Saturday, December 13, 2008

from Italy: in retreat

Maybe I could stand the Pacific northwest after all. I have gotten comfortable with gray skies and wet pavements.

We have only a few minutes in Florence. We walk to the river, curious how high it will be after a night of rain.

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But, the heavens are acting kindly toward Florence. Even as the Tiber in Rome floods the city, the Arno shows signs of retreat.

As we walk to the train station, we see streets blocked off from traffic. Why? I could ask the police, but I’ve had bad luck with this in the last day or two. Florentine folk are too busy to listen to how terribly foreign I really am: I have been getting a lot of incomprehensible to me rapid fire Italian answers to questions. And so now I don’t want to ask.

But as we approach the station, the answer is there before us.

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City shuts down for small, lefty student march (in support of the general strike that today is crippling much of Italy). The students are moving slowly, to music. What happened to anger? Doesn’t a demonstration by definition have to show anger? Not here, not this time.

Okay. One last look from the train station. Sigh...

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I’m thinking that traveling backwards, in retreat, seems mildly depressing. As we are about to purchase train tickets back to Levanto, it strikes me that we should do this differently: I ask Ed – you want to stop for the day in Lucca? Lucca? It’s lovely and historically interesting and it’s not completely out of the way I am making this up. I have never been to Lucca (though have wanted to go, so there’s that).

An afternoon in Lucca. On the downside --I can’t say that I feel unencumbered. There’s the constant opening and closing of the umbrella. It goes like this: from Ed - Nina, it’s not raining. I close the umbrella. I feel a few drops. I worry about the camera. Up goes the umbrella. - Nina, it’s not really raining. And so on. Additionally, my backpack, which was heavy before, is even heavier now that I have added a pair of boots (yes!) and some bottles of olive oil from Tuscany.

And still, it is a lovely walk. The walled city center is mostly a pedestrian zone – easy to navigate, pretty to look at. We’re told to be sure to catch the Murano glass Christmas tree on one of the squares. We do. Possibly it looks spectacular when lit at night.

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The town center appears almost completely empty. As elsewhere along the Mediterranean, the doors close for a several hour lunch break in the afternoon and we happen to be here, poking around, during those hours. We see kids walking home for a meal and later, returning to school. We see the occasional person scooting from one point to another. But basically, we see very few people.

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And then, just as we’re turning back toward the train station, the city opens up. Lights go on, shops open, the pedestrian traffic picks up.

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This isn’t a town that is especially besieged by tourists. But this makes the shops especially interesting. And we are tempted. By this place, for gifts to take back for the holidays (the shop is called "The sisters;" it's run by four of them):

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And by this place, to restock my dwindling supply of dried porcini mushrooms. The shopkeeper is proud of the salami, the cheeses...

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...but especially of the porcini. The stems are removed, the caps are set free of dirt! They are the best! He tells us. And then the inevitable – where are you from? Germany? No? America? Really? I have a brother in law there. I have always wanted to go too. Here, life can be tough…

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[I pass on reminding him about our failing auto industry and the tanking market; I would imagine that the three automakers would draw little sympathy here anyway. Ed and I see small electric cars everywhere. We see recharging stations where they are plugged in, side by side. Tiny and so very pretty. Some are made of fiberglass. Wont rust. Practical. Cheap. And for distance travel, there are the trains. When no one is striking. Here, life can be tough. There, life can be tough. On balance, what can I say, life can be tough.]

Our last train ride for the day. We’re on the coast now, but it’s dark. And still, it’s all so familiar. Riomaggiore, Monterosso and finally Levanto.

Here, too, I notice now the holiday lights.

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It is funny to see the Americanization of the Italian Christmas. The Santas, the music – to me, it’s like a clumsy package of American holiday cheer. We’ll walk by a shop and hear Jingle Bells (hands down the most popular shop song here) or White Christmas. What does that even mean in a region that knows no snow? And right next to images of Santa, there’ll be the more traditional images, captured so well in this bakery display in Lucca. Baby Jesus, in chocolate, sheltered in a carved out Pannetone (or is it bread?). And with a 'Merry Christmas' train on top.

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In Levanto, we go back to Miki’s, our favorite pizza place. Salads, anchovies in lemon and oil, and the wonderful wonderful porcini pizza with extra garlic and olives.

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We are giddy from the good food and the carafe of Levanto white. It’s past ten and the waitress, happy to have us back in this slow season, brings us limoncino. We watch the Italian version of Funniest Home Videos on the TV screen. They seem especially funny this evening – to us, to others in the room, to the waitress.

Our last night in Italy (we’re heading back to Nice the next day). I ask Ed – did you like it? It’s okay, he answers.

I suppose there is the upside: if you plan a trip with a person who doesn’t fully engage his (non wilderness) surroundings, you cannot entirely fail. You can never achieve magnificence, but at least you cannot fail.