Some places have a way of taking the momentum right out of you. Not because you're tired or anything like that, but simply because they in themselves are such unique places that you can't help but be seriously infected by the blood that courses through the veins that are the alley ways of the town. The Cinque Terre is such a place on Italy's Ligurian coastline. It is a place where the world can easily be forgotten, as you sit on a bench in the square and watch members of centuries old families do the important things like hang the laundry, reel in the boats from the pounding surf, or stroll from one bar to another. Screaming across the square at your friends is also perfectly acceptable, even expected, lest you be seen walking by toward the breakwater without saying hello. Life here is as simple as, well, life. It's beautiful in it's nothingness.
After our obligatory pit stop in Pisa on the way from Siena, coming back to Vernazza is a little bit like coming home, or leaving home forever for a perfect place. After the hustle and bustle of the rest of Italy (which is great), relaxing here for a few days is like the proverbial battery recharge. The continuous sound of the waves lapping the rough shores coupled with the ever-present church bells makes for a fairy tale scene repeated every half hour. Vernazza is one of five little towns clinging to the side of the cliffs above the sea in this quiet corner of north western Italy. All around are the steep terraced groves of farmers' wine grapes, olives, and other fantastic gastronomic specialties. Pesto and foccacia were both invented here, so you can imagine that the eating is good. Olive oil tastes like heaven. Matched only by the incredible scenery.
Our first day was quite rainy, so we just stuck to the town itself. It's amazing how much you can see when you slow your pace to almost nil. You can almost blend in with the locals, so long as your velocity never exceeds that of the nearest feline. This is harder to do than it sounds. Yet, after a few hours, even a North American can master it. You just try a little harder. And then, almost as I expected, there he was in his red jacket strolling across Vernazza's only street, the incredible, the infamous, Piva.
I could swear that he hadn't changed his clothes in 7 years. He had the red jacket, scruffy jeans, brown shoes, and trademark wool sweater with the two horizontal stripes on it. Looking a little more tired and screaming across the square a little less loudly, his glasses having slipped a little further down his nose. It was good to know he was still around, and we stopped by his restaurant incognito for a few moments just to make sure he was still operating. So it was. My plan was always to go there for a meal but now in the quiet season I was sure that the atmosphere would be completely different with some empty seats, even though there is only room for about 15. That's the thing about trying to relive a moment, even though you are always sure it's the best thing to do ahead of time, it is never the same thing, and all you can hope for is that it is something different that is equally as memorable. Kristine is cognisant of this, wondering if we should go at all.
7 years ago when we were here, we had dinner at Piva's. It was mid April, and the place was packed. Piva did the serving and the cash while his wife and the help handled the food and the dishes in the back. As the evening wore on, Piva slowly started pouring his local wine gratis and brought down the guitars. Each table was charged with performing tunes of local folklore, and as the guitar passed from the Spanish, to the French, to the English, to the Brazilians, and finally to me; the restaurant lit up with a magical ambiance that spanned the globe in a 100 square foot room. Piva as it turns out was more than he appeared, and just last year Owen found one of his CD's somehow (I am still not sure how to this day) which contained songs with his booming voice, all in classical and traditional Italian style. So, needless to say, I wanted my return here to be low key, after all it was the slow season, and he was taking time to rest now.
So we went to the restaurant, and when we arrived he was there with just a young girl There was no wife. He seemed very agitated and noisy and he himself prepared our dishes in the back (the pesto gnocchi was superb) while he barked at the young Tunisian girl working for him that the orders were up. There was one other strange man in the restaurant who looked like an English guidebook writer or some sort of Bill Bryson type with his "safari" pants almost up to his nipples, and the entire ambiance was a little bit black. What had happened? Had his wife died? Had they split up? Something was not right. Or was it. Maybe this was just the way it was supposed to be with no moment ever repeated.
And then in walked a strange looking older women dressed in black carrying a bag of music notes and cassette tapes (Hey, it's Vernazza). While we ate, the woman and Piva played the tapes, read lyrics, and generally discussed what was good and what was bad about the music we were listening to. A lot of it was quite amateurish, but what wasn't was the way that this moment fit perfectly with everything Vernazza is - it's no problem to sit around doing other things while there are customers are in the restaurant, we are just doing what we want to do. Perfect. I thought that this is where the story would end, that this is where my different memory would come from, but it was not yet complete.
The next day we were on the train to Nice France, via Genova, as Kristine and I found our compartment, we were just getting comfortable, when in walked the woman from the restaurant. Se greeted us as though she had known us for centuries even though we had only just seen each other the night before, and never even spoke a word to each other. That is Italy, now were getting hugs. For the hour and half on the train to Genova, we pieced together a conversation in broken Italian and English, which was eventually facilitated by a young Italian man who joined us. Before he joined us we had gotten far enough to find out that this women had Parkinson's disease and was expecting to die in short order. She showed us pictures of her sons and even her husband back in the 1940's. She showed us where the battery pack was imbedded under her skin and how the wires ran up through her jaw directly into her brain so that her physical behaviours could be better controlled. Next, she began singing various Italian songs at the top of her lungs including various opera tunes she knew. She was very good, but even so, the train attendant came and asked her to be a little more quiet. She was 65, but she was 10. And she even faked that she couldn't find her ticket, when everyone knew, including the conductor, that she didn't have one. But who would make her pay?
Next, she showed us pages and pages of sketches that she had done of beautiful women and people in her life. She also had poetry, which she made the young Italian gentleman translate for us. The poetry spoke of a longing for youth, with a particularly poignant stance relating to the beauty of Vernazza and being able to see it for eternity. And then I realized that this was to be the moment that would be remembered about Vernazza this time around. It had nothing to do with Piva, but was, as it was always intended to be, facilitated by him.
As we rushed to gather our things to get off the train in Genova for our connection to Nice, Lilly insisted that Kristine keep two of her sketches because she had been so generous with her time during the ride. Lilly does not expect to be around for long but she asked us to keep these drawings for our children. I didn't know what to say...