Last night at dinner, Katie and I received a rare compliment. Another couple looked across at us from their table and the woman asked, "You're Americans? How did you get here? Americans never get here."
I asked if she wanted the long version or the short. Her husband made a shrug that said, Doesn't matter. All we have is time —— here.
I didn't really go into the argument that started it all, but the Friday Night Fight in Venice begins to explain how we got "here" on Saturday night. It was the first argument of our trip, and it had to do with where we were going next. [Many details unfavorable to the author of this post omitted here.] All I told the couple at the restaurant was that we had left Venice that morning uncertain of how or by what route we were going to do so but that somehow we meant to pass through Assisi en route to Rome, where we are meeting our daughter on Thursday.
"Here," by the way, was a tiny restaurant in a tinier village on a hillside in Tuscany. Bring up the Italian music here along with images from "Under a Tuscan Sun" or "Eat Pray Love" or any of the works of popular lit or film that make this Italian region sound like Shangri-La with vineyards. It is every bit as beautiful as all that. And the restaurant "here" was one of those tiny stone places with white table cloths serving a vintage from one of the vineyards, that even the sharpest restaurant critic from the Michelin Guides or [insert foodie web site favored by my daughters here] has yet to discover.
But back to yesterday morning. I left Venice behind the wheel of a tiny but brand-new Fiat with Katie, trying to remain cheery, by my side. That's because she gets over arguments quickly, me not so much. I had been awake since three and still had my grumble face on.
On a map Bologna is roughly between Venice and Assisi as you head south, and by the time we got to Bologna, which I will always pronounce Baloney, we were hungry and I was tireder. We pulled off at the first Bologna exit, paid our toll, and immediately realized we were in the middle of nowhere.
Pull over and ask the policeman, Katie said. As soon as I started pulling over, she said I couldn't pull over THERE. But, Honey . . . —— it was that kind of morning. Fortunately the policeman was one of the first Italians we have met on this trip who actually seemed to think Americans are something other than marauding space invaders with bad breath. He got "Rosa" on his cell phone, who knows English, and between the three of us —— him handing me the phone and Rosa shouting at both of us on speaker in two languages —— we got directions to —— the middle of nowhere.
Really, we did our best to follow Rosa's directions, and I even cooperated, mostly, with Katie, but by the time we had missed three exits and then found ourselves on a higway with NO exits, we took the first exit that appeared after one thousand kilometers and got off in front of a Novotel. Then our chauffeur went on strike. The chauffeaur would be me.
Katie, in her beautiful, incredible, unflappable way, grabbed her iPad, map of Italy, pocketbook, and whatnot and headed inside, while the chauffeur tried unsuccessfully to nap. An hour later Katie emerged triumphant.
In the way of women anywhere, I suppose, even women who don't speak the same language, Katie and the woman at the desk had hit it off. And the woman had a friend whose sister had raved about a place south of Florence that was of course run by yeet another woman who put up people on a vineyard, and ——
That's how we got here —— after three hours of traffic on the A1 highway, which winds through a chain of tunnels southward along the spine of the Apennines from Bologna to Florence. It was like driving in the Appalachians on the Fourth of July. You didn't want to be there, except that it was beautiful beyond telling.
Lost three times around Florence, we finally found ourselves in the village of Greve di Chianti, where I shot the name of the vineyard we were looking for at an old man on a bench. He stared through me. I repeated my question: Poggio Assciuto? He finally said something about the "second sinister semaphore." So we took a left at the second traffic light. (My language skills are shaky but still pretty well informed by years of Latin, French, and German.) And before long we were at "Dry Hill," the translation of Poggio Assciuto, according to the vineyard-owner whose husband invited us to his own restaurant in a tinier village.
"So many letters just to say Dry Hill?" I asked him when he translated "Poggio Assciuto." And even he got the joke. I think.