Friday, November 9, 2012

The Good People of Umbria and a Travel Miracle

November 9, 2012 - The Good People of Umbria and a Travel Miracle

I dreamed of Italy and the place I dreamed of was Umbria. I loved it (from pictures) for the sunlit balconies, the cities built up mountains, the vineyards and olive trees, the greenery, and the sunshine. All that sunshine. I could see myself there. So I decide I’m going to live in Umbria. In a villa up on a mountainside. For five nights anyway.

To this end, I’ve booked a stay in an upstairs apartment, complete with balcony, at an Agriturismo Farm in a place called Todi. I’m not sure this is the highlight of my trip, but it’s something I’ve been looking forward to. The time to sit still. To be alone. To be away from city bustle and chaos. To slow down. To read. To write. To do nothing. To drink local wine. To eat fresh produce. To sleep in. To see what a dream looks like in real time, firsthand. It’s going to be my get-away in the middle of my grand get-away.

I pack my bag, wave goodbye to Florence, and catch the train to Perugia. I stick my earpieces in and listen to the songs shuffling through my playlist. I smile when Pavarotti comes on. It seems fitting. While the music plays, I flip through my notebook to see what my next step will be. I’ve got to take a bus from Perugia to Todi and then get the two kilometers from the bus station to La Torriola. How hard can that be?


There’s a kiosk right outside the Perugia train station. I get in line and when it’s my turn I say, “Un biglietto per Todi, per favore (one ticket to Todi, please).” The lady behind the glass pulls out a batch of tickets, tears one off, and slides it through the half circle opening at me in exchange for the money I hand over. She’s looking past me now, already waiting for the next in line. But I’m not quite done. “Where do I wait?” I ask her in my broken Italian. She gives me an irritated glance and gestures in a direction generally behind me. 

“Grazie,” I say, and step away.

This little area of Perugia is shaped like a tetradecagon; there are corners everywhere. But following the lady’s gesture, I go to the nearest one and look at the faded bus sign. It lists a multitude of stops, but none of them are Todi. I ask one of the people waiting and they gesture across the street to another bus stop where there are even more people waiting. I cross the street. The sign there seems to indicate that the buses go to every place in Italy except Todi. I just need to go 46 kilometers. It might as well be 46 million kilometers if I don’t know the right direction. But seriously, someone has to know how to get there. Three teenage girls are loitering by the sign and I ask them if they know where the bus to Todi leaves from. They consult the sign, agree it’s not the right way, chatter to each other and then apologize to me that they don’t know. I try two more corners. No success. So, deflated, and irritated that I don’t know more Italian, I head back towards to Kiosk willing to stir up the attendant’s wrath by asking for specifics.
I approach tentatively. The problem is I can ask how to get somewhere, that’s easy, but it’s understanding the response that can be tricky. Just as I near, a uniformed male attendant comes out of the kiosk. He looks somewhat friendly so I dish out my question.

“Todi?” he asks.

I nod. He rattles off a long stream of instructions and points to the original bus stop. “You have to take the bus from there to the main bus station of Perugia. It’s about a ten minute trip and you get off at Plaza Partigiani.” At least this is what I think he says. I point at the bus stop and repeat the get off plaza. He nods and leaves me to wander the world alone.

The bus arrives shortly after and I get on. I ask the driver if he goes to the Plaza Partigiani and if it’s near the bus station to Todi. He says it is, so I sit down. I haven’t purchased a ticket for this bus, and since I haven’t purchased it I can’t validate it. Which means if a ticket checker gets on and I get caught I would have to pay all kinds of fines. But that seems to be the least of my worries.

Perugia is pretty. The trees are turning from green to colors of fall splendor. The road we take winds alluringly uphill, passing us by quaint buildings. It feels ancient and inviting. I’m too distracted to really take notice and appreciate it. Or to feel at home here. I’ve got my eyes peeled for any indication that we’re nearing the Plaza Partigiani. I could end up anywhere. Normally this would be okay only today I have somewhere specific I want to be.

The time goes by and, a little anxious, I stand up near the front of the bus and ask the driver if the next plaza is mine. He tells me no, it’ll be up the road a ways farther. Then he keeps on talking. Fortunately for me, there are enough similarities between Italian and Spanish that I can mangle my way through conversations. I smile and nod. When we get to the plaza he tells me that I’ll have to cross the street and walk around the corner in order to find the bus stop.

“Mille grazie,” I say and get off.

Per his instructions I cross the street and make it around the corner to the bus stop. Not ready to congratulate myself too prematurely on a job well done I go in search of someone who can tell me where to wait and what time I’ll leave. Inside the station I find a list of times and towns. Todi is on there. Bus 2 or 4 will take me on. Score! I get the attention of an attendant. He walks over and I ask him where I wait for the bus while pointing out the ones I want on the sheet.

“You don’t want those,” he tells me in Italian (these are not exact quotes. They are my translation based on my understanding which is pretty darn slim). “You want to take the one that leaves at 14:15.” He checks his watch. I check my time piece. I have just around half an hour before 2:15. “You have to go to the Santa Ana station,” he says.

Something shrivels up and wants to die inside me. What? This isn’t where I wait? A despairing wail starts to build in my gut and I tell it to shut up. “How do I get there?” I ask.

“You go across the street just there,” he points. “And then go up the hill, around the corner to the left and then you’re there.”

“The first street or the second street?” I ask.

“That one,” he says. Okay. I thank him, adjust my bag on my shoulders and follow directions. Vague as they are.

There are two streets that run parallel. They both go up. I’m pretty sure he meant the second street, but I see a bus stop with a lady waiting on the first one. I climb the hill. “Excuse me,” I say. “Is this the bus stop for Todi? The Santa Ana Station?”

“No,” she says. “You go down the hill, around the corner, back around and then you’ll see it on your left.”

I thank her and go down the hill, around the corner, and back around. I see nothing on my left except a little café and a train stop. I ask the bartender where the bus stop to Todi is. He speaks English and says to go back out and across the street and then I’ll see it on my left. Or maybe it was to my right.

I’m beginning to think it’s all one big joke. There is no bus to Todi. Despite the research I’d done that said Todi could be reached by bus from Perugia via the APM bus system I just don’t believe it. I wish I’d been smart (like I have up to this point) in sketching out walking directions for myself from station to station. Like they say, “Hind sight is twenty twenty.” I ask a couple more people about the Santa Ana Station. Somewhere in all this, as the seconds and minutes click closer to 2:15, it dawns on me. Santa Ana Station is the train station. The bus guy sent me to the train station. Thanks a lot. And that’s where I am. Screw the buses.

I go inside the depot. The guy in line before me is speaking to the attendant in English. So I approach the counter with my native tongue on my lips. “Is this train,” I point out the window, “the one going to Todi?”

“Yes,” he says.

I hold up the bus ticket I’d purchased years ago from the kiosk. “I bought this bus ticket. Will it by chance work on the train?”

“How much did you pay?” he asks.

“Five fifty euros,” I say.

“That’s more than you would have paid for a train ticket,” he tells me. “It’s three twenty. So it should be fine.”

“Thanks,” I say. I head across the platform to the train, step up and try to validate my ticket. The machine denies it. Already having tested the gods by taking a free bus ride, I’m suddenly worried. I speed walk back to the depot. “Can I buy a train ticket?”

“Why?” he asks.

“I can’t validate this,” I tell him.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Just tell the conductor before the train leaves.”

The conductor is standing on the platform as I come out of the depot. I don’t know what language I’m speaking but I somehow tell him that I’ve bought this ticket, but I can’t validate it and I’m going to Todi. He takes the ticket, looks at it, tells me not to worry and to go ahead and get on the train.

So I do.

Although I’ve made it by some weird luck I still feel antsy and more than a little—not exactly lost—but lost.
I get a window seat and try to relax. A guy takes the seat next to me and his father, uncle, someone older, takes the seat across from us. We nod at each other and I try to look local. The all aboard is called and then the train gets underway. With a kind of incredulity I remind myself that I made the train, without even having to run for it, and I’m heading in the right direction. Through no merit of my own. As blindly as possible. It’s a miracle for me the blunderer.

The conductor comes by to punch our tickets.

“Terni?” he asks the men. They nod.

“Todi,” I say, when I hand him mine. He nods and punches my ticket. Now I breathe easier. No fines this trip.

The train chugs on and we make a few stops. Train stops for the little towns usually hit the minute mark and then they’re off again. Most people gather their things the stop before and go to stand by the doors. It’s been my modus operandi up to this point to know how many stops there are before mine. That way I can mark my progress and get up in time to get off the train at the appropriate stop just like everyone else. This time I have no clue. 

What happened? I ask myself.  How did you manage to be so unprepared for this?

I have no idea, I respond.

I’ll say, I say.

But there are ways of finding things out. I turn to my seat mate and in the best Italian I can manage ask, “Is Terni before or after Todi?”

“After,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say.

“There are two stops for Todi,” he continues. “Which one do you want?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

The conductor shuffles through and the older man taps his elbow. “She doesn’t know when to get off. Can you tell her when we get to Todi?”

“Don’t worry,” the conductor tells him, tells me, “I’ll tell you. I have to get off in Todi myself.”

I say thanks to everyone and take the time to enjoy the passing scenery. It’s just like I had imagined it would be. Amazing. The miles run out. The distance vanishes. Soon enough, I see the Todi Ponte Rio sign as we approach the station. I begin to stand up and the older man says, “This might not be the stop.” I hesitate. Just then the conductor sticks his head around the corner. “This is it,” he says.

“Grazie. Ciao,” I tell the men. “Grazie,” I tell the conductor.

I step off the train.

It’s a miracle. I’ve arrived!   

I’ve arrived!

To the middle of nowhere.

The few people who’d gotten off with me have disappeared. The conductor is also gone. I have no ride to pick me up. No car waiting for me. And it’s siesta time. The little station is empty. There are a few cars parked out front but no one to go along with them. It’s as if all the people have been raptured and I got left behind. It’s like I’ve stepped out into a ghost town.

At least I’m in the right place. Ghosts or not. And only 1.86 miles from my destination. Shoot, 1.86 miles? Please, I could walk that in my sleep. I set my bag on the bench outside the station and rest my shoulders. I had thought there would be a bus, but I’m not seeing any signs that validate this assumption. However, there is a sign with a taxi service number with the declaration “We Speak English.” I go inside to look for a payphone. I might be willing to pay for a ride. It’s been a long walking day already. As luck would have it, there is a payphone. But as fate sometimes thwarts things, it doesn’t take coins. It only takes a phone card which I don’t have and my cell phone doesn’t work in Europe. Too bad. Walking it is. I have driving directions listed on my confirmation email printout and I figure I can follow those for walking.

I’m not making any progress by standing still so I shoulder my pack and head out toward the road. At the main road there’s a sign pointing up the hill to Todi. It looks like a long way up to any kind of civilization, but 
I take it.

Half way up the hill I spot a shop off to my left and see two ladies inside. I make my way over, tap the glass and try to look trustworthy, friendly, and lost. One of the ladies opens the door.

“Excuse me,” I say. I’m getting good at this. “How do I get to La Torriola?”

They don’t recognize the name. I try again after consulting my paper. “Pian di san Martino?”

“Oh! Pian di san Martino,” they say. “It’s down the hill and around the corner. You’re walking?”


They rattle on for a bit and then I thank them and head down the hill I’ve just walked up.

It’s a two way highway with only a small shoulder. A semi passes me and I move over into the grass. It’s not an ideal walking route, but what choice do I have? Not really any other that I know of. It’s a warm day. I’m glad I’m wearing short sleeves and thinking I should have slapped on some sunscreen. I put on my sunglasses, wipe the sweat from my brow, shrug the weight of my bag into better position and walk on.
I’ve gone ten minutes. Fifteen. Three? When I come upon a little house. There’s a car in the driveway with two people inside. An older woman leans in talking to them. I figure I’ll make sure I’m still going the right way. So I come up and stop at a respectful distance.

“Excuse me,” they all look at me. “Is this the way to Pian di san Martino?”

“Yes,” the old woman says.

“You’re walking? It’s a long way,” the man says from the driver’s seat. “It’s three kilometers.”

I could walk that in my sleep too, but I’m beginning to wish I didn’t have to. Since they don’t offer to drive me, I thank them and move my feet. A few meters later, I’m singing, “It’s a long and winding road,” and hoping that it leads me to the door I’m shooting for.

I’m taking it slow. Skipping off the shoulder into the tall grass when big vehicles zoom by. Wondering if I should be walking on the opposite side. Cutting the distance, slowly but surely, with each step. I hope.

Eventually I come to a little village. There’s no sign telling me the name or the population so I trudge on through. It’s still siesta time and the place is quiet. Asleep. Except for one man who is sitting in a chair outside a shop smoking a cigar. In my usual manner, I cross over and go to ask him if I’m on the right path.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Is this the way to Pian di san Martino?”

“You’re walking?” he asks.

I nod.

“It’s not a great road for walking,” he tells me.

Yes, this I know. I don’t have the words to tell him that my options were pretty limited. So I just nod. He takes that and runs with it. We have a long and involved conversation. I don’t understand much of it. Then he stands up and gets his helmet and goes to his scooter. I wonder if he’s going to take me. I can’t wait to tell my mom about this. Helmet in hand, he turns and asks, “Where are you going after that?” or perhaps, 
“Where is your final destination?”  

“La Torriola,” I say.

“La Torriola!” he exclaims. “I have a friend in La Torriola. I’ll call him and tell him to come pick you up.”

What a small world. What a random and happy happenstance for me.  

He pulls out his phone, dials a number, asks to speak with his friend and then we wait. I’m beginning to think his friend is unavailable. But no. My new friend tells his friend who is calling and then says, “Listen. There’s this girl who is trying to walk to La Torriola. She’s on her way to La Torriola. Walking. Bring your car and come pick her up.” There’s a little bit more exchanged and then my friend hangs up. “Okay,” he says. “Here, have a seat.” I take the chair next to his. He gets back to his cigar and begins talking a mile a minute. Faster than I could walk.

He’s asking questions and I’m doing my best to answer. I preface it all with, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian very well.” But he doesn’t seem to care.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

I tell him. He tells me his and it’s something long and with lots of gs and vowels and I ashamedly and promptly forget.

“How old are you?” he asks. And I think, It’s the same everywhere. We all want to know those basic facts. Just watch, he’ll ask me if I’m single next.

I tell him my age. He tells me he’s 47. Or 48. “Are you traveling alone?” he asks.

It seems kind of obvious to me that I am, but I tell him yes. He keeps the conversation going until a car rumbles up to a stop in front of us. We both stand. My new friend goes to speak at his friend through the open window. His friend is a man old enough to be my grandfather. He looks out at me as my friend explains that I was walking and I just need to get to La Torriola. I’m beginning to realize he doesn’t work where I’m going. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

My friend opens the door, shakes my hand, kisses my cheeks, and wishes me luck. I thank him effusively and wish him all the best.

Then I get into the car with a complete stranger. Just wait until I tell this to my mom. I explain to him I’m trying to get to the Agriturismo farm in La Torriola, that I’m staying there on holiday. He nods his head, turns the car and we drive off. I wave goodbye through the window to my friend. My newest friend tries to get me talking. I tell him I don’t speak Italian very well. This doesn’t seem to bother him either. He talks and I smile and nod. We drive through the little town of Pian di san Martino. We drive around corners. Down roads. Up hills. Past signs that point us toward La Torriola. We drive on and on and on.

My pack is on the floorboard at my feet and I’m grateful for the chance to be sitting down. As the wheels turn and we continue, I become more and more grateful. It’s a long way. Maybe it really was only 1.86 miles, but the last bit is all uphill and twisty and turny. I’m thinking I’m the luckiest person in the whole entire world. Being helped by kind people. This is how the world could be. This is how the world sometimes is. This is the world I’m in right now.

We pass an old building and my newest friend, taps a finger against my knee then points at the building and tells me he lives there or it’s the tower that the town is named for or something like that.

“Oh,” I say. “Wow.”

Eventually, past farmhouses and vineyards, we pull in front of an open wrought iron gate. Torriola is on a sign on the stone wall. My newest friend drives us inside, honking as he goes. After a moment a man comes up from where the pool is and approaches the car.

“La Torriola,” my newest friend says.

“Thank you so much, mille mille grazie,” I tell him. I open the door and step out.

“Amanda?” the man asks.

“Maurizio?” I query.

“How did you get a ride with him?” he asks. “Why didn’t you call me when you arrived?”

“I didn’t have a phone,” I explain.

Maurizio leans in to talk with my newest friend. Gets the gist of the story from him, thanks him, and then with waves on all our sides my newest friend puts the car into gear and drives off.

“How do you expect to be here and get around without a car?” Maurizio asks me.

“I don’t really plan to leave,” I say.

He thinks I’m a little crazy. He doesn’t realize that I’ve wanted to be in a place like this for years. That I would live here forever if I could. He gets me checked in and shows me to my apartment. The view from the balcony takes my breath away. It’s so amazing I begin to think immediately in clichés.

“This place is like heaven,” I tell him.

“I don’t know about heaven,” Maurizio says. “I only know about hell.”

“Well,” I say. “I think this is heaven.”

I’m glowing from my travel success. I’m astounded and exhilarated that I made it. I’m heart warmed by the kindness I’ve received from strangers. I’ve made it 112 miles by the skin of my teeth. Florence seems a lifetime ago. I’m a nomad. A transient. 
An unprepared traveler.

“Did you not get my email?” Maurizio asks still trying to puzzle out how I made it by car with the older man (who he knows because it’s a small town).

I’d emailed him before I left Florence to see what the best way to get to La Torriola would be. I hadn’t gotten a response. “You must have sent it after I left,” I say. “I didn’t get it.”

Buzzed as I am with excitement, I give Maurizio the whole story of my day’s adventure. I know I’m blabbing, I know I’m talking too much, but I can’t help it. I’ve arrived in paradise.

“When you give your review,” Maurizio tells me, after I’ve shut up a bit. “You’ll have to make it about the kindness of the local people and not about this place.”

“I know,” I say. “I know!”

“If you want, I can run you down to the store in my car so you can get some food to last you a day or so,” he tells me.

“That would be great!” I plan to get enough so I don’t have to leave for the entire five days.

After he completes a few tasks, Maurizio takes me to the grocery store. I get what I need and then he drives me back.

I take my groceries up the steps and settle in to my new home. I put my food in the fridge. I put my clothes in the small shelf closet. I leave my toiletries in the bathroom. I set up my life outside on the balcony. I’m living a fictional life. Larger than life. Too good to be true. Picture perfect. Dreams really do come true.
When I run out of clichés I go to sleep.

The sunrise wakes me.

I take my notebook and the cappuccino that I’ve made the Italian way outside. With this view it’s like watching a living painting. I don’t need anything else. I’ve got my words and they ink down on to the page as I write:

The balcony faces east
and I sit looking into the rising sun
watch the mist and haze decide how it’ll spend the day
while drinking coffee
and thinking of Heidenstam sitting on his terrace in Sweden
Why can’t it be June evening – September morning – every day
and why do we have to die?


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