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Finding Piedmont - The Land of Dirty Feet

Diana Strinati Baur

The first time we drove our rental car over the mountain ridge from Liguria into Piedmont, I was in a really bad mood.

It had been our tenth or eleventh house hunting trip in Italy. We had seen the ocean from Lucinasco in the Ligurian hills for all of about 20 minutes on the first day, thrilled with the view from the garden, since sitting inside the mold tinged, overpriced vacation rental apartment was clearly not a viable option. After about a half an hour, the clouds gathered, the rains started, the temperature plummeted, my throat started to get scratchy, Micha's throat started getting scratchy, the water started coming in the crack under the front door, and we noticed that the propane tank was clearly very close to empty. We looked at each other, wild eyed. We both knew a doomed house hunting vacation when we saw one. I pulled out the realtor list, keeping it close by in case I needed to start canceling appointments.

By day two, the propane was gone. Nothing to cook with, no hot water, no heat. Torrential rain, temperatures in the fifties. October in Italy. I called the girl in charge of our rental, she seemed shocked about the propane, as if I had showered too long or something. I implored her to get us some more, and to bring some cut wood as a back up, so we could fire up the ancient stove in the corner. We escaped into Genoa, trying to figure out if we could change the flight and get out of the Nice airport as quickly as possible. Not a chance. Tickets could not be changed. Was the disaster which was mounting worth spending a grand on new tickets? The roads in and out of Genoa were flooded. There was talk of the Nice and Genoa airports being closed altogether. Real estate agents started calling us and canceling. Most of the properties would be unreachable, they said. We both felt like we were getting the flu. At the pharmacy in Genoa I just looked at the guy and he put a variety of appropriate drugs before me. And tissues. My nose was running. It was pathetic.

We got back to the dungeon, and luckily, the propane had been changed. We now had twenty liters. We had no idea how long this would last, we suspected from the scary whoosh the furnace made when it started that we might not be able to get through day three with it. Oh, and five pieces of firewood, now rain-soaked, were sitting by the front door.

I remember making chicken cutlets that night, breaded and fried in butter and olive oil, and some linguine with garlic and parsley. Making pasta without a colander is always a challenge. I stared into space as I flipped the cutlets in the pan.

Two and a half days out of our beautiful condo in Hamburg, and my nails were dirty, my hair flat, my eyes glazed. We could no longer properly or politely talk to each other. We sat on hard wood chairs in front of the wood burning stove. Micha suggested getting a nice hotel room somewhere. I flailed. This rental was enough money! We had to save, save, SAVE!! He sulked, as much as one can sulk in a straight back wooden chair. Our five pieces of smoldering wood were almost gone. I went to turn up the thermostat. He went flying across the room, body blocking me from touching it. "YOU ARE NOT WASTING OUR PROPANE!" he gasped and sputtered. "IT MIGHT BE THE LAST WE WILL EVER HAVE!!"

"We're going to die of pneumonia in this God forsaken pit!!" I screamed, thrashing my hands on the concrete wall.

What I am about to write is not something we are terribly proud of. In fact, it was the lowest of low moments in our five year house hunting adventure.

See, there was this little old lady next door, and she had a lovely little rustico, but that's not important. More important is that she had about six cords of firewood, perfectly cut and stacked neatly, adjacent to our house.

I think you know what I am going to say.

We knocked at the door. Softly. Either she could not hear or was not home. Anyway.

Micha and I borrowed three pieces of firewood. To this day, I cannot believe we fell this low. We sat, in complete and utter shock at our own behavior, in total silence, burning the three logs. We could not look each other in the eye. When the wood was done, we turned off the lights, downed our cold medicine with the last gulp of wine, and climbed into bed.

The next morning, Micha woke up with a new attitude. Never again would he stoop as low as the night before. He cleared his throat and made an announcement.

"We're going to buy some firewood for her," pointing with his head to the right, "and for us. After that we're driving to Piedmont today."

"Where the f-k is that?" was my first, straight-out-of-bed-into-a-freezing-room reaction. "Sounds like dirty feet." I was becoming obsessed with dirty feet by this time, since all of our shoes were wet. Piedmont. The land of dirty piedi.

"It's straight over the mountains, and is supposed to be beautiful."

I shrugged. Who cares if it wins the Most Beautiful Region in All of Italy Award if there was such a thing. I didn't like the name, and I would never want to live there. I just wanted to continue to wallow in my own nasty mood, whining how could I want to move to a country which made me so damn miserable.

"I think it might not be raining over there."

This got my attention.

Of course, he was lying through his teeth. Neither of us had seen a paper or a TV for days. But somehow it didn't matter. I was ready to believe the myth. There is actually a place in Italy which is not being washed into the Mediterranean.

Time for a ROADTRIP.

"I'm never going to live in a place named after feet," I warned my husband. He looked at me with a mixture of irritation and pity. "We're just going to be there for an hour or two. Nobody's asking you to your life away." I emitted a low level growl, and proceeded to the bathroom.

Having enough propane, we took hot showers, went out for a coffee and a croissant and bought some firewood, plus interest for the unknowing nonna next door. We headed up through the back Ligurian hinterlands, pointing the car in the general direction of the land of dirty piedi.

We climbed. And climbed.

And climbed.

The pelting rain turned into icy rain. The hairpin curved road, once dangerous, now looked life threatening. The peak was La Colla di Casotto, with a height of over 1,300 meters. We said nothing, still too traumatized, too numb, and too mad at each other for no good reason.

At some point, we noticed that the ice had turned back into rain, and we were descending, slowly, and that, as my white-lying husband had predicted, the rain itself was getting lighter, and almost ceasing completely. Fog took its place. We drove down hill, through the fog, and the fog got thinner and thinner until it disappeared. It was like our car had commanded itself out of the darkness.

And had driven itself into heaven.

We found ourselves immediately surrounded on all sides by vineyards. The purple-fog sky was the back drop for the intense reds, yellows, browns and greens which engulfed us from all sides. Stone farmhouses, smoke pouring from the chimneys, dotted the landscape.

Lower area of the Langhe in the Piedmont

Lower area of the Langhe in the Piedmont

I unconsciously reached for my husband's hand. It was truly the first moment of gentleness between us in the last several days. We looked at each other. We were still not really talking, but now it was from being thrown into a state of confusion. Where are we? What is this? Why did my cold feel like it was leaving my body?

The first thing I said was, "Is this Piedmont?"

Micha shrugged. "I think so."

"Did you know about this?" I stammered, implying that he had been keeping secrets from me.

He sort of moved his head from side to side. "I read about it, that it was supposed to be really nice, with great wine and all, and I was hopeful, but I had no idea."

We know now that the road dropped us in the lower part of the Langhe, near Mondov. On that particular day, in the particular mood we were in, we were not interested in knowing where we were. We had everything we could do to simply absorb the beauty around us.

We stopped in Ceva and had some ravioli in a small trattoria. I don't remember the name. I remember I ordered spinach as a side dish and it tasted healthy and wonderful. It was the first time I would eat Piemontese veal ravioli, but it would not be my last.

We drove to Alba, marveling at the countryside, like new lovers, holding hands, and feeling born again. We took in the beauty of our first Piemontese city. We shopped, we laughed, we took deep breath, we bought wine.

We drove back to the dump. But now, it was with a new sense, a new feeling. It was the feeling that the moldy walls, the empty propane tank, the five measly pieces of wood had conspired to tell us something. Go. Get out of here and go to the land of dirty feet! Go to Piedmont!

We put five pieces of wood in place of the three we had taken from our neighbor. We felt generous. We were full of ourselves and the feeling that maybe, just possibly, we had found where we wanted to be.

And what a feeling it was.


Diana Strinati Baur lives in Piedmont with her husband and they run Baur B&B, Acqui Terme, www.baurbb.com

© Diana Strinati Baur, 2006

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