Category Archives: Italy

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.

A Day In The Life Of A Pilgrim.

A Day In The Life Of A Pilgrim.

6:30 AM

WAKE UP!

Since I started walking nearly four months ago I have woken up in almost a hundred different places. Can you believe that? Probably not, even I can’t and I’m the one who lived it! But I bet you can believe that I wake up every morning, groggy and confused and ask myself “Where am I?”  The answers I’ve received so far have included a graveyard, a château, a school infirmary, a mattress on the floor of a hospital, a parish house that looked more like a frat house, a stranger’s couch, a private room in a Franciscan monastery, a caravan, a tent on a roof used to dry peppers, a fish farm and a lavish hotel suite.

WAKE UP 2

      

7:00 AM

 WALK.

Wait. First, I need to make sure I look like I plan on bringing sexy back today.

SEXY BACK

 

All set. Now we can go, following the signs for the trail which can be found on trees, rocks, and even on the ground.

FOLLOW SIGNS

This is my favorite time to walk—when the world is still cool and hazy and the sun has not yet commenced its daily efforts to melt the skin right off my face.

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9:00 AM

COFFEE BREAK!

10 kilometers later my caffeine addiction needs to be addressed and luckily for anyone I might cross paths with on this day, I usually reach a village with a café right around the same time. Sometimes I get to work on my fresh pastry withdrawal at the same time.

COFFEE BREAK

 

 

9:30 AM

WALK. AGAIN.

Walking alone is great. It gives me time to think about big, important things like my own mortality and what I’d like to have for lunch. Better than walking alone? Walking with someone who will dance for me on command, like my cousin Anya and my friend Stefano.

10:00 AM

PET SOMETHING.

Horses, baby goats, baby ducks, donkeys, sheep, lhamas, stray cats– if it’s at least a moderately cute animal, I’ve tried to rub its face. You know that immigration form you fill out when you’re entering the U.S. where you’re asked whether you’ve handled livestock while you were abroad? Does cuddling with donkeys count as handling?  Also, does a domesticated deer count as a farm animal? Finally, can anyone give me some advice about surviving a year under quarantine?

PET SOMETHING

 

11:00 AM

MORE WALKING!

You might even bump into pilgrims whose rain gear matches your shirt!

MORE WALKING

11:15 AM

FORAGE FOR FRUIT ON SOMEONE’S PRIVATE PROPERTY.

Stealing is another common term for this kind of fruit picking.

FORAGING

12:00 PM

HAIL A TAXI?

TAXI

 Just kidding, I’m still walking.

 

1:30 PM

LUNCH!

Sometimes lunch is an elaborate feast with a cheese plate and cured meats and even fizzy cocktails that will take the sting out of your feet.

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Other times it’s a picnic in the fields.

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Or a loaf of bread eaten with your hands on the side of the road. True story.

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Sometimes it is followed by a nap.

NAP 2

 

2:30 PM

YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!

Yeah, you will. It’s walking. Walking is the thing that happens next.

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5:00 PM

DONE!

Before I can take my boots off I have to go see a nun about a stamp. On the Via Francigena, like on the Camino de Santiago a pilgrim receives a passport, a paper document that gets stamped wherever you stop for the night. The pilgrim’s credential serves two purposes. First, since pilgrims often get to stay in special places not made available to other travelers, a passport is their ticket in.  Secondly, the passport is proof that a pilgrim has made the entire journey.  This will be important in Rome.

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Depending on the person looking over their passport at the Vatican , a pilgrim could be questioned about missing stamps and asked questions like “Why don’t you have a stamp from the 23rd of June?” And then the pilgrim might say something like “Because I fell asleep with my face in a bowl of warm spaghetti and the waiter left me that way until morning.”

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Along the Italian segment of the Via Francigena, pilgrim’s hostels are much more common than in either France or Switzerland.  These houses are usually run by former pilgrims and include a dormitory, showers and a kitchen. Some even stock groceries for pilgrims to use as they like.

 

 

6:00 PM

THE SCRUBDOWN

Starting with myself and then moving on to everything I wore. One of the greatest motivators for getting to an accommodation early is having enough time for your clothes to dry in the sun. Otherwise you end up wearing cold, wet hiking pants at dawn or carrying soggy (and heavy) clothes in your backpack. You might even meet a nice, innovative German couple who will fashion a clothing line out of shoelaces and walking poles for you, like I did.

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8:00 PM

DINNER AND SOCIALIZING

I love improvising a meal with other pilgrims whenever there’s a kitchen available or going out together when it’s not.  This is the time to really get to know each other via enthusiastic and exhaustive descriptions of your injuries as well as by sharing your blister prevention action plan.

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Once talk of the physical hardships of the pilgrimage is over, the dinner table conversation usually gets very personal. WIthin an hour of learning someone’s name, I might learn about the most painful moment of their life, their divorce, their loss, their shame and they will learn about mine. Intimacy and trust come more easily here than in our respective homes. And what’s more, these confessions are not simply the result of the anonymity that comes with travel; many of the pilgrims I’ve met have become like family to me.

 

11:00 PM

Despite being exhausted down to the last eyelash, falling asleep is not easy. In the words of Dr. Seuss,  “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”

I know quite a few people for whom the idea of walking up in a hundred places in the course of as many days is a nightmare. I know just as many who would  give up a year of their life rather than spend that year getting up at dawn and putting on a pair of hiking boots, but I wake up each morning barely able to contain my excitement and my bewilderment. My reality is a generous helping of my wildest dreams and I can’t wait to start living it each morning.

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Weekends With Torre

SATURDAY, 10 AM

Sitting on the toilet lid, I adjusted my towel and the angle of the phone so that it looked like I was naked on the john. I smiled and waved at the camera and satisfied with the result, hit “send to contact.” In a musty hotel room on the other side of the bathroom door, the lucky recipient of the toilet selfie, author Torre DeRoche sat on a bed with a bag of frozen peas tied to her left foot when her phone signaled the arrival of a picture message. Normally I would not recommend sending what appears to be a nude photo taken mid-bowel movement to someone whose professional endorsement you’d like to attain, but in my defense, she sent me one first.

That was Saturday and the start of our second day in Piacenza, a Medieval maze of cobblestone streets filled with well-dressed Italians riding around on bicycles or walking their groomed dogs. Torre and I were pausing in Piacenza indefinitely after after she’d hurt her foot on our third day of walking the Via Francigena together. The two of us had met only once before in New York and though that first encounter had been pleasant, it was not indicative of the kind of bond we would form after just a few days. I’m talking about the kind of bond that makes one comfortable eating canned tuna on the floor in front of another person, which is what I have a recording of Torre doing and it goes like this:

“Can you tell us what we’re doing here Torre?”

“We are eating tuna on the floor.”

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SATURDAY 12 PM

Torre’s pained hobble to the corner café for cappuccinos made it clear that we would need to extend our stay by at least another night.  Now we just needed to let the management of our accommodation know. The problem?  Our place was less hotel and more abandoned residential building with neither a reception desk nor even other guests, as far as we could tell.

“I can’t get through,” I had been calling the only contact number we had without success while Torre and I lunched on baguette, prosciutto, mozzarella and white anchovies in our room.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if we just stayed here and they discovered us like a week from now?” Torre asked, reaching for the jar of anchovies. “Shit!”

Anchovy oil spilled all over the tablecloth and we jumped up to do damage control; Torre tried to mop up the mess with napkins, while I grabbed a box of salt and poured a mound onto the table. I had hoped it would soak up the oil but mostly I created an additional mess to clean up.

We looked around—our hiking clothes were hanging off chairs and bed posts, the table was covered in bread crumbs, salt and oil slicks and the hotel’s white towels had streaks of puke green from Torre’s leaky bag of peas.  What could we possibly say should someone from the hotel open the door right now?

“One more night?” Torre’s high pitch was meant to feign innocence to the phantom hotel employee we were both imagining in the doorway. But of course, the evidence of her complicity in our domestic chaos was too strong for any person with the gift of sight to overlook, even an imaginary one and we collapsed in our chairs with hearty, sidesplitting laughter. Every time I thought I was done, I saw a normal person walking into the absurdity of what had become our status quo and though I felt bad for them, I couldn’t help letting out another stream of giggles as I pictured how uncomfortable and scared they would be.

For the rest of the day, every time a hiking boot found its way onto the bed or another towel was stained green, one of us raised an index finger and repeated, “one more night?”

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SATURDAY 3PM

Once the sending and receiving of naked bathroom photos had lost its appeal and boredom began to set in, I came up with the idea to go and find us a board game. Several books and toy stores later I hadn’t found so much as a deck of cards but before coming home empty-handed I decided to sneak in a visit to the Duomo, Piacenza’s 12th century cathedral. I must have lost track of time as I wandered among carved columns, boxes of calcified relics and empty confessionals because by the time I stepped out into the street, I had received another message, with a more joyful and somehow more naked Torre.  The appeal of the toilet selfie hadn’t been lost after all and I ran back to the last toy store I visited and took a photo next to a toy bathroom set to the horror of the store clerk and the children.

“On my way home now,“ I added.

“Is that a tiny toilet next to your head?” Torre wrote back.

 

SATURDAY 7PM

Torre sat at the table soaking her foot in a pasta pot. The water was laced with green crystals, which had dissolved and now smelled like we were embalming her appendage rather than healing it.  This was ironic because though Torre had asked me to buy her Epsom salts, what I brought back (with no hidden motives) were salts meant to banish unpleasant foot odor.

Breathing through my mouth, I told Tore about what I’d seen in the Duomo.

“There was this glass box with a what I think was an actual body just dressed to the nines.  Do you think that’s possible, that there’s an actual person in there?”

“Probably.”’

“That’s so weird, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. Whoever’s in there is wearing gauzy gloves and I think you can see his finger bones!”

Our dead saint discussion was interrupted when we heard a key in the door.  The moment we had been imagining had come, the manager was here, and not only was the room unrecognizable but it also smelled like death and Torre sat with her foot in a cooking pot.

“Bonjourno! One more night?” The phrase we had been practicing all day came out of my mouth before I could think of anything better to say to the man surveying us with curiosity. This was absolutely the exact situation in which I preferred not knowing what was being said. We handed him fifty Euros and took some fresh towels in case we ran out of things to ruin.

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SUNDAY 10 AM

Torre woke up the next morning feeling much better and we decided to branch out and have our coffees two long blocks away at an outside table on a pedestrian shopping street. While we were on our first taste of cappuccino foam, the Piacenzans sitting around us were well into their morning wine, a Sunday ritual I’d noticed in other parts of Italy.

We were enjoying watching the kitten-heeled female population of the city weave in and out of our line of vision when I blurted out the following: “What if you’re just a figment of my imagination and I made you up so I don’t have to be alone anymore?”

Torre turned and stared right at me. I felt my stomach drop. Like a lovesick schoolboy, I said too much too fast and freaked out the object of my affection by crossing a line that even she, who eats tuna on the floor, respected.

Finally Torre spoke. “Can I just tell you, I’ve already thought the same thing about you? Sometimes when we’re talking, it feels like I’m talking to myself.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to go see the dead guy in the Duomo after this?”

“Sure.”

 

 

SUNDAY, 12 PM

It just so happened that we showed up to leer at the body of a respected saint in the city’s holiest place during Sunday mass. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible while we shuffled past pious Italian grandmothers, but our anonymity, had we any in the first place, was lost when I almost knocked over a statue of Jesus along with the velvet roping meant to keep idiots like myself away from the son of God.  To be honest, the assault on Jesus was not even the most wrath-inducing thing about our appearance at the service. I think that honor went to our tank tops, Torre’s short shorts and my floor-length yet transparent skirt.  When to the relief of the congregation we made our exit, we noticed a sign on the door showing two figures wearing pretty much our exact ensembles with a big X through them.

“So now that we’re done with our naked romp through the church, want to get some gelato?” This time it was Torre who said what I had already been thinking.

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SUNDAY 3PM

If you were upset earlier because you weren’t planning on reading about bathrooms today, don’t blame me, blame my friend Stefano—the original toilet selfie messenger and the man who was coming down from the north of Italy to spend what remained of Sunday with us. Earlier in the week Stef had sent me a birthday greeting with a photo of himself smiling and waving, bathed in the unmistakable fluorescent lighting of a bathroom. Stef’s face showed no signs of embarrassment or even awareness of there being anything strange about sending someone a shirtless salutation from the toilet in the middle of the night.

Stefano took us to lunch in the Piazza Cavalli, and we filled him in on our adventures and showed him the slew of photos he had inspired over a plate of parmagiaono, bresola and arugula.  Stefano is an incredibly caring and giving man, and not just when it comes to photography inspiration and his lightness diluted our madness in a very psychologically sound way as we talked about books and ligaments, love at first sight and gelato.

 

SUNDAY 5PM

Torre’s foot began acting up again so Stef and I sent her home while we scoured the streets looking for the one pharmacy that’s open on Sunday to get our patient some Arnica cream and some painkillers. This should surprise no one, but we made a detour to the bathroom of a café to check in with Torre via a text message.  At first we couldn’t decide what was worse, explaining to the staff why we were piling into the single bathroom together or letting them find a suitable explanation on their own. In the end we decided it was best to leave something to their imaginations, though this approach may have been more suitable when Torre and I had been selecting our church outfits.

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SUNDAY 10 PM

After dinner at a tavern sharing plates of local specialties like ravioli with stinging nettles and spinach we said long and warm goodbyes in front of our empty apartment building.

Torre and I had decided that on Monday we would look for a used bike to buy so she could ride alongside me while her foot got better. It was an inspired plan and we were optimistic as we were getting ready for bed.

I thought back to lunch when Stefano had been telling us about a scene in a memoir he was reading. The author, a woman traveling through Australia met with a spiritual man in a cave who said to her, “Do you know why we are here? Because we have planned this meeting between us millions and millions of years ago.”

The idea that we choose what happens to us in this life really appeals to me. It’s a way to gain back some control when you feel powerless. It could be an incentive to trust that even in the worst of times, there is a deeper purpose that your eternal self put there, assuming of course that your eternal self isn’t a masochist asshole. In my own life, I have had a thousand moments that were too perfectly timed and effortless to seem anything but orchestrated, like this meeting with Torre and our weekend in Piacenza. Lying in bed, I could picture the two of us billions of years ago, two spirits hovering over a couple of beach chairs, bronzing our souls in the eternal sun of the pre-life.

“Hey, you know that lifetime where we’re both writers and you’re Australian, but raised by Americans and I’m Russian but raised in the States?” I’d say.

“Yeah?” Torre would ask, turning over to get a bit of color on her paler side.

“I was just thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if instead of our original plan you came out to Italy when I’m doing that walking thing and then we ended up stuck in this Italian town for a few days eating gelato and bonding over bathroom humor?”

“That’s so weird, I was JUST thinking that.”

Tuscany Is Not For Sissies

Did you know that there are almost two dozen kinds of snakes in Italy and that many of them make their home in the hills of Tuscany? No? I didn’t either until just a few days ago.

Torre and I were sharing a dinner table with Astrid, a lawyer from Milan at an “ostello,” a pilgrim’s hostel, nearly ten kilometers from the nearest town. We’d stopped for a cappuccino that morning on our way to Pontremoli, but couldn’t tear ourselves away from its green shutters, homemade relishes, walls plastered with regional maps, an umbrella stand filled with polished wooden staffs and a table with earring made of lace and necklaces of hazelnut shells. The place felt magic, so we decided to stay.

The magic ended for Torre soon after the cappucinos, during a meditation session which she did lying on top of an anthill, overlooking a hazy mountain range. Thinking the burning sensation on her back was a prickly plant, she decided to exercise her “nonattachment to comfort” and stayed perfectly still for twenty minutes. At the same time a colony of ants was trying their best to take on a “this too shall pass” attitude while a giant monster sat on their house.

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My own soul crushing moment came during dinner when the proprietor of the ostello, a balding, grey-haired jokester wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt came over and started talking to the woman from Milan. While Torre washed down a painkiller with some wine, I listened.

“Oh my god. They’re talking about snakes. “

“I thought you didn’t speak Italian?”

“ A woman was bitten by a snake just outside, by the fountain and she had to be taken to the hospital. “

“How are you getting that?”

I don’t know exactly how I was getting it as I neither speak nor understand Italian, but just like someone with a fear of flying can detect the slightest loosening of a screw on a 747, when someone is mentioning my slithering nemesis in a foreign language, I become fluent just long enough to start obsessing over my death from a snakebite.

Here are a few fun facts about my snake phobia that will help you understand the depth of my madness. I occasionally become convinced that there is a snake waiting for me in the toilet of my fifteenth floor apartment. When I saw a snake in Russia, my grandmother heard my screams and thought I was being mauled by a bear. When I was island hopping in Thailand, I selected accommodations not on their merit or proximity to the beach, but on how closely they resembled an airtight shipping container. I have mistaken the following items for a snake in places as remote as my parent’s third floor balcony and Times Square: a shoelace, my own foot, a wire, my phone charger and a strand of hair.

Once our host moved on from our table, Astrid spent the rest of dinner educating us on the snake population of Italy while I practiced not throwing up. It seems there are lots of really long, thick snakes in Italy, but while they will just scare the shit out of you, they won’t kill you. The only snake in Italy worth worrying about is the viper, which is the one the woman in the story I overheard had accidently stepped on.

“But don’t worry, you have an hour to get the anti-venom,” Astrid reassured me.

I looked at Torre and knew we were both thinking two things—that we’d barely had phone reception in the mountains and that even if we did, we’d have no idea who to call since neither of us knew any local emergency numbers.

Seeing the distress signal written out on my furrowed brow, Astrid tried to reassure me.

“Don’t worry, vipers don’t care about you. You’ll only get bitten if you accidently step on one sunning itself on a rock.”

“Like one of the billions of rocks that make up hiking paths in Tuscany, for example?”

“And they’re not big, not scary just little and skinny, so you’ll probably not even see one, DON’T WORRY.”

“Okay, got it.  I will just inspect every rock I step on for tiny, hard-to-see reptiles. What color are they exactly?”

“Grey.”

“Cool. Wait, was that like a slate grey? “

“What is slate grey?”

“The color of a rock.”

“Yes! Exactly!”

I set out with the following morning having reached brand new levels of paranoia. The rustle of my hiking pants sent me into a stumbling panic. Every tiny lizard that darted in front of me heard some not nice things said about its mother and the occasional, unmistakable slither in the bushes signaled the start of my ascent onto Torre’s head.  It wasn’t a terribly fun day for me or for Torre, especially when we did see a snake.

I know this is the moment where I tell you all about the snake—what color, how long—but I can’t. The truth is the second after I saw it I started Disney-fying it as a defense mechanism so that when I try to remember it now, the snake is bright blue, smiling and batting its long lashes as it dances next to Mougli from the Jungle Book.  All I can tell you is that it moved really, really fast as it heard us approaching just a few feet away and that for a moment all of my love, my intellect, my hope and my sense of reality were pushed out and all that was left was terror. And then it was over and as I held back some tears, we had no choice but to keep walking.

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I know you’re probably thinking that the rest of this post will be about how overcoming fear is one of the reasons I travel, how seeing a snake somehow changed something, somewhere, and something else about obstacles on the road of life but that is not the case.

Since I set out from Canterbury more than two months ago, I’ve been taken aback by how uncomfortable people (mostly other pilgrims) are with what I am doing. They watch me trip over my poles, or see me arriving just shy of sunset with no accommodation booked and their eyes climb up to where their eyebrows should be. I tell them I didn’t know how to pitch a tent before I started, that I’m married but traveling alone, that I am afraid of snakes and that I am not really the hiking type and the same people look like they are about to self-implode.

Who am I to go around the world when I already signed up for domestic living? How can I walk for three months without a guidebook? How in the world do I think I’m going to make it when I don’t even know how to start a fire/ kill a wild boar/ turn water into wine? How dare I worry my friends, my family or anyone else who doesn’t trust that I can do this?  Where is my wilderness training? My years of trekking experience?

I love that I am hiking with a snake phobia. I love that I lose a hat once a week. I love that I found a partner who doesn’t make me choose between marital bliss and the bliss of leaving everything I know behind. I love that I am a city slicker with an atheist background walking through snake country on a religious pilgrimage. I am disorganized, I am carefree and I am scared of things that go bump in the night but my joy is not diminished by my perceived imperfections.There is nothing more exciting than showing up to my rendezvous with the world dressed as myself and I urge everyone to join me and revel in their own unique, messy way of doing things.

Since seeing that one live snake, I’ve seen quite a few dead ones—on the road and even one in someone’s garden that they’d just killed and then threw into the bushes like an old watering hose. The sheer number of them pressed into the pavement is a reminder that they are everywhere and it’s nice to know that I can rely on myself to freak out about each one of them and still make the last 400 kilometers to Rome.

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