Sunday, September 21, 2014

twists and turns: all roads lead to somewhere

Morning. A gentle good morning to you!


I knock on the door of my landlord, Eduardo. His dog, Ulise (as in Ulysses) is a barker until he gets used to you.


He hasn't yet gotten used to me.

I have a list of questions for my host before he takes off for Milan today. I think this may be my last chance to do this, but I learn that the woman sitting at the kitchen table (she is a Milanese gelato distributor and she spoke knowingly and favorably about Wisconsin's small batch production of ice cream!) will be here until tomorrow and the farm's caretakers live a few paces down the road, so I can't say that I'm going to be truly alone here.

I take out my notebook. He laughs.
A lawyer, of course! Well he might tease me: by training, he is one as well.

What I cannot readily figure out is how to pull all the pieces together for a sensible day. Walk along the road to the right, up and down hills, to the train station? (One hour.) To the store/cafe in the opposite direction? (40 minutes.) Go to Florence? Elsewhere? Where can I get to without a car? And if I stay put, what's open? Where?

Eduardo has this way about him that (yes, I swear!) reminds me a little of my own Ed. The do not fret, it will all come together attitude of someone reconciled to the fact that at worst, you'll die and that's sort of the fate of everyone so why worry. Surely the details are not important.

We switch into talk of what it's like here, on the farm. I'm curious about the electric fences around portions of the yard.
Oh, that's to keep the wild boar away from the garden. They are everywhere and they dig dig dig, so just here, by the houses, we try to keep them away. It works, more or less.
I ask, too, if he ever lets his cheepers out.
No, I cannot. Too many foxes. But the chickens have a good life behind their fence.
I think about that: our cheepers have American luxury alright! Three acres to roam and scratch! I want to suggest more space for his hens, but I catch myself in time. We're all so hell bent on giving advice! I think about my pregnant daughter and how much advice she is getting on everything from childbirth to childrearing! Surely everyone ought to raise his or her chickens as they see fit. It's enough that he cares. And he does care. It's obvious that animal issues concern him. When I inquire about the factory just down the road from his olive farm, he tells me -- it used to be a prosciutto place: you know, pig slaying, terrible pollution, all of it. But it went bankrupt. Now they make interiors for railway cars. Much gentler,  cleaner, quieter!
I point out that if we eat prosciutto, it has to be made somewhere. He smiles -- I don't eat much prosciutto anymore.

Twenty minutes into the conversation I find out a game changer -- Italian Rail is on strike today. It's as if the country is taunting me for not succumbing to the car rental game! So buses? Maybe I should look into those? What are the schedules like? Eduardo doesn't know. Maybe he'll check later, at the cafe/store. Maybe.

Meanwhile, it's getting warm. A partly (mostly?) cloudy day, but one that portends storms later on. You can feel it in the air.

In the end, I decide I'll go to the right. Up and down, follow the road, all the way to Rignano sull'Arno -- the place of the nearest train station. At least I'll learn the walk. Maybe pick up some more food. Find a restaurant for lunch...  
Are there any good restaurants you could recommend there?
Eduardo shakes his head. They're okay. Maybe getting better. Try the one on the square.
Oh, there's a nice square?
It's actually quite ugly. 
Do you find any of the river towns (along the rail line here) to be worth a visit?
Well, depends what you are looking for. None of them are especially beautiful. You know, they were all destroyed during the war. The Germans spared Florence, that was the deal, but they completely wiped out the rest here, in the valley.

How well I know this! To any student of World War II, Tuscany makes your hair stand on end for the horror of it all.

I eat a make shift breakfast -- just fruits and yogurt and a strip of blueberry cake. I'll save the coffee for some cafe moment later on.


I'm off.


The gravel road eventually hits the paved road. I know it isn't going to be an ideal hiking venue, but it's as good as it's going to get. I'd say the traffic is about as light (or heavy, depending on your perspective) as it is on the rural road where I live, so I'm used to it.

(I'm used to weekend motorcycle group rides at home too, though never quite so gendered as here!)



And I know, too, that I could still rent a car. I checked the availability in Florence -- plenty and at good prices. But I'm really resisting.

Why? Am I just incredibly stubborn on this point? No, honestly not stubborn. I've rented when I had to. In Islay. In Ireland, England. Plenty of times in Italy and far too many times in France. But I always think I miss so much driving from one place to the next! Oh, I get to all the lovely places, I check them off the list, I see the sights I'm meant to see, but I miss stopping to contemplate this:


And this:


I miss pausing for two minutes just to watch the man who is hand harvesting the grapes (it's so difficult to pull over in a car on a narrow road -- usually you just let it go).


I would miss, too, the gritty entrance into town -- the real feel for living there.

(Sunday is...laundry day!)

You can't pause in a car to watch the Italian men, deep in their conversational bubble on the city benches.



...or catch the wife looking on:


You miss the sounds. The dogs, the tractor, all of it. For me, it's too big a price to pay for the sheer convenience of getting from one place to the next.

I walk into town, the ugly square, I ask for directions to the station. Five men jump in to tell me, as if it were the most complicated walk on earth (it's just around the corner). I smile and walk on.

True enough, there is a rail strike. Until 9 p.m. An easy answer to my dilemmas. No bus service today either -- those run on weekdays only. But I am surprised to see that restaurants in this town, too, appear to be closed. I ask about that.
There's a take out pizzeria... someone tells me. I think about carrying an Italian pizza in my backpack for an hour. No. Not a great plan.

But of course, there is an open pastry store. Two in fact. I go to the one with a coffee machine and order a stand up cappuccino. I see that they have one of those bready pizza slices for sale -- last one! I take that to go. And a bag of cookies. Oh, and they squeeze orange juice here? Fine! My day is looking good!

As I sip my juice and cappuccino, I watch the woman work behind the counter. She looks stern at first, but when she catches my eye, she asks anxiously -- Lei piace? (Do you like it?)

I'm eating one of the almond-paste cookies and I realize that it isn't the best cookie on the planet, but I do like it. Quite a lot. For its simple goodness. For how well it fits into my cappuccino moment.


And when a young mother comes in with her toddler, the woman behind the counter gives the widest of smiles!


Her delight at seeing this little child bursts out in a strung of words -- almost like bubbles out of a Prosecco bottle!

And I think this is the pleasure of visiting a town that has nothing to show tourists. No one comes here. There's nothing to see. Except this authenticity of human life. It's harder to find it in beautiful Sienna, or Greve in Chianti. But it's easy to catch it here, in this stark town of Rignano sull'Arno, where people commute by train to the city, or work in the olive/wine/other industries that support this region and hang their laundry out to dry on a Sunday morning.

The walk back is unfortunately more uphill than downhill, but I know now what's what and so I don't mind it at all.


So much so, that one hour later, as I approach the turn off for my olive farm, I decide to continue and time the walk to the store/cafe on the other side. Maybe, if they're still open (I'm fuzzy about their hours), I can get some more greens or fruits to take home.

What I have been calling the store/cafe, turns out to be a store/restaurant! Sure, you can get a coffee at the store counter, at any time of their opening, but between the hours of noon and 2, you can also get lunch in the back room -- a dining room just for those two hours of the day.

And the place is alive with locals! There is one couple -- a younger one, but that's not the primary demographic.


It's Sunday. There are friends (for example, these four men, in their hunting clothes)...


...and there are families. And they eat a lot of food! Bruschettas and prosciutto and salamis for starters.


Followed by pasta, meats, desserts. I'm just swimming in admiration as to how much they can put away. Of course, these are all people who live here, they all know the owner and they know the type of food served here. Italians don't do breakfast and probably today, they don't do much of a dinner either. They do this meal and they do it well.

For me, there is so much to take in! My own simple meal is far too short: a salad and balsamico chicken, followed by an exquisite, home made apple cake (I begged for a thin slice - he obliged and charged me 1.5 Euro for it... sublime stuff! I ask: did you make this here?! Of course!).


I try to prolong the lunch with my glass of Chianti (I am in the Chianti Colli Fiorentini wine producing region) and then a cup of macchiato. I am the only solo diner in the room until a man sits down next to me and orders three courses of so much food that I think he surely must be one of those guys I've seen in the fields working even on Sunday to complete the grape harvest before the good weather gives.

In the course of my own lunch,  I can't help but watch a family meal to the side of the room, with two couples maybe in their fifties, a young man -- clearly a son -- and a grandpa. Toward the end of the meal, the young man wants to go out for a while. I'm guessing he's anxious to use his smart phone. Call a girl. Maybe have a cigarette. His mom, across the table, gives the most subtle shake of her head. He mouths a question to her, she again shakes her head. He sits back down. Not angry, not put out. Indeed, he falls into an animated conversation with his grandpa. Make of that scene what you want.


At the end of the meal, as the table empties out, the grandpa pauses and goes up to the counter where the liquor bottles are stored. The proprietor pours him a glass of grappa. The other men come back and they, too, have shots of grappa. Hands are shaken, the Sunday lunch ends.


I was reminded of an article from today's paper: how you get to be a certain age and you keep thinking about all the things you should do, the medicines you should take to stay healthy and you do this 'til the day you die. Somewhere in there, the author points out, you forget to enjoy the life that's given to you. I don't think this family and perhaps not anyone else in the room forgot to enjoy the life that was given to them.

I pause at the little store that's at the front of the dining room...


....pick up a couple of inconsequential items and begin the walk home. To *my* olive farm.


I am good and warm and all walked out by the time I get back to Il Casellino (the olive farm). There's just one thing to do: hit the pool. And no, everyone hasn't departed from the estate, but for those of you who stay in places that are not of the Ritz Carleton variety, remember the virtues of polka dot undergarments. You never have to pack a swim suit.

But in the end, none of the Eduardo people are anywhere near the pool. I have it to myself, as I will for the rest of the week. It is unquestionably the best lap swim I've had in many, many years.


Supper is easy. Before taking off for Milan, Eduardo brings me some fresh figs and I add that to my collection of walnuts from his walnut trees, tomatoes from his garden, bread, cheese, cookies.

It's quiet again in the evening. I walk up the hill to see the colors of a darkening sky...


... and to say goodnight to the cheepers...


Earlier, I heard the shot of someone hunting wild boar. But now, the sound of tractors is gone and the road traffic, too, has lessened. I'm left with birds, a cicada in the distance and the barking dogs from a farm up another hill. Rural sounds. Soothing noises of the evening, reminding me of days at my grandparents' village home in Poland, when everything at the dusk hour became muted, letting you know that now is the time to slow down, settle in, exhale.