“So tell me… you and your young man – one bed or two?” said the fiesty 80-something Italian villager. He approached as I photographed the twlight mountains, houses, and rising moon in front of his abode on the hill. “Well this is a funny thing! I never come outside at night. First time I do I find a beautiful woman. What brought you here?”
I tried to dodge the bed question by feigning non-comprehension. When he broke the sentence down to toddler-level, I finally had to declare the information secret. He laughed, with a twinkle in his eye – “Ahhh, yes. I am too curious!”
I’m told villages in the Italian Alps are full of characters like my geriatric buddy and very conservative folks who threaten their children with the evils of dark-skinned races to coerce them into good behavior. “The gypsies will steal you… the n***er will get you…!” Whoa. Our WWOOF hosts, engineers whose worldview stems from traveling to developing countries working for NGO’s for the past ten years, struggle a bit for acceptance.
Anna is a tiny but powerful fireball with an adorable mop of dark curls. I liked her even-keeled personality and listening to the stories and perspectives pouring from her sharp mind while we worked. Her husband, Matteo, pensive and selectively passionate, is a dead-ringer for an Irish farmer or a Maine woodsman. Their three-year-old, Darko, has a fantastic smile, an incredible imagination, and adorable Italian.
The family house is nearly finished – built almost a thousand feet above the village clinging to the steep valley walls. It’s made entirely of ‘bio- materials’ – clay, wood, stones, etc. The nearby creek irrigates their berry patch and provides water for the house. The patch is a new project, undertaken thanks to grants aimed to preserve farming in the challenging mountain terrain. We spent most of our days digging holes for posts that will provide a support structure for rain protection, weeding out the fast-spreading local blackberry that fails to fruit, and running an irrigation line through the thick forest and down the nearly-cliffs to the storage tanks.
On our day off, we lamented for the hundredth time that we hadn’t arrived in the Alps sooner. I am both thrilled to have seen so much of Italy and deeply regretting that we didn’t just come straight to the paradise that mountains are to these two Wyomingites. We managed to climb several thousand feet up into the alpine snow fields of the Alps to the ridge-lines on top of the world. The fresh air, the views, the waterfalls, the views, swimming in lakes being fed by snow melt, the views, tiny flowers in bloom nearly every step of the way… my personal heaven.
At the end of 12 miles and several thousand feet, my trooper of a knee was still responding well to the icy stream baths and compresses. Knowledge of pizza and beer waiting at home propelled us up the final stretch to the house where we joyfully collapsed. Apparently good things really do come in threes: that night I finally received the responses necessary to figure out where to go after Italy to escape Schengen. Is Croatia too expensive? Bosnia and Macedonia too poor to be enjoyable places for unwinding? Did Romania get added to Schengen in July as planned, or not? How many days would it take to get to Ukraine? How much is an apartment there? Suddenly the anxiety and depression that plagued me for days evaporated. Croatia it will be! Inland for affordability, we’ll take the student city that is also the capital – Zagreb.
After overstaying two days with Anna, Matteo, Darko, and the Alps, we said reluctant goodbyes. We took the adorable two-car train from Galleno back down through the mountains – enjoying the vistas of enormous lakes in the shadows of the peaks outside our panoramic windows. It felt like returning to Milford Sound in New Zealand. Or the North Cascades in the U.S.
Since we’d suffered a failed hitching attempt on our way from La Spezia to the Alps, we opted out of trying our thumb luck to get to Verona. Rolling across the new vistas of Northern Italy, a comparison with the geographically great state of California came to mind – tons of coastline, incredible mountains, deserts, rural enclaves, and huge, interesting cities. As the buildings in pink, burnt orange, salmon, and pale yellow flew past the train windows, my fingers flew on the keyboard. Thankfully, internet at Anna and Matteo’s was only a pirated connection available in the evenings. The writing and work that takes a back seat whenever I have internet access got to see the light of day and I finally feel like I might “catch up” with my entries before my kids are 30. (I don’t yet have kids.)
For sure, I hope I can enjoy the Italian Alps a few more times before my kids are 30. And that’s not hyperbole. ♣
See a dandelion that wishes it was a tiger-lily, tobacco plants, polar swims, and more mountain vistas on Facebook.