When my boyfriend decided to take me to his Italian village I was daunted. After all, I was metropolitan creature at home in an urban environment of anonymous diversity and hit-and-run events. I’d never traveled to a place with a population of less than 20,000, let alone below a thousand. Villages, I thought, were havens for die-hard farmers, misanthropes and elderly people with heart conditions. Such prejudices, I discovered, rarely survive the real thing.
It all started one afternoon in the park after I had found a brilliant way to pass the time (and improve my finger dexterity): Pulling out his stray white hairs. It’s no challenge finding them among his ordinarily pitch-black mass of capelli. The chief satisfaction comes from presenting each one as visible proof of existence to my charming Italian skeptic.
“Mamma mia! Where do you find these things?” he demanded one afternoon, flicking the offending hair into the Hyde Park breeze, “Non esistevano prima. Mai!”
“How do you say ‘genetics’ in Italian?” I asked with a smile. “Accept it, Massi. Or go to the salon.”
“No, no, no. È questa cittá. London is very bad for my health. Sono molto stressato! Dai, andiamo in Italia,” he announced.
Two weeks and two plane tickets later, I am ricocheted around the backseat as Massimo’s cousin plays Michael Schumacher on the snaking road leading up from Riva del Garda to Valle di Ledro (“che bella macchina nuova, Luca!”).
“Hai paura?” yells Luca over the thumping beats of the radio.
“Solo un poco!” I shout back choppily. Never show fear to keyed up canines, raging bulls or exuberant Italian men.
He laughs and accelerates to overtake a slow-moving tractor. The speedometer hits 100 kph as we enter a steep tunnel and I ponder how many white hairs I’ve sprouted in 20 minutes. We shoot out the other end of the mountain passage into a striking basin of alpine greenery and glistening cerulean waters.
Passing through Ledro’s small villages, I moderate my fear of dying young and in a car by distracting myself. A monologue from Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” comes to mind. Italy, says an old woman, is a land of the old cults where natural and supernatural become entangled. I imagine nymphs and sprites ducking in and out of the doorways and windows of the idyllic canary and charcoal-colored houses we zip past. I imagine Anita Ekberg’s Sylvia, splashing in le fontane of village squares.
Some of the villas (Austrian and Swiss in style) are adorned with an apple or a cherry tree. There are stepped clearings furnished with rows of lush grape vines. Their leafy tendrils don’t yet droop but stretch out as if to beckon passing travelers.
Into the grassy hills beyond Lake Ledro we arrive at Massimo’s mother’s house perched at the edge of tree-line. This is the town of Enguiso. My Italian must be truly hopeless since I understand nothing she says to him, or to me, as we haul our suitcases up the steps of the front garden.
But Massimo reins in her dialect: “Mama! Non parlare in dialetto; non mi piace e lei non capisce!”
“Va bene, va bene,” and she waves a hand at him before returning to lightening-speed announcements about the valley, supported by an arsenal of questions about London weather, his work and, of course, me.
Arriving at our apartment I discover that, like the quaint homes littered around the valley, we are blessed with our own verdant fruit trees. A huge canopy of cherry-laden stems looms over the garden and front veranda. Massimo jumps into the thick of it, rifling through leaves and popping the red berries straight into his mouth.
“I can eat these, Massi?”
I hop out of the way as he spits the seeds.
“Si, si, sono mature.” He gives me an odd look and waves a hand, “Mangia!”
Ripeness hadn’t actually been my main concern, but I figure that three decades of eating unwashed berries hasn’t killed him I’m safe. I don’t want to look like the sanitary-obsessed city girl after all.
During the week, we stroll or bike around the villages, stopping to chat with everyone we meet. After the obligatory exchange of names and the discovery that I come from “Wow! California! Che bello!’, I am earnestly asked the Big Question: Ti piace qui?”
Fortunately, as with the cherries, I learn quickly. No round-about monologues about the natural beauty of the glacial-carved basin or how I adore waking up to the echo of the village church bells bouncing off the stunning valley walls. Quick answers are best: Si, mi piace moltissimo. Leave descriptive stories to the locals. They won’t disappoint.
Take the little old lady who lives next door to us. When I found myself locked out of the apartment (because I didn’t turn the key, push and pull just to the left — in that order) I sent Massimo a text message asking him to rescue me. I then plopped down on the front steps.
Suddenly, the balcony door to the left of me crashed opened and our neighbor came lumbering out onto the landing. She immediately launched into a rapid oration pausing only to ask if I was Massimo’s “ ragazza straniera”, his foreign girlfriend. That confirmed, she offered news about the people of Ledro and the neighboring valleys that her nephew, a doctor, had visited in the last week. She also handed me bulky slabs of salame. By the time Massimo strolled up the drive to open the door, I had a whole box of the fragrant sausages on my lap. I could recite by memory tales of the region’s more interesting inhabitants.
“Where did you get those?” he asked, pointing at the salame.
“The lady next door. I think her nephew got them from a family of contadini he helped.” I say, shifting the box onto one hip as I stand. “It’s so nice how people give gifts around here. Good way to make friends with your doctor.”
“Non era un regalo, cara. It was payment.”
So bartering endures. I wonder if my dry cleaner at home might consider a box of homemade cookies.
As we left, Massimo’s mother handed me a bag of five enormous tomatoes called “heart of the bull” and two slabs of Grana Padana. Not to worry, she’d mail more when we ran out. I’m not sure she considered international biohazard restrictions. But there was no debate.
Back in misty, traffic-ridden London, Massimo and I ran into our friend Francesca outside our building.
“You’ve been in Italy, haven’t you?” she said with a sly smile, “You look so tanned!”
“Yeah, but he’s still got his whites,” I giggled and showed her a freshly plucked hair against Massi’s protests.
“Ma guarda!” she pointed. A silvery strand is capped with a rich black root a few centimeters long. Proof of rejuvination.
Massimo laughed. Francesca looked confused. As for me, how do you say “speechless” in Italian?