I am seeking shelter from the wind, sitting against the wall across from the cathedral in Parma, Italy. My feet ache from walking over cobblestones and my muscles are tired from trying to sleep on the train from Firenze. It has been a chilly afternoon, only about 40 degrees, but therein lies the benefit: few tourists. I just finished a plate of pasta, long flat tagliatelle noodles, grateful for the warmth of the box as they steamed in the afternoon cold, the noodles playing a supporting role to a small mound of ragú alla bolognese. I have no problems.
On my last weekend in the US, I visited my old stomping grounds of Sonoma and Napa Valleys. I had spent a blustery day with a friend of mine who, because he works in the industry, has a magic key that opens lots of doors at high-end wineries. He took me on an “off the beaten track” tour, tasting as many wines as possible – I’m good at that. It was great catching up with some of the wine makers I used to hang out with, and gave me the opportunity to taste older vintages that aren’t normally poured for tourists. This weekend detour ended up completely changing my trip to Italy.
At the end of the day of wine tasting, I decided to make a final stop at an Italian restaurant where I’d once cooked. I hadn’t been there in years, but welcomed as an old friend, found myself deluged with food and… god save me, more wine. When I told the owners that I was heading to Tuscany, they called over their newest waiter to meet me. He had arrived from Italy only two months ago, but had heard about the Portland food scene. We sat and talked for an hour after the dinner rush and hit it off. I gave him advice on American women – those who can’t do, teach, and he gave me lots of tips on getting along in Italy; things I’d forgotten, like the art of reading Italian train schedules, which could challenge the patience of a monk. After a few hours of conversation, we exchanged phone numbers and parted with my promise to show him Portland if he ever made to Oregon.
My dad used to say to start every trip with a fresh perspective; to leave your troubles in the airline terminal. As the plane circled Florence and prepared to land, I felt free for the first time in a long while. I caught my breath when we dove below the clouds and the city glittered below, old clay shimmering in the early morning light, reflecting orange back to the sun. I made it through Italian customs with little difficulty, as my only luggage was a small backpack – my style is to travel light. I powered my cell phone to confirm my hotel reservation in Florence, the only one I’d made for my trip. No sooner had I turned it on that it rang, and a woman asked in broken English, “What clothes is it you are wearing… we can’t find you”. This gave me pause. I’ve heard a lot about these aggressive Italians, but wow. Before I could reply, two rather striking women tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was Jimmy’s friend from California; it seems word travels fast.
I didn’t have a chance to say much – these women clearly were in control. As I was dragged from the airport and out to a waiting car, it crossed my mind that I was being kidnapped, but the idea seemed like an interesting adventure, so I gave a feeble argument. The Fiat grumbled to life, and I was told, “Cancel your plans, you are staying at our albergo!”
The entire family took me under their wing just because I had a conversation with their son. I’m not sure what he told them, but between the hugging and kissing, you would think I was a long-lost relative. My first day here, jet lagged out of my mind and confused about where I was going and who these people were, was a blur of screaming down little winding roads in the back of their Fiat, squeezed between two Italian women who kept squeezing me while talking frantically in a mix of English and Italian about everything we passed. I felt as if I had been plunged into a video game; the driver hurtling into turns, at the same time steering with his knees and gesturing wildly with both hands while turning back to look at me. This went on for 180 kilometers. I found God somewhere on the twelfth turn.
We careened across the hills on back roads, playing tag with road construction, back and forth to the E35, splattering mud over the windshield as we passed through Florence suburbs; La Chiusa, Carraia, Sasso Marconi and down into the outskirts of Bologna. I had read about Bologna, a city of over a million inhabitants, and wouldn’t have minded stopping to stroll the porticos, but this was not in the cards. I tried to peer past ample breasts to see out the window, but only caught glimpses, as we turned north through Modena, where I would return later for the famous balsamic vinegar. Finally, we left the highway and skirted Reggio Emilia and taxied into the outer ring of Parma, where I stumbled from the back seat, resisting the temptation to kiss the ground.
Our first stop was the cathedral, across from which I sit now, an excellent introduction to this deeply religious city. Construction began in 1059 by bishop Cadalo, who later became the antipope Honorius II. It was consecrated by Pope Paschal II in 1116. A year later, the new cathedral was badly damaged by an earthquake, but remains of the original building can still be seen. It’s unbelievable to run your fingers down something with so much history; giving me prickles that ran through my mind many times on this trip. I’ve seen lots of cathedrals, and maybe it was the jet lag, or that I had seen god several times in the last few hours, but I was feeling a little overcome.
The most famous work of art in the cathedral is the Assumption of the Virgin by Italian Renaissance artist Antonio da Correggio which decorates the dome. Correggio signed the contract for the painting in 1522, and it was finished in 1530. The fresco features the Virgin Mary ascending through a sea of limbs, faces and swirling drapery. The imagery of the Assumption has been met with some bemusement over the years, with a contemporary comparing it to a “hash of frogs’ legs” and Dickens commenting that the scene was such that “no operative surgeon gone mad could imagine in his wildest delirium.” Struck dumb, I fought the urge to lay down among the tourist crowd to take in the span. Tradition has it that Correggio was paid for the painting with a sackful of small change, in order to annoy the miserly artist. The story goes that he went home with his sack of coins in the heat, caught a fever, and died at the age of 40; truly a Dickensian tale.
We walked a short distance from the cathedral to a taverna, up an alley and away from tourists. There we sat on a terrazza and were served long strips of prosciutto, sliced so thin that when I held it trembling on my fork, it was translucent in the orange of the late afternoon sun. Chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese burst with flavor, tiny bits of calcium crunching under my teeth as I bit down. Bits of crystallized orange and lemon rind dotted the plate like a jeweled reminder of the summer past. A plate of fish, caught that morning were now browned and blistered, gleaming in a consummate sheen of good olive oil and lemon juice, studded with bright red flakes of sun-dried pepper. They lay in ranks on a wooden platter, marching across the table towards our plates. Wine flowed gurgling from the bottles, the red that last year had laid murmuring in brown wood barrels, as we ate, and laughed and I was swept up into this new family. I sat in a stupor, taking it all in, the setting sun blushing its way under the old cloth umbrella, warm and happy, comfortable for my new adventure.
A few hours later, squeezed back into the muddy Fiat, we headed out-of-town; for me, destination unknown.