Tales of a wandering lesbian

A friend with a view

The duomo in Barga sits atop the hill.  The stone paved roads wind up and around the hill, through brightly colored buildings, past rotting doors and gated gardens.  If you walk up amost any path, eventually you will reach the duomo.  Every 15 minutes it gently announces its primacy with the ringing of its bells.

I spend time there, sitting in silence, observing the mountains, the workers repairing its walls, the tourists who come for the view.  The view.  The view is fantastic.

Duomo view

Looking out you see the alps.  Jagged, expansive and beautiful.  You can see other towns nestled in the valleys, and perched on the ridges.  Maybe it sounds cliché, but it’s a majestic view, one that makes you feel the grandness of the landscape.

Looking down, you see a beautiful, well maintained, piazza, children playing, and Frank’s house.  I’ve been sitting in the piazza for the past week, writing, talking with my family and just enjoying the beautiful fall air.

A couple of days ago, when walking up the hill to the studio with Deb, we were hailed.  A couple of men were talking and called us over.  They had a familiar look and feel about them, but I wasn’t sure if I knew them or just felt like I knew them.  (I’ve had this happen several times here, and so far it’s been more the feeling of knowing that washes over me.)

“I think I’ve just been reading your blog.”

“What?  My blog?  Really.  How?  I mean that’s great!”

The surprise of being addressed immediately and directly in English was enough to throw me off a bit, let alone being addressed about my blog, in a foreign country, by a stranger.  I’m afraid I wasn’t at my most eloquent.

Keane, immediately recognizable by his full, graying beard, boldly colored cardigan and paint-stained Birkenstocks , is, like many, an import to Barga:  An artist who, among other things, manages the online magazine, “barga news”.  My instinct that I recognized him was correct.  It turns out that I had seen pictures of Keane on the site, and that he, in a funny way, was partly responsible for my trip to Barga.  Keane was instrumental in the gnome liberation movement.  A misread article led my family to visit Barga in search of the nani.  It was that visit that turned my world upside down.  Cheers Keane.

Standing in the street with Keane was another man.  “Oh, so you’re a bloggist?”  Frank presented a stark contrast to Keane.  Dressed in a button down shirt, with a neat, dark beard, Frank’s gaze was incisive and matter-of-fact.  And he had the most excellent glasses.  I’ve long made it a practice to compliment often, and immediately if I am struck by someone.  Why save it?  “I love your glasses. They’re really great.”

His modest discomfort with the compliment was charming.  Or maybe it was that he really didn’t buy it.  Or maybe pretty girls make him nervous.  It happens to the best of us – believe me.

I left the brief conversation hoping that our paths would cross again, and sure that they probably would.  It’s a nice feeling to know that I’m here for a while.  It changes the dynamics of conversations.  There’s no sense of hyper-immediacy that comes when you know you might not see someone again, and that you need to pack as much in to an interaction as you possibly can.  You can let things unfold.

Yesterday, after my second cappuccino of the day, I was making my way up to the duomo when I saw some friends of Deb’s sister sitting outside a cafe.  I went over to sit with them and chat a bit.  After a while, another friendly face appeared.  Frank!  “That’s a terrible book.”

I had just been telling the others how helpful I found the Rick Steves guide book when travelling to places like Florence and even Lucca, the walled city.  We were heading to Lucca that evening, and we were discussing museums and gelato shops.  “It’s really awful.”

I had a feeling I knew what Frank’s beef might be with the book.  While at Caffe Lucchesi for my second cappu, I had opened up my atlas and guidebook to put together the itinerary for the rest of my time in Italy.  When I opened to the map in the front of the Rick Steves book to locate Calabria (way in the toe of the boot), I saw that southern Italy and Sicily were cut off.  My family is from Southern Italy, so I found this mildly irksome, but had had good luck with the book, so I soldiered on, noting that I’d need to consult a friend in Calabria anyway, so it would be alright.

Frank’s family is from Sicily.  He took the book from me, “see, this is his all Italy book, right?  Well, look at this map…”  Bingo.  This book, along with being a touristy flag waiving for all to see, was a direct assault on his heritage.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a fair point.

The party broke up, and talk turned to mushrooms.  I enjoy collecting mushrooms, and have been hoping to find someone to take me into the hills.  Only I don’t want to get lost or shot, and nobody really wants to share their secret mushroom beds with anyone.  As we stood there, talking about how Frank, who grew up in Detroit, came to be in Barga, another of his friends walked in.  By the sound of him, a Scotsman.  After a bit of friendly banter, we all headed over to another restaurant where we found Keane.

I love sitting and listening to others speaking Italian.  I’m beginning to understand a little better the patterns of speech.  The ebb and flow of the words.  I can’t fully understand, but I am beginning to hear and catalogue the frequency of certain words; to hear fillers that are used often, and to begin to understand the why and how of each of them – at least sometimes.

Realizing that I had someone who might be able to explain the usage of filler words in the context of American English, I seized the opportunity and started peppering Frank with questions.  “how is allora different from ecco?” “ and if ecco means then and poi means then, which is temporal?” “and to look and to look for?  Which is which?”  Patiently, Frank went through his paces, answering the questions that have answers and explaining that much what I was asking is dictated by loose rules that give way to regional idioms.  Great.  Super-helpful.

Frank, it turns out, is quite an interesting guy.  He spent his career as a correspondent in war zones.  A journalist of fantastic pedigree, Frank has a tidy (not to be read as simple), well-rounded view of much of the world.  (Of course, this is my assessment after spending a couple of hours, so take it for what it’s worth.  In reality, the guy could be a psychopath.  Which is funny, because Sandra and Deb and I joke every so often about how any of us could be murderous thieves, but after meeting for one day, we were willing to merge our lives – even if briefly – with virtually no concern.  Crazy.  And beautiful.)

Frank also wrote a book (well more than one, actually).  Great!  My first question was “what is it about?”  I really couldn’t have anticipated the answer.  As Frank explained it, his grandfather had always said that the family moved from Sicily because his great-great-grandfather (I think) had been assassinated.  Before his death, his grandfather whispered the name of the assassin to Frank.  So Frank returned to Sicily to find out what happened.  Seriously.  I’ll be putting the book on my sidebar so that you can purchase it from Amazon.  I know I’m going to.

As the shops closed down yesterday and people headed home for lunch, Frank invited me to see his place.  Like so many others, Frank fell in love with Barga when he visited.  He ended up buying his house, which sits atop a 900 year old nunnery directly below the duomo.  (I’ll let you know if he rents rooms.)  We walked around the corner, and he pointed it out.  Stacked on top of each other, the houses on that side of Barga are layered like an archeological dig, newer on top of older, dug into the side of the hill.

“Come on up and I’ll show you around the place.”  Yes, yes, I think I’ll follow a strange man into his home in a village in Italy where nobody knows where I am.  Brilliant idea.  Mom would totally approve.  But, he had the stamp of approval from Deb and Sandra, so I accompanied Frank into his beautiful home to see the view of the mountains.

The view, says Frank, is the same as that from the Duomo.  It’s about 50 yards away from the duomo’s steps, but I found the view about 3 times more beautiful.  While the view from the top of the hill, shared with the stark face of the impersonal marble is expansive and striking, the view from Frank’s terrace was warm, welcoming and friendly.

Frank's view

Frank went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and I stayed to join him.  While he prepared bread, cheese and fruit, I wandered through the ancient garden of olives, grapes and herbs.  Over lunch, Frank taught me to eat sheep’s milk cheese with honey, and brought out the most amazing persimmons that dissolved into spoonfuls of marmalade.


While we ate we talked about Frank’s time in China, Italy and elsewhere, and considered my Italian itinerary.  The conversation skipped from the cultural and sociological differences between China and India to the importance of social dialogue and the raw sensuality that lies just above the surface of nearly every Italian interaction.

I sat in shirtsleeves in 80 degree weather on frank’s terrace for an hour and a half and I felt something I have felt very rarely in my life.  While I really enjoy learning, I rarely am able to learn from others.  My ego gets in the way, and I charge forward, knowing I’ll blunder along, wanting to make my own mistakes.  But, I would have sat for the whole day, asking questions, and learning from this man I had just met.  I’m interested to see what this might mean – whether it’s a new time in my life where I will be able to better accept contrary opinions as proffered rather than wielded, or whether it’s a mentoring friendship that can be built.  Or whether it was a beautiful day on a hillside with a stranger.  Either way, it feels a beautiful gift.

And makes me wonder what tomorrow will bring.

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October 31, 2009   15 Comments