Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Vita Italiana - the Beast of Tirrenia

The Beast

On Tuesdays during the summer there is a market set up in the morning until lunchtime in Tirrenia.  When we lived there it was a nice way to spend a Tuesday morning; a fifteen minute walk down streets shaded by tall pine trees to the sprawl of stands, where vendors didn’t need to call out to passersby, but attend to the wandering eyes and hands and questions of price at a leisurely pace.  Everyone comes to Tirrenia, especially in the summer time, especially on Tuesdays in the summer time to shop for sandals and scarves, plastic kitchenware and potted herbs, clothing and roasted chicken.  Since the American community around here is so small, and there’s not a lot to do locally, except baking your skin or your dinner, it’s rather unlikely not to run into someone you know in the market. 

I hadn’t been down to the Tirrenia market since the previous summer and it was already July, so I headed down before the morning sun got too hot.  As I wandered through the mess of people and past each stand, casually eyeing the merchandise, I was surprised not to see anyone around I recognized.  When I got to the chicken truck, its side open, revealing the showcase counter and slowly turning spits full of whole chickens, I looked for Alberto.  Alberto usually bought a slow-roasted chicken every Tuesday during the market season, but I didn’t see him in line.  I stopped at the stand with the rough silk tablecloths, runners, curtains and pillows and tried to spot the last set of curtains I’d bought from this very stand.  Nothing new today.  After a half hour of milling around with nothing of real interest catching my attention and feeling a little lonely, a familiar face passed me by, his black, curly coat brushing my calf as he made his rounds through the market stalls, trotting assuredly on his way to someplace important.  I smiled and went on my way, uplifted somehow having seen him.


Why, 'The Beast'

We passed him every time we left the neighborhood, following the road that wraps around the backside of the Grande Golf Hotel, by his house and out to il Pisorno, a treacherous stretch of road leading away from the coast.  Every time the car rode the bend and approached his house, he was there, poised and waiting to bark his insults at us and fearlessly chase us on.  His stature was short, and his fur curly and black, so we regularly hit the brakes when he disappeared from view, afraid of running over this valiant guard dog.  Often when alone, I slowed with my window down to speak to him, thinking we could come to some sort of agreement, as I never wanted to risk hurting him, rushing, perhaps.  He would listen to nothing and continue to bark, rushing right up to the car before circling it with the conviction of an animal guarding a house made of meat.  I spoke to him with a smile every time, nonetheless, and was soon on my way.

There came a day when the little black flash of fury did not appear as we rounded the bend in the road.  Being so used to seeing him and preparing to either speed up or slow down to accommodate his darting, I was slightly startled by his absence.  I rolled by, peering through the ever-open gate from where he usually emerged, if not sleeping in the shade on the street, but nothing.  Two weeks passed and he wasn’t there.  I asked Chris every few days if he’d passed our little neighbor on his way out, but the answer was steadily a no.  Then one Tuesday in early June, I’d walked down to the square to check out the summer market and saw him.  He was trotting down one aisle of stalls as if on duty, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.  I was relieved and had to laugh at myself for having worried so much over a dog that very likely might take a finger if I reached from my car window on one of the days I stopped to chat at him.  But this little scrapper had become an endeared part of life here, here in Tirrenia, my first home away from that of my childhood; here in Italy, a thousand miles from everything I knew.  This little growling matte of lazy black curls was a reason to smile this Tuesday morning, and I watched him disappear around the corner stall, in the direction of his street post a few blocks away.

Vita Italiana - Blue

Our first place.

I will never forget the overwhelming feeling of foreignness and delight I felt when I first stepped out of the tiny airplane that brought us to Pisa.  It was late morning on March 26th, 2004, the sky was heavy and black, but hanging in sun-lined pieces over our heads.  There was a cool wind that sailed over my skin as I took it in, breathing in the scent of this new place, and I wondered if I would always remember this day.  Pine and salt.

Having spent a flimsy three weeks between two hotels, as opposed to a friend’s 75, we found our place.  Just up the street from said friend and three blocks from the sea on a shady street called Via dei Biancospini, we found a home.  Small and severely more sectioned off than we expected, 23C Biancospini was bigger than any apartment either of us had ever inhabited.  Each room could be closed in by a door, including the kitchen and hallways, which was a new concept to us, but the front room was nearly walled on one side with glass doors, which we loved.  Opening these French style doors in the summertime made for delightful breezes running through the house and a constant view of our tiny front yard and shady street.  It was a little cramped in places, and always a little cold in the winter, but it was home for a while and will always be our first, together.

There were afternoons when I would lay in the sun that spread across the floor in our office/guest room and stare out the open window at the fluffy clouds and swaying pine branches.  Even though the concrete steps leading to our upstairs and next-door neighbors passed not far from this very window, I could lay nude on the floor without possibility of being discovered by Joe, home for lunch and a nooner.  It was not often that I privately sunbathed on the office floor, but nice that I could.

Our landlords lived in Florence an hour away, but usually summered at their apartment next door to us.  They were mature in years and strong of lungpower, as our windows were open if we were home and the yelling carried easily in.  At first I was concerned when the yelling persisted for an hour or so, but soon learned that this was normal; it was the Italian way.  Communicating was loud and passionate, hand-gestures flying and perhaps even a little spit.  Over time, these conversations next door became just another part of the soundtrack of life here, and something that still makes me chuckle.

But the strangest and rather most irritating aspect of our first little place was the blue wall paint that found its way throughout the house on the bottoms of any feet that ventured into the solitary bathroom.  We learned over time that quick and cheap fixes were preferred when it came to our landlords, which meant painting over mold, stains in sinks and tubs, and bathroom floors that were missing a couple of tiles, with wall paint.  For the first few months washing dishes or taking a bath called for varying sizes of paint sheets to float to the surface of the water, and walking on bare feet through the bathroom meant blue paint chips stuck to the bottom of your feet.  Being newlyweds and on this great new adventure living abroad, we laughed it off and said it gave place character.  But two years later when we moved away from Biancospini and into a home whose main bathroom had actual blue tiling, we shook our heads at the ridiculous things that went on in that first apartment. 

Vita Italiana - Alberto

He walks by twice a day, usually carrying a small bag of trash but always puffing on either a pipe or a cigar.  Not having a job, I’ve fallen into the domestic position of staying home every day trying to figure out how to get excited about cleaning.  We’ve got just the one car with no plans for another, since we only plan to be here for eighteen months, so Chris takes it to work most days.  So I’m here, sleeping late most days and shuffling around the apartment, writing or rearranging something to make myself feel productive.  The front door to our apartment is around the side of this block of four apartments, but across the front are glass doors that I like to leave open during the day.  With no air conditioning, the only saving grace during the summer is the hope of a breeze, and living close to the sea, we usually get some kind of air movement most of the time, even if it’s hot air.  Heidi likes these doors, because open, they give her free reign over our postage stamp size front yard, full of massive pine cones that’ll dent the crap out of any unsuspecting car parked beneath.  We’ve been lucky and have never caught one in the head, but we keep our fingers crossed.  So Heidi likes to lay on the red tile of the narrow front patio that stretches the width of the apartment, taking in the neighborhood and sometimes barking salutations to the people who pass by on the street.  One thing I really like about this place is that no one gets up in arms over a baking dog.  It seems generally accepted that a dog barking from its own yard is a natural and expected phenomenon, which sounds strange, but never in the States did I not find myself rushing to hush an excited Heidi, apologizing for the annoyance to whomever was at the receiving end of her exclamations.  When someone walks past our gate here, they usually stop because Heidi is a pretty dog, laughing at her barking, and reach through to pet her. 

But not him.  When he walks by, one eye scrunched mostly shut, Heidi launches from her place of rest on the patio and he keeps shuffling on.  She jumps at the gate, begging for his attention, but he takes a puff and keeps moving.  Sometimes he grumbles at her; sometimes he just ignores.  I’ve named him Grumpy Old Man, for obvious reasons, and have actually come to look forward to his passingsby. 

I didn’t have the courage to speak to him for a long time, but after mastering a friendly greeting from the open doors of our place when people stopped to pet Heidi, I decided it was time to befriend Grumpy Old Man and make him accept us as his neighbors with kindness.  The first time I spoke to him he was actually in our shared dirt driveway, inspecting some trimming that had been done on his side of the fence, talking to the gardener who was working there.  Heidi, now faced with a stranger on our actual property, went crazy barking, sticking her nose under the metal railing, sniffing furiously at him. This was my chance to, upon coming outside to investigate all the commotion, toss out a casual hello.  And I did.  “Buon giorno,” I said with a big smile, then waved my hand at Heidi in an attempt to hush her.  Grumpy Old Man gave a wave and a nod.  Then he smiled.  He motioned toward the gardener’s work and I nodded, something I’d gotten really good at as a foreigner here, while inside I was doing the nerdy happy dance, having made contact. 

The next week I was washing dishes when someone awoke Heidi’s inner guard dog, and when I poked my head out to make sure she hadn’t actually scaled the gate, I gasped the way you might upon seeing a baby horse take its first steps.  It was him, and he’d stopped!  Not only had Grumpy Old Man stopped at our gate to speak to Heidi, he was smiling and barking back at her.  And then, as if this weren’t huge enough for my little world, he reached through and pet her, all the while she was jumping for his hand, turning around and whimpering at him with joy.  I almost squealed, but kept myself hidden so I could continue to watch.  That was the day our interaction changed with Grumpy Old Man.  He came to speak to Heidi every time he passed, leaning down to talk to her, sometimes barking a little, then chuckling to himself as he went on his way.  One afternoon I was working in the yard when he passed, and when he stopped to say hello to Heidi, he talked to me, too.  Of course I initiated but he asked what Heidi’s name was and where we were from, and low and behold, he spoke English!  He wasn’t fluent, by any means, but he spoke well enough for us to carry on a friendly exploratory conversation about life in Bella Italia, bad drivers, and pets.  I also learned that Grump Old Man’s real name was Alberto.  And it was done.  We were friends.

After that day, whenever I saw Alberto passing or petting Heidi I gave a friendly wave and called out a greeting.  His smile and wave back gave me a warmth I craved living in this new place so far from home. 

I came to learn more and more about Alberto, as Italians love to stop and chat, wherever they seem to be.  So if Alberto’s taking out the trash coincided with me arriving home from the grocery store, for instance, I wouldn’t be making it inside for at least another half hour.  We complained about the people who sped down our shady street, and how dangerous it was for the children and the cats and dogs the neighborhood belonged to.  We talked about the different cities Chris and I had visited nearby in the Tuscan hills, and how great the wine was in Italy.  We commented on the summer crowds in Tirrenia and the annoyance of traffic congestion.  I felt like a real neighbor and it was fantastic.  Granted, Heidi had to wait a little longer to go out and my popsicles got a little soft in the car, but I loved these intimate encounters that made me feel accepted in my first real home away from home.  Alberto became a part of my Italy during those conversations, and when we run into one another now, as we often do during Tirrenia’s summer market, there’s a familiarity there that calls for hugs, kisses, and excited conversation about how things are going over smiles and cappuccino.  

Vita Italiana - Famiglia

The first year. 

I walked out onto my front porch to let Heidi out.  I’d been sitting in the office again trying to muster up the inspiration to write something.  I was just starting to look at my laptop with that loving gaze that a writer gets when her machine of evil becomes that again of pure life when that unmistakable exaggerated sigh broke through.  This is something she’s mastered, the ability to breathe loudly enough to actually wake me in the middle of the night, if need be. 

There was some sort of party two houses down today; I’m thinking a birthday party because of all the pink balloons I could see through the shrubbery that separates us.  Earlier I could smell food being cooked, I could hear them talking like Italians tend to talk when in groups – loud, quite animated – with children’s shrieks thrown in for seasoning.  By the time I let Heidi out the party had moved inside, but their voices were still very much a presence on my front porch.  Their voices were actually strangely comforting as they joined together to sing, “I just called to say I love you.”  I stood in some kind of confused curiosity in the dark and stared at the house, the parts I could see, listening to them sing with lovely Italian accents, pausing to laugh, but carrying this old American song (old to me at 24) all the way through to its end.  Almost as soon as the song ended, they broke into “New York, New York” in the same fashion, and I laughed, standing alone on my porch.  I walked inside to unplug my laptop, suddenly feeling the pull of it to record this moment, something I’ve not felt much for the past 6 months or so.  By the time I got back outside they were into a little Sinatra with “My Way.”  I sat in the dark of my porch in front of the open door and sang along for a little while, and more exuberantly when they got to “We are the champions.” 

I sat tapping my foot and actually smiling, not really sure why.  Hearing English out and around, unless I’m on post, is always a little strange, and lends itself to uncontrollable eavesdropping.  Maybe it was because I found a little piece of home in their voices, the voices of what were probably those of family and close friends, something I miss very much here.  When I can hear Joe and Daiva upstairs yelling to one another across the apartment, or out on their front porch which hangs over mine, there’s a comfort in hearing the language I speak spoken, but it was a different kind of comfort listening to the singing this night down the street.  Family.  I miss that.  My family was never really the type to gather around and sing, but it’s something that reminds me of them, just the same.  People together, enjoying and annoying each other.   

Sadly, the singing portion of the evening would be the closer, and soon after the final note of that ever-popular Queen song faded out from their lungs, the goodbyes began, a few children cried again and car doors slammed and off they went.

I was left sitting in the dark, in the silence that seems to grow heaviest right after something like a party ends.  All of a sudden, it felt so incredibly lonely on my front porch, and the rustling in the bushes and weird screaming thing coming from the direction of the woods didn’t really help.  My moment was over; it was time to go in, so I wiggled my left foot awake and got up from the dirty floor, calling Heidi to follow.  The party was over, but it sounded like a nice time.  I was glad I’d been able to attend two doors down where I could sing along and not feel so alone.

Vita Italiana - The Urinator

July 31, 2005

It's our second summer here, and summertime brings loads of tourists and all their cars.  Since the car got broken into, we've been parking in the private, gated drive, but even if we waned to brave our residential street again, usually quiet and shaded by the tall beach pines, we’d be hard-pressed to find and keep a spot in the summer.  We live four streets back from the main beach road and by late June our street is lined, every inch off the side of the road, and half the street, itself, filled with some part of a car.  Sometimes it’s fun to watch all the beach-goers, but sometimes they stare, so I go back inside and let Heidi bark at them.

It’s not strange here, I’ve learned, to see men standing by their cars on the side of the road urinating.  There could be a rest area a few kilometers up the road, but they pee like they get paid per square inch of dirt they water.  Be it autostrada or city street, I’ve seen them everywhere, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when a man pulled over right out front of our house, got out and took a leak.  It was before the morning rush of tourists had completely taken over the street, so he actually had room to pull over.  I was watering plants when I witnessed this.  I immediately ran for the camera because it just seemed that funny to me.  I told Chris and by the time he reacted I’d gotten a picture of the guy from the back in full peeing position.  We just laughed and when the Urinator was done he got back into his car and drove away.