travel notebook, portovenere: alone in italia, day five

acs_0767By the fifth day of my trip, I am exhausted, and sleep so late I barely have enough time to get ready and leave my room before the lockout hours of 10:30 to 2. It’s raining pretty hard, but I’ve missed the shuttle, so I have my coffee and put on a rain jacket, with a loose plan to walk from the village where the hostel is located–Biassa–down to La Spezia, where I can take the train. It should take an hour and a half to walk those same (traumatizing) hairpin curves and is, quite frankly, a dumb idea.

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Luckily I am saved from myself. Downstairs, I’m greeted with a ciao and a question from a guy I recognize vaguely: the shuttle driver from the first day. He asks if I’m going to La Spezia because he’s heading that way, and he’s just about to leave. His name is Andrea and he’s from La Spezia and has been working at the hostel for just a month. He’s 25.

He speaks in English, punctuated with allora, and I do my best to answer in my rough Italian, which gives me a very clear picture of what I need to work on or learn. I make a mental list: past tense of ‘to see,’ ‘andare’ conjugations in the future, the word ‘before…’

The great thing about speaking to someone my age, who’s not trying to impress upon me a detailed grammar lesson, is the language improvisation muscles I’m able to flex.

My Italian tutor, Gianluca, is a great teacher who provides interesting cultural materials–we read Italian fairytales or articles that discuss the surprising success of Campari in the US–but sometimes I wish we could just have a conversation about Cinque Terre, for example. Or that I could learn how much is that, or, ATM or, can I please have the check, none of which, surprisingly, I know how to say. I may search an everyday conversation kind of partner to bolster the grammar workout I get in my lessons.

Andrea finds parking and then asks me what I’m doing today. The truth, and my typical travel strategy, is I have no idea.

I try to stay as unplanned as possible, and once again, it proves a success. Andrea asks if maybe I’ll go to Portovenere, or rather tells me I will, in that direct European way: allora, you’ll go to Portovenere today.

I’ve got my rain jacket and sneakers, I’m up for anything. Perchè no. 

My other motto: listen to locals. acs_0745

We walk through La Spezia’s morning market where Andrea tells me he used to work- He greets his mamma who is buying cheese. We visit three tobacco shops before we find one still stocked with bus tickets to Portovenere.

“We have coffee now?” He shows me to a Sicilian bar where we continue a conversation in an Italian-flavored English patois. I have a bad habit, I’ve learned. If I don’t know a word in Italian (very likely at this point), I automatically substitute the French equivalent. The problem with that is, most of the people I’m talking with speak much more English than they do French. The result is a garbled mélange of tre languages that does more to impede communication than anything else.

Andrea shows me to the bus stop and I’m on my way to Portovenere, which I know nothing about. The drive is once again nauseating. I observe passengers and concentrate on not throwing up. There’s a little French boy seated next to me, so excited he can’t sit still. He makes me smile, reminding me of my second-grade students from last year.

Portovenere is calm. That’s my first impression. Fresh air. Cinque Terre emptied of the selfie sticks and waiting lines for photo ops. A slight drizzle falls and boats creak in the port.

I enter a striped marble church on a cliff. Inside, a single candle is burning. Outside, through the narrow windows, the sea is stormy.

It is an atmosphere ripe for a Romantic poet, an impression validated when I come to “Grotta Byron.” Engraved over a door made of stones, it is written This grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron/ It records the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici. It must have been a seriously demanding swim to merit recognition like that, in marble, no less. Apparently, the “daring” poet would “defy” the waves in order to visit friend and muse Shelley, who was living in the village San Terenzo.

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The black, stratified rock of the promontory is slick with rain, and I edge down it carefully. Yellow flowers spill over the rocks and the air once again smells of honeysuckle or jasmine. I surprise a seagull in his nest and he squawks at me, loudly, just once.

Staring out at the sea is a woman, gathering her dress in her hands, frozen in an expression of quiet resignation. She’s not real, but she could be. She seems to breathe, almost, and the rain falls down her carved cheeks like teardrops. She sits like someone too hopeless to take shelter from the storm. What’s the point?

I think she is waiting for a lover who will never return, lost to the sea. Mourning, perhaps with just the faintest glimmer of hope: maybe

There is no plaque, no dedication, no direction to listen to Section 6 on your audioguide, and I am charmed by this, by this sad, solid, nameless woman in the same color as the sea.

acs_0701 I start down some stone steps, almost missing the sweet scene of pink petals swept to the ground by the rain. Next to them is the tiniest snail.

I think: that looks like poetry, before remembering the specific piece it brings to mind. Ezra Pound’s one-sentence Imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro”: The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough

Famished, I eat at what seems to be the only restaurant still serving. I have trofie (a pasta specific to Liguria) with pesto. I am firmly in basil country here. As noted, they’ve even found ways to include the herb in really delicious gelato.

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I continue my walk, and when some bored waiters see me with my camera they shout in English, “hey! Take our picture!” So I do.

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bowling with the homies

My first week in Montluçon, I received a letter inviting me to the next meeting of a Club Anglais. An English club in Montluçon! Surely I’d meet some friends there, young worldly types who had spent time in England or the States…

The letter explained that the club meets the first and third Friday of every month. We showed up early, me and a few of the other English teachers, and had a drink outside of the aptly-chosen London Bar.

We didn’t know quite who we were looking for, and a bit later, a lady with an English accent came out from the bar. “Excuse me,” she said, “sorry to bother you, but are you perhaps here for the Club Anglais?”

We followed her inside. The bar was dark and cozy with people packed in around little wooden tables, drinking tea or beer as they saw fit. English greetings and French cheek kisses existed in cheerful symbiosis.

It was a high-spirited, lively group…and everybody in the room was over fifty. Oh.

We were warmly welcomed and offered drinks. I didn’t know which language to use. Some in the room spoke only French, like the lady who sat across from me–but I was misled by her cup of tea and P.D. James novel. Others were French but proficient in English, and still others were English but have lived in France for decades. I didn’t want to assume, which is how I found myself overly-enunciating: “yes, I am American. I am from the state of Missouri,” to Roger, who was actually English (and probably wondered if I was indeed speaking my first language).

Everyone was friendly and kind. At first I had trouble thinking of conversation topics, but my new Anglophone friends were eager to ask about my teaching job. And then I realized that this was exactly the place to ask some of the questions I’d had, like where was the best place to buy produce. You can bet they had opinions.

One man took a liking to Mary (well, so did the whole table) and made her plans for the next Saturday, non-negotiable in his view: she was to go to the St. Pierre market, early, and watch the vendors set up their wares. This, while enjoying a glass of white wine and a plate of oysters. At ten in the morning.

I believe he was explaining to her the history of Montluçon over the last two-hundred years when I dragged her away so we could go to dinner.

We’ve since joined the French septuagenarians several times. My expectations for nightlife contained a lot more electronic dance music and a lot less English breakfast tea, but this will almost certainly lead to better stories.

Friday night we joined the club for a soirée : bowling and dinner. Over thirty members showed up for a bit of friendly competition.

We saw transformations worthy of a good sports movie. Jean-Luc, one of the older members, who shuffled laboriously to take his turns and always lofted the bowling ball, had a sympathetic competitor take pity and help him adjust his technique. He then went, in a thrilling upset, from constant gutter balls to a series of strikes. The crowd went wild.

I talked with the president of the club, an English guy who told me Club Anglais has been a thriving social club for 45 years. Some of the members are even traveling to Greece together this year.

The afore mentioned Roger and his French wife Françoise drove us to dinner, where everyone regrouped in the back room. As I looked for a place to put my coat, a jolly Englishman who reminded me of Scrooge’s boss, Fezziwig, from A Christmas Carol, told me: “I always try to leave with a better coat then the one I came with! That’s the secret.” It was this man, later in the evening, who I saw engage in a sort of subtle food fight, flinging pieces of bread across the room with a spoon as a catapult. Though it seemed he was aiming for one particular woman, whole rows of people had to duck to avoid getting beaned in the head with a bit of baguette. In fairness I think his friend started the battle.

Dinner was over three hours long, and frankly, unimpressive. Still, it was fun to talk to the people around me, in particular to a Finnish woman who speaks something like five languages. 10:30 pm came and went, the room alive with noise (and breadcrumbs), and we had just finished our main course. I started to feel a bit feverish, overtired, and am still wondering if some of it really happened.

think a drunk guy from the local gendarmerie school ran in the room and sang a song to one of the women at my table. I think everyone around Mary and I started comparing tattoos, and we were the only two without any. The English man sitting across from me explained the subtle tattoo on his wrist. Interested, the French man next to him asked if he had any more, and, probably relieved to contribute to the conversation since most of the party was speaking French at that point, he pulled the hem of his shirt up to his neck, exposing a huge tattoo that covered his chest and stomach. Definitely not something I ever expected to see while eating crème brûlée.

Then again, I also didn’t expect to be the new youngest member of a cross-cultural social club in rural France.