Brooke's Journey Back travel blog

Alessandro's walk

Alessandro's walk

Alessandro's walk

Alessandro's walk

Alessandro's walk. Rock with seashells embedded in it. Hilltop used to be...

Spring violets

Alessandro's walk

Alessandro's walk


mosaics in Ravenna

mosaics in Ravenna

mosaics in Ravenna

Ravenna restaurant

Ravenna restaurant

mosaic bike, Ravenna

Tomba de Dante Alighieri

mosaics in Ravenna

mosaics in Ravenna

mosaics in Ravenna

Hard to Say Goodbye

After my whirlwind week with Sandra, as my departure day of Friday approached, Sandra asked me repeatedly to stay until Monday. Finally she called in the big guns one night and handed me the phone as I was poring over the map at the kitchen table.


“Hi honey, it’s Lisa!”

“Hey, how are ya? It’s so good to hear your voice. Did Sandra call you, I didn’t hear the phone ring?”

“Well, she’s asked me to convince you to stay until Monday. So listen….”

And she proceeded to convince me to stay until Monday, using Sandra’s words and her own. Sandra’s other son, Alessandro, wanted to meet me and had invited us out to the country to his place in the hills near Bologna for a long walk and a home cooked family meal on Saturday.

“Brooke, his place is amazing, and when will you have the chance to go to a country home and eat family style. Isn’t that what you’re in Europe for? To meet people, experience the culture first hand?”

“Well…yeah. OK, you’ve convinced me, I’ll stay. I didn’t really want to leave yet anyway, but I felt like I was staying too long.”

“Oh honey, I think Ale would let you live there forever, she loves having you.”

“Well, I certainly love her, she’s amazing, and she’s taking such good care of me.”

So, I stayed. I really loved being there, the only down side being the wifi thing, but I’d found that the mall about a 15 minute walk away had good wifi, so I’d sit on a bench in the middle of the shops and crowds, check my email and handle business as much as I could.

I felt like if I stayed for a couple of months, I would have really learned some Italian, Sandra and I had a strange but effective communication system going. When I talked with her, sometimes in one sentence I would find myself speaking four different languages. When I was a child, I could speak Spanish for a while, when we lived in Europe, then I’d spent all the time around Jean Marc, so French was in my brain, plus the Italian I was trying so hard to understand. If I couldn’t think of the word in one language, that word in another language would automatically pop in. But Sandra knew more French than English, and Spanish was very similar to Italian, so it worked for us, plus we found it very amusing.

“Dove en la casa est le hairdryer?” Where in the house is the hairdryer?

In the old movies I love so much, Americans are always adding “o’s” and “a’s” to the ends of words to make them sound Italian and I realized that it’s not such a huge stretch. I would find myself saying, “Drive-o to Mall-o?” and she would understand me. I particularly like the word “pronto”, it’s what they say when they answer the phone, but they never use “pronto” as hello in person. Pronto means “ready” when used in a sentence. And the phrase "Mamma mia" is awesome, Alessandra and I used that a lot when cars would zoom past us on the highway, or if we were lost on a country road.

Friday night, Giovanna came back over to have dinner and say goodbye. She was a retired seamstress, she used to make costumes for the Opera in Bologna, and had also had a small clothing store to sell her creations. She’d retired from these jobs years ago, and now that she didn’t have her mother to occupy her every waking minute, I think she was a bit at loose ends as to what to do next with her life. The first time I met her, I noticed that her English sometimes had a Scottish lilt to it, with an occasional “Aye” or particular word sounding very broguish. She explained that she had been going to Scotland every summer for about 15 years, which was why her English was so good, and sounded so Italian-Scottish.

When she found out I was going down to the heel of the boot, then driving across the toe and over to Sicily, she became very concerned for me.

“Brooke, when you drive to Sicilia, don’t stop anywhere or go off the highway when you go through Calabria.”

“Why, Giovanna?”

“Mafia,” she whispered, “Mafia everywhere in this area, best to stay in your car.”

I looked to Ale for confirmation, but she just gave me the shrug.

On Saturday I drove Alessandra to Alessandro’s house in the hills.

“You are veery cleaver, you drive la machina good,” she told me as we worked our way up the tiny switchback roads to the house.

“Grazie Alessandra, I do love to drive your car.”

When we arrived, Alessandro was waiting, and opened the automatic gate, while a big yellow lab came loping and wagging down the driveway to greet us as we parked the car and got out. Alessandra introduced her son and we kissed hello, then went in to get ready for our long walk in the hills. After I met his wife Ilaria, and beautiful children, Angelica and Tommaso, who were all staying behind, the three of us grabbed our waters and headed out the door. Alessandro had a circular route all picked out, it was one he walked often, along dirt roads on the ridge of the hills, through wooded paths, occasionally on the paved country road, or through a small villages. He said it would be a two hour walk, but we walked for three and a half hours. He would run ahead then double back to us, trying to get us to walk faster. When he walks this route, it takes two hours, because he jogs most of it, but by the end, even Alessandra was getting tired. The scenery was stunning up along the ridge, walking past old villa’s, rows and rows of ruler straight vineyards, fields full of grazing sheep, cows, and horses, spring wildflowers everywhere. There was no traffic, and not much talk to interrupt the sound of the birds and the wind. It was glorious.

We finally arrived back at the house, tired, thirsty and sweaty. They offered to let me take a shower, I must have looked really bedraggled, and at first I said no but felt so gross, I didn’t want to sit at the dinner table like I was. They lent me one of Alessandro’s t-shirts, Ilaria was teeny, I couldn’t have gotten one of hers over my head. After we all got cleaned up, Alessandro helped Ilaria finish preparing our lunch, and while they did that, they layed out antipasti of olives, cheese, artichokes coated in parmesan, and a delicious slightly fizzy light white wine, I think Moscato.

We had a wonderful lunch of pasta with pesto, grilled meat, and a salad. They were teasing Angelica, practically forcing her to speak English to me, since she studied it in school and had a tutor for extra lessons. Ilaria and Angelica spoke good English, Alessandro less, but we all managed to make ourselves understood, and I was so glad I’d decided to stay for the weekend.

On Sunday, Alessandra took me to Ravenna, a small town famous for the mosaics in its churches. They were jaw-droppingly beautiful and amazing, and the town was very pedestrian friendly, fun to walk through, filled with tourists and natives alike. We ate at a fabulous restaurant that Lydia had recommended, where the customers were seated at long trestle tables alongside each other. This suited Alessandra to a tee, she was chatting with the strangers seated on either side of us within twenty seconds, of course asking them if they spoke English so I could chat too.

When we were ready to leave Ravenna, we started walking back to the car, but within five minutes realized that neither of us was quite sure where we had parked. We knew we were on a corner near a bank and a small coffee shop. That describes every other corner of nearly every city in Italy, or the world really. So, naturally, Alessandra stopped people walking by to see if they knew where we parked our car. It was hilarious, the looks some of them gave her, but then she walked up to a large group, it looked like a family, with people of different ages, and a couple of kids in strollers. The family group and Alessandra had an intense five minute conversation and then they all started walking away. I wasn’t sure what was happening, then Alessandra said, “Andiamo”, waving me to come on, and we took off down the street.

As we walked, two of the women, in their twenties, spoke English, and they came up on either side of me and we chatted about the US, where they would like to go there, and where I had been on my trip to Europe. They stopped at several churches and little tourist spots we had missed, places the locals knew but were slightly off the beaten track, giving us a private little tour. It was just amazing. In about twenty minutes, they showed us the arched entrance where we had entered the old city, and then we knew where we were. We hugged and kissed goodbye and strolled the rest of the way to the car.

The entire family group of about a dozen people stopped what they were doing, to walk the streets of their town to help us find our car. I couldn’t believe it, who does that?

Italians do that, that’s who. They are the sweetest, friendliest, most outgoing, hospitable people I’ve ever met anywhere. They absolutely love to talk, not just Alessandra, but nearly everyone. You don’t see them glued to their cell phones talking or texting much, they prefer face to face interactions, and there are always knots of people in every piazza, every street, every café, chatting, waving their hands around, arguing and debating. You say one word in Italian and they beam at you, they don’t look at you like you’re a total moron and say “What?” Plus, I love the way Italians say my name. “Brrrrroooooke”, pronounced like Luke, except they roll the “r” a little bit and stretch out the “ooooo” part. I just love it. They also do a funny thing at the end of phone calls, every single man or woman I’ve heard end a phone call does it like this: “Ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao…” at least five or ten times. It’s as if they don’t want to hang up on silence, they want to be the one to get the last Ciao in.

We had dinner with Lydia that night, so we could see each other one more time and say goodbye. Since she was a police person, I asked her about the Mafia in the South.

She gave me the “Meh” shrug with a smile and said “Yes, they are there, but don’t worry, they don’t bother tourists.”

I guess the same could be said of any large town in the US and I never think about the Mafia at home when I go to New York. I have seen way too many movies. But Lydia put her number in my cell phone so I could call, just in case.

The next morning I planned to leave around 9am. I packed everything up, and did a final walk-through at least six times. Sandra made my coffee and fussed over me for the last time, packing me enough snacks and water for the road that I could survive a week buried in an avalanche if need be. She gave me an extra piece of luggage, a stuffed bear, she just kept bringing things out to me.

I had begun crying pretty much as soon as I woke up that morning, but I didn’t want her to know, I didn’t want her to start crying too. I knew I could have stayed with her the whole month, but I wanted to see other parts of Italy, however leaving her was ridiculously hard. I felt like I did when I took Mary to the airport in Brussels back in November, like I was losing my best friend. Alessandra took care of me the way Michael used to, and she loved me the way a sister does. That was really hard to leave, especially to go back out into the wide world alone again. I had gotten used to it, but staying with Ale, meeting all her wonderful friends, having them all to hang out with, being cared for and spoiled outrageously, well…why was I leaving again?

But I did, waving goodbye to Alessandra, blowing her kisses, sobbing as soon as she was out of sight, knowing that all of this was part of my growth, strengthening me, but hard just the same.

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