Tuesday, June 14, 2005

It was twenty years ago today ... and one fine day in the Italian countryside

(These accounts of my 1985 trip to Europe will continue through the summer of 2005)

The heavily perfumed, immaculately groomed bus line conductor, albeit with a noticeable five o’clock shadow, glared at me with exaggerated anguish, his chest heaving as he looked first at the wad of Lira in my hand, then skyward to the ceiling, and back again.

His arms slowly unfurled and after some time became outstretched, palms up, as he stared toward the silent heavens, imploringly.

Why me? Why must I be the one to correct the ignorant American monoglot? And on this perfectly gorgeous summer’s day, when I might be tending my garden plot or enjoying a Chianti on the terrace?

Not unexpectedly, the conductor’s torrential output of hurriedly enunciated words was offered entirely in Italian, and as my eyes searched for help, fellow passengers remained resolutely still, speaking no known languages – even their own – as they awaited the outcome of something that appeared to be escalating into a full-blown dispute.

Might a conflagration still be avoided? After all, this silly, inconsequential matter of my not possessing a valid ticket for the bus ride into the Piedmontese countryside wasn’t even my fault.

Well, to be truthful, maybe it wasn’t.

Back in Torino, or Turin, city of the fabled burial shroud and crooner Paulo Conte, where unbeknownst to me, the city’s beloved Juventus soccer team had just returned home after the notorious match in Belgium, during which English hooligans initiated a riot that led to 30 deaths, most of them Juventus supporters – sometimes, though not often, it’s good to be speaking American-accented English and not British while overseas – a young, helpful, raven-haired beauty at the tourist information office had examined the postal address I handed to her and announced that I was completely mistaken.

Pecetto was not a street in Torino, as I’d assumed, and consequently it was not readily accessible by foot, municipal bus or taxi. Rather, it was a village nestled somewhere in the expanse of the rural area nearby.

Wherever it was, I had to find it. My cousin and travel mentor Donald Barry was staying in Pecetto with his friend and former student, Scott Bennett, who at the time was a teacher at Torino’s international school.

The young lady assured me that getting to Pecetto would be very easy. She gestured across the square to a row of Torino’s regional buses, and said that one of them would be departing within the hour for Pecetto. Advance tickets were not required; I would be able to pay on the bus.

“It is not a problem,” she smiled, and I trundled across the street, my mind finally at ease.

In retrospect … perhaps her instructions were mistaken, or I misunderstood them, or more than one bus line was represented, or I boarded the wrong bus, but whatever the case, the gesticulating conductor was breathing heavily down upon my sweaty brow, chewing the scenery as his oral rebukes became increasingly florid, and the situation grew more and more uncomfortable.

Then, suddenly, he audibly belched indignation, shrugged, straightened his tie, and made for the front of the bus, muttering to himself all the while.

Only when the conductor was safely out of earshot did an elderly man seated directly in front of me turn around and whisper, “okay, don’t worry about him – but please, you are on the wrong bus.”

At the precise moment these word were spoken, I caught a glimpse of two road signs, one pointing the way to Pecetto -- which the bus driver duly ignored -- and the second heralding our imminent arrival in Chieri – obviously, not the place where I wanted to be.

Before long the bus came to a halt, and as inconspicuously as possible for someone who has been the non-compliant center of attention, I followed the crowd to the front, brushed past the conductor, and hustled quickly off the bus.

Gravely, the old man nodded assent from a rear window, and gestured in the direction from which we had come.

Staring at the central plaza, I saw what appeared to be several hundred unshaven, sullen, 22-year-old, unemployed Italian men seated in the shadows of the commercial buildings, some napping, other smoking, and many seemingly focused on intently watching me. It could have been guilt on my part, having taken the bus without paying. At any rate, without pausing for more detailed instructions, I immediately retraced the bus route back to the “Pecetto 7 km” marker.

No more buses for me, at least on this day. It was time to walk, and then locate my cousin.


The previous two weeks had been a frenetic blur of trains, buses and boats, beginning in filthy and beguiling Istanbul, where the Sultan Tourist Hostel graciously provided intangible bonuses beyond the $2.50 nightly price – namely, my two Japanese architectural student roommates.

Their broken but priceless English-language commentaries on the construction techniques and design features of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi palace and Hagia Sophia, all three just down the street from the hostel, enlivened our daily visits to these shrines.

While in the former Byzantium, one gloriously temperate afternoon was spent on the local ferryboat, zigzagging back and forth through the straits from Europe to Asia, and halting finally at a hillside town with the adjacent Black Sea as an eastern horizon, cheap skewers of grilled lamb and peppers, stuffed tomatoes, and a chaotic bazaar where finally, after two weeks on the road, I paused long enough to half-heartedly bargain with a merchant over the price of a gaudy yellow bath towel.

Having learned my lesson during the inbound segment of the Istanbul excursion, and now trusting the posted train schedules with all my heart, the rail trip back to Athens proved idiotically simple, with two memorable stopovers along the way.

The first was Kalambaka, itself a nondescript town, but the functional gateway to the spectacular, otherworldly monasteries of Meteora, which are man-made complexes of Orthodox holiness and isolation perched like Technicolor mushrooms atop tall shafts of sheer volcanic rock – accessible by local bus thanks to the wonders of 20th-century roadway engineering, but previously reached exclusively by rope and basket conveyances, pulleys and profuse prayers.

Next came mountaintop Delphi and earnest considerations of the famous hallucinogenic oracle, whose cryptic riddles were puzzling highlights of antiquity.

From Delphi, the serene view southwest over the Gulf of Corinth closed each evening alongside beers, moussaka and a group of entertaining Kiwis, all crowded together on the veranda of a small taverna, enraptured by the intensity of the sunset. More than one of us had perused Henry Miller’s seminal “The Colossus of Maroussi” before arriving in Greece, and the book came to life as we discussed Miller’s late-thirties experiences and compared them with our own.

On the day I’d chosen to leave Delphi, an uneventful local bus ride to a nearby town, where the railhead was located, provided no advance warning of the scene at the station, where swarms of excited people were streaming aboard the train bound for Athens.

I’d forgotten that it was Election Day. It was fast becoming post-election afternoon, and the celebration was beginning in earnest. Andreas Papandreou’s green-coded Socialists, scourge of the Reagan administration, were about to triumph over the conservative, blue-colored New Democrats and the ominous, red-cloaked Communists.

Previously, in Patras and Kalambaka, I’d experienced late-night campaign rallies for both major parties, but not like this. Bottles of wine and Ouzo were everywhere. Trays of food were passed up and down the slowly moving train cars. Tickets were not even being checked, which hardly mattered, as train seats were non-existent, even in first class, and rail workers partied just as unreservedly as the passengers.

The festive atmosphere more than made up for the discomfort, and I enjoyed hearing the observations of a few Greek passengers who spoke English, as well as the dryly humorous comments of my fellow traveler for the day, a Swiss woman my age who I’d met while at staying at the hostel in Delphi.

Once in Athens, she intended to take a boat from Piraeus to the Greek Islands, while my plan was to move south onto the Peloponnese region. Belatedly arriving in Athens, I accepted her invitation to share a bottle of wine, and we passed time during the afternoon hours.

That night, I caught the last southbound train, eventually catching a few hours of sleep atop a bench in the providentially warm Argos train station before catching the first morning bus to the scenic and historical town of Nafplion on the Aegean coast.

Nafpion’s craggy, sprawling 16th-century hilltop Venetian fortress merited a day’s exploration, powered by fresh baked raisin bread from the bakery around the corner from my inexpensive guesthouse. One day each was devoted to the museums and archeological sites of Epidavros and Mycenae, both reached by bus from Nafplion’s depot, where chalkboards chronicled departures and arrivals.

Epidavros, home to one of the best-preserved ancient amphitheaters in Greece, and Mycenae, replete with Trojan War imagery and a much-noted tomb, finally sated a desire dating from childhood for insight into the lives of the ancient Greeks.

The visits to Epidavros and Mycenae, coupled with two Athenian afternoons exploring the Acropolis and the time with the oracle in Delphi, brought these adolescent dreams to life, and provided ample opportunities to muse on the differences between our often romanticized views of the past and the helter-skelter reality of modern Greece.

My epiphanies largely complete, Greek time began to run out. Much to my consternation, I’ve not returned there since.

Soon I was back in Patras for the boat to Brindisi, and once arrived in port, a steaming plate of linguine with garlic-laden red clam sauce and cold, draft Peroni welcomed me to Italia. An overnight train ride up the boot to Rome, with an unexpected bonus of dawn breaking at the rebuilt Monte Cassino, deposited me utterly bewildered into the world capital of schizophrenia, Catholicism and bad driving – not necessarily in that order.

There followed magical, astounding days, one after the other, with neither cable news nor the Internet to dare suggest any connection between my daily experience in Rome with the larger world outside (although I confess to sneaking an occasional peak at headlines from the newspaper kiosks).

There was Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s, with Pope John Paul II in attendance, and the nuns from many countries standing on one another’s shoulders snapping flash pictures of His Holiness while I cursed my prim decision to avoid offending the faithful by similar behavior.

There was a long walk along the Appian Way, nimbly dodging screaming sports, motorcycles and picnicking families while examining the formless remains of the tombs of important, and forgotten, Roman patricians, politicians and magnates.

There was laundry fluttering in the breeze from the windows of post-WW II housing blocks, a descent into the catacombs, roast pork sandwiches from the little closet down the block, big 2/3 liter bottles of beer for 50 cents, a subway ride to Benito Mussolini’s planned suburban community, pizza and bread galore, more architectural styles, churches and domes than anyone could remember, and in short, a sensory overload unlike anything for which the life and times of Southern Indiana might provide adequate preparation.

As in Greece, and during the remainder of the journey that summer of 1985, the bulk of my days were spent wandering the streets, profoundly dazed, desperately trying to absorb as much as possible on a trip that I had sadly accepted as my first and surely only chance to see Europe before returning home and acquiring some form of a life – and, of course, not until later realizing that such an acquisition was purely optional, and could be framed in the manner suited to the individual.

Six strenuous days in Rome were enough. Accompanied by a shopping bag filled with sandwiches and bottles of Italian-brewed Carslberg and my luggage (two pieces now, with a cheap, ugly, black and white checkered gym bag having been purchased during market day somewhere in Greece), I boarded the northbound train at Termini Station, with a final destination of Torino.


The narrow road to Pecetto rose to the top of a gentle rise, and at the crest, the destination village came into sight for the first time. A dense jumble of tile-roofed houses was arranged atop small hills, with the highest among them not unexpectedly reserved for town’s church. Vineyards were everywhere, extending from the back yards of houses and out into the surrounding agricultural areas.

My cousin Don was somewhere under one of Pecetto’s tiled roofs, and wherever he was, I wanted to be there, too, if for no other reason than to prove I was capable of following a plan to fruition.

Earlier in the year, he’d provided me with his itinerary, which itself proved to be educational for me; as an organized, veteran traveler, he actually had an itinerary. I’d ventured a guess that Italy would be the best place for us to meet, and was instructed to phone Scott Bennett from Rome and let them know about the arrival time and date.

This seemingly simple task I first neglected, then unceremoniously botched. One Roman pay phone after another spit out my Lira coins, and when I learned that the phones would accept only tokens, or gettones, I couldn’t find any, even though my landlady instructed me that the news stand on the street below sold them.

Consequently, with all that had occurred getting to Pecetto, my hosts were unaware of my presence in their vicinity.

Would they even be home?

I tried not to think about this during the walk from Chieri, which had proven to be a virtually unparalleled joy, and almost like being home – rolling landscapes, greens, blues and browns, barking dogs, cows and horses -- with the added sensory stimulants of grape vines and tiny cars racing past me way too fast.

Descending the slope into Pecetto, I entered the very first bar encountered along the town’s abbreviated main street, ordered a bottle of Coke, unfolded my battered piece of paper with Scott’s address written on it, and was answered in perfect colloquial English by a middle-aged woman who explained that she’d lived in California during the first five years of her marriage.

“Go up the hill,” she said, pointing across the street, “ and you’ll see this street at the top. Go to the right, and watch the street numbers.”

“Good luck!”

As directed, I trudged away and soon found the small stucco apartment house, which was set back off the street and surrounded in typical European fashion by a fence, with a numbered buzzer to press and alert the inhabitants to unlatch the gate and allow entry.

I buzzed Scott’s number, and nothing happened.

The gate was unlatched, so I walked to the entryway and knocked.

Nothing happened.

The drill was repeated, with the same results.

It was almost six in the afternoon, which was slowly yielding to evening, with shadows dancing and the brilliant sun steadily lessening in intensity.

Hiding my hideous Greek bag behind a wall (the other had been checked at Torino’s train station), I explored some of the side streets. At one point, I saw a woman leave the target house, but I was too far away to yell – and too embarrassed to run.

By seven, I’d returned to wall-top vantage point directly across the street from Scott’s place, and began to plot a fall-back plan, when I saw an unfamiliar male emerge from the building, followed by a worldly Hoosier-born educator with a prominent proboscis and a soon-to-be-familiar blue jacket.

It was, of course, Don.

I walked across the street and met them at the gate.

“Doc Barry, I presume?”

It just may be that Don was as stunned by the twenty pounds I’d lost as he was by my mere presence, standing entirely unexpectedly in front of him as he and Scott prepared to walk to a evening cocktail reception at a colleague’s nearby home.

Be that as it may, he was as close to speechlessness as we’re ever likely to witness.

“Goddamn,” Don said.

He looked at Scott before adding, this time for posterity’s sake.



Rick Carmickle said...

Nice story Roger, keep'em coming!

I could almost close my eyes and vision what you must have been seeing from your observations.

New Alb Annie said...

New Albanian,

Until I read this, I thought New Albany was the world capital of schizophrenia, Catholicism and bad driving (perhaps in this order, perhaps not).

Pleasant reflections on a hot June night in the Ohio River Valley.