Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tales of a Hitch-Hiker Searching for Perfection
Part II – Fleeting Plans

It's strange how little events in our lives, decisions or actions we make or fail to make for that matter, however seemingly minor, can result in unexpected life-defining consequences. Each event on its own may be quite unremarkable at the time. Looking forward it is almost impossible to see where life will take us but with hindsight, the impact of earlier choices (or lack thereof) are as easy to spot as a midget on a basketball court. As we look back on life events, followed in turn by events in consequence to a previous event, it is possible to cull-out from our decision string those that molded our lives and brought us essentially to where we are today. It is absolutely true that how we live our days equates to how we live our lives. We are reflections of those life choices and experiences. This is especially the case when we are young, when our lives are basically still in their 'initial condition’ formative years. Case in point …

I had a paper route as a kid. Every afternoon, along with other carriers, I'd pick up my newspapers from the back door of our town's local newspaper office and make the rounds to my 50 or so customers. I worked my way back and forth across the lower part of Main Street. One of my stops was at a sporting goods store run by the basketball coach of the local Italian parochial high school. I was a tall kid and during the season I put it to good use playing basketball at my grammar school. When it came time for me to enter high school, however, I was looking for something different. I guess I'd attended the French parochial school because my mother was French, and moms do have their influence, but by then I wanted to see what public high school would be like. Besides, I also felt there would be greater opportunity there. This was counter to expectations however. My dad, a local sports hero, was Italian and it was expected by everyone, including my stakeholder customer, that I’d attend the Italian parochial high school and play ball there. Would my dad assume my 'paperboy role' and deliver? Thankfully he never did. Looking back, that decision, which had its rough moments, was formative to my life. If I’d gone to the Italian school, who knows where life may have taken me. I might today speak Italian better but I doubt that I’d ever have met Maria Elena. To hear her tell it, with her own set of life's decisions ahead of her, from that very first day of freshman classes when we met, she planned on marrying me! How could I have expected that a decision on where to play ball would determine who I would marry? Since then, our life of transformative events together eventually led to a 1999 trip to Italy and from there to a leap of faith moment that today finds us as property owners in Calitri. Getting to Calitri through Germany this time, though roundabout, was nowhere as convoluted as on our first discovery visit. That decision behind us, Calitri is now knitted into the fabric of our lives. There is a Frost poem about two roads diverging in the woods. Which path we choose makes all the difference - choices do have consequences.

Mare tells me there are few women willing to travel freestyle as we were, relying on standby military flights going who knows where. Firm travel plans like you’d expect on Delta or Alitalia are non-existent. What substitutes for anything approaching a firm itinerary are a series of Plans A, B, C … modified on the fly depending on the situation. Having arrived at Germany’s Ramstein AFB (read Part I), we were into at least Plan B by then. We were close but still not “home” in Calitri, our final destination. On this visit, part of every plan, however fleeting, included taking our time getting to Calitri. We wanted to explore parts of rusticated Italy we’d never before visited. It would be part of our ever deepening excursion into celebrated Italy.

We spent the night at the Air Force Inn on-base but not before venturing into downtown Landstuhl. In the dark of the taxi it seemed a little place, no more than a few streets in the rolling countryside. We'd asked the taxi driver to bring us to a typical, but very good, restaurant in the area and soon he deposited us at the Alt Kundenbeleg restaurant. Oktoberfest was over but we still enjoyed the beer and wiener-schnitzel. Our only real surprise was the bowl of what we thought was a butter concoction. After sampling the mélange we were curious enough to ask the waitress exactly what we had here. We were informed it was lard. After that single misguided sample, we agreed to pass on the rest.

We learned that the next day there was a flight headed for the Italian air base at Aviano, north of Venice. Just what we needed, it was scheduled for an early 0700 departure. We returned to the terminal with time to spare, signed up and were waiting to go when a loudspeaker, announcing its cancellation, decapitated that plan. Now what? An alternative was to take a train to Italy, maybe to Trento or 'fair Verona' before renting a car. The travel agency, just across the street, could help with this option and would open soon. It was about then that while I was getting a cup of coffee, a lucky break came our way. It quickly became Plan D.

The USO is a world-wide institution whose goal is to provide comfort and support to American military personnel. There happened to be USO center in the terminal manned by volunteers who do everything possible to provide a home away from home for our servicemen. I happened to mention to the USO hostess that our flight had evaporated and our desire to somehow get on to Italy. Like a fairy godmother she produced a bus schedule. This particular bus happened to shuttle weekly between the hospital at Ramstein and the hospital in Vicenza, Italy. The magic of it was that it would leave within the hour from right across the street and no tickets were needed! Like an NFL player following a touchdown, I looked up to thank God before sincerely thanking my newfound fairy godmother, surely one of His roaming free agents.

Our luck continued. There was space on the bus for us and a few other likeminded stowaways. We had envisioned something like a school bus. Imagine our pleasant surprise when a full blown tour bus pulled up. It even had a toilet aboard. This made sense for it would be an eleven hour journey through the Austrian Tirol, crossing the Alps via the Brenner Pass, before descending through high Alpine pastures to the Trentino-Alto Adige plains of Italy. It was an amazing ride; the road a ribbon cleaved from the mountains. We were fortunate that our ride was mostly by day for the views were spectacular. All that was lacking was a tour guide on a mike sitting up front to point out the sights such as that amazing six lane 'Europe Bridge' we crossed. The Brenner Pass was far more than the mule track of olden time. It was a major highway and clearly a vital artery of commerce. Though it was early October and the weather just great, nearby peaks there already salted with snow. There were frequent stops - about every two or three hours - mostly to give the contracted driver a chance to relax. A few of these surprisingly were at "McDonalds". The pervasiveness of Yankee capitalism continues to astound me. They featured the "Big Mac" and "Filet of Chicken" sandwiches of course, but there were also offerings called a "Chicago Classic" and a "Miami Grilled Chicken", each for an astounding 7,49€ (about $10.50)! I guess it was expensive towing all that chicken and beef up into those hills. Mare visited the restroom at one stop and insisted I stop in myself and take a picture of the toilet. With a flush, an arm would miraculously extend from the fixture's frame and as the oval toilet seat rotated before you, it would wash and dry the seat for the next patron. German ingenuity indeed! I doubt there was a sign saying so (though in German I'd still have no clue) but I'm sure glad I was standing when I flushed!

We arrived in Vincenza around 10 pm. Our lucky streak continued when travel companions sitting just in front of us offered to take us to nearby Hotel Victoria, conveniently located along their route home. The next morning, as part of our stay, we enjoyed a generous breakfast before taking a taxi ride to the base. We needed to now rent a car for the remainder of our visit. I'm conceited enough to believe I'm actually important but the Europcar agent seemed bored as he went through the motions at a comatose pace. For all I knew, I could have been his thousandth tedious customer but for us it meant independence again. I'd been forced to put off renting something until we were in Italy. It seems that if I'd done so in Germany, I'd have to return it to Germany. This was counter to any plan I could imagine since returning to Germany was not in the cards. And here, all along, I thought it was all one big happy EU family! Now we were free to explore on our terms. By this point it had been three days since we departed Dover. The tough part of the trip was definitely in our rear view mirror as we departed the base for the Adriatic coastline.

We were free-styling now with no reservations or particular destinations before us. Looking over our map at breakfast, we'd decided to head for the seaside resort city of Rimini, the hometown of the famous film director, Frederico Fellini. We had never been there. The human fauna had lessened by this time of year. In fact, we found many of its thousands of hotels, bars and restaurants along the ocean drive already closed for the season. We were about a week or two late but all was not lost. It was quieter and less crowded than the unimaginable nightmare of August's heady Italian migration to the sea. Far more than enough remained open and the weather, on an idyllic binge, made it enjoyable. Our drive continued south through Rimini to the coastal town of Riccione. We made a few passes along one-way (senso unico) streets bordering the sea and finally settled on the Albergo Hotel Astra, not the greatest of hotels but the price was right, it was centrally located and clean. It was family run, which I like to see, with the youngest, "the daughter", relied upon to speak "the English". All told, to the best of my knowledge, in addition to 'the daughter' there was only a grandmother, an aunt, a mother, father and us about. It being off-season, they no longer offered dinner. In mitigating deference, 'the daughter' provided us with some recommended restaurants to choose from and soon we were off exploring Riccione.

We walked a commercial avenue a few streets in and parallel to the water. It was naked of cars, apparently reserved for pedestrians. I like this kind of civic treatment unlike some places void of even a basic sidewalk, instead relinquishing any pulse of humanity to our 300 horsepower chariots. Many shops were open though quiet, void of the hubbub of summer. Closer to the waterfront we began to recognize restaurants on our list. Lulled by the murmur of the nearby surf against the breakwater and the breeze tangled in the rigging of the boats moored in the marina, we decided to dine decadently over a seafood dinner on the peer. Looking at menus posted outside, glancing through windows and sometime going as far as taking a peek inside, we settled on Ristaurante Gambero Rosso (The Red Lobster). Roman, the owner, offers up a bounty fit for Neptune. We began with mussels with bacon and all'aglio (garlic) along with croutons served with sour cream and chive butter - no lard this time! For wine, we tried a strong ruby red "Ronchedone Vino Rosso" (from Ca dei Frati), a blend of lightly acidic marzemino, fruity sangiovese and tiny cabernet grapes. Even though we would enjoy seafood that evening, we still needed our red! Maria Elena enjoyed scallops au gratin with saffron. I chose the recommended sea bass baked in a sea-salt crust accompanied with grilled vegetables - thankfully the crust had been crushed and removed before it arrived. Only a whisper of salt remained. Dolce was a cream-filled torte with complementary Sorrentine limoncello. It got better.

Adjacent to our table-for-two by a window overlooking the harbor was another couple. Agusto and Nellie hailed from the grand duchy of Luxembourg. He greeted us with infectious brio and she with an apple-pie smile. Agusto owned a home theater and hifi business in Luxembourg. He had roots in the local area and was revisiting old haunts that included the Gambero Rosso. We were counseled that we had chosen well. If Roman had laid out place cards he couldn't have selected a more engaging couple to sit by us. Hopefully, they enjoyed a similar sentiment along with their meals. Life opens up when you do ... relying on French, Italian and English we conversed about the food, the town, Italy and family. Utter strangers at first, with only the edge of a table in common, I feel we departed more than mere acquaintances. Surprisingly when we interact with others we learn how miniscule the gradations of difference between us really are. In our travels we have learned that people whether across the globe or across the table are very much alike. Thus far our trip had taught us, through short lived bouts of agita basted in stomach acid, that best laid plans come and go, nevertheless, we definitely plan and look forward to someday returning to the near culinary perfection and dynamic panorama we discovered by the seaside of Riccione.

More in Part III.
From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Search for Perfection - Part II”.