I have recently learned that Jamie’s and my touristing is quite a lot like great American author John Steinbeck and his wife’s touristing, at least as far as touristing in Italy is concerned.
In “Duel Without Pistols,” Steinbeck describes his Italian holiday as “churching and antiquing.” That is exactly what we do in Italy for the first part of every trip, the half before we head to Forte dei Marmi to sprawl on the beach. One August day, after viewing what seemed like one thousandth church in the medieval Tuscan town of Luca, I turned to Jamie and whispered, “How can all of these places claim their art is rare? If I see one more Madonna e Bambino triptych I am going to scream.” Even my Catholic husband agreed it was time to leave for the beach, which we did the next day.
And I get it, I really do. A majority of the business of Italy is showing ancient sites to tourists, much as viewing the various ancestral homes of the monarchy is the hottest tourist ticket in England. As Steinbeck wrote, “antiquities are . . . the best product a country can have . . . you don’t have a shipping problem [because] tourists come to you . . . [and since] tourists don’t take them away . . . [the] product [remains and grows] antiquer all the time [enabling the country to] sit in the sun and take the profits [with] plenty of time to complain about so many tourists spoiling the country.” This doesn’t even consider the entrepreneurial opportunity of manufacturing antiquity-inspired tchotchkes for tourists to carry home with them.
Traveling through Italy with only a rudimentary grasp of the Italian language and customs has proved an adventure we have shared with the Steinbecks, as well. Steinbeck writes about getting lost in Rome – which we have never done – but we have had a hell of a time reaching our hotel in Siena the first time we visited. Like Steinbeck, we couldn’t actually claim that we got lost because we had so little idea of where we were that we were unsure whether we were lost or found. Driving our rented Mercedes to Siena from Florence we followed the road signs indicating that the best way to reach the city involved driving up the front of the mountain: so we did. We arrived at a car park filled with tourist coaches and proceeded to search for our hotel to no avail. It was about a block away but we could see no route by which to reach it. The tourists we asked were no help – they were as unsure of their location as we were – and the Italians insisted that we return down the mountain because we couldn’t get there from here. Jamie began to swell like a pressure cooker. Finally we met an Italian man who explained in a way that we could understand – that meant in more English than Italian and with lots of gesturing around and to the right – and we headed back down the mountain. At the roundabout, we turned right and followed the road past the mountain upon which Siena sat.
“Are you sure this is what he said?” I asked, as we seemed to be going pretty far out of the way to reach a hotel that was supposedly located immediately behind the building we were formerly parked in front of twenty minutes ago.
“Yes, this is what he said,” Jamie hissed through gritted teeth. We passed the soccer stadium and the first right was a tiny street, more a block-paved Roman track than a real road. The road climbed the mountain quickly and with a far steeper pitch than the circular one we had accessed before. Near the ancient stone walls of the city, near the top of the steep incline, Jamie commanded, “Open the window and look to the right. Do you see three flags?”
I unhooked my seatbelt, hung out, and prayed. Indeed there were three small flags in the distance. “Yes,” I answered.
“Good,” he snapped and jerked the car to the right.
It was a narrow pavement filled with shoppers, dawdlers, tourists, and employees on their lunch hour. “You can’t drive here!” I shrieked. “It’s a sidewalk.”
“It’s not; it’s a road.”
“Well, it’s a damned slender one and stuffed full of people.”
“Who cares? It’s a road so let ‘em move.”
We continued along the pavement, past a couple of banks, a grocery store, and several small shops. Apparently he was right about it’s being a road because a few tiny Smarts were parked on the fringes of it and the idlers and perambulators did segue out of our way. In a few minutes the tiny flags had become life-sized and appeared to be attached to a hotel. Jamie stopped directly in front of them. The glass door opened and a uniformed bellman came out and popped the trunk.
After checking in we wandered the streets for a bit and ate a delicious lunch of local food at a small sidewalk café. Jamie started rumbling about needing a nap so we returned to the hotel.
I awoke before Jamie, just as the sun began its descent behind the ancient buildings circling the campo. Wanting to see outside, I popped the window latch so I could open it, but not enough to cause the air conditioning to shut off automatically, a rather nifty function I have noticed only in Italian hotels. I stuck my head out to see what was going on in the street below.
It is obvious that I am a city child and began my windowsill-leaning early because I am really adept at it. I should be: I learned how to do it by watching my grandmother in the Bronx when I was very little. I pulled a chair to the window and rested my folded arms on the sill and then my chin on my arms. It is the most comfortable position to view the theatre of the street.
Below me a large crowd was marching – not just walking together but actually marching – carrying burgundy banners and flags decorated with the image of an elephant. The crowd was composed of people of all ages – nonne e nonni hobbling arm in arm, children racing and tagging each other as they waved their flags, and clusters of young men and women striding with clasped hands.
“What are you watching?” Jamie asked from the bed.
“I don’t know. It’s some impromptu, disorganized-looking, parade.”
He rose and walked over to hang over my shoulder. After watching for a while, he tried calling down. “Hey! Hey!”
A young man looked up.
“What’s going on?”
“Il nostro contrade ha vinto il Palio!” he yelled.
Jamie stared at me. “What does that mean?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Ask the front desk.”
After calling the Concierge, we learned that the neighborhood, the contrade, in which our hotel was located, had won the annual Palio, a traditional, medieval horse race run around the Piazza del Campo. We wandered downstairs and stood outside and watched the parade, which, by now, had grown so large and boisterous that we were smashed against the stone wall of the hotel.
Two rowdy and over-excited teenage boys were roughhousing and crashed into us, sending both of us sprawling on the pavement. An older man grabbed the boys and shouted at them in Italian while some others helped us up and brushed us off with murmurings of “Scusi” and “Ci dispiace.” The man who had grabbed the boys was shouting, “Vai scusa per la bella gente!” while pointing at us. The boys approached, hung their heads sheepishly, and muttered “mi dispiace” nearly inaudibly.
“No problem, really,” Jamie assured them.
As the boys scarpered off, the man explained in mostly Italian and partial English that the boys were ecstatic because their horse had won the race. Jamie kept gesturing and nodding, “it’s okay, it’s okay” but the man continued talking, waving his arms animatedly the whole time. When he finally stopped, he stared at us as though he expected an answer. We remained silent. Finally he asked, “bene?”
Jamie looked at me. I said nothing so he poked me. “Oh! Oh! Sure! Bene! Va bene!”
The man turned and began to walk away. Jamie and I looked at each other. Then we realized that he had turned back and was waiting for us. “Bene?” he asked again, motioning us to follow. We stared. “Would you . . . don’t . . . like to eat?” he asked.
One of those cartoon lightbullbs I am so famous for clicked on in my head. I grabbed Jamie’s arm. “I think he wants us to come with him to their block party.”
I thought fast and tried to translate in my head as I turned back to the man. “Vuoi . . . che andiamo . . . al . . . party?” I asked awkwardly.
He frowned as he translated my poor Italian. “Si,” he answered finally. “Vogliamo che a partecipare il nostro . . . party.”
Jamie is never backward about going forward as the Brits say. He grabbed my arm. “Come on!” he exclaimed. “Let’s go! Can you imagine how good that homemade Italian food is going to be?”
So we attended the contrade party. Huge trestle tables were set up along the main street. They were filled with food, laden with food. There was so much food that no adult slapped away little hands grabbing surreptitiously, even though the priest had yet to offer thanks for and blessings on the meal.
Music played, wine and beer flowed, and, just as Jamie had predicted, the food was beyond the best Italian food I have ever eaten. The people of the contrade were gracious and welcoming, setting places for us, heaping our plates, refilling our glasses with homemade red wine, and finally, introducing us to their horse and jockey. We stayed until nearly 3 am, laughing, drinking, dancing, and petting the horse.
We stumbled back to our hotel in the inky blackness, waving our contrade flag in the misty rain, certain that we would never have another night like that again, when total strangers welcomed us into their celebration as fully and easily as if we were their long-lost relatives. Siena has lived in my heart ever since and the small elephant flag flies at my house every summer.