Working in the travel industry, you end up doing just that, traveling. The concept of “home” becomes foggy and you end up seeing familiar faces imposed on those of strangers and anything even relatively familiar creates a great sense of comfort and nostalgia.
Being “on the road” seems to be one of the richest sources of creating and reliving memories, driving from Provence to Tuscany was no exception.
Two fellow professional travelers and I departed at 7:00 AM from Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, what had been my “home” in Provence for nearly three weeks. Our first stop was at a boulangerie on the way out of town to spend our perdiem on pains aux raisins, pains au chocolat and baguettes to bring on our trip to Italy. The pains aux raisins were devoured, still warm, on the drive, the rest was a gift for our colleagues already living in Tuscany, the land bereft of flavorful bread.
As we slowly wound our way out of Provence, I was enchanted by the names on every road sign, still in my honeymoon phase with the French language. Not long after entering the A8, we passed signs for Aix-en-Provence. I craned my neck to see if I could catch any glimpse of the famed town, noted as my well-traveled friend Alena’s favorite in France. But, alas, its Provençal charm was hidden from the highway. I gazed instead at an instantly familiar silhouette – Montagne Sainte-Victoire. I felt a smile grow across my face, imagining I felt the same awe as Monsieur Cezanne must have upon his first glimpses of the mountain he would make famous.
The names along the A8 sped by: Pourrières, Brignoles, Le Muy, Fréjus. And finally the more familiar: Cannes and Nice. I’m not naturally lured by luxury, so these were places I assumed I would never bother to visit. But, now I can understand even the most basic appeal. The road clings to the coast and the vistas are breathtaking, interrupted only by the frequent tunnel, making the shining brilliance of the sun on the sea that much more dazzling each time we emerged from the darkness. It seemed worthless to try to capture any of it by camera and cheap to mutter “it’s beautiful” to the relative strangers seated next to me. But, really, it was beautiful.
Perhaps this beauty seemed even more poignant as they constituted my last minutes in France for the foreseeable future. As we crossed the border into Italy I felt a pang of something between disappointment and excitement. A feeling that had become all too familiar to me after celebrating nearly three decades of birthdays.
“Finally, in a country where I fully speak the language.” One of my cohorts remarked, as we pulled over for a panino. I too, felt a sense of relief that I could now more comfortably order lunch and ask for directions were we to get lost, but Italian now lacked the mystique that French held for me. I ached a little for the shy conversation at the Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market, just a few days before, when I had inquired about raspberry jams made with local honey and Banon de Chalais, the cow’s milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves.
Italy and I already had a deep and complicated history, having given me some of my highest highs and lowest lows. It was a long time lover, both well-known and still a stranger, one I thought I had grown weary of, yet kept returning to.
I furrowed my brow as I reminded myself that it was the unwavering gravitational pull of this country that drove me, above all else, to take this “unconventional” travel job in the first place. We were passing Genoa. I was desperately trying to remember if I had ever been there. Or perhaps it was just the stories of an old colleague, the one who had built his dream bike component by component, that made me feel like I knew the place; he was from Genoa. Or perhaps it was just a familiarity with pesto Genovese…?
I was still thinking about pesto when we passed signs for La Spezia. I recalled a restaurant in Washington, D.C. called La Spezia. There had been an intimate Christmas party there my first year working at the U.S. headquarters of the Italian hi-tech industrial conglomerate Finmeccanica. I had felt comfortable in my 23 year old skin and a provocative cocktail number. I drank wine and entertained with stories, likely too boisterously considering the CEO only a few seats away, but that hadn’t occurred to me at the time. I laughed as we huddled under umbrellas and leapt over puddles the few blocks back to our office building.
I had been to that restaurant a second time, actually, when I had eaten pesto Genovese. It was a date during the brief period I had been single in that city; we had started with a bottle of wine on the rooftop of my 12th floor office. We stumbled to La Spezia, looking for food to balance the wine. He had seemed impressed as I ordered for us in drunken, giddy Italian. I was decidedly not falling for my date, but instead for the taste of independence in a city that was becoming my own. It tasted like red wine and pesto flecked with potatoes and tiny green beans. Such intoxication, I tried to share it with a desperate, passionate kiss, laid on strongly, surprisingly in the elevator as we left. I didn’t return his calls and La Spezia closed its doors not long after.
Continuing along the Ligurian coast, we passed blinding white quarries at the foot of the mountains. My mind leapt like a popcorn kernel, I knew this place. It was Carrara, a city long-known for its precious white marble taken from the Alpi Apuane mountain chain. Even though I never made of my Art History degree what I thought I would, it had left me with the ability to sense and to know the importance of this unmarked quarry seen from the highway. This was the source of the marble most revered by Michelangelo, the birthplace of his statue David – a weighty site considering he thought “every block of marble has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
But even before my four years devoted to the history of art, I had always been impressed by places that had deep roots in human history. I remember these first feelings of incredulity – at the age of nine, visiting England with my family, I marveled as I stood on the steps of Hampton Court Palace “Did Henry VIII really walk here?” I asked. I couldn’t believe that I could inhabit the same space as the illustrious king of many wives – all six of whose names I could rattle off to impress my parents’ friends. That same incredulity sat heavy in my lap now as the white cliffs of Carrara faded from sight; I swallowed and kept the wonder to myself.
As we closed in on the end of our seven hour journey, we passed Prato and finally Florence – amongst the cities found guilty for my initial seduction. I, like every other American college student set loose there, had loved Florence instantly. Staying with friends of my parents in Bagno a Ripoli, I would take the 33 bus (a number which will now always read “trentatré” in my mind) into Florence to continue the courtship.
Nervous with my footing at first, I had taken the big red, double-decker, open-air bus through the city to get my bearings. I sat up top to let the June sun fall soft on my face and the breeze toss my long brown hair around my bare shoulders. I had bought a pair of rubber-soled gold flats for the trip and they had walked their way up the steps to the top of the Duomo and had found their way to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine to gaze up at Masaccio’s agonizing depiction of the world’s first lovers, Adam and Eve.
Gazing down now, I realize these same gold flats are on my feet, years later, as I’m stepping out of a nine passenger van that has just traveled over 700 kilometers to deliver me back to the arms of Italy, adopted home, old lover. As my now worn-in, scuffed, barely-even-gold-anymore shoes touch the pavement, I feel the twinge of love for this country again.