I am never alone here. From my living room I am entertained by the constant stream of people parading on the wall in front of me. People with their dog, their mother, their best friend. Their cell phone. Old men, high school students, in packs, going to classes, old ladies hunched over and frail, wearing their tuta, their jogging suit, laboriously putting one foot in front of the other, determined that this not be the day they will give up.
My family in Italy, especially the older members, are uncertain as to how to approach this me who wants to be alone, living in a walled city a half hour’s drive away from them.
You couldn’t find a place to rent in Viareggio? Probably. I didn’t look.
But you don’t have any family in Lucca… Exactly.
They look at me, confused. What do you do all day? Aren’t you lonely? What do you eat?? This last question from my zia, my aunt, who will be 81 in May and who still sees the little girl with dark eyes and dark ringlets, not the woman in her 60’s who is quite capable of shopping, cooking or, if need be, ordering food in a restaurant. But she’s cute, and the last remaining member of that generation so I try to be patient.
As for what I do all day, I don’t really even try to answer. They would simply think me stranger than they already do: I look out my window, I walk and walk and walk.. . drinking in the smells and the sounds and the constant living that goes on around me. And I write some of it down.
(So you don’t do anything worthwhile. . . Ah, right.)
They are used to my strange North American ways of thinking and of doing things — I enjoy eating fruit without peeling it first; I prefer to have dinner or go to a music practice before 10:00 pm; I don’t believe I have to wait 3 hours after eating to go into the ocean to swim. . . all manner of baffling abitudini and beliefs to which they give the old Tuscan primal shrug. But this one is stumping them.
My husband, daughter and family back in Canada understand this need I have to spend some time here on my own; it’s not so very long, after all. Only the grandchildren are not as understanding about my decision to ‘abandon’ them: I get the evil eye every time we Skype. They insist that maybe — just maybe — if I could bring home pizza, focaccia and bombolone* (the real deals!) then they might forgive me. Maybe.
My family in Italy, however, has a more difficult time with the fact that I’ve left my husband and family to spend time here. They have always lived here, they’ve had only one home. They don’t understand, no matter how much I’ve tried to explain over the years, how difficult it is to grow up with one half of you always residing across a continent and an ocean, 9,000 km away. They don’t understand the desire to simply live here again for a while, to experience just an inkling of what it might have been like for me, if my parents — or I, for I too had decisions to make in my early twenties — had made different choices. They smile, at a loss, despite being very happy to see me.
And I love living here again, weaving myself into this crazy tapestry. Life is so different, at least in Lucca. It is lived on the street, out in the open. On my frequent outings I witness people calling out to each other as they walk by or stop to chat and ask about the kids, the spouse, the elderly parents; I am privy to loud conversations from the open windows above me; enjoy smelling what is being prepared for pranzo, lunch, often still the main meal of the day. I watch, as though at the theatre, as people lean out from their window or stand on their terrace to have a heated conversation with a family member, an old friend — or the plumber who was supposed to come by yesterday but who got side-tracked by another job, or had to lend his camioncino, his truck, to his cousin Beppe . . surely you understand, signora.
The line between private and public can be rather porous in a small place such as Lucca. Within the walls, the city takes on the identity of a small town, where most people know each other or, at least, have seen each other most of their lives, spent their early school years together (le elementari), possibly high school (liceo). Even I, having been here now for a few weeks, am sometimes greeted by shopkeepers with whom I’ve done business; they ask me how it’s going as they stand in front of their shop for a smoke and a bit of sun, or we both breathe a sigh of relief now that the G7 craziness is over (meno male!). A few regulars on the walls during their daily morning constitutionals, are now saying Buongiorno to me as I pass by. They have come to see me as one of the crowd.
And crowds there are. Especially on holidays and feast days. Pasqua (Easter) was spent with the family in Lido di Camaiore, a relaxing half hour train ride from Lucca. After an amazing pranzo of tortelli (Tuscan meat ravioli), roast lamb, roast chicken and various desserts — not to mention wine — we went for a walk along the passeggiata lungomare, the promenade along the ocean, the place where I spent hours playing after school, when I was a child. To my horror, there was an extensive (and I mean that in the l-o-n-g-e-s-t of senses. . . ) mercato artigianale (craft market) along the passeggiata — all manner of stalls selling crafts or leather or clothing or local food specialties, as if one needed more food on a feast day in Italy! There was a glut of people; it seemed as though half of Tuscany had decided to come to the coast that day. And many had done just that, taking advantage of the beautiful hot, sunny weather to open up their summer homes — or to come look for accommodation for their month of beach time in July or August.
Yesterday was Pasquetta, Easter Monday, and Lucca was chock-a-block with visitors, both visiting family members and tourists, all crowding the streets and the walls. Here too there were banchi (market stands), but they were very few, thank goodness. Many of the regular shops were closed for the day, but the gelato was flowing freely especially given the beautiful hot (windy) day. Visitors took advantage of the hot sun to laze a while outside San Michele in Foro before resuming their itinerary through the dark, medieval streets.
So, no — no chance of feeling lonely, even in the crowd. As much as one can feel very alone in a large group of people one doesn’t know or simply doesn’t feel comfortable with, I don’t get that feeling here. I am simply part of the stream.
At night, I am also not lonely. For one thing, I am usually done in by constant activity during the day so that by evening, I feel quite content to stay home and cook myself a simple meal, sip a glass of wine, and either continue to write, or watch Italian police shows on TV, usually comedic in tone, with hapless, yet endearing principal characters. On the street below my apartment there is a constant stream of people passing by, talking either to a companion or a cell phone — and let’s not forget the grandchild living in the apartment below mine, who calls out loudly for his nonno. The grandfather in question is usually standing below on the sidewalk, or getting in or out of his car; these can be long-running conversations, as those with a demanding two-year old are wont to be.
On the nights I do venture out, the streets are always well lit and full of people young, old, and in-between, laughing or complaining, hands directing their own personal symphony, more often than not, gelato in hand.
On those nights, as I head back to comfort of my bed, I pass below one of the two remaining doors left from the Medieval walls (Porta dei Borghi). Just past the arch I find myself confronted by wall-to-wall people, everyone with beer or wine or glass of liquor in hand, purchased at either of the two bars which face each other in that tiny section of road. These are mostly young people, from late teens to forty-year olds, but there are usually older folks there as well, Everyone is talking or laughing — I see very little complaining here. As I weave through the crowd, I think to myself:
No, I am never lonely here.
*bombolone: another one of those “There-are-no-words!” items. Basically they are a doughnut-like** confection with either crema or cioccolato in the middle. They are best warm from the oven, and people will line up (im)patiently if they know that a certain bar or pasticceria, carries them at a pre-set hour. For example, my favourtie place in Florence, at a strange junction called Due Strade, warm bomboloni are paraded out at 4:00 pm., just in time for merenda, snack time. Alas, not a specialty of Lucca, I am sad to say. (Although. . . although. . . perhaps today I may have discovered a place. . . I will keep you posted!) They can be found and enjoyed in Florence, Viareggio, San Gimignano, and many other Tuscan towns, especially in summer.
**(By the way, don’t let the word ‘doughnut’ throw you: these are NOTHING like North American doughnuts. Really — you must believe me.)