PhotoBike Tour 2: Italy

 

Pisa, Looking East Along the Arno

Pisa, Looking East Along the Arno

 

DAY ONE

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.

 

Lucca and Environs

Lucca and Environs

 

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…

 

 

The houses where my cousins live in Marlia

The houses where my cousins live in Marlia

 

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.

DAY TWO

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.

 

San Michele, in Lucca

San Michele, in Lucca

 

The path atop the walls

The path atop the walls

 

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.

DAY THREE

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…

 

 

The Cathedral at Pisa

The Cathedral at Pisa

 

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…

DAY FOUR

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?

 

 

Massimo biking along the Serchio.

Massimo biking along the Serchio.

 

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.

 

 

Villa Reale-- the servants' quarters

Villa Reale-- the servants' quarters

 

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.

 

 

The Luccan plain seen from the Cross

The Luccan plain seen from the Cross

 

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?!!

 

 

Nicola and me atop the mountain

Nicola and me atop the mountain

 

DAY FIVE

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!

 

 

Siena

Siena, baking in the sun

 

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.

 

 

Siena-- the Cathedral

Siena-- the Cathedral

 

Siena-- another cathedral

Siena-- another cathedral

 

Me in Siena, calves considerably thicker

Me in Siena, calves considerably thicker

 

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?

DAX SIX

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!

 

 

San Cassiano-- the Church

San Cassiano-- the Church

 

A View from San Cassiano

A View from San Cassiano

 

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.

 

 

At the cafe in Lammari

At the cafe in Lammari

 

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.

DAY SEVEN

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.

 

 

Nicola in Nozzano

Nicola in Nozzano

 

DAY EIGHT

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!

 DAY NINE

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.

 

 

La famiglia ! From the top left: Nicola, Simona, Adriano, Giuseppina, Massimo, Maria Pia, her grandson Gian Luca, his mother Cristina, and her daughter Martina. WHEW!

La famiglia ! From the top left: Nicola, Simona, Adriano, Giuseppina, Massimo, Maria Pia, her grandson Gian Luca, his mother Cristina, and her daughter Martina. WHEW!

 

 

More la famiglia! Maria Pia's son Roberto, his wife Giuly, and their son Emmanuelle.

More la famiglia! Maria Pia's son Roberto, his wife Giuly, and their son Emmanuelle.

 

DAY TEN

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!


 

 

 

 

 

 

North Dakota– The Final Chapter

A View to the East

A View to the East

Back to Orlando from Minneapolis, and I’m contemplating the fact that I love travel: I enjoy waiting in an airport and browsing the strange newspapers and buying magazines that you would never buy at home… the glimpses of attractive strangers who speed past you on their way to who knows where… the good meals you can find at terminal restaurants… I love every bit of it and, because I wear hearing aids, am able to tune out the more cacaphonous episodes simply by flipping two tiny switches. Bliss– then it’s just me and the silent air around me as I revel in life’s pantomime. It’s like playing charades with a hundred strangers. And on board it’s just as fabulous; we did another upgrade on the way home, and I highly recommend it. (You can’t take it with you, after all.) In “the back” are fifteen thousand sugared children, noisily and wetly anticipating a trip to Disney. The overhead compartments above their sticky heads are jammed with every child-soothing device known to man, though it’s clear that they would be content with a handful of lint-covered Gummi bears and a coloring book. [Don’t get me wrong; I’m fascinated by children. For a few days this week I was enthralled and enchanted by two of Kirk’s small first cousins once removed– Joshua and Julia– who are each brilliant and beautiful.]

And speaking of cousins– I’m here to tell you that I had a wonderful and welcoming time at Kirk’s family reunion at Abraham Lincoln State Park. (Thanks for the details, Stephen!) While it was a given that Kirk and I would be immersing ourselves in a mostly Republican stronghold, I banked on the fact that these Scandinavians would consider it beneath themselves to comment aloud as to the status of our relationship. And yet, they could not have been more gracious. I was introduced as Kirk’s “friend” as eyes darted to the third fingers of our left hands, where we proudly sported gold bands. We have Kirk’s Aunt Bunny and Uncle Jerry to thank for appreciating the fact that we’ve chosen to live our lives together and, while we didn’t wave rainbow flags aloft, we certainly didn’t pretend to be anything other than what we were– a committed couple of over twenty two years’ endurance. (Cousin Dee remarked that we hold the longevity record in our generation of cousins.) You give a little, you take a little. And you educate simply by being yourselves. End of sermon!

The Heart River, Looking North

The Heart River, Looking North

There was food to be had, including some pinkish creamy desserts which, I was assured, could be found in the basements of most Midwestern Lutheran churches at almost any celebratory event. In fact, I rather waggishly referred to gluey squares of Fruity Pebbles as “Lutheran lasagna.” But feed us they did! There was a lot of everything, and all very well prepared. Our kudos to Marcia and Darrold for making sure that our carb allotment was duly absorbed through at least the year 2013.

To compensate for this influx of calories, Kirk and I took a walk “up the hill to the old fort.” Our trek began on a woodsy path close by our picnic pavilion, and led directly up to a road which ended at the stockade from which Custer and his men departed for their ill-fated campaign in distant Texas. We negotiated the initiatory path with aplomb, hardly stopping to catch our breath, but then came to a point where we had to make a decision: do we go right or left? We chose to go to the right.

Miles later, we were still hoping for a turn which would lead us back south to where we could see the fort’s buildings perched on a distant horizon. To our right, the state capitol building in Bismarck would appear and disappear as we wended our way along yard-wide paths cut into the steep bluffs. After awhile, the “von Trapp family escaping over the hill into Switzerland” jokes became tedious. Intrepidly, we eventually reached the stockade and were treated to beautiful views of the distant table lands west of Bismarck, and were able to relax a bit before heading back. I tell you, it’s beautiful up on those bluffs: we saw the prairie rose, which is the North Dakota state flower; bluebells; thistle; and plenty of short cactus. The letter, coupled with the ever-present threat of rattlesnakes, prevented us from climbing over the bluffs toward a hopefully shorter return trip. (There were also ants the size of cows.)

The Heart River Near Our Pavilion

The Heart River Near Our Pavilion

Some time later we came to a steeply descending hill which seemed like it might lead to our pavilion; a stockade fence protected an area that featured a group of Indian dwellings which Kirk was eager to explore, and he hurried down the hill as I lingered behind, taking photographs of the scene. I couldn’t see Kirk once he’d descended; one person was set up below taking photographs, and as I continued down and around the Indian huts, I discovered Kirk in deep discussion with who I assumed was a cousin.

Wrong. She was a park ranger and was giving him a stern lecture about NOT wandering freely into sacred Indian sites, and NOT skirting the rules, and NOT trying to override the $7.00 fee to be on her organized tour. A few feet back, twenty tourists stood in silent formation, waiting for her to finish her admonitions. I arrived just in time to hear the wrap up: “We have to be VERY careful about security here. Thank you for your cooperation!” I didn’t realize that Frau Blucher was now working in North Dakota!

Thoroughly cowed, we went back up the hill, found the main road, and walked toward the entrance. Just as I wondered if we should go down the hill through the woods and then across the train tracks which we had clambered across hours before, the tourist trolley crashed through the undergrowth and into view. We would have been peanut butter!

Almost two hours later, we arrived at camp– MUCH luckier than those Australian girls who disappeared when they climbed Ayer’s Rock. Everyone was eating, judging by the hunched backs we could see from yards away. We fell to. Afterward there were games for the children, which gave the older generations a chance to sit and say “my GOD” to one another numerous times. And what for? Because of the endless food, and the fact that this family was able to get together and marvel at the fact that it had been ten… twenty… and, in some cases, over forty years since some of them had seen one another. I was even included in the Group Photo, guaranteeing that I will be the one pointed at by wizened fingers in fifty years: “who was that again? The funny Italian.” [We wore name tags.] Kirk won a prize for coming the longest distance, and both our names were on the envelope which held our reunion souvenirs: prairie bandannas in many colors (the hanky code wasn’t in effect); pencils emblazoned with the family name, along with sharpeners (“See how practical Scandinavians are?” Kirk remarked.); blue tee shirts featuring the requisite Viking helmet with the horns; and an extremely detailed genealogical booklet. I mean, that thing noted relationships like “tenth cousin / sixth great-grandmother / third cousin four time removed.” And I thought I was bad !! (Remember, Aunt Terry? You always tell me “just say cousins!!”)

That night at the Ramkota Hotel, I observed two tiny souvenirs of my day on the bluffs: ticks! They look like little brown spiders with minuscule sucking tubes jutting from their foreheads; one was on my forearm and another was on my chest, both apparently confused by the gray hair. (It’s a good thing I hadn’t invested in a depilatory before the trip.) Both of them went down the drain, though I did spend some time that night wondering just what the hell might be feasting on me in the dark. (Incidentally, the temperature outside was 46 degrees that night. Can ticks even live in that sort of weather?)

On the way back to Minneapolis, a gas tanker an hour ahead of us tipped over because some idiot in a station wagon cut it off when he missed his exit to the Albertville outlet malls and did a u-turn on the interstate; Jerry’s son Dan, far ahead, phoned us to tell us how to detour, which we did– through miles of rural Minnesota farmland, complete with acres and acres and acres of green crops, silvery lakes, red barns, and white farm houses– just like on the calendars! (I was able to phone instructions to Kirk’s cousins Dee and McKenzie along the same route, an hour behind us, and am proud that I didn’t send them to distant Kreplachia.) I grew concerned at the cows, who seemed to enjoy wallowing in muddy filth, but I was told in no uncertain terms that this was what cows do in order to keep the horseflies away. (I swear I washed a few of those down the sink as well.)

Family: it’s got a lot of definitions. And I’m happy to be part of them all.

Tomorrow: off to Italy !!

A Posting from North Dakota

North Dakota

Wednesday, July 8

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when somebody says “North Dakota?” I think of prairies, sod houses, buffalo, and the movie Fargo. Apparently, from what I’m gathering– and I’m still on the plane– the reality is kind of different. Granted, we’re simply going to Bismarck (via a flight to Minneapolis and then an 8-hour drive in aunt Bunny’s SUV) for Kirk’s family reunion, and that’s all wonderful– Kirk’s family has never been less than stellar– but I am getting the impression that I’ll have to be buck up and act like a cowboy rather than like the over-indulged spoiled brat that you have come to know and love. And this has nothing to do with the family reunion; after all, I’m Tusacn, and the blood of nefarious Medicis and Borgias courses through my veins, and we all know what they were like. Instead, my mind is akimbo at the prospect of a trip to Medora.

Medora  is even further west than Bismarck. Bismarck, after eight hours’ driving, will seem like Ultima Thule, but there’s a lot more beyond that town and we’ll be driving towards it. Medora is almost to Montana, which is almost to China. Do you see my point?

In Medora they stage a Broadway-style revue which, via music, dance and yodeling, covers the history of  The Flickertail State. I’ve looked it up online, and it’s very well done– I’m sincerely looking forward to it– but it’s the meat and the horses that are beginning to give me pause. (Even if I am well into my second gin and tonic up here in Business Class. Don’t you love it? In those halcyon pre-politically correct days, the seat I’m comfortably lolling in used to be known as First Class, which is exactly how one feels after two gin and tonics.)

In Medora there is also a big feed involving steaks that have been mounted on the tines of pitchforks and then plunged into boiling oil. It’s called “Steak Fondue.” Thousands of people line up for this culinary health challenge, which is accompanied by mounds of starch and a few balancing vegetables. You sit at long tables with strangers (possibly the same people who coughed on you during your flight) and heartily dig in until the cows come home; apparently, we get to eat those, too. I was telling my friend Martha about this, and she and her husband were appalled, he being a nutritionist-dietician. Can you blame them? Why not just swallow a tub full of Snickers bars coated in strawberry-flavored trans fats? I asked Kirk if I could get a salad instead, and he replied with that stoic sense of Midwesterness that gets him through things like overflowing toilets and hurricanes: “Cowboys don’t eat salad. They eat meat. You have to act like a cowboy on the prairie.”

Then there are the horses. There is a slim chance that I may have to climb up onto a horse and have my picture taken while wearing the family reunion tee shirt. Now, horses and I aren’t exactly the best of friends– they have big teeth for biting, and big legs for kicking, and if I need to go anywhere I hop into my Ford Focus rather than onto the back of a horse. They’re large and frightening, okay? I admire people who can deal with them, but I’d rather not. Suppose the horse bucks and sends me into the next county? No thank you. The only horse I was ever on was actually a pony. An old Italian man would bring it to our block in Brooklyn and give rides to us children; for a dime his poor sick animal would be led around a manhole cover a few times while he spoke to it in his dialect. What was he saying? Who knew? “Hey, little horse, why don’t you reach around and chew the foot off this frightened little boy? Why don’t you bare your teeth at him? Come on, little horse, don’t disappoint me or it’s the glue factory for you!” Lois, remember how he smelled? Didn’t we cry? [If Lois is reading this, she will post a reply– ‘No, YOU cried, you big baby! And the horse didn’t smell… that was you from when you messed your pants!” I love my sister.] Maybe there’s a behavioral guidebook I should read first before setting out? (About people like ME, not about horses.)

Thursday, July 9

Settling in, mainly, and a drive to downtown Minneapolis with Aunt Bunny. I found a favorite used bookstore and bought an item (a Latin Missal from 1954) and was unusually impressed by the sheer numbers of people working in and running around downtown. There was a huge farmer’s market occupying Nicollet Mall, and office workers raced by carrying bouquets of flowers and bags of beans. You definitely get the sense that Minneapolis is a city on the move. And as big as it is, it manages to nourish a very welcoming, small-town aspect. Mary Richards would be so proud! In fact, there’s a statue of her that you can pose with while throwing your hat in the air.

Friday, July 10

Well, here we are in Bismarck. We drove today from Minneapolis to the Best Western Ramkota Hotel, which is very nice. (The woman who checked us in is a dead ringer for Sarah Palin– the hair, the glasses, the smile.) We just finished a great meal, a perfect ending to a genuinely wonderful day. The nine-hour drive was beautiful– the countryside here is green and prosperous and peppered regularly with small farm towns with names like Tappen, Mapleton, McKenzie, and Ayr. Interstate 94 slices through this breadbasket, and it’s satisfying seeing how much land is under such good care. From the SUV, silos and cows and sheep and wheat and alfalfa fields raced by, and bales of hay in orderly lines gave a sense that all is well in the heartland.  Of course, the caffeine in Diet Coke and the two Snickers bars that I’m enjoying may have much to do with my sense of well-being, but still; I’m just saying. But it really IS beautiful: a thousand shades of green and gold rest under a blue sky interrupted here and there with enormous storm systems.

A stop in Jamestown at the Frontier Village presents us with a statue of the world’s largest buffalo, which we obligingly pose in front of. (This time, I am proud to say, I did NOT administer the “cough test” while standing beneath the beast, like I did in 2000.)

Luke, our waiter here at the Ramkota’s restaurant, was a Viking swimmer who was honestly interested in the ingredients that went into the Manhattan I ordered. And he wasn’t unusual– everyone in these parts is just so damned friendly, the only exception so far being the counterman at a Subway who grew impatient at my lack of ordering expertise. I’ve never ordered a Subway before, but the choices are mind-boggling. How did Jared manage?!? Anyway, Kirk went upstairs to wind down, and I stayed behind to settle up with Luke and order a couple of drinks to bring back up to the room. He asked if I wanted something carry them with, and I said yes, and he gave me a circular tray draped with a white cloth, crowned by my (second) Manhattan and Kirk’s (second) glass of Merlot. I signed the check, picked up my tray, and left the restaurant.

Now, the Ramkota Hotel consists of two buildings which are mirror images of one another, connected by a check-in area and a commons. Do you already sense trouble? Calm down! Calm down, everyone, because this architectural fantasy is the simple explanation for what went awry– it’s a rabbit warren, this hotel. Just checking in involved negotiating a series of hallways and elevators, and it was like reaching Candyland when we finally located our room. (And we weren’t the only ones involved in this prairie version of  Lost.)  Try doing that fueled by a Manhattan, and the stakes are different. I couldn’t find our room in the correct building, and carrying a tray with two drinks perched on it only added to my consternation. I went up staircases and down strange elevators; I traversed hallways I knew nothing about, and four times I walked through a wedding reception that had spilled out of its designated banquet room and into the adjoining common area, thereby further confusing my progress. Soon I was asking gowned women if this was the Manhattan they had ordered. Being polite Midwesterners, they simply said “no, thanks,” but there were plenty of people whose eyes lit up as I came near them with my tray. “Room service,” I explained. “Coming through!” After my fourth pass they must have decided I was either crazy or from New Jersey. I ended up on the sidewalk between the two identical buildings (one of which didn’t even contain my room number) and encountered Uncle Jerry, who was cruising by on his scooter. He had no idea where I was going, so I called Kirk for directions. While he was explaining how to get back to our room, a train went through town, complete with horns and whistles, and I couldn’t hear a thing. I almost broke into tears, thinking that I would never get back to Kansas again!

Eventually I arrived at the proper third floor, drinks in tow, without having spilled a drop. (The bartender had thoughtfully stretched a piece of Saran wrap over each glass.) And here I sit, quite tired, and ready for bed. Tomorrow is the reunion picnic at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. Think I’ll survive? Stay tuned.

Twitter, Facebook, and My New Friends

The comfort of an age !

The comfort of an age !

This technological age continues to amaze me, though what I most want the current epoch to do is leave me behind, preferably in a dark bedroom with a cool rag over my eyes. It’s not that I’m technologically challenged– it’s just that I’m the type of guy who was quite happy being one of the many consorts of Ma Bell and her limited options. Remember? You made a call, and the line was busy– you either breathed a sigh of relief or called back in ten minutes. Long distance calls were rare and only dialed so the caller could deliver news about important things like breech births, or that your neighbors were Communists or– even worse!– divorcing… period! And the one phone you had in your house was Bakelite, molded in a foreboding black color, further precluding its use.

Everything is different now– nobody even uses the word “telephone” anymore; I will leave it up to my readers to recall the current terms. And not only are we expected to burden ourselves with these new devices… we are also expected to use them to log online every three minutes in order to let the entire world know what we are doing.

Let’s examine that phrase a minute, and let’s be honest– isn’t “the world” limited to those people we have allowed into our Facebook and Twitter and AOL lives? And aren’t these simply walls to further hide behind while we try and fool ourselves into believing that we are being global? WHAT is so global about letting my 103 Facebook friends know that “it’s a beautiful day in downtown Orlando?” And what is so global about reading that one of my exclusive circle of friends is on her way to Publix to do a little shopping? And do I need artichokes, because they are on sale?

I think it’s all crazy, yet I’m just as guilty as everyone else in thinking that I am in constant reach of  “friends.” And THAT word has been hijacked by the online community to infuse ourselves with a false sense of popularity and belonging. When I really think about it, I have like a dozen true blue friends– and even a few of them are on probation (you know who you are). A friend is someone you can call and ask help to paint your garage door; a friend is someone who will drop everything in order to drive you to the airport; and a friend will donate a kidney to you.

And then there’s Twitter, which came along because Facebook and AOL were considered too damned slow. Twitter limits your posting to less than 150 characters, which means you had better be extremely skilled at letting your friends know what you’re up to. And now that we’ve gotten past the sniggering related to the past tense of the verb twitter,  it has turned into a very big business indeed. Remember when it first started a few minutes ago? Thousands of innocuous  messages related to beautiful days in downtown Orlando and artichokes clogged the ionosphere; now the application is riddled with 140-character commercials about aluminum siding and penis extensions.

I could end this essay with one of those typically unschooled closings:  “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must alert my readers to this blog update and, if I have a few seconds, I’ll Twitter about it as well.”

But I won’t. Instead, you’ll find me in a cool, dark room, patiently waiting for a black Bakelite phone to ring and let me know that my Communist neighbors are divorcing. Now that’s exciting !