An update from my Italian grandparents -- two people who gave me kindness when I needed it most.
Two years ago, I sat in the Ristorante La Giostra in Florence, Italy. Apart from the single candles that sat on every table, the only light in the room was an omniscient golden glow that descended from Christmas lights strung along the walls and wrapped itself around everyone and everything in the dining room. I sat alone.
Florence was everything I wanted in a city. It was beautiful, diverse and busy--but not so busy that I felt overwhelmed. There was balance, just like the proportions of the Renaissance statues to be found all over the city.
Sitting alone in this luxurious restaurant, the walls near its door covered in snapshots of the celebrities who had previously dined there, it struck me how out of balance I was in this perfectly-balanced city. I wasn't sharing this experience with anyone. Not the city, not the sights, not this meal of goat chops and parmesan-crusted zucchini. It was just me, in my khaki pants and blue shirt. I usually took delight in the freedom of traveling alone. But that night, surrounded by candles and laughter, served by a head waiter descended from the Hapsburg line, a beautiful young woman of my own age dining with her mother at the next table, I was struck by the ridiculousness of my being in La Giostra without a companion. For a brief moment, I saw myself walking with that young woman, laughing and discussing art and history and dreams as we passed the Ponte Vecchio on a walk along the Arno. But my reverie was just a reverie, and I was snapped back to life with the arrival of the secondo.
I enjoyed the food. I paid my bill, complimented the staff and emerged from the restaurant feeling melancholy. I had done what I wanted to do: I was in Italy. I had gotten what I wanted in Florence: a meal at the best restaurant in town. Every day was a learning experience as I moved in and out of museums, churches and palaces. But it was a quiet trip. I would go most of each day without talking much. And that night, it became a fact to me that travel was not always best when the traveler was alone with his thoughts. I might be a modern Hemingway in my own mind, sitting on riverbanks and hilltops inscribing a leather-bound notebook with thoughts and impressions, but to whose benefit was my facade of quiet mystery? I shook my head as I walked and vowed never to eat at La Giostra again unless it was a shared experience.
The melancholy of that night abated, but that moment of clarity was like a bite of Eden's apple--there was no undoing it.
Two weeks later, I was on a train. I had left the Hotel Bonconte that morning singing beneath the weight of my backpack and camera bag because I was on my way to Venice. Venice was the city of dreams. La Bella Venezia, floating like a ghost city in the early morning mists of the Adriatic. The city of Marco Polo, and my final destination in Europe.
I boarded the train with my customary haste, barely clambering into a trailing car before the final bell sounded and the doors hissed shut. I walked the length of the car and settled into the first compartment I found which was unoccupied. It was a weekday, and it took a while to find a space with no commuters reading novels or talking on their phones on the way to work.
It was a pleasant morning outside. I had a pleasant view of the Adriatic shoreline for the first leg of the trip. The rocking of the train and the serene blue of the water relaxed me, and I settled into the well-worn seat to write in my journal. I would enjoy Venice greatly, but I was still alone, and the knowledge that I would be in a guest house with internet that evening gave me the comforting knowledge that I would be able to video chat with my family.
But, in the space of a moment, I wasn't alone any more.
The train had just stopped in Faenza. Some people got aboard, others got off. Two of the people who had just boarded, an older couple, smiled at me through the clear plastic compartment door and entered. I smiled back and they sat down. The old man was bright-eyed, sanguine and cheerful. His wife was missing teeth and bore an inscrutably mischievous expression that hinted both a quiet demeanor and the threat of sharp wit.
The man leaned forward in his seat. His English was serviceable, if spoken with a concentrated effort. "You American?"
"Yes," I said.
He smiled broadly and leaned back in his seat. "Ah! And what do you think of Mr. Obama?"
And thus I met Renato.
Renato and his wife, Lina, lived in Faenza, and he was more than happy to hear my benign opinion of President Obama, and to eagerly tell me about himself and his family in return, as well as to give me a crash course in some basic Italian to prove to me that it was not a hard language to learn. A retired train conductor, Renato and his wife were traveling the train on his lifetime pass, which he told me was one of the perks of twenty years of unbroken work in the industry. They were on the way to Bologna to eat lunch at the Bologna Centrale station cafe, apparently a favorite spot among train personnel for a well-prepared and inexpensive lunch. Would I like to eat with them?
Renato asked me this question in a way that seemed impossibly friendly for someone he had just met. I was instantly wary of some surreptitious scheme that would see me jumped by a confederate at the station and relieved of my cash, camera and passport. But I had an hour to kill before my connecting train to Venice would arrive, and Italian trains on this side of the country were usually late by as much as an hour, so I agreed.
Lunch turned out to be delightful. For the first time, as an American traveling abroad, I was made to feel like a novelty instead of a commodity, and it was both pleasant and humorous. Entering the restaurant, Renato jovially called out to people he knew, greeting them in Italian before gesturing to me and saying "Americano!" I felt like a bullfrog brought home by a young boy with a proud herald of "look what I found!"
We ate and talked, and I asked Renato and Lina to sign an empty page in my journal, as a way of remembering them. Renato went the extra mile by adding their address below. The two of them, with Renato doing most of the talking, were a sweet relief to me on my quiet trip across Italy. After three weeks of entering and exiting places of interest with no more impact than the ghost of an enemy of the Medici, I found myself with a pair of surrogate Italian grandparents; two older companions who were eager to give of their time and share a meal with a traveler who was much lonelier than even he realized at the time. "Hemingway-esque sojourn" be damned, I had finally established a relationship, and it was grand.
After our meal of lasagna and salad, Renato graciously escorted me to the platform for my next train. He consulted every timetable twice to make sure that I made I was on the right line to go on to Venice. I bade him and Lina goodbye a little after noon as they boarded their own train back to Faenza, and I sat on a bench on the platform to continue my journey.
The journal in which Renato and Lina’s names and address were written went on with me to Venice, two trips to India and a college tour of great American cities from Charleston to New York. I never wrote to them. I always meant to. In fact, the memory of them only grew fonder in my mind as I grew older and saw what a blessing our time was together. When swapping travel stories with people, I would always smile and reference my “Italian grandparents in Faenza.” But work, college and several moves always distracted me from writing to them, or anyone else.
Two years later, this year, I heard from my father that there had been a damaging earthquake near Bologna. My first thought was of Renato and Lina. By this time, my own grandparents had all passed away after long illnesses, and I was and am extremely sensitive to the plight of older people under adverse conditions. The idea that they might have been injured in an earthquake sickened me, and I felt guilty for not having ever written to them.
That night, I opened a page of stationary and wrote a letter to them. I pulled my travel journal off of its revered place on my bookshelf and thumbed through it until I found their address, still barely legible in Renato’s unique handwriting. I copied it down as best as I could and posted it the following day. I was not overly hopeful for a reply.
Today, at a moment that I did not expect it at all, I received the following envelope in the mail:
I couldn’t believe it. The letter had reached them. I opened it with trepidation, not sure what I was worried about but worried nonetheless. A smile so big it hurt crossed my face, and I felt a surge of emotion in my throat and behind my eyes as I read the letter’s contents.
This happened several hours ago, and I am still smiling as a write about it. Renato and Lina were okay. Furthermore, they remembered me and still wanted to show me hospitality. What a rare, beautiful thing that spirit is.
It’s easy to write about travel as a marketable subject of interest and quantify human contact into an abstraction. The depth or number of local relationships forged during a trip are used by the pretentious as badges of the nebulously defined “accomplishment” of being a “traveler” instead of being the dreaded “tourist.”
I have no time to engage in these arguments. At the end of the day, a few things are true as facts and the rest is interpretation. And the facts in this case are: I was a young man traveling alone, and I met a wonderful couple that remembered me as long as two years later. I have friends in Italy. They call me Stefano. And it means more than they know.
We could all take a cue from Renato and Lina's unhindered hospitality.