Once Upon a Time in Italy

 

There’s a picture that hangs in my bedroom. It’s one of those photos which gets more detailed, more rich, the longer you look at it. At first, it’s simply a view of an alley between two buildings. They are stone, very rough and old. Some of their windows are bricked up, others covered with shutters. There are two heavy metal lanterns hung over the alleyway. The alley soon turns into stairs which carves between the buildings and down to a path, which extends through trees to more, smaller houses farther away, then to cypress trees, and then the picture fades into the greens and browns of the countryside, where a little ridge of bluish mountains just barely blocks the horizon. Your eyes double back to the beginning, and you pick out the little tray of blue paint in one doorway, the bright green of a fence, the flaming red of a bush and deeper orange of a roof. Soon your eyes are at the horizon again, at the wispy bluish ridge of hills, and finally up to the cloudy sky marbled with blue.

My cousin Ian took this photo and had it put on a canvas as a wedding present to me and Alex. He took it in Assisi, Italy, going on five years ago when I joined a group from Ian’s school on a two-week tour of Italy, Austria, and Germany. Assisi was the third day of our trip, and it was the first day I actually enjoyed.

When we flew into Rome two days after Christmas, I was already tired and jetlagged. I had never taken such a long flight before. We got to the Rome airport and had a few hours to kill before our bus picked us up, and I was starving so much I ate some really bad pasta. Truly, truly terrible. I thought, hey, it’s Rome; they can’t get pasta wrong, right? Wrong. My mom literally makes better pasta, and she’s not Italian at all. Maybe they should have American moms of Irish descent working at the Rome airport.

But I digress. That first night in Rome, I threw up about three times, and I went down to breakfast the next morning, gagged at the sight of a croissant, and told Ian I was going back to bed. He very sweetly delivered me some bread and jam before they all left on the day’s sightseeing, and gave me the phone number of the nearest pizza place in case I miraculously desired Italian food again. And then I was alone in a strange hotel, in a foreign city, with nothing to do because the internet wasn’t working and I only had one book.

So I cried for my Irish mom who made better pasta than the schmucks at the Rome airport.

At one point, the maid tried to come in to clean up the room, so I had to turn her away apologetically. Thankfully, “no” is no in Italian too. But I didn’t know how to say “I’m sorry,” because I’d prepared more for the German leg of the trip, so I just shrugged and looked as ill as possible. Then I spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating croissants and jam. At one point I went out on the balcony and took in the balmy, sunny weather of a December day in Rome. And something about that smell of warmth in the air made it a little better. Nice days smell very similar, no matter where you go in the world.

The next day, we packed up our bus and drove north. A long bus trip is probably the worst thing you can do after being sick off bad Italian airport pasta. I felt woozy and wobbly, and stared out the window as far to the horizon as I could. Ian kept me supplied with croissants and sour gummy candy. Soon the stucco and dirt of the city were swaddled by the blanket-like countryside, small and massive scraps of farmland stitched together with lines of cypress trees. We passed villas and cottages and forests and rivers, and it was everything you imagine when you read the storybooks.

At some point in the afternoon the land became more hilly. We went through a village which looked too fragile to let a big tour bus go through it, and we charged up a hill which was suddenly swarmed with more cars we’d seen all day, and we parked in a lot full of tourists. I wondered if they too had tried the bad airport pasta.

“We’re here! This is Assisi,” our guide said.

A parking lot full of tourists. This would be Assisi. I wanted to go back to the bus and sleep with my croissants. But true to my nature, I followed the rest of the group as we alighted a very modern-looking, a very long, staircase that led up the hill. Despite my wobbling knees and aching head and sloshing stomach, I followed the mob of fellow tourists. (Side note: I’ve read that based on my personality, I’m susceptible to cults. Who knew.) When we finally got to the top, there was nothing but a driveway leading further up the hill. Oh, lovely. My favorite thing is to document driveways around the world. This would be an excellent addition to my collection. But the mob pressed on, and up the driveway we went.

And suddenly, the driveway became cobblestone, and suddenly, it led through a tawny stone gate with opened doors. And as the mob of tourists floated through with cult-susceptible me in tow, it was like another world opened up on the hill, and it was bigger and more beautiful than it seemed it could be. Suddenly I was surrounded by stone houses and cobblestone streets and colorfully-painted doors and alleys pancaked on each other and stairs leading up to gardens or down to shadows. This was Assisi.

Hundreds of tourists were all packed into this little, ancient city, yet it seemed there was more than enough room for us all. The place was bigger on the inside. We were only there for an afternoon, but I don’t think we could’ve seen it all even if we spent our entire two weeks there. Despite the hubbub, the tourists and the Christmas lights and shops selling cheap mementos, I felt like I was back in time, or out of time, and it was a giddy feeling. My headache mellowed. My knees were stronger.

At lunchtime our group broke off to find food, and Ian and I stepped into a little sandwich shop and got paninis with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. We ate outside in a courtyard where small, shiny Fiats and BMWs occasionally came through, honking at the droves of tourists. It was a mostly cloudy day, but the sky was marbled with blue, and little mists of rain mixed with the stone and made that peppery scent in your nose. I nervously bit into my sandwich, hyper aware of my sensitive stomach. But the first bite went well, and then the second, and soon I was really eating Italian food, good Italian food not from the Rome airport. I realized I did like Italy after all. Assisi saved Italy for me.

We spent the rest of the afternoon milling around. Ian and I took pictures of each other and of all the same sights. We snuck pictures inside the Basilica of Saint Francis. We both took the same shot of that alley with the lanterns. It was my favorite scrap of Assisi, and that’s a hard choice to make.

And so now, almost five years later, that shot is what hangs in my bedroom. I look at it every now and then, and I appreciate it, of course. But I very rarely really look at it, closely, until recently.

A lot of change is coming in the next few months. Some of it I know, and some I feel. Some, to be fair, is probably imagined. But I don’t deal with any change, real or imagined, very well. Even though I know life contains change, and I know we would all be miserable without it, and I know I’m excited overall, there’s still that nagging fear of unpleasantness and mess I must push through in order to reach some equilibrium again.

And then I look at the picture of my favorite alley in Assisi. I remember that tiring first morning at the airport in Rome, that awful first night throwing up in Rome, the awkward second day driving out a maid in Rome, and finally that glorious third day in Assisi. I remember all the nerves and stress and hunger and illness finally dissolving as the Tuscan countryside swaddled it up and gave me one of the best experiences of my life. And I realize that all change, no matter how unpleasant, is only the jet lag, the food poisoning, the tourist-infested parking lot, the driveway, the ancient gate to a beautiful experience. In the end, it’s that beauty I remember; it’s that favorite view I hang on the wall. The joy is what lasts and what matters.

Later that day, we had authentic Italian lasagna for dinner. My mom’s lasagna is way better.

 

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