Italy, 1986

Italian countryside between Venice and Florence.

I have a pretty good sense of direction. That, combined with a good, large scale, Michelin map, and I can navigate my way with little difficulty, a handy skill in the days before GPS tools were commercially available. For the drive from Venice to Florence though, I decided to take a more casual approach, just pointing in the general direction of Florence, and figured road signs along the way would keep me going, nominally, in the right direction. That worked pretty well for a while, staying on two lane blacktop for a more interesting drive than the autostrata would have been. Slowly, the road began to narrow, and the center line disappeared, but I expected that to be temporary and that that trend would reverse itself at some point. When the asphalt ended and the road turned into a dirt track I had to acknowledge that, even in Italy, all roads do not lead to Rome, or Florence in this case. I had the map. but now I did not know where I was, so it didn’t help much. About the time the road turned into a rut, I noticed a tavern next to the road, and if I must ask for directions, then a bar seems like a good, dual purpose place for that. I went in and asked, but of the several patrons hanging out, no one spoke English, and I did not speak Italian (still don’t), but 5-6 guys came out to the car, spread the map on the hood and carried on an incomprehensible (to me) conversation, all pointing in different directions. That didn’t help much and I imagine I just backtracked the paved road until I found some better signage, but before leaving I went back into the bar and somehow made myself clear to the barman that I wanted a bottle of red wine. He reached into a bin of empty wine bottles, pulled one out, rinsed it out, and filled it from a tap on a keg along the back of the bar. He jammed a cork into the top and charged me the equivalent of $1. It was delicious, but I suspect that had as much to do with context as it did with the grape. The event reminded me how important it is to just go get lost sometimes.

Venice, 1986

Piazza San Marco

It was a rainy night in Venice, and my 39th birthday. It was not a heavy rain, but enough to clear the streets and make the place feel deserted. The dark corners of the city had a mysterious air, like scenes from a Cold War era espionage movie set in eastern Europe. We had just the one afternoon and evening to visit before heading to Florence the next morning, and after doing some aimless rambling to get a feel for the place, we realized it was getting close to closing time for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and we were too far away to walk there in time. We had also intended to take a gondola ride (cliche that it is, you have to do it at least once), so we hired the first boatman we could find and asked him to take us to the museum. Going by canals was a much more direct route. He took us through narrow waterways and then across the Grand Canal, putting us out onto the side of the museum facing the canal. We stepped over a small fence and crossed the patio, stopping to admire the Marino Marini statue of “The Little Horseman” with its removable phallus, and then stepped into the galleries. We rushed through to see as much as we could before closing and then left through the main door where we noticed there was an entrance fee we had missed with our “alternate” gateway. A little more ambling and we found a place to have a nice Birthday dinner. We sat outdoors, in a fabric-tented space and listened to the rain. I remember a vignette of a man running by with his coat pulled over his head, heading for shelter. The restaurant was empty so the maitre’d shooed away our waiter (who spoke no English) and waited on us himself, entertaining us with tales of his time in America working on a cruise ship. Earlier in the day I had bought a yellow bow tie with a paisley pattern (I don’t know why; I almost never wear bow ties) so I went to the Men’s Room and put it on, to dress up a bit for the evening. After Chateaubriand for Two, and a fabulous dessert (I only remember it was something chocolate), we finished our visit with a late night stroll through the Piazza San Marco. A little rain never hurt anyone.

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Northern Italy, 1986

A high pass through the Alps, from Switzerland to Italy

Although the photographer seen here is Barbara, it does not follow that the person crawling up to peer over the edge of this mountain is me. Nope. I can see what’s NOT there from back here, thank you. We were continuing our first trip, traveling from Liechtenstein (see last week’s post, back through Switzerland and into northern Italy, making our way toward Venice. Along our route there was a spot with a cable car up to the top, for skiing in the winter (if you are crazy), and sightseeing when there’s no snow. We rode up to check it out. Wow! My experience of mountains had, at that point, been limited to the Smokies and the southern Appalachians. I don’t think I had ever been above the tree line, and if so, not by much. When we stepped out of the cable car (about 3000 meters up), there was a very large sign, in four languages, that said, essentially, if you die, it’s not our problem. Walking out to explore, we heard a sound, a song, flowing gently in the wind. Seeking that out, we found a group of nuns (the black clad group in the background) conducting a rite. Barbara is Catholic and she said it was a Jubilee Celebration for one of them; I’ll defer to her greater knowledge of that sort of thing.

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Liechtenstein, 1986

Liechtenstein roadside tavern, back deck.

It was the first trip Barbara and I ever took together. It was also my first ever trip out of the USA. Arriving in some place I had read about, seen pictures of, and thought of as exotic and/or mysterious was sensory overload, trying to take it all in, trying to fix a memory long term. In my head I’m sure I was going, “…there’s the Rhine, and Switzerland, and OMG there’s the Alps, and we’re in Liechtenstein, a Fairy Tale place…,” and as a more seasoned traveler now, I miss some of that naive wonderment. What I remember now is dreamlike. We had landed in Zurich, rented a car and headed in a random, easterly direction. We had a flight home scheduled two weeks later, from Milan. Everything between arrival and departure was ours to make up as we went along. The second day, we had crossed into Liechstenstein and around lunch time saw a roadside cafe/tavern. We stopped and were ushered to tables on a back deck, built hanging off the side of an Alp (not one of any particular distinction, as far as I know). It was cool and brisk, but warm sitting in the sun. As we ate lunch and had a beer, a soft whoosh sound was a hang glider spiraling, floating slowly past us, down from the highest altitudes into the Rhine valley. It was all perfect stillness. To try to suspend the moment we had a second beer. And there was no consideration of moving on. We asked for a room in the small hotel there. They were full, but called a friend down the street who rented a guest room and it was available. Looking out the room’s window the next morning, I’m sure I heard Sister Maria singing, “The hills are alive….”

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