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Report 1204: Zig and Georgia's Trip of Gifts

By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006

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Page 10 of 18: 9/30/06-10/1/06 Supermercados and the Cinque Terre

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Dreams we didn't know we had

We travel so cheaply by staying in convents and student hostels, and buying local food in local supermarkets. In Italy they are called collectively “Supermercado” though the name of the particular store will vary from town to town. It’s where the locals shop, and they can afford to live in these places for a reason; they don’t eat at the restaurants every day!

When we got back to Santa Margherita from Castle Brown we went to the tobacconist (they know everything): “Dove il supermercado?” He rattled off directions, waving his arms left and right and indicating “go straight” like a karate chop, then summarily dismissed me, looked down at his newspaper. “Gratzie,” I said. He didn’t look up, but did acknowledge my thanks with a miniscule shrug and slightly upturned palm.

I really hadn’t a clue what all he’d said but I had the distinct impression that we should start out in “that” direction then go left, then go right, then go straight. I went back to report the conversation to “the lady in charge.” Her reply was “He said what?” I recapitulated the brief conversation with hand waving followed by a karate chop. “Oh great. We go ‘that’ way,” she said dubiously looking down an alley. “That’s what he said . . . I think.” She looked up at the sun hurrying toward the horizon.

It’s amazing how quickly the sun goes down in Italy. I know you’ve read in science books that high and low tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational pull causing the water in the oceans to bulge as it sweeps over them. That bulge is actually a very small indication of just how powerful the oceans are, trying to bring the moon down out of the sky. The same thing is true for the sun, only because the sun is so much bigger the effect is magnified. That’s why in places with an ocean on their west coasts night comes on so much faster than in places like Kentucky, where we only have horses and grass of a peculiar hue. They pull on the sun hardly at all. Not anywhere near like the oceans on the west coast of Italy. That’s right. It’s true. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway, it was definitely getting darker, though we still had an hour or so before the sun hissed into the water, so we quickened our pace. That means we started walking up and down various alleys faster. The lady in charge was not pleased. There were lots of people out, even some with shopping bags and they all gave us the same directions: “It’s right then left then straight.” And always with a karate chop at the end. There must be a martial arts school in Santa Margherita where the locals are taught how give tourists directions. We got more and more lost. More and more rights then lefts began to creep into the directions we were given. We were obviously somehow circling the store so we just stopped dead on the little street to reassess the situation.

We’d been walking about 20 minutes. We had about 45 minutes before dark. We could only find our way back to the port by heading toward the setting sun, and we were hungry. On our first trip to Italy this situation would have been sufficient for a panic attack. But we were old pros now. We decided to stop one more, poor pedestrian, then we’d give up and go to a restaurant by the water: “Scusi, Signora, Dove il supermercado?” She started the litany of rights and lefts then saw the look of dismay on my face and stopped. . . “Segualo,” she said and motioned for us to follow. Then she took off down the street at something between a walk and a dogtrot. How in the world do 50 year-old Italian ladies maintain such a pace? We slipped farther and farther behind. After five or six minutes of lefts and then rights and rights and then lefts she stopped at a corner to wait for us. “La,” she said karate-chopping at a giant sign (by Italian standards) announcing “Goliath” out in front of a little (by American standards) grocery store. “Destra ed allora sinistra.” Right and then left. And she turned on her heel and set off for home at a quick march. “Gratzie, Signora!” I called out to her back. “Prego,” she sang back with a little wave.” I guess the store really was “right, then left, then straight,” but little Italian towns have lots of “rights, then lefts, then straights.” I don’t know that we would have ever found this particular combination.

Before entering we took a transit sighting to see the point where the sun was aimed and planned our escape route perpendicular to that point. We figured that should intersect some road or other to carry us back to the convent.

Pears and cheese and bread. A tiny three-pack of canned tuna and a box of little cookies. Sparkling water and Prosecco, Italy’s sparkling wine and poor-tourist’s champagne. Then we sprinted up the escape route and found ourselves clinging to the edge of a mountain goat track populated by whizzing cars. The lady in charge was beside herself. I suggested she carry her grocery bag in one hand, the one hanging out over the roadway. “The cars will be able to see the white bag easier,” I said cheerfully, “and they’ll be more likely to hit the bag than smash us up against the mountain.” It made perfect sense to me. Impeccable male logic. She was not pleased and there seemed to be a steady stream of muttering coming from somewhere in her direction.

But we survived, by sprinting back and forth between the inside wall and the outside guardrail to maximize our visibility in the deepening gloom. We dove into the quiet little footpath that passed for a road above the convent and started walking down, coming out at the upper gate just about the time the sun touched the water. Sitting on our little veranda, we tried to shoot birds out of the trees with Prosecco corks and watched the steam rising from Sole estinto, the extinguished sun. Somewhere close by a newborn baby cried and cried to see the sun drowned. We tried to reassure him that it would be back tomorrow but he was inconsolable. There are some things you just have to learn through experience, that no matter how hopeless it seems today, the sun will come up again tomorrow, and how to “go right, then left, then straight.”


Today we visit the towns of the Cinque Terre. In the 1960s, my mother had bought me a “John Gnagy Drawing Course Art Book” She knew I loved art (or at least loved trying to draw naked ladies from the lingerie section of the Sears Catalog) and thought she could steer me away from my passion by showing me how difficult drawing really was. But I was fascinated by the mechanics of the “grid system” for transferring a smaller drawing or photograph onto a larger canvas (now people just enlarge them on their desktop copy machine!) I had a school notebook full of clumsy sketches but one attempt was less clumsy than the others. In one of our infrequent “Life” magazines I’d seen a full-page color photograph of a small hill-town overlooking a tranquil turquoise bay. Tiny houses rose like pastel-colored crystals from the surrounding rock matrix, row upon row all the way to the top of an imposing sheer cliff. I carefully drew a thin pencil grid over the photograph and laid out the same number of squares on my canvas-board. And then I set to work transferring each and every tiny house and rock and tree onto the board. Precise little outlines, just waiting to be colored in like a do-it-yourself paint-by-number set. It took me months to finish, but eventually I presented it to Mom and Dad, who proudly hung the painting on their living room wall for years and years. Mom would show the picture to her friends: “This was done by my son Johnny, the artist.”

Anyway, the caption for the photograph was on the page facing the one I’d torn out so I had no idea where this little town was. I knew it was on the Mediterranean somewhere but France? Italy? Corsica? Sicily? I hadn’t a clue. After we’d decided to stay in Liguria to be close to Castle Brown, Georgia showed me pictures of other sights to see, one of which was the famous five towns of the Cinque Terre. I recognized Manarola as the little town I’d painted so many years before and knew I had to see it in person.

Painting or drawing requires looking at something more deeply than non-painters can understand. In the hours and hours of transferring each and every house and each and every rock on the cliff to the canvas I came to live in that little town with no name. I walked each and every invisible street, and supped under that tree right there. I sat on the pier and listened to the water lapping against the rocks. I relaxed in the warm sun like a lizard on the rocks, and I listened to the fishermen proudly boasting as they returned with the day’s catch. I stood at the window of that house and looked at the sea. It took me months and months to paint that painting, and I lived in this little unnamed town the entire time.

So today was the day we were going to walk the pathway along the cliffs. Legend has it that it was built because the locals came to enjoy knowing their neighbors and were too frugal to buy train tickets. One stretch is called the lover’s walk because getting to know your neighbor can sometimes lead you to love your neighbor as your other self, don’t you know. Over the years these paths became transformed into a glorious tourist attraction as photographs revealed the amazing beauty to the outside world. Today, it was threatening rain and neither of us was up for walking all five towns so we got off the train at the second, Vernazza, where the hike up to the cliff path left our lungs aching and our vaunted mountain-legs quivering. The young ticket sellers were sitting at a little card table like a fraternity-run lemonade stand.

There were lots of other hikers and the polyglot of languages would have to be heard to be believed. We had such a good time trying to discern Albanian from Lithuanian, Swedish from Danish, and Greek from Russian. All in all it was about a 45 minute walk to Corniglia, lower on the cliffs but still high above the water. Georgia was threatening to catch the train to ride to the next town. There had been a lot of going up and then going down to complement yesterday’s left and then right. But I was so anxious to see Manarola from the cliff-approach that I bribed her with a gelato and promised her another when we got there. She was dubious, but another American tourist who had just walked from Manarola to Corniglia persuaded her with the promise that Manarola was all downhill from here. That did it.

The famous 400 steps on the southern edge of Corniglia was much easier to go down than it would have been to go up. And then we were basically at sea level for the rest of the walk. We strolled leisurely along the paved path and I told her about my childhood love affair with the town whose name I didn’t know. There was a brief climb right at the end. As we came around that final bend and I saw the exact scene burned into my memory I burst into tears. My reaction startled me and I stood there transfixed. C.S. Lewis talks about being “surprised by joy” when God fulfills the dreams we didn’t even know we had. There are some longings so woven into who we are that we don’t even recognize them until they are fulfilled. I was here realizing the dream that my 15-year-old self didn’t even know he was planting. I now know exactly what Lewis meant. Even in our personal history one person plants and another reaps.

I walked around the town in a dream and we stopped at a little pizzeria to get some foccacia and sparkling water to eat under my tree. As we sat there we heard a commotion up the hill toward the train station. A young bride and groom were walking down the center of the street hand and hand, followed at a discrete distance by the cheering and teasing wedding party. The bride was radiant and stunningly beautiful. The groom looked bewildered but also very proud to be holding hands with such a beauty and slightly embarrassed at all the attention. Not the bride. She loved the attention. This was a day she’d obviously looked forward to for months.

Joy comes bottles of all sizes, doesn’t it? And sometimes the corks just blow off like a new Prosecco, and sometimes you ease them out noiselessly as with a fine aged port. I do hope the young groom someday has the quiet joy of walking through one of his realized childhood dreams and sharing it, hand in hand, with the lovely young woman he’s known and loved and raised a family with, and squabbled with for 37 years. I’ve experienced both joys and I know which I think is better.

As the sun set we boarded the train for our last night in Santa Margherita. It had been a very good day.

(to be continued)

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