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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chianti Kismet

Our Friday night was supposed to be a short evening at the Mercato festival... a 50 minute train ride southwest to Certaldo, some music, maybe some acrobatics, then catch the last train back home. We should have known that nothing would go as expected when the German changed plans en route.

When Ann and I arrived in Certaldo, we were informed that "the group" (several local Italians and Ann's German friend Olivia) were not going to the festival til Saturday night.  Feeling a bit guilty that we had taken the train out, Olivia coerced her friend into driving into town to pick us up and take us to a house party they were all attending in the country. Having about an hour or so to kill, Ann and I wandered the spontaneous market that had formed in the piazza in Certaldo's lower city, buying sundresses and skirts from local seamstresses and scoffing at the kitschy tourist jewelry, lace boxes and laquered trinkets. On our way back to the meeting point with Olivia, I stumbled upon a sketch artist on the street. Her work utterly captivated me... by far the best artist I've seen peddling 5 euros portraits.

Her dancing, graceful lines were perfectly contrasted by heavy, bold marks. I passed by slowly, only to stop 100 meters away, turn around, and head directly for the model's chair. Posing live for a drawing is such an incredible experience. The interaction that occurs between artist and subject is so visceral, expressing the whole environment... with it's time constraints and people walking by; an evolution of acute focus and blurry distraction, all interwoven with the bustle of a city street.

Soon we were tearing 'round narrow country roads with an Italian behind the wheel. Ann and I giggled nervously, mostly, I think, to reassure each other as we grasped at the car seats. The jolting accordion singing from the radio kept perfect time with our bodies hurtling through space around the hairpin turns. I was so grateful it was deliciously cool as we wound through the bottom of a valley, the first truly dark night sky I've seen in Italy, salted from hill to horizon. I ached to see the countryside, straining my eyes to peer into the darkness of imagined vineyards and olive plantations.

The party was fun, classically American in celebration of parents gone for the weekend. Sweet shisha smoke greeted us in the candlelit garden, wine and sangria passed from hand to hand, a chaos of electronica (and even the limbo!) echoed off the terra cotta pavers. That night we slept three girls in a full bed, timing our turns with the heat waves in the small room.

The next afternoon we were treated to a home cooked Italian meal by our host's grandmother. 1st "light" course was the largest bowl of spaghetti I've ever eaten... and I've gorged on some serious pasta... in a spicy tomato sauce with freshly grated parmisiano, all drizzled with olive oil pressed from their orchards. When the 2nd course arrived our eyes bulged. Plates heaped high with deep fried zuccinis, potatoes, and an Italian delicacy battered and fried pumpkin flowers spread their way across the table. It was all so unbelievably delicious, painfully so.  And then the watermelon came out and the homemade limoncello to aid in our digestion. They finally took us for our word that we were stuffed when ice cream was mentioned and we all groaned in unison, furiously shaking our heads.

Olivia had promised her friend that she would help him trim his olive trees that afternoon so we were soon en route to the orchard.

        Ann in a field across from                         the olive orchard

Ann and I had every intention of helping the workers but when we arrived a group of guys were just leaving to go swimming in a nearby lake and they invited us to come along. Hmmm work through the heat of the day in an orchard in sundresses and high heels (of course we hadn't brought a change of clothes!) hacking limbs off trees or go bask in cool, fresh water. Tough choice.

And we finally got the views we could only have guessed at the night before...

I'd like to say that I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the drive, but in all honesty I barely looked out the window. Maybe it was my propensity for motion sickness in a car moving at NORMAL speeds on STRAIGHT roads. Or maybe it was the stench of 3 shirtless, Italian men wafting through the cabin of the cramped hatchback. All I know is it took all my focus to simply grip the headrest bars and anticipate the curves of the road approaching us at unbelievable speeds.

The rest of the afternoon was like a dream. We wandered from the lake to a swimming pool with an incredible view, watched the sunset over the vineyards and had another delicious homemade pasta dinner. Sitting outside the old stone house, swatting at zanzari (one of the few Italian words I've picked up) I relished in the obscurity the lack of understanding created for me. I could just be, an observer listening to the lilting music a foreign language becomes when not a word is comprehended.

We were rudely awakened from our reverie when we learned that there were no late trains back to Florence. Perhaps if we batted our eyes and mooned over a local he'd drive us the 30 minutes it takes by car? Next train departed at 6:30am...

So off we went to Certaldo's Mercato Festival with three car loads packed with carousing friends anxious to party. Apparently Saturday night is the most popular, the apex of the entire festival. Which unfortunately for us meant it cost 18 euros to get in. When we didn't arrive until midnight and the last act ended at 1:30am, there was no way any of us were going to pay the full price ticket. Finding an overgrown cobble stoned path, we hiked up to the old city ramparts in hopes of finding a secret entrance. Nope! All ways in were tightly guarded. And though I would have liked to make my mountain guide, rock climbing brother proud by scaling an ancient wall in a sundress, we resulted to asking people leaving the festival if they would give us their ticket stubs for re-entry.  But the gaurds were also giving every person who left a stamp to get back in.

Luckily there was an artist in the group with a sharpee! 

And then the madness of hundreds of people packed into tiny streets spontaneously ruptured with the firework smoke. Flame jugglers, actors, acrobats, stilt walkers, marching bands, fiddlers, belly dancers, lovers and drunks created a throbbing entity all of its own. It is impossible to describe the chaos of such magnetic beauty. The portrait possibilities alone made me clench my camera with a death grip, trying to steady my hand amidst the jostling of Italian rhythm.

By 2:30am we were stumbling back down the hill, Ann and I still hoping one of the guys in our group would give us a ride. I always give men the benefit of the doubt, but I seem to be proved wrong time and time again. They did indeed just leave us there... two young women in dresses, at 3am on an empty street, fuming as they drove past us waving out the window and joyfully yelling "ciao!" 

I never thought I'd hear myself say that an experience like that, which potentially could have been dangerous or completely miserable, turned into a moment of pure gold. Within 5 minutes of their departure, as we were sitting on a rock wall determining what to do next, two lovely Italian women walked down the road. Michela spoke perfect English (is an English teacher in fact) and immediately swept us up into her magnetic smile and sparkle. She joined us on the wall for the next 3 hours, rolling smokes, cuddling us with a sleeping bag and helping us imitate the bullfrogs in the nearby riverbed.

I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard.

When the sun finally arrived we bid goodbye, promising to visit Michela in Modena within the next two weeks, and walked through the freshly washed streets of Certaldo back to the station.

As we were waiting for the first train to arrive, all we could do was munch cookies that the ever-prepared Ann had stashed in her purse, scratch at the contacts shriveling inside our eyes, smile, and wonder at life's incredible gifts. And of course sleep the whole way back to Florence.

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