Scusi, Do You Speak English?


Day 8, "Ciao Ciao"

Friday. This was it, our last day in Italia. (Though we would, in fact, be within the country until about noon on Saturday, that entire day would be spent on trains, buses and planes, so it didn't really count.) We got up relatively early, and spent the morning packing.

Sometime during the night, three kittens had wandered onto the patio behind Scuola, and curled up together on one of the padded chairs. They were so cute, sleepily staring up at us when we looked out the window. They never let us get close enough to pet, and we tried to get a picture of them leaning out the window, but the light wasn't good enough. But still, what a sweet farewell from the Castello di Montalto.

The produce shelf at Montalto
The produce shelf at Montalto. You took what you wanted from the basket, and it was charged to your account.

There was another nice surprise waiting for us in the front office: you may remember that I mentioned a local bakery delivering fresh bread daily. One of the bakery's offerings was croissants (though for some reason, they called them brioches). We had tried repeatedly to order brioches for our breakfast, but somehow our order kept getting lost, or missing the delivery man's attention, or something. Anyway, on this last morning, after giving up hope, we were pleasantly surprised to find three brioches waiting in our mailbox. Georg, Francesca and I had them with some wonderful fragola (strawberry) jam in the Vescovo living room.

Brian had planned a group art activity: he brought a white linen tablecloth (though Francesca told us that in Italy, a cloth like that would more likely be used as a bed sheet) and a collection of fabric pens. He spread it out on the floor and asked everyone to sign it for Niki de St. Phalle. Since we three were the first to leave, we were also the first to sign. Though Maria, Glenna and Arnell soon joined us. Everyone's drawings were lively, colorful and fun, just like the Tarot Garden which inspired them. I wish I could have seen what everyone wrote! I hope that someone took a picture of the cloth before it was sent to de St. Phalle.

By this time, word had gotten around that we were about to depart. Now, I'm not very good at lengthy, tearful goodbyes. In fact I've been known, at the end of a particularly close visit, to sneak out early in the a.m., leaving a note behind, in order to avoid the emotional farewell. However, there was no getting around it this time. There was much crowding around and saying goodbye to new friends and old friends. Glenna and I made a joke of it, casually promising that I would tell her all about our afternoon excursion as soon as I got back.

Then we were off. We had originally asked Brian to drive us to Castelnuovo Berardenga, the nearby town, so we could catch a bus to Siena, and from there a train to Florence. But John, Ann and Brian graciously drove us all the way to Siena instead, a kindness which saved us hours of time. That was the kind of generosity Brian showed throughout the week. Then as always, we were extremely grateful.

The ride into Florence was very smooth. Francesca knew the station (since she had come in on Tuesday), and we were able to catch a train with only a few minutes of waiting. She us found very inexpensive seats, which meant that we had to change trains along the way. I didn't mind, as it gave us the chance to stop and replenish our supply of ever-important acqua minerale (bottled water). Also, the second train was a bit, dare I say it, dingy, so I got to see a wider range of railway accomodations.

On arriving in Florence, the most important order of business was finding a hotel room for the night. I was a little apprehensive about this (and annoyed at myself for failing to plan ahead), what with all I'd heard about how difficult it is to get a room on short notice. But Brian had reassured us the night before by telling us about an office in the stazione where they help you reserve hotel rooms.

Georg and Francesca went off to reserve our tickets to Milan for the next morning, while I waited in the very long line for hotel reservations. Because the line was at a standstill, they left the luggage cart with me. Unfortunately, as soon as they were out of site the line began to move quickly. When my turn came up, I was so nervous about what to do with my cart, that I didn't notice the sign on the door (in English no less) that said "no carts inside."

This was my biggest language barrier gaffe. (as far as I know, that is!) A man tried to tell me not to take the cart inside, but since I didn't understand him, I thought he was helping me with the door. So I smiled, said "Grazie!" and kept right on dragging that cart into the office. Finally the shouts from inside of "Signora! No!" got through to me. Embarassed, I gave up my place in line to wait for Georg and Francesca to come back.

The courtyard at Montalto, on the day of our departure
The courtyard at Montalto, on the day of our departure. The second story windows are Fattoria, the Genettis' apartment.

A very nice German lady tried to offer me advice: first she spoke in what sounded like very broken Italian, to which I could only smile, shake my head and shrug. Then she talked to herself a little in German, then finally pointed to the baggage depository and said in English: "You .. can .. put .. your .. things .. in .. there!" The sound of triumph in her voice at being able to express herself was unforgettable. I told her that I was waiting for a friend, then said "danke shoen." What a smile she gave me at that!

Finally Georg and Francesca returned with our tickets. They had booked us seats on the superfast Eurostar, woo-hoo. I was still embarassed about the cart, so Georg went and got a room for us. Thankfully, they still had rooms left.

While Francesca and I waited for Georg, a poor woman with a baby approached us, her hand out. Francesca turned her away with a sharp "No!" I was quite surprised to hear that tone of voice from Francesca, always so gentle, until I remembered about the street people we had been warned about so many times. People in the US called them gypsies, though Francesca called them something else, Romany I think. They are supposed to be expert at picking pockets, and allegedly use a baby or a cardboard tray to distract unsuspecting turisti while they lift their wallets. In fact, I had expected to be mobbed by crowds of street urchins trying to lift my purse as soon as we arrived. But this was the only street person we saw the whole week.

Now that all arrangements were made, we split up for a brief time -- us to our very noisy hotel room, Francesca to check in with her Florentine friends -- and then met up again for a final afternoon of sightseeing. Georg and I finally got to meet Mauro and Cecilia, but only very briefly, as they were quite busy with their souvenir stand. I imagine that running a souvenir stand in Florence is a very demanding job, especially in August! Georg complimented Mauro on his "Wonder Stuff" t-shirt. I wished (once again) that I spoke a little Italian, so I could have had a more elaborate conversation than just "Ciao."

A week before, we had briefly visited the Duomo, the Baptistry, and San Lorenzo (though, with a service in progress, we weren't able to see any of the really impressive art in that particular church). For our last day, we crossed the Arno River, finally getting to see the famous Ponte Vecchio. Apparently, the Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge in Florence that was not destroyed during World War II. All the other bridges look modern and ugly, made of concrete. But the Ponte Vecchio is crammed with shops, mostly gold merchants I think. At night street vendors cover the sides of the bridge with blankets filled with souvenirs, posters, clothing, etc.

We chatted while we walked, about language among many other things. Francesca seemed highly amused by my tendency to refer to everything as a thing. I think it first came to her attention when, while discussing a member of the group with a very strong Brooklyn accent, I said "I think it's just a thing," meaning a deliberate shtick. Soon Francesca, too, referred to most anything as a thing, in true American fashion. I commented that all she has to do is begin every sentence with like and end it with you know, and she can speak just as inarticulately as any American!

South of the Arno, we walked through a neighborhood that felt a bit less picturesque and touristy, a bit more urban. We were in search of Santa Maria del Carmine, a church Francesca had been trying unsuccessfully to visit for years. Thankfully, it was open this time, so we were able to go inside.

Santa Maria del Carmine was originally built in the 14th century, but was almost completely destroyed in the late 18th century by a fire. Fortunately, one chapel survived the fire, which contained a marvelous series of frescoes depicting Adam and Eve's explusion from Eden, and the life of St. Peter, by three artists: Masolino, Masacchio, and Filippino Lippi. I was struck by the amazing realism in the paintings, especially the anguished Adam and Eve fleeing the garden, and another painting of St. Peter taking a coin from the mouth of a fish.

Of course, I knew nothing about the historical importance of this chapel while I was looking at it. I later found a web page with a bit of information about the artists and a few images:

We could have stayed in Santa Maria del Carmine for hours, in the chapel or peering out into the main church at the elaborate trompe l'oeil ceilings in the reconstructed part of the building. Alas, our visit was cut short when we were summarily ejected by a uniformed woman shouting "Excuse me! The museum is closed!" We wandered back up the street, arriving eventually at the church of Santo Spirito. This one had dozens of paintings, some very lovely and important, I'm sure. Unfortunately, by this point I was feeling a bit of sensory overload at all the art we'd seen over the past week, so I was having a hard time absorbing it all.

I did find a portrait of Mary Magdalen as a hermit, wearing an ankle-length cloak of her own hair, which charmed me greatly. It reminded me of a wonderful book I had read a couple of years ago called Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, which examined different beliefs about Magdalen throughout Christian history, & how these beliefs were informed by the politics and culture of the time. When I got back home I re-read the book, and deeply regretted not having read it right before I left. It turns out that we were in the vicinity of many of the works described in the book (sometimes in the same museum or church!). But the portrait at Santo Spirito was the only one we stumbled onto. Oh well, it's just one more thing to add to my list of reasons why I must go back.

It was fairly hot and muggy that day, much like the weather we had left behind in North Carolina. But as it was our last day, in spite of the heat we wanted to stay out that afternoon and see the city. Wherever we went in Florence, we heard the most amazing mixture of languages spoken around us. Walking down the street you could hear Italian, German, French, English, all in the space of a few feet. On the Ponte Vecchio we heard a young woman say loudly, "It's been five days since I've spoken to anyone who understood me!"

We walked along aimlessly, eventually finding ourselves at the Palazzo Pitti. In front of the palazzo were a pair of sculptures by Igor Mitoraj, which we immediately dubbed "the giant heads." They were huge partial faces, made (I believe) of cast metal, reminiscent of the remnants of classical Greek sculptures. They were apparently part of a series called Dei e Eroi (Gods and Heroes).

The Palazzo Pitti had a small exhibit of paintings by Monet, but since Francesca had already seen them earlier in the week, we decided to head into the Boboli Garden instead. Considering the weather and our general state of tired enervation, perhaps a massive formal garden wasn't the ideal place for us to go. However, it was nice to have a chance to see this famous spot. There were some more pieces from the Dei e Eroi series inside, which I enjoyed very much. After I got back, I looked in the Time Out Florence website and found out that there was a much larger exhibit in the same series at the Museo Archeologico. I was rather disappointed at having missed it, until I realized that I couldn't have visited the exhibit even if I had known: I was never in Florence at a time when the museum was open.

After all this walking, we decided that sitting down would be a good thing. So we wandered back across the Ponte Vecchio (I found myself thinking "uptown," even though that's of course not applicable) until we found a cafe. At one point the conversation turned to television. We were delighted to know that, not only is The Simpsons popular in Italy, the Italian Mr. Burns still speaks with a sinister, gravelly voice. Francesca also described a TV ad that Sharon Stone had done for Campari, and did a hilarious imitation of Stone's American accent by holding her nose and squeaking "Campari? Must be a party!" We thought it was hysterical, and Francesca told us apologetically that "this is how you sound to us." If all Americans sound nasal to Europeans, I wonder what they think of the regional accents that seem nasal even to us (such as Brooklyn or East Texas).

Earlier in the week, Brian had told us that the stereotype of Americans is not pushy and rude, as I had thought (in fact, that seems to be the perception of Germans instead), but that we are too friendly, smile too much, tip too much, and are very loud. Francesca confirmed that this was true, and then -- gracious as ever -- told us that Italians were glad Americans were so loud, because Italians are considered noisy by the rest of Europe. So they are glad that there are people even louder than they are!

We sat at the cafe for a long time, long enough that Georg and I began to get nervous about taking up a table for so long. Even though the cafe was half-empty and the waiter showed no interest in us, we still couldn't get used to the idea that in Italy you can stay as long as you want. In a comparable cafe in NY, the waiter would have been hovering or shooting us hostile glances, or maybe even openly telling us to leave. In any case, we ended up staying until dinnertime.

We weren't up for an elaborate, multi-course Italian meal, so we decided to try I Tarocchi Pizzeria. We had heard people from the Montalto group talking about it, and it even turned out to be on my tourist map! On the way there, we walked alongside the Ponte Vecchio, oohing and ahhing at the cars parked by the side of the road: Fiat, Opel, Peugeot, cars that would be exotic back home. Among all the tiny European cars, we found one big American-style SUV. I pointed triumphantly: "This! This is what all cars look like in the US! Isn't it hideous!"

The Tarocchi theme at I Tarocchi turned out to be tenuous at best: simply a few oversized, framed Waite-Smith cards hanging on the walls. I was hoping for pizza named after i trionfi (I'll bet that l'Imperatrice Pizza would be great, no matter what was on it!), but no such luck. We were a little confused by the High Priestess card, which was titled La Papesse, which Francesca explained is incorrect grammar in Italian. It should have been either La Papessa (the Popess) or Le Papesse (the Popesses, in which case there should have been two of them). Eventually we figured out that the title was written in French.

Regardless of the superficial theme, the pizza was excellent. I had tonnato: tuna fish, tomato and onions. A wonderful combination! I forget the name of Georg's pizza, but it had gorgonzola cheese and salamino piquante (a little sausage similar to American pepperoni. In Italian, pepperoni means green bell pepper. Go figure). Francesca had a cheeseless and sauceless pizza: simply crust, arugula, and prosciutto, with a lemon half to squeeze over it. I thought it might be dry or bland, but it was terrific!

Also, the restaurant seemed to cater to Italians rather than turisti. The menu was written in Italian only, providing endless entertainment as we asked Francesca to translate the name of every single ingredient, some repeatedly. (Actually, I think we probably found this much more entertaining than she did. But she was extremely patient with us.) When we got there, around 7:30, it was about half-full inside (though the outdoor seating was full). By the time we left, around 9 pm, the restaurant was packed with people who seemed like locals, and filled with Italian voices. I was so glad to have had our last Italian meal somewhere that Italians enjoyed, not in a touristy place. And Francesca asked the waiter for extra menus for us, so we had souvenirs of the evening.

Our walk back up to the stazione was a bit sad, as every step brought us closer to saying goodbye. We passed a movie theater along the way, with a poster for Roberto Benigni's La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful). Georg and I confessed that we hadn't yet seen it, though we've heard it's excellent. We loved Benigni in the Jarmusch films Down by Law and Night on Earth, though we had heard bad things about Johnny Stecchino and Son of the Pink Panther, the only other Benigni movies available on video in Durham.

Francesca confirmed that she didn't think either of the latter movies were very good (she hadn't seen Down by Law or Night on Earth). She said that Benigni is considered an excellent comedian, but until La Vita è Bella, not a very good filmmaker. She said the perception is that his slapstick humor doesn't sustain a full-length movie, so La Vita è Bella was an important breakthrough for him. We told her that America had been charmed by Benigni's acceptance speech at the Oscars, but that no one had much understood what he meant about "lying down with everyone in the firmament." She said that the speech didn't make any more sense to Italians!

She also told us that Benigni, from a small town near Florence, has an accent considered funny by Italians. I love learning tidbits like this, which are completely lost on non-native viewers. (I wonder if, when he plays a Roman taxi driver in Night on Earth, does he use a Roman accent? Or does he speak with his own accent, and play a Roman taxi driver from the Florentine countryside?) I also learned that I have been mispronouncing Benigni's name all along. Apparently the final consonant is pronounced as in lasagne. I had been saying it as if it were spelled Benini, with both the second and third consonants the same.

Finally we reached the stazione and had to say goodbye. Francesca seemed to have the same attitude towards long, tearful farewells that I do. So, with thanks to her for such a lovely visit, and some brief urging to visit us in the US, we quickly said "ciao ciao" and split up.

About our hotel room, all I will say is that I was glad it was so unbelievably noisy, because that reduced the chance that we might oversleep and miss our early train. We did have a funny mixup getting out of our hotel room (funny in retrospect, I should say). Not accustomed to European hotels, it never occurred to us to tell them ahead of time how early we were planning to check out. When we left our room at 5:30 the next morning, we found the front desk unoccupied. We spent a moment or two wondering what to do, then wrote a note with our checkout time and "Grazie -- Arrivederci", and left it with the room key in our mail slot.

Our next hurdle was getting out of the hotel, as the front door was securely locked. Georg gamely fumbled with the series of locks, eventually getting them all open. (I was amazed that the noise didn't wake anyone!) We felt badly about leaving the door unlocked, but we didn't really have a choice.

We thought we were home free at this point. Little did we know! The hotel occupied one floor of an old building. When we got to the ground floor (taking the stairs rather than the ancient elevator, because we had already wasted so much time), we discovered that the front door of the building was also locked, much more securely. In fact, after a few minutes' fighting with the lock, we determined that it could not be opened without a key. Imagine, missing our train because we were locked inside our hotel! Even with the stories Brian had told us about being locked out of Florentine hotels, it never occured to me that we might get locked in.

As panic set in, a pair of turiste giapponese joined us at the front door. Our Japanese was even worse than their English, but we got the message across with gestures (by which I mean frantic pointing and pulling at the door). Georg and one of the Japanese ladies ran upstairs to try and wake someone. (He told me later that he asked her if she spoke English, and she replied "Poco"!) Fortunately, the staff at their hotel was more attentive than ours, and she found someone to buzz open the door.

The ragazze giapponese had less time to lose than we did, and they set off at a dead run for the stazione. Fortunately we were very close, and we saw them boarding a 5:45 train while we waited for ours. We were on the superfast Eurostar, with very comfortable accomodations. This is the train where a young Italian woman, looking for her seat, mistook Georg for another Italian.

I spent the train ride writing all the postcards I had meant to write all week. I had been pretty good about writing them the first few days, but as the week wore on, my free time for writing seemed to evaporate. We got a little silly with the postcards, writing one to our favorite diner back home, and one to the members of the Montalto group who stayed on for the second week. If I had had Francesca's address with me, I would have written one to her too. We used up every single one of our francobolli (stamps); I wish we had bought a few extra to save.

When we got to the Milano central station, we were only a few blocks from il Meneghello, the Tarocchi publisher run by artist Osvaldo Menegazzi. How I wish we had had a couple of hours to visit the shop. But as it was, we had to immediately board the shuttle for Malpensa airport. Add that to my ever growing list of "things I must do next time!"

The plane trip wasn't so bad going back over the Atlantic, probably because it was daytime, and I wasn't trying to sleep. However, the trip took a turn for the extreme worse when we arrived in the US. Inclement weather in NYC prevented the plane intended to take us to Raleigh-Durham from landing. After sitting around for a few hours, they finally cancelled the flight and put us on a plane to Atlanta, where we got another plane to RDU. We finally got home at 2 am, after traveling for 26 hours straight.

Now I find that I have come to the end of my rather lengthy Tarot Italy Trip Report. Looking back over what I've written, I find it somehow lacking. I can write about where we went, what we saw, and what we talked about ad infinitum. But this sort of description will inevitably prove unable to capture the spirit of the event. So I hope you all will indulge me as I close by thanking all the good friends and new friends who shared with me this magical experience in a castle in the Tuscan hills:

Thanks to Bob the gourmand, the first familiar face we saw in Italia;
to Gerry, who helped us navigate the Stazione Centrale when we were panicked by the language barrier;
to Joan, who was always up for anything;
to Charlotte, the "toilet paper hero";
to Riccardo, who introduced me to Chino;
to Maria, who spoke so passionately about Turkey;
to Alexandra, our High Priestess;
to Ken, whose descriptions of the eclipse made me feel like I was there;
to Cerrithwen, the next generation of Tarot artist;
to Bronwen and her wonderful pies with whipped cream;
to Gaelen, the future entymologist and Dylan's new best friend;
to Nancy, who translated six hundred year old Latin inscriptions with aplomb;
to Simon, the photographer without a camera;
to Tessa, who took my copy of Hannibal so I wouldn't have to carry it back;
to Cheryl, who I wish I'd gotten to know better;
to Sasha, who sang so beautifully;
to Moonchild, who helped me be polite to the German guests of il Giardino dei Tarocchi;
to Glenna, who made me feel not so bad about leaving early;
to Bill, who arrived after I left;
to Ann, always so gracious and easy to talk to;
to John, the intrepid driver who braved roadway insanity without complaint;
to Mike, the other half of our fearless driving duo;
to Arnell, my dear friend;
to Francesca, who after years of anticipation was even more delightful than I had hoped;
to Georg, who let himself be talked into this extravagence;

and of course, to Brian, without whom none of this would have happened.

Italy Travelogue:
Day 1: Turisti Americani

Day 2: Tutti gli Dei

Day 3: Behold the Power of Cheese

Day 4: Monk Mobile

Day 5: Scusi, do you speak English?

Day 6: Tutte le Direzione

Day 7: Gardens Sacred and Profane

Day 8: Ciao Ciao

il Palio: special report by Georg

Castello di Montalto official website



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