Yesterday was stranger than fiction. Elida and I went to rent a car to go to Ciorlano, the place that Bruno said Paul and I could live in if we wanted to. We went to the airport because we figured we could use the car to get us to the airport the next day rather than have to take a taxi. But the rental place wouldn’t accept debit cards. Elida nor I use credit cards because debit cards can be run like credit cards everywhere you go, so we thought.

We had a car booked for about 35 euros. We begged Guido at the desk to help us in some way. He’d been grumpy with everyone before us so we flashed our biggest smiles to lighten up his mood.  Elida asked him if there was anywhere in Rome that would accept debit cards rather than credit cards. He called up a friend, Giovanni, and sent us to the train station around the corner. Giovanni hooked us up with a car for about 70 euros. Ouch! we thought but decided not to waste anymore time. Giovanni filled out all the paperwork by hand and let us know that when we were done with the car, we needed to leave the key under the mat and leave the door unlocked. Some things are so much more simpler the Italian way. Another young man showed us out to the car, marked down the multiple dents all over the car, and with hand gestures and simple drawings, showed us how to get out of Fiumicino and back into the multipiano (multilevel) parking. We must have looked so naïve and in need of help that he offered to drive us out, which we accepted. Big mistake. I think in his machisimo way, he wanted to show off and tore down the ramps at light speed. I had buckled up luckily. Elida went flying all over the back seat and ripped her bag open and hit her head. Proud of himself, he yanked over to the side of the road and pointed straight ahead to where we needed to go. Then, grinning, he waved us on our way and hiked back up to the parking lot.

Off we went, Elida driving and me as navigator. We slapped hands and after yelling woo-hoo! we booked down the road at 140 km/hour keeping pace with traffic. As Bruno says, the meek will never inherit the streets of Rome. Elida started to get the hang of it. She shoved our way into merging situations, ran the stop signs, and ignored the traffic lights and speed limits. After driving aggressively, Romans stopped honking at us like we were idiots.

The Yahoo Map I printed off earlier was great until the turnoff to Ciorlano. Once we turned off, the road signs no longer existed and we had no way of checking our progress. I figured this would happen. My plan was to pull over and ask our way. I pictured the town up in the mountains, which it was. But I pictured it like Paul’s and my cabin up in the Ochocos. There’s just one road to get up there. I thought we’d pull over and someone would point to the right or left fork and say follow that for about 30 miles. When we turned off the autostrada it hit me that we weren’t in Oregon, we were in Italy, and we were dealing with many ancient towns that had been there for centuries, probably developed along a water source and the towns wiggled this way and that all over the country side. We looked up and realized we needed to locate a town among a hundred all of which were connected to each other in multiple ways. The mountains circled around the many towns so it wasn’t easy to use them as landmarks.

Nobody had heard of Ciorlano when we first asked. I panicked and thought maybe we were in the wrong section of Italy. Maybe it was an hour back and we had pulled off on the wrong spot. I know every town within an hour or two of where I live. We’re only twenty minutes away. Why hasn’t anyone heard of Ciorlano? We pulled into a shop where a large group of men were smoking and lounging. There was someone who spoke English, a robust man with heavy jowls and a cigarette held loosely between his lips. His father had worked in the Italian embassy in Washington D.C. for four years when he was a kid. But he didn’t know where Ciorlano was. Someone who spoke only Italian took my directions into the store to discuss our dilemma. After chatting with Mr. Italian Ambassador for awhile, the man who only spoke Italian handed me back my directions and told us how to get there. He used Mr. Italian Ambassador to translate. But the directions were anything but clear. Mr. Italian Ambassador kept saying left while pointing right and saying right while pointing left. The Italian who was trying to give us the directions finally got frustrated and pulled us away from him and began to draw on paper, we guessed he was saying, stay to the right of this fork and at the turnabout, take a right. We should see a sign for Capriatti there.

We stayed to the right of the fork, but the turnabout never showed up. We pulled over again into a little store with strings of beads acting as a doorway. Inside was a glass case filled with a variety of cheeses. On the other side another glass section showcased cured meats. On the shelf behind, large round loaves lay stacked in their paper bags. A woman dressed in a white smock with badly bleached hair done up in a 1950’s style and bright red lipstick tried to help us. She couldn’t speak English, but hollered to someone else to help out. Another character from the 50’s showed up with slicked back hair, a white V-neck T-shirt, and plaid pants. He had a three-day shadow all over his face. He gave me the impression of an Italian Archie Bunker. He tried to help us but the language barrier was too much. It was 2 p.m. and we had skipped breakfast and lunch so we decided to order. Using my phrase book, I asked which cheese they prefer with the bread? The woman reaches around behind her and pulls a ball of creamy white mozzarella out of a bucket of water, where she keeps them fresh. The man points to a small, round cylinder of hardened cheese, the color of wax and covered in spices. We ordered both along with a loaf of bread, water, and Elida adds a slice of chocolate ricotta which the lady wrapped in white paper. She handed the items over the top of the glass case. Cost: 7 euros. The man asked us something using mangiere and we understand him to know that he’s offering us a place to eat lunch there at a table in the back of the store. We accept with thanks.

The bread is crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside and the cheeses are wonderful. But there are not enough words to sing the praises of that slice of chocolate ricotta. Elida and I just chewed and moaned and rolled our eyes at each other hoping the slice would never disappear.

During that time, the man got on the phone and found someone who spoke English and handed the phone to Elida. He kept pointing us to continue on our way – that we hadn’t got far enough. The woman, however, was telling us to go back. Another young man, tall and skinny, with thick black hair and horned-rimmed glasses, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt showed up.  He looked the part of a student – someone into computers. The man spoke animatedly to him and finally nodding with satisfaction let us know that we would follow Giovanni who happened to be going toward our destination. We thanked both the man and woman for the food and help. Discovering that Giovanni spoke Spanish, Elida and I quickly explained our issue. Either our Spanish was as bad as our Italian or his Spanish was as bad as our Italian. We finally got in the car and followed Giovanni. The direction we went felt wrong from what the map said. But Elida pointed out that at least he knew Italian and he knew the area and we should just follow and trust.

I thought about how different Italy was than America. How these people rarely leave their town. We are spread out – the closest town to ours is a half hour away driving 60 mph. We’ll drive that all the time, maybe everyday without even thinking twice about it. Our highways are straight and wide for the big trucks to bring the different supplies in. Their towns are just one or two miles away in all different directions, connected by the same need to trade but built when the only way to trade was with only four legs or two beneath you. Now the streets are crazily filled with compact cars, scooters and bicycles. Italians are so willing to help, almost excited for a problem to solve. Americans are friendly too and are willing to help if it can be solved quickly. But if an American doesn’t know, he just shrugs, apologizes, and continues on his way. If there’s a language barrier, he’s almost offended. We’ve got too many of our own little problems, we’ve got somewhere to go, we’re late, we’ve got no time for this. In our defense, we spill our fortunes into other countries that need help and organize groups to rebuild what disasters have destroyed. But I’m just talking about the individual in the day-to-day. Assessing my people, I think we’d be less friendly to a lost Italian than they were to Elida and me.

Giovanni raced along the little roads with us close on his tail. We got worried when he pulled into a fruit stand to ask directions, but we reiterated to ourselves that we didn’t have a lot of options. Then, he yanked his car over on a side highway and stopped. He told us this was as far as he intended to go. So we asked him if he could point us in the right direction. I looked down at my map and for once a road mentioned on the map matches the road sign above us. I think we might be on the right track. Giovanni changed his mind when he sees us questioning and pointing in the direction of the road. He motioned wait and when he heard a car coming stepped into the middle of the road to wave the person down and ask her where to go. She must have given him information because Giovanni motioned us to follow him again – away from the sign on the road that matched the name on the map. We followed Giovanni anyway.

We reached another town and Giovanni yelled out the window at a beefy man with thick rubbery lips and a neck bigger than his head. He was holding a tin of cookies and shouted back directions to Giovanni. Giovanni couldn’t hear. We heard the man remind his wife in the car to pick up the marinara and then he hopped in the car with Giovanni. Five minutes later we’re at the bridge in Ciorlano, a tiny town that’s dead quiet with inactivity. No wonder nobody had heard of it. It’s the last town on the way up the mountain. There’s no reason to go there unless you know someone.

Antonio and his wife Luigia met us at the bridge. Antonio is a gentlemanly man who reminds me of an uncle of Paul’s from the south. Thin and wiry, he dressed old school with loafers, slacks, a button-up shirt opened at the collar that was tucked in, and a belt. His wavy gray hair was combed and slicked back. His horned-rimmed glasses made his eyes bulge through the magnification. A retired postman, he is quiet and sweet. Luigia is short and fat with a warm smile and many hugs. She’s tanned, brunette, and has naughty brown eyes. She wore a mumu with flats. We’re immediately friends after greeting them both with kisses on both cheeks.

They drove us to the house down a dirt driveway. We passed a woman working in the field with a flowered dress and a handkerchief around her hair. She didn’t wave at us but continued working without looking up. We took a left stopping at a rusted iron gate with a lock. I looked at the place — stone with stairs that go down to a basement where they used to keep the cows. There’s a built-in stone trough down there. It’s filled with spider webs and lots of books and materials for the house. A defunct well is on the patio by a stone-walled barn that used to have a roof, but now just has rafters. The front door opened to the kitchen. A large sink stood against one wall beside a dishwasher. A little television sat atop the fridge. There was a table for two in the middle and a massive free-standing cupboard for shelving against the wall. A little wrought-iron bench hid behind the door. Two small windows on the far side and the door side looked like they were in pretty good shape. The floor was good. To my left stood a little wood stove with a flat top where you could keep things warm. There was a hot plate hooked up to propane on the dishwasher. It lacked a regular stove and oven. To the right was a library filled to the ceiling with books and a beautiful desk. Next to that was a bedroom with a single bed and the only working bathroom. To the left of the kitchen was a large bedroom with a double bed. Beyond that was an unfinished room used to store books and a demolished bathroom.

Antonio walked us around the property line. It was lovely and peaceful. Pretty pink wildflowers dotted the ivy and nettles. The bees were still busy in October. The air was balmy and warm. Antonio patiently pointed out the various towns that surrounded us and named them.  Luigia told us that you had to shop in another town for food – just two miles away. The school in Ciorlano only went to the fifth grade. Capriatti had grades through eight. You had to go further down for high school.

I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t allow myself to make judgments or to let my feelings go in any direction. I was just gathering information to give a full report to Paul, the girls, and all my friends. I didn’t know where this would lead. So I just listened to the bees, chatted with Antonio and Luigia, and took pictures and videos of everything that was around me.

I’ll tell you more tomorrow.

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