Saturday, February 26, 2011

On the Occasion of Our Thirtieth

The airport sank beneath us as we climbed into the sky above Boston, our first visit to Italy now officially underway. So far, so good, but the preceding week hadn't gone as well. In fact, only hours before, I had not been able to get out of bed. It hadn't felt that bad when it happened. I was piling rocks on a wall, you know lifting and twisting, when suddenly an electric spasm flashed across my lower back. I actually turned around to see if someone had pushed me. It didn't seem that serious when it happened, so what did I do? Like a fool, I continued of course! This had been only days before our scheduled departure. At 5am on the appointed day of our trip, I still couldn't get out of bed. I'd run out of time.

Mare then reminded me that we needed to cancel the reservations we'd made. Fifteen minutes later I decided to try again. On this attempt I was able to sit up without too much pain. I managed to get onto crutches and hallelujah, was able to stand in a manner of speaking. It amounted to a small miracle since I had basically given up on going on the trip that had been in planning for over six months. It was on the occasion of our thirtieth wedding anniversary. The miracle hadn't been complete, however, since I still needed help with underwear and socks! How does that saying go, "For Better or Worse"? Because of my situation, we had postponed packing. This we did quickly and after notifying the kids and family, we were soon off for Logan International in Boston and ultimately Malpensa Airport, outside Milan.

With the combined help of Advil, Aspirin and a wheelchair, compliments of Continental Airlines, I planned to survive. We were on a DC-10 (remember those early jumbos?) and it was packed. Especially in my predicament, everything onboard seemed and maybe truly had been cramped. I would get up and walk around to stretch my back every so often. Across from us was a group of animated Texas students and behind us a couple from Beirut, Lebanon flipped their prayer beads. I wondered if they had some special insight about the flight! It made for a lively mix and difficulty sleeping. We must have conked-off for a while, however, for it is hard to recall long segments of those early morning hours. I was continuing my self-medication, alternating three Advil with three Aspirin every six hours. I hoped my stomach would hold out. We noticed that the sun was once again brightening the sky as we continued our rush eastward. Mary Ellen (at this stage not yet known as 'Maria Elena') lifted the shade to a cloudless, cobalt sky over the French Alps as we began our descent into Milan. For "better or worse", and maybe just in the "not so bad" category, we had arrived.

With a gingerly gate, I walked off the aircraft to another waiting wheelchair. This one was under the command of a lovely Italian ragazza (girl) named Monica (no relation to Monica Lewinsky, then all the news). She was magic. She got us our luggage and then on through customs in a jiffy. We must have looked innocent, maybe helpless, to the customs cops and their dogs. We said thanks and goodbye to Monica at the Hertz counter and following a stop at the ATM (the good old days when $1 was 1780 Lira) were soon on our way. I tossed the crutches in the back seat. Maybe it was from the first time excitement of finally being in Italy or an adrenalin rush, but that was the last time I used them.

We quickly found our way onto highway A9 that led us to Como, the silk-producing capital of Italy, located on the shore of its namesake, Lago de Como (Lake Como). Lake Como has an interesting shape. Think of it as an upside-down Y or something resembling a wish-bone. Due to the action of an ancient glacier, it is one of the deepest lakes in Europe. It also ranks as the third largest lake in Italy. Our destination was the resort town of Tremezzo further north along the western shore of Lago de Como. Since it was early yet and Como so close-by, we decided to stop in for a look. We found a covered parking garage and then walked toward a walled area we'd noticed when we drove in. I asked a policeman, sitting in his cruiser, where the center of town was and he pointed across the street. How was that for novice luck? I wonder what he thought - turista stupido (stupid tourist) came to mind! We entered Como through what is called the "Roman Tower". The hills surrounding the current location of Como have been inhabited since at least the Bronze Age by a Celtic tribe known as the Orobii. History records that around the first century BC, the area became subject to Rome. The town center was initially situated in the surrounding hills, but by order of none other than Julius Caesar, it was relocated to its current location. Caesar had the swamp at the southern tip of the lake drained and laid the plan for the walled city that evolved into today's Como. The Roman Tower was part of this fortified city. Today its environs are home to celebs like American actor George Clooney; pop singer Madonna; Italian fashion designer, Gianni Versace and for a few days, it would be our home as well.

It being a Monday and around noon, most all of the shops in Como were closed. Undaunted, we made the best of our first-ever walking tour through an Italian town. It wasn't difficult, especially with help of a guidebook and again thanks to the foresight of Julius C. for the perpendicular streets laid out perfectly in typical Roman grid fashion. We began from the waterfront's Plaza Cavour. We were surprised to come across a McDonalds but easily passed it up in favor of a slice of pizza from a nearby shop. Thankfully, it was open and most likely operated under the adage - "people gotta eat". On Via Indipendenza, in a small macelleria (butcher shop) of all places, clearly denoted by horned cow's heads, one each on either side of the doorway, we came away with a small frog-shaped bottle of Limon Doro liqueur. At the time we were collecting frogs (rane) of all shapes and styles because of the pond on our property and the ensuing nightly serenade from competing baritones. To this day it quietly sits on our shelf, its mouth yet unopened.

Our short visit concluded, we were once again on the move, this time along the coastal road snaking up the western shore of the lake. This was the very road Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had traveled before being captured near the lake village of Dongo while attempting to escape to Switzerland. His payment that day in 1945 for using this road was summary execution! Historic yes, but it was nothing as exciting as the Amafitana coastal road (an experience I was destined to encounter in the future) but it had its own special quirks. Major among these being the numerous tunnels hewned from the phalanx of sentinel mountains cascading precipitously downward, to in an instant become shoreline. I can only imagine they were first fashioned by hand long ago to widen what must have been simple paths connecting lakeside villages. We were searching for what was to become a special place for us, from that day forward into the future. Unlike many of the grand hotels and private estates which pepper the shoreline, this family run albergo (hotel) in Tremezzo is situated up above the coastal road in a location allowing it to serve as a natural amphitheater overlooking Lake Como. As they say, it has a view to die for. I must have been on a straight section of the road about then because I recall going along at a pretty good clip while my head swept in the scenery in true bobble-head mode. Too late, I spotted the left turn I'd been looking for. Unbeknownst to us, this must have been where we lost the hubcap we couldn't account for when we returned our rental car weeks later. What I do recall is making a last minute, sharp left turn onto Via Patrizio Peduzzi. Not being familiar with this road, I had attempted to enter the part of the road coming down the mountain and lightly struck the curb-high island separating it from the ascending lane. Me and cars - the saga continued! Luckily, but for this confusing, almost indiscernible road divider, there was no further opposition. Back on track, I shifted as we climbed and turned up into what became a residential area until, now plateaued high above the lake, we found Albergo Rusall. We had arrived.

We were shown to room #29. All the rooms had a lake view. The room was very clean, the bed very comfortable (matrimoniale style - two single beds pushed together to make a queen sized bed, typical in Europe) and the bathroom was of decent size with a shower. Yes, it was small but the balcony overlooking the lake, off in the distance, made it feel larger. A flower box attached to the balcony railing, overflowing with crimson flowers, supplied an extra added touch. The expansive view, to include Bellagio on the opposite shore, more than made up for the closeness of the room. We weren't planning to spend much time in our room anyway. The Pesenti family has run Albergo Rusall since 1964. Our hosts were the hardworking husband and wife team of GianFranco and Lidia Pesenti. Franco is all business and spoke Italian, French, German and some English. They were ably assisted by others in the family to include their daughter (then nervously studying for her driver's license, today married, living next door with children of her own) and a grandmother. The staff was wonderful and Franco always checked to see if you were enjoying your stay. It felt as though we were staying in Franco's home for the place definitely had more of a bed and breakfast feel to it than that of a hotel.

After a short nap in prostrate, unconscious homage to the jet-lag gods, we went downstairs to the small bar for chilled lemoncello. We enjoyed our drinks and the panoramic view of Lake Como from outside in the rear garden. We would enjoy this spot many more times over the course of our five day stay. Besides the reception area and bar, the ground level also accommodated a dining room, capable of serving ninety patrons, and an even larger saucer-shaped lounge area. The inviting coolness of leather chairs and couches in the lounge made it easy to justify watching TV even though it was hard to figure out what they were saying, as for instance, during their attempts at quiz shows. I couldn't get over how large the TV show sets were. In size, the stagecraft rivaled a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance stage with the orchestra replaced by bleachers filled with a well dressed audience, all seeming to fit the Italian recipe for success .... one only needs to dress properly! Luckily soccer, where mufti will suffice, needed little in way of explanation but a venue just about as large.

Following our self-tour of the Rusall, we took a brief drive, being careful not to hit anything. Exiting at the scene of the yet unknown lost hubcap incident, we turned north toward Menaggio. There we visited the local tourist office looking for maps and saw a diorama-type model of what Menaggio was thought to have looked like thousands of years earlier. It was hard to tell but I was pretty sure that those little round things some of the miniatures seemed to carry were shields and not hubcaps! This would come much, much later, I was sure. Back lakeside, we stopped for a beer and for the first time discovered “Nastro Azzurro”. It was here that we also came upon a group of four Americans from Arizona sitting at the table next to us. They were two teachers, also sisters, and their husbands. We of course talked and the best part of the entire conversation, at least the part I can now recall, was when they related that because their car was so full, they had sent their dirty laundry home by mail for $70 in order to make room for the ceramics they'd purchased in Tuscany. Funny isn’t it, the tough trade-offs we sometimes make.

Back at the Albergo Rusall, we went to dinner. We were shown to a numbered table that remained ours for our entire stay. That night’s menu featured a salad bar, fettuccine with rabbit ragu, veal, mashed potatoes, peas, assorted cheeses and desserts brought round on a cart and then coffee. In addition, we ordered a bottle of Valpolicella wine along with a bottle of water, “no gazz please". For each course, the waitress (she hardly ever let herself smile) would serve us from a platter, scooping the food into our individual plates by deftly maneuvering tongs like a bulldozer in a sandlot. For dessert, I had gelato and Mare opted for her first ever tiramisu. When I mentioned to the grandmother-waitress that this day was our 30th wedding anniversary, the romantic Italian in her soon produced a candle for our table. Back to the wine for a moment. At this point in our lives, we were not really wine drinkers. Oh, there were the annual holiday glasses of wine, but other than that, not much more. The explosion in wine consciousness and consumption that followed, sometime between this trip and today, had not yet happened in the States … at least not for us. So you can just imagine how difficult it was for us, mere ‘prenatal oenogolists’, anniversary or not, to finish that bottle. Surprisingly today, we have no problem! We kept at it that night, however, until the bottle was empty and were both proud and relieved at our accomplishment. We were by then both bulbous and light headed as we almost staggered into the lounge to watch a little CNN. It had surely been a night of firsts.

And then, too soon, there was breakfast. Breakfast each morning was a wonderful buffet adventure. You could choose among fresh breads, yogurt, pastries, jams, cereals, cold cuts, assorted cheeses, a great selection of fresh fruit, juices, and delicious, though yet too strong for my taste, made-to-order coffee. The staff would even check if we cared for eggs. I enjoyed making a small sandwich each morning from the cold cuts and hardy cheeses. It was at this first breakfast that we made another surprising discovery. We had not been at our assigned table long when we noticed wine bottles appearing on nearby tables. Wow, had we somehow crashed an Italian recovering alcoholics conclave? Imagine having wine at breakfast. It didn’t take long for us to realize that as other guests joined us, wine bottles soon followed. On closer inspection, we noticed that the bottles were already opened and soon tracked the source of the wine cache to a nearby cabinet. It was about then that the proverbial light bulb went off. While we had struggled to finish our wine the evening before, other guests had taken their comfortable fill, the bottle corked, hung with a brass placard indicating the table number and placed in the cabinet. If only we had known!

Time and space restrict me from describing all we experienced during our time there, nevertheless, a few stand out in my memory. We made the rounds by ferry of the various lake ports-of-call. On one visit, for instance, to Bellagio, known as the ‘Pearl of the Lake’, we walked away from the town toward a little structure we’d noted on the shore opposite us at the Rusall. It seemed to shimmer against the water and had a large villa as backdrop. It wasn’t long before we discovered Villa Melzi. Today a national monument, it was built in 1810 by Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Vice President of the Italian Republic founded by Napoleon. Estate gardens with statues placed in flower beds and elegant terraces helped to retain its old world atmosphere. I recall the azalea bushes were the size of trees. We discovered that the object we’d seen at a distance was a private, lakeside coffee house. This small, domed gazebo affair was encased in marble, yet open to the elements without windows in the casements and had a small balcony of its own facing ours. We imagined the elegant galas and resplendent receptions these walls had sheltered over the centuries; a dreamy place of picnics without ants. Only a brief stroll away, it was the cappella (chapel) that captured us. The cappella, like the coffee house, was poised on the shore with the neoclassical, main villa offset in the background. What we saw inside this private chapel was simply amazing. Count Melzi’s tomb was on the order of those of many of Italy's greats, to include the tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici (sculptures of “Dawn & Dusk”), by Michelangelo, that we would see years later in Florence. Francesco's sarcophagus was of powder white marble with a depiction of the Count, seemingly asleep, lying across the top. But it was the draped curtain shrouding the coffin with its folds, tassels and ties sculpted to softness from black marble that was most memorable. The lines between the surreal and the real had blurred, approaching Kafkaesque dimension. All that was lacking in the timeless mist of the chamber was the chanting of a requiem to commemorate the closing of a life.

As I write this tale from my dear dim past, coincidentally at this very moment recovering from yet another back strain, this time from shoveling snow, I wonder how our lives would have taken a different path if we hadn't gone to Italy on that inaugural trip. One thing is certain, we’d have saved a lot of money on wine, at least for a short while until, in due time, we did get there. I imagine we would have eventually gone but most likely our experiences would have been much different. By then, staying at our little jewel by the lake, the Rusall, may have been overcome by other events, places and competing plans on where to go and what to see in Italy. But for my drug induced persistence, we may never have visited the beautiful Como area of northern Italy. My guess is it has something to do with what we feel is important and how we react to events in our lives. There would be other visits of course, but this visit, our first and on the occasion of our thirtieth wedding anniversary, put the bug in me that eventually led us to Casa Calitri.

That Rouge Tourist, Paolo