Cruising For Nonnas

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It was dangerously close to sunset as Torre and I made our way through fragrant tomato fields with another two hours to go before we reached our accommodation.  We were nearing the end of our first day back on the pilgrimage trail after Torre’s injured foot had kept us in Piacenza for five days. We had been hoping for a pilgrimage-induced miracle, which finally came in the form of an idea.  “What if I get a bicycle and just ride alongside you until my foot gets better?”

Excited to be back on the road, we took the time to revel in every small joy we found along the way—picking wild fruit we hoped weren’t poisonous, stealing tomatoes we told ourselves wouldn’t be missed and photographing the stretch of pale mountains in front of us.  And now, ten hours after we had started walking, we were ready to call it a day but still miles away from any place to hang our hat.

“You know what we need?” Torre asked from the seat of her red bicycle.

“What?”

“We need to find our nonna.”

I knew exactly what she meant.  We needed to find a big-hearted, Italian grandmother who lived near by and who would let us spend the night in her home.  We began to assess every house we passed for its potential to be harboring a nonna, who we stipulated would have to make us pesto gnocchi in addition to putting a roof over our heads.

As we approached a tiny village with our hearts full of hope, a car drove by with three men looking us over with immense curiosity.

“I’m so tired, that if those guys told me they had a spare room in their basement, I’d totally get in the car with them,” I joked once they passed us.

“I’m so tired, I’d probably sleep through whatever it is they would do to us in that basement,” Torre added.

The fatigue had obviously started to cloud our judgment though not our magic powers. When we entered the village ten minutes later all three men were standing around their car seemingly waiting for us, looking like they were absolutely on their way to a sex party in someone’s basement, though judging by their hair and shirt collars they would be traveling to 1972 to get there.

Rather than being fearful, Torre and I were incredulous at our sorcery as we answered the men’s questions about what we were doing and tried to assure them that our exhausted broken bodies would not add anything of value to their evening. We excused ourselves and walked about twenty feet before we struck gold.  A tiny, smiling nonna stood outside her house, which I may add looked large enough to fit two pilgrims and their rusted bicycle.  We mustered the remains of our energy and put it towards oozing charm through our sweaty t-shirts as we tried to endear ourselves to her by blurting out “Via Francigena!” “Roma!” and then “ I, Russa!” “She, Australia!”  It seemed to be working. Nonna was still smiling and saying things in Italian we couldn’t understand but were definitely not “Get the hell off my property.”

Though I had another full one in my backpack, I pointed to my empty water bottle and made a pleading face, “Acqua?” While our nonna was fetching water, Torre and I exchanged wide-eyed stares of disbelief.

“Did she offer us to stay in her house?”

“I have no idea. Maybe. Get off your bike and show her your limp, try to look extra hurt.”

Nonna came back with four bottles of cold seltzer, which further convinced us that she was the nonna we had been dreaming about. I pulled out a map of the ground we still had to cover that night to emphasize how far it was and then pointed to the quickly darkening sky hoping that nonna would take on a sense of responsibility for our safety, given that she could be the last person to ever see us alive should we be forced to continue. Instead nonna started pointing away from her house towards the direction of the town where we had been headed and listing a string of left and right turns we wouldn’t have been able to memorize even if they had been given to us in English. Was nonna subtly telling us to leave her to her gnocchi making? Torre had not started hobbling around demonstratively as I had hoped and I had run out of ideas for stalling. Had either of us spoken Italian, we could have constructed a polite inquiry into whether or not she would consider hosting a pair of pilgrims in her home, but as we stood there smiling, listening to nonna saying things we didn’t understand, we felt our chances dwindling until finally, we had to let our nonna go.

The following morning we assessed what had happened. Though we were unsuccessful in our quest, we did gain something of value. Our takeaway from the experience was that we were really good at manifesting things quickly. I mean it only took an hour between us wishing for a nonna and one appearing practically out of thin air.  We decided we needed to work on the phrasing of our request.

As we set out we again asked for a nonna who would make us pesto gnocchi but this time we asked for one who spoke just enough English for us to be certain that she was asking us to stay. We also added a few unrelated items to our list. Torre asked for wild strawberries. I asked for a kitten, but specified one that wouldn’t run away from me, like all the other skittish Italian cats.

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After some more tomato thievery and an afternoon meditation session turned nap under a tree, we began to suspect that we had taken a wrong turn some time back. Torre volunteered to cycle ahead and do some reconnaissance, coming back with mixed updates. The bad news was that we had walked about an hour out of our way and would now need to make a loop, but the good news was that there were some very promising nonnas up ahead.

When we approached our first target, I became worried. “Is nonna okay?” She sat slumped to one side in her lawn chair and from the back looked like she could possibly no longer be a nonna capable of making gnocchi or breathing.

“She’s just reading. “

“Are you sure?”

“Almost.”

The second nonna sat smiling on her porch with our potential Italian grandfather. “This could work,” I thought and again asked for water to buy some time.  To our surprise it was her husband who got up and went inside to fetch us some seltzer while nonna sat in her chair smiling, looking into the distance at no one in particular and we realized that she too was passed her nonna prime. We chatted with our almost grandfather (Russa! Australia! Via Francigena! Roma!) thanked him for the water and set off.  Clearly Torre had been wrong about there being suitable candidates in this town.

It was getting late and we were weary of repeating our sunset walk when we came to a billboard pointing to a pleasant coral house at the end of a long driveway. “Beds! Cheese! Salumi! Wine!” The billboard promised us all of the things we wanted most in that moment. We agreed to suspend our quest for nonna in lieu of cheese. Over a Florentine steak that could have killed a grown man had he been slapped with it, I suggested to Torre that she expand what she would consider a successful manifestation of wild strawberries.  “Maybe it will just be jam or a liqueur.” What I knew, but Torre didn’t was that the season for wild strawberries was over as I had mourned its end several weeks ago in the Aosta Valley. I did not want to dash the hopes of such an enthusiastic sorcerer in the making by revealing the truth.

The next morning we were more determined than ever to make magic happen. “What’s that?” I asked pointing to a dead animal at the edge of the busy road we were walking on.

“Oh no, it’s a kitten. It must be the one you manifested. He was probably on his way to see you.”

I felt awful. My reckless magic was responsible for the death of a kitten.

“Well, I did say that I wanted one that couldn’t get away from me.”

When we reached the next still slumbering town we revised our list of demands yet again over cappuccinos and Nutella-filled croissants. We had to make sure that there was no room for any misunderstanding. The kitten had to be alive, healthy and friendly. Our nonna had to be all of the above plus lucid and clear in her intentions to host us.  Torre also insisted that the wild strawberries be fresh.

By lunchtime we had started our ascent into the mountains that only yesterday served as a distant backdrop for our tomato thievery.

“Can we add that our nonna should have a pool?”

“And a vineyard.”

Not ten minutes later we were looking at an upscale bed and breakfast with sweeping views from the outdoor pool of the property’s vineyards and the green valley we had just come from. On a bench by the entrance sat three wonderfully alive and seemingly lucid nonnas.

“I’m not ready to stop for the day. You?”

“Nah, and anyway it looks expensive.”

Tragically, we had let our powers go to our heads and were now acting on the assumption that whatever we wanted would reappear later, at a more convenient time.

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Over the next two days Torre and I were like two teenagers after they’d stumbled into fame and fortune and our demands of the universe bordered on the ridiculous.  Apart from her kind temperament, a small vineyard, pool and homemade gnocchi, nonna was now required to be in possession of a massage therapy license, which she would put to use at night while telling us a bedtime story in English. Torre also asked to receive a meaningful letter, find a small but important book and meet an inspiring person at which I raised my hand, but she assured me she meant an additional inspiring person. I put in a request to find a special pilgrim’s accommodation that would have charm and personality and a view. Of course I was also on the lookout for kittens in every stone alleyway and geranium-lined stairways in the mountain villages we passed while Torre, having ditched her bike kept her eyes peeled for tiny strawberries in shady forests.

Our abilities seemed to be rapidly deteriorating.  We found the perfect hostel full of old books and worn velvet furniture with an adorable gang of kittens lurking near by, but it had no vacancies and we had to walk away. There were no more hospitable nonnas to be found and I had finally told Torre the truth about there being zero chances of us finding wild strawberries.

Morale was down when we set off into the woods almost a week after we had discovered our manifesting powers. We were walking up a steep path in the woods in utter silence and I began to plead with the universe.  It was not so much to ask for one wild strawberry.  It wasn’t like we were asking to find a giraffe tree; we were just looking for one berry a few weeks past its prime. This was within the realm of possibility, right? It didn’t break any universal laws of physics or nature, as far as I could tell.

“Oh my god! Are those raspberries?! “ Torre had found a prickly bush with a handful of raspberries clinging on for dear life. The universe was mocking me by sending us a completely unsolicited berry. I refused to participate in its consumption on principle and shuffled off to the other side of the path. I stood there looking down at my feet until,

“Holy shit! Torre! It’s a wild strawberry!”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes! It’s a freaking wild strawberry!”

Then I saw one more and five minutes later, another two. They were tart, unripe and perfect because it felt like we had made them ourselves.  Had you seen and heard our excitement, you’d think we had just eradicated hunger and illiteracy and learned how to grow breast tissue.

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We walked on finding a few more berries along the way and we discussed what their appearance meant— the universe doesn’t hate us, magic does exist and we are amazing human beings— until we came to two signs in the woods. One marked the official route and headed up the well-worn path, the other marked “Via Francigena—Ostello,” headed down a smaller trail and disappeared below. In the two months that I had been walking the Via Francigena I had not once seen an official marker leading the way to a pilgrim’s hostel. That we should see one just minutes after our most successful manifestation yet, was the most literal sign we could have received so we followed until we came to a terracotta red house with green shutters overlooking the hills of Parma.

Worn books lay on their sides on a shelf in the café area where a couple of travelers where having their breakfast. In the corner by the bar wooden walking sticks hung against a yellow wall.  A display case filled with lemon pastries sat on the counter. I ordered a couple of cappuccinos from the woman behind the bar and as a little boy darted past her into the kitchen I realized she must be his nonna. Could she also be our nonna?

“Look, it’s the only one in here in English and it’s the story of the Via Francigena,” Torre came over to me holding a thin book.

“It’s the small but significant book you asked for!”

“I have goose bumps.”

“I think I found our nonna too.  She’s making us coffee.”

We had only walked a third of our planned route for the day but as we took in the very special circumstances we had found ourselves in, we knew we were done.

After settling in we discovered a few kinks in our manifestation—our nonna was too preoccupied with the housekeeping to notice us, let alone make us gnocchi, there were no kittens (I asked, more than once), also absent were the pool and vineyard and the really important book turned out to be a really boring book and surprisingly dense.

Still, the day was very important to both of us. We had already found comfort and inspiration in each other but these two tiny gestures of a cluster of woodland berries and a special place to rest our bones gave us the encouragement to keep going that we both craved. The universe, God, the three-legged dog on Saturn who’s actually in charge, whatever or whoever it is, listened to two rambling specks of dust stumbling and sometimes peddling around Italy and thought they were important enough to be heard and it made us feel like we could do anything.

3 Responses to Cruising For Nonnas

  1. Just beautiful! I could keep reading forever…

  2. Monica says:

    I loved going on this little journey with you and Torre. And love/hate that you made me laugh at the notion of a dead kitten. Well done!

  3. Gary says:

    I am salivating! Next time we’re in NYC, I know where we’re hanivg dinner. Homemade Italian, here we come! I grew up near Pismo Beach, CA, and one of my family’s favorite places to eat was a restaurant called The Old Vienna, run by a German family. They’d cook whatever they felt like, seat as many people as suited their fancy, then lock the doors, bring out giant bowls of deliciousness, start filling everyone’s glasses with whatever wine or beer they decided would complement the evening’s meal, and then play the accordion and sing the night away. Sadly, that place closed a few years back, but it’s exciting to hear about other establishments that understand that a personal flavor is everyone’s favorite.

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