Tales of a wandering lesbian

Category — Italy

Tower and lake

Here’s the thing about Torre Del Lago, the city Deb and Sandra took us to:

There’s a tower.

There’s a lake.

There’s a beach.

There’s Puccini’s opera house.

There’s a gay disco or two.

There’s more than one crazy person.

And there’s more than one vendor.

We experienced this.  All of it.

Also, should you forget your bathing suit, it’s not a problem.

The locals don’t mind.

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July 11, 2010   5 Comments


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

You gonna eat that?

Despite the fit that Venice threw while we were there, we managed to find some serious food.

Even in the storm, I was able to find my favorite restaurants.  Whether it was Grom for incredible, fresh gelato,

or Pizza al Volo for the best veggie pizza ever,

my old haunts materialized before us.  I was even able to find the most remote of my previous dinner places on the first try.

Trattoria della Madonna is marked by a big, green lantern.  As I went to tell the Ant this, I found myself looking at it.

Like last time, I found the Madonna an elegantly simple restaurant.

Serving seafood specialties and seasonal vegetables, I find it a delight to point my waiter in a direction – vegetarian, meat, fish – and let him bring something good.

Tonight, we had a great dinner of Bolognese and pasta e fagioli

And snapper (it came whole and was boned for the Ant) and veggies.

The Ant loved her snapper, and I was unable to finish the huge plate of vegetables.  Though I stuffed as many of the carrots, peas and veiny beans down my throat as I could.

And then I ordered dessert.

Not because I was hungry, but because you can’t really go to the alleged birthplace of tiramisu and not have it.  Can you?

I think I cannot.

Regardless, it was a good first night of food.  But we had another.  After considering the menus of both Casi nobili, and Ristoteca Oniga, we decided to go with Oniga for our second night of food.

Oniga is a really warm place.

It glows with hospitality.  I sat next to the owner’s Staffordshire terrier, asleep in her bed.

And we were soon in conversation with the two couples on either side of us.  Of course, it helped that we were crammed in like sardines, but still.  While we considered the menu, we shared travel tips and recommendations for food.  The Ant and I found ourselves the resident experts on Venice, Rome and Siena, and we were glad to share what knowledge we had with our dining companions.

Tonight, I settled on a giant gnocchi and the Ant on a spaghetti with clams.

The gnocchi were the exact right firmness, even though they were twice the size of any gnocchi I’d ever had.  And the sauce was a lovely, delicate blend of tomato, basil and bufala mozzarella – three of my favorite things.

The Ant raved about her spaghetti, and we passed along the recommendations to our friends around us, who were asking how it was.

Next came another whole fish for the Ant, and something the waiter had thrown together for me.

It was cheese.  More bufala mozzarella.  And the most absolutely astounding tomatoes I think I’ve ever had.  I’d guess they were plum.  Maybe Roma.  But they were sweet and dressed with balsamic.  Really good balsamic vinegar.  And there was a dollop of fresh pesto.  I made little stacks of cheese, pesto and tomatoes piled on bread.

And then I ordered dessert again.

A meek bus girl came over to take our plates, and asked if we wanted something sweet.

“What do you recommend?”  I asked in some kind of Italian that she recognized.

“Ciocolata,” she smiled enthusiastically.  I nodded and settled in, eager to see what she would bring.

Yeah, it was chocolate.  Cake.  With some kind of maybe creamy-nut filling.  And fudgy frosting.  And a drizzle of chocolate sauce.

This, my friends, is why I ask for recommendations.

The Ant leaned over to one of the couples, and I leaned over to the other.

“You have to order this.  No, I don’t know what it is.  She just said, ‘ciocolata’.”  They all nodded and thanked us for the recommendation.

We finished up our little espressos, paid the bill, said goodnight to the dog and our new friends, and headed out into the night, to our little room a couple of blocks away, jacked up on caffeine and sugar, and blissfully exhausted.

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July 7, 2010   3 Comments

Venice is a drama queen

Venice is a drama queen.  Oh, please she is too.

You see?  There she is queening out.  Again.

Listen, last time I was there, she threw a big old fit and flooded me out.  Perhaps you remember.

Okay, maybe you don’t, but she totally did.  Big.  Old.  Queen.

I thought we’d be cool this time, but no.  The bitch was all worked up when we got there.  Sure, she’s fierce and magical and beautiful and all of that, but she can storm.

The first night we tried to embrace it.  It was all exotic and passionate

And Venice was good to us.  She gave us some spectacular views.

Which was nice.  But I didn’t really need the attitude.  Venice is gorgeous without trying.  I wish she’d just stop for a minute.

I don’t think she realizes how overwhelming she can be.

Like the second day.  We thought we’d go see the Doge’s Palace and maybe Saint Marks, but NO!  She pitched a damn fit.

Look at that water she threw at us from all directions.  Just look at it.  Ridiculous.

So we waited it out as much as we could, but by that time we were totally soaked.  Totally.  It’s not like cheap-ass umbrellas from the street vendors actually last.  Oh no.  Venice had that thing turned inside out in about no time at all.

She did stop to pose for a picture now and again.

But the second we stopped paying attention to her, she got all bent out of shape.

And she kept threatening us.  With huge mood swings.  First she was way up.

Then way lower.

Then up again, and over the banks.

She even flooded Saint Mark’s at one point.  Just to show she could.  It wasn’t like she flooded anything else.  Just the main square.  Enough to make us worry.

At one point we just went home.  Venice seriously needed a nap.  So we took a little break and let her sleep it off.

Maybe it was her time of the month.  I don’t even know, but when we all woke up, she was calm.

I’m sure she regretted some of the things she’d done.  We listened to one boat owner as he bailed his boat for a couple of hours.  I’m sure he’ll forgive her eventually.  And then there was this guy.

Yeah, that’s hard to take back.

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July 5, 2010   2 Comments

Rome is rough

After our trip to the south, the Ant and I headed to Barga, via Venice, via Rome.  We just spent one night in Rome.  A stop-over to save us from 9 hours on the train.

We stayed at the Hotel Aberdeen, a hotel I’d stayed in 6 months earlier.  I remembered it being a decent hike from the train station, so I prepared the Ant for the long walk in the sun.  Unfortunately, when I consulted the map I’d used on the earlier trip, I mistook the “X” I’d penciled in for the hotel, and not the Japanese retail store my friends had asked me to visit.  I figured this out about 25 minutes into the walk.

Fortunately, however, I remembered enough of the city to be able to navigate us back on track.  After climbing one of Rome’s hills.  Rome has hills?  Have you heard?  Seven, evidently.  I felt really lucky that the Ant was too consumed with trying to breathe to notice the enormous circle we’d taken.  I knew she’d figure out just how far we’d gone the next day when we took the 10 minute walk to the train station.  Hopefully, by then, she’d have forgotten the hour we spent in the heat.

It took us a little bit to recover.  But we were in Rome, and we didn’t want to waste that.  So we threw our stuff down and headed back out to eat.  I’m only going to say that we experienced bad pizza in Italy.  We promised each other never to speak of it again, so that’s all you get.  It was bad.

And then, mostly because I felt bad about the wild goose chase I’d just led us on, we spent the rest of the day touring the phallic symbols and rough men of Rome.  Yes, that’s what I said.  So here’s a little montage for my straight women, gay men, and other friends.  Enjoy.

The Ant kept sneaking up to the policemen and whispering, “Rome is rough.”

We did visit the Pantheon for me, which was nice.

And I took a ride a lion – one of my favorite pastimes.

And then we had some of the best gelato ever.

This is where Rick Steves excels, in my opinion.  Gelato and pizza.  I wish we’d listened to his advice earlier in the day…(shiver).

I asked the guy behind the counter what his favorites were, and he turned to the guy sitting on a stool behind the register.  “Ask him.”

The older, bearded gentleman smiled and waved his hands as he started listing all of his favorite flavors.  When he said “chocolate,” he closed his eyes and made the face of a lover remembering his partner.  “Mista,” he finally said to the boy with the scoop.

I walked away with a beautiful assortment of flavors including fig and the beloved chocolate.

And to finish the night, we headed to our trusty pizza standby, Pizza Zaza.  For a collection of the most excellent pizza we’ve had.  Potato and squash blossom, margherita and plum tomatoes.

I truly wish I could share with you the delight of squash blossom pizza at Zaza.  But I can’t, so here’s my best attempt.  Imagine a thin, crispy wafer of the most delicately salted, earthy, yellow cheese.  It’s better than that.

If you are going to Rome, please, please, please go there.  If you’re going to Rome and you think you might not be able to find it, please, please, please take me with you.  I’m serious, people.

We scarfed the ridiculous amount of pizza as we watched the staff set up an outdoor tv for the World Cup match.

The little outdoor seating area filled with locals watching the match before the Italians played, warming up their engagement, becoming louder and more animated.

If we hadn’t traveled from the south that day, I would have stayed here and watched with them.  Taken in the passion for food and sport and life.  Listened as the church bells rang from the spiral tower of San Eustacchio.  As it was, we were tired, so I took a little video.

And watched the delivery boy tape the pizza to his scooter.

And we headed back for the night.  And maybe we swung through some vendor tents.

And then back by Trevi.

Because it love it.  And the chestnut vendors there.

My nights in Rome have been magically hazy.  I think because of how completely exhausted I have been at the end of the days there.  My memories are less pictures of cops in riot gear and more feelings, full of the cool, creamy sweetness of exceptional gelato, and the glow of magazine carts.

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July 3, 2010   4 Comments