Sunday, July 27, 2008

Inching to the Ladies' Room

Menstruation, childbirth, children leaving home, menopause – the links of shared experiences that bind the female sisterhood range from poignant and painful to peevish. While it may be the least significant, certainly the most common bond is the time spent waiting in line for the Ladies’ Room. As we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, inching forward at a snail-like pace, friendships are forged, life histories are shared.

The line to top them all was a rest-stop experience on the New Jersey Turnpike. The traffic was appalling and I was desperate, so my husband dropped me off when the service station ramp came into view so I could sprint across the median and lanes of crawling cars. Given the traffic, I should have known what I would find inside, a queue that stretched the length of the building. My automatic “Oh my God” was uttered by every woman that pushed through those doors, falsely believing she was within minutes of relief.

It fell to those opposite the doors to assure panicked newcomers, “Don’t worry, the line moves quickly.”

It was an inspiration to watch new entrants. Upon first seeing the line, their faces would fall. But they’d shake it off, straighten their shoulders, breathe deeply, then hike stoically to the far, oh so far, end of the room.

I found out that Giants’ Stadium had just disgorged a mass of spectators. In addition, many women were returning from Washington where they had participated in a “Million Moms March” to protest the Iraq War. I was filled with admiration for the valiant protesters standing before and behind me with jaws and cheeks clenched, their discomfort masked by pleasant expressions as they made their way toward the beckoning sign - "WOMEN."

When I reached the position opposite the main entrance, I assumed the mantle of comfort from my sisters before me. “Don’t worry, the line moves quickly,” I said with an encouraging smile to those gasping in dismay as they breached the sliding doors.

I chatted with a young woman from Maine who had been “holding” for over an hour. Men have no idea of the courage displayed on a regular basis by women in excruciating pain waiting in the lines that they so blithely sail past as they dart in and out of those line-less Men’s Room doors.

Why is there such a disparity in lines? Does it really take so much longer after that initial unzip to pull down pants, hike up skirts and sit, or perch precariously on toes to avoid seat contact? Even factoring in the placement of two sets of tissue squares on each side of the seat, maybe replacing one as it slides into the bowl, even then, why is it that lines are de rigueur for women while men don’t know the meaning of “wait”?

At times, Kegel maneuvers prove unequal to the urge and action must be taken. I have been party to one of those rare rebellions when, with arched eyebrows and a giggly show of boldness, we ladies stormed the Men’s Room. Leaving a lone guard, a platoon of would-be tinklers thrust aside the door to that bastion of urinals and mis-shots and got the job done. I don’t know why we don’t do that more often. I suppose girls are raised to be patient. Perhaps fortitude nurtured through a lifetime of waiting for the bathroom is one of the reasons women endure.

Because they can so easily whip it out and go anywhere, men have no understanding of the discomfort of holding. There are too many smug boyfriends and husbands who boast that it is their policy “not to stop” on long drives. “Once we’re on the road, we are going.” Humph. A friend of mine once showed a macho idiot a thing or two as he purposely wiggled the steering wheel to jostle the car upon learning of her need for a restroom. “I’m telling you, I’ll go in the car if you don’t stop!” She cried.

He had his fair warning. I hope the urine stained his BMW’s leather seats.

It is relief divine to approach the inner sanctum after a long wait. The mix of camaraderie and competition among the final three poised on the threshold, those urging their bodies to hang on but a moment more because the end is literally in sight, is fascinating. Six pairs of eyes fixed on locked doors, the gracious smiles of the newly emptied patrons as they head to the washstands, the grateful looks and quick-step stride of the soon-to-go.

Even then, there are challenges to be met. Entering the stall, body tense and ready, there is the dilemma of pocketbook placement. The hook on the back of the door is generally missing. Have too many people forgotten their bags? Does the management feels this teaches responsibility? Too, the extraction of toilet tissue is not always easy. Those oversized plastic canisters house three rolls – two in reserve. If the tissue strip has been torn short, it requires worming a hand up inside the contraption in order to isolate and grasp the end of a sheet – all while balanced on tiptoes and grappling with a purse.
The ecstasy of long-awaited release is accompanied by insight gained into neighboring squatters – choice of shoe tells a lot about a person. There are spiky heels, flipflops, a bandaged toe, painted nails (That looks like my favorite, Cherry Crush!), or a pair of little feet sharing the stall with Mommy – a tiny voice reporting exactly what is produced.

For me, the washing and drying of hands is made cringe-worthy by faucets and dryers that turn on automatically and stay on, often far longer than necessary, wasting precious water and electricity. They have obviously been calibrated according to some standard of hygiene that I flagrantly neglect. At times, the opposite situation exists, where the flow is an insignificant spritz that allows a mere moistening before shutting off. It takes two or three tries to assess the timing and limber up the reflexes to catch the paltry spray. And then the finale. Much as I worry about wasting electricity, those blow dryers are deliciously warm on a chilly winter day.

The exit from the ladies' room demands a certain diplomacy. Those departing, after all, are cleansed, empty and relaxed while others remain in clench-mode. Some adopt a demure smile with eyes slightly averted upon leaving. Others strut out with a manner just shy of cocky. It is, however, in the very nature of women to nurture. Most exit with a straightforward gaze and a comforting smile that conveys, “Don’t worry, the line moves quickly.”

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cannons, Clowns and Fly Swatters

[This is another excerpt from "In the Bubble" - my journal about our sabbatical in the fall of 2005. After leaving Tuscany, Casey, Dave and I spent eight days in Germany and Austria. The following tells of our stay in Hallstatt, Austria, having visited Dachau concentration camp the day before.]

Oct. 9, 2005

Snow-capped mountains ring crystal-pure lakes parting Dachau’s breath-stopping shroud as we chug toward Hallstatt by train. We have befriended a little blond sprite of a boy named Nicholas. He and his grandfather live in Hallstatt and they will tell us when we reach our stop then direct us to our hotel. It feels good to have someone take care of us, even in this small way.

Nicholas’ tiny fingers appear through the crack between the seat backs, miming Dave’s gestures as they play chomping alligators.

* * *

The food tastes fine, but the gun is distracting.

Having seen it in action this morning, Dave and I are stunned to discover it here, at Pizzeria Muhle, resting on a sideboard when we walked into the restaurant for dinner.

We’d awakened early in somber moods unrelated to the weather or the beauty of the setting. Sunshine caressed petunias of magenta, pink and white that spilled from the flower box beneath our window at Gasthof Simony. The light, nourishing as the water flowing from the fountain in the street below, bathed the town square. The soul-sickness of Dachau was not easily purged, but we were soothed by the snow-capped mountains and silvered lake.

After eating a substantial breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cheese, fruit, cereal and bread, Casey, Dave and I explored the village, coming to rest on a tiny stone walkway threaded between Hobbit-like doorways and balconies lush with flowers. The houses around us clung impossibly to the hillside, each stepped one upon the other.
“I wonder if he feels abandoned,” Dave worried.

He was talking about his father, Colombo.

Casey and I were silent. What could we say? No one had known what Colombo was thinking for over a year, since his stroke.

“We’ll make up for our absence when we return,” I offered. I’d made many deals with God before we left, promising solicitousness-forever in visiting Colombo, Ma Sly and Aunty Cam if we could have our two months sabbatical uninterrupted by any aging-Sylvestro crises. I added, “But, I bet he’s not aware of time passing.”

“I hope not.”

Fingers of late morning sun reached us as the faithful of Hallstatt, clad in dirndls and lederhosen, inched past us, hiking the steep stairs to church. They smiled kindly, perhaps discerning the glint of tears on Casey’s cheek, the sadness of this trio of strangers.

Suddenly, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Three heart-stopping shots echoed about the mountains.

The braying of flugelhorn, trumpet and French horn yanked us to our feet and we raced down the path to locate the source of the shots and bellowing brass.

A curl of white smoke hung over the town square as a parade of men in Tyrolean dress trailed a band led by a standard-bearer waving a white flag. A clown with a red face figured prominently in the line-up. A clown. Intriguing... disturbing.

Music alternately mournful and rousing resonated over blue waters as we joined the procession winding through narrow village streets to the boat ramp on the lake. The marchers filed onto a relic of the salt industry, a flat-bottomed “Fuhr” boat, designed to carry heavy loads in shallow water. Each passenger wore pink and blue flowers interlaced with ferns tucked into their hatbands. A little guy of four or so was precious as a doll dressed in his lederhosen and green loden jacket.

As the boat was launched, three men in the stern tamped gunpowder into massive wooden guns. All assembled waited with fingers in ears. The men lifted arms and fired. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The mountains towered beyond, as the boat glided over crystal waters. We kept pace with those left onshore, running along the road bordering the lake. A woman in a powder-blue dirndl over a white blouse with puffed sleeves explained that the ceremony was an old tradition associated with a hunting and shooting club.

“But what is the purpose? What’s with the clown?”

She shrugged, miming a hand clutching a beer stein. In broken English, she said, “mainly, it’s Proust! Proust! Proust!”

In unison with the standard-bearer, a white flag waved from a balcony on the hill as the boat reached the far side of the lake, the music dwindling to a sorrowful moan.

And now, hours later, Dave and I are astonished to find one of the intricately carved wooden guns, a hand-held cannon really, casually resting on its side at Pizzeria Muhle. It is like spotting Excalibur, a celebrity among weapons.

The gun’s owner droops across the bar, cross-eyed and disheveled, after his not-yet-finished day of revelry. Still, in his short lederhosen and Tyrolean hat, he is as quaint as a drunk can be.

The restaurant’s proprietor, Toro (pronounced “Tewrew”) is chatty and hospitable and pulls up a chair to join us. Despite his geniality, he leers in a way that would make me uncomfortable if not for Dave’s presence. He insists on buying us a round of drinks and after we’ve finished eating, waves us to the bar to meet the cross-eyed owner of the gun, his brother Steve, and some friends.

Round after round of assorted liqueurs, rum and coke, beer and wine are plunked on the bar in front of me. I’m feeling pretty cheerful already, so I stop drinking despite the continuing appearance of filled glasses at my elbow.

Casey had taken a pass on dinner and is reading back in the room, but given the colorful assemblage, and the gun of course, I decide to fetch her.

I scamper down the vine-bedecked stairway cut into the hill, past flower-draped balconies, over a wooden footbridge below a waterfall, and through an arched alley opening into night-quiet fairytale streets. I am intoxicated… by the setting and, yes, from the liberal offerings of Toro and the boys. I smile to myself as I stand by the fountain in the village square and call up to the lighted window above the words “Gasthof Simony.”

Casey’s face appears haloed by the light, framed by petunias. “Hi Sweetie!” I giggle.

“Mom! Are you drunk?” Her voice is a whispered hiss. She is accusing, but amused as well.

“You have to come back with me! To the restaurant! One of the wooden guns is there and they’re giving us free drinks and the bartender is pretty cute and it’s a beautiful night for a walk!”

“Guns? What restaurant? How cute? Wait a minute. I’ll be right down.”

Within moments, she is out the door, laughing as she gives me a hug. “Look at you! You’ve been having fun, I guess!”

I hug her back and say, “Just look at this! Look around us.”

We are quiet, smiling, as we turn a full circle. The night is soft on peaked dormers and velvety petals. The water splashes in the fountain beside us. “Magic,” says Casey.

It is magic.

Together, we retrace my steps, two heroines in an enchanted village.

At Pizzeria Muhle, the scene is unreal, but not exactly magical. Casey is greeted with jocular toasts and of course, a free drink. How does this man make any money, I have to wonder. Casey poses with the gun, affecting a gangster stance, or at least, as gangster-like as possible given the heft of the weapon.

In the course of conversation, I discover I’ve spent the evening addressing our host by his last name; I had noticed his certificate of restaurant management on the wall, not realizing that, in Austria, names are reversed on official documents. Oh dear. I must’ve been written off as another rude American.

It is 2:00 AM, way past time to depart. I give Ferdy, no longer “Toro,” a friendly hug. He turns me around firmly and picks up a fly swatter, saying, “And now you know what we must do!”

I think, “Hmmm, no. No, I don’t. Iffy, but Dave and Casey are here. How bad can this be?”

Not bad, but bizarre. He spanks me with the fly swatter!

I probably shouldn’t have called him by his last name all night.

Cannons, clowns and fly swatters. This is quite a little town.

We stumble down the steep path toward the square and decide on a head-clearing walk along the lake. Casey is bug-eyed at the spanking and we struggle to stifle our snickers. We recognize another celebrant from this morning’s ceremony who introduces himself as “Shorty.” He offers, hand to zipper, to prove he isn’t short where it counts. My daughter is near choking as we assure him we need no demonstration.

Shorty urges us to join him for a nightcap at Pizzeria Muhle. Casey snorts with laughter as we thank him, but decline.

We part ways, sending our best wishes to the gang at the Pizzeria. A short while later, Shorty’s voice comes to us through the dark, “Lea! Dave! Casey!” Nothing more, but it was fun to be hailed in familiar fashion in the middle of the night in Hallstatt.

* * *

After the excitement of last night's festivities, we spend a quiet morning in our room at Gasthof Simony writing postcards and reading. Dave opens his new book and settles back in the cloud-like nest of our feather-bed. A short while later, he exclaims, “You’re not going to believe this.”

Before leaving the U.S., Dave stocked up on reading material at Borders. He’d asked the salesgirl for a recommendation with the caveat, “I’m an NPR kind of geek.”

“I have just the thing,” the girl had said and handed him "Salt" by Mark Kurlansky.

He’d never heard of it. He didn’t read the back cover summary. He brought the book home and packed it.

As he read the first twelve pages, here at Gasthof Simony, he learned that we are visiting the salt capital of the world. The opening chapter of the book was about Hallstatt.

What are the odds?

Sometimes it seems that great cogs are turning, and once in a while, they lock neatly into place.

Within an hour of Dave’s opening the book, we find directions to the salt mines, eat a quick snack of bread and cheese, walk maybe ten minutes along the lake, and take a cable car up the mountain to the shaft’s entrance. Is it travel or the ability and time to be open, by which adventures unfold?

We gather with about eighteen other visitors in a large locker room. A bored employee distributes formless uniforms of heavy blue gabardine. Casey and I preen and perform a run-way strut in our becoming outfits.

Moments later, as I zip into the earth’s bowels on Europe’s longest wooden slide, I am glad of the fabric shield against friction. I dismount with a flourish and check the digital read-out flashing my speed. Apparently I beat Dave in this race to the center of the earth. I pump the air with my fist along with all the other triumphant sliders who’ve surpassed friends and family members in this pointless victory.

It is cool and dark as we follow the guide past underground lakes and pink protrusions of raw salt. Some outcroppings are lighted and glow like lanterns. Mannequins clad in skins enact Iron Age salt extraction. Casey, wishing always to enliven our photographs, poses with her tongue pressed to the salt wall, ignoring my protests.

On the way out of the mine, we stop at the gift shop and Dave selects several small chunks of pink salt. He plans to give Tucker and Dad a copy of the book "Salt" as well as these samples from Hallstatt as Christmas presents. He also claims one of the chunks as his own and christens it, cleverly, “Salty.”

[To see photos of our trip to Hallstatt, click here.]

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Another Excerpt from "In the Bubble"

[In the book, this excerpt immediately follows the one posted last week. To clarify the scenes following, our daughter Casey and her college boyfriend, Charlie, broke up shortly before we left for Italy. Also, Dave's father, Colombo, was in a nursing home, having suffered a stroke the preceding fall.]

Sept. 13

Casey has undertaken a cooking project. Dave and I suspect that her industry masks a whirl of thoughts. Rather than kneading, she pounds the pasta dough, her brow creased in angry concentration. Pinching off portions of the wad of dough, she rolls long sausage shapes, one might say, penile in form. The rolling is vigorous and punishing and her expression while chopping off small pieces to create the more vaginal cavatelli is one of grim satisfaction.

“You know,” she announces, her eyes flashing with passionate evidence of her Italian genes, “If he would put himself in my shoes for a change, that would be nice, but Oh no, he won’t.” She points at me with her knife, jabbing the air at a spectral Charlie for emphasis. “I know what’s going on here. He wants to hook up with a freshman and I won’t tolerate that.”
Although she's engaged by the events of each day, she misses Charlie, and we still hear her muffled sobs at night. For two years, she has envisioned a life with this boy. Although she's heard nothing from Charlie, a number of her girlfriends have written to report his activities. In August, he was honest in telling Casey he doubted he could wait for her, and apparently he is spending a lot of time with one of the new students.

I draw my daughter’s attention to her rolling and cutting, to the evocative shapes of her dough. She laughs and whips that penile pasta more aggressively, gleefully twisting it to painful pretzel contortions, “Take that, Charlie!” in every twitch.

In the midst of Casey’s tirade, Dave asks plaintively if we’ve seen his “kitchen glasses.”

He has been in a slump for the past two days. He was inordinately concerned when he thought we were on the wrong road to Lucca and now, he’s irritated about his glasses. This morning, he told me that he’d dreamed Mr. Latuga, an old family friend, spoke to him from The Other Side to tell him that Colombo had joined him and was doing fine. During our first week in Italy, Dave was distracted from worry about his father, but every conversation with those at home, while reassuring regarding Colombo’s status, stirs Dave’s guilt about going away.

A hunt for the glasses is initiated. As his annoyance billows, Dave’s mouth thins, zipped to withhold stinging words. I know he's thinking, "Why can’t she just leave my things where they are? What is this compulsive need to pick up and neaten?"

“If I moved them, I put them on your bureau, “ I say tightly as I droop after him, checking the bathroom, the guest room, the laundry. I do this a lot – traipsing about in search of Dave’s belongings, struggling to fend off his gloom. “I didn’t realize you had ‘kitchen glasses,’” I explain in clipped tones. “I thought you just had several pairs of glasses – general category – and if I put them with your things, it would be all right.”

“Is it a problem if I leave a pair in the kitchen?” his tone implying that an anal-compulsive such as myself should be committed.

“Perhaps you could use your ‘bedroom pair,’” I snipe.

Casey, dear child, shares an eye-rolling “men are idiots” moment with me. It is good to have another woman around. She says, “I’ll take a quick look and I bet I find them.”

She steps into the hallway, kneels on the floor to look under the armoire… and triumphantly brandishes the missing glasses.


“You must have dropped them when you fell last night,” says Dave.

After returning from Lucca, I missed the step from the kitchen into the hallway and fell, twisting my ankle. I must have been doing a little surreptitious straightening on my way to bed, and deviously flung the glasses out of sight when I tumbled.

So yes, it was my fault.

Sept. 14

Cortona, site of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, is an enchanting place - incantevole! The moment the surrounding walls are breached, the town extends her hospitality with an invitation to the W.C. Pubblico. What joy! Most of our excursions involve lengthy drives to our destination, followed by painful clenching upon arrival while scouting out a bathroom. Bella Cortona to spare us that search.

We’ve come to Cortona for an antiques show advertised on a wall in Fonterutoli. After our experience in Lucca, we confirm the details of the show with a group of genial old fellows sitting in the main piazza in the shadow of a large watermelon slice. A watermelon slice? Yes – a mammoth slice that would feed the village, but for its being made of steel. It must be a remnant of an exhibit of some sort, but it’s an odd complement to the medieval Palazzo Comunale that dominates the square with its wide stone staircase and massive clock face. I ask for directions to the armory where the show is being held and one of the men rises from the bench to escort us.

“Non e necessario, signore! Per favore, non voglio le disturbare!” I protest.

“Prego, prego. Andiamo!”

I am embarrassed about the imposition, but our guide insists on taking us to the door of the armory. He leaves us with a wave of a work-toughened hand and heads back the way we had come.

“He thought you were a babe,” says Dave.

“Oh please….”

We buy our tickets and enter the building. As we wander from room to room, studying the exhibits, we bask in a sense of legitimacy. In this context we are not solely tourists who mangle the language; here we have value as potential buyers.

We peruse dark oils of nursing Madonnas, suffering Christs and sumptuous still-lifes and take note of the prices on the vendors’ cards. Apparently, we will not be buying any paintings. Another booth features antiquities - mammoth terra cotta urns, marble lintels, and a marble washstand dating from 600 AD. That such ancient artifacts can be purchased is stunning, but again, we check the prices; they’ll not be purchased by Sylvestros. What we are able to afford is cookware: a hand-hammered, wrought iron grill dating from the early 1800’s. In terms of Italian history, it does not rate the term “antique,” but it will fit perfectly in our 1780’s home.

We return to the car to stow our well-wrapped package. The logistics of fitting the bulky piece in a suitcase when the time comes to leave Fonterutoli is also stowed away for the time being. Unencumbered by grills or cares, we set out to explore Cortona.

As in all the hill towns of Tuscany, houses and churches of stone nestle side-by-side along narrow roads that scale steep inclines. Flowers cascade from containers mounted on wooden doorways, balconies and the sills of green-shuttered windows. Clumps of moss grow like fuzzy hedgehogs from chinks in the ancient stone wall that flanks the path to the summit.

Occasional signs urge us to visit Santa Margarita. We’ve never heard of her but when an elderly signora sweeping her stoop points earnestly upward, saying, “Santa Margarita,” we comply.

It is not an easy climb. Casey takes it as her charge to enliven our photographs by lying on the ground, face contorted, pretending to claw her way up the path. We pass an elderly couple inching along, encouraging one another, “It can’t be much further.”

It is much further, as it turns out, but it’s worth it.

Like a guardian sentry, the nineteenth century church keeps watch over a sea of countryside – open fields, farmland, villages, vineyards, and, far in the distance, a glimmering lake. Inside the neo-medieval structure, soaring arches painted with vines rise to deep blue domes spangled with stars. Santa Margarita herself is our hostess. She rests in a glass case on the altar, her worldly remains garbed in simple robes and a white cap.

Dave extols this practice of displaying relics – a finger, a head, the whole skeleton if you can get it. The Italians are at ease with death. Their deceased saints and loved ones remain among them. In fact, Italian cemeteries are happy places to visit. Each headstone bears a photograph and the dates of birth and death. Bouquets of flowers and plantings adorn the graves, and luci di compagnia, literally “lights of companionship,” give comfort even in darkness. One senses the lives behind each headstone, and when visitors walk between the rows of graves, I imagine the spirits nudge each other, glancing up in curiosity just as any Italian sipping his coffee at a cafĂ© might do.

Every town, no matter how small, has its own wall-encircled cemetery. In Fonterutoli, departed family members are buried in an enclosure of white-washed walls, a serene extension of the neighborhood. Cortona’s huge cemetery seems to float mid-air, built into the side of the hill.

We light candles for Steve, Colombo, Cam and my parents, then purchase a pamphlet about the saint and collapse in a pew to rest and read.

Margarita’s story is very Cinderella, without the romantic ending. After a childhood of abuse by her wicked stepmother, she was swept away as a young woman in an affair with a wealthy landowner. She lived with the gentleman for nine years and bore him a son. Then one day, while out walking her dog, she came upon the body of her lover. The cause of his death remains a mystery.

The family of her beloved wanted nothing to do with her, nor did her father and his nasty bride. Margarita ultimately dedicated herself to helping the poor and was named Cortona’s patron saint after her death. Her son followed his mother’s example and became a Franciscan monk.

Sometimes I envy the security of those pictured in sepia photographs or old paintings. They know the ending. They are finished with life’s rude jolts and the specter of losing loved ones. Margarita’s skeleton, encased in glass, is surrounded by yellow lilies, flickering candles and fragrant incense. Those bones, once cloaked in flesh as vulnerable as mine, lived the words in this pamphlet. Death seems a peaceful resolution to her difficult life.
As we sit in the pew, monks in floor-length brown robes sweep past on their way to prayer in the side chapel. I hope they’ll chant.

Dave believes that he lived a past life in the Middle Ages. He has memories of his robes and sandaled feet in the dust. He claims that if anything happens to me, he will return to that long-ago life and enter a monastery. He watches the monks and checks out their moves.

A hum fills the church; I can feel it in my chest. The incense smokes, its perfume heavy. The monks are shadowed beneath their hoods. Candle flames shiver as men’s voices drone, singing ancient words. The sound swells, a river of spirit, borne to the heavens as it has been through the span of centuries.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Excerpt from "In the Bubble"

In the fall of 2005, we were fortunate to spend two months in Italy. The following is an excerpt from the book I am writing about the experience.

Sept. 12

I throw the kitchen windows open to a sun-filled morning and the sounds of a heated conversation in the piazza below. The line between argument and discussion is thin. I try to catch a few words – in order to practice my Italian rather than from curiosity – but the talk tumbles headlong and the local use of an “h” for a “c” stymies me further. The Italian "casa," or “house,” for example, becomes "hasa," and the need for a double translation taxes my limited linguistic abilities.

Our plan for the day is to stop in nearby Castellina for breakfast coffee and then drive to a town called Lucca this afternoon. A poster on the wall near the old roman road announced a wine and cheese festival there tonight. Fun! I busy myself re-arranging the clothes draped in our window, hoping to find a lasting sliver of sun so that our jeans will be dry enough to wear.

La Signora who lives across the street is framed in her window, spreading dishtowels and clothing to dry on the line stretched below the sill. Clothed in a blue housedress, she is heavy-set and dour, her dark bangs held back with a silver clip. “Buon giorno!” I call out, eager to use my Italian, to see if there is a smile beyond the thin line of her mouth. “Sembra che sempre lavora,” I comment. “It seems like you’re always working.”

“Si,” she agrees, her expression unchanging.

I blather on, in my broken Italian, about the difficulty of drying clothes with all this wet weather. I try to play my “I, too, am a homemaker” card by bemoaning the fact that the laundry I washed three days ago is still damp.

“Deve avere pazienza,” she says, straightening her dishtowels without looking up.

You must have patience. Huh. Who has time for that?

* * *

We are soured on Lucca before we leave the car. The traffic is terrible, extending the two-hour trip. Dave is tight-lipped in his belief that we took the wrong road, and finding parking requires endless circling. Plus, Casey and I have to go to the bathroom.

Under different circumstances, we would love this place. Surrounded by massive ramparts from the sixteenth century, the buildings have an almost Swedish flair in their pastel colors and window boxes tumbling with pink and white flowers. As travel author Rick Steves points out, “the ghost of a roman ampitheater” defines the piazza which is encircled with shops and apartments built into the remains of the arena. Italians recycle everything.

Turns out, we misread the day of the festival on that poster. How Sylvestro. That evening of light-hearted revelry, wine tastings and fireworks will take place next week. Disappointment, residual drive grumpiness and insistent bladder pressure do not bode well for Lucca.

We trudge aimlessly down one street after another, a disconsolate trio, feeling out of sorts and out of place. We pass a bar lively with people cheerfully enjoying the company of friends. Humph. A “W.C.” sign is painfully, enticingly, visible inside.

I am chronically immobilized by anxiety at the thought of making false moves, a concern that is heightened while traveling, but I have to go soooo badly. “Maybe we should ask if we can use their bathroom,” I offer, my mind whirling to bolster this bold suggestion. I think, “You’ll never see these people again. If they say no, or look at you like you’re a jerk, it DOESN’T matter.” Drawing on whatever paltry reserves of courage I possess, I walk in and make my request in crappy, hesitant Italian.

“Certo! – Of course!” smiles the wonderful, dear girl behind the bar.

Lucca is a lovely spot.

By the time Casey and I emerge from our blessed release, Dave has found a glass of vino rosso and a seat next to Julie. Blond, tan and athletic, she reminds us of a combination of friends from home and so we are comfortable with her immediately. Julie adds to our renewed good cheer by informing us that the pickles, boiled eggs, bread, pesto, cheese and salami arrayed on the bar are free snacks. Free?! Omigod – what an incredible town.

Julie tells us of her past as a high-powered lawyer in Los Angeles. “About three years ago, I did a bike tour of Europe following old pilgrimage routes. It changed the course of my life. I had known I wasn’t happy before I went on the trip, but I needed to distance myself to understand just how uncomfortable I was. I had not felt at home in my own skin for years. Can you imagine that?”

Yes, I can. Perfectly. I shiver in recognition.

“So,” she continues, “I left. I signed on with the company I’d traveled with, and now I run bike tours here.”

A balloon of elation expands in my chest at this reminder, steady as a heartbeat, that I have choices. Just this morning in Castellina, Dave, Casey and I chatted over espresso and cappuccino with a family who’d left their home and jobs in Boston to move to an island off Portland, Maine. “We had lived one way for twenty years and realized that wasn’t the way we wanted to spend the next twenty.”

I am bolstered by these travelers’ stories of new paths taken. While Dave tells me, gently, that I’ve made the choices that have shaped my life, somewhere I feel like I lost my grip on the wheel. My perception of others’ expectations has been my compass, but I am trying to wrest back control. I have reduced my workdays at school to allow more time to write; a giant step for me in life’s game of “Mother May I?”

I look at Julie as she sips her wine. She seems open and relaxed, content. We touch glasses in a salute to her success and our meeting. Just as life can turn on a moment, a chance encounter or experience opening a new path, so can a connection – a friendly bartender, an almost familiar face - draw you in from the cold of anonymity, to become one with a crowd chatting companionably in a window.

Ci piace molto, questa citta Lucca. We love this town of Lucca!