Tales of a wandering lesbian

Category — People

In Case of Emergency

I looked up to see her form, tall, powerful, and full of purpose, walking toward me, the one thing I’d wanted to see since the car had swerved into my lane.

Her hands swept her sun glasses from her face and stretched out toward me, asking a thousand silent questions.

“What happened?”

“Are you alright?”

“What can I do?”

My only response was to pull her close – but gently – answering with my body, shielding the place where my seatbelt had burned my skin, bruised my chest and shoulder.

In the moment after the other car moved from my periphery into the front of my world, I sat in a quiet, still haze.  Thoughts came to mind in quick succession:  “What the hell?  Am I alright?  Wow, that’s what an airbag looks like.  Can I call her first, or should I call 911?”

I called 911, but ended up hanging up on them accidentally while trying to text her.  There was nothing I wanted more than to have her near me.  Witnesses gathered, the other driver examined his broken axle, tow trucks arrived, and I called to ask her to come to me.

Over the next days we would unwind the tangle of adrenaline and fear.  We would relax into the deepening of our bond.  We would talk of things that come up after an accident: last wishes, emergency contacts, gratitude.

But for the moment all that mattered was that she was with me.  Big guys with handlebar mustaches, and pinup models pulled from magazines looked on as we held each other in the auto body shop, feeling the solidness of our bodies, sensing the solidness of our connection.  I stood still, breathing into her shoulder, allowing her scent to wash over me and cleanse the smoke from my nose, her voice to take the sound of crunching metal from my mind.

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November 13, 2011   7 Comments

Homecoming

My return to Italy was a friendly one.  It felt like going home in a way.  To familiar airports and train stations.  To familiar smells and sounds and colors.

My return to Barga was something more essential.  It was like returning my soul to the place I first recognized it.  And to a place that had challenged me to the core of my being.  It comforted me.

And frightened me.

What would it be like to return?  Would it feel the same?  Would I be remembered?  Welcomed?  Judged?  Would my language be good enough?  Would I appear confident?  Over-confident?  Would I see her?

(The answers are: great, yes, yes, yes, maybe, yes, yes, maybe, yes.)

I tried not to think too much about it during the three weeks that came before.  Thinking about it wouldn’t change it, either way.  I’d see as much of the hodgepodge that I’d come to regard as my Italian family as possible in the two days I’d be there.

Then I got an email.  We had a place to stay.  A beautiful place.  An apartment above the home of some of my family.  And we had a ride from the train station.

Suddenly our two days became four.  The thought of spending a couple of nights in another city were lost.  The call of this home was strong.

I rode the train with my camera in-hand.  I knew the change that would take place.  How the lush fields would give way to rocky riverbeds.  I missed these rivers.  I hadn’t realized it, but now, riding over them, I felt their pull.

We changed trains in Lucca, another city where I’d been welcomed into the home of friends.

This place spoke to me, too.

I felt emotions rising as we climbed aboard the dirty, regional train, and I warned the Ant.

“I’m going to try to be cool, but I really don’t know what’s going to come up for me, emotionally.”  After all, this was the place my life had changed.  This was the place where my world had shifted dramatically, sending me into a tailspin that would bring me back a few months later to live with strangers after selling my house and quitting my job.

“You don’t have to explain.”  She looked equally shaken.  She’d been there when it happened.

We rolled along, and I considered my legs.  It’s always my legs that bring me to the present.  Snap me to the here and now.

And here I was again.  Riding the train from Lucca to Fornaci di Barga.  The names of familiar train stops flashed by.   In no time at all, we were there, hugging and kissing and thanking Ryo for picking us up.

“I don’t like Kristin!”  The first test came as I climbed in the front seat of the car.  Two-year-old Andre was crying.  “Da-ddy!”

“Yes, Andre, I’m here.”  Ryo was trying to comfort his son from the front seat.  The Ant, sitting next to the boy looked terribly unsure.  I just laughed.  It was like I’d never left.  “Andre, what is it?”

“I DON’T LIKE KRISTIN.”  Ah yes.  If you’d ever like to have your soul crushed a little, have a child scream to the heavens that he doesn’t like you.  Over and over, for 20 minutes.  In a confined space.

I just kept laughing.

Now, it turned out that Andre had been in a fit of “I don’t like” all day.  But I didn’t know that.  And it didn’t really take the sting away once I found out.  Still, it did afford me the remarkable exercise of laughing while someone declared their dislike for me.  Their honest, heartfelt, loud dislike.  Dislike that, over the course of the next 4 days would disappear completely, lost in penguin bowling and soccer.

We stopped by the house in Fornaci where I’d spent two months in the gracious care of my friends, for a quick hello and a cup of tea.  The dogs recognized me, and seemed happy enough to see me, and Berti and I greeted with hugs, kisses, and more Italian than I’d spoken the entire time I’d been there before.  Deb made me a cup of tea, and Tommy threatened me with his paint-sodden hands.

Then we were off, up the hill to Barga, where we’d be staying in the same house as Ryo and Andre, and the rest of their family.

We settled into the beautiful apartment quickly, each of us choosing a room with a big bed and too many pillows.  I sent an email to my friend Frank to let him know we were there and tell him where we’d be for dinner, in the off chance he checked his email and wanted to join us.  We’d already planned to meet the next day for lunch, but I was hoping for a little extra Frank-time.

Hungry from the day’s travels and emotions, the Ant and I decided to head into town.  We’d probably grab a pizza at the place we’d eaten the first day we spent in Barga, over a year ago.

Not to be outdone by Venice, Barga was acting like a diva throwing all kinds of dramatic clouds around the sky.

Up we climbed, into the old heart of Barga, past the studio I knew intimately, and the shop that had drawn me in with its pretty stools.  As we reached the top, huffing and puffing, I looked up from the stone street.  And I smiled.

Frank stood there.  In the middle of a group of people, chatting away.  We all smiled and called out to each other.

“Did you get my email?”

“No.  Did you just get in?”  Perfect.  This was a chance meeting.  Barga is a small place, but I was happy to celebrate meeting Frank here tonight.

He joined us for dinner.  One of many meals we would share over the next few days.  Only our morning coffee and pastry were reserved for the two of us.  Nearly every other meal was in the company of others.

Pizza with the whole family,

curry and rugby at the house,

pasta and opera with Frank.

It was a whirlwind of food and love and discussion and humility.  And every second in between was filled with middle-of-the-street conversation with new friends,

visits to ancient cloisters,

and familiar views.

We even squeezed in games of Pictionary, tossing my little Italian dictionary back and forth.  Playing in two languages.  And when the game was put away, the dishes done, and our last goodbyes said, the final night continued.

The one family member I hadn’t seen enough of during my last trip remained.

“We could play games,” I suggested.

“I’d like that,” she said in her perfect English.

The Ant tucked behind her bedroom door, we closed ourselves into the drawing room.  For four hours we shuffled and dealt and talked.  About life and love, and language.  About “r” and “rr” and “d” and “tt.”   We argued about where your tongue hits your teeth when you say “do.”  And I amazed her with my perfect pronunciation of “boh.”

“You are Italian!” she exclaimed.

I muttered something in her language.

“No, you are a stranger.”  A stranger.  It was more crushing than a two year old screaming his dislike.

I wasn’t a stranger.  Just a newcomer.  After all, I recognized people on the street.  And they recognized me.

When we finally called it quits, I walked her to her car, relishing the summer air and the flickering lightning bugs.

“A dopo,” I promised to me as much as to her.  It wasn’t forever, just until later.

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July 9, 2010   8 Comments

Not-so-free beach

I spent a couple of afternoons on free beaches in Salerno.  Carmine had pointed to a few of them on our first day orientation drive around the city.

“How are the free beaches?”  I’d asked.  The idea of paying to sit in the sand is a foreign concept to someone from Oregon.  The beaches in the state are all considered public.  All of them.  Every grain of sand.

In Salerno, however, probably 80% of the sand is contained within fences and barriers, cordoned off into color-coded parcels marked by striped umbrellas.

Early into the trip I’d decided to take a run over to one of the free beaches that was halfway between our apartment and downtown Salerno.  It was about a 20 minute run, perfect on a hot day.  I packed up my towel, water bottle and book.  I left anything valuable, including my camera and ID home.

When I returned with my aunt, a week or so later, however, I made sure I had my camera.  The scene was just too rich to miss.  I’d risk it.

The walk to the strip of beaches took us through the underground passage for the under-construction train station, along stretches of abandoned private beach resorts, and past an ancient lighthouse.

The day was really quite hot, and the humidity was pushing us into the realm of uncomfortable.  We laughed as we walked past a disembodied room fan on the sidewalk.

The Ant was a trooper throughout the trip.  Whether walking too far along the beach, or dragging a suitcase over the bridges of Venice, she only occasionally asked me if we were there yet.  Today, though, I could sense that she was wondering whether I had sent her on a death march.

“We’re almost there,” I said, pointing at the cabanas we were passing on our left.  “We just have to go past these ones with red roofs, then some blue ones, and then the other red ones.”

Almost there.  What it really meant was that I knew where we were and where we were going.  Not that we were, actually, close.  The Ant knew this.

“Okay,” she nodded.  I knew she wasn’t convinced.

Forty-five minutes, and several water-stops later, we were there, at the free beach, staking out our spots, and taking in the scene.

Free beaches are free for a number of reasons:

  1. Nobody cleans up the trash that is washed up or left behind.
  2. There is no shade.
  3. There is no fresh water, either for drinking or washing.
  4. Beach vendors are allowed to walk along, and peddle their wares to anyone and everyone, relentlessly.

The vendors are easily enough dealt with.  A simple, “No, grazie” said firmly, and often, even over the top of the low-toned pitch, will almost always work.  It’s just that the process has to be repeated every 2-7 minutes as a new vendor, always a young man, and almost always a dark-skinned African immigrant, wanders by, tries to catch your eye, moves in close, and presents his product.  Sometimes it’s beach toys.  Other times clothing, or bolts of fabric.  Once in a while it’s jewelry or small pieces of art.

They start in Italian, then move to English, or German, or whatever language they determine will garner the most response.  With each firm, “No, grazie” I lament my inability to connect on a human level.  Eye-contact always prolongs the interaction, serving as a kind of affirmative response to their wares.

In the US, I will usually take the time to look a street vendor in the eye before saying, “no thanks.”  But here, in a less-familiar place, I feel unable to do so.  And saddened by that reality.  I also feel humbled.  As I listen to these men, watch them comb the beaches for the few Euro they will make each hour, I am incredibly humbled by my ignorance.  And my privilege.  That’s not a word I use lightly, but it feels apt here.  I speak one language.  I know a few words of Spanish and a few of Italian.  Not enough to get by selling garments on a beach.  My fear of misspeaking gets in my way.  Yet these beautiful vendors speak unabashedly with me, passing through their rotating vocabulary, hoping to hit on a language familiar to me.  And here I sit, with the great good fortune to say, “no, grazie.”

Today, though, the vendors were light, leaving us room to take in the vignettes unfolding before us.

What I had found most interesting on my first trip to the beach was the gender dynamic that was so heady.  The boys were in one area, and the girls in another.  There was one girl that ventured into the area up against the paid beach wall where the boys had claimed the shade.  She had a bemused look on her face the entire time. Crouching inside the protection of her towel, as though she wasn’t sure how she’d managed to put herself there, and not entirely sure it was a good idea.

The rest of the girls were traveling in packs, venturing into the water, and out again, inching closer to the boys that were playing soccer in the foamy sand.  Interactions between the genders were punctuated by raucous clashes:  sand kicked at a girl, and the resulting screech.

More interesting, though, was the interaction between the boys.

It has taken me a while to become comfortable with the overt sexuality that is part of Italian culture.  It seems strange to some people, that the country that is home to the Vatican is so sexually charged.  Yeah, it’s a little weird, but it’s there.  And on the beaches, the sexual electricity that lies just below the surface was almost alarming to a kid who grew up in a country like the US.

Laying on my little towel, I peeked from under my hat and over my sunglasses to watch.

The four boys in front of me looked like they were maybe 19, maybe 20.  Old enough to have the bodies of men, but still awkward in their bravado, adjusting their tiny bathing suits, and opting to let the sun reflect off of their wet bodies, rather than towel off.

They would take turns hoisting their well-tanned bodies from the sand and diving into the sea to cool off.  They would emerge, and with a well practiced move, brush the water from their hair to good effect, leaving it spiky, erect, interesting.  Then they would lie down next to each other to let the sun dry them.

The girls would scamper around the sand, pretending not to notice, adjusting their equally tiny suits and making sure the ball they were kicking around would drift into the boys’ line of sight every so often.

For their part, the boys seemed honestly disinterested in the girls.  They took more interest in each other, leaning on each other’s shoulders, laughing together.  At least most of them.  Twice I watched as two older-looking guys came over and asserted their dominance – physically and directly.

First was someone who seemed to be a friend.  His towel was positioned with the other 3 in front of me.  In his racy red suit and shaved head, he was more muscular than the others.  Throwing all of that muscle on top of one of the smaller boys, he crushed his body into the other, almost the way a wrestler would dominate an opponent.

Hips ground into the other, arms pinning the smaller boy’s arms above his head, the bigger boy laughed into his ear as the others watched.  Then, when he’d decided the emasculation was enough, he rolled over onto his own towel, and all returned to normal.  Except for me.  I was a little scarred.

About a half hour later, as I was just getting over the first exchange, a much older and bigger boy with a tattooed leg, and longer shorts made his appearance on the beach.  He was apparently known to many on the beach.  “Nicola!” came the cries from different areas.  It wasn’t clear to me whether he was loved or feared.  Only that he was known.  He made a wide circuit, strutting from group to group, his soft body a contrast to the younger, more athletic boys.  His tattoo a brazen one, taking up the entirety of his left calf.

After spending time with the group along the wall, and kicking the soccer ball out of the group at the water’s edge and into the ocean, he came over to my boys.  Only one of them was on his stomach.  Nicola headed straight for him, and dropping his body down, placed one knee roughly in the other boy’s lower back, apparently trying to separate his hips from the rest of his body.

The boy screamed, actually screamed as Nicola pinned his arms to his side and laughed.  The others looked nervously over, but they only watched as their comrade struggled fruitlessly to move out of the hold, crying out, “Nicola, basta!”  When he decided it was enough, Nicola released his hands, and pushed off of the boy, up to a standing position, still laughing.

The boy did nothing.  He lay there, and adjusted his suit.  Nicola greeted the others.  It wasn’t a friendly greeting he received.  Just a nod and maybe an embraced hand.  Not like the hugs and heads leaned onto each other’s shoulders.  This boy, this bully was both enforcer and violator.  His presence was accepted, expected, but not appreciated.

Nicola walked away.  He had no towel.  He had no group.  He had no girls looking slyly at him, or boys welcoming him.  I didn’t see where he went as I gathered my towel and book and headed out.

On the way home from our beach excursion, the Ant and I stopped for an emergency gelato.  Along the dingy street that led to the underpass, we ducked into a nondescript bar with a dark-browed man behind the counter.  He peered at us, clear strangers in this locals’ bar.

We smiled our hellos, and moved toward the unpromising gelato case.  The flavors were meager, and clearly not house made.  But we were in a bad way, so it would have to do.

As soon as he saw us move toward the case, he melted.  Whether we reminded him of family members, or he just liked gelato, too, he patiently waded through our butchered Italian, and soon enough we had lovely cones of respite.  We sat in the cool shop and ate quietly, the World Cup showing in the background.

When we stood to leave, the shop-owner called to us in a friendly tone, and we waived, the familiar, “Ciao!  Grazie!” tossed back and forth.

In the now-short blocks home, we walked, looking down the alleys that led from the ramshackle street to the beach.  I pulled out my camera to capture a boat I’d noticed before.  And, as I raised the camera, something caught my eye.

“Redfish.”  The white name scrawled along the dusty red hull of the rowboat rang out to me, the name of the lake and the beach where I’d spent my childhood summer weekends.  The place where I’d played with the boys and watched the girls.  The little boat smiled back at me, playful and comforting.

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June 30, 2010   1 Comment

Salerno, take one

On our first full day in Salerno, we woke full of enthusiasm.  Carmine had pointed out the little coffee kiosk where we could buy bus tickets, and told us that today was market day.  Market day.  How fantastic.

So we got up at a decent hour, walked the two blocks to the bus terminal and located the coffee stand.  After a only slightly labored conversation with the owner, we had learned the details of the bus pass system.  1 Eruo 10 would buy us a 90 minute pass.  9 Euro 90 would buy us a week-long pass (Monday through Sunday).  We were feeling ambitious about our bus usage, so sprung for the week pass.

From the coffee hut pantomime, we understood that we’d only have to validate the little passes once in order to use them for the week.  Good deal.  We inquired as to the time and number of the bus that would take us “al centro,” and walked across the parking lot to wait.

It’s amazing how easily we stick-out.  Even with our dark hair and skin, our clearly Mediterranean profiles, my aunt and I are obvious foreigners.  “Straniere.”  This isn’t a tourist town, and we’re staying in an apartment.  In a place where locals live.   One quick look at our shoes is all it takes.  No heels.  No metallic.  Straniere.  You can watch the mental checklist as it’s rolled out.  We smile back and mumble, “giorno,” our mouths struggling to remember how to embrace this simplest of greetings.

The bus arrived, and we climbed on board.  I confirmed with the driver, “vai al centro?”  He just looked back.  I smiled hopefully.  A nod.  Good.  That would work.  Surely the market was in the city center.  Surely we’d know the city center when we saw it…

The buss pulled out, circling around the apartments and out toward the waterfront.  We drove past palm-laden colonnades, and pay-to-play beaches, some brilliant, others hollowed out, graffitied shells.  The bus filled the further we drove.  Little (I mean little) old ladies with shopping bags, and young women with suitcases.  Men of all ages with different styles of aviator glasses.  All piled in.

The Ant and I looked at each other, unsure now if we’d know when to get off.  The bus headed inland, and we huddled together trying to divine our relative location to the market by the number of women walking with shopping bags.

Once or twice we leaped up, ready to try our luck, only to find that the stop wasn’t what we’d hoped.  It’s just a street vendor selling beach balls, or a crowd of surly-looking men.  We sat back down.  After about 30 minutes, we decided it was time.  The area had become more commercial, and several older-women were queuing at the door. “Ding.” Someone rang the call button and the bus slowed jerkily to allow us off.

We walked away from the bus stop before peering around to get our bearings.  Our shoes would be enough of a giveaway.  We don’t need to be gawking in the middle of the street.

There was no market in sight, but a promising row of shops stretched off to the right.


A fish monger had his daily catches on display, and shop after shop window was filled with cheap clothing – most of it purple.  It was clear we didn’t know where we were, other than Salerno, and neither of us really knew how to ask where the market was.  So we walked.  Salerno is a big city, and we knew there was a lot more down the road in front of us, so we continued on.  Eventually we found ourselves at the waterfront again and took in the view of the harbor and brooding sky.


“Maybe it’s time we find a map.  Waddaya think?”  The Ant was looking a little skeptical about our ability to find anything.

“Okay, shall we head back in a couple of streets?”

Along with the plethora of clothing shops and tabacchi, Salerno is home to a zillion newsstands.  Books, magazines, papers, and every kind of reading material imaginable hangs on the exteriors of the beefy shops.

I thought I remembered the word for map, so tried with the young girl inside the first stand we came to.  “Giorno.  Una carta?”  Puzzled, she furrowed her brow at me.  An older woman appeared, speaking rapidly in Italian to her apparent daughter.

“What are you looking for?”  It’s seriously, disappointing when I try to speak Italian, and after three words, the local can tell which is my native language.  I’m sure it didn’t help that I was using the Spanish word for “map.”

“A map of the City.”  The girl shook her head, and her mother shushed her, walking out and around the front of the shop.  She returned with a shrink-wrapped tourism guide to the area.

“Maps for all the area in here,” she said, nodding and gesturing grandly with her arms.

“Oh good, grazie!”

“Aspetta.”  The daughter wasn’t all convinced.  She took the book from her mother who was clearly displeased with the interruption.  “You are looking for a street map?”

“Si.  Of Salerno.”

“That is not in here.”  The mother now seemed in agreement.  This was not what we were looking for.  They didn’t have anything like that.

Really?  No map of the city?  Not good.  We’d have to keep looking, but I wasn’t about to waste this exchange.

“Dove una pizza piu buona?”  Locals are the best food guides.  There are lots of pizza shops, but they’re not all equal.

“Mama!  Una pizza bunoa?”  The mother came back from returning the guidebook to its out-of-sight location.  They had a quick exchange, in which much pointing and nodding occurred.  I only caught “pizza” and “forno.”

“Come.”  The mother was leading us into the street.  “Alla sinistra, there at the bikinis.”  A great big shop sign showing people’s hips in bikinis was at the second corner down.  “There e alla destra.”  I love speaking half and half.  Usually we can make it work, and this was working beautifully.

“Ho capito.  Grazzie mille!”

We smilled and exchanged “ciao”s.  In two minutes, we were walking into a hole-in-the-wall ristorante and pizzeria.  The front of the shop was dominated by the counter, standing sentinel over the seating area and oven.  It took a few minutes to get anyone’s attention.  It was clearly still early.  It wasn’t even one o’clock yet.  Another dead giveaway that we aren’t Italian.

On the way to our little table, I found myself staring.  The beautiful, wood-fired oven was a really, really good sign.  We’d be eating well.

As we were sitting down, there was a little commotion at the door.  Our friend from the newsstand had tracked us down.  “We have, una mappa.  Dopo, dopo.”  She was gesturing wildly.

“Si, dopo!  Grazie!”  They’d found us a map.  We’d return after the meal to retrieve it.  It’s not like we needed anyone to announce to the rest of the place that we were tourists, but at least now it was all out on the table.  And now we had a little bit of cred with the owners.  We were under the guidance of the newsstand lady.

Our cute-as-a-button waiter came over with his little pad of paper and the fun began.  We picked a pizza off the menu and ordered water.  Then I looked over his shoulder as he ran down the list of pasta specials.  I’m pretty good with food words.  I love food, so I’ve made these vocab words a priority.  Still, there are regional variations that can leave me totally puzzled.  I recognized a couple of the pasta dishes,  confirmed they contained no meat, “senza carne?” and thanked our patient waiter.

We waited, and watched.  The oven was right behind the Ant, giving me a fantastic view as they made the pizza.


The dough was rolled out, then coated with tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper, cheese and “rucola,” or “rocket.”  I wasn’t familiar with this green, but evidently it’s fairly common here.  And it’s tasty on pizza.  I was even able to get some video of the process.

The pizza stayed in the oven for maybe 8 minutes, probably less, and came out bubbly and chewy and delicious.

We shared this one and waited for our pasta.

Mine was a rigatoni with eggplant and pomodoro.  The Ant had gnocchi that was almost a soup.  They were both lovely.

Against the odds, we scarfed down every last drop, and considered dessert.

“Qualcosa dolce?”  We needed something sweet to finish the meal.

“Torta?”  Cake, perfect.

“Si!  E due caffe.”  I mean if we’re going to do this thing, we’re going to do this thing right.

We never really figured out was was in the torta, but it was tasty, and we were happy.  As we nursed our coffees, we watched the wait staff welcome an older gentleman and lovingly bring him plate after plate of food.  We watched as our waiter sat down with his daughter and the rest of the family as they fed her lunch.

We finished up, paid the bill and headed out to return to the newsstand.  Horror slowly dawned on us as we walked the two blocks.  It was after 1:30.  The stand was closed.  And we didn’t really know where we were.  It wasn’t that we were concerned about our whereabouts, we just felt terrible that our friends had gone to the trouble of finding a map, and tracking us down.  And now we couldn’t even say thank you!  Slightly dejected, we walked back toward the water, taking note of where we were.  Hoping that we’d be able to find the stand among all the others.  These people were like our family.

I think, if we were judging Italianness based on love of food and family, the Ant and I would be indistinguishable.  It’s just our damn shoes.

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June 13, 2010   1 Comment

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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June 10, 2010   1 Comment