Tuesday, March 17, 2009

First Impressions of Italy

We missed our connection in Frankfurt after a long nine hours from Toronto. The gate we had to wait at in Frankfurt was noisy and bright, with a ceiling of shiny metal tubes above us, an uncarpeted floor beneath us and people coming and going constantly. For us, it was the middle of the night and yet the sky outside was cloudy but bright. I wanted to create a tent, a safe place, an escape, anything. I thought of Nazis and efficiency and I did not feel safe or home. Three hours later, it was finally time for our flight to leave. We climbed onto a school bus with wings. Dave and I did not sit together on this flight, as we were flying standby. I looked at my seat mate and decided he was Italian.

Buon giorno,” I ventured.

Buon giorno lei,” he replied, confirming my suspicions. He was an older man, slight and grey, in blue jeans. As the plane took off, I realized we were less than two hours from our destination and I felt jubilant. We began to talk, this Italian man and I. He had flown from his home in California, where he lived with his second wife (“the biggest mistake of my life, marrying her.”) and was on one of his five-times-annually flights to see his children and his grandchildren in his hometown on Florence. We talked about Florence – the prices in the markets were soft and could be negotiated, the drive to Pisa was not something he recommended, do not buy products from Africans on the streets of Florence. Then we saw the Alps and it took my breath away and my holiday delight, robbed by the purgatory of Frankfurt, returned.

We descended over Florence and we saw terraced hillsides, a green green world, a snaking river I assumed was the Arno, brilliant sunshine and red tiled roofs. We descended eagerly from the plane, took the mini bus ride to the terminal I had read about, collected our bags, stepped out into the sunshine without so much as a wave from customs, and found a taxi.

Our driver spoke little English but he knew the place we were staying at. We drove across the Arno, through ugly apartment buildings, winding wide streets and roundabouts. We were surrounded by Vespas, darting in and out of traffic, our driver’s nerves of steel. I wondered briefly whether we had traveled thousands of miles only to crash in a traffic accident as our driver drove within inches of a concrete barrier. At first it was ugly and I wondered what would happen if I hated it, if we spent all this money and time away only to find it foreign and unpleasant. But the taxi trip was a microcosm of Italy. I saw two people greet one another with kisses on both cheeks. We saw a couple posing for wedding photos in a park. I saw cafes and stores. We began wending our way up a hillside, along a long avenue flanked by tall trees, that reminded me of Beverley Hills somehow. Dave spotted the Duomo in the distance. We climbed higher and higher and suddenly we were there, on the side of a hill, standing outside tall metal gates, buzzing to receive entrance. Where were we? Had we chosen well?

A nun with a round face and burbling Italian welcomed us as the gates parted and a tall, ochre-coloured villa stood in front of us..

Parla inglese?” we asked as we had been taught. But she didn’t. She bustled us into a tiled foyer, gave us a key, led me to a tiny, anicent wood-lined elevator, leaving Dave below and pointed at the weight restrictions as we climbed to the next floor with our bags. I waited on the landing until she came back with Dave and the rest of the bags. Then she led us across the hall and unlocked our room. It was dark and closed, with two narrow single beds and it did not smell like home. Then she threw open the shutters and my breath was taken away: the view out back was of enormous sentinels of black-green cypresses, a grove of olive trees, grey-green falling away down the hill, and just beneath us were sculpted terraced gardens in the early stages of spring. Sunlight infused the whole scene.

The nun left us and we lay on the beds, tempted to sleep or to cry, simply wanting to stop moving. But sleep needed to be resisted and so we decided to walk, to see if we could phone home, to let them know we had arrived. We decided we would retrace the route of the taxi, and we mostly did. We walked for several hours. We saw stores with delicious looking pastries in them and we even went in, but although we were hungry, we were not ready to break the ice of this foreign place by ordering. We saw gas stations, garden centres, real estate offices, stores, confetti on the sidewalk. We had seen an Internet cafe on our taxi route, but after we had walked for some great distance, we decided to turn around before our legs gave out. We stopped on the way back at a tabaccherie and managed to buy a phone card – or more accurately a phone receipt for five euros that had a number and a PIN number on it that we never, ever managed to make work, the entire time we were in Italy. We tried immediately at the phone booth outside the store, and had no luck. We tried entering the number first and then the PIN, then the other way. We tried calling collect. There was something we were missing. I felt very very far away from home.

Halfway up the hill home, under the magnificent canopy of trees, I began to cry. I was exhausted and I couldn’t reach my babies. I worried it was all a mistake. Dave sat me on a park bench, fed me a small snack, said the words culture shock and listened until my tears were through. Then we walked and I felt relieved. My eyes drank in the beauty. “This may be the most beautiful place I have ever been in,” I said and Dave agreed. “Even though I still feel like going home, even though I have culture shock, I wouldn’t miss this beauty for anything.” We made it back to the convent without incident. We asked the nun how to call and she did not know but said the other nun would know when she came later. I began to focus on this.

We walked around the garden, discovered a limonaia, filled with lemon trees in full fruit, settled into our room and took photos of the view. The gravity felt strong as we waited for our supper, which was at 8:00 p.m. We tried to read, to sit, but our eyelids drooped mercilessly. We would fall asleep for three minutes, awaken with a start. We showered, tried to use our phone card, and drooped again. Finally it was eight o’clock and dark outside. We descended the enormous staircase to the dining room and found one woman sitting alone at one table, being served by the friendly nun. There were a dozen tables in the room, but only one other table had bottles of wine and water on it, and we knew it was for us.

The friendly nun served us a metal bowl of spaghetti in tomato sauce. I had felt too tired to eat but suddenly my appetite returned. We ate most of the spaghetti when
she came back with a different bowl of fresh looking lettuce.

“Mangia mangia!
” she urged, insisting we finish everything in the bowl. We christened her Suore Granny, after my grandmother. We drizzled olive oil and red wine vinegar on the salad, and sprinkled it with salt. It was remarkable. There was a basket of bread and we mopped up our salad dressing with slices of bread. Another nun appeared – smaller and wizened, with shrewd eyes and briskness of manner. She was the nun who spoke English the other nun had indicated, the one who could help us sort out our phone card.

Parla inglese?” we asked hopefully.

She shook her head and said she could understand English better but not speak it. We
tried to ask about the phone card, and she offered advice – that we needed to add a zero before we called. (This did not work either.) She delivered a plate of green olives and tomato slices, drizzled with parsley, olive oil and capers. A platter of freshly breaded fish arrived – enough to feed our family of five at home, but utterly delicious – and a bowl of boiled and buttered potato wedges and a bowl of green beans in a light cheese dressing. After we had eaten as much of this as possible (We learned the word “Basta” to explain we had had enough), a tray with two wedges of cheese arrived. One of them was parmesan. We were permitted to cut chunks of cheese, or perhaps to eat the whole thing. We drank fresh light red wine and refreshing bottled water as we ate. I wanted to pocket the parmesan and gnaw it until it was done. Suore Granny brought us a bowl of fruit as well, and insisted that we take some back to our rooms as well.

Full but still wanting to touch base with our family, we tried Suore Mafiosa’s method of adding a zero before deciding simply to call home and hoping the nuns would add the cost to our bill. It worked. We called, spoke to my dad, heard that everyone was ok, and fell into delicious sleep and woke up in a city of beauty.

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