Norma Shearer, playing Elizabeth Barrett, gets all excited when Robert Browning nudges her to come to Italy with him. ” Italy… ah, Italy!” she gushes, and rightly so. That’s what I felt like doing after a cramped nine hour flight from JFK to Pisa. Don’t even get me started about that! Everyone knows that flights from JFK to Orlando are supposed to be cramped, but to Pisa? Who goes to Pisa besides me and Galileo Galilei? The flight was long and tiring, and at one point I almost asked the flight attendant for fresh-squeezed water. But still… I was going to Italy !
Personally, I think airplane seating should be handled like dinner party seating: the flight attendants should make sure that people sitting together will be able to engage in stimulating conversation. My seatmate was an attractive older student who didn’t have much to say until about an hour before landing, and then he kept getting interrupted by A Woman Of A Certain Age who insisted on telling him how handsome he was. SHE should have been seated next to HIM, and I should have been seated next to nuns. I’m just saying.
Pisa, that town of towers and universities, was my entry point into fabled Italy; its airport reminded me of the dusty Orlando airfield circa 1978, but it’s where a lot of people fly into when they’re entering Tuscany. My people live outside of Lucca, a small city situated a fifth of the way from Pisa to Florence. Here’s a little map; if it’s legible enough, Lucca is in a box, and just a bit northeast of it is Marlia, where I stayed with cousins. It’s country, with farms and gardens and even some factories.
It’d been twenty-five years since I’d been to Italy, which means that, if I continue this pattern, the next time I go I’ll probably be in a box. My mother’s cousin Giuseppina is now seventy years old, which I why I didn’t recognize her at the airport (though she recognized me), but her son Adriano (in his late forties) and grandson Nicola (18) didn’t recognize me. Nicola I’d never met, and those family photos that my mother sends them over the years must be dated! It was like a bunch of strangers piling into the car, but we all laughed when I told them that my giant new American Tourister suitcase from Sears meant that I was planning on staying with them for two months. HA! I wish.
At the house in Marlia I met Nicola’s mother Simona, and Adriano’s brother Massimo, and was shown to my aerie– a shady and spacious second-floor bedroom that overlooked fields that used to be planted with fruit trees and vegetables when Giuseppina’s Mother and Father were still living. It was nice and cool, though there was no air conditioning anywhere, as the shutters are kept closed against the Summer heat. In the distance loomed Le Pizzorne, a series of steep hills sprinkled with tiny, stone villages. What a view! Lunch was a cold rice dish studded with various flora, including pearl onions, which I’ve never eaten because I hate them. It was accompanied by a heaping pile of radicchio, which we flavored with oil and vinegar. Then we had polpete– little meat pockets– and delicious red plums from Simona’s grandfather’s farm. Not to be rude, I crunched my way through it all! When in Rome…
That evening Nicola and I sped on bicycles to the vigil Mass in Marlia center. I tell you, these Italian country churches are amazing– you have your rather stern, plain exterior in most cases, but when you go inside it’s like stepping into a mini St. Peter’s Basilica: art, statues, candles, soaring ceilings and gilded columns all give witness to the fact that you are in Catholic Italy. Though increasingly secular, no Italian will deny the facts of his country’s artistic treasures. And even if I was as wet as a holy water font after that bike ride along heart-tuggingly beautiful country lanes, I managed to fan myself dry so that I could bask comfortably.
Bed by 9:30 that night– there’s a six hour difference in time, and so I put myself to sleep trying to figure out if I was in the past or the future, punchily giggling into the freshly-ironed sheets that Giuseppina had placed on my bed.
I set the alarm for eight Sunday morning, but was numb when it went off, and only managed to limp out of bed when Giuseppina reminded me– with knocking and imprecations– that I was going to have to get up and start enjoying my holiday. I’d actually been awakened at half past five by the rising sun and a lot of birds, but fell back to sleep until the damned alarm went off; it had been brought to my bedroom the night before by Massimo after a long, complex discussion involving two tiny, plastic alarm clocks and how they worked, which I made even more complicated by stating that I preferred the RED clock over the WHITE one. Here I was trying to make jokes in Italian with people who did not yet “get” me.
On to Lucca after a coffee and biscotti breakfast! Simona drove Nicola and me to a piazza filled with cafes and bicycle renters, and soon we were racing around the medieval walls of the city. They’re tall and very wide, and the town fathers over the centuries had managed to create parks up there, complete now with benches and bike paths accompanying the occasional ancient ruin. It’s incredibly beautiful cycling through this bucolic setting: down on our left was the town itself, all red tile and ocher and pastels, filled with churches and shops and people enjoying a day in town, and out to the right were the hills that ring the Luccan plain. It’s stunning… even the light is different!
We walked through town after the bicycle ride, stopping in at a few churches and shops, and I had my first experience using Euros when I bought us chilled yogurt.
Back at the house for dinner, Giuseppina’s sister Maria Pia brought over a stack of pizzas– one for each of us. I began to finally get the impression that these people loved to eat, though everyone looks great, especially the two sisters: both in their seventies, they each look a dozen years younger.
Pisa! Nicola and I went by train and visited the Cathedral, but not the Tower. What??!! He’d been to it a few months before, and I’d been there in 1984, and it cost twenty dollars to climb. Besides, it was desecrated by a ring of scaffolding. That, along with the long line of tourists, coaxed us into the coolness of the immense Cathedral. A visiting choir was performing Panis Angelicus, among other selections, and it was all so ethereal…
After a pizza lunch we scampered through town for a few hours, investigating the University that Nicola’s going to attend in the Fall, and browsed through bookshops looking for items on his reading list that he wanted to get a jump on. Then we spent some time searching for an ancient synagogue, which we eventually found, but it was closed that day. “Maybe we should come back Friday night !” I suggested. Dinner that evening was a classic: spaghetti! And bread and salad and wine and water and fruit and coffee…
The birds woke me again at five in the morning, and then after a light breakfast (breakfast is not big here) I went shopping with Giuseppina and her son Massimo. First we went to a local shop, where Giuseppina bought even more food, and I got myself a red-and-white checkered tablecloth in case I ever open up an Italian restaurant in Winter Park. I almost bought a tube of fish paste, thinking it was toothpaste! Then we went to a larger supermarket, which is just like Publix here in Florida except that everything is in Italian– and the cleaning fluids and shampoos are all strange. You’d better know what you’re going to put in your hair! After lunch Massimo and I biked along the Serchio River towards Lucca, and he showed me where he fished and caught eels. Eels! Would I be having eels to eat soon?
That afternoon we visited the Villa Reale, one of many old country houses that ring Marlia. We weren’t there in time for a tour, which we didn’t want anyway, but a young guide offered to accompany us through the beautiful grounds. Giuseppina loves the place. Here’s the house where the servants lived… I tell you, I wouldn’t mind being a servant in Marlia.
In the evening Simona drove Nicola and me to the top of the hills east of Marlia so that we could find the Cross, a tall structure that overlooks the plain. You know in all those old movies when people go up a winding hairpin road around a mountain? It was exactly like that, only real life. The road is not wide, and is uneven and rutted dirt for most of the way, and there are no guard rails. You hope that nobody comes at you from the other direction, as there are very few places to back up in order to let somebody pass. The mountain is covered with dense forest, and all you see are ancient houses in tiny settlements, and a set of stations of the Cross which lead presumably to the top. This being Italy, the way is confusing; one very old lady staring at us from her yard as we drove carefully by seemed able to point the way at the crossroads past her house had we decided to ask, but Nicola said that “she would be only able to tell us the news of 1860.” We eventually reached the top– I was leaning toward the wall of earth at our right so that our car wouldn’t fall off the cliff– and discovered a breathtaking view of the entire plain. The Cross is modern and sixty feet tall and looks oddly normal standing in that remote place. It’s very peaceful up there, and you can hear the wind.
That evening I was brought to meet Simona’s parents who, after an evening of dinner and dancing, would be going to Rimini the next day to start their vacation. Is this the life, or what? Gelato for everybody, and a lot of daffy mis-translations from yours truly who, by now, was a very sleepy boy. These people love to entertain, and they constantly offer to drive you to the ends of the Earth for photo opportunities. Does this mean that I’ll have to treat them all to Disney when they come to visit here?!!
Siena! My cousin and I reached Siena the Magnificent after a leisurely train ride through the countryside, which turned not so leisurely after we disembarked. According to my map, Siena center was across a busy highway– but how did we cross the highway? Apparently we had to wind our way through a sort of mall, where we found an elevator that took us to an underground parking garage. Where next? I had no idea, and neither did my cousin. “I’m not good at these situations,” he said as we found ourselves surrounded by shoppers heading merrily to their cars. But somebody noticed our slack-mouthed expressions and pointed the way, and we found an area where you were supposed to board a bus for the center of town. We stood in line and then somebody– an American woman who I could tell was from Flatbush– told us that we needed to buy tickets from a little machine attached to a wall some yards away. “THEY’RE NINETY-FIVE CENTS!!!” she yelled, thinking that we were illiterate rubes from the country, which of course we were. Oy! We couldn’t figure out how to match the rapidly-blinking bus schedule’s lines and numbers to the lines and numbers on the little machine, because you were supposed to make a decision, but how did we know from all the different parts of Siena center? And the line of people was backing up behind us; two of them started asking us, in German, what to do. If we had been refugees fleeing ahead of Cossacks, we would all have been doomed! Then my Brooklyn Boy kicked into high gear– I opened the map and explained to Nicola that we were going to walk rather than figure out the bus system, and so we did. We dodged traffic and did a lot of clambering, and it’s a good thing that he’s a wiry eighteen-year-old, and that I’m a healthy fifty-three-year-old, because it was quite a hike up some steep hills and past crumbling, ancient city walls– walls, I have to report, which are not quite as graceful as Le mura of Lucca.
Siena, as you know, was named for the Crayola color called Burnt Sienna. And it IS that color, everywhere you look!
We visited the house and Church of St. Catherine, all peaceful and spiritual and totally silent– they don’t let you talk– and were in awe inside the giant Cathedral. Some sort of haunting opera was being played inside– maybe it was the one about the Carmelites? We walked around a lot; Siena is very hilly, which is why the natives look so trim.
We lingered over a pizza lunch, walked around some more, and then had to RUN most of the way back to the train station the way we came, which I estimate to have been about a mile… how much is that in kilometers?
A VERY hot day, so what did Giusepppina cook for us in her steaming kitchen? Polenta! I thought that would be it, but it was soon followed by rabbit in a nice tomato and olive sauce. Amazing! I’d last had rabbit in 1984 at Maria Pia’s house; I’d thought at first that I was eating a cornish hen until a visit to the Pinocchio Park at Collodi revealed to me that “coniglio” was Italian for RABBIT. And then cheese and fruit and bread and biscuits and coffee…
In the afternoon Nicola’s father drove us and Massimo up the hills of the Garfagnana to San Cassiano di Controne, where my grandmother was born. It’s a collection of little villages strewn along the hills and valleys–Livizzano, La Chiesa, Cembroni, Cocciglia, Campiglia– and incredibly peaceful. “Population–three” is how Adriano put it. When I was there in 1984 we found the Church locked tight, and this time it was the same: disappointment all around! Central Casting had placed an old woman sweeping in front of a shuttered house next door to where my grandmother was born in 1899, but she couldn’t tell us anything about how to get into the church. Then we drove down the hill a bit until we got to a local cafe, where Adriano bought us drinks. It was so hot that day and water never tasted that good… Maybe it was the heat, but I heard myself asking, loudly, “is there anyone here who has a key to the church?” (I’d read once in a guidebook that that’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re a pushy American.) Tables filled with retirees and laborers on break regarded me as if I had designs on stealing the Tabernacle, but we met with success: the priest lived in a house behind the church, and he was probably there that minute! We hurried back and, sure enough, he happily brought us inside. Finally! It’s shadowy and ancient– twelfth century– and we had to put half a Euro into a little box to turn on the lights for nine minutes. (Why nine and not ten?) Ancient art, stone walls and Romanesque arches… statues… it was nice and cool and beautifully simple. Nicola and I each settled onto a kneeler for some private devotions, and that’s when the organ music started.
The priest, no doubt pleased at our interest, had found the organist and asked him to serenade us while we prayed silently. All I needed was a mantilla, some black orthopedic shoes, and a set of rosary beads and the scene would have been complete. This was very dramatic music, and Nicola and I dared not look over at one another. I was in danger of collapsing in hysteria, and not the religiously-fueled kind! The music went on and on… I expected Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida, and Sophia Loren to come bursting in through the doors, all searching frantically for errant husbands to shoot. Then the lights snapped off, and we felt obligated to put another coin into the box because it seemed the polite thing to do– after all, the organist was still up there, playing away! When his piece ended, he began another; we knelt and prayed some more, wondering if the lighting system and the length of his musical selections would ever synchronize. When the lights snapped off again we stole out of there, the organ still pumping away, but we were happy that we’d been treated so nicely. And his playing was actually very good!
When we got back I went on a bike ride of my own, tooling along the little roads into tiny villages like Lammari. I found a church from the ninth century, considerably older than anything I’ve ever been inside of. It makes you feel very, very young.
That evening’s supper: spaghetti carbonara as made by Simona, and barbecue courtesy of Adriano– steak, chicken, pork, and sausage– and plenty of it! It’s a good thing I’d been bike riding so much ! Nicola and I lingered outside in the cool night air, talking for hours, and finally got to bed at two a.m. I was loving these long, leisurely days in the country; everything you’ve heard about the slow pace is true, and so much time is devoted to family and eating and just enjoying the time together. Sure, there are aches and pains and problems, just like in anyone’s lives, but they are always “P.S.” You get the impression from these Tuscans that life is to be lived, not labored over.
I couldn’t believe that I’d been here a week already… a happy blur! I was awake and bathed by nine; my bathroom had no stand-up shower, just a big tub with a hand shower whose pressure was questionable, but I managed. I got out on the bike again and went back to Marlia center and Lammari, happily pulling Euros from a bank machine.
In the late afternoon Adriano took us to Nozzano, where there is a castle and a church. The castle was closed until September– who knew?– but the church was open; another of those old Italian women that seemed to be everywhere ushered us in so that we could marvel and pay our respects. Very silent, with no organ music. A funeral was scheduled in fifteen minutes, so the mourners coming in were very quiet. Again, Nicola and I chose kneelers, and we settled into the cool stillness, peaceful in our companionship. “HOW DO YOU LIKE THE CHURCH?” the old woman suddenly yelled at me from across the aisle. “IT’S BEAUTIFUL, NO?” Oh my God, the yelling! I whispered back, “yes, very beautiful.” “IT’S TRUE, ISN”T IT? IT’S A VERY BEAUTIFUL CHURCH!!! DON’T YOU AGREE?? SO BEAUTIFUL !!!” she screamed. Nicola had to get up and leave because he was starting to laugh.
I can’t remember what day it was, but I had eel for lunch this week. Massimo catches them in the river and Giuseppina breads and bakes them. I thought I’d be repulsed, or electrocuted, but they’re actually very good prepared in their light batter. And it’s not like there’s this long eel sitting on your plate covered with bread crumbs; it’s actually served in two-inch long pieces. Excellent! My mother would have been proud, seeing me eat all these strange foods.
More biking! And today, a Saturday, we had ravioli for lunch– store bought, and filled with mozzarella and spinach. “All the people in the family who used to make these by hand are dead,” Nicola warned me, but I wasn’t disappointed– these were still hand-made, just not by my cousins. They were accompanied by sliced smoked ham from the Dolomites, sliced bacon meat, fruit salad, bread, biscuits, whole fruit, cheese, and coffee. And wine– always red table wine, made locally. It’s of a lower alcohol content than what we’re used to here in America, so you can have a lot of it and end up feeling happy, but not really buzzed. Giuseppina doesn’t think I eat much– she keeps telling everyone I’m not hungry– but I eat plenty here in Italy, more than I do at home!
In the late afternoon we biked to Mass in Marlia again; more sweat, more fanning with the hands and mopping with the handkerchief… I think I’m the only one who was sweating in that entire packed church!
In the evening my mother in America, via my Amex card, treated everyone — thirteen people– to dinner at La Mora, a good restaurant in nearby Ponte a Moriano. We all arrived in five separate cars– my mother’s two cousins; their four children; two spouses; four next-generation children; and me. I noticed that everyone waits outside a restaurant until the entire group is assembled, not like here where we arrive separately and start eating all the bread. In Italy, three generations all talking at once surge through the restaurant door like an amoeba with twenty-six tentacles, all laughing with and greeting the owner and his staff. We were shown to a giant table and decided on a prix fixe affair which took two and a half hours to consume. I can’t even begin to tell you what we ate but if it grew or lived, we ate it. And drank it! What a meal… and all for only 538 Euros, including a gratuity! (Note to Mom– please send check ASAP.) Incidentally, thirteen at table is lucky in Italy– the unlucky number is 17.
Up late again talking and digesting… I didn’t want these days and nights to end, because by now I was in the rhythm of Tuscany. My Italian was improving– Nicola patiently reviewed the verb tenses with me– and I could understand them all a lot better. I was even making jokes in Italian, occasionally tossing some Neapolitan dialect at them– which they all though was HIGHLY amusing! Oh, these Tuscans… they’re very proud of their language and way of life!
Sunday– a totally lazy day. Giuseppina fried something for lunch– veal cutlets, I think. In Italian they’re called cotoletti di vitello, which doesn’t sound so politically incorrect. Afterward I decided to bike ride a few miles to Lucca, as everyone was in the mood for siesta. (Nicola was in his room translating ancient Greek into Italian.) I kept thinking: don’t let this day end, because I fly back tomorrow. Who ever wants to leave Italy? I took some pictures and negotiated the crowds along Via Fillungo, which is the town’s good shopping street. If you’re looking for a really good pocketbook, this is where you go; it’s also where you find cheap Kodak cameras when you discover that the memory chip in your digital camera is booked solid.
In the evening, another pizza festival courtesy of Maria Pia. A happy cacophony… I love knowing the various titles for all these people: first cousins once removed; second cousins; and second cousins once removed. It gives me a sense of family solidity and cohesiveness, even though we’re all talking at once and going in several different directions. That’s what families do, but at the end of the day after you drive off in different cars, there are still those bonds that keep everyone connected.
Parting IS such sweet sorrow– that cliche is so apt, especially at an airport that’s going to take you away from a beautiful place, albeit to a place where you’re also loved and missed very much. Nicola tells me after he and Roberto drop me off, “even though this is sadness, there will be happiness at the other end.” Very wise! And very true. I’d packed the night before, fitting into my suitcase a beautiful crocheted bedspread for my mother that Giuseppina had said was made by one of the old ladies who are no longer with us. There’s a good chance that it had been made by Zia Antonia, my grandmother’s aunt who had lived up in San Cassiano… it is decades old, and still snowy white.
In the suspended time warp of the plane, I thought: thi shadn’t been just a vacation– this trip was a strengthening of family ties and talking for hours and just enjoying the company of these generous people; it wasn’t about long lines filled with tourists, or traffic jams, or anonymous hotels and strange beds… this was perfect. Hopefully it won’t be another twenty-five years until I visit again. And hopefully it won’t be in a box!