l’alfabeto/alphabet

L’alfabeto
A aperitivo
B balsamico
C ciao
D donna
E espresso
F figura
G gelato
H hotel
I italiano
L limone
M mamma
N nociola
O opera
P prosciutto, parmigiano, pizza
Q questo o quello
R Roma
S scarpe
T tu
U uva
V vino
Z zabaione

Aperitivo-How to stimulate your appetite
Italians often like to meet in a bar, fare un brindisi (make a toast) by clinking their glasses with friends and/or family, and imbibe un aperitivo. It is a civilized way to start the evening meal. These before dinner drinks are typically somewhat bitter in order to awaken the appetite and are typically brightly colored, think Campari and Aperol. The root of the word aperitivo comes from aprire, to open, so you should think of yourself as opening up your appetite when drinking un aperitivo. It is a tradition that dates back to ancient Rome and was later adopted by monks who dreamed up elixirs from herbs, roots, flowers, and citrus fruit, all infused with alcohol, of course. It your appetite should become over-stimulated, never worry, there is always a digestivo, yet another type of drink, to calm it down after dinner.

(Aceto) Balsamico-Balsamic Vinegar
The city of Modena is world renowned for its aceto balsamico, a type of vinegar that is the nectar of the gods. It comes from the mosto, or grape must made from seeds, pulp, and juice of local grapes which have been greatly reduced by being cooked over a simmering fire. The liquid is then aged in various wooden casks which all impart a distinct flavor. Fathers from Modena will age their own aceto balsamico and offer their daughters a tiny vial of this elixir as a marriage gift. Aging conveys quality, and the tangy syrup is used to enhance the flavor of figs, strawberries, or a salad.

Ciao-I say hello, you say goodbye
The universal word for both hi and goodbye, which comes from the Venetian dialect expression for s-chiavo, “I am your slave,” an expression that was used to ensure good will. Next to pizza, it is probably the most used Italian word throughout the world. Ciao is an easy way to greet someone; however, many years ago I was taught in beginning Italian that it is only proper to use with people you know, young children, or small animals. Today it seems that you may use it with anyone at any level of society.

Donna-woman
As a popular song in Italy in the early 1970’s put it, “Donna, Donna, dimmi, cosa vuol dir son una donna ormai?” “Woman, woman, tell me, what does it mean that I am already a woman?” A woman just feels more like a woman in Italy no matter what her age, as she is clearly being observed by Italian males. Certainly the two most common females, who are invoked in times of need, whether due to fear, anger, or joy, are: “Mamma mia” and “Madonna.”

Espresso-coffee
This word for a type of coffee is not used in Italy. What Americans call an espresso is un caffè to an Italian. It is the type of coffee that they drink most often. It is meant to be drunk quite quickly while standing up at a bar or caffè. An Italian would never, never ever drink a cappuccino after lunch or dinner, since it would impede digestion and it will certainly label you as a tourist.

Fare Una Bella Figura-to look good
Fare una bella figura is an important concept if you are to understand the Italian mentality. It is important “to cut a good figure,” because, as your mother told you, appearances matter. Since 1558. when Giovanni Della Casa’s book, Il Galateo, was published, Italians have taken this topic and expression seriously.

Gelato-ice cream
“If you ask me, I could write a book” …about Italian gelato. It is everything that American ice cream is not. In the best Italian gelato, there is less air, less butterfat, less sugar, and lots more flavor. A serious gelataio (ice cream maker) uses frutta di stagione (fruit in season) and only the freshest of ingredients. Look for artisanal shops with stainless steel tubs that feature heaping mounds of colorful gelato.

Hotel- h is only a placeholder in Italian
OK, this one is a stretch, but there are some incredible hotels in Italy: the Cipriani and the Danieli in Venice, the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio, and the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio all come to mind. I have walked through the lobbies of these four hotels, but I have never felt flush enough to stay overnight. I will one day and hopefully live to write about the experience. In the meantime, take my advice and have an alcoholic drink or tea in one of these architectural gems and just soak up the atmosphere.

Italiano, an Italian
This is what I will be reborn as because I have spent so much time studying the language, culture, literature, food, art and architecture of this Mediterranean peninsula.

Limone-lemon
The citrus fruit that makes one think of the Amalfi coast was known to the ancient Romans. The present day fruit owes its origins more to the Amalfi Republic’s trade with the Middle East. Lemons are used in spremuta di limone, a fresh squeezed lemon drink with sugar and fizzy water, a variety of desserts, to accompany fish, and as the basic ingredient for limoncello, a favorite after-dinner drink.

Mammone-Momma’s boy
What an Italian male may be called because of his attachment to his mother. Although I am happy to report that the wolf-whistling, thigh-pinching young males who used to be so ubiquitous in Rome in the 1970’s are long gone, the Italian male who is firmly attached to his mother (and still living with his adoring mother well into his thirties) is still a reality.

Nocciola-hazelnut
Nocciola is the main ingredient in many liquors and Nutella, the closest equivalent that Italians have to peanut butter. You either love or hate this hazelnut spread that also contains cocoa, palm oil and sugar. It has become a passion among more and more Americans and has lined the shelves of Europeans for over fifty years.

Opera lirica-lyric opera
Full of love, jealousy, hate, greed, deception, lust, and courage, the Italian opera is an over-the-top experience. The plots are often unbelievable, downright absurd, but the work of masters like Verdi, Donizetti, and Puccini continues to enthrall listeners.

Pizza
The one food item that has made Italian cuisine known throughout the world. It is affordable, tasty, fast to make, and oh so easy to love. The very best pizza comes from Naples, where the fresh mozzarella, the San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil, accompanied by the perfect crust, (not too chewy, not too thin, not too thick), is cooked in a wood fired oven, resulting in perfection.

Questa o Quella-this or that
“This one or that one”? The title and first line of a famous aria in Verdi’s opera, “Rigoletto,” sung by the Duke of Mantua to indicate that it does not really matter to him which woman he chooses since they are all the same. It is a phrase that is used by shopkeepers in Italy when they are trying to figure out which item a non native speaker wants, this one or that one?

Scarpe-shoes
What many women take home as their booty when they return from Italy. In a country that is shaped like a boot, shoes are an obsession. Since the days when Venetian women clomped about on wooden stilt-like chopines in order to stay out of nasty muck and water and Cenerentola (Cinderella) found her prince through fitting into the tiny glass slipper, Italians have known how to craft the most beautiful shoes.

Tu-you
One of the first idioms that I learned in Italian 101 was dare del tu, or to ask permission to use the familiar form of address when talking to someone close to you age. Whereas English has only one form for you, Italian has four: tu, Lei, voi, and the antiquated Loro form. Now it is commonplace to use the tu form with almost everyone, although probably not with your professor, the police, the king or queen or the pope.

Uva-grapes
In Italy grapes are way too important to squander on jelly since they are needed to make vino and aceto balsamico. There are hundreds of red grape varieties grown in Italy but the big eight: Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Agliancio, Primitivo, Valpolicella, Nero d’Avola, and Dolcetto dominate red wine production.

Vendemmia-grape harvest
The grape harvest comes when the fruit has reached perfection on the vine. It all depends on the weather. The harvest begins first with white grapes which ripen before red. Perfect autumn weather along with the chance to participate in a communal event that leads to a great meal once the grapes have been harvested makes for a perfect outing.

Zabaione-egg custard
An egg custard dessert that is made from egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine. It may be served cold or warm and has been popular in Italy since the times of the Medici. It is also found in a popular drink called Vov. The origins of Zabaione are tied to its being put into ale.

Il Bagno

 

You know that sooner or later you will need to use a public restroom in Italy. And you are in for a treat.  No country that I have ever visited has such variety when it comes to the WC.   There are pay toilets in places like train stations, which are often “manned” by a woman who collects the nominal fee charged to use the facility and portions out a square or two of tissue.

Typically, the biggest problem is that you can never find a public toilet when you need one.  A helpful tip:  go to the nearest bar, order a glass of acqua minerale, con or senza gas, or a cappuccino and then ask, “Dove si trova il bagno?  If you happen to be in a museum, you will typically have the chance to use a public restroom for free.

Large department stores like Upim and Rinascente will often have toilets on the top floor for their customers to use.  Other stores not so much.  Gas stations sometimes yes but often times no.  There are no public libraries or shopping malls with facilities.  Opera houses and other concert venues will have facilities.  If you are brave, enter a posh hotel, act like you know where you are going, and head to the back of the foyer, by the elevators, and you often will find a restroom.

One of my all-time most memorable toilets was what the Italians refer to as alla turca, a hole in the pavement with two places to place your feet.  This is pretty uncommon, but it is still possible to find then in out of the way bars or cafés.

The fun thing about Italy is that it has countless ways of flushing:  pulling a cord or chain, stepping on a rubber mat, pushing a button on the wall or mirror, or flicking a lever.  Sometimes the hardest thing is trying to find where one flushes the toilet.

A few individuals like to demonstrate their literary prowess in the bathroom.  One of my all-time favorites was a written description in Italian that went something like this, “that which you see in front of you is not a fire, and that which you hold is not a fire hose, so take care, aim carefully, and remember this is not a conflagration to be extinguished by you.”

The Benefits of Failing at Italian

After reading a witty, self-deprecating, and insightful New York Times essay by William Alexander, where he detailed the benefits of learning a second language as an adult, “The Benefits of Failing at French,” I decided to come clean on my relationship with learning Italian.

It all started when I was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin, having enrolled in Intensive Honors Italian, I spent ten hours a week, Monday through Friday, memorizing Italian dialogues and trying to learn basic Italian conversation. I was hoping one day to join the Foreign Service and become a younger version of Claire Booth Luce. I knew even then that I wanted to attend the University of Bologna during my junior year in college, and thought the State Department would offer me a chance to live in various places around the world.  I must admit though that I could barely spit out, vorrei un panino, “I would like a sandwich,” which was my first sentence when I went to Bologna two years later, let alone conduct foreign diplomacy.

I vividly remember one of my first embarrassing “Italian” moments, when I received the results of my very first oral quiz. I was marked down three points for incorrectly answering the most basic of all oral questions, “Come si chiama?” which easily translates to, “What is your name?” My response was, “Mi chiamo Fulvia Bruni.” Since we had been instructed to memorize the dialogues in our text verbatim, I answered somewhat confidently, and totally incorrectly, this most basic of questions.  For several years a boyfriend good naturedly addressed letters to me in care of Fulvia Bruni.

I wondered how could I go on to study international relations in Italian in Bologna, when I couldn’t even answer the most basic question in Italian. My first semester rolled on I could barely stay awake during my Honor Poli Sci class that met at 3:45 pm and we were still memorizing dialogues in Italian 101that made no sense to me. Lesson Two included the following question, “Mi saprebbe dire dove si trova la stazione?” Why in God’s name did the authors choose to introduce the conditional tense, indirect object pronouns and the impersonal verb form in Lesson Two? I remember hounding my good friend, who was a year ahead of me in Italian, quizzing her relentlessly on these words and demanding to know, “Why are they saying it in this convoluted way, ‘Could you tell me where one could find the train station?’”

Over the years language pedagogy has changed, sometimes for the better, but learning a second language continues to be fraught with challenges and problems. Never believe those ads when they say, “you will become totally fluent in seven days.” That is like saying that you can eat anything you want and lose ten pounds in one week with no exercise, just take this pill.

One of my favorite examples illustrating the complexity of adult second language acquisition is David Sedaris writing about Easter, trying to explain this religious holiday to several Muslims in his French class in Paris. With limited vocabulary, his crucifixion of Christ occurred on, “two morsels of wood,” and the reason for “the rabbit of Easter” was so “he bring the chocolate.”

Another awkward moment for me was trying to figure out what “mal francese” was. At the time it seemed important as it was mentioned a few times in a chapter that discussed the lives and deep thoughts of political thinkers. A rather wild lot really. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what “the French disease” might be, but my mind was somewhere else and I felt compelled to ask my program director.

Probably my all-time academic nadir in Bologna was when I was asked, “What are the four forms of art?” during an intensive class in art history. As I remember it, I believe the response the instructor was looking for was something like: architecture, sculpture, painting, and drawing.  I was expecting that she was looking for a much more complex answer, and the above answer never entered my mind.  I think my teacher took an immediate dislike to me and vented her frustrations that particular day on me. When I did not have a clue what she was trying to get at, I maintained my silence, and she indicated in rather haughty Italian, “Perhaps, Signorina, you should return home to the United States, if you cannot answer this question.”

A good friend regaled us with the following story.  He was talking to his landlady on his first evening in Bologna. Trying to make conversation and steer the exchange to topics he felt more confident in discussing, he began to describe as many relatives as possible. When he got to his “nonna,” or grandmother, he stated that she was “checca,” a slang term for a flaming homosexual, instead of the word he was searching for, “cieca,” which means “blind.”

I was always slightly envious of my American roommate in Bologna, still a very dear friend, who had the ability to rapidly reply to her professor when asked what she thought of something that had just been said in class responded, “non ho niente da dire.” We were all so proud of her for coming up with such an idiomatic way of saying, “I have nothing at all to say.” Really, the whole year I was totally petrified and would never have commented on anything if called upon in class, even under torture or penalty of death.

During my oral exams at the end of the scholastic year, I was lucky to have empathetic professors who clearly must have taken pity on me and given me grades based on my attendance and diligent notetaking throughout the year versus my ability to communicate my knowledge of their subject matter.

I know that I will never speak and write Italian like a native, but I continue to try to improve my ability to communicate in la bella lingua. Along the way I have learned a lot about myself, my native language, and have become a better language teacher. My brain synapses are stronger and my knowledge of the world far better for studying a second language.

I remember many gaffes that I have made in Italian, but who knows about all those mistakes that I’ve executed over 45 years, the ones that I never knew that I made? I know that I am viewed as patient with anyone trying to learn a new skill, like Italian. And I am grateful that I can master a new concept given enough time and persistence. But like everyone, I need to be ready to hear my teacher’s voice. It is only quite recently that I really started paying attention to double consonants in Italian.  A good friend tries to caution all students who are learning Italian to pay attention to this when speaking Italian, as the difference between ano and anno (anus and year) and pene and penna (penis and pen) may cause unintentional hilarity.  A recent faux pas was pointed out to me by a French friend who said that my response to my Neapolitan B&B proprietor was not the best.  When he asked why I was visiting Napoli, I responded, “per avventura,” which means does mean by chance or adventure but has the unmistakable meaning to an Italian of “an affair or sexual adventure.” I told my friend, at least I have the comfort of knowing that he saw me return by myself by 8 p.m.  Interestingly enough, this is the same boarding house that my cab driver felt that he had to ensure my safety before he would let me leave the security of his taxi.  He walked the three flights of stairs to ensure that this particular boarding house on a very busy street in central Naples was safe and secure.

Bologna May and November 2017

I lived as a university student on Via D’Azeglio for a year and like to think of Bologna as my second home; but I realized after two brief trips there in May and November 2017 that there were several key places that I had never seen. In part, I expect that this is because Bologna is a large and prosperous city, among the most beautiful and singular in all of Italy, and offers an endless supply of architectural gems, world class restaurants, and artistic masterpieces.

I certainly knew of Bologna’s reputation as la dotta (the Learned) before I had set foot in the city for the first time on a hot summer morning in August 1971. It is home to the oldest university in Western Europe and is justly famous for its alums and teachers. Writers, scientists and architects like Dante, Petrarca, Alberti, Copernicus and Eco have called this seat of learning home. I find it interesting to note that the alma mater studiorium, founded in 1088, has been frequented by foreign students since its inception. I was told by a local concierge that his hotel, the Cappello Rosso, still thriving after being in business since the late Middle Ages, was the first hotel in the world to offer lodging to Jewish students.

A new place for me was the recently opened medieval museum, the Museo Civico Medievale, in Palazzo Ghisilardi on Via Manzoni. I viewed up close the nine foot-tall, yes nine foot tall, bullet-shaped statue of Pope Boniface VIII, Dante’s nemesis; walked around the columns topped with stone crosses, each one featuring Jesus; and admired an ivory sculpted memorial, dedicated to a lawyer and university teacher during the 14th century, Giovanni da Legnano. Completely fitting for a seat of learning, this piece depicts students in various states of boredom and engagement.

You must see the medieval remnants which dot the local landscape, including the famous Torri di Asinelli and Garisenda, the iconic medieval towers featured on most postcards of the city; Piazza Maggiore, the central square that is living heart of the city, and the portici (porticos) that cover the city sidewalks and offered me a welcomed respite from rain that fell this November.

All Italians know of the city’s well-deserved reputation as “la grassa” (the Fat). The agricultural wealth of Emilia Romagna, the region where Bologna is the capital, is evident in local specialties like in tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini in brodo, to name just a few of the city’s culinary treasures. Bologna has several gourmet delis and food markets. A local treasure, AF Tamburini, an enormous deli, offers eye catching displays chocked full of salsicce (sausages), prosciutti (raw and cooked hams) and mortadella.

Bologna “la rossa” (the Red) is the city’s third sobriquet. This nickname is due to the terracotta color of its brick buildings, but it is also a reflection of the left-leaning communist council which has governed the city since the end of the Second World War. Politics is a focal point for many locals. The Bolognesi are rightfully proud of their citizens who were brave partisans during World War II. Many of them are featured in photos mounted on one of the walls of Piazza Nettuno adjacent to Piazza Maggiore.

Each time I visit I fall in love once again with the Temptation of Eve by Jacopo della Quercia, which is located on the main door of the Basilica of San Petronio. I always revisit the seven terracotta statues that comprise the incredibly moving Compianto (Lamentation), which depicts the grief felt by Christ’s followers in the presence of his dead body by Nicolò dell’Arca completed in 1463, and displayed in Santa Maria della Vita. I marvel at the depiction of raw grief. Ten it is time to tour once again what is my favorite Bolognese religious edifice, Santo Stefano, a group of seven churches and a cloister began in the 5th century with several additions dating from later centuries.

As a student, I loved the tranquil, conifer-lined paths of San Michele in Bosco, a park that was relatively close to my pensione. I loved to walk the steep incline located nearby just outside the gate of San Mamolo. Close by, the Via dell’Osservanza, offers incredible views of the surrounding hills. It is a great way to walk off the torpor induced by over eating. But it was only this fall that I took a city bus and saw the world famous Rizzoli Institute that backs up into San Michele in Bosco. Little did I know how close this huge, garden-laden clinic is to my former boardinghouse on Via D’Azeglio.

In November I saw the Palazzo Poggi on Via Zamboni for the first time with its beautiful frescos. It offers an amazing array of wax anatomical models that were the highlight of a tour to Bologna for my British friend. I traveled by city bus to the Certosa (cemetery) that is chocked full of monuments to famous Bolognesi like Giosuè Carducci, Lucio Dalla, Ottorino Respighi, and Giorgio Morandi. Well known writers like Byron, Dickens, and Freud, who visited, all wrote of their impressions.

When you travel to Bologna, you are well rewarded. This historic city is full of elegant shops, stately porticos, and medieval towers that seem to sprout up indiscriminately, as well as with the sublimity of northern Italian cuisine in many world class and outstanding restaurants like Leonidas, where I ate twice in November. Take time to travel the road less traveled and discover the perfection of this northern jewel, just 34 minutes by train from Florence.

It is high time for me to book my next visit. I recently picked up a pamphlet detailing new art exhibitions, such as, “It’s OK to change your mind, contemporary artists from Russia, an homage to Russian artists from the beginning of the 20th century,” and “Duchamp, Magritte, and Dali, the Revolutionaries of the 1900’s.” There is also another museum that I have never seen, the International Music Museum and Library. In addition, I have not biked along the canal that runs to Ferrara or gone to the Gelato Museum, which offers master classes in this artisanal art form. I am looking forward to returning home again.

The Maremma

 

Sign post in Castiglione della Pescaia

It was Dante Alighieri who introduced me to the Maremma. He referred to this land several times in the Inferno and Purgatory, depicting it as an inhospitable, disease-laden marsh. Located near the border of Tuscany and Lazio, the Maremma hasn’t always been the lovely landscape that it is today. In Dante’s time it was a cesspool of malaria, chocked full of murderous briganti (brigands) just waiting to rob any Florentine who ventured to leave Florence, the epicenter of the of Dante’s world. His depiction of this area was harsh, but he also immortalized the landscapes of the Maremma in his poetry of murder and betrayal. He made his feelings clear in Inferno, Canto XIII, describing the Maremma as the place where “the brute Harpies make their nest” in the part of Hell reserved for people who committed suicide. As a modern tourist, I could no longer see the Maremma through Dante’s eyes, but he had laid the groundwork for me to explore a part of Tuscany where today natural beauty abounds.

Before Dante, in Etruscan and Roman times, the Maremma had been a rich landscape. But over centuries the Maremma had lost the lake of Prile, which later evolved into the infamous marshes depicted in the Inferno. Today this land is known for its migratory and aquatic birds and its nature preserve.

Once we had chosen to visit the Maremma, we decided to save money and craft our own bike tour. We chose the Maremma because it is relatively flat, offered a few set-aside biking paths, and finally because it was an area that we had never seen before. We chose EasyBike Shop & Rental as our bike provider. Its owner, Ulrike, proved to be both helpful and flexible when I contacted him by email. He helped us make the most of our two days in the area. His shop is located right in the center of Castiglione della Pescaia at via Socci 8. He was highly knowledgeable and suggested that a good alternative for two women, ages 62 and 65, could be to use electric bikes in order to make it up a steep hilltop town that offered outstanding vistas of the surrounding countryside.

We took the local bus from Castiglione to Grosseto and then changed buses in order to take another even more scenic journey to Scansano in order to spend our first night in this area in a lovely country inn and spa atop a very steep hill near the village of Scansano, at the Antico Casale di Scansano. The next morning we took the same bus down from Scansano to the outskirts of Grosseto.

Earlier that morning, Ulrike had taken our bikes to Grosseto and left them at a friend’s bike shop, so that we could start our ride on the off-road path that followed the flat countryside to the nature preserve, which is packed with incredibly majestic pine trees. I still regret not pocketing one of the huge and gorgeous pinecones that we saw in the nature preserve. Unfortunately there was not enough time to find the flamingoes that the area is known for.

The second day we crossed the soft foothills of the high Maremma: a scenic, lush landscape traversed by very few cars moving at a reasonable speed and with drivers who seemed to welcome bikers to their road space. We rode up to the summit of a very steep hill in order to visit the Etruscan site of Vetulonia. Known as one of the most important and well-preserved necropolises, Vetulonia was a powerful Etruscan city that ruled this part of the peninsula before Roman domination.

See the following website for more information about how the city of Vetulonia was discovered by an amateur Italian archeologist and detailed information about how the landscape changed since Etruscan times: http://www.maremmaguide.com/vetulonia.html

Actually descending proved to be even more difficult than ascending as we both feared that our brakes might become overheated and give way, but we arrived safe and sound at the bottom of the steep incline. The fast descent was scary but truly exciting.

Later in the afternoon we biked back on a country lane to the lovely seaside resort of Castiglione della Pescaia. This city’s many layers of history extend from Roman occupation through many subsequent rulers: Pisa, Florence, Siena, Naples, Eleanor of Toledo and the Papal State. Inside the urban center, fortified by 15th-century walls, the town and the palace remain well preserved. The four towers rising out of the Castle of Buriano are a highlight. Known as one of the most remarkable examples of military art in Tuscany, this tenth-century castle once belonged to the powerful Lambardi family.

We had two lovely meals in rustic looking restaurants that featured local cuisine at Osteria Sapori di Maremma and Il Cacciatore. I can’t say enough about the hospitality of our inn keepers at La Lucerna, whose friendly dogs made for a memorable stay.

We did this two day journey at a fraction of the price we would have spent if we had decided to use one of the well-known and well run bike tours of this area of Tuscany and had the satisfaction of knowing that we a bit of planning and research as well as outstanding weather we could accomplish our goal of biking in the Maremma and seeing first-hand the Maremma which Dante had introduced us to in Ciardi’s translation of the Inferno about fifty years ago.

Liguria again, and again, and again

We hiked just north of the Cinque Terre for three days. We were exhausted every day after our adventure:  one day due to steps, another due to the steep inclines and descents, and another due to rocks and at times due to all three conditions.

Our friends, Vittorio and Fabienne, are in much better shape than we are and were often far ahead of us.  At times I wished that we were small goats as it would have been much easier.  The views were outstanding and once each walk was completed, we were quite proud of ourselves, until we heard that the time that it took us was far longer than what was expected.

We hiked around the towns of Framura, Sestri Levante, and Bonassola, a great addition to hiking the Cinque Terre, as the paths are not as well travelled where we were but have equally amazing views of the sea and surrounding countryside.

We stayed at a lovely agriturismo, Sostio a Levante, www.sostioalevante.com, in the high hills above Framura.  The evening meals were outstanding as the owners were convivial and the wife is an incredible cook.  We thoroughly enjoyed the wine, cheese and cold cuts on the terrace accompanied by beautiful mountain and garden views.

When I returned to this area this May, I knew that I would return, and so I shall in just a few weeks.  It doesn’t matter what season you go to Liguria, it always has beauty, serenity, and challenging walks to offer the intrepid traveler.

Borseda

I first came to Italy forty-five years ago. Today, May 7, 2017, I find myself in Italy once again, with a friend, about to embark on a writing fellowship. Our destination is Borseda, a small village in the mountains of Liguria, the last village on the road that leads to the Calice Valley. On Monday afternoon after a train trip from Florence, we climb aboard our rented Fiat Cubo and head from La Spezia towards Borseda, a distance of only 19.1 miles. The road soon becomes narrow, full of hairpin curves with more than a few pot holes. After about two hours of driving and dealing with more than one wrong turn, we arrive in Borseda, supposedly just 50 minutes Google informs us from our departure from La Spezia.

Although Borseda is small, it is divided into two parts: Upper and Lower Borseda. Our home for three weeks will be in Lower Borseda in a house built in 1865. A few years ago, the family, who owned it for 150 years, decided to sell half of their home to the Rensing Center, a non-profit that aids various visual and literary artists.

We climb the steep stairs and enter the apartment with all our worldly possessions, including many of our groceries for the next three weeks. Our place has a small but well-equipped kitchen, a recently renovated bathroom with a powerful shower, a living room with a free standing, wood burning stove, and a small bedroom with an old, wrought iron bedframe that seems ideal for a princess. When we arrive, everything seems to function well. But after a few minutes, I realize that I am not able to light the gas burners of the stove. We later find out that this is due to a block in the gas cylinder located in the cantina below our building. The wood burning stove does not function well either, but this is due to the extreme humidity. In fact, we can’t get a piece of newspaper to stay lit, because of the humidity. Everything at first seems strange, but interesting.

After three weeks in Borseda we have met five people who actually live here. Many villagers left during the last two centuries in order to make a living. The migratory phenomenon was so extreme that there is a large sign in Veppo, the closest village to Borseda that commemorates the exodus and explains that emigration offered the former villagers a better life. Initially, the emigrants used old mule tracks to escape. On this rather large sign in Veppo we read that emigration afforded the former villagers both work and a better income during the Napoleonic times. Later emigrants also went to Switzerland, France, Argentina, and the United States. Now many homes in many of these villages have been shuttered and abandoned. Outside many homes there are “for sale” signs.

One would need an entire lifetime to know all the small villages of this mountainous part of Liguria. It seems that after every curve on every small road there is another small village. We feel fortunate to have an apartment in such a beautiful village, with a rental car which we can use to do our shopping, or to take a weekend trip.

After just four days in Borseda, when we are just beginning to know this part of the world, we decide to leave Borseda for three days to visit Camogli, Genova, and San Remo and a few small mountain villages including Baiardo, Dolceacqua, Isolabona, and Busana Vecchia located to the north and west. It is great to get away for a few days, to see an art exhibition of Amadeo Modigliani’s paintings in Genova, and to visit the town of Camogli while it actively prepares for its annual fish festival, Friol, which will happen in just two days.
We take a room in a small hotel that looks out onto the harbor of Camogli. The hotel is called I Tre Merli, or Three Blackbirds. I drive our rental car right down to the entrance of the harbor where the hotel is located, a totally illegal move as I find out later, because the harbor city has to set up this area for the annual fish fry.

We return to Borseda after our three-day holiday, and it seems like we are returning home, to the hearth. We talk to our new friends in Borseda about our trip to San Remo, yet we don’t tell them that we travelled to Menton, France, by mistake, while trying to find the Handbury Garden located near Ventimiglia, Italy.

Now Borseda seems like home. The people of nearby Veppo and Villagrossa are our friends and neighbors. Now we have something to talk about with them. We think that we have something more interesting to communicate after visiting another part of Liguria.

After a few days, some friends from England pay us a visit in Borseda. Everything is a bit crazy because now there are six adults who all have competing desires. Five of us take a walk from Borseda to Villagrossa. We follow a well-trodden path that goes down and then up the Vara valley. The walk is arduous. We see goats, bee hives, alpaca, and a lovely picnic site. There are lots of abandoned houses and a few homes where we can tell that someone actually lives. We spot the alpaca in the distance. They seem out of place, truly surreal.

At the end of our three weeks in Borseda we take another car trip from Borseda, this time to the airport in Bologna to pick up my husband. I have an hour free before we are due to leave, so I decide to take a walk to burn off some excess energy. I know that there is a path that goes from Lower Borseda to Upper Borseda but I quickly lose my way once I reach Upper Borseda and take another path out of the “upper” village. The path becomes slippery in parts and seems to disappear for a while. I’m lost. I find myself jumping over a barbed wire fence two times in order to stay on what seems to be a path.

I think of Dante, and I am convinced that he, too, had this concrete experience of being lost in a “dark wood.” There is a reason that the Divine Comedy is known as an allegory. There are several levels to his story and one of them is of an actual man who is lost in the selva scura and who does not know which way to go. After two hours, I remerge but unlike Dante, I do not see “stars” but the same path that I had taken at the beginning of my walk.

Due to my unplanned journey, instead of arriving at the Bologna airport about a half hour early, we arrive after my husband has landed and emerged from customs. We then drive to Parma where we have lunch with some close friends, who have prepared a feast with several appetizers including prosciutto di Parma, an exquisite piece of aged Parmesan cheese, tortelli filled with wild greens, tortelli filled with pumpkin, an octopus salad, strawberries with a selection of various flavors of artisanal ice-cream and lots of champagne.
We take a tour of the central city of Parma and see the duomo, the baptistery, the Reggio Theatre, the central square with its unusual statue of Garibaldi on his feet instead of the more typical statue found in almost every Italy town of Garibaldi astride his horse, and then we return to Borseda.

My first memory of Italy

My first memory of Italy is of our arrival in Milan around dawn. The train station seems mysterious, very, very large and full of smoke—dreamlike. The first word that I hear spoken by an Italian in Italy is “porter.” Although my Italian after two year of studying the language at the university is still very rough, almost nonexistent; I understand almost immediately that it is a porter who is announcing his services. After another two hours by train, we arrive in Bologna. It seems that the train arrives at the very last track because the walk from the train into the station is interminable. It is very hot. My suitcases with all my clothes for a year are extremely heavy. I sweat a lot.

We go in a small bus to our boarding house. When my friend and I arrive at our boarding house, we know immediately that our landlady does not like foreigners. She doesn’t say much to us except that there will be no hot water until the end of October. We begin our search. We are very hungry and are searching for a restaurant for lunch. We walk everywhere in the center of the city of Bologna. It seems that many restaurants are closed. Every time that we find an open restaurant, inside there are only men who men who are eating. We understand only later the reason for this. It is Ferragosto, the time when all Italians take their summer holiday. Almost everyone has left the city and the few who remain are businessmen.

Finally after many hours of walking here and there, we stop at a bar that is located only a few steps away from our boarding house. We look at a young man who seems quite friendly and who seems to intuit that we are hungry. He says, “A sandwich?” Together we say, “Yes, yes, a sandwich.” He asks us, “A ham sandwich?” We say, “Yes, yes a ham sandwich.” These are our first works in Italian in Italy.

La mia prima memoria

La mia prima memoria dell’Italia è il nostro arrivo a Milano verso l’alba. La stazione ferroviaria sembra misteriosa, grandissima e piena di fumo—quasi un sogno. La prima parola che sento parlata da un italiano in Italia, è “facchino”. Sebbene il mio italiano dopo due anni di studiarlo all’università sia tanto ruvido, quasi inesistente, capisco subito che è un facchino il quale annuncia i suoi servizi. Dopo altre due ore arriviamo alla stazione di Bologna. Sembra che il treno arrivi all’ultimo binario perché il cammino dal treno alla stazione è interminabile. Fa tanto caldo. Le mie valige con tutti i miei vestiti per un anno sono pesantissime. Sudo abbondantemente.

Andiamo in un minibus alle nostre pensioni. Quando io e la mia amica arriviamo alla nostra pensione sappiamo subito che alla nostra signora non piacciono gli stranieri. Non ci dice molto eccetto per dire che non ci sarà l’acqua calda fino alla fine dell’ottobre. Io e la amica, Linda, incominciamo una ricerca. Abbiamo molta fame e cerchiamo un ristorante per pranzare. Camminiamo dappertutto al centro della città di Bologna. Sembra che molti ristoranti siano chiusi. Ogni volta che troviamo un ristorante aperto ci sono dentro solamente uomini che mangiano. Ci rendiamo conto solo più tardi che la ragione è il Ferragosto. Tutti sono partiti dalla città e i pochi che rimangono sono uomini.

Finalmente dopo molte ore di camminare di qua di là di su di giù, ci fermiamo ad un bar solo pochi passi dalla nostra pensione. Guardiamo un giovanotto con un aspetto tanto amichevole che sembra intuire che abbiamo fame. Dice “Un panino?” Gli diciamo insieme “Sì, sì, un panino.” Ci dice, “di prosciutto?” Gli diciamo, “Sì, sì, di prosciutto.” Allora quelle sono le nostre prime parole in italiano in Italia.