I was heading for Bologna after a rough night in an iffy hostel in Modena. I had an all female room, but one of the females, who was old enough to know better, laid in her bed and chatted away on her cell phone at full volume voice, from 10pm until 11pm. The next morning, her alarm went off at 6:30am and she hit the snooze button every five minutes until 7:15am. I would have said something, or shot her, but I couldn’t speak her language and I didn’t have a gun, so I just laid on my bed and prayed for patience. The other woman was Muslim, and stood right at the foot of my bed, apparently the best place in the entire room to face east, and chanted whatever prayer it is Muslims chant. She did this for 20 minutes after chatty Catherina got off the phone at 11pm, and then again in the morning about the time the snooze alarm was finally silenced. This unfortunately is my biggest take away from Modena. I’m sure it’s a lovely town, but I need to spend more time there, preferably with a hotel room.
I was heading to Bologna to spend time with Alessandra, the cousin of my best and oldest half-Italian friend Lisa. When Alessandra came to the States years ago, Lisa brought her to visit Michael and I at the Beach, and she has never forgotten us. She loved him especially, and sent the most beautiful condolence letter after she heard the news. Her husband had passed away suddenly as well, when he was 52, and her letter told me how much she understood the loss of one dearly loved. I was scheduled to stay with her five days and was a little nervous since she spoke very little English and I spoke less Italian than that, but was happy to get to know her better.
I had programmed Leona for the only address I had, which said Via Garibaldi 3. I assumed it was a house since it just had the one number, but I turned the corner onto her street and Leona said, “Arrive at your destination.”
There were three nine story apartment buildings at “my destination.” There were no numbers visible on them.
“Oh shit.” I had Alessandra’s phone number but no way to call her without wifi, and I didn’t know her last name, I just never asked. Bad planning.
I went up to the first building in the row and when I got closer, saw that it had a “3” on the side, so at least I knew she was somewhere in this building. I looked at the names on the buzzer panel by the door, hoping Alessandra’s last name was the same as Lisa’s but it wasn’t. But one of the first names in the list of names was Alessandra, so I buzzed that apartment. Some man answered and I said “Alessandra, is Alessandra there?”
“Si, si…” then a WHOLE bunch of Italian, to which I responded, “No speak Italian, English only,” to which he responded by hanging up on me. A minute later, a lady came up and let herself into the building and I followed her in. I went up to the sixth floor and knocked on the door of the man who hung up on me, I remembered his apartment number from the buzzer panel. He answered the door and I said, “Is Alessandra here?”
“Si, si, mi esposa…blah, blah blah” and as he talked, a petite young woman came up next to him and said, “Can I help you?” She didn’t speak much English, but enough to understand I was looking for an Alessandra and that she wasn’t the right one. She said a bunch of stuff in Italian and pointed downstairs, so I walked downstairs, started knocking on every door, and if people answered, I asked them if they knew Alessandra. What else could I do? After two floors of apartments and many “No's,” I went back upstairs to the wrong Alessandra, knocked on the door and asked them to call my Alessandra on their phone. They were looking at me like I was an escaped mental patient, so, in self-defense, they called her, then sent me down to the third floor where my Alessandra was waiting for me. If I’d knocked on one more floor of random doors, I would have found her myself.
Alessandra is 68, fit and trim, takes really good care of herself, looks wonderful, and was so happy to see me. She is one of those that sparkles and connects with everyone, with an inner and outer beauty that draws people to her and a straight gaze that seems to say, “I know you.” She had invited one of her best girlfriends over for the day, Giovanna, who spoke English, which was very thoughtful, Alessandra wanted to make sure our first day together went smoothly and that she could tell me everything I needed to know before we were alone together and had to improvise. We sat in the kitchen and chatted while Alessandra cooked us lunch, then spent the afternoon around the table talking about our lives; where we had been and which direction we were going.
When Giovanna left around five, it was getting dark so I walked her to her car. She was the same age as Alessandra, they were classmates from elementary school, just like Lisa and I were, friends for life. She had never married, and had lived near and taken care of her Mom for most of her life. She had just buried her Mom about three days before I arrived, so she was still a bit raw but so sweet. She had the face of a little girl, with twinkling light eyes in spite of her sorrow, a quick wit, beautiful smile, and an innocence about her. Something about her reminded me of Sissy Spacek, that wide eyed clarity and simplicity. I really liked her and she promised to try to see me again before I left. When I returned to the apartment, there was a young woman, maybe mid-thirties, sitting on the couch with Alessandra. This was another of her English speaking friends, Lydia, who had come to meet me and have dinner with us. Lydia was tall and thin, with short straight brown hair, beautiful big brown eyes, and a wide smile. She was quite striking, but didn’t seem to know or care that she was.
We decided to go into old Bologna to walk around and Lydia drove us. I was so glad it was only a five minute drive, she scared the shit out of me with her driving, very Nascar. We walked up and down the stone streets in the evening light, everything golden and beautifully lit. They took me to piazzas, down narrow pedestrian only streets, showing me cathedrals and buildings with names I can’t remember.
Then they took me to an Art Museum. There was a special Vermeer exhibit, and the line stretched down the block. The three of us walked in the front door, the exhibit was on the second floor but the rest of the Museum was freely accessible. We started on the third floor and walked around the few rooms fairly quickly, then we walked slowly back down to the second floor, and Lydia grabbed my arm and whispered to me, “Just walk in like you don’t know you need a ticket; they know I’m Italian, but if they stop you, you can say you’re an American and didn’t know.” There were two female employees standing at two doors, one checking tickets and letting people in, the other letting them out, counting them as they left. This was not something I would normally ever do, but Lydia made me feel brave, and I’m on a mission to do things that scare me, and it wasn’t like I was trying to steal the paintings, just steal a look. I don’t even care about art that much. So, when the out guard was dealing with an issue with one of the patrons, I just sailed right past her like I owned the place. I kept expecting someone to grab me but I didn’t look back, just kept moving deeper into the rooms. I had no idea if Lydia had followed me, I refused turn around to look for her.
I was all caught up in the excitement of being a budding criminal when I saw my first Vermeer and my jaw dropped. I didn’t know I would love him. The paint glowed, like it was lit from within somehow, absolutely luminous. I’ve seen famous paintings in museums all over the world, I know good lighting makes a difference, but this wasn’t the outer electric light, it was something within the paint. And the faces of the people were so alive and real, not stiff portraits of grand ladies and kings, but laughing barmaids and mustachioed men of dubious repute. I was fascinated and of course, when I see something so stunning and beautiful, my first reaction is to cry, so I wandered through the crowded rooms, people packed in like sardines, with tears trickling down my face, amazed at the strange turn of events that led me to be here. While The Girl With the Pearl Earring is his most famous painting, I really enjoyed all of them just as much as that one.
After I had seen every painting in every room, I went out to find Alessandra and Lydia. They were waiting on the stairway down to the first floor. I was giggling and chortling like a lunatic, just happy to be alive and thrilled that I’d gotten away with my walk on the wild side. I hugged them both and thanked them for bringing me. We went to dinner after that, at a restaurant where Sandra had worked years ago, after her husband died.
She told the story, with Lydia translating, of how she walked into this restaurant on a whim one day and asked them for a job.
“Do you have experience?”
“No, but I work hard and I really need a job.”
She said they just looked at her for a few seconds, then the chef-owner said, “Come back tonight at seven, wear comfortable shoes,” and she did. She worked behind the bar, she acted as hostess, she helped in the kitchen some. She only worked there for nine months, years ago, but it was obvious that she still knew and loved everyone there and that they loved her right back.
Shortly after we sat down, she went into the kitchen to say hello to the owner/chef. When she came back, she told us she had ordered for us, based on the chef’s recommendation. We started with some antipasti, olives and tomato’s with some greens, but then the dinner came out. She had ordered us lobster! It didn’t have a sauce but had been prepared in some kind of seasonings so that it didn’t need a thing-no salt, pepper or melted butter, it was perfect just as it was, tender, moist and delicious.
I enjoyed watching Lydia eat her lobster, she reminded me of the scene in Flashdance, where Jennifer Beals just attacks that lobster, but Lydia kept her shoes on. She got every morsel of flesh, as she sucked the juice and meat out of each piece, then I gave her the parts of my lobster I wouldn’t eat, like the head and skinny little legs. It was awesome. She was so alive and in the moment, uncaring of how she might look, or what others may think of her. Not just at dinner, but as I got to know her better, I realized this was her approach to life.
As we ate, I asked her what she did for work.
“I’m a policewoman”, she announced, her slimy, lobstery fingers busy tearing away at a defenseless little lobster leg.
My jaw dropped for the second time that night, and my face got hot.
“A police woman? Oh my God, you just practically pushed me into a life of crime by telling me to walk into an Art Exhibit without paying for a ticket?! What kind of cop are you? I mean, are you a detective?”
She laughed and gave that quintessential Italian shrug with the sideways head tilt, like a visual “Meh.”
“No, I work in the traffic sector. And I won’t tell anyone you broke the law, it will be our secret.”
She made it sound like she was one of those cops that directs traffic, or gives parking tickets, but she didn’t seem to want to talk more about it so I let it go. Alessandra later told me that she was actually very high up in the traffic division, responsible for an entire section of the department in a stressful job.
I had only been with Alessandra one day, met two new fascinating people, plus reconnected with fascinating Sandra, and had already had so much fun, I was exhausted. I was going to need all my energy to keep up with her, I could see that right away. As Lisa warned me, Alessandra doesn’t understand “No”, but fully embraces “Go.”