emory grabbed hold of me today, taking me back to a quiet Italian seaside town in the ‘60s – Viareggio. On our most recent trip to Italy, we stopped there on the way back home to France.
Once upon a Viareggio morning, an apricot sun shines down on children in the street, calling to each other as they made their way to school. And inside, there are fresh apricots on the stove, chocolate in the coffee. This is 1963.
Every morning the women on the balconies discuss what women on balconies discuss – the day’s affairs, each other’s news, the passing of the night.
We quickly become friends with the bread maker who lives next door to us. She bakes us some loaves, and in the morning, when she sees us pass, she calls out, “Proviamo.” She and her husband are shaped like the loaves she bakes, and no wonder, for her bread is beyond description – bread such as I have never tasted elsewhere.
The streets are full of voices – workers calling out “Buon giorno” to each other, as they go about their day, singing as they work.
At the morning market, I find Amalfi lemons, oranges, tiny strawberries that look like gemstones, raspberries, and all kinds if vegetables.
Our new friend, the butcher, is engaged in his first battle of the day with a group of little old ladies whose lapdogs are yapping at the marble counter on which rests giant slabs of pork and veal.
We enter the shop with our short Twiggy skirts and our waist length hair, and suddenly this butcher is all smiles, offering us osso buco cut from the small part of the shin, while the pack of old ladies converse amongst themselves, no doubt voicing their disapproval at this intrusion of Americans with short skirts and way too much leg. But we are used to being regarded as a novelty – maybe because of our long, free flowing hair, which is not the fashion here unless you are a little girl.
We continue along our beachfront, past shops containing hundreds of sandals and sun hats that look as if they belong on Fellini heroines. The beach is covered with driftwood, and tiny lizards scuttle in and out of o1d sun lotion bottles. The sand is perfect for building castles. The cast of the light turns the sea orange and Prussian blue. Going under the sun, which is gentle here, you become a soft glowing sepia, the color of sand and earth. There is a melding that takes place here; you become part of the land with its green artichoke fields and its fragrant umbrella pines.
This is a country in which the melancholy is overpowering and yet pleasant – like the tart-sweetness of an orange.
Coming back to our tiny apartment with our goods, we spot the contessa, our landlady, bent over her sagging roses like a brooding mother. She raises a hand when she sees us, and I think how much she looks like the duchess in “Alice in Wonderland.” That face and that figure!
But in character there is no similarity. She is gracious, very, very old, easily and often fatigued. Usually she can be found resting, a cigarette ever present between her fingers. When she speaks to us, she does so in French or Italian, or sometimes an unintelligible mix of both, with a bit of English thrown in. And if it is not absolutely necessary, her voice is never louder than a raspy whisper. From the look of the apartment, we deduce that this is a woman who has been everywhere and done everything except die. Yet she is puzzled by us, by who we are and what we are doing in Viareggio, which is surely not the place for visitors – but on rent day, she collects the money, asking no questions, and promptly returning to her business, whatever that is.