We've traveled a rough 'Z' through western Europe...Cologne, Prague, Munich, Basel, Mosset, Barcelona...and now Savona, Italy brings our trip to a close. I'm sitting at the Malpensa airport near Milan, waiting on the flight that will take us home. I am in love with airports, train stations, bus stops, loading docks, and any other place funneling people from all walks of life onto a common path. I have a (very secret) sense of glee when things go wrong and we are all stuck together for hours, each of us balanced on the edge of uncertainty. Yesterday, when we left Savona for Milan, the first train was thirty minutes late, the next stop required some lightning changes, and just before the final leg, we discovered all the local train workers were on a strike from 9 am to 5 pm. Abandoned at a large train stop Carly aptly referred to as Deadsville, we camped out on the platform and used my new Swiss Army knife to create a picnic of olives, focaccia (moist flatbread), tomatoes, and peppers. Information mining from the handful of other unfortunates consisted of rough drawings and a lot of question marks: maybe the evening train would come; maybe it wouldn't. I propped myself up against my pillar of a backpack, loving the experience of it all, thinking of how cool it would be if we had to camp in the station all night, or trek through town and find a room, or maybe, I told Carly, it would start hailing and then it would be a really good story. It did start raining, and for the sake of everyone else I retracted my words about hail - although we were under shelter and I don't think it would have hurt much for the additional fun.
The six-seventeen train finally creaked in to pick us up, already overstuffed. Determined, we shoved on despite the riders' pointed looks at our fat backpacks and extra handbags. More people pressed in from behind us, so by the time the doors shaved shut, we were smashed like chickens on a chicken truck. At one point, the train stopped dead on its tracks between stations, and I wondered how many hours I'd be standing with nearly sixty pounds of baggage on my person. Still, I loved the game - all the way through getting off at the station four hours later than planned, finding nice Italian boys to give us a WiFi password, and calling up a ride to our night's lodgings. Yay for problem-solving!
But, enough about my weird eagerness for troublesome situations. Italy, with her citizens and culture, is brimming with energy and life. The bursting vowels of their language, their tight family environment, the passionate interactions and the rich smoothness of their pasta put these people close to my heart. We stayed in Savona (a modest coastal town in northwestern Italy) with Carly's aunt Kathy and her Italian husband Michele (MiKAYlay) - and how fortunate we were to have such tour guides! They took us in for several nights, served us fabulous food, set up our lodging, and donated their beach chairs and umbrella for our enjoyment. They also interpreted the language and culture for us, i.e. it's early to eat before 8:30pm, the bars open for croissants and shots of espresso in the morning, and you aren't allowed to touch the fruit stands without plastic gloves.
Like the French, the Italians love their food. When Michele and Kathy took us out for authentic Neapolitan pizza, the waiter brought out the chef, Pippo, to discuss what courses we should order and in what order we should eat them in. When he discovered we were American, he threw up his hands and exclaimed we must want fettuccine alfredo - which he could not serve us because it is not on any Italian menu anywhere. Also, we could not order spaghetti and meatballs together, because they are always eaten in separate courses. With that bit of education, we proceeded to order focaccia formagia (flat pizza stuffed with cheese), margherita pizza, a platter of whole fried anchovies, and spaghetti in some kind of amazing white sauce. While waiting, I observed a hubbub around one table when the grandfather came in and grabbed his grandchildren to kiss their heads while the adults greeted him all in the same moment. At another table, two teenage boys laughed with their grandfather as they each ordered a ten-inch pizza. I saw this scene over and over again throughout our stay - the older generation active, welcome, and involved with the younger on the beach, through the grocery, and in the streets. Kathy joked that all the introverts had been bred out of the Italian race, and I'm inclined to agree.
Savona is the first European town we've been to where no one speaks English, but ordering from menus always results in some kind of good food and we spent the majority of our time on the beach anyway. The Mediterranean Sea is my new favorite body of water: buoyant enough to make napping in the water a possibility, calm enough to be a lake, and clear enough to count the barnacles twenty feet below. We took a day trip down to Cinque Terre, a chain of five small towns built onto the shoulders of mountains where they dip into the sea - and while they are as beautiful as everyone says, they are not as easy to hike as you might think. We climbed over three hundred steps and waited at single-file paths cutting along steep ridges, wandering amongst olive groves that clung to the steep hillsides. Our legs were well-conditioned from our month of backpacking, but other (mostly sunburned) tourists were attempting the hike in bikinis, flip-flops, skirts, and various other states of ill-preparedness. Overwhelmed by the obnoxious herds in the towns, we escaped in an ocean kayak to a small cove where fresh water fell thirty feet onto salt-mossed rocks, splashing into the sea at the shore's edge. The layered chunks of rock surrounding the cove offered high dives and heated drying, and we washed off the day in idyllic perfection.
One final thing I must highlight in this extensive post: the privilege of attending an Italian opera in the courtyard of a twelfth-century castle. The three-hour experience began at nine, just as the sun set and the swallows dove to their nests with their wings audibly ripping the air above our heads. As the orchestra stood I was struck with the matronly beauty of the violinist in the first chair, her grey hair tumbling in free curls down her back. The conductor entered to the wild applause of the elderly audience and I was reminded that the opera belongs to the musicians as much as the singers. No microphones marred their voices, and the sea breezes lifted the set to make it come alive, a part of the castle and its time. The story of Rigoletto played out in gilted gowns, hawk-feathered collars, leather pants and boots beneath ominous overcoats, dancing nymphs in scant costumes and galloping fawns in furry loin cloths; love and revenge and tragedy all rolled into one. The crowd awarded every piece with applause, and even the clever set changes were thoroughly appreciated. Half the cast took their bow at intermission; the other half came out one by one at the end for much thunderous stomping of feet and shouts of "Bravo! Bravo!" from their admirers.
Each country has given me a glimpse of its richness and character - and each country has resonated with a separate piece of my own character. Italy celebrates life, work, and the family, and these three qualities are part of my core. I can't think of a more fitting dessert for our sampling of the European buffet.
We're airborne now and somewhere over the Atlantic, but I think I can't cease writing because to do so means the end of the story. There are other books on the shelf - yet no matter how much I insist to myself that I am entering my next adventure, the wanderer in me is not yet ready to finish this one. I've always struggled to transition from fiction to reality, but am learning that without the reality of life, the story has no context and its lessons are lost. So here's to the mundane, to the everyday, and to the constraints of schedule: may I not let this story be wasted, but recycle it as fuel for the light of tomorrow!