal town girl.  The beaches are nice, but the rivers flow a milky turquoise, dancing atop the rugged, bleached shale and bedrock.  It’s otherworldly to me.  It feels deeply and powerfully like home.   Like time could stop and I could plant myself in one of the little caves that flank the rugged riverbeds.

But the train rolled on, and I watched the locals watching us through my sunglasses.  I even watched as the woman across from me took a covert picture with her phone.  I could hear the little camera “click” and watched her close the cover.  So I took a picture of her.  I think that’s super-fair, don’t you?  She probably thought I’m an American celebrity.  Understandable, really.

As we rolled into the station, it was clear we had our work cut out for us.  “Seems pretty spread out.”  The Ant was looking around at the non-city that surrounded the train station.  The night before, when we’d considered the train schedule, we noted that there were a couple of different stations to choose from.  Without a guide, we opted for “centrale,” hoping it would get us closest to the city center.  We were good with busses, but would we be able to navigate when we didn’t know where we were going?  “Nah.”  I was confident we could walk this one out.  “Let’s start walking.”

After a short debate about which way we should go, we started up the hill.  After all, we knew the city sat at the top of a hill.

“I think maybe we should ask someone.”  My Ant did have a point.  It was already about 80 degrees, and there didn’t appear to be any shade ahead.  We’d tried the lady in the tobacco shop, but, without a destination she wasn’t able to give us much.  Not even a map.

There was a guy walking ahead of us, but I wasn’t too excited by the way he felt, so I turned and looked behind us.  A middle-aged, dark-haired man with a jovial walk and newspapers tucked under his arm was moving toward us.  I waited until he was in earshot.

“Prego.”  He looked up.  “Dové il centro?”  He looked quizzically at us.

I find it takes a minute for folks to understand my accent.  I don’t really speak that much Italian – enough to eat and get around – and I mumble to boot.

“Il centro?”

“Si, della città.”

He rocked back on his heels.  “English?”  Awesome.  I prefer it when I can get through a conversation in Italian, but it’s kind of nice to get directions in English, when you’re going to walk in the sun for an extended period of time.  “It’s a long way,” he said, looking from one of us to the other.

“We walk a lot,” the Ant assured him.  He continued to look at us.

“How far?  Venti minuti?”  I tried.

“Si, si, about twenty.”  The Ant and I looked triumphantly at each other.  We could do twenty.  Twenty was nothing, even if it was hot and uphill.

“Bene.  Molto grazie!”

We all smiled and nodded, and headed up the street, our new friend in the lead.  The Ant and I chatted and wondered if there had been a better station for us to use.  Our friend stayed close, but not too close.  After about a minute, he turned.  “I am going to the center.  I will take you.  You can ride with me if you like.”

“Vero?”  The Ant and I exchanged a grin.  “Grazie mille! Thank you so much.  That would be wonderful.  Are you sure?”

We walked on just a bit, exchanging pleasantries.  Yes, we’re from America.

“New York?”  He asked eagerly.  Usually people wanted to know if we were from California.  “My parents worked in New Jersey.  Patterson, New Jersey.  You know it?”  We shook our heads.  “I was there in 1980.  Thirty years agao.”  He shook his head in disbelief.  He was walking toward a small, white, 2-door car.  He opened the door for us and we climbed in.  Something I would probably never do in the US, but something that seemed completely natural here.

During the 5 minute switchback ride to the city center, we exchanged names.  He was Paulo.  He worked for PostaItalia.  I noticed he had a wedding ring, and wondered what his parents had done in Patterson, New Jersey.  He asked how long we would be staying and how many times we had come before.

When he dropped us off, it was across from a very tall building.  “Inside that big door you will find, how do you say, ascensore…”

“Lift.  Elevator,” I supplied.

“Si, brava.  Elevator.  It will take you up to the next street.  Via Pretoria.  That is the main street.”

We climbed out and waved as he drove away.


So we needed an elevator to get to the main street.  This city really was on a hill.  We climbed in with the lines of locals and took the quick ride up.  At the top, we looked down, taking in the excellent view.


And the stairs that we could have climbed.


We were grateful for Paulo.  We prepared ourselves for the walk back.

The top level of the city was before us, maze-like and strange.  The streets had been paved over with new blocks, giving the city a clean, new feel.  We took a look at a map posted in the first piazza we came to.  I even took a picture so that we could take it with us.  Unfortunately, the map was posted facing the wrong way, rendering the “you are here” icon pretty unhelpful.  After an hour of wandering through the streets in a big circle, we realized something wasn’t quite right.  Thankfully, though, the hilltop felt something like an island.  I didn’t think we could get too lost on this side of the elevator.

We took in the architecture.  The Napoleonic city wall, the painted buildings, the hitching posts.

Starting from the map, we headed right, in the other direction, toward a group of people that seemed to be window-shopping.  I was fairly certain I knew where we were, but that didn’t help us fill our stomachs, which were rapidly becoming demanding.  We saw alarmingly few eateries as we walked, and only one pizzeria, which was closed, though the smell wafting from the kitchen was fantastic.

We decided it was time to take Paolo’s advice and find Via Pretoria.  Perhaps we’d have more luck finding a pizzeria there.  The side street we chose had nothing that looked like food on it.  “Maybe we should ask someone.”

I’d already started feeling around for someone who could point us in the right direction.  I could see the Ant was melting a little, and marveled at the feeling of openness I’d been experiencing since I arrived in Italy this time.  It was not at all like the pressed feeling I had come to know during my last visit.  The discomfort with being unable to communicate.  The paralysis of feeling out of control of my surroundings.  The feeling of being in a bell jar.  Being able to see out, but not to move in the world the way I wanted to.  I could feel the Ant going through a small grief cycle as she experienced this feeling of loss now, in a strange city, with no guidebook, no guide, and little language to help us along.

A young woman stepped out of a shop into the street in front of us. “ Prego!”  She turned.  “Via Pretoria?”  I wasn’t really up for conjugation.  She smiled.

“Diritto,” she motioned ahead.  “Sempre.”  Okay, go straight ahead, always straight ahead.  We could do that.

“Grazie.”  She turned off, and we walked ahead, following a red line painted on the cobblestones.  We followed it to its end.


Then we went on some more.  Until we saw a sign for a restaurant and pizzeria.

“I think we should go there.”  The Ant and I travel well together.  We’re pretty easy going, until we’re not.  And then we’re direct.  She was done.  Enough wandering.  It was time to eat.

I paused at the top of the steep stairway leading down to the restaurant.  Vines hung down, and I wasn’t sure whether we were going into a café, or a piazza.  Walking down it became clear.  This was a nice place.  We were in for a treat.

“Aperto?”  It wasn’t entirely clear whether they were open.  We were a little early for the lunch crowd.  There was nobody else there, but we were welcomed in and seated near the middle of the restaurant by an older gentleman with a bald head, baggy jacket and designer glasses.  He looked like he was probably the owner.

He took our drink order and explained where to find the daily specials.  Then he left us to look over the menu.

“We should go all out.”  This place reminded me of the restaurants in Venice, and I was eager to have a real pranzo.  “What do you think?  Primi, secondi, the whole thing.”  We rarely do this, opting for the less expensive pizza route, often disappointing our wait staff.

The Ant agreed, and we started translating the menu, my little dictionary at the ready.  There was spaghetti with tomato sauce, fettuccini with artichoke, and other things I couldn’t even translate.  The Ant settled on maccheroni  al forno – baked maccheroni – and a timballetti of lamb and eggplant.  I chose pasta with lentils and a plate of vegetables.

When I asked for a plate of mixed vegetables, our friendly waiter/probable owner, was accommodating, considering what he’d bring me, and making notes on his tablet.  Then I tried for a cheese plate.  He did me one better.  He would put cheese on top of the grilled vegetables.

Wow.

Seeing his face light up, I celebrated for a moment when I realized that I’d understood the description well enough to respond with a genuinely excited face.  This was a good day.

The pasta comes first at a meal like this, and this pasta was fantastic.

The Ant’s maccheroni was beautify and crunchy.

My lentils were amazing.  Delicate and savory, they were prepared with olive oil, and a small bit of tomato sauce.  We swirled the bowl around trying to identify ingredients.

With alarming speed, our plates were empty, and we were soaking up the remains with bread.  Any concern that we wouldn’t be able to eat everything shoved aside.

I wasn’t sure exactly what a timballetti was, but we got an approving look when we ordered it.

The little patties of lamb and eggplant sat on a bed of roasted red pepper and olive oil.

I grinned at my plate of cheesy veggies and dug in.  I’ll be grilling my greens much more when I return.  I forget about how earthy and sensual this can be.  Arugula and hearts of romaine, as well as zucchini, eggplant, tomato and potato were covered in slivers of pecorino and parmesan.

We marveled at the flavors and the perfect serving of each.  Again, the food disappeared.

The restaurant was now starting to fill.  Locals, including carbinieri filed in.  Other than us, there was one other woman in the place.  I started to notice looks coming from the table next to us.  Quick glances and mimed photographs told me I was being watched.  Not in a comfortable way.  I try to be respectful and not too obvious with my photographs of the food, but I’m not always successful.  Regardless, I was enjoying the meal, and our service was lovely, so I put it aside.

We ordered dessert, one of each of the torte brought to the table for us to choose from, and a couple of coffees.

The waiters were all now bustling about.  Several more had appeared, and those who had earlier been in shirtsleeves with visible chest hair now had on ties and vests.

The guys at the table next to us were quiet.  Very, very quiet.  Not even really talking.  I’m sure I was projecting, but I felt like they were agitated with our intrusion into their routine.  I tried to let it go.

We paid the bill and took turns in the bathroom.  The Ant first and then I headed in.  “I’ll meet you outside,” she said as she gathered her purse.  I thought about the great meal, but my mind wandered back to the guys at the table.

I walked out, looking for the owner.  He’d been so helpful, I wanted to give him a wave and a “grazie, arrivederci,” but he was in the back.  I paused, and smiled, but wanted to get out of the gaze of the quiet table, so I hurried out, not sure he’d seen me.  I greeted and thanked another of the waiters on the way out, and then walked up the stairs to find the Ant.

When I saw her face, I froze.  She looked shaken.

“You alright?”

She looked at me with big eyes, and nodded just a little.

“What happened.”  My mama bear was coming out.

She opened her mouth and looked like she was going to lose it.  “Did he say goodbye to you?”

“What?  Who?”  My mind was still on the table.  “I smiled, but I’m not sure he saw.  Why?”

“Well, he came over and asked if everything was good, and then he shook my hand and grabbed me and kissed both cheeks.”  She was on the verge.

My tension melted.  I felt sheepish.  “That’s awesome.  He was great.”  I walked over to the little stairs and peered down, hoping to see his grinning face.  If the owner was pleased with our effort, delighted with our enjoyment of his food, I didn’t care much what anyone else thought.

We hugged, and headed up the street back to the piazza and the map, finding it easily.  It was 1:30.  Stores were closing, and we’d seen a lot of the hilltop, so we decided to head back to the station to catch the 2:20 back to Salerno.

Down the elevator we went.  Then we tried to reach a lower level by escalator.  But that just took us under the street and through an interesting art display.


This left us with the option of walking down the street, way around the downtown area, switching back to the lower levels, or taking the stairs, and hoping we could find the right street to the station.

We opted for the stairs.  Which went on.  And on.  And on.  Not steeply, just in flights, switching back and forth, crossing streets, working us further down into a gully.  At one of the street crossings, we saw a guy cut down the stairs in front of us.  He looked like the trek was a familiar, jolly one, and disappeared quickly.

We looked around, trying to assess if we’d gone far enough down to be at the level of the train station.  Despite our best efforts, neither of us had paid very good attention while in the car with Paulo.  We continued down the last flight.

When we reached the bottom, the guy from the stairs was there, talking animatedly with two women: , one wiry, with long dark hair pulled up on the top on her head and a tattoo of Asian characters on her neck, the other smaller, in pink with bleach-blond, short hair.  They moved as a pack, lovingly jostling each other as they crossed the street toward a car.  I’d been watching them with curiosity.  In this comfortable town I hadn’t felt anyone quite like them.  “We’ll ask them.”  It was clear to me they were our next step.

“Prego?”  The dark-haired woman stopped and looked at me.

“Di mi.”  They were all looking at us now.  And they were curious.

I’d tried to work out a way to ask how to get to the station.  “Come andare alla stazione centrale?”

They all gathered around and began the deliberation.  The dark-haired woman wanted to send us the long, direct route, while the short-haired blonde thought the short route was better, but more confusing.  They all agreed it’d be too hard to tell us how to get there.  They looked up at us and motioned, saying something quickly.

“No parlo bene.”  My hands coming up in a plaintiff gesture.

“English?”  Really?  Wow, they were good.

“Si.”

“Okay, you’re coming with us.  We’ll take you.”  Well of course they would.  Truthfully, I had been waiting for the offer.

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“AHhh.  America!”  They were super-excited.  This was the best reception we’d had.  The women looked at me with what seemed to be a new understanding.  Yes, short-haired women were more common in America.  I’ve honestly seen 3 since I’ve been here.

We turned to their car, a four-door, blue one, perhaps a Panda.  I pulled at the handle and the blonde, who was climbing into the driver’s seat said, “baby, wait a minute.”  Baby.  Okay.  The other woman smiled.

The door clicked and we climbed in, moving aside whatever random backseat items were on the seat.

“Grazie mille,” I started.

“Niente.”

“No really, for something,” I laughed at the hand she’d put up, trying to stop a stranger from thanking her for interrupting her day for a ride to the train station.

Their other friend had disappeared, walking over to his car.  As we fired the engine and drove past, the Ant and I joined in waving goodbye.  The ladies slowed, and motioned him over, yelling out the window that they didn’t want him to feel abandoned.  He came around and climbed in, the three of us pressed into the back seat.  What a riot!

The ladies told us that they were dangerous, cackling wildly.

“Oh good, “ declared the Ant, joining in the laughter.

“Ciaro,” I added, realizing I was using the term “clear” incorrectly as I said it.

We drove and talked, the usual questions about where we lived in America, where we were staying in Italy, for how long, whether we liked Potenza.

“We like the people very much.”

“Oh, well thank you.”  They all seemed disillusioned with the little town, but happy we were enjoying ourselves.

“Yes, you’re all very nice.”

“Well, except for him, eh Vicenzo?”  The ladies were laughing.

“Si, il unico.”  He was the only grumpy one.  Not likely.  His warm, scruffy face was beaming.

“So, Vicenzo?”  I said motioning toward the man, “and what are your names?”

A hand came over the driver-side headrest.  I missed the dark-haired woman’s name, as I shook her hand, amused by the other hand in my face, the driver impatient for me to shake it.

“Mary.”  Not Marie, not Mari.  Mary.  Interesting.

“Kistin.”  They all said it, “Christin.”  Better than the usual Christina.

“Leslie.”  They all let out little joyous sounds at the name.  Something unusual.  “Lezli.”

There was much shaking of hands and laughter.

And then we were at the station.  Just like that.

Mary unbuckled and hopped out of the car.  I pushed the backseat clothing onto the floor and climbed out to thank her.  She positioned herself stoutly in front of us, her tiny frame looking resolute.  Her pink hoodie and piercings distracting from her serious face.

She started speaking, then stopped herself.  “No.  Francais, um…”

“En Italiano,” I encouraged.  Maybe I could work it out.  It seemed important to her to say whatever it was.

“Ok.  Il mundo,”  She was making a circle in the air.

“Yes, the world.”

“Si, il mundo e rotondo.  The world is round.  And you and I,” she had removed her sunglasses – something I always do when I’m wanting to make a connection.  Realizing that I was looking into her clear, beautiful, amber eyes, I took mine off, too.

“You and I siamo interconnessi, mmm….”

“We are interconnected, si.”  I knew this.  We’re all connected.  Even the guys at the restaurant.  But sometimes it’s more clear than others.  And right now it was clear.

“This is my philosophy.”  She dropped her hands form the air where she had been making connections between the three of us.

“It’s ours too.”  We smiled at each other.  I moved toward her, kissing her cheeks, embracing fully.

“Molto grazie.”  “Grazie mille.”  The thanks flowed heavy as she moved to the Ant for another round of kisses and hugs.

Then we stood and looked at each other, appreciating the connection that was so obviously there, unexpected and welcome.  She and I moved together at the same time, one last kiss on the cheek and a hard embrace.  And then the Ant and I were walking into the station, and the blue car was pulling away.

I looked over my shoulder about a dozen times, wishing they would come back, wondering why we hadn’t thought to exchange contact information and wondering if we’d be able to find them if we walked back up into the city, or returned on another day.

In the station, we bought tickets for the 2:40 ride back to Salerno, and then I ran to find the bathroom.  When I came out, the Ant looked worried.  “You sure you didn’t buy bus tickets?”  Crap, she was right.  The 4:20 was a bus.  We’d decided not to try taking the long-distance bus, as we didn’t know how to purchase tickets, or where to pick it up.  And now we had tickets, but 4 minutes to work out where to board.

Walking out the front door, we stopped a couple of guys in suits.  One was on the phone.  “Prego,” I tried with the other.  “Autobus?”  I handed him my ticket.  I didn’t have time for grammar (don’t tell anyone).

“English?” came the question from the man on the phone.  I nodded.  He finished his call and took my ticket.  “Wait a moment.”  He headed into the station while we waited with the other man.

“I’m not a train agent.  He is.”  Wow, good luck for us today.

The agent reemerged with my ticket.  “Yes, this is a ticket for the bus.  You catch it just over there.  It will arrive at 2:20.  It is a green bus.”

“Grazzie mille!”  We crossed the street and waited for the green bus that would take us down from the hill, back to Salerno.  The Ant and I thought back to another day in Italy without a guidebook, in another hill town, and the connections we’d made there.

Yes.  I’m a hill town kind of girl.

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1 comment

1 Big Mama { 06.10.10 at 5:32 pm }

My dear……this is the kind of writing you were born to do!

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