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.
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!